HOTTEST TOPICS OF THE YEAR IN 2014

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By Miriam Raftery, East County News Service

December 31, 2014 (San Diego’s East County)--It’s been a turbulent year around the world and across the nation, when occurrences far away had an impact right here in East County. There were also many major statewide, regional and local issues that hit home right here--including some stories uncovered through our own investigative reporting team.

These are the hot topics of the year that most affected our readers:

WAR AND PEACE

The nation’s longest war was officially declared over in December, with President Obama announcing withdrawal of nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by year’s end.  The 13-year war which began in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks killed 2,200 Americans and wounded over 20,000 troops, but also resulted in the death of Osama bin Ladin and routed Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan. 

But also in 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists’ massacre and persecution of religious minorities prompted the U.S. and Arab allies to launch air strikes against ISIL strongholds in Syria and Iraq.  East County Magazine also brought you local reactions to sending troops to the region.

East County Magazine was one of the first media in the world to publicize atrocities committed by ISIS, due to our first-hand sources in the local Iraqi-Chaldean and Kurdish community.   We helped the world learn of Christian homes marked and families killed, also covering a rally to save Iraqi Christians and a prayer vigil held in El Cajon.  We covered a Kurdish rally and interviewed a local Kurdish woman whose family was imperiled.  We interviewed Chaldean community leaders such as Mark Arabo and , Ben Kalasho,  who  offered diverse views on how to stop the genocide.  We covered the historic House measure by Congressman Vargas calling for protection of religious minorities in Iraq and a petition launched in support of the effort. 

When local Chaldeans held a fundraiser in El Cajon to help Iraqi refugees, we were there to cover it.  We also covered an appeal by the local Chaldean church to Pope Francis to save priests ordered to return to Iraq, where their lives would be in danger.  Plus we covered the Chaldean American Association’s awards, where leaders spoke out for unity and two members of Congress addressed the need to help Iraqi refugees.

DROUGHT AND WATER ISSUES

Local officials grappled this year with the worst drought in California history. The County approved mandatory water restrictions and local water agencies across the region followed suit.  Rural residents voiced outrage to learn that SDG&E had used triple the water estimated for its ECO Substation project and filed a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission. But four massive solar projects proposed by Soitec posed even more grave risks; an SDSU hydrology expert warned that groundwater proposed for use during construction could deplete aquifers so severely that they could not be recharged through rainfall, destroying the entire ecosystem.

Statewide, Californians learned that fracking operations are using massive amounts of water – and then dumping wastewater in a manner that increases the risk of major earthquakes.

Meanwhile in Descanso, residents face risks from uranium in their well water and the town’s water board is accused of covering up uranium contamination.

IMMIGRATION

President Barack Obama announced immigration reforms that drew reactions ranging from immigrants’ advocates voicing joy to conservatives denouncing the changes.  Those changes will impact many immigrants and their families here in our region – at least short-term, though long-term protection is far from guaranteed, as a new and more Conservative Congress takes office in January. 

This year also saw a wave of immigrant children from Central America seeking refuge in America from gangs, death threats and hunger in their homelands.  When protesters blocked buses in Murrieta, Border Angels rallied support for the children in San Diego, as ECM reported. The controversy spilled over into East County, where a La Mesa church took action, launched a petition to help the refugee children and met with Congresswoman Susan Davis. Church members also hosted a forum on the border children, highlighting problems and compassionate solutions solutions.

POLICE BRUTALITY

The killings of unarmed black men by police in Ferguson, Missouri and New York “hands up, don’t shoot”  and “I can’t breathe” protests nationally and locally over perceived racial bias and police brutality.   Here in East County, the controversies prompted the El Cajon Council to consider body cameras for police.  One abuse of authority allegation surfaced in East County – involving Metropolitan Security transit officers beating a Hispanic passenger, caught on video.

