Our View: Did Nevada County’s civil grand jury do its homework?
July 15, 2014
By all measures, the 2013-14 Nevada County Civil Grand Jury was among the most productive grand juries in the past decade, producing 11 reports to the community on the overall performance of government agencies and their ability to manage issues impacting the community.
But as several reports were released to the public in recent weeks, the community's response has heard consistent criticism and questions wondering whether our civil grand jury did its homework in performing a full investigation before weighing in on local issues.
According to the grand jury website, Nevada County citizens volunteer to serve as members of the grand jury from which 19 are selected by the Superior Court to make up a grand jury and act as an arm of the court. Jurors, who are governed by the California Penal Code, Sections 888 to 940, serve for a period of one year.
"The prime objective of the Nevada County Civil Grand Jury is to help improve the overall functioning of governmental entities within the county," the website states. "To accomplish this, grand jurors review the day-to-day operational aspects of a program, organization, or entity and report on their findings. The three main aspects covered in investigations are: Efficiency (are they doing the right things?); Effectiveness (are they getting results?); and Economy (are they doing it in a cost-effective manner?). Another objective of the grand jury is to examine specific complaints of private citizens."
Some of the criticism levied in response to the grand jury reports — including on these Ideas & Opinions pages in recent weeks — has largely dealt with a perceived lack of interviews with some involved parties.
For example, one report "Nevada County Consolidated Fire District: To be or not to be, that is the question" recommended county leaders to begin discussion on merging area fire districts into a single fire authority. But upon reading the report, one of those fire districts — the Penn Valley Fire Protection District — said the grand jury's report would have been more complete had the grand jury talked with its representatives about such recommendation.
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"It is unfortunate that the grand jury did not interview representatives from each of the other agencies that would be impacted by this report," said PVFPD board member John Pelonio. "A better understanding of Penn Valley Fire Protection District would have improved the outcome of the investigation."
Another report, "Nevada County Water Quality: The impact of mine water in Nevada County," found "that for over 30 years, there has been a lack of coordination and communication and a failure to accept responsibility by federal, state and local governmental agencies in efforts to monitor the water quality in some areas of Nevada County."
But in response to the report, some of those officials were dismissive in the findings due to an apparent lack of research. The State Department of Toxic Substance Control and the State Water Resources Control Board's Regional Water Control Board both stated the report failed to include key facts pertaining to the historical mining operations named.
"Significant work has been done at the Lava Cap, Empire and North Star mine sites that was not included in the Nevada county grand jury's report," said Stewart Black, deputy director of the Brownfields and Environmental Restoration Program for the DTSC.
Tamma Adamek, a spokeswoman for the DTSC, said she was not aware of any attempts by the grand jury to speak with the agency.
"I think they only talked to the city and the county," Adamek said. "Therefore, they're missing a huge chunk of information."
And on the local level, Community Development Agency Director Steve DeCamp echoed such concerns.
"I am very troubled by what are purported to be facts in the report which lead to some erroneous conclusions," said DeCamp. "The primary concern of the grand jury and the county is the issues regarding the Banner Lava Cap mine. The fact that it's a superfund site is a glaring hole in that report."
Since the release of its report "Panhandlers, vagrants and transients in a neighborhood near you?" on June 28, the grand jury has drawn a great deal of criticism, much of which has been based on the lack of a full and complete investigation that included interviews with local organizations that regularly work with homeless people in our community.
"The recent grand jury report on panhandling missed an opportunity to address the root causes of homelessness in our community and to identify and address the human conditions that cause people to become so desperate that they turn to begging on the street," Hospitality House Director Cindy Maple and former Nevada City Councilwoman Reinette Senum wrote in an op-ed. "It also missed the opportunity to make recommendations that would provide long-lasting solutions to the problem."
Considering the consistent theme of such responses to the grand jury reports, we would have like to have known the rationale behind who was interviewed and who was not. However, by law, grand jury members are sworn to secrecy about the process of an investigation or the parties who conducted it.
"State law prohibits myself or any member of the Grand Jury from commenting on any discussion or deliberation by Grand Jurors during an inquiry," the foreman wrote in an email to The Union. "The report and the facts therein, stand as published. Affected agencies have the opportunity to respond as required by law."
However, as to state officials saying representatives from their organizations were not interviewed in the report on mine water, the foreman suggested the grand jury had no authority to request such information.
"The Nevada County Grand Jury has no authority to investigate or inquire into the activities of state and federal agencies and, as such, we have no authority to request responses from those agencies."
Although, due to the very secrecy involved in being a member of grand jury, it is a largely thankless task. But it is certainly an important one, capable of affecting change by bringing issues into the light of day and offering an opportunity for community discussion — on topics ranging from county septic systems to local methamphetamine use — in addition to making actual recommendations to move forward in a positive direction.
As a news organization that regularly reports on controversy in our community, we fully recognize the need to share both sides of the story — a task that can sometimes be a tall order when dealing with the deadlines of producing a daily newspaper. But considering a civil grand jury has a full year to conduct such investigations, the response to the aforementioned reports is troubling when considering the grand jury does act as "an arm of the court" with legal tools available such as the power to subpoena.
Just as the Civil Grand Jury endeavors to bring to light important issues for members of the community, we hope those who volunteer as jurors learn from the responses shared by members of the community — and not just those required by law to respond.