Apr 24, 2011

Richard McKee, First Amendment activist, has died (*updated)

Richard McKee, the quiet chemistry professor who smiled as he chewed through walls of government secrecy, has died. He was 62.

Details of his death are murky. What little I know comes from a post written by Emily Francke at Californians Aware, a statewide First Amendment watchdog group McKee helped start:
It is with deep regret and a very heavy heart that I must report that our dear friend and colleague, Rich McKee, suddenly passed away today, April 23, 2011. I have no further details at this time, but I will share what I can as it becomes known to me in the coming days and weeks. 
Rich was one of our greatest champions throughout the years, and we truly could not have done any of this without him. I hope you will join me in sending support and prayers to his family and friends as they learn to cope with this incredible loss.
McKee fought every day to ensure California lived up to a simple and obvious idea. He believed the public has a right to know what the government it elected is doing. This meant more than reporting out a final vote after a closed door meeting, it meant giving the public the same information a legislative body relied on to come to a decision - before the decision was made. It meant giving the public the right to speak before government officials made up their minds. It meant taking officials to task when they tried to skirt the fundamental sunshine laws of the state. Control freaks in City Halls and County buildings across California buckled at his passion, because he knew what he was talking about, he was never demagogic, and he always had law on his side.

It was a simple idea, and yet McKee spent more than a decade fighting nearly identical battles in city after city, county after county, as craven government officials decided it was easier to conceal than to reveal. The salary scandal in the City of Bell - the one that won the Los Angeles Times a Pulitzer - shows what happens when people like McKee are not around. He not only fought his battles, but he fought countless battles on behalf of people who did not know they had rights.

Indeed, I would say that every City Hall reporter in California who has ever requested sensitive documents or emails in the last 13 years has Richard McKee to thank - either because he offered the reporter free advice, or because he fought at the reporter's side in court when officials said no, or because he left behind a legacy of court decisions that made the reporter's job easier. I know from experience.

He was genuine, he was good, and will be missed.

*Updated 4/25: The Daily Breeze has more on McKee's death, including the fact that he died of natural causes. The story also has a comment from Terry Francke, head of Californians Aware and former general counsel at the California First Amendment Coalition:
McKee died of natural causes Saturday at his La Verne home, according to Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. An autopsy is pending. Family members did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Francke described McKee as an outspoken and dedicated advocate for public participation in local government.

"He was a big guy in personality, in generousness and in enthusiasm for opening up government to public participation," Francke said. "He was very good humored and very gentlemanly. He was a skilled persuader."

McKee fought for public access to government records and documents and educated public officials in more than 100 cities across the state about open-meeting laws and the California Public Records Act. He filed nearly 30 lawsuits against public agencies in the last 16 years, winning the vast majority.


Lois said...

Very nice, Gary

Anonymous said...

Note also that Rich McKee did what many newspapers were unwilling to do: sue for access. He even lost a lawsuit and faced personal financial hardship a couple years back when a judge decided he was a nuisance and ruled against him. Find me a newspaper publisher still living who's willing to put their money where their mouth is in that way.

John Clifford said...

I had been thinking that I'd love to have met this guy. That he could have been great at giving me some advice as I slog my way through the mire that is working with city governments.

This morning, I learned on facebook that I actually knew Richard McKee. He was a year ahead of me at Azusa High School. I'm just starting to reform those memories. It truly is a small world.

Todd said...

That's unfortunate to hear. Not only a valued source, Rich made me LOL every time I ran into him. A potent example of the power one informed citizen can wield.