The appointment of a Sutter County employee as the foreperson for the 2014-15 Sutter County grand jury is a "blatant conflict of interest," according to a local watchdog organization.

Rebecca Askins, an employee with Sutter County's Welfare and Social Services Department, will serve as the foreperson of this year's grand jury, which examines aspects of city and county government and special districts, such as schools, to ensure the best interests of Sutter County are being served.

The Sutter County Taxpayers Association, in a letter sent to the Appeal-Democrat, said Askins, who also served on the 2013-14 grand jury, could not be unbiased when asked to investigate her employer.

"In a county as small as Sutter, alleged wrongdoing cannot be legitimately investigated by members of the very organization under investigation — possibly even immediate co-workers," wrote Pat Miller, president of the taxpayers association.

It is a viewpoint Jim Arkens, chief administrative officer for Sutter County, shared.

"I don't think a county employee should serve on the grand jury," Arkens said. "They're there to oversee the organization of the county and others. If she is a part of that, especially as a foreperson, she has a lot of influence over it."

The position of foreperson is usually recommended by the outgoing foreperson. Sutter County Superior Court Judge Brian Aronson makes the final determination, said Jackie Laswell, secretary to the grand jury.

Aronson did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment on the appointment.

But while the appointment may seem to be a conflict of interest, it's not against the law.

According to California Penal Code 916.2, an employee of any agency within the investigative jurisdiction of the grand jury may serve on that jury. The juror must recuse themselves from participating in participating in any grand jury investigation of that agency.

Miller also raised concerns about how Askins' time spent fulfilling her grand jury duties would be separated from her work in the county, citing the Sutter County grand jury website that says serving on the jury "consumes many hours."

"There needs to be close monitoring of both time at — and time away — from her county job so that taxpayers are not paying her county wages while she is consuming those many hours on grand jury business," Miller wrote.

Patty Leland, senior human resources analyst for the county, said it has long been the policy of the county that its employees have to use accrued time off, such as vacation days, when volunteering for jury service.

Leland said many county employees have served on grand juries in the past.

CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.

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