Muck, meet rake.
In 2014, Voice of San Diego’s journalists spent much of their time uncovering incompetence and injustice in the halls of power of America’s eighth-largest city. And that’s not all. We also unveiled hidden sides of San Diego to help you better understand our city and our region.
We’re not alone in this mission, of course. San Diego is home to many fine news organizations, and we’ll explore their best journalism of 2014 later this year. But first up, we asked VOSD journalists to pore through their archives and tell us about their favorite stories of the year, the ones that make them proud to serve San Diego.
Inside Story of an Epic Debacle
Scott Lewis, CEO and Editor
What it’s about: For years, San Diego leaders had been drumming up enthusiasm for what was supposed to be a major celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition. It was that event, in 1915, that made Balboa Park what it is and it shaped San Diego’s identity. The celebration, 100 years later, was supposed to be grander.
The group charged with pulling it together — Balboa Park Centennial Inc. — burned through the millions in cash the city and a special hotel taxing agency invested but accomplished nothing. When news broke that the organization had fallen apart, a lot of people wanted to understand why. Lewis and VOSD reporter Andrew Keatts explored why the Balboa Park massive centennial celebration failed.
Why the writer liked it: This was a case when the community really wanted Voice of San Diego to investigate what happened and tell the story. Even though we hadn’t planned on it, we decided we should.
I’ve started to specialize a bit on behind-the-scene’s moment-by-moment explorations of major developments like this in local public affairs. The gratitude we received for what we did made it clear that it’s good to take orders from the community from time to time.
What’s happening now: It’s now almost 2015. The city itself is trying to pull off some events at the park, and it’s timing some investments to coincide with the centennial. It’s like celebrating your car’s birthday by buying it some much-needed new tires.
As for the centennial itself, it’s going to be a bigger celebration than just a “sheet cake,” to borrow a term used by one city leader about the kind of party he wants to avoid. But not by much.
City Supports One Woman but Bashes Another
Sara Libby, managing editor
The story: A Tale of Two Victims
What it’s about: It was a glaring juxtaposition.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith made a big deal of celebrating Peggy Shannon Day in honor of one of the women who came forward with sexual harassment allegations against former Mayor Bob Filner. But just one day earlier, the city — led by Goldsmith — was attacking another victim of a sex crime in court. One filing by Goldsmith’s office suggested the victim of a former SDPD officer had essentially asked for the crime by giving acquiescing when the officer demanded her panties.
Why the writer liked it: I was proud we were able to call out the city’s disconnect here. You shouldn’t get to make splashy declarations that you support victims if you’re going to turn on them the moment they seek relief in court.
What’s happening now: Jane Doe, the woman at the center of the police lawsuit, settled with the city for almost $6 million. The terms of the settlement didn’t include the police reforms she was seeking.
Cops Fail to Monitor Racial Profiling
Liam Dillon, senior reporter and assistant editor
What it’s about: San Diego’s police department was once at the forefront of addressing concerns about racial profiling. But it quietly stopped tracking traffic stop statistics, with top officials saying that residents didn’t believe it was a problem. Many people of color we spoke with disagreed.
Why the writer liked it: The investigation combined narrative storytelling, data and accountability to shed light on a topic that had been ignored for a while. It helped spark community activism and change within the police department.
What’s happening now: SDPD changed its policies for how officers interact with people of color, began tracking drivers’ race at traffic stops again and implemented a body camera program in part because of racial profiling concerns.
SeaWorld: Under Fire but Crucial to SD
Lisa Halverstadt, staff reporter
Why the writer liked it: SeaWorld San Diego’s unique arrangement with the city means the city could take a hit if the company continues to flounder.
SeaWorld rents a 190-acre plot in Mission Bay Park and pays rent to the city based on 19 types of revenues, everything from ticket sales to food purchases. This means the city gets more cash when SeaWorld does well. Last year, the city collected $14 million from the marine park.
There’s been a national debate surrounding SeaWorld’s captive killer whales for more than a year. I uncovered dynamics of SeaWorld’s lease with the city that add to the moral questions San Diegans must grapple with during my weeks-long quest to understand what SeaWorld and the controversial documentary “Blackfish” mean for our region.
What’s happening now: SeaWorld’s struggling. Earlier this month, the company announced CEO Jim Atchison would be stepping down and that more than 300 employees would be laid off. Stock prices have fallen and attendance is down at its marine parks. And almost every time there’s big news on the SeaWorld front, I get emails from readers — and yes, stock analysts — about this story.
SDPD’s Massive Surveillance Fail
Andrew Keatts, staff reporter
The story: San Diego’s Bumbling Big Brother
What it’s about: The San Diego Police Department had a bright idea: Take all the private security cameras all over the city, and link them into a central system that officers have access to whenever they’re responding to a crime.
