Every year, the San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honors the public officials and agencies who did the most (and the least) to usher in transparency in the past year. Read on to learn more about this year’s honorees, including our first-ever Skylight Award winner. We’ll celebrate Sunshine Week, government transparency and this year’s honorees at our annual celebration at Starlite.
When: Wednesday, March 18, at 6:30 p.m. Program starts at 7 p.m.
Where: Starlite (back patio), 3175 India St. in Mission Hills
Window Award: Michael Vu, San Diego County Registrar of Voters
We’re proud to present our 2020 Window Award to San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu. Vu is a shining example of a public official who goes above and beyond to make sure people understand how their government works. Journalists appreciate that he makes time — often after-hours — to talk on the phone or give an interview, even as the business of running county elections becomes more complex and demanding. At a time when election integrity is under increasing scrutiny, Vu has shown a commitment to transparency that every public official — elected or appointed — should aspire to.
Sunshine Award: Hon. Dana M. Sabraw, U.S. District Judge of the Southern District of California
The Hon. Dana M. Sabraw wins our 2020 Sunshine Award for facilitating media coverage of a landmark case he oversees concerning the separation of families at the U.S. border with Mexico. Judge Sabraw created a toll-free phone line so journalists could listen in to live hearings. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this case for U.S. policy and the thousands of affected families. In July 2018, Judge Sabraw held several hearings a week and, to this day, regularly holds hearings that are full of significant disclosures and testimony from government officials. Very few, if any, news organizations or journalists could afford to attend every key hearing in person. Judge Sabraw posted dial-in information for media in the public docket entirely on his own initiative, with no obligation to do so. As a result, this case has received the extensive coverage it so clearly demands.
Skylight Award: Karen Dalton, San Diego County Superior Court Public Affairs Officer
For years, it was difficult to get basic information on happenings at the San Diego County Superior Court and court officials were rarely prepared for major news events that drew large groups of reporters. That reality changed with Karen Dalton. San Diego SPJ is creating a new lifetime award this year to honor the former KNSD broadcast reporter who, since taking on the role of media liaison, has quickly responded to reporters’ questions and gone out of her way to explain complex court procedures. Dalton has also worked with many reporters to track down data and information they might otherwise have struggled to access. She’s been an advocate for the news media before judges and has helped reporters do a better job covering the court, which helps the public better understand the justice system. We’re proud to give Dalton our first-ever Skylight Award for her career championing the public’s right to know.
Wall Award: San Diego County Sheriff’s Department
This year’s Wall Award goes to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, largely for how it’s responded to public scrutiny of deaths in its jails. Our members also say it’s often difficult to get basic information from the media division on arrests and investigations in a timely fashion. In recent months, the department has refused to provide basic information after someone dies in custody, not just to the press but also to some inmates’ families. Instead, the department waits until the medical examiner determines a cause of death — a process that can take months — and then issues a press release while the autopsy report is still sealed, depriving journalists and the public of important information. The department insists it provides inmates with the highest level of care, but over the last six years, the county has paid nearly $8 million to settle lawsuits stemming from jail deaths and is currently facing at least a dozen lawsuits over inmate deaths and serious injuries. These numbers are troubling and underscore the need for greater transparency.