escondido schools covid
Students at Bear Valley Middle School watch a video during class. The Escondido Union School District offers hybrid-model in-classroom at all campuses. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

What a wild, awful year it’s been.

The COVID-19 global pandemic turned one on Thursday. To mark the unceremonious occasion, VOSD photogs Adriana Heldiz and Megan Wood compiled a series of images that demonstrate how life in San Diego and beyond has been altered.

It is a look back at some of the major decisions, pivotal moments and dilemmas from the past 12 months that begins, ironically enough, with the celebrations of the primary election night. What followed: the Convention Center turned into a homeless shelter, low-income workers went without benefits, protesters erupted in the streets, another election. 

As Heldiz and Wood note: “Schools largely remain closed across the county, businesses are still struggling to get back on their feet and although vaccines are being deployed throughout the region, we’re not out of the woods.” 

City Regulator Missing Over Half of Potential Toxic Waste-Creating Businesses

It’s possible that the city of San Diego is not properly regulating  hundreds of businesses that could be disposing toxic waste into the sewer system, an audit found Thursday. 

The city auditor’s office reviewed how the Public Utilities Department is keeping track of industrial businesses in the region under its Industrial Wastewater Control Program. But some of its methods are “outdated and inefficient,” according to the report written by City Auditor Andy Hanau. 

Part of the problem, Hanau wrote, is the department doesn’t have enough staff to keep tabs on all the types of businesses that might produce waste that requires a permit or other regulation. That includes some of San Diego’s biggest industries like bio-technology, biomedical research and development, hospitals and aerospace. 

This Industrial Wastewater Control Program is supposed to locate the kinds of businesses opening up in the region that might be subject to federal environmental standards they enforce. Sometimes businesses identify themselves by applying for a permit, or the program gets tips from other government agencies, or program staff have to track what businesses are opening by checking license lists, telephone directories or just knowing enough about an assigned geographic area. 

Not enough, the auditor says. Through its own research, the auditor’s office found hundreds of businesses the Industrial Wastewater Control Program was not aware of, which means staff had likely not even assessed whether they needed to be permitted for toxic discharges.

Shauna Lorance, director of the Public Utilities Department, agrees with the auditor’s findings and said they were already working on some of these issues since the agency audited itself through an independent consultant back in 2017. In a March 9 letter, Lorance laid out steps the department would take to remedy such oversight.

She said the department hired six new staff beginning in 2019, but “staff turnover and the pandemic have prevented the program from being fully staffed since the creation of these new positions.” 

MTS Proposes Fare Reductions

The board of directors for the Metropolitan Transit System recommended Thursday that the agency cut one-way youth fares in half and allow free transfers between buses and trolleys within two hours of the first boarding. The proposed change was forwarded to the San Diego Associations of Governments for review.

As City News Service reported, ridership is down during the pandemic and officials believe the fare reductions will help attract more people to public transit. According to a study, the drop in revenue is supposed to be offset through fiscal year 2024 through federal relief funding. 

MTS is also prepared to increase one-way tickets for adults should that money run out. 

KPBS noted that the changes are part of an overhaul of the MTS fare collection system that is expected to launch this summer.

MTS had previously considered increasing one-way fares from $2.50 to $2.75 to make up for lost fare revenue that passengers were expected to save from a pay-as-you go function associated with the new system. The agency backed away from that proposal after pushback from riders and additional money for transit included in the latest relief package signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday.

Could the Feds Be Interested in Lincoln Misspending?

Earlier this week, VOSD’s Will Huntsberry told the story of community activist Roosevelt Blackmon, whose claim that Lincoln High School had misspent funds were vindicated more than a year after he began raising the issue.

Another reader followed up a suggestion too – that the misspending might be more serious because it was federal money. Huntsberry dug in for this week’s Learning Curve and found some money was pulled from Title I funds, a reality that could potentially draw the interest of the feds.

News Roundup

  • Oceanside announced Thursday it had picked a new police chief: Fred Armijo, a department veteran. The city had been pressured by advocates and residents to open the search up to candidates outside the department, but ultimately chose one from within.
  • Some conservatives are issuing early warnings that excessive infighting could cost them a singular opportunity to retake the governorship. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and businessman John Cox have started launching broadsides at each other. (Politico) 
  • The local ACLU is leading a legal effort to force Sheriff Bill Gore to vaccinate enough prisoners to avoid another COVID-19 outbreak or reduce the population to consistently allow social distancing. (Union-Tribune)
  • Inewsource pulled back the curtain on streetlight repair needs in the city that have been estimated to total nearly $264 million over the next five years.
  • The Union-Tribune reports that the San Diego Association of Governments is debuting new online forums to allow San Diegans to weigh in and get more information on transit, highways and more and says the forums could replace some community meetings.
  • Three San Diego Unified parents filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging it has failed to provide in-person learning and to provide students from underserved or disadvantaged communities with equal access to in-person instruction. (City News Service)
  • San Diego County cities are expecting to get a more than $600 million shot in the arm from the new federal COVID relief bill. (Union-Tribune)

And Finally … 

Managing editor Sara Libby was recognized this week by the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego as their Media Person of the Year. Under her editorial leadership, VOSD has produced a ton of stories in the last year along with significant impact. 

In Libby’s acceptance speech, she said, “Many people see these types of stories and investigations as negative … but I don’t see it that way. I think revealing our greatest failures and shortcomings is a profoundly optimistic exercise, because it comes from a place of believing that we can do better.”

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