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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Second Opinion
Let's have civil grand juries

By Cliff Slater

California's civil grand jury system could work in Hawai'i.

Each California county is required by law to have a civil grand jury "to inquire into the willful or corrupt misconduct in office of public officers of every description within the county." And "to make an annual examination of the operations, accounts and records of the officers, departments or functions of the county."

The way the grand jury system works in Orange County, for example, is that annually the jury commissioner, the current and past jury foremen and Superior Court judges, together vet a pool of volunteer citizens and pare it down to 30 responsible individuals. From the 30 individuals, 19 are chosen by lot to be the grand jury.

Some Hawai'i political experience would lead one to believe that such a process would allow the establishment to weed out all the troublemakers, leaving only those who were "sound" and "reliable," which is to say, those who will "go along."

However, there it is different. The grand juries, in practice, are groups of ordinary citizens who "tend to be older, better educated and more affluent than the community at large," whose "powers include ... the right to examine all public records within the county" and "the ability, with permission of the Superior Court, to hire such experts as auditors and accountants."

For the most part, these juries inquire into the petty pilfering and inefficiencies of politically run county operations. For example, the Marin County grand jury recommends that the Board of Supervisors' "discretionary" fund be terminated "given the potential for political patronage abuse." The Nevada County grand jury comes down hard on the sheriff over his poor operation of the jail, and the Amador County jury forces the resignation of an official with a second job in an adjacent county.

What initially drew my attention to these civil grand juries was the Orange County jury's report on its light rail planning process. It is in plain English untrammeled by political jargon and the usual bureaucratic obfuscation. The jurors tell their fellow citizens, for example, that a decision on whether or not to build a rail line "should not be based on public relations fluff; it should not be a 'done deal' followed by a search for its justification."

These grand jurors "examined the last 12 urban light rail systems developed in the U.S." The conclusion: "Unhappily, they have provided virtually no reduction of traffic congestion and, consequently, no reduction in air pollution. The percentage of people using transit to get to work has declined in all major metropolitan areas and the decline has been as significant in the ... areas that built light rail as the ones that did not."

To understand the advantages of having such civil grand juries here in Hawai'i at both the state and county levels, one must bear in mind the enormous impact of our current state auditor, who still can investigate only as ordered by the Legislature.

Now, imagine — imagine real hard — if Marion Higa was not only given the latitude she was required on her own initiative "to inquire into the willful or corrupt misconduct in office of public officers of every description," as is required of these grand juries.

It is a delicious thought.

But we can only sigh wistfully at the idea that such a grand jury concept would ever survive here in Hawai'i; for one thing, it would have too much work.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater