Independence Day is a great time to get reacquainted with the Fresno County Civil grand jury, just the newest version of a great American independent institution, rooted in our republic’s earliest days.
Typically grand juries are used by prosecutors to indict people accused of wrongdoing or to avoid a preliminary hearing. Most recently, grand juries have been in the spotlight for weighing evidence in police shootings, providing a measure of impartiality in a judicial environment where prosecutors and law enforcement typically are close allies.
Your Fresno County grand jury isn’t that kind of grand jury. And this isn’t like TV’s weather wizards saying “your high tomorrow” or “your weekend.” This is the real deal, where “your” means “we, the people.” It’s yours and also ours.
As foreperson, I’m one of 19 county residents chosen by the Superior Court to review local special districts, cities and their divisions, school districts, Fresno County and their operations. We investigate and then may report and recommend. We don’t indict.
Fresno County grand jury investigations, instead, shed light on issues. It’s a lot like the journalism career I pursued. You do the investigation, write the story, write editorials that make recommendations and then hope that citizens, voters, officials or prosecutors take action.
In Sanger, for example, the 2008-09 grand jury recommended changes to city governance to improve operations and prevent financial ruin. Citizens voted to make changes, leading to a well-publicized recovery.
On the other hand, the 2013-14 grand jury recommended that the Fresno County Coroner-Public Administrator’s Office remain a stand-alone unit. The Fresno Bee published news reports and supported that recommendation editorially, but the Board of Supervisors voted to merge the coroner’s duties with the sheriff’s office and place the public administrator’s staff under the district attorney.
But shining the light is the first step, so if you believe tax money’s being misspent, students aren’t being educated well, an agency isn’t responding properly or something just looks fishy, visit: http://bit.ly/1LGUb2X
How do you become a grand juror? For me, the process began years ago with The Bee’s coverage of grand jury reports. People whose names I knew investigated and reported, sometimes harshly, sometimes kindly, about government. What a great job.
Not until I was contemplating a second retirement, though, did I visit the grand jury website and decided I’d have time to serve. I was qualified: way past 18, U.S. citizen, country resident more than a year, English speaking and “in possession of natural faculties, ordinary intelligence, sound judgment, fair character.” (OK, some may dispute some of those.)
I applied in early 2013 at http://bit.ly/1CeJiDI. Several weeks later, I was interviewed by a Superior Court judge and underwent a criminal background check. Judges reviewed all the applications and developed a list of people eligible for random selection as grand jurors. I wasn’t empaneled that year, but was designated like 11th alternate. (Most years some alternates replace original grand jurors but seldom do they get to No. 11.)
In 2014, though, I reapplied and my name was pulled out of the 19th century tumbler the court uses for this task and I soon was among 18 strangers, although some had worked where I worked or knew my friends or neighbors.
You’re told the time commitment is 10 or 20 hours a month, but some of us logged a lot more hours each week as the end of our term approached. That’s not a complaint, just a fact. Our compensation is the same $15 per meeting, mileage reimbursement and free parking as every Fresno County juror.
Grand jury service took us on field trips for a first-hand look at operations ranging from water treatment and incarceration to traffic flow and law enforcement tactics. We listened to presentations by officials about elections, health and safety and crime prevention. And we wrote and refined reports in committees, adopting them as a body.
It was the most exhilarating intellectual experience I’ve had in a while along with the satisfaction of learning so much and of serving the community that has served me so well.
I got my wish when Presiding Superior Court Judge Jon Conklin held me over for another term. I was deeply honored to be appointed foreperson as well and to serve a second year with four colleagues and to welcome 14 other members to the 2015-16 Fresno County Grand Jury and our well-worn 11th-floor room in the Fresno County Plaza.
We’re ready to get down to business, but we need your help. We invite you to use the complaint form online for new concerns or if an issue the past year wasn’t addressed and remains a concern.
The privilege to have an independent grand jury examine local governance is only as vibrant as we, the people, want it to be.
Lanny Larson is foreperson of the 2015-16 Fresno County civil grand jury. Email: lanny@