Grand Jury: Everything’s OK

The Butte County Grand jury for 2003-04 issued a report last week that could be described as thin, tame and toothless.

The 19-member citizens’ watchdog group looked at 26 issues around the county ranging from Halloween crowd control in Chico to low test scores at Biggs High School, finding few major problems and even fewer solutions. Out of 26 investigations into various county and city entities, the jury issued only 12 recommendations, most of which urged nothing more than maintaining the status quo.

Entities singled out for investigation include:

• Butte County jails, where overcrowding and substandard conditions have been well-documented by previous grand juries.

• Oroville Union High School District, where students lack sufficient access to computers.

• Biggs High School, where, although standardized test scores were low last year, the grand jury found no obvious explanation and was satisfied that outside experts hired by the school would solve the problem.

• Butte County Sheriff-Coroner’s office, where procedures for storing evidence have been criticized and turnover in the 911 dispatch center has been high. Both problems are being addressed, the jury found.

• The city of Chico, which the jury found is making “significant progress” in annexing county islands and “work[ing] closely with CSUC for their mutual benefit.”

On the same day the report was released, a new grand jury was sworn in. While grand juries can and do issue criminal indictments from time to time, their main duty is to keep an eye on local government. In California, counties are constitutionally bound to convene a new grand jury every year. Each grand jury chooses to investigate certain agencies based on public outcry, media reports of malfeasance and the occasional insider tip. Deliberations are carried out in secret so as to protect both whistleblowers and those being investigated.

This year’s 58-page grand jury report, half as voluminous as last year’s, also specifically commends many county and city agencies for the way they handle the public’s business. The Chico Police Department is praised for its handling of large party crowds on Halloween. The Butte County Public Library system is said to be "in excellent hands," the county Department of Child Support Services "offers valuable services free to Butte County parents," and the Chico Municipal Airport manager is lauded for operating in "an efficient and effective manner."