Muckraking goes on
Court ruling saves Willows publication from bankruptcy
Newspaperman Tim Crews is sleeping far better these days.
That turn of events took place following the recent decision by a state Court of Appeal overturning a local judge’s order that Crews pay $56,000 to the Willows Unified School District, an amount that would have folded the Sacramento Valley Mirror newspaper.
The hard-fought battle comes nearly two years after Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter Twede dismissed Crews’ state Public Records Act lawsuit against the school district—filed when the agency failed to respond to a PRA request within the timeframe allotted by law—and ruled it as frivolous, ordering him to pay the school district’s attorneys’ fees.
In its ruling last Wednesday, July 17, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento agreed with the lower court’s dismissal of Crews’ PRA lawsuit, but it did not find the petition frivolous and thus overturned the monetary judgment.
Crews’ partial victory at the appellate level means the twice-weekly paper will live on, but it also has larger implications in the realm of public information. Had Twede’s ruling held up, it would have set a precedent that would have deterred other newspapers and individuals—under fear of having to repay attorneys’ fees—from pressing for access to government records.
“If Tim had lost, we would have seen the loss of all enforcement of the Public Records Act, and it would mean public agencies would have total impunity to stop complying with the law,” said attorney Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, an open-government advocacy group that greatly aided Crews’ appeal.
The First Amendment Coalition was among the heavy hitters in the journalism world—including newspapers such as the L.A. Times; newspaper parent companies, such as McClatchy (owner of The Sacramento Bee) and MediaNews Group (owner of the Chico Enterprise-Record); along with newspaper group the California Newspaper Publishers Association; and nonprofit open-government advocacy group Californians Aware—that lent Crews support in the form of friend-of-the-court briefs.
The coalition also financed 90 percent of his appeal through the Rebele Legal Fund, named after Rowland “Reb” Rebele, main contributor to the fund and former owner of the Paradise Post, where Crews once worked. “Without them, we would have been sunk,” Crews said.
“None of us in this business are in it alone. We stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before,” said Crews, producing an invoice for more than $16,000 that he owes to San Francisco-based attorney Karl Olson, who he noted had given him a very-reduced rate. “This is by no means the last bill,” continued Crews, who is trying to raise donations to pay off the balance.
But that will be easier said than done, as Crews is an old-school journalist who isn’t savvy to new media. “I don’t Faceplant, I don’t tweet, I don’t do any of that stuff,” quipped Crews, a practitioner of shoe-leather reporting, a dying art.
In 2009, Crews, editor and publisher of the Mirror, had requested emails from district officials that he believed would have shown the then-superintendent had used public money illegally—for political purposes. In addition to not meeting the timeline under the PRA, when the school district did begin producing the information, the documents came in an electronically unsearchable format. Moreover, the agency omitted 2,300 pages, documents Twede later ruled were exempt from inspection.
“That’s still a very big burr under my saddle,” Crews said Monday morning (July 22) from the Mirror’s office in downtown Willows.
Crews, who reports on goings-on throughout Glenn County, started the Valley Mirror 22 years ago on a shoestring budget, and continues to run the publication at a loss. Investigative reporting based on the gathering of public documents is a hallmark of his work—as evidenced by the awards lining the front windows of his office in an old jewelry store.
The 69-year-old muckraker recalled having taken a class on the Public Records Act back in 1989 taught by attorney and former newspaper editor Terry Franke, an expert in First Amendment rights and co-founder of Californians Aware.
Thereafter, for his first PRA request, he asked the county for a list all holders of concealed-weapons permits. That move elicited quite a stir, but Crews eventually found about a half-dozen permits had been issued illegally, mostly to out-of-towners.
These days, one his biggest watchdog projects is keeping tabs on school districts. Crews noted that most of the schools in the county are underperforming, and his goal is to keep them accountable. “I think we have to do that—find out what they’re using the money for,” he said. “The problem is most [school officials] don’t live [in their districts]. The danger is they never have to live with the decisions they make.”
But the tens of thousands of dollars he was ordered to pay two years ago would have spelled the end of the Willows-based paper and all of the dirt regularly dug up. The longtime newspaperman believes that was actually the point.
“I think the goal was to destroy this paper, because we are a big fucking annoyance,” said Crews, referring to his dogged insistence that government agencies follow the letter of the law when it comes to the California Public Records Act.
Donna Settle, Crews’ longtime partner, in love and business, noted that until Twede’s ruling, Crews had never lost a PRA lawsuit.
“Tim knows the law as well as any attorney and better than most,” she said.