Unbeknownst to his neighbors and friends, one of our very own San Marinans for the past year has risen each weekday morning, donned a business suit (with requisite power tie) grabbed a cup of coffee and ridden the local roller coaster known as the 110 Freeway, destination Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Building, located next to Los Angeles City Hall. Then it’s hand-to-hand combat with a flood of lawyers, law enforcement officers, plaintiffs and defendants, all vying for the first available elevator that will deliver them to one of the building’s 19 floors.
Escaping the 11th floor “sardine can,” our neighbor hustles over to the sanctum, better known as the Grand Jury Conference Room, where along with 22 colleagues around a large oval mahogany table, he settles down to represent Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents, $32.5 billion budget and $750 billion economy; its 88 cities, 140 unincorporated areas, a land area of 4,086 square miles of oceans, deserts, forests, and mountains and its 2.7 million properties, netting an assessment roll of $1.2 trillion.
County governance is charged with providing regional infrastructure and numerous services, which affect the lives of all residents, including law enforcement, property tax collection, public health protection, public social services, elections, flood control, and maintenance of recreation, culture, and arts facilities.
Welcome to the often wacky world of San Marino’s Ray Lee, who for the past year has served as one of the 23 members of the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury, which embodies the intentional participation by the electorate in the democratic process.
“It is a singular opportunity to take an intimate look at how government works,” said Lee. “How civilians have the ultimate responsibility to ‘watch-dog’ the county, city, and joint-power civil agencies by examining and investigating—carefully and completely—their procedures, processes, personnel, and methods of operation.”
Then, the Civil Grand Jury report to the public and department heads, its findings on the workings of those 88 cities, 493 special districts, 80 school districts, 13 community college districts, and 144 detention facilities (by statute, the Civil Grand Jury is mandated to inspect the conditions and management of all public jails within its jurisdiction) as well as suggesting recommendations to assure best practices, accountability and efficiency to best serve its constituents.
The Civil Grand Jury is also tasked with responding to individual citizens’ complaints.
“I couldn’t believe County government could be so huge, so costly, and so organized along hierarchical lines such that the system renders check-and-balance to vested interests competing for scarce resources,” exclaimed Lee, a 23-year resident of San Marino. “I had to follow a tight ‘learning curve’ to learn so much about so many things concerning so many people in just a short time. For example, after we have visited Men’s Central Jail, the Twin Towers, Pitchess Detention Facility, the North Valley Correctional Facility, Camp Kilpatrick, and the Coroner’s Office, I began to see the criminal justice landscape in L.A. County much differently. I now believe the law enforcement community is asked to do the impossible!”
During its 2018-session, the Grand Jury focused on—or in Lee’s words “went full bore on”—drug smuggling in the jails, human trafficking of youth, the homeless infringing upon others’ accessibility to public libraries, Brady protection for “dirty cops,” Department of Children and Family Services’ failed policies of providing oversight, the accountability for weapons or drugs destroyed by the Sheriff’s Department, and planning for youth detention camp Parolee’s post-release life.
The final report is available online.
Lee, a secondary educator who retired in 2008 after working for 37 years in the Los Angeles County Unified School District, walked away from his year-long commitment to the Civil Grand Jury with what he identified as “four profitable gains of insightful appreciations.”
“I am humbled by the year of service, as I quickly grasp how enormously complex and exceeding intricate L.A. County is to govern,” he told The Tribune. “The bureaucratic infrastructure and operational machinery are esoteric. I arrived as an illiterate philistine and left as a purveyor of much acquired learning and discovery. It was simply one fascinating life experience to see government forces at work. I’m thankful that I contributed to the group effort and gave back to the community.”
Lee was also impressed by the herculean efforts put forth by the average worker.
“My lasting impression will always be the many men and women we met along the way, who professionally serve the county and who despite scarce resources and the ever-increasing demand for services—which far exceed available financing sources—continue to do their best with what meager assets they have to effect change for public safety priorities.”
Lee also praised the many leaders who ventured to the Grand Jury room to share what Lee called “their burdens and their real-time pursuits,” including LA Metro CEO Philip Washington, LA Fire Chief Daryl Osby and LAPD Chief Michael Moore, then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Inspector General Max Huntsman, Esther Lim of the ACLU, County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Public Defender Ricardo Garcia, County Assessor Jeffrey Prang and County CEO Sachi Hamai.
“She was amazing with her command of statistical facts and discernment of trending in supplying visionary leadership and extraordinary passion,” Lee said of Hamai.
After spending a year venturing downtown, Lee deduced that for what he considered the highlight of his term he could have walked around the corner.
“It was a meeting with District 5 Supervisor Kathryn Barger, a fellow San Marinan, when she came to testify” Lee said. “She represented a voice of calm reason and practical caring, which resonated with the majority of the group and brought ‘balance’ to the lack of equilibrium and disproportional propensities.”
But another experience also resonated deeply with Lee.
“On the morning of September 11, 2018, when the Grand Jury was offsite visiting the County Emergency Operations Center in its war room command center,” he explained. “The speaker was expounding about the Emergency Center’s expansive network of disaster preparations. She then stopped at exactly 9:10 am to suggest that we take a minute to remember the fallen and to honor our first-responders from the tragedy 911 tragedy. It was ‘a teachable moment’ of why we expend so much energy, time and resources in gearing up for the inevitable terrorist attack. It tugged at the heart-string.”
Lee reminded us that the Superior Court of California is consistently looking for willing volunteers to serve on its Civil Grand Jury panel, with interested parties encouraged to contact Waymond Yee for further detail at (213) 628-7916 or WYee@LACourt.org.