FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ISSUE: James Madison Freedom of Information Award winners fight the power
San Jose Mercury News reporter Sean Webby won for a series spotlighting the San Jose Police Department's use of force and how difficult it is for the public or the press to track.
The department and the San Jose City Council refused to release use-of-force reports, so Webby obtained them through public court files. He zeroed in on incidents that involved "resisting arrest" charges, and even uncovered a cell phone video in which officers Tasered and battered suspects who did not appear to be resisting.
Webby has won numerous awards in the past, but says he is particularly proud of this one. "Freedom of information is basically our mission statement, our bible, our motto," he said. "We feel like the less resistance the average person has to getting information, the better the system works."
Webby said that despite causing some tension between his paper and the San Jose Police Department, the project was well worth it. "We are never going to back off the hard questions. It's our job as a watchdog organization."
KTVU's Rita Williams is being honored for her tireless efforts to establish a media room in the San Francisco Federal Building that provides broadcasters the same access to interviews as print reporters.
Television and radio equipment was banned from the federal pressroom following 9/11, but Williams solicited support from television stations, security agencies, the courts, and the National Bar Association. After a six-year push, they were able to restore access.
Williams and her supporters converted a storage unit in the federal building into a full-blown media center, which was well-used during the Proposition 8 trial. "I only did two days of the trials, but every time I walked into the room, I would just be swarmed with camera folks saying thank you, thank you, thank you," she said. "I'm getting close to retirement and I was in the first wave of women in broadcasting, and I'm proud that almost 40 years later, I can leave this legacy."
With her Betty Page looks, dogged sense of justice, and journalistic training, Melissa Nix became a charismatic and relentless force in the quest to find out how her ex-boyfriend Hugues de la Plaza really died in 2007. Nix began her efforts after the San Francisco medical examiner declared it was unable to determine how de la Plaza died and the San Francisco Police Department seemed to be leaning toward categorizing the case as a suicide. Using personal knowledge of de la Plaza and experience as a reporter with The Sacramento Bee, Nix got the French police involved, who ruled the death a homicide, and unearthed the existence of an independent medical examiner report that concluded that de la Plaza was murdered.
Contra Costa Times reporter Daniel Borenstein wasn't out to deprive public worker retirees of yachting, country club golf, and rum-y cocktails at tropical resorts. The columnist was only trying to figure out how, for example, the chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District turned a $185,000 salary into a $241,000 annual pension. Borenstein's effort to unearth and make public, in easily readable spreadsheets, the records of all Contra Costa County public employee pensioners led the Contra Costa Times to a court victory stipulating just that: all records would be released promptly on request without allowing retirees time to go to court to block access. The effects have been noticeable: "I get scores of e-mails most weeks in reaction to the columns I'm writing on pensions, [and] public officials are much more sensitive to the issue," Borenstein says. It is a precedent that has carried into the Modesto Bee's similar pension-disclosure efforts in Stanislaus County.