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The Public’s Beeswax



A jury last week declared guilty of corruption five former councilmembers of the city of Bell in Los Angeles County. For running a town that is a little larger than Eureka, with a similar percentage of people living in poverty, they had each received salaries more than 10 times what Eureka pays its city leaders. Bell's former city manager has yet to be tried. He made about $800,000 a year, or five times the pay of Eureka's city manager.

That story first broke when two reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, requested salary figures for city leaders under the California Public Records Act. That's a law the Legislature enacted in 1968 to ensure that the state and local governments don't keep things from the public.

States across the country have similar laws, many of which give the public greater access to government documents than does California.

The Bell convictions came in the middle of Sunshine Week, which is a national spotlight each year on government transparency.

I spent part of Sunshine Week, meanwhile, sitting in Dean Ken Ayoob's office at Humboldt State, defending my students' right to request records from public agencies in the county. He and President Rollin Richmond had gotten hit with complaints from public officials irritated that a school project forced them to waste valuable time. After hearing me out, he was great. He agreed that the government officials needed to deal directly with the student journalists.

Each spring I teach investigative reporting to roughly 20 students. We form a team and I turn them loose on the community. But first, I think of a valid project for them to do. It has to involve examination of public records and interviews with people. The information we go after must help residents understand how their governments work and spend taxpayer dollars. And we need to be able to publish a story on it. If we can't pass on our information to the public, there is no point in wasting the valuable time of the people we source. Here's the message I try to instill in the class: Journalists can and should serve the public good.

This is the eighth such project. We've investigated the shutdown of an ice company critical to the local fishing industry; we read through every search warrant in the county court; we looked at fees at every school in the CalState system; we investigated a jail suicide. Each of these projects required negotiations with public agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services made it difficult to get interviews for the ice house story, but the next year, the public information officer worked with us to set up a system for viewing records and interviewing inspectors that would cause minimal disruption for the folks who work at the health department. The court clerk's office made it difficult for us to view search warrants until we negotiated for a limited number of students to view records a limited number of hours each week. These negotiations teach students the careful balance between the public's right to know and public agencies' need to protect privacy and get public business done.

This is the first year I found myself in a triangle with the public agencies and the university administration.

Let me explain this year's project. I wish I could claim that it was my idea but it wasn't. Journal Editor Carrie Peyton Dahlberg suggested that we look into payments public agencies make on legal claims -- you know, when a tree on public land that borders your farm falls and crushes your dairy cow and you demand compensation. (We found one such case.) The project met my criteria on three points: It would involve public records and it would produce two types of information the public should know: How much agencies spend on these claims, and the types and frequency of economic or physical injuries people sustain as a result of government negligence or mistakes.

To be fair, I intended that students send the same letter to every agency in the county. This way we couldn't be accused of targeting some agencies and ignoring others. With a population of 130,000 people, how many public agencies could there be?

I stopped searching when I hit 70. I didn't want to bother tiny districts or those so far flung that my students would have to drive two hours to look at documents, so I narrowed the list to 38. It included all of the larger school districts, all the cities, the county, HSU, College of the Redwoods and the some important community service districts. The latter I considered most important because they receive almost no oversight from local press. Few people even know what they do. We limited our request to payments on claims for the past 10 years. We went back 10 years because some claims take years to work their way through the system.

Under the Public Records Act, agencies must respond to a request within 10 days, but after that, they have a "reasonable amount of time" to fulfill the request. Determining what is reasonable is one of the prime lessons of the course. Some of the agencies we sent letters to responded immediately. Some, like the Harbor District, provided the information we requested in what seemed like record time. Other agencies freaked out. One district took offense to the hostile nature of the letter we sent -- a boilerplate letter for public records act requests we downloaded from the website of the Student Press Law Center. Arcata City Councilmember and former mayor Alex Stillman complained to my husband when she ran into him in town.

When public officials complain to the university president or dean before contacting and negotiating with students directly, they send a message that Humboldt State students deserve less respect than other citizens of the county or other journalists who work here.

Yet these students are Humboldt County residents. They live here. Most work here, and they buy goods and services and pay sales taxes here. They are entitled to the same rights (and have the same responsibilities) as any other resident. The California Public Records Act notes that, saying:

Access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."

Public agencies shouldn't consider the requesting of public records a nuisance to be thwarted. They should recognize it as the fundamental and necessary right it is by law. If locating public records turns out to get in the way of public business, then we need to set up better systems for public access to records. Maybe that's the lesson my students could teach Humboldt County -- if only government officials would work with them.

I'm sure the officials in Bell considered Gottlieb and Vives a nuisance.  Sometimes, for journalists to work for the public good, they have to be a pain in the butt.


Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University.  Next month she promises to get off her high horse.


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