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Grand Jury Season Activates BS Detector

Jul 8, 2008

The Calaveras County Community Development Agency is in the political cross-hairs after the county grand jury issued a scathing report that questions the agency's hiring practices, the director's management style and the use of consultants.

Sound familiar? Not the details, but the tone. Your local newspaper has probably struck similar notes recently. That's because it is the season for grand juries to release their annual reports on local government.

Every county has a civil grand jury that investigates local government policies and practices. Grand jury terms follow the July-through-June fiscal year. Jurors are selected from a pool of volunteers by a Superior Court judge, who also oversees the panel's investigations. Retirees with time on their hands and younger people seeking to build a base on which they may run for office are heavily represented on grand juries.

OK, that last comment was a cheap shot. I should warn you that it might not be my last.

When I was in the newspaper business, we eagerly anticipated the release of the grand jury report. It typically provided fodder on government incompetence, corruption and stupidity with which we could fill the news pages for several days. When agencies targeted by the grand jury issued formal written responses a month or two later, we could rehash it all.

But it didn't take too many rounds of this drill before I began questioning grand juries themselves. Some of them were well-meaning, while others appeared to have less-than-honorable motives. Overall, they struck me as groups of self-appointed experts (those of us who have worked in newsrooms can identify with groups of self-appointed experts) who issued sweeping condemnations and recommended practices that had already been dismissed for good reason. The terms "half-baked" and "witch hunt" came to mind frequently.

My suspicion only grew when I tried to ask questions of various grand jury foremen. Grand jury reports can be vague. Who, I wanted to know, did the grand jury interview? What project specifically is in question? Which jobs are filled with political cronies? Which consulting contract is a waste of money? The county administrator/city manager/executive director says the grand jury never asked him about this. Why not? Invariably, the grand jury foreman would say state law prevented him or her from talking publicly. The report spoke for itself, he or she would say.

And yet I would read grand jury reports from other counties that were far more specific. They would say exactly who was interviewed and which background documents were studied. Some of those reports named names.

Government officials' often respond to grand jury reports with something along the lines of, "You morons are too ignorant to understand how government works." OK, not in so many words, but the point gets made, and the response isn't any more helpful than the grand jury report itself.

I should be careful here. I have, in fact, read grand jury reports that were detailed and thoughtful, and which helped improve government effectiveness. That's the way the process should work.

So which is the Calaveras County grand jury report on the planning and building agency thoughtful and useful, or half-baked and harmful? It's hard for me to tell. The two sections concerning planning are very short and provides no context. Recommendations such as "The Director [should] enroll in an accredited educational institution and obtain a Certified Planner Certificate" don't give me confidence. What in the world is a Certified Planner Certificate?

I do know that land use politics in Calaveras County are difficult. The county's decision to hire Stephanie Moreno two years ago to serve as community development director was out of the ordinary. Moreno is a former Amador County supervisor who had been working as an analyst in the Monterey County Division of Child Protective Services before she took the Calaveras County planning job.

------ News update ------

Stephanie Moreno has resigned as Calaveras County community development director as of August 1. Read and listen to her interview with the Stockton Record here.

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It became clear immediately that she didn't accept business as usual. She fired the longtime building official, who was well-loved by contractors. She hired the respected Mintier & Associates to help with a troubled general plan update. She rubbed people the wrong way.

The grand jury makes a number of allegations. The county administrator, who has been on the job less than a year, is denying the charges. The Board of Supervisors appears divided 3-2.

And once again we have a grand jury report that provides far more heat than light.

- Paul Shigley