Awareness Area: Politics

Veteran Journalist: Just Show Us the Documents

Tim Crews, editor and publisher of the twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror in Glenn County and recipient this past weekend of the 2013 Freedom of Information award of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, comments on what it takes to make government documents tell their story to the public. Let’s look backward in the Mirror. In Los Angeles Saturday, where I had been flown to be recognized for 23-odd years of public records, open government and other freedom of information work, I had a few moments to reflect on the fruits of that effort. It is quite gratifying to get a one-of-its-kind award. At the same time, in the rarefied company of the state’s leading newspaper publishers, editors, reporters and photographers, I had a few minutes — we hadn’t been fully notified of why we were there—to ask myself what we do that is so different to merit the honor of the 2013 CNPA Freedom of Information Award. Sure, we’ve sued a lot, and mostly won. And we’ve beaten most redneck censors but some people are still afraid of being seen buying a copy of the county’s largest newspaper. California has some of the better, not the best, public records and open meetings laws in the nation. But it takes muscle to make them work. But more important is that The Sacramento Valley Mirror operates under old-fashioned newspaper-of-record principles. Certainly not as tough as those I grew up with where, in a county this size, every birth, hospitalization, divorce, marriage and birth was printed. We do bookings and keep track of police reports and that function helps us frequently to be able to make connections the police can’t or don’t, such as the link between an apparent […]

Peers Salute CalAware’s VP as FOI Champion

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 […]

$100K Cost of Secret Taping in Political Sting

A cautionary story for journalists, activists or others tempted to covertly audio- or video-record a conversation with someone, the better to expose him or her later: the problem is that once you do expose them, you may end up owing them a lot of money for violation of a California privacy statute, which can also be enforced by criminal charges.  Jeff McDonald reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Report: Courts Governed Largely Behind Closed Doors

Meetings of local government bodies are kept open by the Brown Act.  For state boards and commissions in the executive branch, it’s the Bagley-Keene Act. The Legislature’s open meeting obligation is in the state constitution. But for want of such an unambiguous mandate for transparency, California’s  judicial branch, providing the tribunals where all these other sunshine laws are enforced,  is governed by a network of policy-making and advisory bodies most of whose meetings are held behind closed doors.  The rationale seems to be, Cheryl Miller reports in The Recorder, that these meetings are presumed to be closed because no law presumes them to be public.  But Californians Aware and others say that’s got it backwards, given a constitutional amendment in 2004.

Is the Pen Mightier Than the Sword? Well . . .

Try bringing a pen to a swordfight.  In individual conflict, stabbing and slashing can always silence words. But unregulated speech and writing > association > petitioning—a process collectively known as politics, is weightier than all the massed weapons in the nation.  Putting it differently, it is the First Amendment that protects the Second (among others), and not vice versa. Note, for example, today’s announcement of a new coalition of organizations normally competing for the membership dues and shopping dollars of those who like guns—and the more and deadlier the better. BELLEVUE, WA / SAN CARLOS, CA / MADERA, CA (January 3, 2013) – Firearms Policy Coalition, a new project of renowned Second Amendment rights advocacy organizations Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, Second Amendment Foundation, and The Calguns Foundation has been launched, noted managing director Brandon Combs.  The Coalition’s website was opened to the public in late December 2012. The Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) provides for an effective, NATO-like response to gun control campaigns and efficient, low-friction advocacy of litigation, legislation, education, and grassroots efforts that advance Second Amendment rights. Of the Coalition, Second Amendment Foundation Executive Vice President Alan Gottlieb said, “I’m proud to help usher in the next generation of gun rights activism. The new paradigm is, and must be, coordination, mutual-support, and unity. Those who would disarm America’s law-abiding people are rabid in their desire to assault gun owners’ Second Amendment, privacy, and property rights.” “FPC immediately brings to the table leading Second Amendment advocacy groups, leadership, staff, volunteers, and hundreds of thousands of active supporters. This,” said Combs, “will enable superior communication, real-time collaboration, and scalable action to advance individual liberties […]

A New Way to Challenge Stealthy Government

As of today, acts or omissions that citizens suspect to be violations of the open meeting law for local government bodies—and in any event want halted—can be challenged by a cease and desist letter to the body.  If that demand is not satisfied by a public commitment to abandon the practice, the challenger can proceed directly to court for a judicial order to do so. Until last year’s passage of SB 1003, which created the new remedy, courts were free to determine that they would not decide the lawfulness of a single past practice unless it involved allegedly illegal action taken or unless there were clear evidence that it would be repeated.  SB 1003 ends that state of affairs and allows a declaratory judgment action—and potentially an injunction—for a single past action as much as 90 days old that the local body fails to disavow.  SB 1003 was co-sponsored by Californians Aware and the California Newspaper Publisher Association. Complete details here.

