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The Jury Is In 

Occupying a unique oversight role, the 2023-2024 civil grand jury completes its work with an uncertain future

click to enlarge 2023-2024 Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury. Top left: Stephen Avis, Daryl Chinn  Top right, Larry Giventer, Candy Bryant (Foreperson pro tem). Back row, L to R: David Howard, Lettie Dyer, Alicia Garcia, Dennis Reid, Marlena Maloney, Leslie Zondervan-Droz, Patrick Healy, Richard Bergstresser (Foreperson). Front row, L to R: Deborah Bushnell, Michael Davis, Laura Lee-Chin and Connie DeCoe-Munier.


2023-2024 Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury. Top left: Stephen Avis, Daryl Chinn Top right, Larry Giventer, Candy Bryant (Foreperson pro tem). Back row, L to R: David Howard, Lettie Dyer, Alicia Garcia, Dennis Reid, Marlena Maloney, Leslie Zondervan-Droz, Patrick Healy, Richard Bergstresser (Foreperson). Front row, L to R: Deborah Bushnell, Michael Davis, Laura Lee-Chin and Connie DeCoe-Munier.

California's civil grand jury system is enshrined in the state constitution, which requires a group of citizens be impaneled annually in all 58 of its counties to watch over local governments. The system is as old as the state itself and unique across the country.

In Humboldt County, it also hangs in the balance, with a lack of applicants threatening to fundamentally alter the watchdog body's makeup and function.

The Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury recently published its eighth and final report of the 2023-2024 session, which came with an advisement that the Humboldt County Superior Court "is in desperate need of jurors" to fill the 2024-2025 grand jury. John Heckel, a retired professor who has served on the local grand jury three times, including twice as foreperson, and who also volunteers with the Civil Grand Jurors' Association, says this news is part of a decade-long trend of declining applicants.

If the trend continues and the superior court, of which the civil grand jury is an arm, is unable to fill the jury with 19 volunteer applicants, it may have to shift course into a summons system similar to that used for criminal jury trials. And Heckel says that could have dire impacts on the oversight body's effectiveness.

To date, the superior court has annually received enough volunteer applicants to fill the 19-person jury and impanel a group of alternates willing to make the one-year commitment, which sees jurors spend from six to more than 30 hours a week as a group investigating complaints and issues in local government and authoring reports. But if enough volunteers don't come forward, the county is legally required to look to other means for filling the jury.

The Del Norte County Superior Court shifted years ago to a summons system and each year sends mandatory jury summons to residents. Prospective jurors are sent summons in the mail and required to appear in court, where they are then ordered to serve on the grand jury unless they can show good cause as to why they can't, according to Heckel.

But unlike criminal trials, which typically last days and rarely longer than a couple of weeks, a civil grand juror is committed to serving the entire year.

Heckel recalls a joint training the Civil Grand Jurors' Association put together for Humboldt and Del Norte counties' jurors some years back, saying the contrast between the groups was striking.

"The difference in attitude between the people who had volunteered and the people who were forced to be there, it was like day and night," he says." You don't want a group of 19 people who have all been forced to be there. It's not conducive to doing good research. It's not conducive to doing good writing. You want people who want to be there, who have time to do it and the commitment to do it."

Sitting in a coffee shop in Old Town Eureka, 2023-2024 Grand Jury Foreperson Richard Bergstresser agrees, and emphasizes that it's the people themselves who formulate the strength of a civil grand jury. Having released the last of the group's eight reports the night before, Bergstresser notes the year's jurors produced 163 pages of reports on topics ranging from citizen oversight of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and the county's hiring practices to the fiscal health of the Arcata Fire Protection District and Eureka City Schools' handling of its controversial $6 million property exchange agreement to offload its old Jacobs Middle School campus.

Bergstresser, a retired Arcata police detective, says this year's jury included two former police officers, a poet, a couple retired county health department employees, a retired industrial equipment salesperson, a private sector social worker, a retired professor and a wine expert. The group ranged in age from 55 to their early 80s.

