By: Jacqueline Ginley
A case before a California appellate court has the potential to put some teeth behind the old saying “You can’t fight City Hall.”
Tim Crews, the 69-year-old publisher of a tiny newspaper in a rural Northern California county, is attracting national attention for a story no editor or publisher would want to confront.
Thanks to his dogged pursuit of a public records case against a school district in Willows, where his paper is based, Crews has found himself facing a $56,000 judgment for what a judge has called a “frivolous” lawsuit. Despite the popularity of his paper, Crews earns only about $20,000 a year from his endeavors, and the judge’s ruling threatens to put his newspaper — The Sacramento Valley Mirror — out of business.
That might be a welcome outcome for some in Glenn County, a stretch of farmland an hour north of Sacramento, where Crews has launched an unrelenting, two-decade attack on the powers that be. From top-level bureaucrats, to cops, to judges, no public official has been so sacrosanct as to escape the scrutiny of Crews’ magnifying glass.
“To me, Tim is just one of those relentless tough guys who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” said Rowland Rebele, a retired publisher who awarded Crews the California Press Association’s Newspaper Executive of the Year Award in 2009. Among other accolades, Crews has been the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In 2009, acting on a tip that a local school official was using the power of his office for political purposes, Crews asked for a year’s worth of then-superintendent Steve Olmos’ emails. The district agreed to comply but requested some time, citing the need to redact confidential information that would not be subject to disclosure, even under California’s Public Records Act.
When no emails had arrived by the anticipated delivery date, Crews sued, asking a judge to compel production of the documents. That’s when the emails started arriving, but they came in a format that could not readily be searched, and they did not contain attachments or other metadata such as addresses contained in the forward field.
Instead of downloading the data into text files, the district printed out thousands of the superintendent’s emails and scanned them into PDF documents that were then saved to a compact disc. They arrived in installments, over a period of several months.
While Crews used the material for news articles, he continued to protest that the information needed to be delivered, according to state law, in the format in which it is kept (as text files). Attachments were missing, and there was no way to make sense of some emails without seeing the sender and recipient thread, he asserted.
The judge dismissed the case the following year, concluding that the district had done its best to comply, but allowed that Crews should be entitled to receive the email attachments, which should have been public under state law. Yet again, Crews objected, saying that thousands of documents had been withheld without any reasoned argument for doing so.
Ultimately, the judge agreed to review the emails that had been withheld in his chambers to determine if they were privileged. In a closed-door hearing that lasted approximately 45 minutes, the judge reviewed more than 3,000 pages of emails and concluded they were exempt from disclosure, San Francisco attorney Karl Olson said in Crews’ appeal.
The following month, Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter Twede issued a final decision and, “for the first time, added a ruling that Crews’ action was frivolous and awarded fees and costs to the district,” Olson wrote in his appeal.
Olson argues that Crews should have won the case, because his lawsuit resulted in the disclosure of numerous email attachments that otherwise would have been withheld. But even though the judge ruled against him, Olson argues Crews shouldn’t be saddled with fees.
“If the trial court’s erroneous decision is left standing, it will give new and unwelcome meaning to the phrase, ‘You can’t fight City Hall,’” Olson said in his appeal.
The stakes are so high that the case has caught the attention of national media leaders and inspired two of California’s biggest First Amendment crusaders to file amicus briefs on Crews’ behalf. CalAware and the First Amendment Coalition have both lined up behind Crews in his appeal, saying the judge’s ruling reflects a new — and potentially corrosive — interpretation of California’s open records laws.
“If the decision is upheld, and if the standard proposed on appeal by the Willows Unified School District is adopted, 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,” San Francisco attorney Duffy Carolan wrote for the First Amendment Coalition.
The case now rests in the hands of California’s Third Appellate District in Sacramento.
“Not one published decision has ever affirmed an award of attorney’s fees against a PRA (public records act) requester,” Olson wrote in his appeal. “This should not be the first. The judgment should be reversed.”