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Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second segment will be featured in next week’s paper.
Findings and recommendations from the 2012-13 Grand Jury Report are already a topic of discussion for Plumas County residents.
Like members of previous grand juries, some of the 15 residents on the 2012-13 panel said they realize any changes spurred by their report could take years.
But some changes happened during the jury’s investigation. The jurors said a positive transformation is already underway at the Chester Public Utility District, which was targeted by some of the jury’s harshest criticism.
Four members of the 2012-13 grand jury discussed the report last week, offering a candid glimpse of their yearlong investigations leading up to the annual report.
Jury foreman Dennis Doyle, of Graeagle, was joined by jurors Debbie Brownrigg, of Chester, Cindy Hogg, of Quincy, and Cynthia White, of Quincy, who participated by phone.
The jurors addressed a variety of topics, including their criticism of CPUD and the fiscal health of the county.
Jurors’ opinions differed on many topics. One juror said she didn’t even want to be on the jury. But they were unanimous in saying that the grand jury experience was one of the most rewarding of their lives.
Following are highlights of the jurors’ July 16 interview at the Feather Publishing office in Quincy:
Doyle: I just want to start by saying that no one person does anything. We do it as a whole group. Even as a foreperson, I have no power by myself.
Even on the smallest interviews, we need at least two (jurors) to interview a person.
Feather Publishing (FP): The job of a grand juror, in many peoples’ eyes, is very mysterious. Is there anything that you would like people to know?
White: I think you are right, that it is a mystery to a lot of people. And the first thing they think about is a criminal grand jury and not a civil grand jury. There are too many programs on TV about criminal cases.
We certainly want to better our community. And I think that is what we did.
I would just encourage everyone to give it a try. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. You don’t have to be the best talker in the world. You don’t have to be the best writer in the world. You just have to be a concerned citizen.
Brownrigg: I would love for the average person in this county to truly understand that the community we live in is our responsibility. The CPUD report, and a number of reports, pointed out that it is up to us as community members to do the best we can to make sure that things go the way they should. And that our county is being run the way it should.
Hogg: We are ensuring that what they (county leaders) say they do is what they are doing. It was just as simple as that.
We weren’t seeking to find the negative or seeking to find the bad. In fact, in the school district report, we found the good that they were doing and were able to highlight that. We are not out to get someone.
FP: What do you think was the biggest news to come out of this year’s grand jury report?
White: I think that the biggest impact, if we might answer it that way, would be the Chester area report.
Because during our investigation, a lot of changes were made. So I think we were right on the button about pointing out things that needed to be changed.
Brownrigg: I went to the (Chester Public Utility District) board meeting last Tuesday (July 9). And I have to say it was almost comfortable being in that meeting for the first time. It was quite a change. It was obvious that the (CPUD) board members are making a concerted effort to know their role and to do their job to the best of their ability. And it felt really good to be there and witness that.
I think, for me, the biggest thing was the realization that — and I think it came out in a couple of the reports — is about the county embracing public safety as a priority. That wasn’t the goal when we began. It just sort of evolved that way. It was really interesting.
Doyle: A lot of people have said — previous jury members — that they were kind of disappointed in the results that the grand jury comes up with, that very little is changed. Very little gets done, very little happens. But I disagree with that. It might not happen immediately, it takes time.
Evidence of that was the (city of) Portola situation last year. We gave some very hard, strong criticism and some good compliments and some really good suggestions on how they should run their operation a little bit better. I’ll tell ya, nothing but the favorable things were received well. It was like a school kid getting a poor report card.
But just the other day I got an email from the new (Portola) city manager … and they are having a meeting, embracing a lot of the stuff we talked about in that report. So, it does happen.
FP: What finding was the biggest surprise?
Doyle: Probation, probably … But I thought the report on the salary disparity (between county counsel and the district attorney) was quite revealing.
FP: How do you decide the six, seven or eight issues that are going to get your attention?
Hogg: Dennis (Doyle), being a carry-over from last year’s grand jury, was a huge help to kind of kick us in gear so we didn’t waste a lot of time.
We talked about a lot of issues that interested us as citizens. We looked at what was in the newspaper. We looked at issues within our individual communities and different departments within the county and when they had last been looked at by the grand jury.
We had a list. I think we had a dozen or so. Then we put them into priority (by vote).
Doyle: We also got a couple of ideas from correspondence we received, complaints that we received.
Hogg: Those (complaints) would be at the top of our list. And if we felt it was something that was within our jurisdiction to investigate, those became priorities for us.
FP: Did you have to rely on the judge and county counsel to help you?
Doyle: Not much. But in our final report, one word was a big issue. And that was “potential”: “potential” Brown Act violations versus Brown Act violations.
Both county counsel and the judge questioned the wisdom of using that phrase. So we just modified it slightly.
Hogg: Yes, they read it at the very end and give us feedback about it. A lot of it is suggestions. They would say, “I suggest that you don’t word it this way.” And we had the opportunity to accept or reject those suggestions.
