Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Public agencies that do it right

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

What does the news coverage of the former Sacramento police officer charged with rape have to do with the California Department of Water Resources' plan for two tunnels to divert water from the Delta?

These seemingly disparate news stories have an important behavior in common – agencies that understand the need for public transparency and readily make information available.

I often use this column to hold accountable governments and people in power who withhold public information. Calling them out publicly, and using the courts as necessary to force public access, is a role we take seriously at The Bee.

But every day Bee reporters run into officials or agencies who do it right. Today I'll tell you about some of those who routinely ensure public information is available.

Take the case of the Sacramento police officer charged with raping an elderly woman who has trouble communicating because of a stroke. The day police arrested Gary Dale Baker in December, then-Police Chief Rick Braziel held a news conference to reveal the arrest and that Baker had been fired.

The department even emailed to all media the criminal complaint and the arrest warrant affidavit. The Bee's Kim Minugh, who typically must go to the courthouse to pull the files herself, said such action was unusual and signified how seriously the department was taking the incident.

It was the right thing to do. It also reflects a consistent awareness of the need for public transparency at the Police Department and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, Minugh said.

Minugh rarely is forced to file a formal Public Records Act request to obtain documents. When she first began requesting the names of officers involved in shootings she did, but "fortunately, our issues were quickly resolved and now I just simply ask."

California's Department of Water Resources was named by The Bee's Matt Weiser as the most open public agency with which he's worked. In its management of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan work to build the two Delta tunnels, Weiser said the agency has routinely released "huge piles of draft documents." Many agencies refuse to release draft reports, leaving the public out of the process until a report is final.

"They did it to lift the cloud of suspicion around the plan," Weiser said. "The plan is so complicated it's helped people. It's all online."

Several other state agencies are quick to release data requested by Bee reporters, resulting in important local and state stories.

Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Smith said the state agency most helpful to bureau reporters is the Controller's Office.

Smith pointed to stories by Bee reporter Jon Ortiz revealing that CalPERS and other state agencies were allowing managers to work more than one job, for additional pay.

For that story, The Bee asked the Controller's Office to "analyze payroll data in a way it had never attempted," Smith said. "It took longer than 10 days (the legal limit) for the office to come up with the report that became the basis of our story reporting that several agencies – not just CalPERS – used double appointments. But to the best of our knowledge, we got the data at the same time inquiring state agencies received it."

Phillip Reese, our database expert, cites several agencies when asked who does the best job serving the public. He reported stories about the rise in mental health patients flooding emergency rooms, for instance, because of data provided free of charge by the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

Other stories came from data provided by the state Department of Education and the Department of Health.

Loretta Kalb, who has covered local governments from Galt to Roseville, named three city employees as quick to help the media obtain public information: Roseville's Megan MacPherson, Elk Grove's Christine Brainerd and Folsom's Sue Ryan.

And Andy Furillo, who covers Sacramento Superior Court and the District Attorney's Office, says "pretty much every clerk, every court reporter, every judge, every clerical employee, every court administrator I've dealt with over here has been unbelievably helpful to make sure public records are as available as possible."

In cases like the recent trial of "sweethearts" killer Richard Hirschfield, hundreds of pretrial motions were filed and Furillo could get any of them with the help of Kelly Sullivan, the clerk in Judge Michael Sweet's courtroom.

All public documents should be so readily available. Furillo's experience is the opposite of his colleague Denny Walsh, who covers the federal courthouse and says judges routinely seal documents they know should be publicly available.

Access to public information will be part of the national conversation two weeks from today during Sunshine Week, an annual, national initiative designed to encourage open government and freedom of information. It's an initiative supported by the news media, civic groups, schools and many others. Join the conversation, it benefits all of us.