The following is an expanded version of a recent presentation before the California Grand Jurors' Association.
The Marin County Grand Jury does a great job of examining a wide variety of issues that are extremely important to all Marin residents. Their investigations and recommendations educate both the public and elected officials about how governance can be improved. But in many cases, by the time an issue gets to the Grand Jury it’s often too late to really understand how it came about. It’s as if we wake up one day and we don’t have any affordable housing or there’s WinCUP and we ask, how did that happen?
The truth is, it is usually not because of one major decision but more often it's death by a thousand cuts.
Take for example growth, planning and development issues in Marin. Based on my own experience, there’s no question in my mind that we have significant problems with planning and development approval processes in Marin, in our cities and at the County level.
Why is this?
Is it because of ignorance on the part of staff and our elected representatives, about governing laws and regulations? Is it the result of the kind of general disorganization and dysfunction we’ve become accustomed to in government? Or is it the result of outright malfeasance and intentional abuse of the law?
I’m going to let you decide. But, what I can say with confidence is that getting to the truth of the matter is becoming more and more difficult.
A paradox of the information age
One of the great paradoxes of our time is that as the Internet is increasing access to information about anything and everything, government is becoming more defensive about sharing information.
This is a desperate strategy that is doomed to fail.
We see this at the national level (we can’t know who visited the White House) and it is happening right here in Marin County on every level of government.
Yes, local government is getting much better at sending out notices and informational updates about things they want you to know about – what is called “push” outreach. But, try finding out about something you want to know about that might be a little inconvenient or problematic for them to share.
Learning to dig deeper
I founded Community Venture Partners in July of 2013. I was spending so much time on community issues I decided to do it as a nonprofit organization.
Our stated purposes are to:
- Educate the public about planning, development and growth issues;
- Advocate for an open public process;
- Demonstrate more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable solutions and,
- Bring the public’s voice to government decision making.
However, our research and advocacy work quickly turned to challenging and making legal arguments against a variety of local government decisions. And the more rocks we turned over, the more alarmed we became.
After almost four years of operations, here is a list of the kinds of significant problems and abuses we’re seeing:
- Inadequate notice of public hearings and timely availability of documents;
- Inadequate descriptions of agenda items in public notices;
- Something I call “Hide the Ball;”
- Over-use of “closed session” deliberations and the consent calendar;
- Violations of the State Open Meetings Law – The Ralph M. Brown Act;
- Violations and avoidance of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA);
- Obstruction to accessing information under the Public Records Act.
Of course, this doesn’t include actual crimes like perjury, political influence peddling, destruction of documents, etc., all of which I’ve observed in Marin. But that’s for another time.
I go into greater detail on some of the case studies I’ll present here, in my book, Marin 2016: Dispatches from the front. But, for now let me give you some examples of each item on the list above.
Inadequate notice of public hearings and timely availability of documents
State law requires that a hearing agenda be published 72 hours in advance of that hearing and that it include a full description of each item to be discussed. On this count, most municipalities do a good job. However, that doesn’t make public access to information much easier.
Meeting schedules and Staff Reports
More often than not, cities and the County schedule major public hearings on topics of broad public interest and impact, or public comment deadlines, at some of the most inconvenient times for the public, such as over summer vacation in August, when no one is in town, or over major holidays or school breaks, such as Christmas or Spring Break.
This year alone CVP had several deadlines in the first days of January, to submit legal comments on major development projects.
Then, there is the issue of the timing of when municipalities release Staff Reports and other data about the decisions being contemplated.
Unfortunately, there is no state requirement to release these sometimes voluminous documents to the public, prior to a public hearing. The law only requires that the information be made available to the public at the same time that it’s “made available” to the decision making body.
Just a few weeks ago the Town of Corte Madera released a highly technical 800 page document on late Friday afternoon, on a Spring Break weekend, for a Tuesday night hearing. What normal resident could possibly have the time to digest that material much less send in a cogent comment about it on such short notice?
