It’s been a tumultuous and tragic year in our fair city, one marked by a deadly outbreak that exposed the misery in our midst. Sanctuary is on our minds: Who deserves it, how do we provide it and what happens when we fail?
These topics come up again and again when Voice of San Diego’s journalists recall the stories that made them the most proud in 2017. There’s a related theme, too: Those in power aren’t doing enough, and they aren’t always telling the truth.
As we revealed, government officials fumbled their response to hepatitis A outbreak, and an SDPD officer who’d cited a homeless man was caught lying in court. Meanwhile, as we reported, elected officials mislead undocumented immigrants when they describe “sanctuary” policies as protection from the feds.
Our journalists also introduced readers to people who sought freedom from government corruption, from debt incurred to pay to get kids to school and from the high costs of being an artist here.
And they uncovered a massive failure of law enforcement oversight and explored why the much ballyhooed plant that turns seawater into drinking water isn’t meeting expectations. We also looked back, way back, to a long-forgotten tale of when the Civil War nearly sparked a bloodbath out by a tiny town on the route to Julian.
Read on for a closer look at the stories that made us proud to serve San Diego in 2017, and stay tuned for our annual compilation of fantastic work by other journalists and newsrooms.
The Cruel ‘Sanctuary State’ Promise
Scott Lewis, CEO/Editor in Chief
What It’s About: After President Donald Trump’s election, politicians made big promises about how they’d protect immigrants living in California. The governor promised the state would defend every man, woman and child who came here for a better life.
But neither the state nor local entities have ever protected those here without authorization. The federal government has removed tens of thousands of them — more than half of whom, in 2016, had not committed any crimes while being here.
In February, when this piece was written, federal agents had total access to San Diego County jails to screen those detained for immigration violations.
Why the Writer Likes It: It’s dangerously misleading to use the word “sanctuary” to describe cities or states that don’t provide it.
What’s Happening Now: The state Legislature passed SB 54, often referred to as the sanctuary state law. It was not nearly as significant as it could have been. But it did have immediate impact on San Diego: Those Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who had full access and offices in San Diego jails must be kicked out.
A Police Officer Caught in a Lie
Sara Libby, Managing Editor
What It’s About: As the city’s homelessness and Hepatitis A crises swirled, this story revealed that San Diego Police officers sometimes go to extreme, even illegal lengths to enforce laws meant to keep the homeless from settling in public places.
In this case, a homeless man was convicted of an infraction based on a police officer’s testimony that he’d found the man sleeping in his vehicle. Body camera footage later showed the officer had given false testimony under oath.
The man hadn’t been sleeping in his vehicle when the officer approached him, as the officer told the court. He’d been leaving a public bathroom, just as the man had said all along.
Why the Writer Likes It: The impetus for this story came from me watching an obscure public hearing on the implementation of a 2015 law to track police racial profiling.
The lawyer involved in this story, Coleen Cusack, mentioned in the hearing that an SDPD officer had perjured himself in a case she was working on. When I contacted her to find out what she was talking about, she delivered the goods: Body camera footage showed an officer had lied on the stand about his interaction with her client.
This article hit all the right notes of what makes a good VOSD story: investigation, accountability, compelling characters and the intersection of several storylines we’ve been following, including homelessness and police transparency.
What’s Happening Now: The case is still in the appeals process, and an opening brief in the case is due Jan. 4.
The Acronyms That Took Down an Agency
Andrew Keatts, Assistant Editor
What Is It About: Ahead of the 2016 election, we reported that SANDAG was collecting billions less from a sales tax than it expected, and that it was asking voters to approve another sales tax based on the same economic forecast.
Months later, we finally got a trove of thousands of emails from the agency that showed I wasn’t the only person who had discovered the improbable projection, and its serious implications. SANDAG staffers had found the same problem. They exchanged panicked emails and outlined the problem to agency leaders, including what it meant for the agency’s promises to voters. Yet, no one at SANDAG said a peep: not to me when I first approached them with my findings, not to its own board and not to voters.
Why the Writer Liked It: It was clear to me that the problems I had uncovered earlier in the year were extremely serious. The agency admitted as much when to quietly adjusted its long-term revenue expectations. But the project was as complicated as any I’ve ever covered. It was a struggle even to explain it to editors or in writing. The agency could – and did – successfully obfuscate the extent of the problem by burying people in jargon. The emails accomplished more than any number of graphs or expert quotes ever could. The people trusted to take care of this stuff had found the same thing I had, and they immediately knew it was, to use another three-letter acronym, a BFD.