CalAware Asks Hold on Court Info Policy

Californians Aware has asked California’s Chief Justice to defer action on a proposal to treat requesters for judicial branch administrative information based on their need to know. Set for consideration at today’s (Friday,  December 14) meeting of the California Judicial Council—policy-maker for the state’s court system—is a recommendation that requests for information that do not specify particular public records be treated differently depending on who is asking. The rationale for the proposal is that while budget reductions have led to increasing staff shortages, there is also an increasing rate of queries as to how the court system is run involving why certain decisions were made or actions taken. Such queries often amount to demands for explanations, analysis or other responses that would require the creation of new records to fulfill, or that involve policy motives that staff either does not know or feels it above their pay grade to speculate about. Three years ago the Judicial Council adopted Rule of Court 10.500, for the first time stating the presumption that the public is entitled to view or copy the judicial branch’s administrative records, as distinguished from records of court proceedings, which have been presumed public as a matter of common law for many years.  But 10.500, like its counterpart pertaining to executive branch and local government documents, the California Public Records Act, does not require the creation of new records or the compiling of lists or reports. Nonetheless, the authors of tomorrow’s recommended action—which unlike most potentially controversial measures was not put out for public comment—contend that many information requests ask for answers rather than access to records, and need to be accommodated by new guidance from the Council. The recommended policy set for action […]

Supervisors to Limit Speech by Time, Not Topics

Prompted by a suggestion from Californians Aware, the Orange County Board  of Supervisors has dropped a proposed rule to limit citizen speakers at public meetings of the board to comments on only three agenda items, for three minutes each, reports Nick Gerda for the Voice of OC.  Instead, speakers will be allowed a total of nine minutes per meeting to address as many items as they choose—but still with a maximum of three minutes per item.  

The Secret Panel That Vets Earthquake Predictions

The public access law for California’s state boards, commissions and other policy and advisory bodes, the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, contains a provision allowing the state’s scientific panel charged with evaluating earthquake predictions to meet in closed session—whenever it meets. Government Code Section 11126 (f) (9) states that nothing in the Act prevents the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, or other body appointed to advise the Secretary of Emergency Management or the Governor concerning matters relating to volcanic or earthquake predictions, from holding closed sessions when considering the evaluation of possible predictions. This body—not to be confused with the Seismic Safety Commission or the California Earthquake Authority—meets by telephone conference on the call of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.  How often it meets is unclear, and it may be that it convenes only to consider earthquake (or volcanic eruption) predictions of a certain scientific authoritativeness.  The last publicized such meeting(s) took place eight years ago in response to predictions of major earthquakes in the state by reputable seismologists known as the Kellis-Borok group.  The Emergency Management Agency concluded in its later public report that those predictions not only were not fulfilled but were based on an unproven methodology and did not warrant an official reaction. The Keilis-Borok method is based on identifying patterns of small earthquakes prior to large shocks. To date there is no evidence that these, or related methods, yield useful intermediate term forecasts. Furthermore, the Council has heard no valid physical basis for the Keilis Borok methodology. Given the track record so far and the lack of a physical basis, the Council does not consider the method to be a basis for public policy. Therefore, CEPEC advises OES to take no […]

Teachers, Test Scores and a Punished Publisher

What Gets Measured Gets Publicized? — If a k-12 public school district systematically tracks the average learning progress of each teacher’s class in terms of test scores, should that information be on the public record?  The Los Angeles Times says yes, and is suing the city’s public school system for the data linked to each teacher’s name.  But an interesting question of equity arises.  No such metrics are even required to be gathered, much less released, for individual public college and university professors, or for at least equally important professionals in the criminal justice system—badged officers, prosecutors and judges, prison wardens and probation officers—or indeed of almost anyone else in government. How to Extinguish a Nosy Newspaper — What’s frivolous about a lawsuit to force release of emails that might confirm a tip that a school superintendent used public funds and resources to influence a bond election and a ballot race for the county superintendent of schools? Everything, said a judge in rural Glenn County between Sacramento and Redding: suing too soon and being too aggressive in a case in which thousands of emails (and attachments) were withheld without explanation or justification.  But “frivolous” in this context is not just a basis for dismissal.  It’s been used to warrant an order to the requester to pay the district more than $56,000 in attorney’s fees. The plaintiff, a nearly impoverished but gutsy newspaper publisher in a poor rural county who’s never really operated in the black, says if that order stands it will ruin him.