Victory for transparency

Tim Crews’ legal battle overturns a dangerous precedent

First Amendment advocates are cheering a recent state appellate court ruling that strengthens the public’s right to access government documents. The decision—watched closely by newspapers in particular—stems from a case right in our back yard.

Newspaperman Tim Crews, editor and publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, has long been a champion of the California Public Records Act, as well as the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law. He’s well-versed in both, and has cited the laws on many occasions over the past 22 years to gather government documents and to make sure the public had access to the gatherings where public officials set public policy.

For the most part, Glenn County agencies have learned to comply with the laws. It’s imperative for them to do so, as the Willows Unified School District found out last week, when the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento ruled that Crews did not owe the district reimbursement for attorneys’ fees.

Back in 2009, Crews had filed a lawsuit against the district for dragging its feet in complying with his public-records request. The district indeed did not meet the deadline set forth by the law, but a Glenn County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the agency anyway, and dismissed Crews’ case. In a controversial move, that judge, Peter Twede, also decided the lawsuit was frivolous and ordered Crews to pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees.

His ruling set a dangerous precedent that—if allowed to stand—would have undermined the whole intent of the Public Records Act.

Fortunately for Crews, the First Amendment Coalition was on his side. The nonprofit rallied the support that ultimately led to a reversal of that monetary judgment. That means the public can litigate to enforce compliance with the law without the fear of being held liable for a defending party’s court fees.

It also means WUSD is now on the hook for the costs of its defense, which is likely much more than the $56,000 Crews was ordered to pay. That doesn’t include the fees associated with the appellate case.

We are sure the residents of Glenn County would rather have seen this money spent in classrooms. And of course, the fees could have been avoided altogether had the district complied with the records request from the start.

It’s been an expensive lesson for WUSD, one we hope sticks with officials there as well as with other government officials around the North State.