It often seems that the more controversial the subject the more likely it is to be scheduled at the most inconvenient time. As a case in point, most of the “public workshops” held for Plan Bay Area, the most comprehensive San Francisco Bay Area planning initiative in history, were (and are still) held during the day on weekdays or Saturday mornings: a time when no person with a job or a child in a sports league, can possibly attend.
In other words, no taxpayers.
Inadequate descriptions of agenda items in public notices
This is actually a very important issue. Even when notices of public hearings are widely posted, the descriptions of the discussion items included in the notice are often written in indecipherable language. As an example, an agenda item might note a discussion of “Changes to Zoning Code, Section 16, Item 12a, regarding multi use,” etc.
This sounds so technical and unimportant that just reading the description could put you to sleep, much less compel you to sit through a hearing about it into the wee hours on a Wednesday night.
However, if it were stated in plain English it would say something like, “We’re rezoning all commercial and multifamily zones throughout the city” or “We’re deciding on a major zoning changes that will probably dramatically impact your property values.”
I’d bet that would put a few more butts in the seats.
Hide the Ball
This is a problem I’ve written about extensively. Let’s say there’s a major planning initiative proposed. You read about it, don't agree with it and go to the first hearing and voice your objection. What happens? You’re likely told some version of the following: “Please be patient with the “process.” There will be plenty of time for public input and discussion.”
This is then followed by a series of “workshops” that are staged and heavily monitored affairs, where “discussion topics” are already approved and nothing outside of that is allowed. For example, you can discuss how to do the project not whether to do the project.
But, let’s say you endure all the hearing and consultant reports and in the end you stand up and object again.
This time you’re told, “We’ve been working on this for years; it’s too late to change course. We have to take action now.” And lo and behold your objection is “heard” but the initiative is passed in essentially the same form in which it was initially proposed.
The best example of this was and is the entire Plan Bay Area public process.
So, the next time you hear a staff member or elected official saying, “We carried out a long and thorough public process,” be skeptical.
Over-use of “closed session” deliberations and the consent calendar
Elected bodies can choose to hold closed session hearings on issues or projects that deal with contractual negotiations (with labor unions and pension groups, for example) or in situations where there are pending legal matters, such as being sued. However, the discretionary nature of deciding what is or is not a reason to suspend public participation and hold closed-door hearings makes it ripe for abuse.
For example, the Fairfax Town Council recently used the premise of having received a comment letter from a member of the public, which simply stated that the town could be sued for the proposed new zoning ordinance it was considering, as an excuse to move the entire hearing on the draft of the ordinance, into closed session.
Another trick is to place a project or policy decision on the consent calendar, thereby essentially eliminating public discussion on the matter.
In a glaring example of this, former Supervisor Kinsey once proposed that the County Supervisors approve a massive study of transforming San Quentin into a new “urban hub,” which would include the development of thousands of housing units and large-scaled commercial space, and moving the ferry terminal there from its present location at Larkspur Landing… and to make this highly impactful decision on the consent calendar!
Both of these examples show just how ridiculous these abuses can get.
Violations of the State Open Meetings Law – The Ralph M. Brown Act
As was reported in the press and explained in detail in Marin 2016 – Part VI: Dispatches from the front – Marin County Government, Community Venture Partners successfully sued the Marin Board of Supervisors (“the “BOS”) for their flagrant violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, our state’s open meetings law.
In June of 2014, CVP had written a comment letter on the proposed County Housing Element. In August 2014, the BOS held a 26 minute public hearing in response to it, with testimony by county agency officials and discussion by the Supervisors, without any notice of the topic on the agenda. This was recorded on video tape.
CVP then filed a Notice to Cease and Desist, which the County ignored. In December of 2014, CVP filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate; Injunctive and Declaratory Relief against the Marin BOS.
Ironically, the County could have resolved this dispute at any time simply by admitting guilt and promising to not do it again. Instead, they mocked our action in the press, and embarked on a “scorched earth” legal defense.
