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Timothy Crews’ mission to pry open court records was born of impatience. He remembers waiting for help at the court clerk’s office in Glenn County while two employees “were chatting on cell phones to each other about 10 feet apart.” Crews — who founded the bi-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror in Artois, 90 miles north of Sacramento — has long been seen by county officials as an irritant. With his three-person staff, he regularly uses the Public Records Act to request county department budgets as well as copies of all receipts, purchase orders and checks written by the agencies. “Budgets don’t tell you anything, especially in California. Budgets are a joke,” Crews said. “I didn’t have much faith in accountants before Arthur Andersen, and even less now. What I want to see are the checks and the bills.” Crews says he once uncovered a $7,000 budget discrepancy when the sheriff’s department reported buying bulletproof vests in its annual budget, but couldn’t produce the receipts — or the vests. Crews says he also discovered that county officials were diverting inmate welfare funds to repair jail facilities. The episode in the clerk’s office got him thinking about the bench. Since courts are exempt from the Public Records Act, Crews demanded that the county — which still provides administrative services to the court under contract — turn over court budgets and receipts, along with the cell phone numbers. (He says he’s since obtained the numbers through other means, but hasn’t published them.) Glenn County Counsel Belinda Blacketer kicked the request back to the bench’s court executive, Tina Burkhart. After talking to the judges and the AOC, Burkhart told Crews he’d need to narrow the request. “I also told him what our obligations were under the rules of the court,” Burkhart said. “I have never in the 3 1/2 years I’ve been here had a request for court financial records.” The county’s two judges, Angus Saint-Evens and Donald Byrd, declined to comment about the litigation or Crew’s criticisms. Burkhart said most training for judges and staff is funded through the AOC. She says the court will respond to any written request for financial records according to Judicial Council rules. (The council later supplied Crews with a copy of the financial summary, which he says “might as well have been in Sanskrit.”) In a suit filed earlier this year, Crews and his attorney sought a way around the judicial exemption. “We are not seeking any information directly from the court,” says Mary Duffy Carolan, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. “What we are seeking is information used by the county. It happens to relate to the court, but it’s squarely under the definition of the Public Records Act.” In Sacramento Valley Mirror v. County of Glenn, 00649, Carolan argues that a ruling in the court’s favor would “forever bar access to important public records under a novel and legally unsupported theory that the judiciary can control not only its own records but any record owned, maintained or even created by other branches of government as long as these records pertain in some way to the courts.” But Blacketer, who is defending the county in the suit, says the county is obliged to follow Judicial Council rules on financial disclosure. “We’re under contract. We have a fiduciary duty to the court to follow their directive,” Blacketer says. The county’s response hasn’t sat well with Crews, who says taxpayers have a right to see what they’ve paid for. “Courts don’t really believe the public has a right to know what [they're] doing,” he says. “There is way too much secrecy. It’s bizarre. How can people have confidence in something that they cannot see?” The suit has been assigned to another rural judge, William Skillman of Sierra County. He heard arguments Tuesday and took the matter under submission. Carolan says that by now, court officials should realize public access is a legislative mandate. “They should look at the legislative history” of the shift to state trial court funding. Lawmakers “forgot to put the sunshine provision in when they passed trial court funding in 1998,” but clearly, she says, that’s what they want. “Why shouldn’t the public have access to court administrative files? They are just as much a part of the government. We need to hold courts accountable like other public agencies.”

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