The Jury Is Speaking. Will People Listen?
By Joel P. Engardio
Should the police department participate in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force?
Does $5.8 billion dollars of unfunded liability in City Hall’s retirement system threaten the financial well-being of San Francisco?
Why do Westside neighborhoods lack the high-pressure water system needed to fight fires after a major earthquake?
These are controversial questions that politicians like to avoid, but the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury does not shy away from them.
The reports from this year’s civil grand jury were recently released. The 18 jurors investigated why the San Francisco Police Department no longer participates with a federal terrorism task force. They also raised the issue of pension reform and fire safety — again.
Every county in California has a civil grand jury by state law. A group of volunteers are selected to investigate and report on county government operations, and elected officials must respond to the findings within 90 days.
Will we let the Westside burn?
It was 2003 when the civil grand jury first recommended that a high-pressure Auxiliary Water Supply System be extended “to serve all parts of the City.” Large swaths of the Western and Southeastern sections of San Francisco won’t have adequate water to fight multiple fires after an earthquake and will likely be left to burn.
The 2019 civil grand jury reported “City leaders have known about this deficiency for decades but have yet to develop concrete plans or a timeline to provide a robust emergency firefighting water supply for all neighborhoods.”
An earthquake safety bond planned for next year promises to address the issue over the next 35 years — a decade after experts predict a large quake to strike the Bay Area.
“City officials should make the expansion of emergency firefighting protections to all San Franciscans a matter of high priority,” the report concluded, “before it is too late.”
Pension reform redux
A civil grand jury report from 2017 found that the San Francisco Retirement System “threatens the financial future of The City” because the system is only 77.6 percent funded — and the unfunded liability of $5.8 billion will only balloon in the next economic downturn.
For that reason, the 2017 civil grand jury recommended establishing a Retirement System Oversight Committee to develop a long-term solution for reducing pension liabilities that is “fair to both employees and taxpayers” and accountable to voters. It said all options should be considered, including “a hybrid Defined Benefit/Defined Contribution plan.”
Mayor Ed Lee’s response was: “The City already has a Retirement Board which functions as oversight to the Retirement System.”
The Board of Supervisors wasn’t interested in entertaining new solutions for a persisting problem, either.
The 2019 civil grand jury didn’t think the 2017 responses were helpful, given the magnitude of the growing problem. They asked Mayor London Breed and a new Board of Supervisors to reconsider the original recommendation.
“Disjointed” counter-terrorism intelligence
From Fisherman’s Wharf to our LGBTQ Pride and Chinese New Year parades, San Francisco has no lack of potential terrorism targets. That’s why the police department became a member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2002, soon after 9/11. But police withdrew in 2017.
The latest civil grand jury report warns there has been “a reduction of information sharing between federal and local public safety and city governing officials.” The report adds that “The FBI does not have the benefit of SFPD officers on the task force with local contacts and knowledge.”
The report notes that civil rights groups were concerned about “privacy issues related to SFPD officers cooperating in federal immigration matters.” Yet police officials interviewed by civil grand jury members were “emphatic they did not engage in any immigration enforcement activities while assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
Police officials and the mayor are still briefed on imminent threats, but the grand jury report concludes that “those communications now take place in a less timely and efficient manner and only on an emergency basis” and “top secret information that previously had been accessible to SFPD members assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force is no longer as easily available.”
The report concluded: “What previously had been effective is now described as being ‘clunky’ and disjointed.”
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Solutions on a shelf
Too often, the civil grand jury completes an exhaustive investigation on an important topic only to have elected officials offer perfunctory responses to the recommendations. Then the reports gather dust on a shelf or in hard to find areas on City Hall’s website.
This year’s civil grand jury wrote a report on the need for dusting off past investigations to hold City Hall more accountable.
Consider the prescient 2016 report that addressed auto break-ins. An epidemic of property crime was in store for San Francisco and few residents haven’t experienced a smashed car window since then.
Perhaps it would be a different reality if the civil grand jury’s recommendations to contain and thwart property crimes were taken seriously and implemented three years ago.
While it’s good the civil grand jury is willing to speak truth to power, it only matters if we the people are willing to listen — and demand action.