Tim Crews, a grizzled, hell-raising country publisher, is off the hook for $56,595 he was ordered by a Glenn County judge to pay to attorneys who defended a school district he sued.
Contrary to the judge's ruling that the lawsuit was frivolous, three justices of the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento found Wednesday that it "lacked merit but was not frivolous."
"Consequently, we reverse the award of attorney fees and costs to the district," the appellate panel ruled in a 20-page published opinion.
The decision brought the Willows-based Sacramento Valley Mirror back from the brink of extinction. Crews would not have been able to pay the fees, and his newspaper would have folded.
"That's way beyond our means," Crews said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "We circulate 3,000 twice a week, and there's very little ad revenue in this county. (The trial court judge's order) was a death sentence for our newspaper."
The 69-year-old Crews wanted a year's worth of emails to and from Steve Olmos, superintendent of the Willows Unified School District, and he felt the district was dragging its feet.
He was working off a tip that Olmos was unlawfully using district resources for political purposes, specifically a bond issue and a recall drive aimed at Arturo Barrera, the county education superintendent.
Crews filed a California Public Records Act petition against the district in Glenn Superior Court on April 28, 2009. The next day, in accord with earlier assurances, the district delivered the first batch of emails to Crews.
Glenn Superior Court Judge Peter Twede found that Crews had filed his records act petition contemporaneously with the district's first delivery of emails and that he served the petition on the district after that. Thus, according to Twede, "service of the petition did not result in any benefit whatsoever to Crews and was therefore frivolous."
The three-justice appellate panel agreed with Twede's dismissal of the petition, but noted that during the rolling production of emails Crews relied on the petition to challenge the district's withholding of some emails and the district's failure to produce the material in a searchable form.
While the two challenges were unsuccessful, both were hotly contested issues and hardly frivolous, the panel said.
"As to improper motive," the justices said, "we note the district does not allege, and the trial court did not find, that Crews brought his request under the (Public Records Act) to harass Olmos or the district. Here, the record shows Crews' PRA request was based on his decision to engage in a journalistic investigation of whether Olmos or the district misused public property."
The appellate opinion was authored by Associate Justice Andrea Lynn Hoch, with the concurrences of Acting Presiding Justice Cole Blease and Associate Justice M. Kathleen Butz.
The panel "did a nice job of winding it down," Crews said Wednesday.
He said the emails did contain information he was able to use as part of articles later published.
"No way should they have been doing some of the things they were doing," he said. "For example, there were discussions of how to gather signatures for the recall."
No one could be reached at the district, which was closed Wednesday so everyone could attend a training workshop.
Crews marveled at the "tremendous amount of help" he has had in his various legal struggles over the years.
Recalling the day two months ago when the school district case was argued before the 3rd District panel, he said: "I cleaned up as best I could and went down there, and I had a lot of big guns sitting on my side."
Among them were Karl Olson, well-known media lawyer from San Francisco who argued for Crews, and Duffy Carolan and Dan Laidman from the national law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, who had filed briefs in support of Crews on behalf of a long list of media clients, including The McClatchy Co., owner of The Bee.
Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.