What’s Happening Now: SANDAG’s board launched an investigation that revealed staffers took steps to shield communications and documents from my records requests. The agency’s longtime executive director stepped down. The state Legislature passed a law revamping the entire agency. The agency said it could still meet all its promises – if the state passed two more gas tax increases. SANDAG itself launched a program to revamp the way it conducts and reports its economic forecasts. A national search is currently under way for a new director.
For Local Artists, Yet Another Blow
Kinsee Morlan, Engagement Editor
The Story: Another Arts Venue Bites the Dust
What It’s About: City officials shut down The Glashaus in Barrio Logan due to fire and safety concerns and code compliance issues. Artists who rent studios in the space were given 30 days to move out, and they’re struggling to find a place to go.
The issue has come to a head at a time when there’s less affordable art studio space in San Diego than ever.
Why the Writer Likes It: Disappearing space for artists is a real issue in San Diego, which is in a housing crunch.
I was proud that I broke this story, and it was interesting to see the rest of the media only pay attention after the city attorney’s office sent out a press release.
A local arts activist organized a panel after I reported on the closing of these arts spaces, and I moderated the talk. It was wonderful to see the impact of a story, and get in-person feedback from artists and community members interested in finding affordable spaces for artists to live, work and perform.
What’s Happening Now: Some of the artists displaced by the closures of two art spaces in Barrio Logan are still looking for a place to go. Others have moved to different locations in San Diego, but some have also moved to places like La Mesa, National City and other cities where space is cheaper.
If the city of San Diego wants to keep artists here, it’s going to have to figure out a better way forward.
Outbreak of Inertia as Homeless Die
Lisa Halverstadt, Staff Writer
What It’s About: As a deadly hepatitis A outbreak raged this summer, county officials talked about setting up portable hand-washing stations. Poor hygiene fuels the spread of the illness. But by mid-August, just two stations had gone up — and neither was near downtown, the area considered ground zero of the outbreak.
I began asking questions. On Aug. 30, my story exposed the bureaucratic fumbling under way as the outbreak’s death toll ticked up.
Why the Writer Likes It: This story spurred dramatic action. The day after it published, the county ordered the city to follow a new street-cleaning protocol and install 30 hand-washing stations. The day after that, the county declared a public health emergency. By the end of that weekend, more than 40 hand-washing stations had gone up around the city. Dozens more have since gone up countywide.
What’s Happening Now: In the weeks after the story, San Diego’s unprecedented hepatitis A outbreak made national and international news. City and county officials across the region significantly ramped up their response to the health crisis.
We’ve since learned that the outbreak spiked the first week of September. Now, public health officials report that efforts to vaccinate more than 113,000 people and to increase sanitation efforts and restroom access countywide seem to be moving the needle. As of mid-December, county health officials said they had seen just two new hepatitis A cases since the beginning of the month.
Schools Harangue Parents Over School Bus Bills
Mario Koran, Staff Writer
What It’s About: California is one of 12 states that allows school districts to charge parents for bus rides to school. Those fees cost San Diego Unified parents $500 a year per child. If parents don’t pay fees by the year’s end, the district refers them to a collections agency.
Why the Writer Likes It: This story generated buzz on social media and became one of our most-read stories of the year. Many readers expressed shock that the district charges fees for public school bus rides at all.
What’s Happening Now: The story came to light just months after Gov. Jerry Brown signed an anti-“lunch shaming” bill to ensure kids won’t be denied school meals because of their parents’ debt.
But as the state turns away from practices that hurt children in matters out their control, San Diego Unified is leaning into them, at least as far as school bus fees go. Just last month, the district renewed its contract with the collections agency it uses to recoup bus fees.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher recently said she’s considering a bill that would end this practice.
How Parents Took a Stand Against Corruption
Ashly McGlone, Staff Writer
What It’s About: Not long ago, leaders of South Bay’s Sweetwater Union High School District were ensnared in a pay-to-play corruption case prosecuted by the San Diego County district attorney. The case also stretched to two neighboring school districts in South County. Some public officials landed behind bars. Others resigned, paid fines and performed community service.
A lot had been written about the criminal case, but little was known about the fiery group of residents who set the whole thing in motion.
Why the Writer Likes It: This podcast project allowed me to highlight the voices and stories of the residents who played a large role in sounding the alarm that there was trouble in the Sweetwater schools.
Years before the criminal case, residents, parents and teachers went to school board meetings to demand accountability from their local leaders. The struggle and sacrifices they made were intense and costly. This platform let others hear their stories straight from them and highlighted the impact residents can have on their local government.
What’s Happening Now: Sweetwater has a new superintendent, a new school board and a strong citizen bond oversight committee that keeps an eye on all school bond decisions.