After almost 2 years of motions and counter motions by the County, some bordering on the absurd, Marin Superior Court Judge Roy O. Chernus ruled against the County and granted Declaratory Relief with a reprimand to the County, for its unrepentant attitude.
The County and individual Supervisors not only disagreed with the Court but have refused to ever acknowledge any wrongdoing.
The important point here is that the County had been violating the law knowingly for years. They had found what they thought was a “loophole” in the law and went about exploiting it to the max.
Their “loophole” involved what is called the “Administrator’s Report” to the Supervisors.
The law states that the County Administrator can make a “brief report of his or her activities” without the content of his comments being place on the agenda. In the County’s eyes, this gave them carte blanche to exploit this to the point where the County Administrator’s report ended up ushering in full blown hearings with other staff members, and even third party consultants, making statements, presenting prepared reports and engaging in discussions with the Supervisors.
The County Administrator would say something like “This week I spoke with the head of Community Development (who by strange coincidence just happened to be there with a prepared report in hand). Now I’ll turn this over to him to tell you about his progress on the Housing Element.” The head of Community Development would then present a report and engage in Q&A with the Supervisors.
In other words, in their opinion, it was a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.
To this day, the Marin Board of Supervisors can’t seem to understand why this was a violation of the law. Unfortunately, their arrogance not only guarantees they will do it again, but their behavior sets a bad example for other municipalities and agencies, which have a habit of copying what each other does.
Marin is a small community.
Obstruction to accessing information under the Public Records Act
The California Public Records Act (“PRA”) stipulates that citizens can request documentation that might otherwise not be published, regarding the activities and decisions of a public agency. It states,
The Legislature… declares that access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.
However under certain circumstances, cities and counties can legally restrict access to documents about their activities for a variety of reasons. Some of these include:
- Confidential information protected by attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine. Government Code Section 6254(k) and Evidence Code Section 950 et seq.;
- Information exempt from disclosure pursuant to the deliberative process privilege. Government Code Section 6254(k);
- Preliminary drafts exempt from disclosure pursuant to Government Code Section 6254(a);
- Personnel, medical or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Government Code Section 6254(c); and
- Records exempt under some other provision of federal or state law. Government Code Section 6254(k).
Still, as broad as these exemptions sound, they must be based on provable circumstances and their legal interpretation is fairly narrow. Otherwise, governments could withhold anything, which is pretty much how Marin cities and the County have been attempting to define “exempt” documents.
Their first response is “No”
When the Friends of Corte Madera submitted a PRA request about the WinCup project, asking specifically for communications between the Town and the developer, MacFarlane Partners, the Town claimed the “deliberative privilege” exemption as the basis for their refusal to provide those documents.
Similarly, when Preserve Novato asked for all documents and communications between the City of Novato and the developers of the proposed Hamilton Sports Complex, Novato planners also claimed the “deliberative privilege” exemption.
“Deliberative privilege” is essentially when an agency is saying that it would be impossible for them to do their job properly, if the public was allowed to know what they (and developers) were talking about behind closed doors.
Really? Are we dealing with national security secrets here? In both cases, the city’s arguments were ludicrous.
In the first case, a follow up letter from an attorney changed Corte Madera’s tune and documents were produced. In the second case, it took filing a legal action in Marin Superior Court, by the First Amendment Coalition to get Novato to cooperate.
But, why does it take a lawsuit to get cooperation?
Friends of West Tam Valley vs Marin County
In the summer of 2016, a community group called the Friends of West Tam Valley asked for County records regarding a proposed residential development in their neighborhood. The community had been concerned for some time because the apparent flaws in the proposal were numerous.
A private developer proposed to build a single family house on a “Paper Street,” shown on an old map from 1919. Single family homes are categorically exempt from CEQA review and old, non-conforming lots can be made “legal” with County approval and issuance of a building permit. This avoids having to address the fact that the old map doesn't conform with current subdivision regulations.
