Janis Mara wins DFMie for following the money on fire chief ‘retirement’

Headline: Janis Mara Wins DFMie for Following the Money on Fire Chief 'Retirement'
Outlet: Marin Independent-Journal
Journalist: Janis Mara

Janis Mara of the Marin Independent Journal won the February DFMie for the Northern California cluster for following the money when a local fire chief retired abruptly.

Robert Sterling, Community Engagement and Social Media Editor, explained in his nomination:

Mara submitted three California Public Records Act requests to the Novato Fire District after the chief abruptly “retired” and officials stonewalled her when she asked about it. They continued to keep mum about the sudden resignation — until Mara filed her request for public records.

After that, in an unusual meeting with IJ editors, Novato fire officials released documents and said, among other things, they had found: 1. The chief had approved his own credit card bills ($44,500 over two years) and later failed to release receipts when asked. 2. Spent $488,000 on an IT system without a contract or approval from the elected board. 3. Had ordered all fire employees not to talk with any board members, contrary to district policy.

Mara started digging after a battalion chief filed a $6 million claim against the district, the chief and the deputy chief, alleging retaliation for asking questions. The deputy chief had taken a top job in Palo Alto in October and the fire chief resigned in November. The claim was settled for $250,000, but even before the announced settlement Mara’s public records request effectively forced release of information that the district had found in the course of its investigation into the battalion chief’s claim.

In what amounted to a major mea culp, fire officials spent more than an hour with IJ editors essentially admitting they had been asleep at the wheel while the fire chief spent money as he wished. Mara wrote a lengthy A1 story that detailed all the problems in the district and what the board was doing to fix things. Her story was followed by a strongly worded editorial.

Judges applauded the watchdog reporting:

Kudos to Janis Mara of the Marin Independent Journal for her in-depth look at the misuse of funds by the head of the Novato Fire District. This is old-fashioned journalism at its best. Janis used requests filed under the California Public Records Act to get the documentation she needed to confirm what many were suspecting, that something was off in the fire district’s books.

It was obvious that it was her pressure and digging that pushed this story along, leading to the abrupt “retirement” of the fire chief, and an interview with the new boss that laid out what had been going on: The now former chief had been using the fire department credit cards and approving work without putting it to the full board first.

That was followed up by putting the newspaper’s beliefs on the record with a strong editorial, and just for good measure a great editorial cartoon. The editorial rightly took to task not only the former chief but also the fire board for keeping close tabs on what was going on. This kind of reporting is crucial to our role as being the classic watchdog of public servants. It’s a perfect example of community service.

Another judge:

Good solid story and exactly the kind of journalism newspapers should be doing. It shows the important role a good newspaper can play. Now that’s community involvement!

And another:

Janis did an excellent job of holding public officials’ feet to the fire. It’s a lot of work to request documents from public agencies and I applaud her for doing that.

IJ_NovatoFD_0208The other Northern California finalists were reporter Catherine Bowen and Photo Editor Rick Roach of the Vacaville Reporter for their coverage of emergency trauma response in Solano County and reporter Tiffany Revelle and photographer Brian Maneely of the Ukiah Daily Journal for their coverage of a fugitive standoff.

The Marin Independent Journal used to be part of the Bay Area News Group, and still is on the business side. But the newsroom operates with the NorCal cluster and competes for the DFMies there.

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