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Understanding the grand jury

Included in the Thursday issue of the Napa Valley Register and its weekly newspapers is a recap of the seven major reports issued by the 2018-2019 Napa County Grand Jury.

Unlike past years, this insert includes the summaries, findings, and recommendations from each report, along with links that point to the full reports online. An eighth report — a review of government responses to last year’s grand jury reports — is not included herein but can also be found online.

This consolidated report summary marks the end of a busy year for the 19 jurors and three alternates who served this past term. Already, a new grand jury has been impaneled for 2019-2020 and is already hard at work looking into how our county is governed.

One of the biggest frustrations for grand jurors throughout California is that many (perhaps most) residents do not understand what a grand jury is or what it does. A common misperception is that a grand jury is assigned to a high-profile trial in a courtroom. While this is often what happens with criminal grand juries, it is not the case with the civil grand juries that are mandated by California’s State Constitution.

Each county in the state is required to seat a new civil grand jury every fiscal year, with terms running from July through June. Each jury is composed of 19 citizens who must meet certain age and residency requirements.

The juror list is drawn at random from a pre-qualified list of volunteer candidates. The jury’s foreperson is selected by the judge before the other 18 members are selected. Alternates are also named, to replace grand jurors who may have to withdraw before the term is over.

Once sworn in by the judge, the grand jury is self-directed. That is to say, the grand jury alone decides what investigations to initiate, investigate, and ultimately report on. No one in the court or the county tasks the grand jury with specific topics, although it annually reviews the conditions of the county jail and juvenile hall.

While the grand jury’s work is conducted by individuals working in small groups, it acts with a single voice. Any decision by the grand jury must be voted on and approved by a supermajority of 12. This requires constant and thorough communication. The full grand jury usually meets once a week to discuss its work, while individual committees schedule additional meetings, interviews, and research sessions. During the busiest times of the grand jury cycle, some grand jurors may invest as many as 15-20 hours per week on their work. Grand jurors receive no more than $15 per week for their service.

County residents can play a big role in the grand jury’s work by submitting complaints or suggestions. This past year the grand jury investigated numerous issues that were submitted by citizens. While not every complaint results in a full-blown investigation, these submissions do often result in a report being generated. Complaint forms may be found on the grand jury website, as well as in the enclosed insert.

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One of the cornerstones of grand jury work is that all information that is obtained or discussed during the course of the term must remain confidential — forever. While government officials must comply with the grand jury’s request for an interview, the interviewee’s name will never be used in a final report. This cloak of anonymity often results in the grand jury learning some interesting things from the people it interviews.

Any information the grand jury gleans from an interview must be verified through additional means before being reported as fact. Grand jurors often receive conflicting information from different interviewees, so the grand jury must use its best judgment to provide an independent analysis of the facts, which in turn results in findings and recommendations. All grand jury reports must be approved by county counsel and the supervising superior court judge prior to release.

A report’s findings and recommendations are directed at the local officials responsible for managing the entity under review.

However, the report itself is written for the benefit of the residents. By giving insight into the inner-workings of our local governments, the grand jury serves as a “watchdog” for the community and helps residents, taxpayers, and voters make more-informed decisions.

Members of the 2018-2019 grand jury would like to strongly encourage our fellow Napa County residents to consider applying for the 2020-2021 grand jury.

While formal recruitment will not begin until the spring of next year, it is never too early to apply for consideration.

We hope you find our reports to be helpful and informative. It was a privilege to be of service to this great community.

Kort van Bronkhorst, Foreperson

2018-2019 Napa County Grand Jury

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