However, what the developer failed to tell the County was that they had been quietly buying up many of the lots in the old subdivision under separate LLC’s. It seems the developer was trying to exploit the single family home loophole in the County Subdivision Law and the “CatEx” exemption in the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).
The Tam Valley Design Review Board somehow got wind of the scheme and rejected the application, rightfully calling it a “Trojan Horse.”
Once exposed, the developer withdrew the application for the single family home. But, the Friends wanted to know more so they filed a PRA.
After 4 months of visits, letters and subsequent requests, the County had failed to provide all the documents requested. So, the Friends hired an attorney, who also spent almost a half year trying to get all the records. Three times over that period, the attorney even offered to come in and meet with the County Counsel to try to resolve the situation, to no avail.
In this case, the County never declared any type of privilege to withhold documents; they simply failed to produce them. Finally, the County Counsel’s office simply stopped responding to requests, at all. This left the Friends with no alternative but to file a lawsuit in Marin Superior Court.
Once again, why does it take a lawsuit to get simple records?
A pattern emerges
Time after time we see situations where legitimate requests for documents are met with months of foot-dragging, claims of privilege to withhold documents or unhelpful responses. And, when documents are finally produced, it is not unusual for them to be a jumbled mess of hundreds or even thousands of pages, most not even on topic, without any chronological order or categorization by type, or any other discernible logic that would assist the recipient in making heads or tails of the data.
Most incredulously, are the instances where the agency simply states that no documents exist, even in instances where the filing party had previously corresponded with that agency. In many of these instances, the very claim that no documents exist defies credulity because it would imply that County or city agencies and government employees are making significant planning approval decisions all by word of mouth… without a single memo, email, note, agenda, meeting minutes or anything else to memorialize it.
If an agency claims there are no documents, they know full well that the applicant’s only option is to sue; based on the premise that discovery during a trial will prove their claim to be false. But, since one has no idea what those phantom documents might say or not say, one has no idea on what basis to bring that suit.
It’s a catch 22 and the agencies know it.
It’s all a coincidence?
One of the attorneys CVP consults with called in January of 2017 and told me about an experience he had over the holidays. It seems he was at a party that was also attended by a senior attorney at the Marin County Counsel’s office.
Apparently, this County Counselor had one too many and in an off moment, he started bragging about how he loved “screwing with” the public when he received Public Records Act requests. He talked about how he’d drag things out forever, throw roadblocks in their path, and generally try to get away with being as uncooperative as possible, at which point most people just went away.
Why, you might ask, did he do that? Because he knew that PRA lawsuits are very difficult to win in court. He did it because he could get away with it and he figured he was saving the County time and money.
Sound bad? It gets worse.
Violations and avoidance of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
Generally, we are seeing three kinds of violations of CEQA in County and municipal governments. They are:
- Abuse of categorical exemption (“CatEx”) provisions and use of Negative Declarations (“Neg Dec”);
- Improper tiering from “Program” Environmental Impact Reports to justify not doing “Project” EIR’s;
- Improper piece-meal analysis of environmental impacts to avoid doing an EIR or adequately assess cumulative impacts.
Mill Valley rezoning
In the past, I’ve written about some glaring examples, such as the City of Mill Valley’s attempt to zone all commercial and multi-family residential properties in the city, for “by right” mixed-use without any CEQA process at all. Their ruse involved two of the abuses noted above: misuse of “CatEx” and improper tiering. It has been described at length in Marin 2016 – Part III: Dispatches from the front – Mill Valley.
City staff, in their report to the Planning Commission, stated,
The proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinances and Zoning Maps is categorically exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) under Sections 15305 and 15061(b)(3) of the CEQA Guidelines.
That certainly sounded official (official enough for no one in the city government to even questions it) but unfortunately, it was complete nonsense. The specific code sections cited (15305 and 15061(b)(3)) are not applicable to citywide rezoning.
