Updated: Grand jurors, supes trade barbs on funding

Robert Rivas is shown at right on the dais.

San Benito County civil grand jury is running out of money and has not been meeting.
Supervisors responded Tuesday by setting up an ad hoc committee on the matter, as some officials said they would support allocating additional funds for the rest of the fiscal year while cutting back on compensation to jurors in some areas.
The changes prompted one current grand juror—the group is below its specified allotment of 19 members—to proclaim that the action will dissolve the civil grand jury.
The civil grand jury investigates and reports on entities using taxpayer dollars and reconvenes on an annual basis. Its members are made up of local residents who volunteer for the job.
At Tuesday’s county board meeting, supervisors heard from grand jurors about the need for more funding in order to keep meeting through the fiscal year ending in June. The grand jury is on pace to soon exceed its 2014-15 budget of $19,500 and was asking for $12,800 to get through the rest of the year. Grand jury budgets over the prior four years had gradually increased to $19,500, the amount budgeted this fiscal year ending June 30.  
Grand jurors at the meeting pleaded with supervisors about the importance of having a civil grand jury as a watchdog to government entities. Supervisors responded by scolding grand jurors for exceeding the budget and telling them they convene to watch over misuse of taxpayer dollars.
Juror Dean Judd said the grand jury’s work had been suspended, after the organization had warned the county about possibly running out of funds at the start of 2015. He said recruitment had become difficult as well, adding to the lack of members willing to do the work.
Bill Healy stressed that the grand jury is important because the group is independent from other government entities.
“When you hold the purse strings, you can control the outcome,” he said.
But county supervisors weren’t so sympathetic and criticized the grand jury, pointing out the irony that the jury normally investigates such overspending in other departments.
Supervisor Anthony Botelho pointed out that officials go through a public budget hearing process where issues are broached openly.
“Some level of accountability needs to take place,” Botelho said. “If this was any other department, the grand jury would probably be investigating why you’ve blown through your entire budget in a half a year.”
Still, there appeared to be consensus from officials and residents that a civil grand jury is an important part of transparency.
“You want to make sure what you do here is fully accountable,” said Aromas resident Andy Hsia-Coron.

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