Beacon Awards spotlight freedom of information

Monday, September 20, 1999

Peter Y. Sussma...
Peter Y. Sussman

BERKELEY, Calif. — Beacon Awards were presented on Sept. 18 at the California First Amendment Assembly for ‘unusual efforts in behalf of freedom of information, freedom of expression and open government.’

Black Hole Awards for ‘those whose actions demonstrate a blatant disdain for the concepts of open access to government’ were also awarded. One person showed up to claim one of the awards, to great applause.

The Beacon Awards:

  • Lifetime Achievement Award: To Judge Quentin L. Kopp, whose career as a California state senator included numerous advancements in the fight for open government and freedom of information. He is now a San Mateo Superior Court judge.

  • Pathfinder Award: To Michael Nash, presiding judge of the juvenile division of Los Angeles County Superior Court, for releasing a database of all juvenile court cases since they have been automated — more than 370,000 cases — to the Los Angeles Times. The release permitted the Times to do a detailed report showing that most youths caught with firearms in county schools over nine years got probation only — no confinement — although most also were then arrested for another crime before reaching 18.

  • Citizen Award: To the California Alliance for Utility Safety and Education, which used the Brown Act, requiring open meetings in local government, in 1995 to uncover a secret deal between the City of San Diego and San Diego Gas and Electric. The city would have gotten $3.4 million cash for waiving the utility’s accrued $169 million obligation to bury power lines. The organization used the California Public Records Act in 1998 and 1999 to show that the city still was not enforcing the utility company’s obligation to bury the power lines.

  • Best Use of Public Records Awards: To Betsy Leth, The Ark, weekly paper in Tiburon, Calif., for using the public records act to report on secrets of the Healthcare District Board; and to Nancy Weaver Teichert, The Sacramento Bee, for a six-year battle to open juvenile records after learning the juvenile-justice system was in crisis.

  • Best Fight for Sunshine Award: To Judy Hodgson and Carolyn Fernandez, The North Coast Journal, a biweekly in Arcata, for bringing suit against the county board of supervisors. The board invited a representative of local building contractors into a closed session to help it review applicants for the planning director’s position, while excluding other members of the public. The publication got a permanent injunction.

  • Student Award: To Tim Molloy, who, as editor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, student newspaper, sued then-California Gov. Pete Wilson and university regents for secretly contacting and lobbying an effective majority of regents prior to their historic decision in July 1995 to end the university’s affirmative-action preference policies. The state Supreme Court rejected the suit, but the state Legislature passed a bill giving plaintiffs the right to such declaratory judgments regarding past meetings.

  • Shield of Courage Award: To Peter Y. Sussman, free-lance writer and national expert on prison journalism, and his attorney, David Durant. Sussman acted as consultant to a prisoner-plaintiff in a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections. As a result, Sussman was ordered to catalog every communication among the documents for which he claimed a privilege of confidentiality and list its legal basis. Compliance would have meant months of costs and interruption of his work. Within months of presenting his plight to the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, negotiations to drop discovery demands were under way. Durant represented Sussman on short notice and for no pay.

  • The six Black Hole Award winners were led by James Markman, attorney for six southern California communities, who asked at a meeting of the League of California Cities: ‘Hey, does anyone here give a real damn about the Brown Act (requiring open meetings in local government)?’ He then explained he was often called upon to devise clever ways to allow officials to conduct public business behind closed doors.

    The final Black Hole Award went to the City of Vallejo. Mayor Gloria Exline requested and was denied access to public records by the city manager and finance director. The records related to travel expenses, credit cards and purchasing cards. Exline formed a Mayor’s Advisory Committee on those expenses and the committee also was frustrated in attempts to get the records. The mayor asked the Solano County Grand Jury to investigate. The Grand Jury found both nonexistent and improper adherence to what should be normal policies and procedures in substantiating the spending of city money. Both the city manager and finance director have been replaced.

    Mayor Exline showed up to collect the city’s Black Hole Award, congratulated the California First Amendment Assembly for supporting open records law and urged members to fight even harder. She got a standing ovation.

    The Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center is a co-sponsor of the California First Amendment Assembly.