The Fresno Bee has waged legal battles recently in two different cases to uphold the public’s right to know what its government has done and why. It is a fight that The Bee considers central to its mission.
In one case, more than half a million taxpayer dollars had to be paid out to a plaintiff. The other case has yet to arrive at a payment resolution, but if the case remains open to public scrutiny, some questionable decision making by the county will almost certainly come to light.
In that second case, Fresno County officials are trying hard to keep from the public the legal proceedings involving county jail inmates who where hurt — and in fact, one inmate was killed — when a gas line was ruptured at a local gun range.
The resulting explosion on April 17, 2015 happened as some inmates were at a privately owned gun range at Herndon Avenue and Highway 99. Their task: To pick up spent shells at the range. A front-loader being operated by a county worker accidentally hit a Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline and ruptured it, sending a giant wall of flames into the sky.
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One inmate was killed and 12 were injured. Now those injured inmates want to sue the county in Superior Court. But the county is arguing that the workers were covered by the state Workers’ Compensation program because they received extra visiting time as “compensation” for the work detail. The county is trying to keep the case out of regular court because if the inmates are declared county workers, their medical bills will be paid through workers’ compensation. The workers also would not be able to sue for general damages.
There are a host of questions that need answering, many of them from the inmates’ lawyers, who contend their clients did not volunteer for the work detail nor did they get the promised compensation. In several instances, the inmates did not even know they had extra visiting time coming to them, the lawyers say.
The Bee became involved when the county tried to get the worker’s comp hearing closed to the public. The county’s argument: Workers’ comp hearings are not like regular criminal or civil trials and should be closed to protect the privacy rights of the employer and employees, who, in their argument, were the inmates.
Attorneys for the inmates said their clients waived any rights to privacy; they want the hearing open so the public can see how the Sheriff’s Office spends taxpayers’ dollars.
Bruce Owdom, a Fresno attorney, represented The Bee and told the hearing judge that the state Supreme Court has long held court proceedings to be public, and that to close one would be unconstitutional. David H. Parker, representing the county, said he respects the First Amendment and The Bee.
But Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California News Publishers Association, called the county’s actions “unprecedented.”
“I have never in my 23 years (as a First Amendment attorney) seen a government agency go to such lengths to prevent the public from seeing what is going on,” he said.
In the other case, Fresno Unified officials repeatedly refused to turn over to The Bee how much money they agreed to pay to a local family to settle a negligence lawsuit. In 2016 a special-needs student at a Fresno elementary school had bleach allegedly poured into her feeding tube by an aide by mistake The 10-year-old girl suffered permanent damage to her trachea, esophagus, stomach and lungs, the family said in its lawsuit.
The two sides reached a settlement before going to trial. The district’s attorneys initially said they could not disclose the financial terms because information concerning children has to remain confidential.
The Bee repeatedly emphasized its interest was to obtain the terms of the settlement and not the girl’s identity. After a half dozen requests yielded no information, Bee editors brought the matter to the attention of FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson, and he worked with legal counsel to provide the total of the settlement: $575,000.
Why are these legal battles important to wage? First, taxpayer dollars are being used by public agencies. When their mistakes cost the public, local taxpayers should know what the bill is.
Second, the public has a right to know if its officials are conducing business properly. They make important decisions that, in the case of the gun range, can have critical impacts.
A local newspaper exists to both provide information and fight for it when necessary. Public agencies exist to perform services. Checking on how well public entities do that work is what news organizations are for. When public agencies wrongfully resist legitimate requests for information or try to keep their mistakes from scrutiny, legal battles must be fought.