Jeff Pelline: Let’s hope the jury is still out | TheUnion.com
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Jeff Pelline: Let’s hope the jury is still out

My ears twitched late Monday when an e-mail popped into my inbox at work slugged, “Nevada County Grand Jury Notice to the Media.” The e-mail read: “Please be advised that a new report from the 2006 – 2007 Nevada County Grand Jury will be released on the web page of the Civil Grand Jury on March 6, 2007 at 11:00 a.m.”

I quickly posted a news alert on our Web site, went home and told my son we could only read one book before bedtime (“Wait Till the Moon is Full”), because big news was breaking tomorrow and we had to hit the hay early. This was going to be the Grand Jury’s first public report of the year – an event of the season.

At 11 a.m., our staff was all set to get the news and post it on our Web site in real time. Turns out, however, the information was more like the beer that is mostly foam when drawn from an empty keg – definitely not the Ritz Sidecar I had been hoping for. (A Ritz Sidecar, offered at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, goes for nearly $500 because it contains 1834 Cognac, as Fortune says).



The Grand Jury report was this: “The Washington Ridge Conservation Camp is well-run. Dormitories, kitchen, and washrooms are clean and well maintained. The grounds were beautifully maintained and resembled a park-like setting.”

Oh.




That’s cool, a glowing report for the Nevada County prison camp. It’s important to focus on programs in our community that are working and benefit taxpayers. It also shows a sense of balance.

But what about the problems in our community that most of us know about.

Remember the financial scandal at City Hall in Nevada City?

The question that interests me (and should interest any Grand Jury): Auditors reviewing city finances have accused former office supervisor Cathy Wilcox-Barnes of granting herself exemptions from water and sewer fees. Her lawyer has cited conflicts between state law and city ordinance regarding the fees. Let’s get to the bottom of this.

What about a continuing look at NID? Last year, the Grand Jury expressed concerns about the continuation of annual rate increases combined with the acknowledged large reserves retained by the water agency. Many residents and some NID board members continue to express concerns about the agency’s ability to get water to people in our community more quickly and cheaply.

I have heard that the Grand Jury is looking into both matters and more, based on sightings of Grand Jury badges around town and some subpoenas – but not any first-hand knowledge. It’s hard to get any real confirmation because investigations are tightly kept secrets.

Some other issues we’ve written about that continue to interest us include:

•The eye-popping sum of more than $105,000 paid to former Grass Valley city administrator Gene Haroldsen for accrued sick and vacation pay. Grass Valley’s mayor wants to revisit the policy. It definitely should be scrutinized further. On the positive side, Haroldsen’s payout was a “worst case” scenario, but some other potential payouts could still be hefty, we learned.

•The county Elections Office handling of some elections, including mistakes in the voter information pamphlets, changing polling places and slowness in reporting final results. We’re still waiting to hear how much money the mistakes in the voter pamphlets regarding Measure S and Measure T cost us. To its defense, the Elections Office has been working hard to hold an inordinate number of elections, putting pressure on the staff.

•Candidates for nonpartisan offices, including judges, receiving partisan endorsements. It isn’t illegal but is it ethical? Let’s take a harder look at this practice.

•Friction between law enforcement and the DA’s office, as well as whether the legal system tolerates too many plea bargains. We have cast a spotlight on this as well. To their credit, law enforcement and the DA are talking more regularly, and – I think – the courts are listening, too. It was heartening to hear about the credentials, experience and philosophy of our newly hired Assistant District Attorney Anna Ferguson (no relation to Mike). Do I detect a fissure in the “Good Old Boys Club”?

•The City of Grass Valley has spent nearly $1.5 million since May 2000 to treat hazardous wastewater that is flowing into the city’s sewer plant from an old mine shaft belonging to Newmont Mining Corp., we also reported. This one is a wild card: My hunch is that things could get worse and costs could markedly rise.

•More public disclosures when it comes to spending our money. I think you know my disappointment about finding that we paid $10,000 to the victim of alleged sexual misconduct from the man, who was a former prisoner, not any public officials.

I’m sure the Grand Jury reads the newspaper and has plenty of sourcing of its own to unearth problems in our community. Not all of these issues are worthy of a Grand Jury investigation, either.

But they are worthy of further scrutiny.

Like any community, we need watchdogs. We have the media and groups such as Nevada County Victim/Witness Center, among others. I’ve often wondered, though, why we don’t have more victim’s-rights groups or citizen watchdog groups for law enforcement and other agencies in our community.

As a result, we doubly depend on the Nevada County Grand Jury to hold up the proverbial mirror. Nobody believes me, but it’s not about selling newspapers. It’s about identifying the problems in our community, then solving them. My family has a stake in this community, just like you do.

It’s a small community, so you run into Grand Jury members every now and then – at the Elections Office one day or at speaking engagements. I never press these people for “scoops.”

But I do admire their volunteer work. I have enjoyed social conversations with the ones whom I have met.

I’m sure Tuesday’s “news flash” at http://www.civilgrandjury.com was just the opening salvo in numerous Grand Jury reports that will be released through the spring and summer. A spokeswoman told us today that the reports are typically released piecemeal. Last year, for example, the Grand Jury released nine reports – the first of which examined the homeless problem.

Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that the jury is still out. We eagerly await the second Grand Jury report.

ooo

Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column usually appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235, jeffp@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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