The citizen committee also oversees a larger-than-usual annual audit of the $644 million Proposition O school bond program. As bond money dries up, Sweetwater officials are considering another bond measure and may soon ask for voter approval. Such a move would put the community’s somewhat-renewed trust to the test.
Water Plant Fails to Meet Expectations
Ry Rivard, Staff Writer
What It’s About: When the Carlsbad desalination plant opened two years, regional water officials gushed about how reliable it would be. Sure, the drinking water it produced from sea water would be among the most expensive in the country. But San Diego could now rely on the Pacific Ocean rather than be stuck waiting on rain and snowmelt to come from hundreds of miles away.
In fact, the plant has not been as reliable as promised. If the plant isn’t reliable, why are we spending so much?
Why the Writer Likes It: The story follows a thread we’ve been exploring about the challenges of fine-tuning San Diego’s water supply. We previously reported on how San Diego managed to have too much water at one point during the drought, in part because of the desalination plant.
Thanks to the plant, we sometimes may have more water than we need. Other times, we may not have the water we want.
What’s Happening Now: The plant’s owner says it’s made great progress since this story ran in August and is hoping to move past some of the early mechanical problems.
Company officials have also talked about ways to deal with algal blooms like the one that shut down the plant for two weeks in April. They’ve also been in a dispute over money with the contractor they hired to operate the plant.
Inside the South Bay’s Housing Crisis
Maya Srikrishnan, Staff Writer
What It’s About: This story looks at families forced to live in industrial parts of San Diego’s South Bay because of the county’s housing issues. It begins with a traffic collision from 2014, when a 15-year-old girl was hit by a semi-truck while walking home to a junkyard.
Junkyards, storage containers and unused plots of land have become refuge for people who can’t afford to live in San Diego. These families with children are less visible than the street homeless and often end up living in illegal and unsafe conditions.
Why the Writer Likes It: I appreciated being able to tell the story-behind-the-story of a grim headline from a few years ago. What seemed like a freak accident — a teenage girl getting hit by a semi-truck — was actually a window into San Diego’s housing crisis.
What’s Happening Now: Many of the families in this story had to move yet again due to rent and code enforcement issues and, in some cases, immigration issues. Some of the families seem to have disappeared from my radar or gone back into hiding.
Cop Review Board Botches 22 Cases
Kelly Davis, Freelance Contributor
What It’s About: On Nov. 14, the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board — the oversight group that investigates deaths occurring in county detention facilities or during arrests — voted to dismiss 22 of those investigations. It was an unprecedented move. Many of these cases had languished for years amid a growing backlog of open investigations.
The board argued it was following state policy regarding the rights of law enforcement officers. But the experts I spoke with said it was misinterpreting the law. “To just wholesale close cases, I’ve never seen an agency do that,” one said.
Why the Writer Likes It: People tend to pay little attention to police accountability until something terrible happens. I’ve been the only member of the public in attendance at some of the board’s meetings. Hopefully its purpose and effectiveness will become part of the debate as elections loom for county sheriff and the Board of Supervisors.
What’s Happening Now: I requested information about the cases under public records law, but most of those requests have been denied. I’ve also had ongoing conversations with oversight experts about the vote and the board’s justification for dismissing the cases. Three of the cases involved inmates whose families have filed wrongful death lawsuits, leading to questions about whether the board felt pressure to minimize the county’s risk in those cases.
S.D.’s Civil War Face-off
Randy Dotinga, Freelance Contributor
The Story: When the Civil War Came to San Diego
What It’s About: In the early days of the Civli War, a California state legislator named Dan Showalter was known for his red hair and hot temper. First, he shot a fellow lawmaker to death — he shot him in the mouth — in a duel at 40 paces. Then he gathered a bunch of fellow Confederate sympathizers in 1861, picked up arms and started heading to the South to slaughter Yankees. His route took him through the backcountry of San Diego County and smack into a unit of union troops.
Why the Writer Likes It: I’ve written dozens of stories for VOSD about local history, but none has resonated so much with readers. That’s probably because it’s so colorful and so unexpected. Who would ever have thought the Civil War would have come to San Diego? The story’s also a handy reminder about our hidden history as a slavery-loving, Abraham Lincoln-hating little cow town.
What’s Happening Now: The Civil War is more than 150 years distant. But it lives with us in San Diego today in the names of our streets, our neighborhoods and our schools.
The war’s tensions, of course, are never-ending, even here. A few weeks after my story appeared over the summer, the city became aware of a Horton Plaza monument that honored a highway named for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Workers instantly removed it, and the mayor declared “San Diegans stand together against Confederate symbols of division.”