Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Watchdog role relies on access to records

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

The story of Preston Lewis would have remained untold if Bee reporter Melody Gutierrez had not been using California's Public Records Act to document administrative leave costs in our local school districts.

The story, which she came across in the records last April, shows the value of California's law protecting public access to certain government documents. It also emphasizes the importance of Sunshine Week, the annual journalism effort to promote open government and public records that ended this weekend.

Lewis was teaching in a Sacramento middle school when he was charged with child sex crimes. Gutierrez came across the case while cross-referencing district lists of administrative leave. Because she was then able to get personnel records, Gutierrez discovered that Lewis had spent 14 months on three separate paid leaves while the district and at times the police investigated allegations of child sex abuse.

She reported the news and then a broader story that asked a provocative question: "Has the bar for firing a teacher been set too high?"

That kind of reporting is what we emphasize in The Bee's newsroom, watchdog work to keep you informed about your community. Without legal protections around open government and records, we'd be writing far fewer watchdog stories.

I asked Bee reporters last week how many record requests they made last year under California's Public Records Act, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act or the Legislative Open Records Act. While difficult to tally – verbal requests count under the law yet are too routine to track – individual reporters said they made written requests as often as once a week when covering agencies that don't want to make information available to the public.

Most often we get information without a formal request. Sometimes, though, officials might not be informed about the law, or they might disagree with our belief that something is a record open to public scrutiny.

That kind of disagreement was clear last week in Sam Stanton's story about the investigation into police pepper-spraying of UC Davis students.

UC officials had planned to release their report publicly, but lawyers for the police officers won a temporary restraining order to keep it private to protect what they called "confidential personnel information."

UC and the American Civil Liberties Union went to court to get the report released; The Bee and Los Angeles Times submitted a letter to the judge contending the report "is indisputably a public record" that should be released. An Alameda Superior Court judge on Friday ordered the report to be released with police portions redacted. We are working to get the report through a public records request.

Legal action protects public rights

While we prefer to simply ask for information, or put the request in writing, we also regularly go to court ourselves or join other legal efforts to ensure that certain information is available to the public.

Steve Burns, assistant general counsel for The McClatchy Co., said The Bee has taken legal action five or six times a year the past few years to protect the public's right to know.

"On access matters, we try to stay pretty aggressive, and we will almost always challenge any kind of court closure or even a gag order," Burns said.

"Disclosure of public records can sometimes present more of a challenge," he said. " we consider a variety of factors, including the value of the records to future news stories, the likelihood that we will prevail and whether a ruling will create a precedent or vindicate an overriding principle, and the cost of pursuing a lawsuit that could ultimately involve appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court."

Presuming it makes sense, we then take action. As a result we've been able to keep you informed on stories like these:

In the Jaycee Lee Dugard kidnapping by Phillip and Nancy Garrido, The Bee and two other organizations sued to force state corrections officials to turn over parole documents on Phillip Garrido. We won and were able to reveal a series of mistakes by state parole officers. In addition, Stanton and Denny Walsh used a FOIA request to obtain federal parole documents that showed problematic evaluations of Garrido.

When the Placer County district attorney tried to obtain a broad gag order in the Westfield Galleria arson case – saying a report into how police and fire officers handled the fire was too explosive – The Bee challenged the order in court and won. Ed Fletcher and Stanton's follow-up reported that a mall employee shut off the sprinkler system because he was told the police wanted that, something officers denied.

In the ongoing "Sweethearts" murder trial covered by Andy Furillo, defense attorneys tried to keep the public out of pretrial hearings. An attorney representing The Bee argued that would be a "drastic departure" from established law regarding open courtrooms. The judge agreed and Furillo has thoroughly covered this trial.

The list is far longer, and includes The Bee's key accountability reporting around public spending. Last year we won two major lawsuits against Sacramento County's pension fund and the state Assembly. In the aftermath Brad Branan reported increasing rates of six-digit county pensions, and Jim Sanders reported on personal spending by individual Assembly members that previously was hidden.

We believe it's vital that you have access to this information.

Written requests sometimes enough

We always prefer, though, to avoid legal action since it takes longer to get timely information. Sometimes a formal public records request is enough, as in these stories:

Jon Ortiz last May obtained a written reprimand of CalPERS board member Joseph John Jelincic Jr. for leering looks and "unwelcomed sexual comments." After the state Personnel Board upheld the reprimand, Jelincic was censured by the board and stripped of some board responsibilities.

David Siders was able to tell you which state agencies asked for exemptions to keep their cellphones after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a reduction to save money. Ultimately, 32,858 cell phones were eliminated. Of 5,055 exemption requests, 3,987 were granted.

Siders also reported that Brown was letting killers leave prison on parole at a far higher rate than previous governors, 106 of 130 early in his term, for a rate of 82 percent.

Gutierrez's reporting on the Lewis allegations and charges were obtained by a formal written request. Among her findings, she reported that the school district didn't know the state had revoked Lewis' foster parent license because of similar allegations of child sex abuse.

After publication, "People were shocked that the district gave me documents of disciplinary action (from) inside Preston Lewis' personnel file," Gutierrez said.

Yet without a guarantee that such documents are public, stories like this would remain hidden from view. Instead, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, last month introduced Assembly Bill 1717 to require the state Department of Social Services to notify the Department of Justice when it revokes or suspends a foster parent license, so it can notify schools screening teachers.

That's a smart requirement and the type of action that shows the value of open government. We're committed to our watchdog role and ensuring public access for all.