Join the San Diego SPJ board!

We’re currently seeking candidates interested in running for a seat on our chapter’s board. Board members are involved in planning and executing events, putting on our annual awards banquet, crafting and releasing statements and generally advocating for journalists everywhere. We meet on the first Tuesday of every month in the evening. If you’re an SPJ member, you’re eligible to run!

The election will be held in June. If you’d like to run for the board, please submit your bio (200-word limit) by May 24 via email meganwoodsdspj@gmail.com (subject line: SPJ Election). Election results will be announced in late June. Need to renew your membership? Click here!

SPJ Board Meets with Wall Award Winner

Late last month, the San Diego SPJ board met with two city officials about how the city and the Public Utilities Department can improve relations with local media after receiving this year’s Wall Award. City Communications Director Katie Keach and Craig Gustafson, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s communications chief, told the board that the city is determined to move forward in a more transparent way after the city’s PUD was declared the local agency that did the most to block public access to information in the past year.

They said the city has made changes after a series of media reports documenting multiple instances where PUD was not forthright about spiking water bills, water meter upgrades and more. Going forward, Keach and Gustafson encouraged reporters to contact either of them directly if they run into issues with records or information requests. They also urged reporters to contact city officials or communications staff before making complex requests in hopes of easing the release process.

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Help us protect the Public Records Act

California State Capitol Building, photo by Jeff Turner.

SPJ San Diego has been tracking a bill in the state legislature that we believe would undermine the California Public Records Act. AB 700 (Friedman) would create a new exemption for certain records created by employees of community colleges and public universities, and their affiliated labs and medical facilities.

You can read more about our position in this letter we sent to the offices of three key Assembly members (Gonzalez, Maienschein and Friedman). In short: Journalists have used the CPRA to uncover wrongdoing at public universities, and this bill would take away a vital tool for investigating such stories in the future.

We rarely ask our members to take public positions on bills, but this one is too dangerous for us to be silent. Please consider calling or emailing your Assembly member, and/or the three Assembly members we have contacted, to ask that the bill be amended or pulled from consideration. Be sure to reference AB 700 (Friedman). Suggested talking points:

Journalists would have never been able to uncover wrongdoing at public universities if this bill had been law.

The state legislature should be focused on strengthening the CPRA and expanding access to public records. This bill would do the opposite.

The bill’s supporters say it would curb CPRA abuses to discredit researchers, but they’ve failed to give examples of that actually happening.

Legislative staff to contact:
Evan.McLaughlin@asm.ca.gov, chief of staff for Lorena Gonzalez
Lance.Witmondt@asm.ca.gov, chief of staff for Brian Maienschein
Allison.RuffSchuurman@asm.ca.gov, chief of staff for Laura Friedman

Or find your own Assembly member and contact them!

2019 SPJ San Diego Area Journalism Competition

CALLING ALL WINNERS! SAN DIEGO SPJ IS NOW ACCEPTING ENTRIES FOR OUR 2019 CONTEST.

The 2019 SPJ San Diego Area Journalism Competition will recognize outstanding work by San Diego-area student and professional journalists published or broadcast during the calendar year 2018. Contest entries will be accepted through Monday, April 8. Those submitted by 9 p.m. PST on Monday, April 1 will get $5 off their entry fees in every category but our top and special awards. Student rates do not change.

This year’s Distinguished Coverage Award will honor stories about migrations and movements. People engage in movement(s) for many reasons: to escape harm, to seek opportunities, to improve their communities, and to bring attention to issues. Did your outlet cover it best? Each outlet should submit their best story, series, or show, along with a 500-word essay on why the coverage merits recognition. This award is open to all outlets and the fee to enter is $100.

We are also accepting applications for five $1,000 San Diego SPJ scholarships and one $1,000 Agnes Diggs scholarship from the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation we look forward to handing out to eligible local journalism students.

Winners will be announced in mid-to-late-May or early June.

Submit your entries using the BetterBNC Media Awards Platform. If you have entered other contests on this platform before, either for last year’s contest or for the SD Press Club, you are already in their system and you just have to ask to enter the 2019 SPJ awards contest.

Below are directions for preparing and submitting entries. If you have questions, please contact Terry Williams at 619-743-3669 or spj.sandiego@cox.net.

