Two officers of Californians Aware—a former elected council member of the state's second largest city and a veteran country newspaper editor—were recognised tonight by the Society of Professional Journalists for their remarkable contributions to open government. Both are also remarkable for their plainspoken directness and skepticism.
Donna Frye, Vice President of CalAware, was presented with the Sunshine Award of the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists during a Sunshine Week reception and program at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego.
Ms. Frye served as a member of the San Diego City Council from 2001 through 2010. During her tenure, she distinguished herself as an independent thinker and fought continuously for an open and honest government accountable to the public. Councilmember Frye used her leadership skills to open the doors of government and put an end to the culture of secrecy.
In 2004, she rallied public consensus around a tough open-government City Charter ballot measure that passed with 82 percent of the vote. Her 2004 boycott of closed session meetings and collaboration with Terry Francke, then with the California First Amendment Coalition, resulted in reforms of the rules to allow for greater public access and more transparency of those meetings.
The reforms included requiring that a transcriptionist take minutes in all closed session meetings and ensuring that the public could testify on any closed session item. Further, she saved public comment from being pushed back to the end of City Council hearings.
Continuing her quest for an honest and accountable government, Frye created the Government Efficiency and Openness Committee. As its first chair, she accomplished a number of open government reforms in less than a year: she exposed the city's misrepresentations of the budget and pension system deficits to the public and pushed for the enforcement of mandatory disclosure laws for those doing business with the city.
Ms. Frye was the subject of a typically candid "exit interview" in the Voice of San Diego last November, and just today participated in a discussion, "How Open Is Government in San Diego?" recorded on the KPBS talk program These Days.
Tim Crews, Secretary-Treasurer of CalAware, was the other award recipient at a simultaneous dinner program in San Francisco. He was recognized for more than 20 years of struggle as described in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
One midsummer day in 2007, Sacramento Valley Mirror editor and publisher Tim Crews noticed smoke billowing into the air several miles away. A duck hunters cabin on an expansive Glenn County farm compound was ablaze. By the time the fire engine sirens had sounded, Crews was on his way there to find out what was happening.
The twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror, which has a circulation of 3,000, is run by a small staff on a shoestring budget — but Crews' tenacity in the wake of the cabin fire has shown that it doesn't take a multimillion dollar budget to practice hard-hitting, investigative journalism that has an impact. If it hadn't been for Crews' comprehensive series, "Who Killed Bud?," Ivan "Bud" Foglesong's death in that fire might never have come under the microscope.
Following a yearlong investigation, the coroner's office ruled the death a suicide. "One of the lieutenants told the widow, 'We think Bud just went in there and poured a can of gas on his head and set himself on fire.' " Crews said. But he didn't buy it. "I said to them, why would he do that? "
With some digging, Crews learned that the man who perished in the fire had been a commercial pilot. Prior to that, "he'd been a military attaché, trusted with the nation's highest secrets," Crews said. "No drug or alcohol problems, physicals all the time. Not your typical unstable guy."
Using public records as well as information gathered through his own research and interviews, Crews published bits of information in the Valley Mirror that local law enforcement had apparently missed. There was ongoing strife between Foglesong and the district attorney's son, which had flared into violence directed at Foglesong at least once. The D.A. was Foglesong's brother-in-law and a neighbor on the family compound where the cabin burned. Crews talked to the nurses who gave Foglesong emergency medical care just before he died — telling them there had been an explosion. Crews spotlighted inconsistencies within the investigative reports, key evidence that went missing, and the demolition of the burnt cabin without a permit.
Faced with the dilemma that the evidence didn't add up, the sheriff coroner issued a new death certificate, characterizing it as an accident instead of a suicide. The Valley Mirror stories kept coming.
"Finally, the sheriff-coroner, after two years, convenes a coroner's inquest," Crews recounted. That hadn't happened in Glenn County in 40 or 50 years. "The coroner's jury came back in an hour, 9-6 for death at the hands of another." The investigation is now at the state level.
The "Who Killed Bud?" series is just one example of Crews' journalistic grand slams. A different D.A. lost his bid for reelection, largely due to Valley Mirror coverage: "[He] said at a domestic violence meeting about a domestic violence victim, 'Lying bitch deserved to be beaten.' So we ran it in 40 point, top story," Crews said, "because it tells you very drastically what the establishment's attitudes are toward women. That just cannot be."
Other stories have landed him in hot water. Crews once spent five days in jail for refusing to give up a confidential source who told him that the new assistant sheriff had stolen a low-quality firearm. Crews has won numerous journalism awards and will be honored with the Norwin Yoffie Award for Career Achievement at the James Madison Awards ceremony. But his raw reportage has made enemies, too — including some within the local legal system. With his propensity to sue government agencies when they violate the California Public Records Act (CPRA) by withholding public records instead of honoring his sunshine requests, this dynamic has spelled trouble.
"His entire philosophy is to exploit the relatively strong public records laws in this state in order to provide his readers with the real deal on local government behavior," said Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "He doesn't take no for an answer."
Indeed, Crews prides himself on standing up to the powers-that-be. "Young reporters say, 'What's the most important word for journalists?' And I say, 'After compassion, defiance.' "
Yet the Valley Mirror now faces $100,000 in legal fees because a local judge — once the subject of a Valley Mirror exposé — ruled that Crews' lawsuit against the Glenn County Board of Education for violating the CPRA was "frivolous." The steep price tag reflects the price of attorneys hired by local government to take on Crews in court.
"This newspaper can no more afford to pay a $100,000 judgment than a fly," Crews said. "It's ruinous." The case is on appeal, but he views the ruling as "a very well orchestrated attempt to crush a paper that uses the CPRA aggressively. Because in fact, most of the conservative members of the community, including some in Democratic ranks, regard open government as just unwieldy and not good. Just not good for people to know all these things."
The case is on appeal. But if the ruling holds, it could set a very bad precedent, said Terry Francke of the watchdog group CalAware. "It puts any newspaper in a small county in a very perilous state," he said.
Outside of court, Crews still enjoys a great deal of support and admiration — including from Foglesong's widow. "Because of Tim, this thing is going to get solved," said Jan Foglesong, who has since moved to Mississippi, where her husband was buried. "Because of him, we're getting a little justice for Bud."