At year’s end, however, local police reacted to the murders of two New York officers, pointing up the need for justice, peace and respect for all lives.

POLITICAL CHANGES

At the national level, the big news this year politically was the Republican sweep at the polls. When the new Congress convenes in January, Republicans will control both the Senate and the House. 

At the state level, Democrats remain solidly in control – and San Diego has gained some political clout in the state Legislature, with San Diegan Toni Atkins named Speaker of the Assembly.

In San Diego County, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis sat down for an in-depth interview with East County Magazine and went on to   defeat two challengers to win reelection outright in the primary.

Judicial candidates were also in the spotlight, with one facing ethics controversies and others speaking out to criticize the County Bar’s rating system for judicial candidates.

East County’s four incorporated cities (El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Santee) had their own political controversies in the past year. 

El Cajon:  El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells had some good news to report in his state of the city address: the economy is turning around and on an upward trend. The city has attracted new car dealers, opted to let a  decade-long sales tax increase roll back, voted to proceed with bringing a Marriott Hotel to town, and formed a plan to fund renovations needed to reopen  the East County Performing Arts Center  by leasing it to the Rock Church. 

All is not a bed of roses for El Cajon, though; unemployment and poverty rates remain high and a citizens’ watchdog group has protested the Rock Church deal, threatening possible legal action over church-state separation constitutional issues.

La Mesa:  The times are changing in La Mesa, where Mark Arapostathis defeated 25-year-incumbent Mayor Art Madrid in an election that also brings two newcomers to the Council,  Bill Baber and Guy McWhirter, both conservatives with major backing from the pro-development Lincoln Club.  La Mesa residents also approved a term limits initiative, making Madrid the last long-serving La Mesa politician. 

Also, the American Legion stunned everyone at a planning commission meeting by announcing withdrawal of its support and partnership on the Park Station proposed high-rise. La Mesa planners later recommended denial of the high-rise project, but it will be up to the new Council to determine its ultimate fate.

Lemon Grove: Jennifer Mendoza, a Hispanic woman, defeated incumbent Republican Howard Cook to win a seat on the Lemon Grove Council. Increasingly the Council reflects the diversity of this community’s people, with Mendoza joining Raquel Vasquez, the first African-American Councilwoman in Lemon Grove, and Mayor Mary Sessom for a majority that is both Democratic and female.  

Also this year, Governor Jerry Brown honored Lemon Grove’s mural artists with an award  honoring their  intricate portrayal of five eras in Lemon Grove’s past commissioned by the Lemon Grove Historical Society.

Santee:  The biggest story of the year in Santee was the cancellation of the controversial Quail Brush gas-fired power plant, which was withdrawn by the applicant. On the border of Santee and San Diego near Mission Trails Regional Park, the proposed power plant had drawn strong community opposition from residents, the Mayor, City Council, Santee’s school district and environmental leaders. 

Santee has a new face on its board with election of Ronn Hall, former Chamber of Commerce president.  Two incumbents won reelection easily, retaining Santee’s all-Republican control of the Council.  Expect development to be a key issue here, as some of the last undeveloped land in the city may face development proposals from property owners. In 2015 a key issue before Council will likely be the future of the Carlton Hills golf course. In other Santee news, Padre Dam dropped plans for a zip-line at Santee Lakes, to the dismay of thrill-seekers but the relief of neighbors.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

The big picture: While other media outlets have covered energy projects in our region on a piece meal basis, we put together a comprehensive analysis on the cumulative impacts of proposed industrial-scale energy projects planned for our region following designation as an “energy corridor” by the federal  government.  Our effort, “An ecological disaster in the making” won major journalism awards.

Monopoly protection bill killed:  The “Monopoly Protection Bill” died in the Legislature, ending utilities’ efforts to stop cities like San Diego from creating community choice aggregates as alternatives for consumers to buy clean energy from sources other than SDG&E or other big utility corporations.

