[San Benito County] Former grand jury members speak out

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors created an ad hoc committee at its April 16 meeting to consider revising a 2015 ordinance that limits payment for services by the county’s civil grand jury. The committee consisted of Supervisors Mark Medina and Jim Gillio.

In the meeting, former civil grand jury members disagreed sharply with statements made by supervisors and County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa regarding the grand jury’s budget, compensation guidelines and the county’s authority over the grand jury’s activities. In addition, one supervisor condemned remarks by a former grand juror who spoke about the grand jury’s investigation of Espinosa in 2013.

Discussion was delayed by a dispute among the board about when to break for lunch. Medina said at the start of the meeting that the board would go through as many items as possible before breaking for lunch at noon. Minutes past noon, he said the board would continue with two more items because several members of the public had been waiting for three hours to hear them.

Supervisor Peter Hernandez said since the items would take more than 10 minutes each and because staff also needed to have lunch, the board should break for lunch now.

“Well anyway, we will bring up the grand jury,” Medina said.

Hernandez said he was taking his lunch now and Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz joined him.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he had an extra orange for “you guys” as the two supervisors left the dias.

“If they don’t want to be part of this they don’t have to be part of this,” Medina said before Hernandez and De La Cruz left the room.

Several members of the public said that employees had six hours from the start of the shift to take a lunch. Though De La Cruz returned to the dias about seven minutes into the grand jury discussion, Hernandez returned half an hour later.

Discussion between former civil grand jury members and county supervisors centered on the ordinance approved in 2015 that set limits on compensation. The grand jury went over its budget by $5,500 that year, which led to the tighter compensation guidelines.

The civil grand jury is not a county department, but an independent group of 19 volunteers mandated by the California State Constitution to research and investigate government departments, agencies and even officers. Nonetheless, it is funded by the county. The county also sets grand jury compensation rates.

Espinosa said the county adopted the following budgets for past grand juries. Figures include what was spent by each grand jury:

  • 2015: $19,500 budgeted; $25,000 spent

  • 2016: $20,500 budgeted; $11,000 spent

  • 2017: $21,00 budgeted; $4,000 spent

  • 2018: $22,200 budgeted; $4,800 spent

  • 2019: $22,000 budgeted; $3,100 spent

Espinosa said the existing compensation guidelines are almost identical to those of Santa Cruz County at $15 a day per member, with a maximum of eight days per month where members get paid only where there is a quorum.

“Ours is very similar with regards to the whole grand jury in attendance, as an example, but we don’t have a limitation on the amount of days,” he said.

Robert Marden, foreman of the 2014-15 San Benito County Civil Grand Jury, said Espinosa’s presentation was inaccurate. San Benito was the only county in California that did not pay for committee work, he said.

Peggy Flynn, forewoman of the current Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury, told BenitoLink that jurors are paid for a maximum of two meetings a week and that normally at least one of them is a committee meeting.

Marden, who is on the BenitoLink board, read part of a 1993 opinion by California Attorney General Dan Lungren on compensation for grand jury members: “The government code section 68091 allows each county to provide compensation for grand jurors while attending other than grand jury sessions of the entire membership.”

Following adoption of the 2015 ordinance, San Benito County Superior Court was forced to subpoena residents to participate on the civil grand jury, which Marden said made it more difficult to find willing jurors.

Ann Ross, forewoman of the 2015-16 San Benito County Civil Grand Jury, said the body’s budget should be in the $30,000s.

“It’s hands-off by the County Board of Supervisors,” Ross told supervisors at the meeting. “All you’re supposed to do is give us the money and that’s it. You don’t get to say anything else about when we meet, how we meet.”

Former grand juror Bill Healy said that Espinosa “put us under” because when the grand jury investigated him in 2013, they found out he was not qualified for the position because he had lied about having a bachelor’s degree.

Responses by the county to the report can be found here.

Before Healy could continue, De La Cruz interrupted his public comment and asked Medina not to allow Healy to “talk personal.”

“To accuse our staff members of doing this and doing that, I won’t accept that,” De La Cruz said as he addressed the concerns of the former grand jurors. “The Board of Supervisors makes the call and the Board of Supervisors get the blame or the credit for the actions that the county does at the board level. Don’t go after staff. That’s not right.”

When Healy resumed speaking, he said the issue wasn’t about the members getting money because they make $30 a month and mileage if they meet twice a month; instead it was about supporting and respecting the grand jury which acts as the “check and balance of this county.” According to previous statements from current grand jury member Cherie Toll, jurors have not been paid even though they have held monthly meetings since July and conducted at least four investigations.

Both Botelho and De La Cruz said they did not want to control or hurt the grand jury, but were holding all the “departments” to the same standard of operating within budget—this despite the fact that the grand jury is not a county department, but an independent state-mandated body.

Botelho told BenitoLink the board understands that the grand jury is not a county department, but that it needs to keep to its budget.

“If there’s something that changes let’s talk about it long before it becomes an issue,” Botelho said. “We’re keeping tabs of how we spend the taxpayers’ money.”

After returning from his lunch break, Hernandez joined the discussion and said he appreciated the grand jury, its intent and role, but that he struggled with its structure.

“How do you fund something that you don’t know how it functions,” Hernandez said, adding that supervisors need to understand how grand jurors manage their time in order to come up with the budget.

Ross told BenitoLink after the meeting that there was no need for bickering because supervisors only needed to reverse the ordinance. She said the the solution involves granting the grand jury essentials like a confidential office; a mailbox and supplies; payment of $20 per meeting; no interference from the county and the posting of all grand jury reports on the county website including responses (these documents have disappeared from the website in the past).

May 3, 2019

BenitoLink

By Noe Magaña

County: