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 arson fire and pot growing arrests seven months ago. We print bookings because we believe denying freedom is a serious matter and because in this country we don’t often disappear people, although we are not sure the federal government likes that.
Let the record reflect the wide uses of public records and some of their applications, like getting developmentally disabled Willie Olivarez released from jail. Records allow us to report accurately on things like the beating of the handcuffed Shawn Markure by lawmen. Not directly, but by seeing what reports are absent. We were able to report on the forgery of his name by looking for reports and finding none.
Autopsy records, such as those for the murder by arson of Bud Foglesong, showed gaps in investigation. What was once ruled a suicide and then an accident and finally a homicide, grew in many ways from the documents surrounding his death. We occasionally look at death certificates as a way of backward tracking of old homicide investigations.
We look for nonprofit organization agendas.We track government payments backward, leading to stories on bidding irregularities.We sometimes check cancellation and deposit notes on back of government checks. Where did the money really go?
Our biggest problem continues to be the courts, where even though the law and the rules of court make documents accessible, a minority of functionaries try to slow down or frustrate the process. But I believe search warrants need to be read from time to time.
Still somewhat under the radar are building permits.There are health inspections, public officials’ Form 700s, the statement of economic interests, campaign expense filings… property deeds.
These are all just tools. But these tools help us report the way things are, not the way we are told they are.
Just show us the documents.