Last week, San Francisco’s Civil Grand Jury released a report, “Better Muni Service Needed, Without Switchbacks.” This group of civic volunteers lacking transit expertise or experience running transit systems concluded that MUNI should run every bus and train to the end of the line, a practice San Francisco has avoided. SFMTA Board Chair Tom Nolan described the report as “superficial at best,” while SFMTA chief Ed Reiskin said that the grand jury proposal “is not a good practice, let alone a best practice.” Both were too polite to say the truth: the civil grand jury lacks the skills and resources to adequately evaluate SFMTA or any other public entity or public policy issue. It's uninformed recommendations hurt rather than help the cause of good government, and the entity should be abolished.

I’ve had a number of experiences with San Francisco’s civil grand jury over the years. The group is primarily comprised of retired people with an interest in SF city government. They are well-meaning, and eager to interview those involved with public policy issues.

But their lack of management, policy or technical skills in the area they are reviewing makes their work a complete waste of time for those interviewed. And more time (and taxpayer dollars) is then squandered when city officials like Nolan and Reiskin above have to take time away from their regular duties to address a report that is not worth the paper it was printed on.

Why are transit leaders and other public officials targeted in civil grand jury reports forced to respond to such worthless reviews? Because the media almost always gives grand jury reports coverage without ever noting the body’s shortfalls.

The civil grand jury, like the state Little Hoover Commission, creates the impression of civilian oversight of often out-of-control and/or out of touch public bureaucrats. The corporate media rarely passes up a chance to criticize the public sector, and promoting grand jury reports offers an effective way of advancing this goal.

Commissions and Public Hearings

In the absence of public commissions or any other vehicle for public oversight, a civil grand jury with a real budget and with people with expertise in the area under review could make sense. But we have public commissions on virtually every major public policy topic in San Francisco, and those with ideas on issues like MUNI switchbacks can express such ideas at Commission hearings or at the Board of Supervisors.

As Nolan put it, “the Civil Grand Jury report recommendations and findings reveal how tough it is to get a good understanding of the system.” The same statement could be made for every major city agency or policy issue.

I have dealt with the Civil Grand Jury on its reports on the Department of Building Inspection and on homelessness. The DBI report from 2004 was a complete embarrassment for its lack of facts and reliance on anonymous sourcing. A Supervisor held a public hearing on some of its findings and not a single member of the public provided testimony backing the report’s conclusions.

Yet this deeply flawed report was trumpeted by the SF Chronicle and Mayor Newsom because it served their political purposes; grand jury reports that lack any of the standard indices of credibility are treated as coming from some exalted body of experts with special insights into the truth.

The Chronicle has repeatedly referred to that erroneous 2004 grand jury report on DBI in writing future attacks on the agency. Each new reporter assigned to write about DBI Googles past articles, finds the grand jury report, and repeats and gives credibility to its falsehoods in their own pieces.

Grand jury members rarely have knowledge and expertise in the area they are reviewing. If you think expertise is not important, join the Republican Party’s anti-climate change bandwagon. I think most San Franciscans prefer to live in the reality world, and assume that civil grand jury reports come from experienced experts, not well intentioned lay people lacking the skills, knowledge and resources to understand multi-million dollar and even multi-billion dollar public agencies.

The civil grand jury is supervised by the San Francisco Superior Court. The cash-strapped Court spends virtually no money on the grand jury and does not want to get involved in a political fight to dissolve a state-mandated body (it is mandated in the CA Constitution) that does not affect the judges.

So the grand jury reports will continue, and the public will continue to be misled about its credibility. No public official wants to be accused of ignoring its reports, so an outdated institution continues after its function has been long gone.

But its perpetuation should not mean that the media or public should give credibility to its reports.