OPEN GOVERNMENT — "Armed with subpoena powers, a band of 19 San Francisco residents has the run of city government, free to ask questions, demand answers and write up its findings for the city to scrutinize and consider," says a San Francisco Chronicle editorial. "It sounds like a dream job in a politically caffeinated city, flecked with pressure groups and a polyglot population divided by age, race and income. Who wouldn't want to grab the gavel of the civil grand jury and charge into a target-rich landscape? Very few, it turns out."

The civil panel – which has no connection to the criminal grand jury under the purview of the district attorney – is barely alive. Both judges, who loosely oversee the civil jury, and past members are worried that scant public awareness is dulling its potential. "In a city that's filled with so many motivated and active people, it's appalling so few are interested," said Superior Court Judge Julie Tang, head of a judicial panel overseeing the jury.

Each county in California is authorized to have a civil grand jury. In most counties, the prospect of serving on the watchdog panel generally produces a line out the door. For example, Marin County received 100 applicants last year, Tang said.

But not San Francisco, where judges and former members went into overdrive last spring to lure more candidates when only 46 applicants showed up in the final days. The pool generally shrinks after a panel of former jurors screens applicants for obvious bias and suggests that a would-be member think seriously about the time commitment.

Part of the problem is the jury's low profile. It doesn't render verdicts like the courtroom variety, not does it issue indictments as criminal grand juries do. Most people don't realize a third variant – the civil watchdog panel – exists. Its volunteer members put in long hours on self-assigned topics that are analyzed in reports that run up to 40 pages.

There's also the frustration factor. The jury's judgments carry no legal weight, though they can attract notice when veering into touchy topics.

Two recent reports addressed sensitive matters: the racially charged issue of assigning kindergartners to neighborhood schools and future bills for public employee pensions. But city authorities have mostly yawned at the results, or derided them as freelance homework turned in by amateurs.

When last year's grand jury faulted Mayor Gavin Newsom for not fully disclosing his administration's follow-through on campaign promises, press secretary Nathan Ballard said the report was "shallow and misleading." He's since made nice on the subject: ''Although we have on occasion grumbled about a grand jury report, we believe society needs the grand jury to be a watchdog, scrutinizing government. It is essential."

In a city rife with commissions and advisory panels, there should be a place for the civil grand jury. It gives average citizens the authority and a forum to get their government's attention.

Hat tip to Kimo Crossman