Fight for Records Access Scrutinized

by Leslie Layton

When Glenn County newspaper publisher Tim Crews gave a seminar in Chico on Saturday, he wore his standard fare — suspenders over a Sacramento Valley Mirror t-shirt. Had Crews worn a cautionary button on his lapel, it might have read: “Lie to me and I’ll ask for the goods.”

During the seminar at Cal Northern School of Law, “Getting Access to Public Records,” Crews mentioned that he hates being lied to. Incidentally, this is a man who can recite, by heart, sections of the California Public Records Act that gives citizens access to official documents. And he can recite the entire Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s Open Meeting Law.

During the past 20 years, Crews has become skilled at using sunshine laws in reporting. Since 1991, when he launched what is now a twice-weekly newspaper based in Willows, he’s made more than 100 record requests under the state’s Public Records Act. Many of the stories he’s published about corruption, racism and injustice in one of Calfornia’s poorest counties have been based on documents pried from the hands of those in power.

The Valley Mirror’s tactics have won Crews admirers, but they’ve also come under recent assault and scrutiny. Critics say Crews is too quick to the draw, but how harshly you judge him may depend on how strongly you feel about transparency in government.

In September, a Glenn County judge ruled that a lawsuit filed by the paper in its fight to access Willows Unified School District e-mail was “frivolous.” Willows Unified then filed a claim against the Mirror — a marginally profitable operation — for more than $104,000 in attorney fees.

In perhaps an odder development, the Mirror has itself become the object of public-record requests by another newspaper. The Chico Enterprise-Record is looking at settlements Crews has reached with public agencies. For example, Editor David Little, in a Jan. 7 request sent to the Glenn County Office of Education, asked for copies of documents related to settlements that agency had reached with the Mirror, and the Mirror’s record requests over the past 10 years.

Newspapers often make record requests aimed at information-gathering. But the requests are usually designed to look at the inner workings of government, not at another newspaper. The E-R’s Little was terse when asked for comment.

“Asking for public records is allowable,” Little said. “If we get a story we’ll do it, and if we don’t, we won’t.”

Crews said he’s sued 18 times since 2002 to prod agencies into releasing documents they continued to withhold. The Valley Mirror won settlements in all but two of its lawsuits, but those monies covered court and attorney fees, he said, and the law explicitly prohibits him from profiting. He hasn’t touched settlement money, he said, “not a fucking penny.”

Crews believes the E-R’s probe was inspired by recent comments made by a Willows city official that appeared in a competing newspaper. The official said he suspects Crews uses court settlements to help finance the paper. Crews found the suggestion offensive, in part because fee-splitting is illegal.

On Jan. 12, the Mirror published a scathing commentary topped with a headline reading, “Chico E-R investigating Valley Mirror.” In the commentary, Crews chides the E-R for overlooking many agencies in its “investigation,” and he provides a list of offices that have received his record requests or open-meeting demands.

But the 67-year-old publisher/editor/reporter can probably tolerate some sunshine himself; he’s won a host of state awards in connection with his use of open-government laws in reporting. People who know him believe he’s driven by a sense of moral indignation.

“Tim’s experience is unsurpassed in this state,” said Davis attorney Paul Boylan, who sometimes represents the Valley Mirror. “Tim is the most dogged champion for open government I know; he’s also one of the most principled individuals I have ever met.”

Crews’ problems with Willows Unified began as many of his problems begin: with a records request. Crews asked the school district to provide copies of thousands of e-mails sent and received on district computers. He had heard that a school official was running a political campaign out of district offices.

The school district withheld much of the information he requested, and the e-mails that it provided had been laboriously scanned and transformed into PDF documents. The result was that Crews couldn’t see the heading information, embedded graphics or even attachments. He ended up suing.

Willows Unified School District Superintendent Mort Geivett said the e-mail was scanned because it seemed like the “best way” to redact out privileged information. The attachments didn’t reproduce in the copying process, he said, but those that didn’t contain confidential information exempted by law were eventually turned over to the Valley Mirror.

Geivett said Crews didn’t give the district enough time, before filing a lawsuit, to respond to a request that involved many hours of work by officials and attorneys. “The Public Records Act is there to protect the public and I’m not opposed to that,” Geivett said. “But there were things we could not turn over. I don’t think Mr. Crews trusted that we turned over everything we could turn over. He was basically saying, ‘I want everything.'”
Though he didn’t win access to everything, Crews got some of the attachments only because of the lawsuit, Boylan said. Because he was partially successful, Judge Peter Twede’s ruling that the suit was frivolous makes no sense to Boylan.

Boylan also said Twede’s ruling suggests that an e-mail is nothing more than the message page. He believes the case will be reversed on appeal, and he’s particularly concerned about the school district’s claim against the Mirror.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association and other media organizations supported the Mirror’s initial effort at appealing the claim — which wasn’t successful — but as the case proceeds, Boylan expects many more to file briefs on their behalf.

“It’s a strange and unusual case,” he said. “As a legal one, it’s exciting and very important. A citizen should have the right to test whether or not a public agency has to turn something over; if the citizen can be punished for being wrong, they’ll never test.”

Boylan has recently taken a position with the Glenn County Office of Education, but thrived on his work with the Mirror. In a 2008 interview with ChicoSol, he said settlements had provided only a “fraction” of what he could have charged a private client. But he said the paper has changed the Northern Sacramento Valley for the better.

Many people believe Crews’ reporting affected the outcome of a Glenn County Office of Education superintendent’s race, for example. Crews had won access to e-mail and other documents that served as the foundation for stories alleging the fradulent use of county resources for private purposes.

Crews has also reported on the treatment of mentally ill inmates at the Glenn County Jail, and published several stories about Reny Cabral, a college student from an immigrant family in Orland. Cabral was jailed in the midst of his struggle with schizophrenia, and guards declined to give Cabral his medication. In a moment of terror, Cabral smashed his head against a cell wall and broke his neck.

Now a 27-year-old quadriplegic living in Chico, Cabral said earlier this week that he’s grateful for the coverage Crews gave his case. “He’s the voice of the people,” Cabral said of Crews. “He said things that needed to be said, but we could not say them.”

In 2009, when the California Press Association named Crews “Newspaper Executive of the Year,” First Amendment advocate Terry Francke wrote that the Mirror’s pages reflect “a poor valley community and its abused and neglected wretched of the earth as well as its happier moments.”

Crews views the power structure in the region he serves as an oligarchy, and the area’s high unemployment as a product of policy. Open-government laws are for him a tool for probing, reporting and confronting. He said he files lawsuits only when he has no other recourse; suing, he said, is “distracting” and expensive.

Muckraking has social, as well as financial, costs, and Crews believes there’s an effort afoot to shut the paper down. “There’s a small drumbeat among people who don’t want the Valley Mirror investigating anything,” he said.

But Crews doesn’t seem likely to duck any blows coming his way. He runs the newspaper out of a downtown Willows storefront. There’s no heat in the winter; when his attorney complained, Crews told him to “man up.” He does much of the newspaper delivery himself.

In an e-mail to this reporter, he said in characteristic Crews fashion, “We are slowly prying the place loose from the masters.” He quoted the abolitionist and writer Sarah Moore Grimké, who said in 1837, “All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God designed us to occupy.”

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