Dan Morain

Dan Morain: A Willows gadfly resists swatting

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

WILLOWS – Tim Crews was in his element, chatting up lawyers, felons and other courtroom denizens, and waiting for a judge to rule on whether he needed to comply with the Glenn County district attorney's demand that he turn over notes from some of the muck he had raked.

Crews, 69, his white beard long and frazzled, wore his work attire to Judge Donald Byrd's courtroom: faded jeans with cuffs, red suspenders and stained gray T-shirt that doubles as his press pass.

"The Sacramento Valley Mirror. Means News," printing on the shirt says.

Crews is the founder, owner, publisher, editor, reporter, photographer, ad salesman and delivery boy for the paper that loyal readers call "The Smirror." It's an irreverent, scrappy and opinionated rag of 2,960 circulation that operates by the motto: "If we don't report it, who will?"

Crews is a watchdog, but one, he notes, with a little more drool on his jowls than most. The shoestring on which he operates is frayed. Overhead ran $170,000 last year on revenue of $150,000. He has no website and doesn't tweet.

His assets include a Honda that had 243,981 miles on it last week and Buddy, a black Lab that likes Milk Bones a little too much and sometimes stirs himself to bark when customers come to the Mirror's office in downtown Willows.

Crews barks and bites by pushing the boundaries of public records and open meetings acts, regularly landing in First Amendment battles. The California Newspaper Publishers Association honored him with its Freedom of Information Award at a luncheon in Universal City two weeks ago.

One week ago, District Attorney Robert Maloney subpoenaed Crews and his notes from a story about a guy facing minor drug charges who told Crews that cops roughed him up while a nurse drew his blood.

Maloney, a banty fellow whose large, silver belt buckle accentuated his protruding belly, has been one of Crews' recurrent targets. In a March 27 story, Crews opened with this line: "The district attorney is trying to destroy the criminal justice system, several attorneys allege." The story got harsher from there.

San Francisco attorney Duffy Carolan, a First Amendment specialist who regularly defends Crews, drove to Willows on Thursday to fight the subpoena, with no realistic expectation that he can pay her.

Carolan told Judge Byrd that she had hoped to avoid the hearing by urging Maloney to read a 1999 California Supreme Court case that clearly states prosecutors cannot seize reporters' notes.

"I did not have time to read the case," Maloney told the judge. The judge, who did read the case, quickly quashed the subpoena.

Although Crews beat that rap, his legal issues are not over. On May 21, the state's 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento will hear Crews v. Willows Unified School District. If he loses, the public's ability to obtain records will be severely hampered, and Crews' newspaper could fold.

The story began as his stories often do, with a tip that someone in power – the school superintendent, in this instance – was doing something bad, using public money for political purposes.

Crews delivered a Public Records Act request seeking a year's worth of the superintendent's emails on March 5, 2009. The district said it could not produce documents before April 28, 2009.

When the district didn't turn over the emails on that date, Crews sued. The district subsequently did give him many of the records, but withheld 3,200 pages of emails.

The case landed in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Peter Twede – another official who has appeared on the Mirror's front page, not in a nice way. In 2009, Crews disclosed that Glenn County spent $25,500 on a "complete makeover" of Twede's "swank new chambers."

In a hearing in September 2010, Twede said he would review the disputed 3,200 pages of the superintendent emails in his chambers. Evidently a fast reader, Twede returned to the bench 45 minutes later, declared Crews' suit was frivolous and ordered him to pay $56,595 in attorneys' fees and costs.

Karl Olson, another San Francisco First Amendment lawyer who defends Crews, told Twede that Crews' income is $20,000 a year, and that such a penalty would silence the Sacramento Valley Mirror.

"I understand that the court wants to deter future Public Records Act litigation by Mr. Crews," Olson told the judge, which elicited a rise.

"How dare you make a comment like that, that this court is trying to prevent him from further actions under the CPRA. How dare you, counsel," Twede said, leaving the $56,000 charge in place.

The California School Boards Association wants the fine upheld, telling the appeals court that schools are "plagued" by costly records requests.

The school boards' attorneys contend it is "irrelevant that a requesting party is a newspaper because it is well established that the media has no greater right of access to public records than the general public." True enough.

But the California Newspaper Publishers Association and media companies, including McClatchy, which owns The Bee, told the court that if the schools win, public agencies could "insulate themselves from scrutiny by threatening requesters with liability for attorneys' fees."

Crews could never pay the debt, which weighs on him because there's nothing he'd rather do than write the news as he sees it. He got bitten by the news bug when as a kid, he took a photo that ran on the front page of the paper in his hometown of Olympia, Wash.

After a stint in the Marines and different blue collar jobs, he learned the craft of reporting by bouncing from small paper to small paper, scraping together enough money to publish the first edition of the Mirror on Christmas Eve 1991.

It's a mix of quirky, homespun, and bare-knuckled news and opinion in 14 pages published twice a week. Expect to read about it if cops investigate a party or a fight, or if you get stopped for driving under the influence, or if your Chihuahua gets out and yaps at passers-by.

"He pretty much writes it as it is, whether you like it or not," said Caleb Wills, who has appeared in the Smirror's police logs but is among Crews' readers. "I wish he used a different picture of me, and didn't put it on the front page."

Last Wednesday, Crews made a 7 a.m. stop at Willow's Donuts, gave copies of the day's edition to a couple of cronies, bought a half-dozen muffins and set off on his route.

Driving his wife's old Lincoln because it holds more papers than his Honda, he delivered Mirrors and muffins to clerks at post offices and markets, and picked up copies of the prior edition that didn't sell.

The Four Corners Store sold 10 copies at $1 apiece. The Princeton Market sold six, disappointing. He gets 80 cents per copy, the store keeps 13 cents, and the rest goes to the state.

"It gets very old, scraping by," Crews said at one point on the route. Later, he talked about turning the Mirror over to a university for use as a muckraking laboratory. Later, he talked about going till he's 80: "I don't know what I'd do if I retired."

Once the deliveries were done, he returned to the newsroom. A woman gave him a photo of quadruplet lambs. Very unusual. He promised to print it. Another woman brought a picture of her grandson, a Marine deployed to Afghanistan. He'll run that, too.

"We've never gone dark, all these years," he said, not even when he spent five days in jail in 2000 for refusing to turn over notes. That prompted the Legislature to pass a law to protect news people from such harassment. For Crews, harassment is part of what gets him up in the morning.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.