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.

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San Diego SPJ applauds ruling on police transparency law

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is pleased with Judge Eddie Sturgeon’s ruling today that Senate Bill 1421, a new law that opens up certain police records to public inspection, applies to records of incidents occurring before Jan. 1, 2019, when the law took effect.

In January, unions representing eight San Diego County law enforcement agencies sued to block their respective departments from releasing pre-2019 records. The unions also asked Sturgeon to bar the release of disciplinary records for sexual misconduct and dishonesty, regardless of when the incident occurred. Six local media outlets and the ACLU intervened in the case, arguing that SB 1421 applies to earlier records and that the release of those records is in the public interest. The unions have until the end of the month to appeal the ruling. We urge them not to, and hope they’ll realize that the law’s intent was to bolster public trust in law enforcement, not undermine it.

San Diego SPJ Unveils Walls & Windows of SD Journalism

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San Diego journalists, celebrate Sunshine Week and the region’s most and least transparent agencies with the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at Starlite. We’ll continue our annual tradition with our Wall, Window and Sunshine Awards.

What: Annual Window, Wall and Sunshine Awards (see winner’s list below)

When: Wednesday, March 13 at 6:30 p.m. Program to start at 7 p.m.

Where: Starlite, 3175 India Street, Mission Hills

RSVP here

SUNSHINE AWARD

SPJ San Diego’s 2019 Sunshine Award winners are Voice of San Diego reporters Ashly McGlone and Kayla Jimenez, attorney Felix Tinkov and the rest of the VOSD team for their legal battles to obtain records related to sexual misconduct by school officials across San Diego County.

More than a year ago, VOSD requested records from all 43 school districts in the county documenting substantiated sexual misconduct by teachers and other school employees who were disciplined or reprimanded in the last decade. Based on state legal precedent, those personnel records met the standard for release but VOSD still faced pushback as it sought them.

VOSD’s efforts to obtain the records – including filing multiple lawsuits – shed light on the secrecy with which school districts handle cases of sexual misconduct involving those trusted to teach and work with students.

McGlone and the VOSD team highlighted previously uncovered examples of how some school districts shuffled problematic teachers from school to school or even paid some teachers to leave while agreeing to keep substantiated misconduct secret from future employers.

In several instances, school districts were willing to hand over records to VOSD but were blocked by teachers and school employees who did not want their behavior made public. Those teachers filed reverse-California Public Records Act requests to try to block the school districts from handing over information to VOSD.

San Diego SPJ’s annual Sunshine Award is meant to honor those who urge transparency in government. McGlone and VOSD labored to obtain records, reported on a number of cases of misconduct and stood up for the public’s right to know who school districts are allowing to teach and work with San Diego kids.

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.

WINDOW AWARD

This year’s Window Award goes to Andrea Tevlin and the city of San Diego’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst.

In her 13 years as San Diego’s IBA, Tevlin has shown a true commitment to government transparency.

Tevlin and her staff are always available to answer questions from the media and frequently venture outside city hall to connect directly with residents.

Their proactive reports such as “A Citizen’s Guide to Infrastructure” and “A Citizen’s Guide to the Budget Process” also help demystify city spending for the average taxpayer.

Tevlin and her staff have gone above and beyond their mandate, and they are shining examples of government transparency in service to the public.

WALL AWARD

This year’s Wall Award goes to the San Diego Public Utilities Department (PUD).

The PUD made egregious errors last year after thousands of city customers complained they were being overcharged for water, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars in a single billing period. In response, the department tried to downplay problems by blaming customers and low-level employees for the high bills. But this was only the beginning of what would become a scandalous year for one of the largest public utility departments in the country.

On several occasions, the PUD provided information to reporters and the public that was later proven to be inaccurate. When journalists filed public record requests and asked questions about the city’s $67 million dollar effort to upgrade water meters to smart meters, the department dragged its feet on releasing documents and lacked basic answers on the program’s status. In January, a department spokesperson told reporters the city had no “exceptional or unexpected” problems with the smart meter program. By July, journalists uncovered records proving the program was behind schedule and the department was aware of faulty equipment. Emails revealed PUD Director Vic Bianes had instructed his staff to be “vague” when discussing details about smart meter program and customer service issues.

In addition, recent reporting found the department has not been forthright with the public about how much its ambitious Pure Water recycling project will cost ratepayers.

Rebuilding the public’s trust in the department after such a massive scandal will take time. Some customers were right about overcharges, leading the PUD to refund more than $1 million dollars in 2018 and top officials in the department have since left or resigned, including Director Bianes. We hope the department has learned a lesson about the importance of being honest and transparent with the public it is meant to serve, especially in the midst of public outcry and complaints.

SD SPJ Urges Sheriff’s Department To Release Public Records

Today, board members of the San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent the following letter to Sheriff Bill Gore and Legal Counsel Sanford Toyen. We are troubled by the Sheriff’s refusal to release to KPBS journalists and the public information that is clearly public record under state law. The denials have forced KPBS to sue the department in order to obtain this information.


Dear Sheriff Gore and Mr. Toyen,

We applaud Sheriff Gore’s recent decision to not charge journalists and members of the public for redacting audio and video records requested under Senate Bill 1421. This change in approach suggests that you agree transparency is essential for gaining and keeping the public trust.

Yet, the handling of a recent records request raises concerns about your office’s commitment to these principles. For months, KPBS reporter Claire Trageser has been investigating how long it takes the Sheriff’s Department to respond to public complaints. She asked the department for this information after learning from a civil lawsuit that the Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a complaint about sexual misconduct by one of its deputies. That deputy, Richard Fischer, has since been charged with 14 criminal counts, and 21 women have filed civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct.

The Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly denied Trageser’s requests, forcing KPBS to sue to obtain these records.

The public interest in accessing this information is clear: a Sheriff’s deputy has been criminally charged for sexual assault, and members of the public have said their formal complaints went ignored.

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is troubled that the department is choosing not to release this information, even though state law says that “the time, substance, and location of all complaints or requests for assistance received by the [law enforcement agency] and the time and nature of the response thereto” are public information.

We respectfully ask that you release the records KPBS has requested. Forcing a news organization to sue to obtain records that clearly should be made public under the law doesn’t engender trust in law enforcement. Situations like this should not be met with secrecy, but rather a commitment to ensuring the public feels the department takes complaints — particularly complaints of criminal conduct — seriously.

Sincerely,

Board Members
San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

DISCLOSURE: Neither SD SPJ Board Member Matthew Halgren nor SD SPJ Past President Claire Trageser participated in the crafting of this letter.