California Grand Jury Issues Scathing Report on Fire Protection District

In a report titled A Firestorm Raging in Herald, a Sacramento County Grand Jury issued a scathing review of the Herald Fire Protection District concluding that district’s board of directors are “not properly managing District personnel, and the board is not transparently implementing sound governance policies, particularly with respect to its financial affairs.”

In the grand jury’s own words:

  • Responding to the residents’ allegations, the Sacramento County Grand Jury investigated whether the District’s elected Board of Directors is meeting its fiduciary responsibilities to oversee the District’s financial affairs, whether the fire chief is properly managing the firefighter personnel, and whether the District board is effectively and transparently adopting and implementing sound governance policies
  • This initial inquiry quickly led the grand jury to identify and investigate a number of related issues, including the District’s overall governance and management, its fiscal practices, and its personnel policies and practices.
  • After investigating these issues, the grand jury concludes that the citizens of Herald are rightly concerned that the Herald Fire Protection District is failing to provide effective governance of the District’s business, is failing to maintain sound fiscal and accounting practices, and is failing to implement sound, legal personnel practices. The grand jury recommends that the District Board of Directors address these concerns and correct these fundamental problems.

The Grand Jury made 5 findings and 5 recommendations, including the need for better fiscal internal controls, a county audit, personnel policies that comply with the state firefighter bill of rights, and a municipal services review of the district.

Here is a copy of the Grand Jury report: 2013-2014 Grand Jury Report

The report on the Herald PFD begins on page 20 of the Grand Jury Report. It is one of several in depth investigations that the Sacramento County Grand Jury conducted over the past year.

For those unfamiliar with California’s use of grand juries, it differs considerably from the traditional role of a grand jury. Here is the description of a grand jury in Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, 3rd Ed., current being printed by PennWell Publishing:

The grand jury is a type of jury used in certain types of criminal cases. The purpose of a grand jury is to determine if there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it, and if so, to indict the defendant. An indictment is the formal allegation of criminal wrongdoing issued by a grand jury.

The grand jury process serves two functions. It is, first and foremost, aimed at protecting citizens from criminal charges being brought by overzealous prosecutors and police officers with insufficient evidence. Second, it is an investigative process whereby witnesses can be subpoenaed to testify, evidence can be gathered, and a determination can be made about whether or not sufficient evidence exists to charge someone with the commission of a crime.

According to the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, grand juries are required for federal offenses that constitute capital or infamous crimes. Many states have done away with grand juries, and the remaining states generally limit their use to the most serious of state crimes.

In California, grand juries have a broader purpose. Here is the description from the Sacramento County Grand Jury report:

The grand jury is not the same body as a “petit” jury, selected to hear evidence in a single case in a trial court. Instead, a grand jury is impaneled for a one-year period to perform several functions that are described in law. Broadly, the grand jury is charged with assuring honest, efficient government that operates in the best interest of the people of the county. The primary function of the grand jury is to examine aspects of county government, special districts, school districts and city government. Specifically, this includes:

  • Civil Watchdog – to inquire into the willful or corrupt misconduct of public officers; to investigate and report on at least one county officer, department or function; and to inquire into the condition and management of public prisons within the county.
  • Criminal Indictment – to present to the court a criminal charge of a public offense against a person based upon evidence considered by the grand jury.
  • Accusation – to remove from office a public officer based upon evidence of willful or corrupt misconduct considered by the grand jury. This judicial process is initiated by the grand jury.

The grand jury is an arm of the Sacramento County Superior Court and is considered part of the judicial branch of government. As such, the grand jury may ask the advice of the advisor judge to the grand jury, the county counsel, or the district attorney.

The grand jury may inquire into or investigate a matter based on a complaint or upon its own initiative. The grand jury may subpoena witnesses and documents, conduct interviews, and consider evidence presented to it by the District Attorney’s Office or the California State Attorney General.

 

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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