Grand jury quits
In what might be an unprecedented move in Northern California, the entire Sierra County Grand Jury has resigned, a decision that one member said was precipitated by the actions of the county’s Superior Court judge.
In a letter dated Jan. 16, eight of the 11-member citizen panel signed a letter to Presiding Judge William Pangman, citing difficulties in acquiring documents for an investigation into complaints against the Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District and the Sierra County Office of Education’s business and personnel practices.
“Members of the current grand jury have been threatened with dismissal and have been intimidated. Members have resigned from committees and from the grand jury proper because of these obstructions,” the grand jury members wrote.
The grand jury asked both the school district and the county Office of Education for a bevy of documents relating to their fiscal health, including budgets, salaries of all staff, payroll registers, interim financial reports, audits and minutes of past school board meetings during the 2002-03 school year.
The school district and county office of education, though separate entities, share many functions and operate out of the same office in Sierraville.
Both the district and the county office have been plagued by declining revenues and a messy court battle involving a failed charter school proposed by a former superintendent.
Doris Pratti, who served as chair of the education committee on the grand jury, said Pangman’s actions and his close relationship with some members of the county’s education community made it difficult to secure the proper information required for investigation into the school district’s finances.
At least two members resigned from the grand jury during the course of the investigation, and a third with ties to the school district recused herself.
Pratti, 66, a 40-year resident of Downieville, said the judge’s friendship with a school district employee disrupted the grand jury’s investigation into the district’s finances and prevented the grand jury from doing its work.
“I personally think he should have recused himself,” Pratti said of Pangman, Sierra County’s only Superior Court judge.
Pratti and other grand jury members said they were threatened by the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office when they attempted to secure a computer with school district personnel records after the school district moved from Loyalton to Sierraville last year. Pratti and others took the computer to the sheriff’s office because it had been left exposed to the elements after the move.
Michael Filippini, interim superintendent for the Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District, said his office was working to procure documents for the grand jury when a reporter told him the grand jury was disbanding.
The grand jury in late November granted the district two weeks to procure all documents, and then extended it two more weeks. The district has yet to comply fully with the request, Filippini said.
“All this is public information,” he said. “We’re not trying to be uncooperative,” he said, adding, “What the grand jury was asking for is a barrage of information.”
Sierra County’s 3,520 residents may never see the results of the grand jury’s investigation because of its decision to disband, a decision that floored some legal experts.
“It’s very rare that you have entire grand juries resign,” said Elwood Moger, president of the California Grand Juror Association. In some cases, Moger said, the court may ask the grand jury to stop investigations if they determine the body is seeking information that isn’t available to them, such as personnel files or matters dealing with private companies.
Once the members resign, it is up to the court to decide if a new grand jury will convene, Moger said.
Pangman, 59, has served on the Sierra County bench since being appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1997. Contacted Wednesday, he said “it’s inappropriate for me to comment” about the grand jury’s decision.
Pangman, who has lived in Downieville since 1981, was elected to a six-year term in 1998 and will begin a second term in November 2004, because he faced no challengers for his seat.
The county’s other Superior Court judge, William Skillman, retired Jan. 4 in the middle of a term that expires in January 2006. Sierra County court executive officer/jury commissioner Jan Hamilton said she expects the second seat to be filled eventually.
Hamilton said she is consulting the Administrative Office of the Courts to decide how to proceed in the wake of the grand jury’s resignation.
“It just hasn’t happened here before,” she said.
In a community where almost everyone is familiar with everyone else, Pratti said Judge Pangman should have known better than to try to influence the grand jury.
“I know one thing,” she said. “I won’t vote for him again.”
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