Wanted: Government Watchdogs; Grand Jury Applications Lagging

San Diego County's civil grand jurors work in secret, investigating complaints and issues involving local government.

But they're now bringing one secret to light: a major problem recruiting new members – for the first time that court officials can recall.

By this time of year, the grand jury usually has more than 100 applicants for the 19 seats on the panel to be sworn in next July 1st.

Right now, with a Jan. 19th deadline looming, that number is down to three dozen.

It's a four-to-five-days a week job -- anything but a money-maker, and not especially glamorous.

For nearly six months now, the current civil grand jurors have been "on the case" of local public agencies -- watchdogging and barking at boondoggles and inefficiencies.

Grand jurors are screened by past grand jurors and judges and appointed by lot, according to a balance of county supervisorial districts.

They’re paid a stipend of $25 a day for six, four-hour days a week, not including Friday tours, plus 56 cents a mile and free courthouse parking.

"We're looking for diversity on both ethnic and thought process-wise -- as for what their experience has been,” said J. Robert O’Connor, a retired civil law attorney who serves as the grand jury’s current foreman.

"Most of our group are retired because they're in a position, financially, to deal with it that way,” O’Connor said in an interview Thursday. “You'd like younger people. But most of them are busy, and don't have the time to do it, and that's understandable."

Civil grand jurors don't issue criminal indictments. Panels convened by prosecutors and judges do that after being chosen from trial jury pools.

That confuses people being recruited for the civil panel.

"They ask the question, 'Well, is the DA controlling what you do?'” O’Connor told NBC 7. “The answer is, the DA is not involved in what we do."

O’Connor said most public agencies criticized in grand jury reports shape up.

Some don't agree to follow the recommendations, or do so only grudgingly after a long passage of time.

Case in point? Criticisms by the 1998-99 and 2007-08 grand juries regarding free seats reserved for the mayor and city council members in the city's skyboxes at Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park. 

This year, Mayor Kevin Faulconer has proposed leasing the suites to the teams instead.

And, noted O’Connor, there's this result: "Even a grand jury doing an investigation without ever writing a report does a lot of good in that organization. And changes are made behind closed doors, perhaps, but they're made. And the public never learns about it."

To find out how to apply to be a part of the grand jury, click here.

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