Santa Barbara County residents have a chance to act as watchdogs for the public taxpayers, investigate government practices and give back to the community as new 2018-19 civil grand jury applications now are being accepted.
The Santa Barbara County Superior Court is actively seeking volunteers to give their time and commitment for a year. Eligible applicants must be U.S. citizens, at least 18 years old, have been a resident of the county for at least one year and have never been convicted of a felony or malfeasance in office.
"It's a very rewarding experience," said Darrel Parker, Superior Court executive officer and jury commissioner. "You learn all the inner workings of county government that you couldn't see in any other capacity."
The 19-member panel has authority to investigate a wide range of issues regarding how taxpayer dollars are being spent at any publicly-funded agency, including the Sheriff's Office, Fire Department, the offices of the District Attorney and the Public Defender, local school districts and county's auditor-controller.
The grand jury also has subpoena powers, and can compel public agencies to produce records or witnesses to appear in front of them when they investigate complaints submitted by the public.
The grand jury can begin an investigation based on a public complaint or if members determine an issue has merit, even if a complaint hasn't been filed.
After researching a complaint, the jury may come back with recommendations suggesting areas for improvement, or come back with nothing, Parker added. Investigated agencies can receive the grand jury report and either accept the jury's recommendations or decline to follow them.
The grand jury also conducts a full report on the County Jail facilities annually, according to Parker.
Previous reports included investigations into implementing body cameras for police officers, the county's juvenile justice system and youth safety in Santa Maria.
"It's a commitment of time, and we just want someone who really has the desire to volunteer for a year and give back to the community," Parker said. "We've had everyone from retirees, probation officers, company executives to college students. It's open to anyone who's inquisitive about how the government works."
The jury's base of operations is in the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse but, also, meets in every municipality in the county.
More recently, county officials began implementing video conferencing to save jurors a commuting trip to Santa Barbara and, also, make communication easier for North County jurors, according to Parker.
"We want to select a diverse group of jurors, so we try to pick them from each of the five supervisorial districts in the county," Parker said.
The grand jury usually forms about five subcommittees, each investigating a specific agency, according to 2017-18 grand jury foreperson Mary Tighe, a retired federal government employee and foreign policy adviser, who worked in Washington, D.C., most of her life before settling down in Santa Barbara four years ago.
Tighe said she applied to be a juror for the first time in 2016 because she realized she had a broad knowledge of the federal government but knew little about local government.
"I wanted to learn more about the local government, and I was happy to implement some of my research and analytical skills," she said.
The separate subcommittees focus on city government, criminal justice, public health, education and public safety, said Tighe, adding a grand juror typically can sign up to be a part of multiple subcommittees.
Making a finding, then filing a full report can be taxing, she added.
Typically in the first six months of serving on the jury, members gather complaints and decide what to investigate. The last four months of the nine-month term are mainly spent writing reports, which must be approved the committee and entire jury, according to Tighe.
"We're just here to educate and help the government be better," she said. "I encourage anyone who's interested to sign up. We'd love to get more North County residents to apply."
Tighe explained the grand jury has no political leanings and that just because members may choose to investigate a body or issue doesn't mean the report will be negative.
"You're going to be doing work that makes such a big difference," she added.
The deadline for prospective jurors is May 4.
Applications should be submitted to Santa Barbara Superior Court, Jury Services, 1108 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara CA 93101.
New grand jury members will begin services July 1 and serve through June 30, 2019.
Though a volunteer position, each juror is paid $25 per day and receives mileage reimbursements for any grand jury-related travel time. Time commitment to the job can be up to 25 hours a week, depending on how many committees an individual juror is a part of.
Applications for the 2018-19 grand jury can be obtained by calling the court's Santa Maria office at 614-6464 or the Santa Barbara office at 882-4530. Applications also can be downloaded from the court's website at www.sbcourts.org.