Santa Barbara County’s civil grand jury stands as an independent beacon created to shine a light on corrupt, unjust or unfair government practices in the county.

The 19-member panel has the power to investigate, evaluate and make recommendations to any city, county or special district agency that receives public funds. The jury also inspects jails and detention facilities in the county and investigates if someone dies in custody.

“We are a watchdog to shine a light on public agencies,” said Andy Brown, current Santa Barbara County grand jury foreman.

Criminal grand juries are a different body, convened by prosecutors. A criminal grand jury was called after last year's Operation Matador, when more than a dozen members of the international criminal gang MS-13 were arrested. 

The civil panel has recently looked into allegations of wrongdoing at Santa Maria High School, how the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office handles parking violations and recommended that all police agencies in the county equip their officers with body cameras.

The civil grand jury has also looks into procedural questions, such as why some police vehicles are parked and locked with their engines idling.

“This is a volunteer body made up of people that want to give back,” said Darrel Parker, Santa Barbara Superior Court executive officer and jury commissioner.

“These are good people that give their time to look into the workings of government,” he added.

Though a volunteer position, each grand juror is paid $25 per day and receives mileage reimbursements for grand jury-related travel.

The grand jury is made up of representatives from all over Santa Barbara County.

“I really like the interacting with different people and figuring out how their minds work,” said juror Pam Olsen, of Santa Barbara.

When Mark Huerth, of Orcutt, retired from the Board of Prisons, he was searching for a way to serve the community in a meaningful way.

“The diversity (of the grand jury members) is amazing. It is some place to give back,” he said.

The current Santa Barbara County grand jury is made up of members from 21 years old to 91 years old, Brown said.

Parker said the jury’s members have been corporate chief executive officers to college students.

The jury’s base of operations is in the Santa Barbara County Superior Courthouse, in the county seat, but frequently meets in every municipality in the county. It is currently researching how technology can help make its meetings easier for members to attend. The grand jury’s alternate chambers are in Solvang.

Grand jury leaders said being a member of the panel is time consuming; it could be about 20 hours per week depending on its schedule.

“It can be taxing,” Parker said.

Though time consuming, its members believe it is worth it.

“Serving is its own reward,” Brown said.

“This is a look behind the scenes that you will never see in any other way,” Parker said. “It is a good, interested, concerned investigative body.”

“I was surprised that there are so many layers of county governments. I enjoy learning how it works,” Huerth said.

The Santa Barbara County grand jury is able to investigate public agencies because it is completely independent from all other agencies.

Its discussions are strictly confidential. So much so that when maintenance work has to be done at its chambers, a member of the grand jury has to be on-site. Members of the grand jury take turns cleaning its offices, too, to ensure that its materials and actions stay confidential.

During the 2015-16 grand jury session, the panel published nine investigation reports, containing 144 recommendations. Jury leaders said more than half of those recommendations were implemented by the concerning agencies.

When the jury looked into the concern about police cars running while no one was in them, they learned that the practice was in place to power all the computer equipment police cars are now required to have. After the jury investigated, many police departments researched purchasing better batteries for that equipment to save money on gasoline.

To be considered for service on the grand jury, candidates must be a citizen of the United States, be 18 years of age or older, be of good character, have been a resident of Santa Barbara County for at least one year and have never been convicted of a felony or malfeasance in office.

Foreman Brown also suggested that applicants also have basic computer skills.

For more information or to apply, visit www.sbcgj.org or call Jury Services at 805-614-6464 or 805-882-4530. Applications are also available at Jury Assembly Building F," 312 E. Cook St. in Santa Maria or Jury Assembly Building, 1108 Santa Barbara St. in Santa Barbara. For more information about the grand jury, visit www.sbcourts.org.

Complaints can also be filed with the grand jury through its website or by phone.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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