Voice of San Diego staff
Top left clockwise: Will Huntsberry, Maya Srikrishnan, MacKenzie Elmer, Jesse Marx, Scott Lewis, Andrew Keatts and Lisa Halverstadt (middle). / Photos by Adriana Heldiz and Megan Wood

The pandemic receded for much of 2021, giving our community an opportunity to wonder – if only for a moment – whether we were about to get back to normal. So much for that.

But things did change: Vaccinations appeared, schools reopened, and the cost of living rose and rose some more. More San Diegans got new jobs or adjusted to their lives without them. Major wildfires, for once, left us alone.

And, as always, the truth could be elusive, hidden in the fog of spin or neglect. VOSD’s journalists spent the year trying to help our fellow San Diegans see more clearly. We chronicled conflicts of interests, exposed cover-ups, and shined a light on the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. And we took time to carefully explain complicated dilemmas that affect us every day.

Here’s a look at our news team’s favorite stories from 2021.

Congressman’s High-Stakes Stand Roils D.C.

Scott Lewis, CEO/Editor in Chief

The Story: Scott Peters’ Congressional Career Comes Down to Big Medicare Negotiations

What Is It About: Rep. Scott Peters inserted himself into a major political debate this fall. President Joe Biden wanted to spend trillions to address climate change, extend child tax credits, expand universal pre-K, and much more. But Peters threatened to hold up the legislation because it would have allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices and put a cap on them. This story explains his high-profile position.

Why the Writer Liked It: While watching the baseball playoffs, I saw an ad hammering Rep. Scott Peters for his “socialist” approach to drug price negotiation. Then I got a mailer from his office, taxpayer-funded, that explained his approach to drug prices. I spent several days trying to understand his position, and I’m proud to have explained it well to help others follow the intense drama from that point forward.

What’s Happening Now: Peters finally secured a deal that allowed Medicare to negotiate some prescription drug prices and capped some consumer out-of-pocket expenses. But Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia announced Dec. 19 that he would not be supporting the legislation. All the negotiation and effort Peters and so many others put into this was, at least for now, a giant waste.

From the Start, Officials Hid Truth in Police Shooting

Sara Libby, Former Managing Editor

The Story: Secrecy, Misinformation Defined Every Turn in Police Shooting Case

What It’s About: VOSD began covering the police killing of Fridoon Nehad soon after it happened in 2015. This story explores the many aspects of how the city and law enforcement mishandles police shootings and the information released about them.

The DA at the time presented horrifyingly slanted and sometimes false evidence in announcing her presentation of the case. The city’s police watchdog group was denied documents and evidence as it sought to evaluate the case. The police and the city sought to keep the video footage secret.

And all the while, a family was trying to seek justice for their loved one. Their civil lawsuit was the last chance for some accountability.

Why the Writer Likes It: This story presented the kind of damning and authoritative account of a case that can only come with years of following a story closely. As we found, the first media accounts of this shooting got it all wrong: They said Nehad was armed with a knife, and regurgitated other false police-driven narratives. This was a chance to set the record straight on a number of missteps over several years and by several parties.

What’s Happening Now: The city settled with Nehad’s family. Since he was killed, a number of state and local reforms have changed many processes related to how this played out — from requirements for police de-escalation trainings to reforming the police watchdog group to different standards for holding police criminally liable when they take a life. But other reforms, including some flagged as priorities by Mayor Todd Gloria, haven’t happened yet.

Meanwhile, this case set Voice of San Diego on the path toward becoming an aggressive pursuer of public records in court: We’ve successfully pried open records that San Diego Unified, the city of San Diego, and a host of other entities wanted to keep secret.

$67 Million Man? Broker’s Big Stake in Big Sale

The Story: Housing Commission Broker Invested in Company Before $67 Million Purchase

Andrew Keatts, Managing Editor, Projects and Investigations

What It’s About: Last spring, I learned that city Housing Commission officials were grappling with a significant conflict of interest. Months earlier, the commission hired a broker to help it purchase financially troubled hotels that would be converted into housing for the homeless. That broker then made a big investment in the company that owned a Mission Valley hotel, advised the commission to buy the hotel, and negotiated the purchase price.

