Terry Young: The evolving grand jury | TheUnion.com

Terry Young: The evolving grand jury

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Terry Young

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday honored the grand jury system by declaring February as grand jury awareness month in the county. Grand juries, composed of citizens, serve as watchdogs of authority.

Last month, we briefly introduced you to the members of the Nevada County Grand Jury. This month, we would like to discuss what we do and generally how it's done. Consider the following two Points:

Point A: In July 2016, 19 volunteers were sworn in to serve for one year on the Nevada County Grand Jury. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and seemed to have little in common other than a desire to serve the community. About half had previously served on grand juries. They went through training during July and started to discuss how to proceed. Few had any experience with county government other than as a citizen and observer.

Point B: About 10 months later, the same Jury issued 10 detailed reports on Nevada County institutions, covering subjects including cooperation and coordination among teachers in Nevada County schools, poll worker training, peace officer training and the functioning of a fire district.

How did those 19 people get from Point A to Point B, from randomly selected volunteers to informed commenters on vital county functions? Two essential elements of that journey can be found in their choice of subject matter and manner in which they learned about the subjects of interest.

The primary source of subject matter for Grand Jury investigations is public complaints. Public complaints are given the highest priority and often lead to full-blown investigations and reports. In addition, such investigations can be challenging because they have to be investigated in a way that conceals the identity of the person making the complaint. Accordingly, an independent witness may be asked numerous questions that have nothing to do with the actual subject of the investigation in order to keep sources and subject matter confidential. It is not unusual for a 30-minute interview to only include three or four questions pertinent to the actual investigation. The witness's time is not wasted, however, since other subjects inquired into may give rise to additional areas of inquiry.

In the absence of public complaints, sources of subject matter include suggestions from prior grand juries, online research, past reports of other California grand juries, personal interest, newspaper articles, and informal complaints. Such subjects first are discussed in committee and, if there is sufficient interest, further research is done to understand the nature of the issue. Are there statutes or regulations that prescribe action? Are there organizations that compile best practices and approaches? Does the department or entity to be investigated have its own rules and operating procedures? Once that background is established, one may ask if the entity being investigated is operating in compliance with such statutes, regulations, manuals or best practices.

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Such investigation involves review of relevant entity documents, found online or requested from the entity, interviews with employees and independent witnesses, and further research into what standards should apply. Each witness and each document can both inform on the subject being investigated and present other possibilities for inquiry.

At each point of the process, investigative committees regularly report on the status of investigations to the entire grand jury and seek input concerning other possible witnesses and documentation from fellow jurors.

The process is not complicated but simply one of figuring out how things are supposed to work and then determining if they are working as required or expected. If necessary, an investigative report may be written to document the issue and recommend correction. Each report involves the intense work of five to eight grand jurors and the review and approval of the full panel of 19, plus a lot of hard work. But that's largely how Point A becomes Point B.

Terry Young lives in Nevada County.

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