Watchdogs in action

A look at the winners of this year's Freedom of Information Awards


The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California, will honor the following James Madison Freedom of Information Award winners during a March 20 banquet. Details on their work and the dinner are available at



Throughout his 29-year journalism career, Peter Sussman, a retired San Francisco Chronicle editor, advocated for greater media access to prisoners and fought to uphold the rights of inmate journalists. In the 1980s, federal prison officials cracked down on inmate Dannie "Red Hog" Martin for writing to Sussman to share what life was like behind bars.

The retaliation spurred an epic battle over free speech within prison walls, and Sussman responded by publishing Martin's regular writings about prison life, and later co-authoring a book with him titled Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog.

In the mid-'90s, Sussman fought state prison officials' restrictions on media interviews with prisoners. He also helped write and sponsor statewide legislation to overturn limits restricting media access to prisons. Sussman will receive the Norwin S. Yoffie Award for Career Achievement.



Beverly Kees Educator Award winner Rob Gunnison is a former instructor and administrator at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, where he arrived after spending 15 years covering government and politics in Sacramento for the San Francisco Chronicle.

As a longtime instructor of a course called "Reporting and Writing the News," Gunnison has continued to educate hungry young journalists on how to seek public records and carry out investigative reporting projects.



Peter Buxton will be honored with the FOI Whistleblower/Source Award. In 1972, Buxton played a key role in alerting the press to the ongoing operation of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where African American sharecroppers were intentionally exposed to the disease, without treatment or their knowledge, so researchers could study its progression.

By the time the story was related to the press, 28 men had died of syphilis, and 100 others had died of related complications. That leak helped spur Congressional hearings on the practice beginning in 1973, ultimately spurring a complete overhaul of federal regulations. A class-action lawsuit was filed, resulting in a $10 million settlement.



Reporter Tom Vacar of KTVU pushed for records determining whether replacement drivers that BART was training to help break last year's labor strike were qualified to safely operate the trains, eventually finding that they had been simply rubber-stamped by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Those findings proved gravely significant on Oct. 21 when two workers on the tracks were killed by a BART train operated at the time by an uncertified trainee, an accident still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.



California Sen. Leland Yee is once again being honored by SPJ Norcal for his work on sunshine issues, including last year criticizing Gov. Jerry Brown and other fellow Democrats who had sought to weaken the California Public Records Act, instead seeking to strengthen the ability of the courts to enforce the law.



Freelance journalist Richard Knee's Distinguished Service Award caps a 12-year fight for open government in a city eager to stash its skeletons securely in closets.

Knee is a longtime member of the San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, created in 1994 to safeguard the city's Sunshine Ordinance, and he has fought to maintain its power and relevance.


March 15, 2014

Steven T. Jones
San Francisco Bay Guardian
225 Bush Street, 17th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Dear Mr. Jones,

I have reason to believe that on March 4, a Sunshine advocate and open-government wizard contacted the Bay Guardian requesting that you include in your planned FOIA issue, an article focusing on Allen Grossman’s lawsuit against the Ethics Commission that is languishing in the Appellate Court. One way or another, the case may turn out to set precedents in the City affecting the public’s right to know what our government is doing in our names, and the level of secrecy the City seeks to preserve. Depending on the outcome at the Appellate level, this case may have the potential of reaching California’s Supreme Court.

So I was shocked to learn that on March 10, that you had responded to a request for coverage that the Guardian would not “get into this lawsuit at this time. It's just way too narrow and wonky to devote a whole story to, and frankly I think you'll have a hard time convincing a judge that the Sunshine Ordinance trumps attorney-client privilege.”

Really, Mr. Jones: It could end up reaching the Supreme Court, but is “too wonky” to devote a whole story to? Jeesh! Did you bother reading the final brief filed by Grossman’s lawyer, Michael Ng, who asserts no attorney-client privilege ever attached to the records Grossman sought, and so of course, the Sunshine Ordinance takes over? While the City Attorney wails about this “trumping” issue, the issue falls apart on close examination. Which examination you think is “too wonky”?

Then, I was surprised to see that when the Guardian hit news racks on Wednesday, March 10, that the best Rebecca Bowe and Brian McMahon could work into their “Glimmers of Sunshine” article on page 9 of the Guardian, was a single 20-word clause alluding to Grossman’s case [“… plus a lawsuit revolving around the city’s refusal disclose [sic: to disclose] how the City Attorney’s Office advises agencies on Sunshine Ordinance interpretations, …”].

Legal briefs filed by both sides to date in Court records number at least 275 pages. And all Ms. Bowe could devote were just 20 words to describe Grossman’s case? After she acknowledged in her introduction that the act of standing up to defend FOI can be rather unglamorous, and sometimes lead to grueling lawsuits? Grossman’s case is a prime example of a grueling lawsuit to defend San Francisco’s local FOI protections via the Sunshine Ordinance. And you conclude his lawsuit is merely “wonky”?

Knowing in advance of the Guardian’s demurral to report (however extensively or not) on Grossman’s case in your annual FOI issue, I was stunned turning to Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle the same day the Guardian hit news racks. The Chronicle’s Bob Egelko published a several-hundred-word article describing Grossman’s case in the Appellate Court.

How could the Chronicle have scooped the Guardian reporting on Grossman’s case?

As another prominent open government advocate noted yesterday, it’s ironic that we’ve reached the point where the Chronicle does a fairly major story reporting on a [very major] Sunshine issue, while the Bay Guardian does not.

“Progressives” being scooped by “moderate” conservatives is all too telling.

For that matter, Tim Redmond reported on his new web site last week that City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s new spokesperson, Gabriel Zitrin, claimed that San Francisco’s city attorney would be the only lawyer in the State “who [would have] to abide by a restriction that no other lawyer faces.” Redmond also didn’t do his fact-checking, since it turns out Zitrin is wrong. Both Milpitas and Vallejo have similar local Sunshine law restrictions that other City Attorney’s are already facing. And the sky hasn’t fallen in either jurisdiction.

Just how far has journalism fallen that the Guardian’s annual FOI issue mentions just 20 words about Grossman’s case, and is scooped by the Chronicle?

May I suggest that you read my article, “Sandbagging, Legal Fairy Dust, and Double-Speak” available on my web site ? I admit it’s long reading, but it summarizes about 275 to 325 pages of legal briefs and the relevant law. Hopefully, there’s a nugget or two in my article that may help convince you Grossman’s case is not at all “wonky.” His case involves whether all San Franciscans, including the Guardian, will be able to rely on the Sunshine Ordinance if he prevails.

And if he doesn’t prevail, whether that will grant the City free license to gut multiple, entire sections of the Sunshine Ordinance, and gut your ability to obtain records under the Sunshine Ordinance. This isn’t about “wonky.” This is about the very survival of the Sunshine Ordinance.

Patrick Monette-Shaw
Westside Observer Newspaper
Recipient of 2012 SPJ-NorCal James Madison Freedom of Information Award, Advocacy Category

Posted by MPetrelis on Mar. 16, 2014 @ 9:53 am

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