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March 24, 2005

From the Publisher

Heady company


The North Coast Journal was one of 13 recipients last week of the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards. The Journal was recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter for efforts last year to unseal grand jury transcripts from an investigation of Fortuna City Councilmember Debi August. (August, a real estate broker and a 15-year veteran of the Planning Commission, is accused of a conflict of interest regarding a real estate deal she personally represented. Her case goes to trial in May.)

It started with an anonymous tip, a call to the office asking us to look into publishing the transcripts. The law is clear: Transcripts of testimony become accessible to the public once charges are filed unless the court orders otherwise. What we hadn't planned on was the court staff blocking the release, telling us the judge had "ordered the transcripts sealed" well beyond the 10 days required by law. (That turned out to be false.) It took several weeks and three formal letters to the court -- written with the help Photo of award to Hank Sims, Judy Hodgson and Emily Gurnonof our Sacramento media attorney -- to get the transcripts. We were honored in part because we were willing to hire an attorney to fight for this public access, "a potentially bank-busting venture for a small, independent paper," according to an article in the March 9 San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Most of the credit goes to Senior Staff Writer Hank Sims and Editor Emily Gurnon. Neither one of them was willing to accept the word of the court staff and requested to see the judge's written order, which didn't exist.

By the way, we were in pretty heady company last Wednesday night at the awards ceremony in San Francisco. The honoree of the evening for career achievement was Lowell Bergman, a TV news producer and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter best known for his investigation of the tobacco industry. Bergman, who teaches at UC Berkeley, is a former professor of Journal reporter Sims.

[photo above: Hank Sims, Judy Hodgson and Emily Gurnon at the awards ceremony in San Francisco.]

See North Coast Journal cover story: "The Debi August File," Sept. 9, 2004


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