The Santa Cruz County courthouse. The court system oversees the civil grand jury.
The Santa Cruz County courthouse. The court system oversees the civil grand jury.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

Do you like keeping an eye on government? Santa Cruz County’s ‘civil grand jury’ might need your help

Volunteers are being sought for Santa Cruz County’s next “civil grand jury,” a government watchdog panel. Here’s a closer look at exactly what the group does — and how to apply to join its ranks.

Recruiters for Santa Cruz County’s next civil grand jury are seeking applicants ahead of the July start date for a new group of jurors.

That begs the question: What’s a civil grand jury?

In short, it’s a court-appointed volunteer panel tasked with investigating local governments and then publicly reporting its findings with the mission of improving — or transforming — public policy or the agencies themselves.

“The civil grand jury is kind of an ombudsman group that keeps an eye on our local government,” said Nell Griscom, president of the Santa Cruz County chapter of the California Grand Jurors’ Association, and herself a former civil grand jury member.

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One of the greatest advantages for civil grand juries in their investigative process is their access to internal documents and sources within government. Because grand jurors have to keep their interview subjects confidential and cannot talk about anything beyond what’s in their reports after they are issued, they have an easier time getting people to talk to them than others might, Griscom said.

Though recommendations from a civil grand jury are non-binding, meaning local governments don’t have to carry them out, just shining a light on issues can lead to positive change, Griscom said. “Our power lies in publicizing what’s going on.”

Does the idea of being a local government watchdog intrigue you? Here’s a closer look at what the county’s civil grand jury does — and how to join its ranks.

Call for volunteers

The Superior Court of Santa Cruz County is looking for volunteers who are at least 18 years old and have lived in the county for at least one year to apply for the 19-member panel, which this summer will embark on another year-long investigative journey.

The deadline to apply is April 28, and the grand jury typically serves from July 1 through June 30 the following year. Click here for details about the application process.

The law behind the concept

Civil grand juries, although part of the judicial system, are a wholly independent body set up by state statute.

Over the course of a year and after picking a number of topics to focus on — in the past ranging from homelessness to issues with water districts — jurors review and evaluate operations, procedures, methods and systems used by government agencies. The aim is to determine whether the agencies comply with their stated objectives and if their operation can be improved to become more efficient and effective.

What the watchdogs watch

Though the California Penal Code, which sets forth grand jury duties and powers, obligates grand juries to take a look at certain matters — including inspecting all detention facilities within the county each year — grand juries typically can get their topics for any given year via three different channels. One is from complaints by residents.

“So anybody who lives or works in Santa Cruz County can make a complaint to the Santa Cruz County civil grand jury,” Griscom said. “And that’s a form on our website, on the grand jury’s website.”

Secondly, the grand jury looks at the news and what is happening in the county that may merit a closer look. And lastly, jurors have their own ideas.

“What’s important to them, what their experience has been with the government and how they think it could be better,” Griscom said. “And so we discuss all those ideas and we pick a certain number that varies from year to year.”

Like anything the grand jury does, deciding what issues to investigate is done by consensus. “Which is difficult with 19 people, but that’s the way it needs to be,” Griscom said.

Writing up the findings

Once focus areas are selected and deemed feasible, different groups of jurors start working on different reports, conducting interviews and research.

Aside from publishing a final report, usually released in June though parts may be issued sequentially sooner, grand juries also require responses from the affected government organizations. “That means that they have to read the report, they have to think about their answers,” Griscom said.

Have any major changes come of the work?

Sometimes even just asking questions can lead to results. Griscom — who served on a Santa Cruz County civil grand jury from 2012 to 2014, and was the foreperson from 2013 to 2014 — calls it the “grand jury effect.”

“When we start interviewing people for our report, the things we’re concerned with a lot of the times they get resolved before we even get a chance to put the report out,” she said. “Simply because they realize that they’re being looked at, and perhaps they weren’t aware that they were problems but now they are aware, and they try to rectify them.”

The impact of a grand jury report isn’t always instantaneous. But oftentimes, Griscom said, changes in government can be traced back to grand jury findings. Among the most recent examples, she said, is the county moving its public defender’s office in-house. “We’ve been working on trying to reform, trying to get them to reform the public defender’s office for years, we’ve had grand jury reports going back to, oh, probably 2010,” she said. “And finally, they’re doing that.”

The selection process

The Superior Court, which is independent from county government, is charged with recruiting and selecting the civil grand jury.

Get involved
  • volunteer
    Apply to be on the next Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury
    For applications and more information on how to apply for the civil grand jury, visit the superior court’s website at www.santacruzcourt.org or visit either the Santa Cruz or Watsonville courthouses to pick up an application. All applications must be received by Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Informational Zoom meetings will be held at noon on April 20 and 21 for interested applicants. The meeting ID is 987 4676 2799

Each year, starting in about December, court officials start outreach efforts to the local community and publicize the opportunity for individuals to apply, said Tim Newman, director of criminal and traffic operation at the court, who also oversees the general jury responsibilities.

Part of that is sending direct mailers to about 15,000 people, randomly selected from the court’s jury master list used for sending out jury summonses.

The last few years court officials have gotten somewhere around 50-60 applications in, Newman said. Most everyone is then invited to an interview.

Those usually take place for a week toward the end of May and function much like a job interview, Newman said. They’re conducted by a three-person panel that includes a judge, usually a sitting member of the grand jury and a former member of the grand jury.

“Just talking to people about why they want to be on the grand jury, what interests they have,” Newman said, adding that more and more technical abilities have also become important because much of the grand jury’s work is done on computers. “So it is important for people to have a comfort level with technology.”

Narrowing the field of candidates

After the interviews, the top 30 candidates are selected who then come to a swearing-in hearing. There 19 names, plus six alternates, are then selected at random from an “old-fashioned” jury wheel, Newman said.

Equal representation sought

Due to COVID-19, much of the current grand jury’s work was done remotely. Both Newman and Griscom expect remote collaboration and work to continue in some form even after the pandemic.

The hope is that will also help in making the civil grand juries more representative of the county’s population by removing the barrier of having to travel from one part of the county to the court’s Ocean Street location.

“One of the things that we’ve really struggled with over the years is trying to get proportional representation throughout the five supervisory districts,” Newman said. “And in the past when we’ve gone down to Watsonville and tried to do some outreach, you know, what we were told was that the fact that all the meetings happen in Santa Cruz prevented people from participating.”

Very little pay, but ‘gratifying’

Aside from travel being a barrier to a more diverse grand jury, there are other hurdles, too, Griscom said, including the extensive time commitment on a largely volunteer basis with pay limited to a $15 per diem for days when the juror attends a meeting (capped at $30 per week) and mileage reimbursements.

“I mean 20 hours a week, if you’re working full time, that’s extremely difficult to do,” she said. “And in particular, if you’re working full time, and you don’t have flexible hours, that’s pretty much impossible. So that means that we skew towards older, towards retired people.”

Still, to Griscom and others it’s a worthwhile experience.

“The most gratifying part was feeling as though we could really dive into things that your average citizen can’t dive into, because we do have more access than your average person, and improve things that very clearly need to be improved,” she said.