Why the Writer Likes It: It was immediately clear that the conflict was significant and newsworthy, and it soon became clear the revelation was just the beginning. The revelation kicked off months of issues between the Commission and city officials, unearthed potential issues with the agency’s corporate structure, led us to explore the hotel’s purchase price and the Commission’s logically inconsistent defense of it to the Union-Tribune. Then we learned residents in the hotel died.

What’s Happening Now: The city attorney’s office is suing the broker over the investment, but neither the city nor the district attorney ever filed criminal charges. Meanwhile, the scandal has spurred efforts to reform the Housing Commission. The City Council members who’ve pushed for changes think they unveiled some possibilities this week.

City Hall to Federal Investigators: Buzz Off

Jesse Marx, Associate Editor

The Story: San Diego Held Back Materials Sought by Congress on Facial Recognition

What It’s About: Our region is a leader in putting facial recognition to work for law enforcement. In 2017, congressional investigators asked San Diego city officials for information. They didn’t get what they wanted.

The city ultimately failed to pass along several key documents, a decision that downplayed internal concerns over the technology’s racial bias and its wider implications for civil liberties. In response to similar criticisms, California imposed a temporary ban on police use of facial recognition in 2020.

A former employee alleged that officials had intentionally withheld records from Congress to take the heat off, and she portrayed a culture that routinely violated the California Public Records Act.

Why the Writer Likes It: My favorite stories are typically those that keep me up at night wondering if I’ve missed or misunderstood something. This story brought together several of the topics I’ve been writing about for years and was fairly complicated to report and to explain. From start to finish, it took more than six months to complete.

In response to our coverage, a House committee posted a portion of San Diego’s records online with, crucially, an index for the entire batch it got from the city.

What’s Happening Now:
The wrongful termination case is ongoing. In the meantime, Mayor Todd Gloria separated the city’s Office of Homeland Security from the Police Department in the fiscal year 2022 budget as part of a larger package of reforms.

Why Can’t We Throw Nuke Waste in the Recycling Bin?

MacKenzie Elmer, Staff Writer

The Story: Why San Diego Can’t Recycle Its Nuclear Waste 

What It’s About: As governments across the globe embrace “net zero” carbon pledges, a zero-carbon solution sits buried in a concrete bunker. It’s nuclear waste — more specifically, spent nuclear fuel — and the now-closed San Onofre nuclear power plant has 3.6 million pounds of it. Environmentalists want it gone. There’s another option: Recycle it to provide carbon-free energy again and again. Turns out we can’t do that thanks to a peanut farmer-turned-president.

Why the Writer Likes It: Nuclear power gets a bad rap, but many younger environmentalists are starting to wonder why the U.S. is shutting down many of its nuclear power plants. My visit was my first chance to explore a nuclear power plant and ask the kinds of questions that many policymakers try to avoid answering.

What’s Happening Now: The nuclear plant probably can’t be saved. Southern California Edison is tearing it down bit by bit. But hot debate is growing around whether California will shut down its remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon. Some believe nuclear should remain to help phase out natural gas-fired power plants, which produce the most power but are the dirtiest source.

The ‘Volunteer’: Inside the 101 Ash Street Scandal

Lisa Halverstadt, Staff Writer

The Story: How a Volunteer Helped Get the City Into Its Biggest Real Estate Debacle

What It’s About: I had questions about the role that city real estate adviser Jason Hughes played in the city’s acquisition of 101 Ash Street, the downtown high rise that the city rushed to evacuate in January 2020 after a series of asbestos violations. It’s now at the center of many lawsuits.

My story revealed that Hughes was an architect behind the lease-to-own arrangement that left the city holding the bag. It also highlighted eyebrow-raising comments he made in emails to city officials about his interest in being paid for work on the Civic Center Plaza deal. Five months later, Hughes and landlord Cisterra Development dropped a bombshell: The landlord paid the city’s “volunteer” broker $9.4 million for his work on both deals.

