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Contra Costa, Bakersfield, Tuscaloosa earn First Amendment honors
Contra Costa, Bakersfield, Tuscaloosa earn First Amendment honors

Aug. 1, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Two California newspapers battling to see government records, including those of a school administrator accused of murder, have won the Associated Press Managing Editors association's First Amendment Award.

2005 winners of the APME First Amendment Award.

The association of newspaper and online editors announced Monday it had selected the Contra Costa Times of Walnut Creek, Calif., in the above-100,000 daily circulation category for assigning more than 20 reporters to survey access to records at more than 100 government offices and police departments. Separately, the newspaper went to court to win release of names and salaries of Oakland city employees, setting a standard in the state's public records law.

The Bakersfield Californian won in the 40,000- to 100,000-circulation category for gaining access to records in the personnel file of a Bakersfield school vice principal charged with the murder of five family members.

In the under-40,000 circulation category, The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News won for work on several fronts to gain access to police reports, open public meetings and unseal court documents.

The newspapers were selected from entries from 26 newspapers of above 100,000 circulation, 10 of 40,000 to 100,000 circulation and six below 40,000 circulation.

It is the 35th year APME has recognized individuals and organizations for efforts on behalf of freedom of information. The association's Freedom of Information Award was renamed this year to reflect the significance of the First Amendment in protecting Americans' personal freedoms. Submitted work was published between June 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005.

The awards, recognizing work "that advances freedom of information, makes good use of FOI principles or statutes, or significantly widens the scope of information available to the public," will be presented during the association's annual conference Oct. 26-29 in San Jose, Calif.

In its survey, the Contra Costa Times found that 57 percent of the agencies refused to allow immediate inspection of financial disclosure forms as required by state law. Seventy-three percent refused to allow immediate access to the employment contract of the agency's top appointed official. Two weeks after publication of its series, "Open Records, Closed Doors," the newspaper sponsored a community forum on records access.

The Bakersfield newspaper fought for a year to gain access to the personnel records of school administrator Vincent Brothers, charged with murder. The school files revealed other allegations against Brothers, including hitting an employee, and a decision to move Brothers to another school rather than discipline him.

The Tuscaloosa newspaper won for ongoing work on behalf of public access to records, including suing the local sheriff to see incident and offense reports, going to court to unseal documents in the case of two University of Alabama assistant football coaches who alleged the NCAA defamed them, covering public records and meeting violations and educating about access to information through the Alabama Center for Open Government.

The judges also cited as finalists:

Over 100,000 circulation

• The Seattle Times, for gaining a unanimous state Supreme Court ruling against the wholesale sealing of court records in civil cases. Subsequent stories detailed how executives of a technology firm made millions of dollars while shareholders lost almost everything.

• Canadian Newspaper Association, for an unprecedented audit of public records access that demonstrated wide discrepancies among Canadian provinces.

Under 40,000 circulation

• Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, for suing to get the University of Kansas contract with its athletic director. The Journal-World prevailed and revealed previously undisclosed benefits, including a $1.3 million payment in 2009.

The awards competition was judged by Peter Kovacs, managing editor, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans; Skip Hidlay, executive editor, Asbury Park Press, Neptune, N.J.; Steve Sidlo, managing editor, Dayton (Ohio) Daily News; and Jonathan Donnellan, senior counsel, The Hearst Corp., New York. Editors refrained from discussing or voting on entries from their newspapers.

APME is an organization of editors, managing editors and online editors of the more than 1,700 newspapers served by the AP in the United States and Canadian Press in Canada.

Associated Press Media Editors

APME is a professional network, a resource for helping editors and broadcasters improve their news coverage and newsroom operations.

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