San Diego County Should Resume Processing CPRA Requests During COVID-19

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is deeply disappointed with San Diego County’s decision to not respond to some public records requests during the coronavirus pandemic, as outlined in a formal letter being sent to requestors by County Chief Counsel Thomas Montgomery. Several San Diego news outlets have reported on the policy.

We understand public health is a top priority and that responding to records requests might take longer during the pandemic. But government transparency is crucial during crises such as this one, and a public health emergency shouldn’t be a reason to ignore records requests indefinitely. Other local governments, including the cities of San Diego, Chula Vista, Oceanside, Escondido, Carlsbad and El Cajon, as well as other California counties, are facing similar challenges but are still complying with the California Public Records Act.

The SD-SPJ Board calls on the County of San Diego to immediately resume processing all valid records requests — and it should suspend its 60-day email retention policy to ensure important records are not deleted.

A county spokesman said each member of the Board of Supervisors was informed of the change, though the board did not approve it. We hope each supervisor will clarify their position on this decision and agree that the pandemic is no reason to sacrifice transparency.

SD-SPJ Extending Annual Contest Deadline

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented demands on our community in order to mitigate the impacts of the respiratory disease and flatten the curve. It’s also created incredible demands on San Diego journalists working around-the-clock to deliver critical information to residents. The pandemic demands some flexibility during this year’s San Diego Society of Professional Journalists contest, which is why we are extending the deadline by two weeks for journalists to submit their best work from last year.

Our early-bird deadline has now been extended to 9 p.m. on Monday, April 20. Early-bird entries will get $5 off their entry fees in every category but our top and special awards.

The final deadline to submit entries is 9 p.m. on Monday, April 27.

We are also accepting applications for six $1,000 scholarships through Monday, April 27. One of those scholarships — the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation’s Agnes Diggs Road to College Scholarship — is open to San Diego County or Riverside County students from underserved communities. The others are open to all San Diego County students.

For more contest information, visit our contest page.

Watch out for the announcement of our winners in mid-to-late-May or early June.

UPDATE: SD-SPJ Postponing March 18 Sunshine Week Event

Dear SPJ Members and Local Journalists,

Out of an abundance of caution, the San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has decided to cancel our Sunshine Awards ceremony March 18 due to coronavirus concerns. Our goal is to reschedule the event as soon as it’s safe to do so.

We appreciate your support and wish you all the best of luck in your work in the coming months. Now is a time when the public relies on its journalists for the best, up to date information, and San Diegans are fortunate to have a strong, dependable group of local journalists covering the issues that matter most.

You have our support.

SD-SPJ Board

SD-SPJ Announces This Year’s Wall, Window, Sunshine and Skylight Award Winners

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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

RSVP here.

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.