Scour the land from shore to shore, from the frozen North to the chigger-infested Southern swamps, and nowhere in these United States will you find an institution as heartbreakingly emblematic of our democracy as the civil grand jury as constituted in the great state of California.
Every year, in each of our 58 counties, several earnest citizens — senior citizens, almost exclusively — step forth to volunteer their labor toward the cause of collective self-governance. They form the grand jury. They pledge to spend their days hearing complaints from gadflies, whistleblowers or anyone who feels himself wronged by a local arm of government. Then, armed with limited investigatory powers, they go out and try to get to the bottom of the case. They perform site visits. They call people to testify. If the case warrants it, they research appropriate sections of law. They call up other counties to see how things are done there. And at the end of the year they write up everything they’ve found, issuing recommendations and critiques to the relevant agencies.
At which point, as often as not, the agencies in question chuck the advice out the window and continue on their merry way.
For democracy’s masochists, though, the yearly grand jury report is a must-read. The best of them offer an unparalleled opportunity to kick and yell and swear. The worst of them ... well, at least they offer a meek sightseeing tour of the halls inhabited by the mysterious bureaucrats who spend our money and act in our name.
I hope I’m not doing a disservice to the 2006-07 Humboldt County Grand Jury members — bless them! — when I state in all honesty that their report, published last week, was a bit on the ho-hum side. Reading it, I couldn’t help but wistfully long for those summer blockbusters of years past. Remember 2003-04? A classic. We’re talking about “The Absence of Ethics Codes in Humboldt County.” We’re talking about “An Investigation into Humboldt County’s Adult Protective Services and In-Home Supportive Services.” Both those pieces caused everyone to sit up and take notice for a while; the latter, which detailed the needless death of an ill Orick woman, was gripping and appalling reading.
There were some juicy bits this year. Readers could marvel at the little-known fact that one employee of the county coroner’s office has a desk in the hallway, directly adjacent to where they take the bodies off the truck. But the report is filled with encomiums to public servants everywhere. “The county is fortunate to have a qualified and dedicated staff to address the problems of incarcerated youth,” the GJ writes at one point. And at another: “SWAP managers are commended for a very well run program that provides many benefits to the community at minimum cost.” Hey, maybe it’s true — why not? — but that’s not what you go to the grand jury for.
There’s maybe two — and only two — sections of the report reminiscent of grand juries of old. First, it appears the jury tried and failed to crack the Tamara Falor matter, in which the former county counsel was given a $300,000 severance payment under terms that still have not been brought to light. Unable to crack the omerta of the county board of supervisors, the GJ basically punted this one to next year’s crew.
The only other part of the report with some serious meat was the investigation into the practices of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. The grand jury noted that the district is losing money at an alarming rate. It also noted that it’s spending a whole lot of money on its dream of building a container shipping facility on Humboldt Bay — a dream, as the GJ report relates, that the district’s own revitalization plan thinks is a losing prospect. The GJ relays the revitalization plan, the document that is meant to guide port development, thusly: “The concept of Humboldt Bay becoming a container port was identified as a ‘weak competitive position,’ ‘unattractive,’ and ‘of the lowest priority,’ even if rail service to this region were to be restored.”
But somehow the grand jury never put two and two together, writing that container shipping is an idea “for which there is both praise and criticism.” So district CEO David Hull wasn’t talking exactly out of turn when he told the Eureka Reporter that the district already had a plan in place to address its budget deficit — container shipping!
Well, good news then that the district has hired former Port of Oakland official Wilson Lacy to be its new “director of maritime commerce,” at a salary of $100,000 per year. In his new role, Lacy will bring his heavyweight Port of Oakland credentials to bear on developing Humboldt Bay’s shipping operations.
What’s this, though? Is this the same Wilson Lacy who two years ago told the North Coast Journal that any expansion of the Port of Humboldt Bay was a roll of the dice, at best? (See “Port of Call,” June 23, 2005.) Who said that competing new ports, including one in Ensenada, Mexico, would probably eat Humboldt Bay for lunch?
Yeah, that’s the guy.
And no one lovesthe grand jury more than journalists. We’re envious — we, too, would like to get a whole year and unlimited man-hours to research governmental malfeasance. From the management’s point of view, too, the grand jury is something like a miracle. There’s not a paper in the world that would turn down a year’s worth of voluntary labor from a team of 15 old folks with above-average smarts. People like Times-Standard owner Dean Singleton, he of the legendarily cost-slashing MediaNews chain, would no doubt be pleased to outsource all the big investigative stories to such a crack squad.
Why, then, was the grand jury report nowhere to be seen in the pages of the Times-Standard on Saturday, the day their crosstown rivals at the Eureka Reporter not only ran wall-to-wall GJ coverage but, in fact, reprinted the whole damn thing for all to read? Therein lies a tale.
Apparently the T-S newsroom received no heads-up whatsoever that the grand jury was about to issue its report. Reporters and editors learned that this year’s report had been released when they saw it printed in the Reporter. Rich Somerville, the paper’s managing editor, said Tuesday that he still wasn’t quite sure why his reporters hadn’t been let in on the scoop.
But Somerville had determined that the Times-Standard had been notified, even if his department hadn’t. According to Somerville, the grand jury had apparently contacted the T-S business office some weeks ago to ask if the paper would like to print the full report, as it had last year. Unfortunately, the request fell through the cracks.
“It’s right in the middle of our budget time, and we have a brand-new publisher here,” Somerville said. “He put it on the to-do pile and didn’t get back to them, and they went to the Reporter.”
Whoops! But Somerville makes a good point when he asks why the grand jury didn’t distribute copies of the report to all media at the same time. We at the Journal got our copy on Friday, but we had been hounding them for it. The foreman dropped it off at our office on his way to the airport. He said he really liked last week’s story on a Hydesville church.
So we got ours, but we fully support Somerville’s quest to develop a more even-handed system for distributing the thing in the future. Anything else smacks of preferential treatment by a governmental body. If the T-S is unable to come to terms with the grand jury on this matter, perhaps Somerville should file a complaint with the grand jury.