Why the Writer Likes It:  I got to follow my curiosity and spent months requesting and reviewing records, creating timelines, and working sources.

What’s Happening Now: After confirming that Cisterra paid Hughes over the summer, the city took legal action to try to void its 101 Ash and Civic Center Plaza leases, alleging a major conflict of interest. Months later, District Attorney investigators raided Hughes’ Rancho Santa Fe home, company headquarters, and Cisterra’s office. Prosecutors confirmed in mid-December that the criminal probe that spurred those raids continues. Now attorneys for Hughes, the developer, the city and others ensnared in lawsuits surrounding both deals are conducting depositions and polishing their legal strategies. This story is far from over. 

Veterans Charity Accused of Scamming Taxpayers

Will Huntsberry, Staff Writer

The Story: Volunteers of America Southwest Accused of Double-Billing, Fraud and Conflicts

What It’s About: Volunteers of America Southwest is a major charity that mainly focused on housing and addiction treatment and contracts with San Diego County, Veterans Affairs, and local hospitals to provide beds for those in needs. We uncovered mismanagement and fraud allegations by multiple sources earlier this year: Several key players in the organization were funneling money into private businesses they controlled, and it’s unclear they ever provided goods or services. Two whistleblowers tried to raise these concerns to the organization’s CEO, but both were eventually fired.

Why the Writer Likes It: This story is a perfect example of accountability journalism. Volunteers of America Southwest sold itself as a regional do-good organization, but behind that veil were shady deeds and mismanagement.

What’s Happening Now: After we revealed systemic problems within Volunteers of America Southwest the organization was sent reeling. First, the VA pulled $2 million in funding from the organization. Next, the CEO and the entire board of directors resigned. The national organization Volunteers of America sent in a new leader to help get the organization back up on its feet. We’ll follow up on how the organization is rebuilding in 2021.

How to Start Bossing Around Your Local Government

Maya Srikrishnan, Staff Writer

The Podcast: San Diego 101 Podcast: Your Role in Local Government

What It’s About: Local government is complicated, and we don’t learn much about how it works in school. There’s a huge lack of information about local political candidates and policy decisions. Our San Diego 101 podcast series is trying to bridge that information gap so more people can be involved in decisions made at the city and county levels that impact their lives.

Why the Writer Likes It: This first SD 101 Podcast episode was special to me because we got to talk to two people who didn’t really pay attention to local government, until decisions made by local government completely changed their lives for the worse.

What’s Happening Now: We’ll have plenty more San Diego 101 content for you in 2022, including podcast episodes on how parents can make a difference at schools and on common misconceptions about the city’s homelessness problem.

They’re Back! San Diego Video Explainers Return

Adriana Heldiz, Multimedia Producer

The Video: San Diego 101 Video Series: Season 2

What It’s About: In 2020, we started a new video series called San Diego 101. We began with five videos that explained a variety of topics. In 2021, we decided to do it again and made an additional four videos. We explained the Tijuana River sewage crisis, how schools get money, who polices the police, and what the city charter is. We released them all at once.

Why the Writer Likes It: I’m really proud of the new topics we covered and the way we made them look visually cohesive. I learned more about the structure of producing a video series, and I challenged myself to try new motion-graphic techniques.

What’s Happening Now: San Diego 101 keeps growing! VOSD’s Maya Srikrishnan and I are hosts of a new podcast titled “San Diego 101.” We’ve taken some of the topics we’ve covered in our video series and turned them into compelling audio stories and explainers.

New In-State Horizons for California’s Troubled Teens

Kelly Davis, Contributor

The Story: Barred from Sending Probation and Foster Youth Out of State, Officials Struggle to Find Alternatives

What It’s About: In late 2020 and early 2021, San Diego was one of several California counties that scrambled to bring kids home from scandal-plagued out-of-state residential treatment programs. The state’s Department of Social Services pulled the programs’ certifications after an investigation by The San Francisco Chronicle and The Imprint found dozens of cases of abuse and neglect by staff. This follow-up story, co-authored with The Imprint’s Sara Tiano and co-published with VOSD, looked at where youth ended up when they returned to California.

