The Public Eye

The Public Eye: El Dorado County grand jury disbands after mass resignation

Published: Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013 - 2:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013 - 8:35 am

A watchdog panel charged by the state Legislature and courts with investigating local government in El Dorado County won't be issuing a report this year.

Fourteen of the 19 members of the county's civil grand jury resigned last month, leading Supervising Judge Steven Bailey to take the extraordinary step of dissolving the 2012-13 grand jury.

Grand jury foreman Ray Van Asten said he was among the members who submitted their resignations en masse Feb. 19, eight months into their yearlong term.

"I can't discuss what occurred inside the jury room," Van Asten said.

Due to a situation that created insurmountable dissension, Van Asten said, he and others concluded they could not continue their work on the jury.

It was not a move he took lightly. "I'm totally for the grand jury system, 100 percent," Van Asten said, noting that over the years he has served five terms as a grand juror, including three as foreman. He returned to the panel in July after a two-year hiatus.

Because the resignations left the grand jury with only five members, well below the minimum of 12 required for deliberations, there was little choice but to dissolve the panel, Bailey said. It would have taken 30 to 45 days to recruit, train and swear in new jurors, leaving them with only about 30 days before the end of the term.

"We had sort of a twofold problem," said Suzanne Kingsbury, presiding judge of El Dorado Superior Court.

No alternates were available – "we are out of people waiting in the wings," she said. Even if alternates had been available, they would not have been able to vote on any matter in which evidence had been taken by the grand jury prior to their selection.

Bill Trautman, president of the California Grand Jurors' Association and a former Napa County grand juror, said dissolution of a civil grand jury may be unprecedented.

The state constitution requires every county each year to impanel a civil grand jury. There have been instances when small counties were unable to recruit enough applicants to impanel a grand jury, but Trautman said he had never before heard of a grand jury being dissolved.

"As a practical matter," he said, "the judge in this case was probably between a rock and a hard place."

The California Grand Jurors' Association provides training for grand jurors statewide, and El Dorado County jurors typically attend the classes, Van Asten said. The El Dorado County civil grand jury serves primarily to keep an eye on local governmental bodies.

The association's mission is primarily to assist grand jurors with administrative and procedural matters.

Typically, if a conflict arises among members of a grand jury, the foreman deals with it, Trautman said. If he or she is unable to resolve the matter, the foreman can request the assistance of the supervising judge.

According to the Lake Tahoe News and verified by The Bee, the issue for the El Dorado County grand jury was that a member violated the confidentiality of closed-door proceedings. The investigation reportedly involved a member of the county Board of Supervisors.

"Only the judge can dismiss a grand juror for misconduct," Trautman said.

Supervising Judge Bailey, brother-in-law of Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Briggs, said he was made aware that there were some issues among the jurors. "I'd like to be able to say what I was asked to do, but I can't," he said, citing confidentiality requirements.

Bailey said he did not know what issues the grand jury was investigating, explaining that he had not been invited to attend any of the sessions or asked to provide any legal advice. Had there been any conflict of interest, Bailey said, he would have recused himself.

Kingsbury said she would expect a supervising judge to inform her if he or she had a conflict of interest regarding a grand jury investigation. But she and Trautman said supervising judges often don't know what grand juries are investigating.

"I would venture that in most cases, the judge wouldn't want to know," Kingsbury said. "You don't want to do anything that steers them (grand jurors) in a particular direction, or away from a particular direction."

Kingsbury said she is determined to make sure an El Dorado County grand jury is never again rendered unable to deliver a report. Not only is it important that the panel carry out its watchdog function, she said, it is important not to waste public money that has gone into investigations.

The grand jury is funded by the county government. Van Asten said the 2012-13 grand jury had a budget of about $90,000.

Kingsbury said she is exploring the possibility of overlapping grand jury terms. In addition, she said, efforts will be made to select more alternates.

Judge Douglas Phimister will be the supervising judge for the 2013-14 grand jury.

Kingsbury said phone messages left for the grand jury are being monitored by an administrative assistant. She also encouraged El Dorado County residents interested in serving on the next grand jury to call Suzanne Thurman at (530) 621-7414.

Despite his experience this year, Van Asten said he would consider serving again as a grand juror.

"I think everyone should go through serving on a grand jury at least once in their life to understand what it's all about," he said.

Call The Bee's Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

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