All contest entries must be submitted online (except for entries in the College Media Best Newspaper category, which must be mailed and postmarked by the contest deadline to SPJ to P.O. Box 880482, San Diego, CA 92168-0482). All entries must be entered by or on behalf of the individuals who produced the work and must identify those individuals.

To register or enter the contest online now, open a new browser window or tab to http://www.betterbnc.com. Keep this window open to refer to as you submit your awards.

1. HOW TO ENTER

2. CONTEST GUIDELINES AND CATEGORIES 2019

3. FAQS 2019

4. SCHOLARSHIP INFORMATION

AB 700 Will Undermine the Public’s Right to Know

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is disappointed that another piece of legislation has been introduced that would weaken the California Public Records Act.

AB 700 would amend the CPRA to exempt from disclosure certain records relating to state university researchers, including researchers’ correspondence. The bill would apply to researchers at California community colleges, the California State University system, the University of California system, and any medical facility or laboratory affiliated with those institutions.

AB 700’s proponents say these exemptions are needed to curb alleged abuse of the CPRA by people trying to discredit researchers and/or obtain information for personal gain. But the solution isn’t to take away the public’s right to information. Countless examples, including professors’ undisclosed financial relationships and medical studies that were compromising patients’ health have shown that journalists’ ability to obtain records relating to research is necessary to hold public universities accountable.

Disclosure: University-employed board members were recused from crafting this statement.

Join us as we ‘Grade the Media’

The San Diego Society of Professional Journalists is proud to host its annual Grade the Media event at Point Loma Nazarene University on Wednesday, April 17. These panelists were involved in big news stories this past year, and now’s their chance to talk about what it was like to be under the spotlight. The panel is moderated by Andrew Bowen of KPBS. Guests include:

Ammar Campa-Najjar – The Democratic congressional candidate who lost a hard-fought race against Republican incumbent Duncan Hunter.

Tasha Willamson – A community activist who has advocated for families that have lost loved ones to police violence.

Judith Castro-Rangel – The special education aide who shot viral video of a woman being taken away from her children by Border Patrol agents in National City.

Ron Roberts – A longtime San Diego County supervisor whose term expired last year.


Where: Fermanian Conference Center on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, 3900 Lomaland Drive, San Diego

When: Wednesday, April 17, 2019 Social hour at 6:30 p.m., panel at 7 p.m.

Admission: Free; light refreshments provided.

San Diego SPJ asks Sen. Ben Hueso, City Attorney Mara Elliott to rethink proposed changes to state records act

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is deeply troubled by proposed state legislation that would make it more difficult for journalists and the public to understand how government works and hold officials accountable.

Senate Bill 615 — introduced by state Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat — sets an extremely high bar for anyone who successfully sues for the release of public records to recover attorney’s fees and costs. Currently, the California Public Records Act includes a provision that allows requesters to recover fees if a court rules an agency has improperly withheld records.

This provision is of critical importance. Media outlets and ordinary citizens can’t afford to go to court to force the disclosure of records unless they’re able to recoup attorney’s fees. The threat of lawsuits — and the requirement that government agencies pay successful requesters’ attorney’s fees — helps keep agencies honest and encourages them to voluntarily disclose records.

SB 615 seeks to remove the teeth from the California Public Records Act by permitting requesters to recoup attorney’s fees only in narrowly defined circumstances, including when records “clearly” subject to disclosure are withheld or when an agency “knowingly, willfully, and without substantial justification failed to respond to a request.” The California Newspaper Publishers Association’s general counsel says this is “a standard that’s nearly impossible to meet.”

This change would eviscerate the California Public Records Act by making it financially impossible for requesters to sue uncooperative agencies, and it would remove the only incentive for government agencies to follow the law. Under SB 615, agencies could withhold public records with impunity, knowing that if they were challenged, they wouldn’t face any consequences other than having to disclose the records they should have provided in the first place.

Hueso and the bill’s chief sponsor — San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott — say public agencies throughout the state have been overwhelmed by records requests — though Hueso cites only three examples, including the city of San Diego, which says it fielded 4,824 requests in 2018, up from 749 in 2012. Hueso’s office says “budget constraints, limited resources and the ever-increasing amount of requests can hamper the effectiveness of government and unnecessarily exhaust taxpayer dollars.”

