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.

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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.

The Walls & Windows of San Diego Journalism

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wants to recognize the most helpful — and least helpful — public agencies and officials in 2018.

The Wall Award will go to the person or public agency that made it hardest for journalists to do their jobs in 2018, ignoring requests or otherwise compromising the public’s right to know.

The Window Award will go to the person or public agency that most prioritized transparency and the public’s right to know in 2018.

And our Sunshine Award will go to a journalist or community member who worked the hardest to make government more transparent and hold elected officials accountable.

Your nominations are key to our selection process. Stay tuned for event details and read up on last year’s winners here.

Click here to submit your nomination.

San Diego SPJ Applauds Proposed SDUSD Email Retention Policy Settlement

The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is pleased to learn of a possible resolution to a matter we’ve been closely involved with for more than a year.

In a closed session meeting Tuesday evening, the San Diego Unified School District Board of Trustees agreed to modify the district’s email retention policy, which previously stated that certain emails would automatically be deleted after one year. Under the new modified policy, the district will keep all emails for at least two years. The change is part of a settlement stemming from lawsuits filed by Voice of San Diego and San Diegans for Open Government.

Since June 2017, San Diego SPJ has urged the district to retain emails for at least two years, a practice in place at other large California school districts. We alsoexpressed concern with the lack of transparency surrounding the implementation of the policy — concerns we feel the school board failed to take seriously.

This past May, the day before the scheduled deletion of millions of emails, Voice of San Diego and San Diegans for Open Government requested temporary restraining orders to halt the policy’s implementation. In August, Superior Court Judge Ronald Styn ordered the district to refrain from deleting any emails, pending a 2019 trial.

This week’s settlement agreement, if approved by Judge Styn, would also bar the district from destroying any email that’s part of litigation or a public-records request, and it would require the district to pay $52,000 in attorney fees, at taxpayers’ expense. The settlement agreement will remain in place for five years. After that, the District can return to its previous one-year retention policy.

This agreement reflects exactly what San Diego SPJ repeatedly urged the school district to do; we just wish it hadn’t required legal action.