Tim Crews, editor and publisher—and truth be told, lead reporter—of the twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror, was recognized by his peers Saturday for his dogged use of the courts to keep his Glenn County readers informed about their government and its officials.
Crews was presented with the Freedom of Information Award for 2013 of the California Newspaper Publishers Association at its annual convention in Universal City. Before a packed luncheon audience at the Sheraton Universal, Karlene Goller, vice president for legal affairs of the Los Angeles Times, had this to say in introducing Crews to his fellow professionals.
This year’s recipient may be the most experienced freedom of information litigant. You could call him Mr. Sunshine.
Just looking at the past five years, he has filed more than two dozen cases seeking government records under the California Public Records Act or pursuing violations of the Brown Act.
He won most of the cases, setting public access standards in all of them. You’d think bureaucratic obstructors would know: Don’t mess with Tim Crews and the Sacramento Valley Mirror.
Nearing 70, he served five days in the Tehama County jail for contempt because he refused to name a source of published information subpoenaed in connection with a criminal prosecution. “I had given my word,” he said.
He was so immersed in the contempt battle that he hadn’t paid attention to the fact that, if he went to jail, because it was essentially a one-man operation, the paper’s sterling record of continuous publication could be broken and his government foes would have won a significant victory.
As Crews likes to say, “Journalism in small towns and tiny counties is different from the big city. I see the people we write about at the gas station, in our one independent grocery, in Walmart, on the street.” And that’s every day. All day.”
Tim Crews has had his office burgled, his building set afire, his car’s brakes and wheels weakened to the point of failure and his dog poisoned and killed.
Crews’ current CPRA case seeks records held by the local school district. He was looking for evidence that the district might have spent public money to influence the outcome of a local election. He asked for records. The district stalled. He sued.
During the time it took the judge to hear the case, the district dribbled out some records. Finally the judge reviewed thousands more district documents in chambers. He spent 45 minutes reviewing them, then he decided, without explanation, not to release any – not one document.
Jim Newton, editor at large of the Los Angeles Times, who we just heard from, wrote a column about Tim: He said,
"Up to that point, the case was fairly unremarkable, one of thousands of disputed but ultimately resolved Public Record Act requests that wind their way through public agencies and courts every year.
"But then the judge in Crews’ case, Peter Twede, did something extraordinary: He concluded that Crews’ request had been frivolous and he ordered Crews to pay not only his own legal bills but those of the school district.
"For the privilege of obtaining the documents that were his legal right to have, Crews was ordered to pay more than $100,000, an amount later reduced to $56,000.
"Crews said this would wipe him and his paper out. Newton added that, if upheld by the appellate courts, the judgment would “radically alter the contours of the CPRA in California.”
Appellate arguments are scheduled for next month. CNPA and California newspapers, including The Times, are supporting him in the appeal as amici curiae.
As a footnote, I want you to know who that judge was ruling against. Remember Tim’s comment about being a journalist, running a paper in a small town and tiny counties? Pete Twede is the judge Tim sued a few years ago to get receipts for renovations and expansion of his chambers, in a courthouse slated to be demolished. Tim won.
In recognition of his courageous and committed advocacy for open government in the state despite personal risk and discomfort, the recipient of CNPA’s 2013 Freedom of Information Award is Tim Crews, Mr. Sunshine.
Crews is a founding director of Californians Aware and was recently elected its vice president. Among the non-media figures supporting him in his current fight against crippling attorney's fees for "frivolous" litigation are Senator Leland Yee and former Assemblyman Bill Bagley, father of the California Public Records Act.