Advice to the Incoming Shasta County Grand Jury: If You Can’t Bite, a Loud Bark Really Matters

A new Shasta County Grand Jury was recently empaneled and I’ve got some unsolicited advice for them: You’d better bark loud.

Seems many of us have heard of the Grand Jury, but few really know its function, which is mostly to conduct civil investigations of government entities within the county. The Grand Jury can conduct these investigations based on its own concerns or on citizen complaints and is also occasionally called upon to take part in criminal indictments.

Grand Jurors have unparalleled access to the inner workings of government, with the power to request any documents they wish, even the ones most citizens would never get to see. (Imagine, for example, the power to review the police department’s internal investigation files.) It can call any local county or city government leader or employee to its super secret interviews to question them. And if those individuals don’t respond, it can issue a subpoena. It can then publish the findings from these interviews, documents and site visits in public reports which, by law, require a response from the heads of the investigated agencies.

Yet despite these powers, the Shasta County Grand Jury seems to get little done. Take the Stillwater report, “Stillwater: Still Waiting” which created a stir when it was published two years ago but still hasn’t resulted in any changes in the $1 million the City of Redding spends annually to maintain the STILL empty Stillwater Business Park.

(Editorial note update, Aug. 3, 2019: According to Redding City Manager Barry Tippin, the costs of maintaining Stillwater Business Park are primarily payments on bond debt, rather than general facilities maintenance.) 

Why doesn’t the Grand Jury get much done? Because local government leaders don’t take the Jury seriously, despite its, at times, comprehensive reports. The strength of the Grand Jury is only as great as its’ members (and their cooperative efforts), and not all Shasta County grand juries have produced significant or hard-hitting reports. But even the most well researched and carefully written reports are usually downplayed and overlooked by members of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors or city councils. A review of some of 2018’s reports and the resulting responses from government agencies tends to lead the reader toward one of two conclusions: either the jurors were incompetent idiots, or the government leaders were not as thorough with their responses as they could have been.

Probably a good time to mention that I served on the Grand Jury in ‘16/’17 and ‘17/’18. So I happen to think the jurors weren’t idiots. I can’t comment further on the truth as I know it since I was sworn to secrecy when empaneled.

The core members of a strong Grand Jury work 20-30 hours a week on their reports and are paid only $15 a day to do so, like any trial juror. Strong forepersons often spend 40 hours or more weekly coordinating and supervising the work of their jurors. The almost heroic voluntary efforts of these individuals, nearly for free, on behalf of their communities, should surely accomplish more than impotent piles of paperwork submitted to government leaders who often don’t seem to have read them when they dispense with their responses by quick and casual votes, moving on with the “real” business of government.

But unfortunately, the Grand Jury, by law, has no bite. It can recommend, but not direct. It can advise but not command. It can comment, but does not have the power to create any direct change. Such change-making is a role left to others, namely our government leaders, who would do well to respect the work of the Jury, but historically have not done so. And to the people. You, and me.

Which is why the incoming Shasta Grand Jury would do well to remember that its greatest power is in its bark. It’s in the noise the jury can make by producing comprehensively researched, thoroughly documented, and well-timed reports that expose the weaknesses of our government, not to fault find or punish them, but to create new strength.

Juries are wise to release their reports, one at a time, earlier than their disempanelment date, because this reminds the public that the jury is working on their behalf, and reminds government leaders that they serve the people and their interests.

And the media, and community members, are wise to pick up each of these reports, read them thoroughly, research their cited sources, and create noise when warranted. Because just like the bark of a single dog can set off a cacophony of sound across a neighborhood, a single jury report, picked up and heralded by citizens and the media, can create real change even in a government disinterested in listening.

So consider a look back at some of the last few years of Grand Jury Reports which included Jail Funding, AB 109, and Prop 64 reports just last year, to name a few. Look into the Water report of the year before. Look at this year’s Shascom report. Then see what’s happened since the reports were issued. Do the findings still hold true? Has there been forward movement? Is it time to bring the issue up again by citing the report or its facts at a council or board meeting, through a letter to the editor or maybe even on Facebook?

If this next Grand Jury makes its bark louder, maybe we’ll see some positive momentum in local government. Here’s to you all of you new jurors: research well, write carefully, release early, and we’ll echo your bark when the time comes. Together, let’s get loud.

Shasta County Grand Jury reports and local government responses can be read here.

Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com
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