Grand Jury keeps county government on right path
It comes out every year, never failing to become the most popular book in the county only hours after arriving from the printers. The El Dorado County Grand Jury Final Report never fails to keep its readers interested – offering suspense, intrigue and plenty of surprises.
But who are the authors? It is a fair bet that many county residents are not even sure what a Grand Jury is, let alone how they compile the information that keeps tabs on El Dorado County government on an annual basis.
Well, meet Mel Lucke. A retired aerospace satellite operations manager, Lucke has lived in El Dorado County since 1976, where he now owns a small ranch in Pleasant Valley. Until recently, Lucke kept himself busy with pursuits such as tending his cattle, and growing Christmas trees.
About a year ago, however, he decided that he would like to look into, perhaps, getting involved in county government. So he called the registrar’s office to find out how he could become a member of the Grand Jury.
“I saw an article in the paper which gave a phone number to call about information about serving on the Grand Jury. The next thing I knew they had sent me a subpoena,” said Lucke. “It’s like jury duty. Every county resident is eligible, and they call you in for duty if they know you are interested.”
So a Grand Jury is just what the title implies – a jury of regular citizens who investigate and judge the business of county government. But unlike a criminal Grand Jury, this variety serves a term of nearly one full year, putting in 20 hours a week, or more, investigating and reporting different aspects of county government.
“You could call us low-paid management consultants,” Lucke said with a chuckle. “We look at all the departments in the county, paying particular attention to the ones which haven’t been reviewed in recent years, or to troubled departments.
“We also look into citizen complaints, allegations of wrongdoing, and things like that. If we find something, we can turn the matter over to the district attorney for prosecution.”
The Grand Jury has no intrinsic power of prosecution or enforcement, but it still carries a big stick. It shines a flashlight into the dark corners, so to speak, bringing improvement and change merely by reporting the facts.
Plus, government agencies and individuals mentioned in the Grand Jury Report are accountable by law to respond to the Superior Court. Grand Jury recommendations are weighed heavily by the court.
The Grand Jury is made up of 19 members, with officers including a foreman, a foreperson pro tempore, a secretary and a sergeant-at-arms. The 1999 foreman was Donald Kortes, and Lucke served as the foreperson pro tempore.
It’s a big job, and not everyone finishes out their term. Five Jury members resigned during the term just passed, leaving 16 to finish the report. A person can serve on multiple Grand Juries, and in fact many have. About two-thirds of the most recent Grand Jury were volunteer members, and the remainder were “conscripts,” or those called into service.
“It’s not easy finding 19 people who are willing to devote an entire year to the process,” said Lucke, who was serving on his first Grand Jury. “We really dig in, and it takes a lot of time and energy. But for people who want to help the county and stay informed, it’s a great thing. It can be very fulfilling.”
Grand Jury members are given a stipend of $10 per meeting, plus the regular county mileage rate of 31 cents per mile. Not a whopping paycheck any way you look at it.
The Grand Jury is a mixed group – young and old, male and female, truly a cross-section of the community. They are split into small groups, who then go out and investigate different portions of county operations. For instance, one group might hone in on the Juvenile Hall, while another might look at South Lake Tahoe schools.
“I thought we did a particularly good job on purchasing activities in this report,” Lucke said. “We really dug, and brought some things to light. Also, the group that looked into the education system did a good job. They visited schools, spent time with teachers, parents and kids. They learned how fine a school system we have in El Dorado County.”
Most of the Grand Jury footwork is done in the area of citizens complaints.
There were 19 citizen complaints detailed in the report, with every one receiving an investigation. They ranged from the slight (Complaint Number 106-98/99 – a citizen stating that he was required to pay his bus fare after finding that he neglected to bring his bus pass after boarding a county bus), to the hefty (Complaint Number 109-98/99 — El Dorado County Board of Supervisors wasting and abusing the use of taxpayer funds, relative to the purchase of the Fifth Plant Preserve).
The former report by the Grand Jury required only half a page. The latter required six pages.
“The (Fifth Plant Preserve) report took an enormous amount of time,” Lucke said. “We interviewed many people and pored over countless documents. In the end I think we did a good job.”
But the Grand Jury doesn’t do it alone.
“Judge Suzanne Kingsbury was of particular help in advising us,” Lucke said. “Any time we had a question, she was right there. She did a wonderful job.” But the question is, will Lucke reenlist?
“I think I might,” he said of the prospect of serving on the next Grand Jury. “I need to rest, though.”
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