They’d take cameras that private businesses and residents were already maintaining, and leverage them at little cost into a network that could improve first responses to dramatic situations, like a hypothetical live shooter.
Problem is, they hadn’t actually dealt with any of the technological hurdles it was facing. The internet connections in police cruisers, it turns out, weren’t good enough to actually stream the footage in real time. And even if they were, the software most of the cameras used was different than the one the SDPD created to run it.
As a result, half the cameras that owners volunteered to be part of the program were totally useless. And they didn’t do much in the way of outlining the privacy concerns that naturally arise when you create a vast surveillance network.
Why the writer liked it: Our coverage highlighted an important issue: Operation Secure San Diego would have posed serious questions about privacy if it had been remotely functional.
What’s happening now: The system’s basically in limbo until the technological hurdles are sorted out, if that ever happens. The city’s replacing police cruisers in the coming years, bringing faster internet connections with them. And SDPD says it’s still working to fix the back-end problems, between the software for each camera and the department’s operating system.
In the meantime, SDPD isn’t actively recruiting businesses to fork over access to their security cameras.
Why Killer Drivers Go Free
Mario Koran, staff reporter
What it’s about: When we zoomed in on California Highway Patrol’s crash stats from 2009 through 2012, we saw that 4,100 drivers left victims dead or injured by the side of the road.
Over the same period, San Diego prosecutors convicted just 539 people of hit-and-run related crimes. That means 87 percent of drivers responsible for deaths and injuries were never punished.
Even when drivers were caught, the punishments usually weren’t severe. In about half the convictions during that three-year time span, drivers were sentenced to less than two months in jail.
Why the writer liked it: One night last winter, I was watching the local news with my wife. A pedestrian had been killed in a hit-and-run collision, and the case seemed to be part of a disturbing pattern.
It wasn’t just the sudden rise in numbers that struck me as odd. It was the sense that hit-and-runs were perceived as just something that happens in Southern California. As though people think: “There are a lot of careless drivers out there, a lot of inattentive walkers and bikers, whaddya gonna do?”
It’s also how the law seems to respond to these crimes. With some help from a team of data journalists, I distilled stats until we came away with a clear, troubling message, which then became the story’s title. Legally speaking, if you hit and kill someone with your car, it may be in your best interest to drive away. Not that we’re advising you do that, of course.
What’s happening now: Drivers are still hurting pedestrians with their cars and driving away. As of June, this was already the deadliest year for hit-and-runs since 2009.
Taxi! Follow That Car … Ew. P-U!
Megan Burks, Speak City Heights staff reporter
What it’s about: San Diego taxi drivers are subject to a “smell test” if they pick up customers at the airport. Driver body odor is included on the checklist airport inspectors use to determine if a cab is suitable for customers.
Drivers say the test is yet another example of driver exploitation. Drivers have spoken out in recent years about poor working conditions and low pay.
Why the writer liked it: When else could you fit body odor, race and Jerry Seinfeld into one story? This one was a fun to write and a great capstone to my coverage of an industry that surprises at every turn.
What’s happening now: The City Council recently voted to open the taxi market, which will give more drivers the opportunity to work for themselves. It won’t help them escape the airport’s so-called smell test, but it will give them more control over the time they spend in those toasty cabs.
The Metropolitan Transit System is set to rubber-stamp the city’s plan to open the market early next year. They’ll have to hire staff to handle the influx of permit applications.
When Maya Angelou Was a San Diego Madam
Randy Dotinga, Morning Report scribe and freelance contributor
The story: When Maya Angelou Sold Sin in San Diego
What it’s about: When literary giant Maya Angelou died in May, some of her obituaries said she’d worked as a “madam” in San Diego. A trip to the library turned up “Gather Together in My Name,” one of her autobiographies, and its remarkable excursion into her work managing prostitutes in the San Diego of the 1940s.
Why the writer liked it: Angelou’s vivid writing brought a hidden part of San Diego’s history to life, and her blunt honesty about herself is remarkable: “I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, culture and intellectual,” she writes. “I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores.”
I still wonder, however, about the accuracy of the story since I couldn’t find any evidence that a nightclub she mentioned (the Hi-Hat Club) actually existed.
What’s happening now: San Diego’s vice-ridden past is full of tales that have yet to be told. Take this 1912 newspaper headline, for instance, about an effort to rustle prostitutes: “138 Are Arrested in Stingaree Raid/136 Promise to Leave City; Two Agree to Reform.” What I’d give to figure out what happened to that duo!
Some readers would prefer not to read about such things. One wrote me to express horror that we’d dig up such a tawdry part of Angelou’s life. But it was Angelou herself who remembered her tumultuous time in our city, seemingly without shame or regret. We should all be so able to free ourselves from the binds of the past.