Tuolumne County courthouse

The Historic Tuolumne County Courthouse on Yaney Avenue in downtown Sonora.

The Tuolumne County Superior Court shot down the Tuolumne County Republican Central Committee’s request to conduct an independent review of the findings from the latest Civil Grand Jury report before the Nov. 3 election.

Court Executive Officer Hector Gonzalez wrote in letter to Committee Chairman Randy Hanvelt that the court does not have the authority to act upon the request and must respect the jury’s autonomy as a “statutorily created citizen watchdog body that is expected to address controversial subjects in our community.”

“We understand that there will be those who disagree with the grand jury’s findings and recommendations, as well as those who agree with the findings and recommendations,” he wrote. “However, it is important that the court does not interfere with the independence of the grand jury.”

Hanvelt sent a letter on behalf of the committee to Presiding Judge Donald Segerstrom last month asking the court to review the jury’s investigation of Tuolumne Utilities District and its findings related to TUD Director Ron Kopf, who is seeking reelection in November.

The jury found “real and/or perceived” conflicts of interest between Kopf’s role on the water and sewer agency’s board of directors and his private work with developers and as executive director of the Tuolumne County Business Council.

Kopf and the district have denied the allegations and all other findings in required responses to the jury that were developed in consultation with a team of senior TUD staff and legal advisers and approved by a 3-1 vote from the board, with TUD Director Barbara Balen opposed.

Each of the 58 counties in California is required under the state Constitution to convene a grand jury consisting of ordinary citizens to investigate the functions of various officers, departments and agencies of local government, according to the state Judicial Branch. 

Gonzalez stated in the letter that the court serves as one of three legal advisors to the jury, with the others being the district attorney and county counsel. 

The advisors are required to review the final report and can make suggestions before it’s released to the public, but cannot withhold the report’s release simply because it disagrees with the jury’s finding and recommendations, Gonzalez wrote.

Any communication between the jury and its legal advisors is also subject to attorney-client privilege, and the jury can accept or ignore any suggestions they make.

Gonzalez also cited a state Supreme Court case that explained the importance of a court not interfering with the grand jury by stating that it’s the only agency “free from possible political or official bias that has an opportunity to see the operation of government on any broad basis.”

The state Supreme Court further stated that “the court has no authority to impose its own views on the grand jury to suppress a report simply because it considers it ill-advised, insufficiently documented, or even libelous.”

“The final report must stand on its own merits in the marketplace of ideas,” Gonzalez said in the letter. “Accordingly, the RCC, like any other interested community member or community organization, has every right to subject the grand jury final report to scrutiny.”

Hanvelt said in a phone interview Monday that he received the letter dated Sept. 28 earlier that morning and expressed frustration about the court being unable to fulfill the committee’s request.

The committee argued in its letter to the court that the findings from the jury’s report could have implications on Kopf’s bid for reelection if the differences between what it reported and denials by TUD weren’t sorted out.

“All I did and others did was look at it and say ‘this is a problem,’ ” he said. “It’s a problem because we’ve got two different inputs here and they are quite opposite, so what’s the truth? That’s really what the public deserves, is truth.”

Hanvelt said he understood the importance of the jury’s independence, but he has never seen a public agency’s responses to the jury’s findings and recommendations as “diametrically opposed” in the past.

That TUD has claimed it provided information that was left out of the report by the jury and would have provided better clarity also remains troubling, according to Hanvelt, who served two terms on the county Board of Supervisors from 2011 to 2019.

“I am more active and more involved and have sources I go to that John Q. Public doesn’t have access to. That’s only because I was a supervisor and all that,” he said. “It makes it much more difficult for a citizen without those connections to figure it out. I come out on the side of TUD. They have explanations for everything the grand jury found to be a problem.”

Earlier this year, Hanvelt was also tapped by TUD to serve as a paid consultant on forest management issues for the agency when it agreed to join the group known as Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions by the 3-2 vote.

Balen and TUD Director Ron Ringen were opposed to joining the group and hiring Hanvelt as a consultant. The district’s board later had to re-approve joining the group due to questions raised about potential Brown Act violations, though mention of potentially retaining Hanvelt’s services was removed.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.

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