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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13 Responses

  1. Avatar Russell Hunt says:

    Because One Safe Place receives public money, I would like to see an investigation of their spending. How many fake, uneducated counselors are on the payroll ? Why don’t they not get in the field and help the homeless women who are forced into prostitution in the homeless camps ? This is not a scared cow. The shelter is underutilized . Is it management heavy ? We have the right to know.

    • Avatar moe says:

      I always try to consider the source asking the questions, before I respond….just a smart thing to do really……that said….Not a single fake or uneducated counselor at One Safe Place…..ummmmm…the shelter is used and utilized more than the public cares to know….People do have a right to ask…..but it will only be as subjective as you allow the information to be, to serve how you think about the world…..I don’t know how you came up with balking at ONE SAFE PLACE…..from this article, but hey…to each his own, right! This is just my opinion of course…..

      • Avatar Russell Hunt says:

        There are women who are sex slaves in the homeless camps. County mental health can’t go there because of liability concerns. The cops are worn out . One Safe Place needs to hire security and bring appropriate personnel to the camps. Hillside does this, but they only have funds for 40 hours a week.

        • Avatar moe says:

          I agree the cops and the resources available are worn out! Hence why we need to support the 1 cent specific sales tax….to pay for more “Boots on the Ground” . Again, my opinion alone…..and I do agree we have deep seeded issues inside the camps….So, what I see your saying……….is you would like One Safe Place to have an OUTREACH program to help those underserved and lost in the cracks of society…? If you are truly looking for solutions to better help our community, I think that is great….but if you are to bash an organization for attempting to help people in a crisis……..I think that would make you an idiot….just saying………have a glorious day, I know I will!

  2. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Thank you, Annelise. I learned some things from your article and I’ll bet more than a few other people did too. Like most, I was aware of the general description of a”Grand Jury,” , after all, I’ve watched a lot of those legal-based shows on the tube (LOL), but I don’t think I could have described with any accuracy the job or just how the grand jury functions. IMPORTANT INFO . . . THANK YOU

  3. Avatar Moe says:

    I am gonna re read and then comment…this is good shit!

  4. Avatar Dan says:

    Thanks for the story, and thanks to Doni for printing it. I can’t speak for every county, but other places I’ve lived the local press really broadcast Grand Jury finding in bold headlines for weeks after they are released. The local paper …not so much. We have some incredible retired talent in Shasta County, but when asked to volunteer on the Grand Jury..many reply..”And what exactly would that accomplish?…no one cares..”

  5. Avatar Tina says:

    Thank you to Annelise and Doni for creating a powerful news outlet. This article is very full of information. I hope the new grand jury will make out Shasta County officials accountable for how they spend money given to our county for a new jail(which obviously it hasn’t been built) and other important things like hiring more law enforcement and fire fighters.

    • Avatar don says:

      I also served on a Grand Jury a few years ago. I found three types of inquiries; general oversight, problem resolution, and corrupt practices. My experience with the first two was city and county personnel at all levels were very helpful. The committees I worked on by discussing problems with them were able to resolve or improve upon several. Persuasion is one of the good powers. Shouting from the rooftops should be saved till all else fails. The Grand Jury is not powerless in cases of corruption. Counsel is available to them to advise on referral to law enforcement. It is also possible to present the matter to the presiding Judge.

  6. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Oh my gosh…this is a great article. I’ve had friends on the Grand Jury, and have read the GJreports but had just assumed that all of the documented problems would be addressed in due time. Annelise Pierce, thank you for the education.

  7. Avatar Doug Cook says:

    I was also a two term Shasta County Grand Juror. It was a fascinating and enjoyable experience that I highly recommend for anyone interested in local politics and our agencies. Unfortunately, as said…the Grand Jury can just make findings and recommendations. It is up to the agency being investigated to agree or disagree with them. If they don’t…they don’t have to follow recommendations. But rest assured, future Grand Juries will keep at it.

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