Editorial: So you want to be a watchdog?

We confess to some jealousy. After all, it’s supposed to be the press that serves as the “watchdog,” the check on the steroidal growth of government, the constant voice urging fiscal responsibility, restraint and efficiency on political officials.

As it turns out, another institution, vastly more humble than your screaming headline-writing servants, can claim pretty much the same writ. And whereas our government-inspecting role was established little more than a paltry two centuries ago, this institution can claim an even more impressive history.

We’re referring to the jury system, the origins of which can be traced to Norman times in the ninth century and which, in 1215, was guaranteed by the Magna Carta. We infamous scribblers can point proudly to the happenstance that our protection comes at the top of the Bill of Rights. Grand juries are provided for way down in the Fifth Amendment, so our jealousy dissipates.

They’re also provided for in the California Constitution, which, as in other states, requires grand juries to operate in each county. Grand juries divide into criminal and civil bodies, the former grabbing the more sensational attention. When was the last time you heard the word “indictment” in connection with a civil grand jury?

Answer: You haven’t. Civil grand juries don’t indict officials. What they do is quiet, studious, methodical: Nineteen jurors monitor local government performance; at their choosing, they address specific entities and make the comprehensive recommendations at least 12 of them approve.

San Francisco’s civil grand jury recently has submitted an impressive body of work, taking up disaster preparedness, identity theft, police compensation, building inspectors and Muni. In each case, they made common-sense recommendations The City would do well to implement.

Take its report, issued in May, on disaster preparedness. “San Francisco,” declared the jurors, “lacks a coherent strategic planning process for delivery of emergency medical services. Instead planning has been reactive, focusing on federal grant applications and benchmarks.”

The report cited the lack of input from private hospitals even though “the private sector provides 80 percent of the hospital care in The City.” It then called for a “single articulate voice” to take charge in the event of a mass disaster, specifically recommending a medical expert.

OK, so the Board of Supervisors didn’t take that advice precisely, as recent consternation at the local homeland security crew evidences. But the point is, even if those in charge shelve the jury’s reports, we have some sound prescriptions by which to compare actual performance.

The civil grand jury is busily recruiting new members who can bring diversity and civic virtue to its ancient but intensely relevant role. Interested? Obtain applications from the San Francisco Grand Jury Office, 400 McAllister St., Room 8, (415) 551.3605. Or go to www.sfgov.org/site/courts.

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