Lake County website sues sheriff over press policies
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 1:34 p.m.
Tension between a Lake County website that aggressively covers breaking news and the county's outspoken sheriff has boiled over in a discrimination lawsuit against the county.
The husband-and-wife team running the Lake County News website filed a lawsuit contending that Sheriff Frank Rivero "blacklisted" them from press lists and put up other unfair obstacles to getting public records.
Rivero has declined to back down, even though some Lake County supervisors resoundingly criticized his actions. He said he has no obligation to email press releases to the media outlet, asserting its coverage of the sheriff and his department has been biased and inaccurate.
The fight centers on whether the Sheriff's Office can treat local news organizations differently because of the way they cover the news.
The First Amendment and California's public record laws are designed to keep public officials from being the arbiters of good reporting, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael nonprofit group that advocates for free speech and open government.
"No public figure likes their press," Scheer said. "Too bad, grow up. If you're going to be a public official, you have to be able to take some heat. And that heat is protected by the First Amendment."
The case is unlikely to make it before a judge. Paul Nicholas Boylan, an attorney representing the news organization, said he is deep into settlement talks with Lake County Counsel Anita Grant.
Lake County News is asking a judge for three actions: Instruct the Sheriff's Office how to respond to media requests; order the agency to comply with state public records laws; and order the office to stop discriminating against media "based on the content of their reporting," Boylan said.
The fight flared in October when Rivero told Lake County News editor Elizabeth Larson in an email that he would block her emails, not take her phone calls and that she and her husband must file formal public records requests to get information, according to the lawsuit.
"I am done with your 'National Enquirer' style of reporting and general disrespect of me and my office," Rivero wrote.
Rivero acknowledges he told his staff to stop including Larson in emails sent to news organizations, but contends that policy does not violate the law because there are alternative ways for Larson to access the agency's releases. Rivero said the emails were a "courtesy" to reporters who also can get the information from a web-based announcement service called Nixle.
The emails were sent earlier than the Nixle alerts, which Boylan said put Lake County News at a disadvantage. However the Sheriff's Office has since stopped the emails altogether. Boylan said that's evidence the lawsuit is working.
Lake County News is a two-person operation started by Larson and her husband, John Jensen. Larson, a former managing editor for the rival Record-Bee newspaper, heads the news department and Jensen manages the business.
The Lucerne couple started the site in 2006 and now share the work with about a dozen paid freelance writers.
Larson, the main force behind the site's news coverage, aggressively tracks breaking news by posting frequent updates on car wrecks, fires and local events.
She has kept close watch on Rivero's path from a deputy running for office through his sometimes controversial decisions as sheriff.
Larson, reached by phone, declined to comment while the case is pending.
But Rivero acknowledges tension in the relationship. He contends some of the news organization's stories have hurt investigations. Other stories, he said, were incorrect.
"Frankly and honestly, I've had a very cantankerous relationship with Lake County News even while I was campaigning," Rivero said. "And that's continued to this date."
Rivero said he became fed up after an Oct. 17 story on Lake County News that reported he had pounded his fist on a table during a Board of Supervisors meeting addressing possible sites for a new substation in Clearlake Oaks.
Rivero says a video of the meeting shows he didn't pound his fist. "That was a completely fictitious story," he said. "They're trying to paint me being something that I'm not."
Boylan said even if Rivero is correct about accuracy issues, he still "can't discriminate on the content of their speech."
In November, the Board of Supervisors voted to establish a countywide media policy out of concern that citizens would miss key information during an emergency, said board chairman Rob Brown.
"You can't be selective about the news media you release information to," Brown said. "The main reason for that policy was for the way the sheriff had been handling responses to certain media."
Former Clearlake Police Chief Bob Chalk, who retired in 2006, wrote letters to the editor to the Record-Bee and Lake County News this month raising his concern that Rivero's actions send a message that "his administration will promote and tolerate unfair and biased treatment of others."
In a phone interview, Chalk said he knows first-hand how frustrating it can be when news reports are inaccurate. "But that didn't mean that I would withhold information," he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jjpressdem.
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