There are a number of typical ways we get our information about local governments. We go to city council websites or talk to government oversight and watchdog groups. We constantly monitor the output of local government auditors and look at the websites of cities and counties themselves.
But there is one source we use for California local governments that exists pretty much no place else.
The Civil Grand Jury.
In each one of California’s 58 counties, a grand jury is assembled out of citizen volunteers each and every year. While grand juries in other states are focused on criminal issues, California’s civil grand juries are appointed for a full year and spend that time investigating and reporting on different aspects of local government management.
The best way to get a quick look at the output and results of California’s Civil Grand Jury investigations is to go to the California Grand Jurors’ Association, which has a frequently updated blog that follows the work of the grand juries, the reports they publish, juror experiences, and the impact of their investigations.
Jury selection has just started for the 2017-2018 year, for the one-year term that begins about July 1. This system has been in place at least since California became a state and is part of the 1850 California Constitution. Jurors do not have any special government experience. They apply to the county court, which generally makes an initial selection, usually of 30, and then, if there are more applicants than there are jury spots, 19 are selected by lottery. (For smaller counties, the number is reduced to 11.) California also utilizes grand juries for criminal indictments, but in almost all counties that’s a separate body.
Each year, about 1,100 California civil grand jurors produce about 900 reports that examine a very wide array of topics, including jail conditions, school district finances, county environmental protection, treatment of the mentally ill, issues of local government corruption and much more. At the beginning of their terms, they establish their own working rules and choose the topics to be investigated. Many stay involved with the jurors’ association for years.
We are particularly intrigued with this system for the enormous satisfaction it appears to give jurors, who really learn about local government and provide input in a way that just doesn’t exist elsewhere. “The learning curve was steep but also exhilarating,” wrote one juror from San Joaquin County in a recent blog post. “It’s fun to know stuff, to learn things. I can’t think of a day I attended to jury business that I didn’t learn something interesting.”
We made the mistake of referring to California’s system as novel, when we spoke with Jerry Lewi, who is currently the vice chair of public relations and has worn a wide variety of hats in the California Grand Jurors’ Association since he did his first stint of jury service in the late 1990s. “The use of novel is an odd word,” he said.
As it turns out, utilizing a grand jury for citizen oversight of local government began about eight hundred years ago in England. It was common in America’s colonial days and spread westward as the country expanded.
But gradually, in most states, the citizen oversight function evaporated. While a few other states may have remnants of a grand jury local oversight function, California is the only state with a full-fledged system.
Maybe other states should consider this idea, too.