The ability of Californians to scrutinize their government may rest on the outcome of a little-known case unfolding in a tiny Northern California town.
It began routinely enough. Tim Crews, the pugnacious, 69-year-old editor and publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, a twice-weekly newspaper that serves Glenn County, filed a request under the California Public Records Act for records held by the local school district. Specifically, Crews was looking for evidence that district officials might have spent public money to influence the outcome of a local election.
District officials did what public officials in California all-too-often do when confronted with a request they don't like. They stalled. At first, they refused to turn over anything. Then they turned over some of the records Crews had asked for, but in a format that made it impossible to search them. And when Crews asked for attachments referred to in some of the emails released in the request, the district refused to hand them over.
Crews is nothing if not dogged. He kept at it, finally persuading a judge to review thousands of the documents in chambers. The judge spent 45 minutes going through the material and then declined, without explanation, to release any more of it.
Up to that point, the case was fairly unremarkable, one of thousands of disputed but ultimately resolved Public Records Act requests that wind their way through public agencies and courts every year. But then the judge in Crews' case, Peter Twede, did something extraordinary: He concluded that Crews' request had been frivolous, and he ordered Crews to pay not only his own legal bills but those of the school district. For the privilege of obtaining documents that were his legal right to have, Crews was ordered to pay more than $100,000, an amount later reduced to $56,000.
If the judgment stands — Crews has appealed — it would have a devastating effect on the newspaper, which only has about 2,800 paid subscribers. "It would wipe us out," Crews told me last week.
It would do more than that. If upheld by the appellate courts, the judgment would radically alter the contours of the Public Records Act in California. Imagine if every time citizens asked for records under the act, they faced the possibility of having to bear not only their own legal expenses but also those that the agency might run up defending itself. Who could afford such risk?
The consequences of Crews' case are so far-reaching that a number of organizations have come to his defense, including the First Amendment Coalition (on whose board I serve without compensation). William T. Bagley, who wrote California's public records law while in the Assembly in the late 1960s, has also filed an amicus brief in support of the editor.
Crews is used to conflict. He went to jail for five days in 2000 for refusing to identify a source. It wasn't so bad, he recently recalled. "I watched a couple movies; wrote some long, long columns." Over the last five years he's filed more than a dozen cases seeking public records or claiming violations of the state's open meetings laws. It's easy to see why some officials are annoyed by him, but he doesn't scare easily.
Still, with the future of his newspaper at stake, Crews is taking the threat seriously. The paper has never missed a publication date in the 23 years he has been there, and it has served as an important watchdog of local government, in the best tradition of community newspapers.
All that is reason enough to be troubled by the action of the judge in the Crews case. But the potential damage to the public extends well beyond Glenn County and even beyond the Public Records Act itself.
If upheld, this ruling would fundamentally reorient the relationship between the people of California and those who represent them. It would require members of the public to put themselves at risk to learn about their own government. It would recast government agencies and elected officials as immune from public scrutiny rather than accountable through that scrutiny.
As the Public Records Act itself states: "The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them." For that reason alone, Crews deserves to win and his paper to survive.