The solution to an increase in public records requests is not to remove the only tool the media and the public have to enforce state law. There are many other ways to address an influx of  requests, including more staffing, better staff training and publicly posting data and information that’s frequently requested. Any additional cost to taxpayers would be a small price to ensure journalists, public interest groups, community groups, advocacy organizations and taxpayers can obtain documents that illuminate how government operates.

The bill would also require requesters to “meet-and-confer” with an agency before bringing a lawsuit. In public discussions of the bill, Hueso and Elliott have focused on this less controversial provision, distracting attention from the bill’s attorney’s fees provision. Given the exchanges that already occur between requesters and agencies prior to lawsuits, the meet-and-confer requirement strikes us as superfluous.

We are disappointed in Sen. Hueso and City Attorney Elliott’s attack on government transparency and the public’s right to know. Obtaining records is often extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive. SB 615, if approved, would seriously undermine California’s public records law and give officials free rein to conduct the people’s business outside of public view.

2019 SPJ San Diego Area Journalism Competition

CALLING ALL WINNERS! SAN DIEGO SPJ IS NOW ACCEPTING ENTRIES FOR OUR 2019 CONTEST.

The 2019 SPJ San Diego Area Journalism Competition will recognize outstanding work by San Diego-area student and professional journalists published or broadcast during the calendar year 2018. Contest entries will be accepted through Monday, April 8. Those submitted by 9 p.m. PST on Monday, April 1 will get $5 off their entry fees in every category but our top and special awards. Student rates do not change.

This year’s Distinguished Coverage Award will honor stories about migrations and movements. People engage in movement(s) for many reasons: to escape harm, to seek opportunities, to improve their communities, and to bring attention to issues. Did your outlet cover it best? Each outlet should submit their best story, series, or show, along with a 500-word essay on why the coverage merits recognition. This award is open to all outlets and the fee to enter is $100.  

We are also accepting applications for five $1,000 San Diego SPJ scholarships and one $1,000 Agnes Diggs scholarship from the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation we look forward to handing out to eligible local journalism students.

Winners will be announced in mid-to-late-May or early June.

Submit your entries using the BetterBNC Media Awards Platform. If you have entered other contests on this platform before, either for last year’s contest or for the SD Press Club, you are already in their system and you just have to ask to enter the 2019 SPJ awards contest.

Below are directions for preparing and submitting entries. If you have questions, please contact Terry Williams at 619-743-3669 or spj.sandiego@cox.net.

All contest entries must be submitted online (except for entries in the College Media Best Newspaper category, which must be mailed and postmarked by the contest deadline to SPJ to P.O. Box 880482, San Diego, CA 92168-0482). All entries must be entered by or on behalf of the individuals who produced the work and must identify those individuals.

To register or enter the contest online now, open a new browser window or tab to http://www.betterbnc.com. Keep this window open to refer to as you submit your awards.

1. HOW TO ENTER

2. CONTEST GUIDELINES AND CATEGORIES 2019

3. FAQS 2019

San Diego SPJ applauds ruling on police transparency law

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is pleased with Judge Eddie Sturgeon’s ruling today that Senate Bill 1421, a new law that opens up certain police records to public inspection, applies to records of incidents occurring before Jan. 1, 2019, when the law took effect.

In January, unions representing eight San Diego County law enforcement agencies sued to block their respective departments from releasing pre-2019 records. The unions also asked Sturgeon to bar the release of disciplinary records for sexual misconduct and dishonesty, regardless of when the incident occurred. Six local media outlets and the ACLU intervened in the case, arguing that SB 1421 applies to earlier records and that the release of those records is in the public interest. The unions have until the end of the month to appeal the ruling. We urge them not to, and hope they’ll realize that the law’s intent was to bolster public trust in law enforcement, not undermine it.

San Diego SPJ Unveils Walls & Windows of SD Journalism

Flikr/SDASM Archives

San Diego journalists, celebrate Sunshine Week and the region’s most and least transparent agencies with the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at Starlite. We’ll continue our annual tradition with our Wall, Window and Sunshine Awards.

