The chair of the 2017-18 grand jury said the Napa County Board of Supervisors violated “investigative confidentiality” by tackling grand jury questions during a public meeting.
But county officials instead saw what they thought was a misunderstanding of Board of Supervisors procedures.
Foreperson Alan Charles Dell’Ario in October sent a series of letters to the county saying the grand jury is reviewing county responses to previous grand jury reports. He asked whether the county had followed through on recommendations from past grand juries on topics ranging from winery rule-breakers to food safety.
For example, the 2014-15 grand jury recommended surveying volunteer firefighters to see how their training could be improved. The Board of Supervisors in its state-required response at the time said the county would do so. The 2017-18 grand jury wants to know if that actually happened.
But these aren’t questions that the grand jury wants in the public spotlight just yet. Dell’Ario expressed dismay that the Board of Supervisors was prepared Thursday to approve answers during a public meeting after posting the questions and proposed answers on the county website as an agenda item.
“These requests are part of an ongoing grand jury investigation and by responding this way, the Board has breached the grand jury’s investigative confidentiality,” Dell’Ario told supervisors during public comments.
No ambiguity existed in the grand jury’s request, Dell’Ario said. If any did exist, the county should have told the grand jury before the item hit the Board of Supervisors’ public calendar, he added.
“This is not a misunderstanding,” Dell’Ario said. “The grand jury sees this as a direct refusal to provide us the information we requested in the manner in which we requested it.”
Neither county supervisors nor county staff saw the county as flouting the grand jury.
County Executive Officer Minh Tran said the responses to the grand jury’s queries should come from the Board of Supervisors, given the Board is county government’s highest authority. The county is following its procedure for how the Board responds to the grand jury.
The county never received an admonishment of confidentiality from the grand jury, Tran said. That’s usually the first thing done in an investigation.
“If there was an investigation, I certainly also agree there should be confidentiality as well,” Tran said. “At no point did we know this is part of an ongoing investigation that required confidentiality and the admonition that would typically go with it.”
Supervisor Diane Dillon said the Board of Supervisors was responding to the grand jury in the same way it has done since she came to the Board in January 2003. She would have been concerned if Tran had tried to answer the grand jury’s questions on the Board of Supervisors’ behalf.
Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza also said he appreciates the approach the county is taking.
“I think to accomplish the objective of transparency, we have to have a very open dialogue and that means coming to the Board of Supervisors,” Pedroza said. “I don’t see any issue with the process … if there are aspects that need to be confidential, by all means we’ll reach that point.”
Dell’Ario made another point. He said the proposed Board of Supervisors responses amount to revising the original Board responses to previous grand juries. Rather, he said, the grand jury simply wants to know whether the county did what it had said it would do.
“If what we answered is not being requested by the grand jury, I don’t have any reason to answer that way,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said. “Let’s get it to where it’s at least in a form that makes sense to us and them. Maybe it’s back-and-forth communication.”
Supervisors postponed the issue until Jan. 9.
Each year, the grand jury examines local government ranging from the county to cities to school districts to special districts. The Napa County Superior Court website refers to the grand jury as a “watchdog” of the community.
The Board of Supervisors on Thursday held the rare meeting that is not on a Tuesday. No meeting was originally scheduled, but the county added one so supervisors could renew the county’s wildfire disaster declarations.