It remains inconceivable that the Planning Director did not know that.
In any case, CVP challenged it. Then the City suddenly decided they would do a “Mitigated” Neg. Dec… basically declaring that in their sole opinion but without the benefit of any actual new analysis, no impacts are found to be significant and if any are they can be easily mitigated.
CVP challenged that. Then the City inferred that they could “tier” off the “Program EIR,” which was done for the General Plan update.
Cities and Counties typically do Program EIRs for major planning initiatives like a General Plan Update or its Housing Element. a Program EIR doesn’t analyze any particular project; it just looks at the big picture. Then, when an actual project comes up, they can do a “Project” EIR to actually analyze what specific, significant impacts that might entail.
We challenged the City again, this time because their reliance (tiering) on the prior Program EIR was inappropriate because that EIR did not actually analyze specific impacts, cumulative impacts or address how either might be mitigated if the major zoning changes being proposed, were actually implemented.
In the end, the City dropped the “by right” zoning provisions from their scheme, probably because they knew a legal challenge would prevail and they didn’t want to risk doing a full blown EIR.
Fairfax Rezoning – Illegal CEQA tiering and piece-mealing of impacts
Another example of both improper tiering and also piece-meal analysis of impacts recently surfaced in Fairfax.
Fairfax attempted to change the zoning for 7 different commercial parcels into mixed use, “by right,”multi-family zoning, and do so by “hiding” this citywide zoning change within the approval process for just one of the properties, Victory Village. The unspoken assumption was that the prior General Plan / Housing Element Program EIR was sufficient to make this zoning change.
As originally presented to the Planning Commission, if the rezoning of Victory Village had been approved, it would have automatically applied to all the other parcels. However, CEQA not only requires the impacts of a particular project to be assessed but it requires the cumulative impacts of all potential projects driven by the decisions made, to be adequately assessed. This ruse by the Town planners is a classic example of an illegal attempt to “piece meal” CEQA analysis in order to avoid analyzing cumulative impacts of development.
CVP challenged it and they immediately backed off and changed course.
Again, it is inconceivable that they did not know what they were trying to get away with.
Garden Valley Park - Illegal CEQA Piece-mealing of impacts
As described above, a developer, who was actually planning to build a number of homes, came to the County with an application to build one single family home on a “paper lot" shown on an old 1909 map, because single family homes are categorically exempt from CEQA.
The developers knew that by getting home permits, one at a time, they could circumvent subdivision laws and a full scale EIR review of the cumulative impacts.
Allowing this type of seriatim development would be both an improper use of the categorical exemption and illegal piece-mealing of assessment of impacts. In fact, under this ruse, the cumulative impacts of the development of multiple homes would never be assessed at all. As noted before, upon being exposed, the developer withdrew the application.
But guess what? That wasn’t the end.
Within days of withdrawing their application at the Marin County Planning Department, the developer turned around and submitted an application at the Marin County Public Works Department, for a permit to build a “road” to serve the entire subdivision. The developer knew that with a road in place, the right to argue for the ability to develop the lots was significantly strengthened and getting the antiquated map legitimized, a bit easier.
So what did Public Works do? Did they call the Tam Design Review Board or the Planning Department to find out what was going on with these lots? No. They just went ahead and started processing the application as if nothing was amiss.
If community members had not blown the whistle, this scheme probably would have worked.
The Grand Daddy of them all
Perhaps the classic example of improper CEAQ tiering is WinCup. Here the Town was dealing with a site where, for decades, the previous owners had manufactured Styrofoam. That process used several EPA listed carcinogens and produced several EPA listed carcinogens, as a result. Yet, miraculously, WinCup was granted a General Plan Amendment and rezoning approval without any project EIR!
The entire review process relied on the previous General Plan Program EIR, which didn’t even mention toxins.
What is driving all this?
