FAC Free Speech & Open Government Award winners honored at Cal Press Foundation 138th Annual Dinner Banquet

FAC's FOI AwardThe 2015 recipients of the Free Speech & Open Government Award competition were honored Thursday, December 3 at the California Press Foundation’s 138th Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

The two winners of this year’s awards used different methods to accomplish their goals ­­one upholding the finest traditions of community journalism and the other demonstrating the effectiveness of citizen activism in holding officials accountable.

They are both equally deserving of public honor and emulation for their advancement of government transparency:

Monterey County Weekly is recognized for its years-­long effort, led by Editor Mary Duan and Staff Writer Sara Rubin, to unearth public records, conduct interviews and produce an ambitious series outlining the story behind the story of a sexual abuse case involving Father Edward Fitz­Henry and the Monterey Diocese.

The paper reviewed nearly 1,350 pages of documents, conducted numerous sensitive interviews, while attorney Roger Myers of the San Francisco law firm Bryan Cave, waged a successful legal battle on behalf of the Monterey County Weekly to unseal records. The revelations from the unsealed court documents and in-depth reporting by Duan and Rubin resulted in an unusually transparent dissection of the case, describing not only the details but exploring the human aspects of the subjects.

Citizen activist Bill Branch with Peter Scheer
Citizen activist Bill Branch with Peter Scheer

● Honoree Bill Branch became a citizen activist in 2011 when the local fire chief ran a successful campaign for the Loomis, CA town council. Branch believed this double duty presented a conflict of interest, and he, along with two other concerned citizens, Marilyn Jasper and Janet Thew, began to attend public meetings and request contracts and other public documents.

Despite tremendous resistance from local officials, Branch’s efforts revealed that Fire Chief David Wheeler was collecting a $137,000­/year CalPERS pension from the Alameda Fire Department at the same time he was working as a CalPERS ­covered part­time fire chief in Loomis. Branch, Jasper and Thew kept up the pressure with CalPERS and the fire board, and finally saw results for their persistence in October when an administrative judge declared that Wheeler and the fire district had conducted a “five ­year scheme” to circumvent California pension law and ordered that he repay about $460,000 to CalPERS. The district likewise was told to repay its share of the benefits. Later in the month the full CalPERS board upheld the decision without hearings.

There were many outstanding nominees ­­individuals and groups­­ deserving of our thanks and recognition for their tireless work to protect the people’s right to know, including the work of Jessica Pishko, a San Francisco ­based writer who produced a powerful story of prison guard abuses at High Desert State Prison for Rolling Stone Magazine; Thadeus Greenson, editor of the North Coast Journal in Humboldt County, for his single ­handed and sophisticated pursuit of police dashboard camera videos; an extraordinary series of stories by Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald on corruption and abuse in Florida Prisons; the Center for Public Integrity’s vast body of work on behalf of open government and unearthing public documents; and the Cal State, Fullerton, Daily Titan for standing up to official hostility from the school’s administration.

Each of the First Amendment Coalition awards will be accompanied by a $1,000 prize.