Claremont Insider: Remembering Richard McKee

Monday, April 25, 2011

Remembering Richard McKee

In case you haven't already heard, Richard McKee died Saturday. McKee, an open government activist who lived in La Verne, was well-known in Claremont, having taken the City to court a few times during the Glenn Southard administration.

Just last month, McKee had an opinion piece in the Daily Bulletin (now sequestered behind the Bulletin's pay wall) reminding readers of the responsibility each of us bears in a participatory democracy and of the risks we take in shirking those duties.

McKee, who taught chemistry at Pasadena City College, was a citizen activist in the purest sense, and, as former Claremont Courier reporter Gary Scott notes, we all have McKee to thank for our access to local government records:

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 was doing....

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.

We first saw McKee when he was active with the California First Amendment Coalition and then later when he, CFAC general counsel Terry Francke, and others broke off and formed Californians Aware, another open government activist group.

La Verne Online has an obit for McKee, and it reminds us that his activism did carry a personal cost:

While most of McKee’s efforts were focused on open government education, to protect the public’s rights, he also litigated 14 successful open government and First Amendment lawsuits, often representing himself. KPFK radio dubbed him “John Q. Citizen.” KCET’s “Life & Times Tonight” called him “the citizen who won’t shut up and go away.” The Times characterized him as “the scourge of public agencies across the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles County” who “walks softly and carries a big stick.” The Sacramento Bee christened him “Mr. Sunshine,” a man with “a head for the law, a heart for justice and a nose for government officials with secrets.”

His crusade at time took great personal and financial toll. After suing the Orange Unified School District Board for alleged violations of the Brown Act in 2007, McKee as the losing plaintiff was responsible for paying thousands in attorney’s fees and court costs, forcing McKee to take a lien on his home and suffer garnishment of his wages.

Whether you realize it or not, you owe a great deal to Richard McKee, and you can best honor that debt by getting involved in the governance of your city, your school district, your water district and holding them accountable whenever they stonewall you on information that is rightly yours.

It's become fashionable to complain about too much or too little government on all levels, but 99% of the complaints come from people sitting on sofas in the comforts of their living rooms while the 1% represented by the likes of McKee actually do the heavy lifting. Let's get off our collective lazy duffs and lend a hand.