Why the Writer Liked It: I’d long wondered why California — one of the most well-resourced states in the nation — sent kids to out-of-state treatment programs. As Tiano and I found, when counties were left with no other option, they were able to place many kids back with their families or in less-intensive programs. This means youth like San Diegan Mialissa Florez, who’s featured in our story, will no longer feel like they’ve been shipped off and forgotten about.

What’s Happening Now: Tiano has continued to look into programs run by Sequel Youth & Family Services, whose facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., was the first that California decertified following the 2020 death of a 16 year old at the hands of staff. Tiano recently reported that federal lawmakers were so disturbed by reports of abuse at these facilities — including celebrity blogger Paris Hilton’s own experience as a troubled teen — that Rep. Ro Khanna is authoring legislation which would set national standards for youth residential treatment programs.

In America’s Finest City, It Can Be a Privilege to Pee

Bella Ross, Contributor

The Story: San Diego Still Can’t Solve Its Public Restroom Problem

What It’s About: San Diego’s lack of public restrooms isn’t a new issue.  It’s been coming up in grand jury reports for about 20 years and was cited as a major contributing factor to the city’s Hepatitis A outbreak in 2017-18, as well as the current Shigella outbreak in downtown. But comprehensive data on public restrooms hard to come by. The goal of this story was to focus on why the problem persists.

Why the Writer Likes It: I’ve wanted to cover this topic for a long time now. The number of times I’ve been frolicking in Balboa Park, running errands in Hillcrest, or basking on the beach and ended up having to upend everything to hunt down a nearby restroom — often to no avail — is upsetting. Too many times, I will have to cut my plans early just because I have to go home and pee. Many of the people who confront this issue don’t have a home to go back to.

What’s Happening Now: This story generated a lot of conversation locally about the need for more public restrooms. A few weeks after publication, the mayor said he wanted to open a public restroom within a five-minute walk of anywhere downtown. The city is also looking into mobile restroom trailers and potential sites for more permanent facilities.

When Your Dad Is Mom’s Fertility Doctor

Jared Whitlock, Contributor

The Story: DNA Testing Is Unearthing Local Fertility Fraud Cases

What’s It About: Thanks to a proliferation in DNA testing, more people are figuring out they were “doctor conceived” – fertility physicians used their own sperm or artificial insemination without telling anyone. As their numbers grow, they’re banding together to support one another and push for legislative changes, including legal rights to their medical histories.

Why the Writer Likes It: Women entrusted me with telling me their stories. From the emotional to the legal, there were many layers to capture in this piece.

What’s Happening Now: Under a new state law that was signed into law in September, fertility fraud victims can file civil actions against perpetrators – and recover damages of at least $50,000. Right to Know, which is working on fertility fraud legislation in multiple states, did not support the bill. Group members told me they’d rather see a larger overhaul of existing laws and statutes.

The Cost of Covid: A Father’s Wrenching Final Weeks

Randy Dotinga, Contributor

The Story: The Long Goodbye: How COVID-19 Took My Dad’s Life

What’s It About: My father Ralph Dotinga, who’d lived in San Diego County for nearly 70 years, died a couple days before Christmas Day in 2020. He was hospitalized before Thanksgiving with a broken knee but couldn’t be sent to a nursing home for rehabilitation since he turned out to have COVID-19. My story chronicles his long life and the cascade of complications that left him battered, afraid, and alone in his final weeks.

Why the Writer Likes It: It’s painful for me to read the article nearly a year later, but I’m glad I could bear witness to the personal costs of this pandemic.

What’s Happening Now: Isolated deaths are especially painful for loved ones who can feel even more unmoored. As anti-vaxxers took center stage over the past year, I’ve watched my family struggle to cope with both the loss of my dad and the way he passed away.

A local woman who was one of my father’s elementary-school students in 1960s Chula Vista wrote me to say that he showed her a moment of kindness that she never forgot. She became an educator herself. Whenever one of those online security questions asks her who her favorite teacher is, the answer is always the same: “Mr. Dotinga.”

Don’t break into her bank account! But do remember that kindness counts.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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