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!

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.

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.