SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has given Salt Lake City leaders its annual Black Hole Award for selecting the sites for four new homeless resource centers behind closed doors.
The chapter named Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the full City Council for the anti-award in an op-ed Sunday criticizing the city leaders for taking a "broad, secretive approach" in selecting the four sites and only holding public hearings on the sites after they were named.
The Black Hole Award is reserved for officials or agencies who show "disregard for transparency in government," SPJ wrote.
"This is a decision that deeply impacts the lives of Utahns on a number of fronts, yet it was made without involving the public and without allowing for public scrutiny or debate," said McKenzie Romero, president of Utah Headliners Chapter of SPJ.
Romero, who is also a reporter for the Deseret News, noted SPJ's op-ed is not a commentary on the sites themselves, but on the selection process.
"Elected leaders cut their constituents out of the process, and reporters' efforts to disseminate information to the public were hamstrung. Moving forward, the Utah Headliners urge Mayor Biskupski, the council and others in our state's elected offices to openly and honestly communicate their dealings to the people they serve," she said.
The SPJ chapter said the city took public input on what criteria should be considered for the sites and who should be on the selection committee, "but nothing on where, in general terms, the shelters should be or what should go there with them."
While Biskupski has received most of the criticism from those unhappy with the shelter sites or their selection process, the journalism organization noted that "all the City Council members went along with the secrecy."
In addition to Biskupski, SPJ named all council members — James Rogers, Andrew Johnston, Stan Penfold, Derek Kitchen, Erin Mendenhall, Charlie Luke and Lisa Adams — for the anti-award.
SPJ leaders informed the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office and Salt Lake City Council Chairman Stan Penfold on Thursday, but Biskupski's spokesman Matthew Rojas and Penfold declined to comment to the Deseret News before the publication of Sunday's op-ed.
Though the selection process has drawn controversy, Biskupski and council members have stood firm with their decision to make the site selections in private to avoid "pitting neighborhood against neighborhood," while advancing efforts to transform Salt Lake's homeless model into one that will be healthier for those suffering homeless, as well as the entire city.
They argue the public did weigh in on the sites by engaging in multiple public workshops that developed the criteria that influenced the site selections, and said the public workshops held after the sites' announcement could influence the design of the shelters and which populations they will serve.
"What we didn't want was to create a divided city," Biskupski said in a recent interview. "It was a responsibility of ours to make the tough decision."
While Utah law allows closed government hearings and sealing of government records when that government is seeking to purchase real estate, the SPJ chapter said if Salt Lake City's leaders had "confined their opacity to the parcels it was considering, the Headliners wouldn't have considered them for the award."