On Wednesday, March 14, please join the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at 57 Degrees as we celebrate Sunshine Week and continue our annual tradition of recognizing the most (and least) transparent public agencies. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. This year, we’re adding a fun twist to the event and inviting PIOs from city, county and state agencies for a casual meet-and-greet mixer with SPJ members and journalists from other media orgs. We’re hoping it’ll be an opportunity to put names to faces and get to know each other a little better in a relaxed, fun environment.
What: Annual Window, Wall and Sunshine Awards
When: Wednesday, March 14, 6:30 p.m.
Where: 57 Degrees, 1735 Hancock St., Middletown
This year’s Sunshine Award winner is Guylyn Cummins, a communications attorney with Sheppard Mullin who’s spent more than three decades fighting on behalf of reporters, media organizations and the public to hold government accountable and defend First Amendment rights. Honoring Cummins is long overdue — for years, she’s been San Diego media organizations’ go-to lawyer when public agencies and elected officials refuse to release critical information. At the end of 2017, she announced she was going into semi-retirement, and one of her last cases was particularly meaningful for San Diego SPJ: Cummins was part of the legal team that successfully challenged, pro bono, the county’s attempt to force local journalist, and SPJ board member, Kelly Davis, to testify and turn over material relating to her reporting on jail deaths. The case highlighted the critical need for a federal reporter shield law, an issue that Cummins has long championed and one that we’re certain she’ll continue to fight for.
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.
Kendal Bortisser, a retired public information officer and fire captain for Cal Fire San Diego, is the recipient of our 2018 Window Award. For more than three years, Bortisser provided assistance to journalists across San Diego County outside of and during fire emergencies. That work continued even after Bortisser’s December 2016 retirement. He returned to work during the Lilac Fire to help media personnel get into evacuation zones and provided minute-by-minute updates to the public on the fire’s progression. When he wasn’t responding to media calls during emergencies, Bortisser made a point to stop by each newsroom to provide fire safety seminars that covered journalists’ rights to information and access in emergency zones. Bortisser has always performed his duties in a transparent manner, helping journalists deliver the facts quickly and accurately to viewers and readers.
San Diego County government is the recipient of our 2018 Wall Award. During an unprecedented hepatitis A outbreak last year that killed 20 people, left hundreds of others ill and made countless more residents and tourists fear for their health, county officials lagged on declaring a public health emergency. While officials ultimately offered regular updates on some elements of the emergency and on the county’s response, their replies to formal record and data requests fell well short of full or timely disclosure. County officials refused to release ZIP-code-level data on hepatitis A cases for weeks and only did so after a demand from a lawyer for Voice of San Diego. The county also refused to release the names of the dead, where they lived or where they died—information that multiple news organizations requested on behalf of the public and which would have gone a long way toward easing public health concerns. As The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board wrote, “their lives merited more than statistics and their deaths make details crucial to members of the public.” More recently, county officials targeted freelance journalist and local SPJ board member Kelly Davis in court after she exposed the deaths of dozens of people in its jails. The county’s expensive legal attempt to subpoena notes, require testimony and reveal confidential sources, rejected by a judge, represented an unconscionable failure of transparency and a misguided attack on a journalist instead of an attack on the very real and important problems she uncovered.