Secrecy swirling around grand jury investigation
Two South Shore residents and the South Lake Tahoe city manager have testified before the El Dorado County civil grand jury after a complaint from a local business owner who has butted heads with officials over the city’s sign ordinance.
Details of the confidential investigation – revealed to the Tahoe Daily Tribune in late April – are limited, but Nik-N-Willies Pizza owner Jim Smith says he filed the complaint in March 2007 based on comments during a Dec. 8, 2005 city Planning Commission meeting.
The statements that concern Smith were made by Terry Daniels, then a lieutenant in the South Lake Tahoe police department and now police chief. Daniels was appointed chief in July 2006.
“The whole grand jury complaint that I made has stemmed directly from comments that Terry Daniels made at that planning commissioners meeting,” Smith said.
The El Dorado civil grand jury convenes to oversee local government and make recommendations but does not have enforcement authority.
Smith, a longtime opponent of the city’s sign ordinance, attended the 2005 meeting. At the meeting, he criticized the ordinance, saying it was enforced in a “prejudiced and biased manner,” indicated an audiotape of the meeting provided to the Tribune this week by the city Planning Department.
At the December 2005 meeting to update the commission, Daniels defended the police department’s enforcement of the ordinance. According to the tape, he said he was disturbed that some members of the community felt the ordinance was unfairly enforced.
“We’re not biased toward anyone,” Daniels said at the meeting. “Our idea is to go out and to be as ethical and professional in the enforcement of this as we do all of our other duties.”
Smith’s complaint to the grand jury has been joined by former South Lake Tahoe Police Officer Johnny Poland, who said he testified before the grand jury.
Poland was fired in July after allegedly covering up information during an investigation of a high school gang fight in which a BB gun was brought to campus. The former officer maintains he was unjustly terminated.
A second business owner also testified to the grand jury, said both Poland and Smith.
“We’re unhappy because things are getting swept under the carpet,” Poland said recently.
At a City Council meeting last month, during a midyear budget report, Finance Director Christine Vuletich mentioned “legal fees in connection with an unexpected grand jury investigation.”
City Manager David Jinkens said last month that he had testified before the grand jury during its current term but declined to say exactly when. He also said he didn’t know what the particular allegations are and declined to discuss the matter, citing grand jury rules.
“To my knowledge, I’m not the subject of it (the grand jury investigation),” Jinkens said April 25. “If there are elements of truth to what is raised, we’ll deal with it.”
In response to questions from the Tribune in a Monday e-mail regarding the grand jury complaint, Jinkens requested time for the city attorney to examine the questions before answering.
“The city attorney is reviewing the extent to which comments can be made or should be made about any matter under review by the grand jury,” Jinkens wrote in an e-mail he sent Wednesday. “To the extent that city folks have participated in any discussions, they were sworn to secrecy.”
The grand jury won’t discuss ongoing investigations or reveal what it’s investigating until it issues a report. The grand jury has released two reports so far this year and is expected to release a third in June.
– City Editor Elaine Goodman contributed to this report.