From 2014 to 2016, members of the San Benito County Civil Grand Jury accused the Board of Supervisors of obstructing the jury’s investigative efforts via ordinance by reducing its budget and eliminating financial compensation unless all 19 jury members were in attendance during committee meetings. Former grand jury members Robert Marden and Ann Ross also warned supervisors that the jury’s budget was insufficient to carry out all of its investigations.
In 2018-19, the San Benito County Civil Grand Jury has struggled to meet as a full group and as a result has not been paid.
Cherie Toll, who is a member of the current grand jury, told BenitoLink on April 9 that jury members have not been paid, even though they have held monthly meetings since July and conducted at least four investigations. She said only 14 of the original 19 selected members remain, and that it is often difficult to gather a quorum of 12.
According to Marden, San Benito County is unique in that it’s the only California county to use this ordinance, which was approved in 2015. He said he looked up every county in 2015 and again in 2019 to confirm it.
Marden (who is also on the BenitoLink board of directors) told county supervisors in March 2015 that the grand jury could not complete its investigations unless the board approved a budget increase. Supervisor Margie Barrios responded at the time, “Every agency is expected to live within their means. They have to work to whatever extent they can. To come back and request additional funding puts the Board of Supervisors in a very difficult situation because we have to be fair. We couldn’t do that for every department.”
However, the grand jury is not a county agency or department. It is an independent group of volunteers mandated by the California State Constitution to research and investigate government departments, agencies and even officers.
The minutes of the March 17, 2015 supervisors meeting quotes Barrios as saying, “We are doing this for budget control. The budget does not control investigations, it never has and shouldn’t now. Obviously there is lack of procedures and communication and we are going to work on improving those.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho made a motion, which was seconded by then Supervisor Robert Rivas to adopt the ordinance. It passed unanimously.
Marden told BenitoLink on April 3 that Judge Harry Tobias could have rescinded the ordinance, but did not. Marden is meeting with Judge Steven Sanders to discuss repealing it.
Ross told BenitoLink she agreed with Marden that the county ordinance was not a cost-control effort, as Barrios described it, but a move to obstruct investigations by cutting its budget. Ross said the ordinance was based not on law, but on an opinion provided by a district attorney in Yuba County in 1993, which in turn was based on an opinion by former congressman Dan Lungren of California’s 3rd district.
Grand juries in the rest of California are made up of 19 people who break up into smaller committees that investigate county departments during normal working hours. But San Benito County’s ordinance requires all 19 to show up for each meeting, which is nearly impossible to coordinate. So, Ross said, meetings don’t take place and jury members don’t get their $15 stipend.
But the point is not the stipend, Ross said.
“The point is, it’s the semblance of authority that the Board of Supervisors has placed on the grand jury because it investigates them,” she said.
Supervisor Mark Medina told BenitoLink on April 2 that he intends to bring up the issue at the board’s April 16 meeting. He said he would move to repeal the ordinance and raise the grand jury budget from $19,000 to $36,000. Supervisor Anthony Botelho, who was on the board in 2015, told BenitoLink on April 1 that he did not recall the ordinance.
“If that is remotely true, what a great mistake,” Botelho said. “All involved (including the grand jury), should have pointed out the problems with such a rule. The work of the grand jury is essential and required by law. My criticism in the past is budget. Government agencies and departments submit a budget and should adhere to it,” he continued, repeating the same misunderstanding as Barrios that the grand jury is a county department or agency.
“Work should be done by committees,” he said. “I have not been aware of this problem ’til the last couple of days, but fully support fixing it.”
When Supervisor Jim Gillio was running for election last year, he said the grand jury was one of the first issues he wanted to tackle. He told BenitoLink on April 3 that it is critical to the community and should be as strong as possible in order to hold elected and public officials accountable.
“I would like to see committee work, two to five grand jury members, and compensation at the state-authorized rate,” Gillio said. “This allows for effective and efficient interviews and investigations. I look forward to a presentation and discussion on how we can best support the grand jury and encourage members to participate.” (The state minimum rate is $15 per meeting and there can be no more than one meeting per day.)
On April 2, BenitoLink was unable to find the ordinance and grand jury reports on the San Benito County government website. This was also mentioned in a 2015 BenitoLink story, when county database administrator Nathanael Lierly noted there was a “failure of some backups, so our county website reverted back to a previous state.”
BenitoLink informed Deputy County Administrative Officer Edgar Nolasco that the reports and responses were missing. He responded on April 2: “We just noticed, as well. We will be working on this.” By 1:30 p.m., the grand jury reports were on the county website. But once again, neither the ordinance nor mandated responses were posted. On April 3, Supervisor Medina provided a copy of the 2015 ordinance to BenitoLink (see PDF below).
Over the years, the reports and responses have repeatedly appeared and then disappeared on the county website. Marden said he and his group of grand jurors will continue to pressure the county to keep the full reports and responses online for public access.
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