Public Official Plays Small Town Politics
A Lake County website has filed a discrimination lawsuit against outspoken County Sheriff Frank Rivero alleging
he “blacklisted” them from press releases and put up unfair
obstacles to getting public records.
Lake County News is a small news website started by Elizabeth Larson and her husband John Jensen. She manages the business; he manages the news department and the six paid freelance writers. John Jensen is a former managing editor of the Record-Bee newspaper.
They contend the issue centers on whether the Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff Rivero, can treat local news organizations differently because of the way they cover the news, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported.
Sheriff Rivero, however, has refused to back down. He asserts he has no obligation to email press releases to Lake County News, contending its coverage of the sheriff and his department has been biased and inaccurate, the Press-Democrat said.
The Press-Democrat noted:
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…
Peter Scheer, Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition that advocates for open government and free speech, said the First Amendment and California’s public record laws are clearly designed to prohibit public officials from deciding the arbiters of good reporting.
“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.”
In their lawsuit, Lake County News is asking a judge for three directives:
- Instruct the Sheriff’s Office how to respond to media requests
- Order the agency to comply with state public records laws
- Order the office to stop discriminating against the media based on the content of their reporting
Former Clearlake Police Chief Bob Chalk also raised concerns that Rivero’s actions send a message that “his administration will promote and tolerate unfair and biased treatment of others.”
Through their legal counsel, Lake County News is currently in settlement talks with Lake County Counsel before the issue heads into a courtroom.
Rivero, a Cuban immigrant, started his career as a beat cop in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood and shocked the Lake County establishment when he ran for Sheriff on an anti-corruption platform in 2010, beating 16-year incumbent Rod Mitchell. “If you find a more corrupt place in California I’ll eat my hat,” he said at the time.
Rivero said during his tenure that he’s cut more than $1 million in waste from the Sheriff’s Department budget and put an end to cops who abused their power under the “good ol’ boys” network he swept out of office.
The Daily World wrote that Rivero is a contentious public official who has ”been called a thug, a liar, a bully, a cowboy and the Cuban John Wayne for his swaggering brand of justice” in the county of 64,500 residents.
“I’m a rare bird,” Rivero said in September. “I’m probably the only immigrant elected sheriff in California. I am one controversial character; I speak my mind. I’m a rough character to deal with when you’re screwing around.”
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You can read the full story in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat article by Julie Johnson, “Lake County Website Sues Sheriff over Press Policies.”