What: Annual Window, Wall and Sunshine Awards (see winner’s list below)

When: Wednesday, March 13 at 6:30 p.m. Program to start at 7 p.m.

Where: Starlite, 3175 India Street, Mission Hills

RSVP here

SUNSHINE AWARD

SPJ San Diego’s 2019 Sunshine Award winners are Voice of San Diego reporters Ashly McGlone and Kayla Jimenez, attorney Felix Tinkov and the rest of the VOSD team for their legal battles to obtain records related to sexual misconduct by school officials across San Diego County.

More than a year ago, VOSD requested records from all 43 school districts in the county documenting substantiated sexual misconduct by teachers and other school employees who were disciplined or reprimanded in the last decade. Based on state legal precedent, those personnel records met the standard for release but VOSD still faced pushback as it sought them.

VOSD’s efforts to obtain the records – including filing multiple lawsuits – shed light on the secrecy with which school districts handle cases of sexual misconduct involving those trusted to teach and work with students.

McGlone and the VOSD team highlighted previously uncovered examples of how some school districts shuffled problematic teachers from school to school or even paid some teachers to leave while agreeing to keep substantiated misconduct secret from future employers.

In several instances, school districts were willing to hand over records to VOSD but were blocked by teachers and school employees who did not want their behavior made public. Those teachers filed reverse-California Public Records Act requests to try to block the school districts from handing over information to VOSD.

San Diego SPJ’s annual Sunshine Award is meant to honor those who urge transparency in government. McGlone and VOSD labored to obtain records, reported on a number of cases of misconduct and stood up for the public’s right to know who school districts are allowing to teach and work with San Diego kids.

Wall and Window Awards

Our Window Award goes to a public official or agency that prioritized transparency and the public’s right to know. The Wall Award goes to a public official or agency that ignored media requests or otherwise compromised the public’s right to know.

WINDOW AWARD

This year’s Window Award goes to Andrea Tevlin and the city of San Diego’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst.

In her 13 years as San Diego’s IBA, Tevlin has shown a true commitment to government transparency.

Tevlin and her staff are always available to answer questions from the media and frequently venture outside city hall to connect directly with residents.

Their proactive reports such as “A Citizen’s Guide to Infrastructure” and “A Citizen’s Guide to the Budget Process” also help demystify city spending for the average taxpayer.

Tevlin and her staff have gone above and beyond their mandate, and they are shining examples of government transparency in service to the public.

WALL AWARD

This year’s Wall Award goes to the San Diego Public Utilities Department (PUD).

The PUD made egregious errors last year after thousands of city customers complained they were being overcharged for water, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars in a single billing period. In response, the department tried to downplay problems by blaming customers and low-level employees for the high bills. But this was only the beginning of what would become a scandalous year for one of the largest public utility departments in the country.

On several occasions, the PUD provided information to reporters and the public that was later proven to be inaccurate. When journalists filed public record requests and asked questions about the city’s $67 million dollar effort to upgrade water meters to smart meters, the department dragged its feet on releasing documents and lacked basic answers on the program’s status. In January, a department spokesperson told reporters the city had no “exceptional or unexpected” problems with the smart meter program. By July, journalists uncovered records proving the program was behind schedule and the department was aware of faulty equipment. Emails revealed PUD Director Vic Bianes had instructed his staff to be “vague” when discussing details about smart meter program and customer service issues.

In addition, recent reporting found the department has not been forthright with the public about how much its ambitious Pure Water recycling project will cost ratepayers.

Rebuilding the public’s trust in the department after such a massive scandal will take time. Some customers were right about overcharges, leading the PUD to refund more than $1 million dollars in 2018 and top officials in the department have since left or resigned, including Director Bianes. We hope the department has learned a lesson about the importance of being honest and transparent with the public it is meant to serve, especially in the midst of public outcry and complaints.

SD SPJ Urges Sheriff’s Department To Release Public Records

Today, board members of the San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent the following letter to Sheriff Bill Gore and Legal Counsel Sanford Toyen. We are troubled by the Sheriff’s refusal to release to KPBS journalists and the public information that is clearly public record under state law. The denials have forced KPBS to sue the department in order to obtain this information.


