Costly reporting

Valley Mirror publisher Tim Crews gets slapped with court fees

Attorney Paul Boylan and newspaperman Tim Crews (right), editor and publisher of the Valley Mirror, pictured earlier this year during a public workshop on the California Public Records Act.

Attorney Paul Boylan and newspaperman Tim Crews (right), editor and publisher of the Valley Mirror, pictured earlier this year during a public workshop on the California Public Records Act.

PHOTO by kyle delmar

The battle over court fees related to public-records requests continues for Tim Crews, publisher and editor of the Willows-based Sacramento Valley Mirror. A Glenn County Superior Court judge has ruled that the newsman must pay more than $56,000 in court costs related to a lawsuit he filed against the Willows Unified School District over allegations the district did not respond in a timely manner to his requests.

And his former attorney says the judge’s latest ruling in the case could have a detrimental impact on a newspaper’s ability to get such records in a timely manner.

It’s a complex story that goes back a couple years, with one party suggesting that Crews uses court cases to fund his operations and the other stating that a rural county judge has little respect for the state’s public-records law.

In 2009, Crews sued the Willows Unified School District and then-Superintendant Steve Olmos. Crews was searching for evidence of misspending by the district, and he contended the district was not meeting his request for public records in a timely manner as prescribed by the state’s Public Records Act.

The law says, right in its introduction: “If an agency improperly withholds records, a member of the public may enforce, in court, his or her right to inspect or copy the records and receive payment for court costs and attorney’s fees.”

But Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter Twede ruled that Crews had jumped the gun and made a motion, also called a writ, before the district had finished its task of providing the records. Therefore, Twede ruled, Crews’ suit was frivolous.

“There was simply no reason to serve the writ so long as the respondent [the school district] continued to provide the data in the exact format demanded by the petitioner [Crews],” Twede wrote in his judgment.

Crews’ tendency to muckrake has made him less then popular in some Glenn County circles, especially among government leaders who are often his target. Willows City Manager Steve Holsinger has suggested Crews is more interested in making money than ferreting out the truth. But Crews claims court-awarded fees go only to his attorneys, and that he keeps his paper operating by serving not only as editor but also its deliverer (he’s aided by a copy editor). “We have volunteers, and we’re very frugal,” he said during an interview last January. “We have no heat in our office.”

For this case, Crews referred this reporter to his former attorney, Paul Boylan, and current attorney, Karl Olson. Boylan said the district took a long time responding to the requests.

“[The paper] wanted the information sooner rather than later, and as an impetus to show they were serious they filed a lawsuit,” Boylan said. “The Willows Unified School District continued to provide documents very, very slowly, and many, many months later they finished. And when they finished I took a look at the documents and found out some were missing, as were attachments to emails.”

Crews and Boylan were granted a hearing on the matter. Twede, Boylan said, told the district that it didn’t have to provide all of the requested records but did have to include the email attachments.

“Now, under normal circumstances that makes the party making the request [Crews] the prevailing party in a lawsuit like this,” Boylan said. “But Judge Twede didn’t think so. He thought because the action was filed before all of the records were produced that somehow it made the lawsuit frivolous, and he awarded fees to the school district.”

Boylan said that, as far as he knows, the ruling is unprecedented.

“My take is that we are on the cutting edge of some new law, basically,” Boylan said. “Judge Twede is saying in essence that a party that comes to him—or to any court, for that matter—cannot file an action until after the public agency that has records has finished providing those records.”

The Public Records Act includes this: “Prevailing plaintiffs shall be awarded court costs and attorney’s fees. A plaintiff need not obtain all of the requested records in order to be the prevailing party in litigation. A plaintiff is also considered the prevailing party if the lawsuit ultimately motivated the agency to provide the requested records. Prevailing defendants may be awarded court costs and attorney fees only if the requestor’s claim is clearly frivolous.”

Twede apparently thought so.

“What’s really at issue here at this point,” said Boylan, “is not just whether or not Mr. Crews is going to have to pay attorneys’ fees, but whether or not a party is allowed to file a lawsuit before a local agency produces whatever records they are going to produce. As a matter of fact I do it all of the time, but I’m not going to do it anymore, not until this issue is resolved.”

In his judgment Twede writes that on Jan. 24 Crews filed a declaration “that he was, for all intents and purposes, a pauper without funds of any sort nor any sources of funds with which to pay any award of fees should the court be so inclined to make such an order.”

Twede called the declaration “exceptionally self-serving” and said it was filed without Crews offering any proof of being a pauper. And he refers to a 2007 case in which Crews was awarded court costs from the Glenn County Office of Education in the amount of $100,000.

Crews and Boylan have said there were actually two checks written as requested by the county Office of Education. Both men’s names were on the checks, they said, but both went directly into Boylan’s bank account. “I had to pay the taxes on it,” Boylan said this week.

Crews’ current attorney, Olson, said an appeal should be filed by next month.