Open Vallejo wins James Madison Freedom of Information award

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Open Vallejo has won a 2020 James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter for its work exposing records of police and government misconduct.

Founder and Executive Editor Geoffrey King was recognized in the citizen category for Open Vallejo’s “rigorous reporting and relentless use of the California Public Records Act to shine a light on a troubled local government,” SPJ said in a press statement Thursday.

Now in their 35th year, the awards celebrate individuals and organizations “who have made significant contributions to advancing freedom of information and/or expression in the spirit of James Madison, the creative force behind the First Amendment.” 

Open Vallejo “shed new light on police violence and misconduct last year and forced officials to disclose information they sought to shield from public scrutiny,” SPJ officials wrote. “At a time when there are perilously few journalists reporting in Vallejo, this citizen has provided a beacon of hope to a local community desperately in need of sunshine.”

“We are honored by this award, and for the opportunity to serve our community,” King told the Vallejo Times-Herald. “This project is inspired by values learned here in Vallejo — values like loyalty to community, respect for one’s neighbors, and the importance of speaking truth to power.”

One of Open Vallejo’s earliest milestones was compelling the disclosure of body camera video of Vallejo police officers killing Ronell Foster in 2018 and Willie McCoy last year. Police repeatedly denied public records requests by the Foster and McCoy families, members of the public, and reporters. Open Vallejo later learned the department allowed select members of the public to view the footage, which waived all exemptions to disclosure, leading to the videos’ release. (On July 1, 2019, a new state law took effect requiring the prompt disclosure of footage from police shootings and other critical incidents.)

Last April, Open Vallejo uncovered an attempt by scandal-plagued police chief Andrew Bidou to retire and immediately take over as interim chief, effectively doubling his pay to nearly $40,000 a month. Although approved by Vallejo’s city council, the city later abandoned the plan after it was found to violate California’s retirement rules. 

In August, Open Vallejo revealed that City Attorney Claudia Quintana engaged in what Solano County’s chief judge characterized as an “improper” attempt to influence criminal cases brought by her office. Two months later, Quintana announced she would retire from government service, five years before reaching her full retirement age of 55.

Other recipients of the 2020 James Madison Award include the First Amendment Coalition in the nonprofit category, the Sacramento Bee for its deeply-researched reporting on California’s prisons, and the Bay Area News Group and KQED for spearheading the California Reporting Project to enhance police transparency.

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