SD-SPJ concerned about June 1 San Diego Unified email purge

On June 1, the San Diego Unified School District will delete thousands of emails from its server as part of a new policy enacted, the district says, to save money on data storage costs (the district hasn’t provided backup on financial reasons for the change). The only emails that won’t be deleted are those employees manually archive. Going forward, the district plans to delete all emails after one year.

The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is concerned that important public records will be deleted in the email purge.

The new policy was introduced a year ago and approved by the district’s board of trustees, though it didn’t take effect immediately. At the time, we expressed concern about the policy’s lack of specifics, including whether employees would be properly trained on which emails to archive. We noted that other large California school districts retain emails for at least two years.

Since last July, we’ve regularly asked when the policy would take effect and what guidance and training staff was being given. We learned earlier this month that the policy would take effect June 1.

We continue to have concerns about the new policy. Despite repeated requests to the district over the last two weeks, we have yet to see any evidence that staff was adequately trained on which emails should be archived.

Californians Aware, a statewide group that advocates for government transparency, is also troubled by the change. Former San Diego City Councilwoman and longtime CalAware board member Donna Frye said the group believes the change may violate state law.

“The state law governing retention of school district disposable records, in effect, requires at least a three-year preservation period,” Frye said.

Additionally, attorney Cory Briggs says that he intends to sue the district for adopting the new policy.

San Diego SPJ urges the San Diego Unified School District to reconsider the serious concerns we and others have raised about the new policy — and to provide more detail on how it will be implemented — before deleting tens of thousands of public records from its server.

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SD-SPJ Asks Mayor, City Council to Prioritize Public Records Ahead of Upcoming Fiscal Budget

On Thursday, the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter to Mayor Kevin Faulconer and members of the City Council, asking staff to prioritize access to public records and information when allocating resources for the city’s upcoming fiscal year.

To read the letter, click here.

As stated in the letter, SPJ President Lisa Halverstadt and Advocacy Chair Tom Jones met with the city’s public records staff to discuss the results of a survey conducted on the city’s NextRequest public records system. More than 175 people took the survey, and many mentioned a need for additional city staff to process public-records requests and answer questions about them.  Of those surveyed, 46 percent said records were not released within the timelines initially offered by city staff.

SD-SPJ hopes the city will ensure it has adequate resources, both within the department managing the NextRequest system and within other individual departments, to respond to public-records requests.

The Board feels a more transparent government and access to information will result in a more informed San Diego community.

It’s SD-SPJ board election time

Would you like to serve on the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists’ board of directors? If you are a member of the society, you are eligible to run for the board.

The board meets monthly to plan SPJ events, oversee the annual awards contest, and weigh in on issues concerning local journalists, among other things.

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 23 via email to Megan Wood at meganwoodsdspj@gmail.com (subject line: SPJ Election.)

Election results will be announced in late June. Need to renew your membership? Click here.

SD-SPJ met with city staff about NextRequest, PRA process

In March, the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists released the results of a survey on the city’s NextRequest system. Last week, San Diego SPJ president Lisa Halverstadt and advocacy chair Tom Jones met the city’s public records staff as well as communication chiefs for the city and Mayor Kevin Faulconer to discuss how the city responds to records requests.

To see a visualization of our NextRequest survey findings, click here. The group went over survey results and steps journalists and the city might take to address common concerns.

Here’s some of what was discussed:

  • Many survey participants noted that NextRequest does not allow requesters to communicate directly with city staff with expertise on certain records. This often makes it more difficult to formulate requests. City Communications Director Katie Keach said journalists can contact a department’s media liaison prior to filing their request and the liaison will put them in touch with a staffer who can help. For a list of the city’s media liaisons, click here.
  • Multiple survey participants reported a lack of clarity about how to challenge or appeal a public records request that’s been denied or only partly fulfilled. The city’s PRA team said a closed request shouldn’t be seen as a closed door. They recommended that requesters message staff directly in the NextRequest portal if they believe a request hasn’t been properly fulfilled.
  • City staff recommended that journalists narrow their requests whenever possible because overly broad requests can result in longer response times. Program Manager Jacqueline Palmer said the city is legally required to assist journalists in forming requests.
  • Palmer said records in their “native format,” including data sets, can be provided if the requester specifies this in their request — and if a department has the information available in the requested format. Keach said data records should always include a key or record layout so the requester can make sense of codes or terminology. Keach asked requesters to contact the city’s PRA team if responses do not include this.
  • We asked whether the city could cite specific legal exemptions when sections of records are blacked out. Staff said they will look into whether exemptions can be cited on the records themselves (i.e., near each redaction), instead of in a separate list.
  • Some survey participants had asked whether the city could update NextRequest to make it easier for users to locate their requests. Keach said staff would look into adding a feature to filter requests, or a separate tab within the NextRequest portal where users can see the requests they have submitted.

We also asked about the step-by step process after a request is submitted. 

  1. When a request is submitted, staff receive an alert. If they have questions, they contact the requester. If there are no questions, liaisons assigned to handle requests for each department take over. If they lack the subject-matter expertise to respond to the request, they will seek out appropriate staff. This part of the process usually begins within two days.
  2. Per state law, staff responds to the requester within 10 days, indicating if the records exist and, if so, approximately how long it will take to fulfill the request. (Halverstadt asked about the message requesters often receive, saying the records will be released in approximately two weeks. One suggestion was to tell the requester when it appears their request will take longer than two weeks to fulfill to better manage expectations.)
  3. Within two weeks, staff indicate whether they need more time to fulfill the request or if the request needs to be directed to another agency.
  4. Once department liaisons have the records, they search through them for redactions or exemptions that may be necessary for legal reasons. Once redactions are made, the records are returned to the PRA office for review to see if any additional redactions are necessary and if the records are indeed what the requester sought.
  5. Records are released through the NextRequest portal or, if they are released to the requester directly, they are published on NextRequest. After 72 hours, the records are published in the public section of NextRequest.

San Diego SPJ thanks city staff for their willingness to discuss the city’s records request process and concerns raised by SPJ’s survey. We recognize the city is not required to have a system like NextRequest and appreciate how it’s made requesting records more efficient and enhanced transparency.

We welcome additional feedback or questions and will continue to communicate with local government agencies about public records processes. For questions or feedback, email SD-SPJ at spjsandiego@gmail.com.