FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: James Madison Freedom of Information Award winners fight the power
In 2008, he authored and passed SB 1696, which blocked the university from hiding audit information behind a private contractor. UCSF was refusing to release the information in an audit the school paid a private contractor to conduct. "I read about this in the newspaper and I was just scratching my head. How can public officials do this stuff?" Yee said. He had to overcome resistance from university officials and public agencies arguing that the state shouldn't be sticking its nose into their business. "But it's public money, and they're public entities, and the people have a right to know where that money is going."
Computer Assisted Reporting
Thomas Peele and Daniel Willis
This duo with the Bay Area News Group, which includes 15 daily and 14 community newspapers around the Bay Area, performed monumental multitasking when they decided to crunch the salaries of more than 194,000 public employees from 97 government agencies into a database. Honored with the Computer Assisted Reporting Award, the duo provided the public with a database that translated a gargantuan amount of records into understandable information. They had to submit dozens of California Public Records Act requests to access the records of salaries that account for more than $1.8 billion in taxpayer money. "It is important that the public know how its money is spent. This data base, built rather painstakingly one public records act request at a time by Danny Willis and myself as a public service, goes a long way in helping people follow the money," Peele said.
Californians Aware: The Center for Public Forum Rights
California's sunshine laws, including the Brown Act open meeting law and California Public Records Act, aren't bad. Unfortunately, they are routinely flouted by public officials, often making it necessary to go to court to enforce them. That's why we need groups like CalAware, and individuals like its president, Rick McKee, and its counsel, longtime media attorney Terry Francke. Last year, while defending an Orange County school board member's free speech rights and trying to restore a censored public meeting transcript, CalAware not only found itself losing the case on an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion, but being ordered to pay more than $80,000 in school district legal fees. "It's never been easy, but that was going to be the end of private enforcement of the Brown Act," Francke said. Luckily, Sen. Leland Yee intervened with legislation that prevents awarding attorney fees in such sunshine cases, leaving CalAware bruised but unbowed. "We've become active in court like never before."
SF Public Press/McSweeney's
Last year, when author Dave Eggers and his McSweeney's magazine staff decided to put out a single newspaper issue (because "it's a form we love," Eggers told us), they filled San Francisco Panorama with the unusual mix of writers, topics, and graphics one might expect from a literary enterprise. But they wanted a hard-hitting investigation on the cover, so they turned to the nonprofit SF Public Press and reporters Robert Porterfield and Patricia Decker. Together, they worked full-time for four months to gather information on cost overruns on the Bay Bridge rebuild, fighting for public records and information from obscure agencies and an intransigent CalTrans. "We're still dealing with this. I've been trying to secure documents for a follow-up and I keep getting the runaround," said Decker, a new journalist with a master's degree in engineering, a nice complement to Porterfield, an award-winning old pro. "He's a great mentor, just such a fount of knowledge."
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