The Placer County Grand Jury’s Public Watchdog Role, Explained

PUBLISHED JUL 28, 2021 7:41 A.M.
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Placer County's grand jury serves an important role investigating government conduct.

Placer County's grand jury serves an important role investigating government conduct.   Loco Steve / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 3.0 Unported License

The concept of a “grand jury” dates back nearly 900 years, to 12th-century England where local sheriffs picked a group of 24 knights to act as a check on the power of the monarchy in criminal matters. By independently evaluating evidence before deciding whether a person accused of a crime should be charged, the “Grand Inquest,” as it was called then, helped to prevent kings from prosecuting their enemies for political, personal, or other invalid reasons. 

But this early form of grand jury also took on another function, around the same time — government watchdog. Documents from that period show that the Grand Inquest, in addition to its duties in criminal matters, was also responsible for investigating “those whose duty was to keep in repair bridges, causeways and highways,” to make sure they were not falling short in their extremely important jobs, as well at to look into “defects” in jail facilities—of which there were presumably quite a few in medieval England—and to determine who was responsible for allowing inmates to escape.

Nearly nine centuries later, the watchdog grand jury system has become rare. But in California, it thrives. In fact, California appears to be the only one of the 50 United States with a fully functioning “civil grand jury” system. The grand jury falls under the jurisdiction of the county Superior Court but operates independently of the court or any government agency.

In Placer County, as in all of the state’s 58 counties, a civil grand jury of 19 people spends a year investigating local and county government departments, committees, and individual officials both elected and appointed. At the end of its one-year term, which runs from July to the end of the following year’s June, the grand jury publishes a year-end report.

While some California grand juries publish multiple reports, each on a specific topic, the Placer County panel has published one final report annually, containing the findings of all of its investigations between two covers. The reports, at least dating back to the 1999-2000 grand jury term, may be accessed online at this link.

What to Expect When You’re a Grand Juror

Aside from the basic age and residency requirements, to serve on the grand jury—which in Placer County also sits for criminal cases, albeit “infrequently”—requires a rather substantial commitment. According to the Placer County Superior Court website, a grand juror can expect to put in 40 to 50 hours per month, including two monthly meetings of the full, 19-member panel, and six committee meetings. The in-person meetings are held in Auburn, the Placer County seat. (During the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings were held via video conference.) But some committee meetings may actually be research trips into the “field.”

Grand jurors are paid for their service — but not very much. In Placer County, the stipends are $25 for each meeting of the full grand jury, and $10 for each committee meeting. Travel costs to and from meetings are also reimbursed.

According to the grand jurors themselves, however, the court’s own estimate of the required time commitment is on the low side.

“It’s really 100 hours a month,” one grand juror told Gold Country Media reporter Bill Poindexter in a March 2021 article. Each of the 19 grand jurors is required to serve on three of the grand jury’s eight standing committees, and must be prepared to take a leadership position on at least one of them. 

The names of the eight committees on the Placer County Grand Jury are largely self-explanatory:

  • Audit and Finance
  • Cities
  • County Administration
  • Continuity/Editorial
  • Criminal Justice
  • Health and Welfare
  • Schools and Libraries
  • Special Districts

Each committee is charged with investigating issues such as  inefficiency, corruption or just general operational functions in the areas listed. The only somewhat cryptic committee name would be “Continuity/Editorial.” That group handles “communication of information from one grand jury to the next,” and is also in charge of publishing the grand jury’s final, annual report—and of compiling and publishing the official responses to the previous year’s report.

One exception came in 2020, the year of COVID-19, when the Placer County Grand Jury published just one report, on a specific topic: election readiness in the midst of the pandemic. The panel’s finding? That county election officials had done an “outstanding job” preparing for the 2020 November election. The jurors also found that in the past 20 years Placer County had seen zero cases of voter fraud, and that if questions about fraud were to arise, the county had an eight-step process to investigate. 

'Verbal Mud-Wrestling'

Who serves on the grand jury? The good news is that service is no longer limited to knights. In fact, any ordinary person who’s at least 18 years old and who has lived in Placer County for one full year is eligible to apply. Applicants must go through a criminal background check, and interviews with the presiding and supervising judges of the county Superior Court, as well as with the foreperson of the previous year’s grand jury. After that, the applicants return later for the final selection process, which is essentially a lottery, with 19 names drawn randomly. Another 10 are also picked at random as alternate jurors.

As for what it’s actually like to serve on the grand jury, one former grand juror—Kevin Knauss, who served two terms from 2014 to 2016—found the experience both fulfilling and aggravating. The fulfilling part was the research and reporting on the inner workings of local government. But Knauss claimed he and many of his fellow grand jurors were also exasperated by some of his colleagues who “failed to carry their workload,” as well as the often “acrimonious” arguments and “verbal mud wrestling” that went into creating the grand jury’s final report.

“I had my fill of listening to people bickering over inconsequential items. I was tired of people who couldn’t figure out how to use basic software such as MS Word, or the computer in general, allowing them to escape doing any of the work,” Knauss wrote, describing the grand jury as a “haunted house” that he frequently considered fleeing, only to “find myself preparing the next meeting agenda for the committee that I was the chair of.”

But other grand jurors say that the rewards ultimately outweighed the drawbacks.

“It’s very fulfilling work. I don’t want to discourage folks,” Philip McAvoy, a 2020-2021 grand juror, told Gold Coast Media’s Poindexter. “It was rewarding in such that I grew as a person, learning more about other people and their perspectives.”

One restriction that any grand juror must be aware of, however, is that the first rule of the grand jury is, don’t talk about the grand jury. Under state law, all proceedings of the grand jury are held in secret, and must stay that way. The final report marks the only time the grand jury communicates with the public.

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