There has been an increase in political engagement across the country. Citizens from all ends of the spectrum are locked in contentious debate about what government should be and should do for its citizens. The two major political parties are urging their supporters to take a more active role in local government.
As former members of the Sonoma County civil grand jury, we encourage Sonoma County residents to do just that by volunteering for a one-year commitment to serve on this citizen oversight body.
Enshrined in the state Constitution and codified by the penal code, California supports a civil grand jury system under which 19 jurors are seated for one year and empowered with broad investigative authority to field citizen complaints and to review the performance of any branch of county government.
It is not an overstatement to say that, short of running for elective office, serving on the civil grand jury offers the greatest opportunity for citizens to impact their local government. California citizens are fortunate to have this oversight opportunity as most other states have eliminated or curtailed civil grand juries.
Recent Sonoma County civil grand juries have addressed many important and ongoing issues such as affordable housing, pension liabilities, the budget impacts of the Santa Rosa school district’s increasingly high truancy rates and Santa Rosa’s emergency declarations on homelessness, to name a few.
Every year, the grand jury issues a report to county citizens and officials about its investigations. These reports can be found at local libraries or at the website of the Sonoma County civil grand jury (www.sonomagrandjury.org)
Jurors must bring an impartial view to the many complex issues facing our county governments and their agencies. Taking an unflinching and unbiased look at policies and procedures, jurors shelve their personal politics and work together to produce recommendations for improvements that can propel the county forward in a meaningful way. Oftentimes, 19 pairs of fresh eyes can provide useful insights for managers and citizens alike and define a better path forward — one that bridges partisan divisions.
It is our hope that Sonoma County citizens, regardless of their political persuasions, who are motivated to action by the current state of our civil discourse, will consider volunteering for civil grand jury duty. (To that end, application forms are available on the grand jury website.)
We recognize that service on the civil grand jury is a demanding, year-long commitment involving 10-20 hours per week, on average. However, as former jurors who each served two terms, we can attest to the privilege and the rewards of that commitment. We acquired an enhanced understanding of, and deep respect for, county governance, and we enjoyed the satisfaction of making meaningful contributions to our community which extend well beyond the ballot box.
Serving on the civil grand jury is a great way to put into practice the old adage, “think globally, act locally.”
Charlotte Addington was foreperson of the Sonoma County grand jury from 2014 to 2015. Matt Stone was foreperson the following year.