Sheriffic response

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department last week expressed a willingness to answer verbal questions from SN&R, apparently ending two-and-a-half years of a newsgathering hurdle.

The agency was in a tiff with The Sacramento Bee after that paper published stories outlining allegations of excessive force inside the county jail. Sheriff Lou Blanas then ordered that the daily, like SN&R, would be required to put all questions in writing.

Bee editors wrote to Blanas, telling him the action was illegal. A meeting followed. The policy was yanked for the Bee and, apparently, also for SN&R.

Responding to an e-mail seeking comment for an article in last week’s issue (”Sheriff’s critics get barred,” SN&R News, November 17), sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. R.L. Davis said the department’s media office now would answer verbal or written information requests. (Davis’ e-mail arrived the evening of November 16, when last week’s issue was already hitting the streets.)

William T. Vollmann

“We are a transparent organization and we do feel that it is important to be accountable to the public, just like we feel it’s important for journalism to be based on facts, not sensationalism,” Davis wrote.

Referring to the new verbal-questions policy, Davis wrote: “We have always had these policies.” Not so, as two years’ worth of stories about the sheriff containing little or no comment from the department will attest. The new policy has yet to be tested.

Is there something in the water?

No one truly believes that New York City is the heart of literature these days, but recent book news suggests that Sacramento may have taken that title for itself.

At the National Book Awards, held in New York last week to honor the crème de la crème of last year’s published literature, writers with strong Sacramento ties took the two top honors. The annual prizes, sponsored by the National Book Foundation, carry with them a $10,000 cash award.

Joan Didion

William T. Vollmann, a resident of Land Park, received the award for fiction for his novel Europe Central [see “The worm of history” by John Freeman, SN&R Words, May 5]. The 800-page collection of stories set in war-ravaged Germany and Russia includes footnotes—something only the very confident or unusually talented fiction writer dares. Vollmann is both. Europe Central was considered a dark-horse candidate for the award.

This year’s nonfiction prize went to Joan Didion, a Sacramento native who often mentions her hometown in her personal works. The Year of Magical Thinking, reviewed in last week’s SN&R [”First, last, always” by Kel Munger, SN&R Words, November 17], is a memoir of the year following the death of Didion’s husband of almost four decades, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the eventually fatal illness of their only child, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael.

This was the first National Book Award for both writers. Far from being an unusual coincidence, though, Vollmann and Didion are among a large group of nationally noted writers with strong Sacramento ties.

Between civility and chaos

The secretary of state’s office will host a two-day, invitation-only summit on how best to test the accuracy and security of California voting systems. On November 28 and 29 at the Hyatt Regency, a nationwide pool of experts and academics schooled in everything from voting-machine security to voter skepticism will gather for a series of panel discussions. In the audience will be election officials from other states who are facing the same challenges regarding fair and accurate elections.

The secretary of state’s office is responsible for certifying electronic voting systems for purchase by counties, and panelists will discuss a number of issues related to their reliability, including proper testing procedures, whether federal testing guidelines are sufficient and how to assess the outside threat against security. Election experts fear that if voting systems aren’t robust enough and secure enough, voters will lose faith that their votes are being counted. And as Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation says, the vote is the “bright line between civility and chaos.”