“No, you can’t see it.”
That refrain is what people unaccustomed to using the California Public Records Act are likely to get from most city, county and state government officials. It is a shame because there was a time when officials were more or less open about the people’s files.
Al Calonico, a former city manager of Orland in Glenn County told me 26 years ago, “These are the files. Just put everything back where you found it.” The only thing segregated and locked was one drawer of personnel files. That would be inconceivable today.
The public records act helps the average citizen and journalist – I count myself as both – discover how government really works. However, sometimes it takes patience, prodding and a willingness to go to court.
I have used the act to find how much public money is being spent on political campaigns, including school district spending on bond issues, which is against the law.
Fragments of documents from the Glenn County Office of Education led us at The Valley Mirror to believe that public money was used for Willows Unified School District election matters, a violation of law.
We went for a year’s worth of their emails. They refused. They withheld. They stalled. We sued. A local judge ruled for the school district. On appeal, we prevailed.
Writing for a unanimous three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, Justice Andrea Hoch said the appellate record “shows Crews’ request was based on his decision to engage in a journalistic investigation of whether (former Willows Unified School District Superintendent Steve) Olmos or the district misused public property.”
The appeals court went on to find that my newspaper’s records request was not frivolous and reversed a 2011 decision by Glenn Superior Court Judge Peter Twede in which he ordered me to pay the school district $56,595 in attorney fees and costs.
Curiosity is healthy for a free society. We once found – by reviewing claims from the Glenn County Sheriff’s Office – payments to two deputies for patrolling federal lands. We also examined vacation records and found that both were out of state when they were paid for the after-duty patrolling.
In the same search, we stumbled upon a misfiled claim for a payment to a Walnut Creek bank on behalf of the Glenn Superior Court for a payment on a $1 million loan.
Court executives had a fit. They would not say why they had borrowed $1 million and never told the presiding judge about it.
So using the act, we asked to review the court spending files held by the Glenn County Finance Department. The court ordered the Finance Department to withhold the records based on the concept of ownership.
The matter went to court and the court administrator lost. The county forked over the records.
The Public Records Act can turn up other nuggets: former Glenn County Superintendent of Schools Joni Samples was using the public computers, staff and storage to run a side business of selling “education” books.
Public records requests can show who has a concealed weapons permit; more importantly, as it did here, it can show how many permits have been issued illegally, and it can show if there is favoritism in hiring and handing out raises.
It can pinpoint abuses of overtime and show retirement padding, and whether regulations are applied fairly. I have used the act to pull records showing that several agencies banded together to try and crush a contractor.
The California Public Records Act is a marvelous tool. It should be employed more and with more gusto. Keep in mind that how public money gets spent is a matter of public record. We are the public, and we have the right to know.
Tim Crews is editor and publisher of The Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, and is the winner of numerous First Amendment awards. including the 2013 Freedom of Information Award from the California Newspaper Association.