Dear Sheriff Gore and Mr. Toyen,

We applaud Sheriff Gore’s recent decision to not charge journalists and members of the public for redacting audio and video records requested under Senate Bill 1421. This change in approach suggests that you agree transparency is essential for gaining and keeping the public trust.

Yet, the handling of a recent records request raises concerns about your office’s commitment to these principles. For months, KPBS reporter Claire Trageser has been investigating how long it takes the Sheriff’s Department to respond to public complaints. She asked the department for this information after learning from a civil lawsuit that the Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a complaint about sexual misconduct by one of its deputies. That deputy, Richard Fischer, has since been charged with 14 criminal counts, and 21 women have filed civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct.

The Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly denied Trageser’s requests, forcing KPBS to sue to obtain these records.

The public interest in accessing this information is clear: a Sheriff’s deputy has been criminally charged for sexual assault, and members of the public have said their formal complaints went ignored.

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is troubled that the department is choosing not to release this information, even though state law says that “the time, substance, and location of all complaints or requests for assistance received by the [law enforcement agency] and the time and nature of the response thereto” are public information.

We respectfully ask that you release the records KPBS has requested. Forcing a news organization to sue to obtain records that clearly should be made public under the law doesn’t engender trust in law enforcement. Situations like this should not be met with secrecy, but rather a commitment to ensuring the public feels the department takes complaints — particularly complaints of criminal conduct — seriously.

Sincerely,

Board Members
San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

DISCLOSURE: Neither SD SPJ Board Member Matthew Halgren nor SD SPJ Past President Claire Trageser participated in the crafting of this letter.

San Diego SPJ Applauds Proposed SDUSD Email Retention Policy Settlement

The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is pleased to learn of a possible resolution to a matter we’ve been closely involved with for more than a year.

In a closed session meeting Tuesday evening, the San Diego Unified School District Board of Trustees agreed to modify the district’s email retention policy, which previously stated that certain emails would automatically be deleted after one year. Under the new modified policy, the district will keep all emails for at least two years. The change is part of a settlement stemming from lawsuits filed by Voice of San Diego and San Diegans for Open Government.

Since June 2017, San Diego SPJ has urged the district to retain emails for at least two years, a practice in place at other large California school districts. We alsoexpressed concern with the lack of transparency surrounding the implementation of the policy — concerns we feel the school board failed to take seriously.

This past May, the day before the scheduled deletion of millions of emails, Voice of San Diego and San Diegans for Open Government requested temporary restraining orders to halt the policy’s implementation. In August, Superior Court Judge Ronald Styn ordered the district to refrain from deleting any emails, pending a 2019 trial.

This week’s settlement agreement, if approved by Judge Styn, would also bar the district from destroying any email that’s part of litigation or a public-records request, and it would require the district to pay $52,000 in attorney fees, at taxpayers’ expense. The settlement agreement will remain in place for five years. After that, the District can return to its previous one-year retention policy.

This agreement reflects exactly what San Diego SPJ repeatedly urged the school district to do; we just wish it hadn’t required legal action.

Civic Activist, Transparency Advocate Mel Shapiro Dies at 90

The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists was saddened to learn about the passing of 90-year-old civic activist Mel Shapiro.

Shapiro was a source of accurate and reliable information for a generation of journalists in San Diego County, many of whom relied on his tips to develop watchdog stories.

A former New York accountant, Mel Shapiro moved to San Diego and advocated for better transparency by all agencies across the county. He was basically a professional seeker of public records and held officials accountable for not releasing critical information. His Twitter bio boasted that he had won two published appeals in his fights for government transparency.

In 1987, Shapiro’s efforts to uncover wasteful spending within the San Diego Housing Commission garnered national attention when he was featured in The Wall Street Journal. The evidence Shapiro uncovered eventually led to the firing of Housing Commissioner Ben Montijo.

Over  the years, Shapiro regularly worked behind the scenes and never sought out public attention or acclaim for his muckraking. But in 2012, he accepted SPJ’s Sunshine Award and in a city proclamation, was described as a “civic activist and watchdog possessed of much passion and purpose.”

San Diego is a better place because of Shapiro’s service. Rest in peace, Mel.