Photos by Megan Wood, Adriana Heldiz and Shutterstock

The unique, unprecedented year that was 2020 brought many lessons for journalists.

As the chaos and confusion surrounding the coronavirus first unfolded, for example, simply providing clear and correct information was in and of itself a valuable act of service journalism.

The presidential election, and the racial justice protests that swept the nation following the death of George Floyd both drove home just how dangerous it can be to cloak the news in vague euphemisms like “police-involved shooting” or “racially charged.”

And a continuing lesson throughout the year was that it’s not enough to expose wrongdoing or to tell fascinating stories; journalists must do so in a way that compels change.

These stories and legal efforts forced a new way forward.

Solana Beach agreed to follow the law and retain emails for two years, instead of 100 days.

Solana Beach was one of several cities that had argued that state law requiring local agencies to retain public records for two years for some reason did not apply to emails. As a result, it retained emails for only 100 days.

When VOSD’s Ashly McGlone filed a Public Records Act request with cities across San Diego for some of their early coronavirus-related communications, Solana Beach said it wouldn’t quickly provide those records, citing the pandemic. It dragged its feet long enough to run up against the 100-day automatic deletion, meaning it deleted public records even after they’d been requested, in violation of the law.

Voice of San Diego filed suit against the city, seeking the records it originally sought. The city agreed to retain emails for two years as a result of the lawsuit.

MTS approved a number of enforcement reforms, and its police chief retired.

In a Voice of San Diego series, Lisa Halverstadt illuminated the degree to which aggressive, draconian enforcement of transit fare evasion by San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System has impacted the lives of the people who rely on public transit. Crucially, she revealed both the devastating ways in which citations can spiral and can have an impact that’s wildly disproportionate to the offense, as well as the decisions made by officials that enabled the current system.

As a result of Halverstadt’s reporting, San Diego officials have taken significant steps to mitigate these impacts and to reform their policies:

  • The agency’s longtime police chief swiftly announced his retirement.
  • MTS said it would seek an outside review of its body camera policies.
  • The MTS board unanimously approved a fare diversion program to offer those ticketed an alternative to the criminal justice system.
  • MTS vowed to do its own analysis of racial discrepancies in its ticket enforcement in addition to an outside review of its enforcement policies.
  • The agency will be making changes to its disabled fare application and also announced that reviewers from the American Public Transportation Association are expected to begin work on a review of the agency’s enforcement practices.

San Diego’s smart streetlights have been turned off, and the city is writing an ordinance to guide its use of surveillance technology.

For more than a year, VOSD’s Jesse Marx’s reporting on San Diego’s smart streetlights program and other public surveillance efforts has revealed both the power of technology in the 21st century and the way in which it gravitates toward law enforcement.

In 2020, we learned from Marx’s reporting that the project was funded in part with federal anti-poverty dollars and that it wasn’t producing environmental and traffic data as promised. We also learned that police had used the cameras to investigate Black Lives Matter protesters as well as non-violent crimes, like illegal dumping and vandalism, which they said they wouldn’t do.

Over the summer, the City Council defunded the program and got to work on a surveillance ordinance that establishes rules for how officials buy and use any device in the future capable of listening and watching the public.

That doesn’t mean the problems are over, though. After the city agreed to pull the funding for the streetlights, for example, we learned that it’s not actually possible to turn them off completely.

San Diego County was forced to release death certificates of coronavirus victims after refusing to do so.

Death certificates are public records – this is something Voice of San Diego and San Diego County officials agree on. Yet, county officials did not carry out their duties under the California Public Records Act when VOSD contributor Jared Whitlock requested copies of all death certificates listing COVID-19 as a cause of death.

VOSD filed suit to force the county to comply with the law, and a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled that the county must take steps to provide the records:

“Given that death certificates are publically available and considering the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the significant public interest in the County’s role in responding to the pandemic, the court finds the County fails to establish that, ‘the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record’ so as to justify withholding the records,” Judge Ronald Styn wrote.

But instead of providing the records right away, the county voted to appeal the decision. The appellate court denied the petition. The county – after some foot-dragging and blown deadlines – provided the records.

San Diego voters approved a process for removing school board members.

Last year, after Voice of San Diego broke the news that San Diego Unified Trustee Kevin Beiser had been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple men, elected officials – including Beiser’s own colleagues – urged him to step down. He didn’t – and there wasn’t much else anyone could do about it.

In November, San Diego voters passed Measure D, which provides two clear paths to remove a school board trustee from office.

The catch: No one appears willing to use the new mechanism to seek Beiser’s removal, and it’s not clear whether it would even apply to him if the political will existed.

The city’s unconstitutional and improperly enforced seditious language law has been repealed.

The silver lining to the many horrific details we learned about how San Diego police were wielding an outdated, unconstitutional law to punish San Diegans’ speech is that the law has been wiped from the books.

After we published our first report detailing SDPD’s use of the seditious language law, the department announced it would stop writing seditious language citations. The San Diego City Council then voted to repeal it.

While the quick action represents a victory for San Diegans’ civil rights, there are many troubling questions surrounding the ordeal that have not yet been answered – any maybe never will.

Was there a directive from police leaders to use the law? Will people who were guilty of doing nothing more than saying something an officer didn’t like have their records cleared and made whole for any fines they paid? Will officers who wrote seditious language tickets be punished?

The department has declined to provide details on any of these questions.

The FAA was forced to release documents shedding light on a plan to fly a massive drone over San Diego.

A military-grade drone was set to take flight above the city of San Diego in 2020 but didn’t, for reasons that weren’t clear to the public. Thanks to a Voice of San Diego lawsuit, we now have thousands of pages of emails and a clearer picture of why the unprecedented demonstration — which would have opened the skies of the United States to new forms of surveillance — fell apart.

It was moved to the desert because federal regulators were concerned that the drone wasn’t safe enough to fly over a dense metro by itself. The documents also revealed that the demonstration was intended not just for local officials but foreign military diplomats. Over the summer, the Trump administration loosened restrictions on international arms sales, clearing the way for the company to sell its weapons to other countries.

Sweetwater fired its superintendent following a drawn-out financial scandal.

The Sweetwater Union High School District board officially fired Superintendent Karen Janney at the end of August.

Sweetwater became embroiled in a $30 million financial scandal under Janney’s leadership, which Voice of San Diego first revealed in September 2018. Further reporting showed that officials pushed through across-the-board raises they knew were unaffordable, which tanked the district’s finances. Instead of coming clean about their deteriorating financial position, district officials covered it up. A state audit in June suggested Janney and two top finance workers may have committed criminal wrongdoing by misrepresenting the district’s finances.

The DA’s schools task force charged its first teacher.

An El Centro teacher charged with endangering children by providing marijuana and alcohol to students on a school camping trip received more than $20,000 to leave her teaching position last year. The Central Union High School District also agreed not to tell prospective future employers about the misconduct.

Monique Garcia was the first teacher charged by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office following the November 2019 launch of the DA’s Student Safety in School Systems Task Force, formed after Voice of San Diego revealed systemic shortcomings in the systems used to report school employee misconduct.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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