Doyle: The judge and the county counsel can give us suggestions, but they cannot, and will not, tell us what to do.
Brownrigg: Their role, as they were reviewing the reports, was to help us determine whether or not we were saying something libelous. That was their job. And they were very helpful. If they thought that we needed to address and identify some facts to back up something that we had said.
FP: So, relying on the county counsel for help, did you feel awkward recommending that he take a 10 percent pay cut?
All the jurors: Oh. Yes!
Brownrigg: That was very tough.
White: I’m not sure that “tough” is a strong enough word.
One of the things that is always in the back of your mind — at least in mine — was what sort of repercussions will this have, not only the grand jury, but the parties we are speaking about.
But, you know, we were dealing with facts. And you can’t really argue with that.
FP: Did you ever encounter any hostile witnesses?
Doyle: Very much so.
FP: What do you do in a case like that?
Doyle: The tactfulness of the jury members … they were all great. There were a couple (witnesses) who were very hostile going in. But we just let them run off their steam. And after they realize that we are not out there to hang ’em, we are just trying to get the details, they were fine.
And part of that, I think, was the absolute secrecy of their testimony. Once they realized that we took that seriously, they really were able to come forth and reveal things that they never were willing to say to their co-workers or their bosses, and get it off their chest.
FP: Tell us about the grand jury experience.
White: I just think that we had a very cohesive group. And we were very blessed in that.
We had a lot of expertise. We didn’t have anyone who wanted to be the star. Everyone worked together very well, and it was just a delight. I would do it again, absolutely.
Doyle: I would have to give (Superior Court) judge (Ira) Kaufman a lot of credit for that particular experience.
For the first time in my experience, he and I sat through 300 (potential juror) interviews over a three-day period. And let me tell you, that is an exhausting exercise. And to take the limited time that he has to do that, to come down to roughly 30 people who were selected as jurors, 19 members and a few alternates … it’s amazing.
Some people come in with enthusiasm and excitement. But a lot of them come in with excuses.
Brownrigg: My excuse didn’t go very far. (All four jurors and the reporter laugh.)
FP: Did all of you want to be on the grand jury?
Doyle: I did. Absolutely.
Brownrigg: I did not. I was in a panic. I was thinking, “Oh my god, I have to drive to Quincy. I have a full-time job. How am I going to get my work done? How am I going to get someone to replace me?” Thank God, I did not have a family to raise. Cindy (Hogg) has a family to raise. I don’t know how she did it, honestly. It was a huge commitment. But … a big but … it was so totally worth it.
Doyle: I’ve had people from last year’s jury and this year’s jury both say it was one of the most rewarding experiences they’ve had in their adult life. And I agree with that.
White: I did (want to be on the jury). There was an ad in the paper that I responded to that said they were looking for people who wanted to be on the jury. And I had been on other juries — not a grand jury, but trial juries before. And I didn’t have a full-time job at the time and I said, “This is my opportunity to get involved and do something good for the community.” And I just relish the experience. It was great.
FP:What advice would you give to new grand jurors?
Brownrigg: When they give you the time commitment … triple it.
FP: How many hours would you say you spent?
Doyle: This was a big complaint. I got a call, just last night, from the trainers who are working with the current grand jury. And a couple of the jury members said they are going to be leaving because they cannot afford the time commitment.
Hogg: It is a lot of what you want to put into it. The majority of us wanted to, and did, put a lot of time into it. So it made it a very committed group.
Brownrigg: Everyone (on the jury) had a gem to bring to the table.
It’s easy for a group of people to talk themselves into being something. There was always somebody to keep us on the straight and narrow.
I have a tendency to be a control freak. I admit it. It is one of my personality defects. But it was wonderful to have the comfort of knowing that they will call me on it. It was a relief. It was wonderful.
White: My advice to the new jurors was to just dig in and have fun. It’s a great learning experience, and you know so much more about your county, and get involved.
It’s not a penalty to be on the jury. It’s a great experience.
Doyle: It is a position of honor.
FP: How is Plumas County doing?
Doyle: Financially, we are one of the poorest counties in the state. But, given what we’ve got, we are hanging in there.
A good friend of mine (Robert Simpton, of Clio) was on this grand jury. He is an experienced businessman. He pointed to this graph (Plumas County Main General Fund for Operations, on Page 2 of the report) and his comment was, “If I was looking at a company with this kind of graphical income versus outflow, I would hire them. (The county) is just so close to making it.” He said, “But it seems like they always have, the last few years, about four or five thousand dollars more in expenditures than they have on income.”
But he was impressed from a corporate experience. So, yeah, I think the county’s doing OK.
I think you are going to see next year an even better report. Because, for the first time — which we couldn’t report on because we only report on the previous year’s economic conditions — the county is really operating under a balanced budget. And I think you are going to see favorable changes as a result.
Next week: In part 2, the jurors discuss the absence of a county administrative officer; changes at the Chester Public Utility District; the challenge of balancing the county budget while still funding critical services; and the district attorney’s salary. The jurors also respond to critics who say the grand jury is made up of people who have an ax to grind.
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