"That's really the strength of the grand jury, all that diversity of background," Bergstresser says, noting his jury came with more than 500 years of professional experience, as well as 1,000 or so years of life experience. "That's a lot of knowledge."

Bergstresser says these individuals pledged to put their personal beliefs, preconceived notions and political ideologies aside to work as a group, noting the civil grand jury isn't a group of 19 people but a 19-person organism that acts as a body, with a super-majority of 12 needed to approve any significant action, whether it be launching an investigation or publishing a report.

Heckel says this immediately struck him when he served on his first grand jury, calling it "one of the most remarkable experiences I'd had," spending the year working with a diverse group of people united in a desire to investigate, research, problem solve and improve their community.

"Nobody talks politics," he says. "You don't want to know what someone else's politics are when you're on the grand jury. You come to the end of the year and you potentially made friends with someone who is a Trump supporter but you don't know it because there are certain conversations that are simply not had. There are ground rules set when entering the room with these people. It allows you to see beyond all the stereotypes that we quickly create. ... I was a professor for 50 years and I never had an experience like that."

The commitment is formidable, though. Bergstresser says his jury had required three-hour meetings twice a week to start, with the first two or three months focused on educating jurors about the civil grand jury's role and mandates, as well as investigative and interview techniques. He says the group sifted through complaints — which numbered 30 to 40 in each of the last two years. About half of those concerned things outside the grand jury's jurisdiction — state or federal agencies, for example — and about half of those remained focused on singular instances.

Bergstresser says the grand jury's focus isn't single occurrences, but systems, though sometimes a complaint about an isolated incident can lead to a broader investigation and report. This was the case with this year's report calling for a system of citizen oversight over the sheriff's office, Bergstresser says, noting it began after a single use-of-force complaint that the jury chose to review through a broader context of transparency and oversight.

Unlike the press or other watchdog organizations, the civil grand jury has the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, meaning it can legally force agencies to turn over documents and people to appear before it to answer questions.

Jurors' commitment generally grows as the year goes on, Bergstresser says, noting they typically served six to 12 hours a week from July through December, increasing to 12 to 18 hours a week from January through May as investigations picked up, peaking at 18 to 30 hours a week in June as the jury works to publish all its reports. While the commitment is formidable, Bergstresser notes that a lot of the work can be done on jurors' own schedule.

Nonetheless, the time commitment, the lack of pay and the travel requirements for those in outlying areas of the county invariably pose barriers to service for many.

Those serving are reimbursed for vehicle milage at the federal reimbursement rate and given a stipend of $20 for every seven hours of service, so jurors essentially volunteer their time. Some counties are able to pay jurors more — in Los Angeles County, for example, jurors work 40-hour weeks but are given a stipend of about $20,000 a year — and state Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, has introduced legislation that would pay grand jurors $100 a day.

But Heckel says he feels paying jurors creates new problems, saying there's value in both civil grand jurors volunteering and the demographic that serves as a result.

"By nature of the grand jury, the average age is going to be like 65 — they're elders," he says, speculating that this was perhaps what the crafters of California's government had in mind back in 1854. "It may very well be the California civil grand jury system is meant to be for the elders of our community to look at situations and come up with solutions."

And that's ultimately the civil grand jury's mandate — not to hand up criminal indictments or take punitive action, but to analyze systems and problems, publish findings and recommend solutions.

"The civil grand jury system in the state of California is unique in the entire United States," Heckel says. "It's the only system where the citizens have an active engagement in being a watchdog over whether the county, and the cities and special districts, are really doing what they're supposed to be doing. They make recommendations that then become part of the public record, that require responses. People really and truly need to understand what a unique and incredibly valuable thing the grand jury system is in the country. Nobody else has a system like it."

Heckel says he thinks part of the reason applications to serve on the grand jury are declining is that the civil grand jury lacks a champion to promote it. It exists as an arm of the court, which is underfunded and overwhelmed by its criminal and civil caseloads. And the county government it watches over does little to sing its praises or promote it, sometimes treating it as a nuisance, Heckel says.

