Joyce Terhaar

Want to keep a politician honest? Here’s our approach

Two Sacramento police officers attempted to run over Joseph Mann, a mentally ill homeless man, with their car less than 35 seconds before they shot and killed him.
Two Sacramento police officers attempted to run over Joseph Mann, a mentally ill homeless man, with their car less than 35 seconds before they shot and killed him. Sacramento Police Department

UC Davis has a new chancellor because of public records.

The state Board of Equalization has stronger safeguards around purchasing because of public records.

Sacramento tested and began cleanup of a lead-contaminated gun range because of public records.

I looked over Bee stories from the past year and found dozens of reports that relied upon state or federal public records laws to verify tips about everything from official misconduct to shoddy public service.

Our right to keep an eye on public officials affects lives. And it helps keep the powerful honest – or expose them when they aren’t.

That’s why The Bee fights for access to public records. It’s why we support efforts like Sunshine Week that are intended to remind and teach people about their right to know. This year that “week” – which started March 12 – will become a yearlong effort to hold governments accountable for transparency.

I’ve helped coordinate coverage in my role as First Amendment Committee chair for the American Society of News Editors so you can expect to see stories and opinion pieces in The Bee. (ASNE is working with The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and The Associated Press.)

You might think of such coverage as protecting our protections. I do.

Things can get sloppy without public oversight. Institutional culture can get greedy. One of the more egregious examples in the last decade was reported by the Los Angeles Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its discovery that one of the region’s poorest cities, Bell, paid its city manager almost $800,000 a year.

Such head-shaking stories can be found with the help of public records.

Last March, The Bee used hiring and disciplinary records at Cal Fire to show that even when murder is part of the conversation, decisions need public scrutiny. George Morris II was the chief administrator over Cal Fire Academy when one of its managers, Orville “Moe” Fleming, stabbed and strangled a young woman. Morris was told that Fleming was trolling a prostitution website and in a relationship with the woman, a hooker he met there. Her murder ignited a deeper Academy investigation, which found a sex, booze and cheating scandal.

No one blamed Morris for a culture run amok. He was promoted.

It took public records for Board of Equalization member Jerome Horton to finally concede he was involved in the purchase of designer office furniture that cost $118,000 to buy and $12,000 to install. The BOE cracked down on purchasing after The Bee’s investigation.

Public records also show whether government agencies established to protect our most vulnerable people are doing their job well – or at all.

Reporter Darrell Smith pulled juvenile case records when news broke last fall of the death of baby Justice Rees, whose body was found in a Knights Landing-area slough. Mother Samantha Green, since convicted in his death, initially wove a bizarre tale of kidnap. Smith found records showing the baby was born with methamphetamine in his system and a 106 degree fever. He reported that child welfare workers crafted a safety plan that allowed the baby to stay with his parents. In less than three weeks, Justice Rees was dead.

Public records allowed Brad Branan to report last April that a Sacramento day care operator abused children for 26 years before state regulators took away her license. Part of the problem, Branan found, was that oversight shifted between Sacramento County and state regulators. It was only after the state resumed licensing that the complaints of abuse came to light. Imagine you are a working parent with young children, dependent on childcare and unaware of that kind of crack in government oversight.

Every citizen has the right to public records, but it takes time and commitment to dig into them. Californians have their own laws, and The Freedom of Information Act ensures access to federal records if you can’t find information on a federal agency website. That’s critical, given recent decisions under President Trump to purge public information from websites.

Those of us looking for state records use the California Public Records Act, which ensures access to local government records as well as state. But if you want information on the Legislature, the relevant transparency law is the Legislative Open Records Act, or LORA.

We Americans are nervy in our expectations of public access but sometimes it’s a battle.

It took months for reporters Sam Stanton and Diana Lambert to obtain requested public records from the University of California during an investigation into Linda P.B. Katehi while she was chancellor of UC Davis. Those documents revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to improve Katehi’s reputation, and the university’s, after the pepper-spraying of students on campus. Katehi was suspended and eventually resigned.

It took reporting by The Bee’s Anita Chabria last year to finally get public access to video of the fatal police shooting of Joseph Mann. Chabria had repeatedly requested the video through the state’s Public Records Act and was repeatedly denied. When she obtained – and The Bee published – video from a private source, the city suddenly reversed course to release a trove of video and audio.

That public access to the shooting changed the community conversation. Sacramentans could decide for themselves whether the shooting was necessary. The video made such a difference that the city of Sacramento has reversed course and committed to releasing future video tied to police shootings.

Public records affect lives.

Joyce Terhaar: 916-321-1004, @jterhaar