There’s no doubt this is a complex question to answer. Part of the problem is that there is, historically, a mandate at cities and counties to promote development for its own sake. After all, as they say, "the business of America is business.” “Growth” (i.e., development) has been seen as good, without question, since the 1950's, because it brings in more tax revenues. Due diligence and “facts” have always tended to be an obstacle to that.
Hamilton Field… “More revenues”
The City of Novato spent years processing a proposal to build a private, for profit Regional Sports Complex on public lands in Hamilton. The site is open space near the newly restored wetlands. The land used to be the waste dump for the old Hamilton Field Army Air Force Base. It was capped and is now a leaching, toxic site that is so bad it requires venting to release all the methane gas coming from underground. It is surrounded by single family homes served by narrow, winding streets (see Marin 2016 - Part V: Dispatches from the front – Hamilton Field for the full story).
The community took one look at the scheme and quickly surmised it was an incredibly stupid idea. All that the City of Novato saw was development processing fees and more tax revenues. So they charged ahead until public protests and facts about environmental hazards got so great they became insurmountable. The City never actually intervened on behalf of the public. They probably would have continued to process it forever, had the developer not withdrawn the application.
Once again, why does it take lawyers or groundswells of public protest to bring some common sense to the table?
Money talks and common sense walks
Perhaps no development proposal epitomized how common sense can be kicked to the curb more than the Larkspur Landing Station Area Plan, in 2014.
This was a good example of how regional agencies try to coerce and bribe local governments into “urbanizing” their communities in exchange for more and more grants funding, as a reward.
The LLSAP, as it came to be called, proposed to add 1,000,000 square feet of additional commercial and housing development (1,000 units) at Larkspur Landing, without a single public transportation improvement. No new buses. No new ferry runs. No highway or road capacity improvements.
Why would Larkspur even consider such a plan? The answer to that is simple. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (the same unelected agency that is about to absorb all regional planners from our Association of Bay Area Governments) gave them $650,000 in planning grants and promised more money to come, if they agreed to “urbanize” Larkspur.
It looked like a good deal to the Larkspur Planning Department; a dependable future source of revenues. It was clearly a bad deal for Larkspur residents.
Another example of nonsensical project processing is the ongoing battle over the redevelopment of the Corte Madera Inn (covered extensively on the Marin Post).
In this case, the Town has spent three years on hearings, studies, consultants and reports to process a project that has been in violation of federal and state law since day one. They have been told this over and over again, and shown the evidence in voluminous public comment documents. Yet, somehow none of this registered with them until a senior environmental scientist, Xavier Fernandez, from the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is charged with determining if permits can be issued to fill in wetlands, came to a Planning Commission hearing a few weeks ago and explained it all to them.
It's taken three years to get them to accept the obvious. I wonder how long it will take now to get them to act on that. What a colossal waste of the public’s time and money. Why do we see this kind of situation happen in Marin with such regularity?
It doesn’t happen without “enablers”
Marin is a willing victim of what can only be called a “Cabal of Consultants.” Time and again, our cities and our County end up using the same traffic consultant to analyze traffic impacts of development proposals. Similarly, everyone uses the same one or two EIR consultants, as well. And, in my 24 years of experience here, I have never seen any of them write a negative report on a project, no matter how absurd it might be.
Oh, and just to note, the consultant who advised the developer in the Tam Valley case, was an ex-Marin County planning official.
Is this legal? Yes.
Is it good governance?
Why is it getting harder to deal with local government?
Again, this is difficult to answer. Are simple decisions just getting too complex? Is it information overload? Is the sheer volume of data and information too much to handle -- emails, texts, letters, notes, studies, agendas, reports? Or are we seeing the negative effect of social media – living in a world overwhelmed by opinions everywhere?
It seems obvious that local city and County staff are suffering from mental overload from constant demands for transparency. As a result, we’re seeing an almost primal reaction driving them to instinctively hide and avoid interaction.
