The late Richard P. McKee, co-founder in 2004 and first President of Californians Aware, was honored by open government activists nationwide among four “Heroes of the 50 States” by the National Freedom of Information Coalition at its annual summit in Dallas on April 13.

The NFOIC’s Open Government Hall of Fame recognizes long-term contributions of individuals to open government in their respective states. Specifically, induction recognizes the “long and steady effort to preserve and protect the free flow of information about state and local government that is vital to the public in a democracy.”

The four inductees saluted in Dallas — representing California, Texas, Georgia and South Dakota — joined 17 previous open government champions honored since 2003 for their dedication to protecting citizens’ rights.

Rich McKee was the first non-journalist to serve as president of the California First Amendment Coalition, after which he co-founded CalAware to involve citizen watchdogs and government officials in the campaign for stronger democracy through transparency.

McKee was a chemistry professor at Pasadena City College, not a lawyer or journalist. But in the last decade and a half before his sudden death in 2011 at age 62, he was estimated to have sued — successfully — more public agencies in the state for violations or the open meetings and public records laws than any member of the State Bar.

He also helped design, launch and score a series of public records law compliance audits conducted by CalAware, with successive probes targeting leading state executive branch agencies, more than 200 law enforcement departments, and the public education system: 194 K-12 school districts, half of all community college districts, and all state university and UC campuses.

A California law opening the records of state college and university campus foundations to public scrutiny is named the Richard McKee Transparency Act.

McKee’s leadership in open government vigilance became a family tradition. His son Ryan, who was on hand in Dallas to accept the award on his father’s behalf, in 2005 was a high school senior who surveyed public agencies in his community as a school project to report on their compliance with the open records laws. He then helped his dad visit and check 30 statewide agency offices in Sacramento and San Francisco, documenting their transparency diligence as well, resulting in then state Senator Mark Leno’s introduction of a major public information reform bill.

Rich’s daughter Kelly Aviles, meanwhile, took a law degree specifically to represent to represent those needing the courts to keep state and local institutions open to public awareness. Since then, in both her private practice and her role as CalAware’s Vice President for Open Government Compliance, she has become recognized throughout the state as the force to be reckoned with by public officials favoring secrecy and deception as preservers of personal power.