PUBLIC INFORMATION -- Californians Aware and 15 press organizations from around the state today filed a friend of the court brief supporting a weekly newspaper's effort to get attorney's fees paid by the city that forced it to go to court to get public information.

Tim Crews, publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror—and a member of CalAware's board of directors—filed an action under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) more than a year ago when the City of Willows refused to provide contact information for persons who had applied for appointment to its planning commission, and insisted on charging $3 each for copies of nuisance and other abatement notices issued by the police department. 

The city clerk had more than a week to consult with the city attorney on the lawfulness of her decisions, but did not—issuing her response within a day and allowing the 10-day period for considering the request lapse without changing her position.

After the suit was filed the city attorney overruled the clerk and directed release of the information, saying he would have done so had he but known of the request.  That claim led the city to oppose Crews' motion for attorney fees, which are normally available from the defendant government agency if the filing of litigation causes it to release public records.

The trial court sided with the city, borrowing principles from another area of the law to say that Crews should have attempted to settle the dispute before going to court, and that failing to do so was so unfair that he would have to eat his attorney fees.

Crews has sought relief in the California Court of Appeal, and supporting his position besides CalAware are the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the Sacramento and Modesto Bees, the Stockton Record, the Riverside Press-Enterprise and smaller newspapers including the Chino Champion, the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, the Grass Valley Union, the Merced Sun-Star, the Mountain Democrat in Placerville and the Ferndale Enterprise.

Besides faulting the trial court's legal analysis, the brief warns of the decision's practical implications as precedent for deliberate stalling or unresponsiveness by those public agencies who see delay in releasing public information as being to their advantage.

"Because agencies have every incentive to make post hoc justifications for their refusal to produce records before litigation if allowed to do so as part of an effort to defeat a fee motion, it is important for the Court to make clear that such declarations have no place in the determination of whether a plaintiff has prevailed within the meaning of the CPRA."