Wind energy issues: We also asked tough questions on wind projects in our region. Our investigative story, “Was it fraud?” raised serious concerns about low-first year energy production at Ocotillo Wind—and the dubious claims made by the wind developer in order to win approvals and pocket taxpayer subsidies.  We showed the torment caused by the project to residents, who liken the turbine noise to a living hell.”  Wondering how such flawed projects can get government backing?  This year we also covered the sordid story of a Department of Interior official who was dating an energy company lobbyist and seeking a job with the wind industry while involved in decision-making on local energy projects.  We raised additional concerns about wind safety, including  a fire at a wind farm owned by Iberdrola.  We covered a lawsuit filed by a local citizens group seeking to protect eagles from the proposed Tule Wind project in McCain Valley. Plus we reported on two key decisions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Shu’luuk Wind and Tule Wind turbines proposed on tribal lands in East County.

Solar--bright news and shadows:  The good news this year is that rooftop solar is finally competitive with the grid in the U.S., as we reported.  The bad news is that major environmental groups have warned of serious ecological harm from Soitec’s proposed industrial scale solar projects in Boulevard.  So did the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as we reported.  But by year’s end, news broke of Soitec’s serious financial situation, even as the county moved forward on Soitec’s EIR for the projects, leaving the future of Soitec’s East County projects looking far from sunny. Elsewhere in East County, residents voiced opposition to proposed  industrial-scale solar projects in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley as well as in Pine Valley, Potrero and Descanso.  Most want to see their government investing in rooftop solar, not projects that despoil the backcountry. But are any officials listening?

CPUC scandals: The State and federal governments both launched investigations into the California Public Utilites Commission this year amid allegations of corruption. Citizens Oversight, a watchdog group based in East County, sued CPUC officials on behalf of ratepayers, alleging that utilities billed for power that was never produced at San Onofre.  A settlement was approved by the CPUC but opponents pledge a court battle.

Climate change actions:  A court  ruled that the San Diego Association of Government’s climate change plan was not adequate.   Also this year, following a march for climate action in San Diego and around the world, Mayor Kevin Faulconer issued a sweeping climate change plan.   At year’s end, the Pope has joined the call for climate action—at the urging of a San Diego scientist.

Transportation:  More freeways or mass transit? SANDAG has voted to appeal to the Supreme Court after an appellate court upheld a decision that found SANDAG failed to adequately address health concerns and climate change impacts in the environmental impact report for its regional transportation plan for our county.

Desert protection or destruction?  The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish & Wildlife released a sweeping draft desert renewable energy plan that could open some 22 million acres of California deserts up for renewable energy development. After extensive public comments, many of them critical, the agencies extended public comments until February 23.

Cleveland National Forest:    Wilderness protection was granted to 43,000 acres in the forest this year.  But the Cleveland National Forest Foundatoin has raised objections to SDG&E’s power line plans through the forest.  The fate of former Forest Conservation Initiative lands in the Alpine area also sparked controversy.

Wildlife:   Grave concerns have been raised over two beloved local species this year. Experts voiced alarm over the survival of desert bighorn sheep locally. Plus conservation groups filed suit seeking to protect eagles at the proposed Tule Wind site in McCain Valley.

WILDFIRE NEWS

In 2013, our report on a fire station closed in Jacumba resulted in emergency funding to open it during fire season.  In 2014, we followed up with an investigation that found multiple stations closed, sometimes for weeks at a time.  We also interviewed a whistleblower on our radio show, who shared his concerns for public safety:

The North County firestorms resulted in San Diego County being declared a disaster area by the state. Thankfully East County dodged the bullet this year.  WE covered the fires’ toll and a report to Supervisors by fire chiefs and public officials on what went right—and what could be improved.

We also broke a story about readers’ concerns over a “controlled” burn in Cuyamaca that burned areas of new growth after prior wildfire, complete with photo documentation.

