Friday Mar 25 2011
Our View: Fires, gunshots and election fund theft: Where’s grand jury?
If the calendar says spring, it must be time to trade in the raincoats for sunblock and congratulate the Placer County grand jury on another fine year of investigating controversial public matters. But this isn’t a normal year, is it? Snow might now be measured in meters in the Sierra, and March seems to be going out like a lion chasing a herd of wildebeest. The grand jury recently released its annual report, a document some might find interesting and moderately important. Among its five studies were a North Auburn property dispute, speedway noise at the county fairgrounds in Roseville, the performance of the Placer County Water Agency, and its annual inspections of juvenile hall and local jails. In the property dispute, the jury found “no intentional wrongdoing” by either the landowner or county. With PCWA, the jury said the agency was run efficiently but needed a better succession plan for management. Juvenile hall and jails were found “clean, organized and well maintained.” The jury did find the county did not approve an expansion of the Roseville speedway that led to beefier race cars, which brought the noise complaints. It also found the county’s contract with the fair commission has not been renewed since 2007. All in a year’s work. No mention or investigation of the more contentious issues that have rocked our communities, including the 49 Fire from August 2009, or the longstanding lot-split dispute between the county and former Planning Commissioner Michelle Ollar-Burris. Nothing about the handling of Alexander Piggee and the fire that nearly destroyed the Westfield Galleria at Roseville. Nary a word about the case of county Sheriff’s Lt. John Savage allegedly firing a weapon in his Rocklin neighborhood. And nothing about Brian Jagger, former aide to county Supervisor Kirk Uhler, who was arrested for theft of more than $15,000 of campaign funds from newly-elected District Attorney Scott Owens. Granted, the last three matters occurred late in the jury’s calendar year and would not have been included in the report. The jury could be investigating each of these issues right now. The grand jury “is not accountable to elected officials or government employees,” its website states. “Its findings and recommendations are unbiased and impartial. Grand jurors are sworn to secrecy and, other than final reports, their work is kept strictly confidential.” For all we know, members could be digging deep into court records and conducting interviews to get to the truth, working outside the control and influence of elected officials and government administrators. But we doubt it. The history of the county grand jury has been to shy away from serious matters of alleged misconduct or suspected corruption. The most noteworthy report in recent years was the investigation of allegations former Sierra College president Kevin Ramirez laundered college foundation money for school bond campaigns. The complaint, brought by then-new Trustee Aaron Klein, found Klein’s charge “utterly without merit.” Ramirez, meanwhile, resigned and received a large, six-figure payoff. Citizens continue to ask questions about the how the Highway 49 and Galleria fires were handled by firefighters and law enforcement, and whether communication breakdowns led to conflagrations that could have been avoided. Citizens continue to ask how the county can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars looking into Ollar Burris’ property activity, and never come up with proof of any wrongdoing. Citizens continue to ask how the sheriff’s department and Rocklin Police could bungle a neighborhood dispute, leading to a mistrial and neighbors wondering whether justice has been served. Citizens deserve answers. District Attorney Scott Owens should seek grand jury investigations into each of these matters, and if citizens make such a request he should fully support the effort. The grand jury can play a critical role in finding the truth, but it needs the green light to shine a bright light on matters of the public trust.