Willows publisher’s court case gets national attention
Tim Crews, publisher and editor of the Willows-based twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror, has picked up some big-time attention and legal support in recent weeks.
Crews is fighting a decision by a Glenn County Superior Court judge who ruled last year that the longtime 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 for public records.
In 2009, Crews sued the Willows Unified School District and then-Superintendent 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.
In its introduction the law reads: “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 filed his 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.
The case has gained national attention and raised concern among news outlets that see the ruling as a strike against the press and as having a chilling effect on efforts to access public information.
Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Newton featured Crews’ case in his Oct. 3 piece, and Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition wrote about it on the Huffington Post website.
On the same day Crews received support in the form of a friend-of-the-court brief filed by a number of interested parties, including The First Amendment Coalition; the California Newspaper Publishers Association; Los Angeles Times L.L.C.; the McClatchy Company; the California Newspapers Partnership, aka MediaNews Group, owner of the Chico Enterprise-Record, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune, among others; the Orange County Register; the Hearst Corporation, owner of the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
The file says that if the decision against Crews is upheld “then a provision designed to encourage citizens to seek judicial enforcement of their right of access would be transformed into a tool for scaring them off so that agencies can avoid public scrutiny.”
Crews says he didn’t ask for the support but welcomes it nonetheless: “The Huffington Post and L.A. Times on the same day—it’s landmark stuff.”
Still, the 69-year-old says the $56,000 hanging over his head and his paper is troubling and could spell the end of the 22-year-old publication.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “I talked to Karl Olson, our attorney, the other day, and the briefs are in, but he told me oral arguments would not take place until late next year. So the decision may be 2014.”
He said the situation is wearing on him.
“I don’t sleep well anymore,” he said. “If I can sleep until 3:30 in the morning I’m doing well.”
He said the judge’s decision is clearly a bad one for the newspaper industry and called it “an act of extreme anti-transparency.”
Crews compared Glenn County to the town described in William Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy, three novels set in rural Mississippi in the mid 1900s. “Unless you read The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion, you won’t understand Glenn County,” he said. “This whole sort of descendent, rural, anti-democratic attitude is institutionalized here, and the older I get the more apparent it becomes to me.”
He said he continues to file public-records requests, most recently from the Glenn County Board of Supervisors, which has been cooperative.
“I just called up the county counsel, and they spit them right out,” he said. “There are great changes over here in the sense that most government agencies now fully cooperate with the Public Records Act. The big problem remains the schools, which are like little fiefdoms.”
He said his paper had filed more public-records requests in the last 10 years “than probably all the other media in the state put together. And it’s just because it is so laborious. And in some years we’ve had to choose between entering CNPA contests and filing court cases because of the financial impact.”
He said he hopes to keep the Mirror going for another 11 years—when he turns 80.
“I don’t know what else I’d do. Some people have made a couple of feints at buying the paper, to see what kind of mental and financial condition we were in. I talked with Reb Rebele, who used to own the [Paradise] Post. He’s been a big supporter and great friend, and he said if they won’t tell you who they are don’t talk to them.”