By John Gallagher, Grand Jury Supervising Judge
We need the Grand Jury and the Grand Jury needs you. In this time of political polarization at all levels of government, the need for a neutral Grand Jury to investigate, report on government performance and offer solutions has never been greater. Despite the pandemic, the 2019-20 Civil Grand Jury recently completed its term successfully. The Grand Jury completed 10 separate investigations, published reports to explain their work, and made specific findings and recommendations to improve both the quality of our government and the health and safety of all who live here.
The topics the Grand Jury chose to investigate were compelling, including: homelessness; the horrific fire risk the community faces and the questionable capability the community has to respond to catastrophic fires; the lack of adequate risk management tools in local government; and the loss of trust and accountability in the City of Santa Cruz governance, to name just a few of the investigations. Rather than giving up when the pandemic made completion of the Grand Jury’s mission monumentally harder, the members of the Grand Jury rallied and used the technology of the virtual meeting world to finish their work. What is frequently not mentioned in considering the value of the grand jury system, is that more often than not the recommendations of the Grand Jury are accepted, and very real and significant improvements are made for everyone’s benefit.
By statute the Superior Court is charged with empaneling the new Grand Jury, which normally begins serving its term on July 1. The pandemic has caused a delay in recruiting, interviewing and selecting the new grand jurors. This year the selection process will begin in September with virtual interviews taking the place of actual physical meetings in order to insure the health and safety of everyone. The new Grand Jury is expected to be sworn in during the week of Oct. 5 and will serve a nine-month term rather than a full year. Grand juror training and the actual work of the next Grand Jury are likely to be completed in the virtual world of electronic communications to keep everyone safe. Travel impediments that oftentimes deterred members of the community with difficult commutes from serving wn’t be a problem in the virtual meeting world.
But the challenges the new Grand Jury will face are even greater than the 2019-20 Grand Jury faced, as the jurors will not have the full year term to work with and will not have the normal face-to-face meetings at which to bond and develop team work. Nevertheless, the incoming foreperson has been selected and has a core of experienced and dedicated returning grand jurors ready to get to work and bring the new grand jurors up to speed. Prior experience with virtual meeting technology and secure data-sharing for the grand jury members will be more important than ever, but refresher training will be available.
There are so many new challenges facing us today, not to mention just staying alive. But we will not be stopped from protecting our democracy and improving the operations of our government agencies. The work is essential and rewarding. Good people rise to insure good government. We are good people. We need good grand jurors. Please apply to join the 2020-2021 Grand Jury www.santacruzcourt.org. We need you. Now more than ever.
John Gallagher is the Grand Jury Supervising Judge for Santa Cruz County Superior Court.