Dawson_b PUBLIC INFORMATION — A small newspaper in rural Glenn County north of Sacramento has won a court order from a visiting appellate justice for the release of information documenting spending by and for superior court judges.

The Sacramento Valley Mirror, California's most sunshine-litigious newspaper, seemingly as often as not responds to a denial of access to government information by filing suit, and almost always gets the information it seeks by either judgment or settlement.  (Editor and publisher Tim Crews is a member of the board of directors of Californians Aware.)

Here's how the Valley Mirror—which recently shut down its website—reports its victory in the current edition:

Justice Betty Dawson of the Fifth District Court of Appeal [pictured] late Thursday granted this newspaper’s demand for court spending records.

Ruling from the bench, Justice Dawson, assigned to the case by the Administrative Office of the Courts, said that, indeed, The Mirror had the right to see spending and the details of such spending, particularly on the Orland Court Chambers remodeling.

The Mirror filed a petition for a writ of mandate on March 11. The court executive officer, Tina Burkhart, initially released quarterly financial summaries.

But no detail on the spending at the Orland Courthouse, which is due to be abandoned in the near future.

After Paul Nicholas Boylan, of Davis, filed the suit on behalf of the paper, 10 remodel documents were released. And most of them led to other documents and revealed an unaccounted, secreted spending.

Of particular concern was the matter of estimates. None were apparently solicited.

Also, the fees and contract for an interior decorator, a former court official from Nevada County, are hidden as well as cost of furniture, lighting and other items.

References to these things were also documented in county records secured from the Glenn County Department of Buildings and Grounds and the Glenn County Department of Finance.

The attorney for Ms. Burkhart argued that the court wasn’t compelled to release information on how it spent the public’s money.

But Justice Dawson disagreed, saying that while the California Public Records Act did not directly apply, and the rule of court was not precise, “The spirit of the California Public Records Act” was what counted.

The Administrative Office of the Courts and the chief justice have long said that the public has the right to know exactly how its money is spent. Yet, for the most part court operations are hidden from public view. This, despite the direction from court hierarchy in San Francisco.

“I never doubted this outcome,” said Mirror attorney Boylan. “It is simply absurd to believe that any governmental agency, even a court, can hide how they spend public money, and yet that is exactly what the court’s attorney was arguing,” Mr. Boylan said. “Every dollar spent defending the decision to withhold the requested information was a dollar utterly wasted that should have been spent on something else.

“The irony here is that this dispute is going to end up like most public records disputes,” Mr. Boylan observed.  “After spending enormous amounts of time and money to keep records secret, Ms. Burkhart is going to turn over the requested information, it isn’t going to reveal anything unusual, and people are going to ask why she spent so much money and invested so much effort into trying to keep the information hidden. The bottom line is that most public agencies say no because they can, not because they have a reason for saying no,” Mr. Boylan concludes.

The Mirror receives no money from the victory. Mr. Boylan is entitled to attorney’s fees.

But Mirror Publisher Tim Crews thinks that this effort will show “a certain lack of regard for how ordinary Californians struggle to keep afloat and the absurd idea that grandiose furnishings and surroundings somehow advance the interests of justice. We think it will show how money was spent and who was employed.

“We do not think there is any problem with local workers and providers but we do wonder at the large quantities of money directed out of county. Also, we haven’t seen evidence of estimates or any sort of shopping for the best deal. One also wonders why things like motorized remote control blinds are necessary in a tiny office.”

Valley Mirror City Editor Sara Inés Calderón called the local court and left a detailed message asking if Ms. Burkhart had a comment on the ruling granting The Mirror's petition for a writ of mandate and when can the newspaper expect the detail documents.

By press time, we had no answer.

This is the second loss to the Mirror by the Glenn County Superior Court  the issue of fiscal records. In 2003 the Third Appellate District, California Court of Appeal ruled for the Mirror in our quest for court financial documents held by Glenn County. Ms. Burkhart ordered the county’s finance chief to withhold the documents. The paper sued and the documents were released. Questionable and previously unknown spending was found.