"If county government, the board of supervisors, if they really cared about the civil grand jury, there's a lot they could do to increase public interest in getting on the grand jury, a lot they could do to validate what the grand jury does," he says.

As it is, he says there's an attrition in public interest, noting that local media generally covers the civil grand jury's reports as they're published, but often fails to follow up as agencies approve their required responses 60 or 90 days later, with virtually no coverage of whether agencies implement the jury's recommendations over time. Bergstresser says this can be disheartening for jurors.

"When you see your work dismissed ... it can feel like it invalidates 12 months of your work," he says.

But Bergstresser says he believes everyone who served on this year's grand jury feels good about having done it, producing work they feel proud of and forging bonds with their fellow jurors, both through the work itself and gatherings, like monthly lunches and holiday get-togethers.

Ultimately, he says, jurors are brought together by the ideal of reform and the idea that a group of citizens working together can look at complex problems and help solve them.

"It's the only legally empowered forum in the state and county that has the power of subpoena, the promise of secrecy and the mandate of oversight of local government," he says.

Those interested in serving on the 2024-2025 Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury can find applications at Below, find a brief summary of the 2023-2024 grand jury's reports, each of which can be read in their entirety at

Sheriff's Office Oversight

The first report from this year's grand jury found that Humboldt County does not have an independent system of oversight and review of critical incidents and allegations of misconduct involving the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, which "can lead to public misunderstanding and mistrust of law enforcement." Currently, complaints and critical incidents are reviewed internally, the report states, noting that while the grand jury has some oversight authority, its objective is broad and does not include reviewing individual cases. As such, the grand jury recommended the county establish a two-pronged oversight model that would include a civilian oversight board and an office of the inspector general. The board would review and make recommendations regarding the sheriff's office, while the inspector general would conduct independent, professional reviews of critical incidents and provide "advice regarding law enforcement policies and practices."

Custody and Corrections

As a part of its mandate, the civil grand jury toured local "custody and corrections" facilities, including the jail, the animal shelter and Sempervirens Psychiatric Facility, and reported on problems that need to be addressed. Common issues included needed repairs, maintenance and upgrading of buildings, as well as "significant understaffing, leading to substantial amounts of required overtime." This leads to staff fatigue and attrition, though the report notes the jury "observed laughter and teamwork in the workplace," and discovered many county employees enjoy their work. The dense report includes multiple findings and recommendations for a variety of facilities. Most noteworthy among them were a finding of a "serious shortage of staff" at Sempervirens, "resulting in additional stress on existing staff that may affect patient care."

County Facilities

The civil grand jury found the county pays nearly $6 million annually to lease office space for employees, asking whether it would make fiscal sense for the county to purchase the facilities it uses. The grand jury acknowledges this is not a new question or something that can be fixed quickly, while finding citizens would be better served if the county consolidated offices and worked to own more of the buildings it uses, which would "build equity and, in the long-term, reduce expenses." The county master plan already calls for the consolidation of services and "recognizes ownership is preferable to leasing," so the grand jury simply recommends the county "accelerate enactment of their plan," with the warning: "The clock is ticking; $500,000 is spent every month to lease buildings."

Eureka City Schools

In one of its hardest hitting reports of the year, the civil grand jury investigated the Eureka City Schools Board of Trustees' approval of a property exchange agreement between the district and a mystery developer, AMG Communities-Jacobs LLC., under which the district would receive $5.35 million and a small residential property on I Street in exchange for 8.3 acres of the former Jacobs Middle School site. The civil grand jury makes clear its investigative focus was not "whether the transaction is a good or bad idea for the district," but trustees' decision-making process. In that regard, the grand jury found that trustees violated the spirit of California open meeting laws by not giving the public time and information necessary to meaningfully participate in the decision, while failing to exercise due diligence and becoming "knowingly or unknowingly roped into" an ongoing political fight over the future of Eureka's Old Town and downtown parking lots. The report — thanks to the civil grand jury's subpoena power — builds on local news reporting on the agreement, concluding the situation "can be considered a business case study and object lesson to elected boards in California of how not to go about the process of selling surplus real estate." It calls on trustees to "make details of the Jacobs property negotiations and ongoing status of the transaction known to the public by Oct. 1," among other recommendations.

