Valley Voices

Houry Sanderson: Civil grand jury keeps watch on government

Here’s a frequent question: “What is the civil grand jury?”

My answer is that it is a group of informed, interested and caring citizens, who as a formal body, receive, process, investigate and report back on concerns brought to their attention regarding the local governmental departments.

In Fresno County, we have a civil grand jury which calls on citizens of the community to come forth and devote a portion of their year and their collective critical and reasoned thinking, and thereafter their conclusions and findings, that would guide the various departments of our local government to check and re-check their systems and make improvements where needed.

The civil grand jury investigates and reports. It also makes recommendations on complaints received from Fresno County citizens regarding issues of governance along with other pertinent areas that the jurors believe necessary to be evaluated and reported upon.

This endeavor or responsibility is more than just an assignment that should be viewed casually. It is more of a mission which requires the ability to see down the path and anticipate what’s coming up the road and where turns should be made to avoid possible pitfalls. It is to recommend changes as are needed with the times and pace of our ever-evolving community and its needs.

Sometimes, it takes a fresh perspective and stepping back and even to the side to fully grasp the picture before you. Inadvertently, we become, as individuals and as departments or divisions of a larger system, too used to how things are done. Although change is not unwelcomed, it may feel a little foreign and sometimes scary.

In recent years, the grand jury has toured, evaluated and submitted constructive criticism regarding various different areas of our local government.

For example, among other departments the 2013-14 grand jurors visited: Fresno County Morgue, Fresno County Juvenile Justice Campus, Fresno County Jail (main), Sunset Recycling, Fresno Yosemite International Airport and Community Regional Medical Center’s emergency department.

Additionally, two by two, they observed the Fresno Police Department’s monthly crime review session. The full reports of any grand jury session can be accessed on the court’s website at www.fresno.courts.ca.gov. In fact, all interested citizens are encouraged to read the grand jury reports to fully appreciate the vast work done by this very committed body of concerned citizens.

Grand juries in California are panels made up of either 19 or 23 individuals (a few of the larger counties have 23 members; Fresno County has 19). Grand jurors typically serve for a year, from July 1 to June 30.

The grand jury is a constitutionally mandated judicial body charged to investigate civil matters but not criminal matters. The grand jury’s responsibilities include investigating issues regarding county government and public agencies funded by the government and issuing reports and recommendations when appropriate. The grand jury is also mandated by law to respond to citizens’ complaint letters and to inquire into the condition and management of public detention facilities within the county.

Among the basic qualifications needed to apply for a grand jury position include U.S. citizenship (18 years of age or older) and at least one year of residency in Fresno County.

It is only fair to also point out that the commitment to serve as a grand juror may be up to 40 hours a month and, based on the subject matter or the need, may even be as many as 80 hours a month. More information can be found at www.fresno.courts.ca.gov/jury/grand_jury.

All citizens residing in Fresno County are invited and encouraged to apply for the rewarding position of serving as a grand juror and to continue this important function of public service.

Judge Houry Sanderson is chair of the Fresno County Superior Court Jury Oversight Committee.

Fresno County Civil Grand Jury

How to apply: Online at http://www.fresno.courts.ca.gov/jury/grand_jury or call 559 457-1605

Deadline for application: March 4

Duties: investigating issues regarding county government and other public agencies

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