PUBLISHER


OF RUMORS AND LAWSUITS

by Judy Hodgson



It's amazing how accurate some rumors are. I recall during the investigation of the 1995 murder of Lonna Angelel how informal news updates were available when I stopped by the Fieldbrook Market for the morning newspaper. Local residents had information that wasn't revealed to the public for another year and a half during the trial of Larry Angelel, the Humboldt State University professor who was eventually convicted of the crime.

Last year, a day after the St. Joseph Heart Institute suspended operations, we received a call asking us to look into the six deaths that had occurred. Six. I remember the number exactly. It took me more than a month working on the story to confirm four, using public death certificates, and another several months to confirm six deaths, when the figure was released in the state's report.

I don't recall exactly -- it was before the Christmas break -- that we got a call about Sheriff Dennis Lewis' car travelling 90 mph sideswiping another car and not stopping. I remember thinking how could that possibly have happened and not been reported. The rumor was already several months old. I mumbled something about The Journal not being the daily media -- a handy excuse -- and that we don't do crime reporting. And that was the end of it.

Except it was true.

A debate is now ongoing about the newsworthiness of the story because some local media knew it happened in October and did not report it (see update, page 9).

Was it news? You bet, even if it were a minor fender-bender.

Kudos to KMUD radio for getting the story out and The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa for following up.

Was the surfacing of the story at this time -- two months before Lewis faces re-election --╩politically motivated? Maybe, but that's irrelevant. Voters are smart enough to know that political opponents are swift to promote any misstep of their rivals.

Also surfacing this month is a final resolution to our year-long disagreement with the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. County Administrative Officer John Murray said The Journal didn't get everything it wanted and he's right. Supervisors did not have to release all the minutes of the illegal meeting, only a portion of them. And the judge did not order them to tape their future meetings.

But the final ruling contained what was most important to us: the finding that the supervisors did violate the Brown Act open meeting law by inviting a private contractor into a closed session. The final ruling also contained the board's promise to pay our court and attorney costs which amounted to $13,500.

It sounds like a lot of money but it's not really. The county's 1996-97 bill from Mitchell, Brisso, Delaney & Vrieze -- the outside attorneys who provide legal services under contract above and beyond the county's 10 regular staff attorneys --╩was $246,000, more than double what is was in fiscal year 1994-95. Our case represented a very small part of that bill, of course. Who knows what the fees will be for this year with the pepper spray lawsuit pending.

We would like to publicly thank our attorney, Steven Yarbrough, of Cochran & Follett in Crescent City, for taking on this case.


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