Humboldt County Hiring

Having noticed a plethora of past civil grand jury reports noted staffing as a constraint for county agencies, this year's grand jury took a look at the county's hiring practices and found that "understaffing is one of the largest problems facing our county." The report details challenges department by department, concluding that understaffing is a pervasive issue, with approximately 500 of the 2,400 allocated positions in the county currently vacant, equaling a 21-percent vacancy rate that ranked second highest in a seven-county comparison. One of the report's key findings is that the county's human resources office is itself understaffed, which hampers hiring in all departments. Overall, the grand jury found county hiring processes are long, reducing applicant pools, and that pay levels are low relative to similar counties, which hinders recruitment and retention. The jury recommended the county prioritize filling its human resource office vacancies and adopt a "best practices" guide and training program to guide hiring in all departments. It also recommended the board of supervisors adjust compensation levels to be more competitive "when the county budget situation improves."

Arcata Fire District

The Arcata Fire District is approaching "desperate financial conditions" that may require it to reduce service levels, the civil grand jury found. While the district is currently able to staff all its stations, the report warns that a combination of future fiscal uncertainty and Cal Poly Humboldt and city of Arcata plans to build high-rise buildings could have a profound impact on the fire department, which currently cannot afford a ladder truck. The report notes the district is facing increasing costs — from fuel and equipment to insurance — and one of its primary funding sources, a special tax approved by voters in 2020, is slated to sunset in 2030. The report finds the district is no longer able to invest in its vehicle replacement fund, current staffing levels are insufficient, and population growth and larger structures in the district "will result in greater danger and risk to people and property." The jury recommends the district work to inform the public of its "impending financial difficulties," put forward a ballot measures to sure up its revenue streams and explore with Cal Poly Humboldt "opportunities for the university to offer financial assistance."

Behavioral Health Street Outreach

Noting Humboldt County's unhoused and underinsured residents in active and severe states of behavioral health crisis have few options, the civil grand jury investigated street and behavioral health outreach models in an effort to determine what has been effective. Specifically, the report looks at the Mobile Intervention Services Team (MIST) and Crisis Alternative Response Eureka (CARE) programs. The investigation found that "proactive outreach" for behavioral health, substance use and other services in the field is ideal, as "clients can be treated before they hit the point of crisis" and "live better lives." The jury found the original MIST, a collaboration between the Eureka Police Department and the county Department of Health and Human Services, produced positive results, and that EPD's Community Safety Enhancement Team has since provided similar services. Eureka's new CARE program also appears effective, the report found, though a new grant-funded county MIST team with the sheriff's office has not displayed "significant, tangible results. The report finds that secure, ongoing funding sources are vital to allow these programs to "grow to maturity," noting the programs may pay for themselves in the long run through reduced hospitalizations, calls for law enforcement service and jail bookings. "Everyone needs a chance, and everyone sometimes needs help," the report states. "We find these necessities especially true for our unhoused citizens who struggle with behavioral health and substance use issues. Helping these vulnerable citizens lift themselves out of desperate situations is in the best interest of everyone in our community and is simply the right thing to do."

Child Welfare Services

The civil grand jury's final report of the year was blistering, finding that the Humboldt County Child Welfare Services (CWS) Office of the Ombudsperson created in 2018 as a part of a legal settlement with the state of California to give voices to families involved in the system "does not follow through on promises made." While CWS touts the office as independent, the grand jury concluded "CWS has an Office of the Ombudsperson in name only," finding many complainants are never informed of the outcomes of their complaints and the public has no way to know whether violations have "been addressed individually or systematically." The office as currently constructed "does not fulfill its stated [oversight] mission and instead serves as an ineffective complaint department," the report states, concluding that the county should either raise the "standards, transparency and responsiveness" of the office or replace it with a complaint line "that does not promise investigation or response." The report concludes: "Continuing with what is an Office of the Ombudsperson in name only does not provide public service, it just minimally attempts to comply with the letter of the 2018 legal agreement."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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