Union Democrat staff

The 2009-10 Tuolumne County Grand Jury has released its annual report, bringing sighs of relief from some quarters and gnashing of teeth from others.

Probably no public agency or county department is overjoyed when a grand jury committee appears at the door, and a few employees may break a sweat when jurors beginning calling staffers in for interviews or combing through files.

The report's release generally spurs few days of voyeuristic joy, as targeted officials squirm, rationalize and obfuscate. In fact, some might wish they could get appointed to the grand jury, if for no other reason than to throw fear into an unsuspecting bureaucrat or two.

Well, be careful what you wish for. Being a member of the Grand Jury entails hundreds of hours of work and not a whole lot of drama.

Take it from Mike Woicicki, foreman of the outgoing jury: The work requires patience, persistence and a commitment to Tuolumne County.

Woicicki, 61, retired a year ago as principal of Twain Harte School only to take a job at which he worked almost as hard, but was paid far less.

It involved least a four-hour meeting each week, plus committee assignments, interviews, research, notes, drafts, edits and deliberation. When the dust settled, Woicicki said, the $15-a-meeting plus mileage members are paid fell well short of minimum wage.

Grand jurors are selected randomly but only empaneled if they agree to join. That 19 men and women each year accept the assignment is remarkable. "You have to have the time and the interest," said Woicicki.

Of course, individual members and individual panels vary. Some work hard and turnout quality products. But Tuolumne County has also had its share of perfunctory reports that dispense uncritical kudos and do little more than skim the surface.

The 2009-10 report was not one: In 78 pages, the reports examines 16 agencies, districts, departments and programs, ranging from airports, to the county senior center to the state prison.

The report doesn't pull punches: "Grossly outdated, unsafe and has many hazards," it said of the jail. "The campus was unkempt and messy," it said of Sonora High School. "There appears to be a lack of awareness of not just the services offered, but even the existence of the office," the report said of county Veterans Services.

Included in all cases were recommended improvements, and anyone addressed in the report is given a chance to respond. "It"s like we're giving them a heads-up, a new point of view to consider," said Woicicki.

Absent are investigations of the Tuolumne City Sanitary District, the Groveland-Big Oak Flat School District and the Strawberry Fire District, all plagued by controversy over the past year. But rather than explore agencies constantly in the public eye, said Woicicki, 2009-10 jurors focused on others that hadn't been checked out for several years. The report, in fact, includes a chart of past jury investigations.

Complaints also spurred jury action, although those received late in the term were deferred. "That we couldn't get to all of them was frustrating," said Woicicki.

Another frustration, he added, was a down economy in which many offices and departments may seem to be falling short of goals "but are probably doing the best they can."

Doing its part during the crunch, the outgoing jury chose to print its report in black and white. It's no so flashy, but a lot cheaper.

All in all, Woicicki's verdict is positive: "There's no better way to understand what's happening in the community than being on the Grand Jury," he said.

That Woicicki and his fellow jurors are willing to invest hundreds of hours in letting us know what's happening is something for which we should be grateful.

(You can contact the Tuolumne County Grand Jury - a new panel will be sworn in next month - via email at tcgjforeman@mlode.com or by telephone at 533-5568).