San Diego SPJ has sent a letter to SPJ National board president Alex Tarquinio and other national board members to share its concerns about what seems to be a lack of transparency and rigor in the process for selecting sponsors for the annual Excellence in Journalism conference.
Here is the text of that letter:
Dear Ms. Tarquinio and members of the SPJ national board,
The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is concerned by the apparent lack of transparency and rigor in the system for selecting sponsors for the Excellence in Journalism conference. While we are sympathetic to NAHJ’s decision to rescind its 2019 EIJ sponsorship invitation to Fox News and return a portion of the sponsorship funds contributed by Fox News, the purpose of this letter is to share our more general concerns with the process for choosing conference sponsors, especially those whose actions may conflict with core SPJ values.
Last year, we were one of many chapters that expressed concern over the Charles Koch Institute sponsoring a conference panel. We praised SPJ’s decision to form a task force that created a new policy for vetting sponsors. We’ve been told that the SPJ board followed this policy when choosing the 2019 conference sponsors.
Yet, that vetting process remains vague. The only details shared publicly are that the EIJ Planning Committee vets proposals submitted by media and non-media entities.
We’d like to see the sponsorship task force reconvene and develop more specific sponsorship guidelines. Any group that provides SPJ with financial assistance should demonstrate a commitment to SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Guidelines should specify what would preclude sponsorship — for example: clear affiliation with a political party, a history of uncivil discourse or a pattern of deliberately spreading misinformation. The absence of such standards will only increase the likelihood that controversy will again overshadow what should be a celebratory event.
San Diego SPJ
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.
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.
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.