Government can be confounding and confusing, which may be a wild understatement. For example, we’ll wager a lot of local residents don’t really know the difference between the two common forms of grand juries.
In fact, their titles say it all — criminal grand jury, or civil grand jury. The former deals with society’s law breakers. The latter deals with how governments function — or fail to function in many cases.
The criminal grand jury hands down indictments that can lead to convictions and prison sentences. The civil grand jury exposes government mismanagement or lax oversight, which can be embarrassing, but rarely is a felony.
In general, a civil grand jury is the citizens’ watchdog group. Its responsibilities cover the examination of all areas of the county and city governments, including special districts, to ensure they are being managed honestly and efficiently, and that your tax dollars are being spent in the best possible ways.
The civil grand jury watchdog aspect should not be underplayed. We can’t think of a better time for citizens to get involved in watching over what our various levels of government are doing, and helping to expose missteps or malfeasance.
And here is your best shot at doing just that: February is Grand Jury Awareness Month, and in this case that means the watchdog variety.
Santa Barbara County is seeking volunteers for the 2018-19 civil grand jury. North County citizens can toss their hats in the ring by calling the Santa Maria Jury Services Office at 805-614-6464. Applications are also available at www.sbcourts.org, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or writing to the Civil Grand Jury at 1100 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.
Grand jurors investigate citizen complaints about government entities. When an investigation is completed, a report is sent to the courts and to the government entity under scrutiny, which then has a specified period to respond.
Maybe that sounds like a breeze, but it’s not. Anyone who’s ever fully investigated anything knows the true meaning of the term “grueling, intense work.” And that’s what civil grand juries do, year in and year out. There is a modest per-diem payment for each jury member, but it’s not the money that draws a citizen’s interest. It’s the knowledge that you may play a key role in making our governments function more efficiently, and maybe save a few tax dollars along the way.
We bring all this up because in recent years there has not been enough North County representation on civil grand juries. So, the county is emphasizing the need to encourage North County citizens to volunteer. They’ve even added video conferencing technology so North County jurors won’t have to drive to Santa Barbara for meetings.
And here’s why more participation up in our neck of the woods would be a good thing:
The 1994-95 civil grand jury was responsible for opening the door for a North County Jail. Subsequent juries validated the request by revealing serious over-crowding at the main jail in Goleta, and continued hammering on the new jail suggestion over the years. That North County facility is finally almost ready to open.
One has to wonder if the jail would have been built, had that mid-1990s civil grand jury not investigated the need for a jail, and later juries followed up with compelling evidence of the need.
This is a good opportunity for average citizens to find out how our local governments and special districts really work. It can be a truly thrilling experience, and sometimes a little frightening.