Valley Voices

Lanny Larson: Fresno County’s grand jury – what’s it all about?

Through March 4, the Superior Court is accepting applications for the 2016-17 grand jury from residents of Fresno County at least one year, who are 18 or older and are proficient reading and speaking English.
Through March 4, the Superior Court is accepting applications for the 2016-17 grand jury from residents of Fresno County at least one year, who are 18 or older and are proficient reading and speaking English. THE FRESNO BEE FILE

It sounds simple enough: The Fresno County civil grand jury checks out complaints about local government and recommends ways to make things better.

However, as foreperson of the 2015-16 grand jury, I want you to give you some idea of what being a grand juror really involves, so you’ll apply to become one.

Who are we?

This year’s 19 grand jurors have a long list of personal, career and public service achievement.

Most have advanced university degrees and are retired or nearly so, but you don’t have to be. Health care, education, government service, private business, communication, law enforcement, sales, information systems, union representation are in our backgrounds.

Mostly we’re north of 60 years old, ranging from mid-30s to past 80. We’re modestly diverse in ethnicity, religion and race. Only four have addresses outside Fresno and Clovis. Fewer than one-third are women, and we’re mostly around middle- to upper-middle-income.

We hope more applications for service will yield greater diversity.

Grand jurors serve one year but can request an additional year, which is up to the judge.

What do we do?

Under Superior Court guidance, we’re a citizen check on city, county, school and special district operations within Fresno County, evaluating all complaints to determine which we’ll be able to investigate.

Committees work up reports that are approved by the full grand jury and then published, along with state-mandated responses. We do not issue minority reports.

The civil grand jury doesn’t bring charges like its criminal counterpart, which disappoints folks who want to “put the bad guys away.” Instead, we shine a light on local government and let citizens implement change.

People ask what we’re up to, but we take an oath to keep our deliberations confidential.

Besides our meetings, which are punctuated by comments from jurors’ many perspectives, we visit the Pleasant Valley State Prison and county and municipal facilities, and we hear presentations from various agencies.

How much time’s involved?

We meet at least half a day per week. Beyond that, time is needed for committee work, reviewing documents, interviewing witnesses and writing reports. So grand jury service can exceed 40 hours a month.

However, we encourage grand jurors to take time away for vacations, medical issues, work and more, knowing it’s easy to catch up online.

We’re not in it for the money. Just like other jurors, we’re paid $15 a day plus mileage.

We’re subject to the same financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest statutes as most officials we investigate.

What’s the reward?

The 2014-15 grand jury reports and responses illustrate the satisfaction I feel about grand jury service:

▪ Parlier Unified School District – The grand jury spotlighted governance, administration and business practices that were costly, but not improving classroom achievement. After the grand jury report, school trustees ordered investigations, the Fresno County Office of Education offered unprecedented help and there was a state assessment of the district. Most recommendations were adopted by the school board and are being implemented.

▪ Vacant housing blight in Fresno – The grand jury recommended that new efforts to enforce city codes get significant priority and supporting resources. Unfortunately, blighted vacant properties and out-of-compliance occupied properties have made disturbing headlines recently. Time will tell whether the city is responding quickly enough after the grand jury brought more attention to it.

▪ Sanger governance – The grand jury found that there was a toxic environment in community governance threatening to undermine gains made in recent years. The mayor and city manager who helped move Sanger forward were casualties of government dysfunction. However, the City Council has implemented some recommendations.

▪ Pleasant Valley State Prison – The grand jury reported that the county’s only state prison was operating well. Several recommendations were implemented in the months between the grand jurors’ mandated annual inspection and publication of the report.

How can you serve?

Through March 4, the Superior Court is accepting applications for the 2016-17 grand jury from residents of Fresno County for at least one year, who are 18 or older and are proficient reading and speaking English. It’s not a requirement, but computer literacy is needed for confidential communication.

If you check all those boxes, please fill out an application obtained online at www.fresno.courts.ca.gov or by calling 457-1605.

Accepted applicants will be interviewed by a judge, undergo criminal background checks, and their names will be entered for random selection in June as a grand juror or alternate beginning July 1.

If you have the time and believe that our tax-supported local agencies must be held accountable to serve county residents as best as possible, you should apply. I’m confident you’ll find being a grand juror as rewarding as I have.

Lanny Larson, a former Fresno Bee reporter and editor, is the 2015-16 Fresno County Civil Grand Jury foreperson.

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