There is, of course, another possible reason we’re seeing so much dysfunction in local government. It’s possible that the Internet is just now revealing the kind of problems that have been there all along… we just weren’t aware of it.
I don’t know.
What’s clear is that local government and perhaps all levels of our government are not up to the task of 21st century planning or public transparency. There is a severe lack of internal coordination between different departments and agencies. In most cases, they don’t even have their data in any available or accessible form, in order to be able to share it with the public or even with their own departments. Government filing systems and data management systems are disastrously antiquated.
As Gavin Newsom noted in his book CitizenVille, we are living in a 24/7, choice driven, instant access world and government is state of the art, 1975.
There may be yet another reason why we're seeing such controversy about development and why local government appears to be running amok with such regularity. It may be that we are witnessing an historic sea change.
Are we living in a time of diminishing returns from the development juggernaut that has been our national “growth” mantra since the 1950’s? Perhaps, the negative consequences of unfettered development are now more often than not, far greater than the positive benefits, locally.
Even how our local government is structured seems to be failing us. Our “Mayberry by the Bay” - you be mayor this year and I’ll be mayor next year - system is too unsophisticated to grapple with challenges and financial pressures that are mostly originating outside of our borders. In that context, our traditional “strong city manager - weak City Council” system is becoming more and more obsolete. Even under the best of circumstances and with the best intentions, it cannot cope.
How can small, volunteer-run cities or even our County Government deal with the growing influences of regional, state and federal agencies, or overwhelming global economic forces and the effects of money moving around the world in milliseconds, seeking profits?
In the new 24/7 global economy, global wealth and financial markets are directly impacting housing prices, jobs, and investment in Marin. That is why major challenges such as affordable housing are no longer solvable at the local level.
Where does the Grand Jury fit into all this?
The knock on the Grand Jury is that they can investigate but they can’t do anything about problems except bring them up. But, I think the Grand Jury is much more powerful than that.
Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.
In June of 2015, Community Venture Partners launched the Marin Post, the first online, all citizen journalist news magazine in California.
This was out of the frustration of not seeing the kinds of things I’ve talked about here in print, in the local news. The Marin Post is not social media. It’s not a place to sell used furniture or find your cat. It’s an open platform for regular people to write about any subject they think the public needs to be aware of. Without the benefit of advertising or marketing and on a shoestring budget, it has built a stable of citizen, investigative journalists writing about a broadening list of topics, and it has attracted over 30,000 readers.
The truth changes people’s minds. It also lets them know they are not alone in what they feel.
That’s important stuff!
The Grand Jury can do that. The Grand Jury gives people a voice. Exposing wrong-doing is the first step to stopping it. And, the Grand Jury has incredible powers, such as the power to subpoena anyone.
Things I would ask the Grand Jury to please consider
Dig into how decisions really get made. Press officials for real answers and hard evidence. When the Grand Jury sees a situation where documents were “protected” by government privilege or where an issue was resolved in closed session, please be skeptical and dig deeper.
Be wary about Staff making public policy, usurping the powers of elected bodies. Check meeting minutes and see if elected officials were being treated on a “need to know” basis, by their staff. If elected officials didn’t ask a question, perfectly, did they get a complete answer?
This was key at the WinCup Town Council hearings.
Broaden the horizons of investigations. Seek out information and testimony from others, outside of Marin. Do not assume participants are innocent or incompetent or simply made a mistake. The examples I have provided here were done with intent, not by accident. And, do not assume that you are getting all the “news” from local newspapers. You’re not.
Development and planning are extremely complex and take considerable hands-on knowledge that they don’t teach in any school or in any book. Get the best advice you can from anyone you can.
Finally, remember that the public needs the Grand Jury. We need them to be bold and to be our eyes and ears. And, I applaud all grand jurors, past and present, for their service and their willingness to take on the task.
 The Institute for Local Government describes using the Consent Calendar as follows: “Items on the consent calendar are generally non-controversial items that do not require much, if any, discussion.”