Santa Clara County’s Civil Grand Jury for decades has attempted to improve government and investigate corruption, but whether it’s meeting those goals isn’t so clear.
And most of the people lining up to serve on it are older white people.
The Civil Grand Jury investigates complaints made by county residents, but not all complaints are investigated—in fact, few are. Any resident can submit a complaint in person or on the county’s website.
Once investigations are complete, 19 jurors present their findings to government agencies and come up with recommendations for improving issues. But those agencies aren’t required to act on the recommendations. In fact, they can do nothing at all.
Between 2019-2020, the grand jury received 52 complaints and produced five investigative reports on topics such as conservatorships and gender gaps in local fire departments. Jurors also produced a continuity report, documenting the responses of the 2018-2019 reports and the progress on several reports from previous terms.
The most recent report focused on the lack of women firefighters in the county, citing hostile work environments and a conscious lack of recruitment. The report found that only 4% of local firefighters are women—far below the 17% target recommended by Women in Fire, an advocacy group.
Local cities pushed back on the jury’s findings, and the jury has no legal authority to force change.
“Fire Stations 1, 2, and 5 have multiple dormitory rooms that can be assigned by gender,” reads a letter from Mountain View officials, adding that other stations could not be retrofitted and therefore the recommendations would not happen.
So far, San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto and the county’s central fire protection district are the only entities with listed responses to the reports. Each accepted some recommendations and disagreed or denied others.
Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Fire Fighters Local 230 union, said systemic change will take time—and funding.
Five women are enrolled in this year’s fire academy.
“That is the most we have seen in several years and the five new recruits are both paramedics and EMTs,” Tuttle said.
Whether a report results in change is a mixed bag. In a 2017-2018 report on the business activities of the Alum Rock Union School District, the report called for the resignation of three of its board members.
The grand jury called out those trustees for allegedly pushing through a deal with construction company Del Terra and creating a conflict of interest by assigning the firm to both program manager and construction manager roles.
Jurors also alleged that the board violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law.
After the report was released, nothing happened. Three years later, the trustees named in the report either didn’t run for office when up for re-election or were beaten by challengers.
“The public reacted but it took time,” said a former grand jury member, who spoke to San José Spotlight on condition of anonymity.
Another 2020 grand jury report alleged that the San Jose Unified School District obscured lobbying activities carried out on its behalf and violated government ethics laws. The district opposed the majority of the jury’s findings and refused to implement most suggested changes.
In a written response, district officials asked whether “the empaneled Grand Jury that prepared the report was behaving in the public’s interest or was it searching for nonexistent evidence to support a pre-determined conclusion from a group of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ individuals who knew Grand Jury members.”
Lack of diversity
Every year, the presiding judge from the superior court swears in 19 jurors and explains their duties.
Applicants must be 18 years old, citizens of the United States and cannot concurrently be serving as a trial juror. Applications for the next Civil Grand Jury will open this summer.
Last year, more than 100 applications were received for the 19 spots on the jury, with eight “hold over” applicants from 2019.
But despite Silicon Valley’s rich diversity, the people lining up to serve on the jury are mostly older, white men.
Santa Clara County officials told San José Spotlight that racial data for the current jury is not available. Only data about applicants for this year’s pool are documented and released, they said. Those numbers show applicants are nearly 70% white, 10% Asian, about 2% Black, and 5.5% Hispanic/Latino. The majority—60%—were also men.
According to the United States Census Bureau, only 30% of Santa Clara County residents are white alone. A quarter of the county’s residents are Hispanic or Latino, 39% are of Asian descent and about 3% are Black.
The most common age group to apply were residents ages 65 to 74 with 42 applications, followed by ages 55 to 64 with 33 applications.
The former jury member said it’s “peculiar” that Santa Clara County claims it doesn’t have race and gender information for its current members.
“It would seem to me that the court would have the info for any juror who chose to give out their racial background,” the former member said.
In about two years on the Civil Grand Jury, the former member said there were only two African American jurors and one Latino juror.
The reason for the lack of racial diversity, the member believes, is economical.
Jurors are required to serve about 25 hours a week, according to the county’s website, and only get paid $20 a day. That’s why they aren’t reaching communities of color and traditionally economically disadvantaged communities to get more representation on the jury, the member said.
“If you’re asking someone to clear their calendar for two to three days a week and you’re paying them $20 as a per diem, you really have to ask why is one of the wealthiest counties in the state paying an abysmal amount,” the member said.
Civil Grand Jury Deputy Manager Britney Huelbig said the court tries to recruit grand juries that reflect a “representative cross-section of the community they serve.”
“Those methods include obtaining recommendations for grand jurors who encompass a cross-section of the county’s population base,” Huelbig said, “solicited from a broad representation of community-based organizations, civic leaders and superior court judges, referees and commissioners, and having the court consider carry-over grand jury selections.”
No particular background is necessary to be a grand juror, Huelbig said, and diversity of members “is one of the grand jury’s greatest strengths.”
But the former jury member said the low pay and time commitment tends to favor older, retired people.
“It’s not something random or arbitrary,” said William Armaline, director of the Human Rights Collaborative at San Jose State University. “It’s supposed to be a jury of one’s peers, that’s the theoretical principle.”
Equitable recruitment is especially difficult during the pandemic, Armaline said.
“Working class people are trying to find time to eat, maybe deal with their family and kids for more than five minutes at a time, pay their bills,” Armaline said. He added that officials in the justice system are aware of it, but this is a “genuinely difficult problem.”