Other “hot” stories related to fire protection in 2014 included dissolution of the Rural Fire Protection District, challengers ousting incumbents on the San Miguel Fire District board , and the Governor pardoning a firefighter who helped save a teenager during the Harris Fire.

VETERANS

An East County Magazine investigation led the County to announce plans to expand veterans service to rural libraries in East County. We’ll be checking back in 2015 for an update on the progress.

Plus former State Senator and ex-Marine Nathan Fletcher launched Three Wise Men, a foundation to help wounded warriors.

 

SPORTS

The biggest sports story of the year was a tragic loss for fans: the death of Tony Gwynn, Aztecs head coach at San Diego State University and former Padres superstar. The Baseball Hall of Famer and 15-time All-Star lost his battle with salivary gland cancer, prompting local athletes to speak out on the dangers of chewing tobacco.

The most inspiring sports story of the year is without a doubt the Boston Marathon victory by Meb Keflezighi –a San Diego refugee who has become a symbol of the American success story.

 

 

NATIVE AMERICAN NEWS

There were highs and low for local tribes this year. Sycuan was honored with an Emmy Award for the tribe’s documentary on Kumeyaay history.  Viejas set a record for generosity with its toy drive, donating over 14,000 toys for children this holiday season. But other tribes faced challenges. The Santa Ysabel Casino closed and the tribe created a new solar venture.  The Jamul Indians moved forward on their casino project, despite continuing community opposition.

EDUCATION

At San Diego State University, a high number of sexual assaults led to suspension of social activities at all fraternities and the shut down of one frat house completely due to harassment and hazing complaints.

As for the University of California, regents approved a 25 percent tuition hike over the next five years, ignoring student protests.  Assembly and Senate leaders however have announced plans to halt UC tuition hikes for California students to help keep college affordable.

The Grossmont Union-High School District has sparked controversy—and a lawsuit by Alpine taxpayers and Alpine’s school district. That’s after the district defied the county Grand Jury, refused to build the Alpine High School and voted to oppose unification efforts with the Alpine district.  The Board majority also sought to muzzle a dissenting board member and pressure into silence a bond oversight committee member who was asking tough questions.

SAVING LAKE JENNINGS

Helix Water District’s board majority was on the verge of voting to shut down Lake Jennings, when the public spoke out and asked that public access to the Lakeside facility be preserved.  Now losses have dropped 56 percent, and the lake’s future looks far more promising.

 

WIPING OUT WILD PIGS

The County officially voted to eradicate the wild pigs that have been rooting their way across East County, running hog wild in recent years.

HEALTH STORIES

If a cure for Alzheimer’s is found, it may well come from the San Diego region –thanks to a regional plan pushed through by Supervisor Dianne Jacob. Hear our interview with her on KNSJ.

The Ebola epidemic has devastated several African nations and sparked alarm after reaching Texas this year.  Two San Diego firms have been in the forefront of testing treatments for this modern-day scourge.

Covered California rolled out as part of the Affordable Health Care Act, or Obamacare,  signing up over a million Californians by March.  Those numbers are growing during the current enrollment period, as penalties for those who don’t have health insurance kick in.

If you applied for Medi-Cal and experienced long delays, you’re not alone.  A lawsuit seeking to improve that situation was filed against the State of California this year.

Local legislative bodies moved to snuff out unregulated use of e-cigarettes vaping in 2014, amid growing evidence of health concerns and increasing use by young people.   County Supervisors passed an ordinance regulating e-cigarettes and vaping.  El Cajon voted to regulate hookahs as well as e-cigarettes despite popularity with many Middle Eastern immigrants in the city.  La Mesa’s Council also voted to restrict e-cigarettes, even as one Councilwoman lit up in protest, sending a fellow Councilmember with allergies fleeing the dais.

Crackdowns continued on unlicensed medical marijuana cooperatives around the county. But 2014 also saw the opening of Outliers, the only legally licensed medical marijuana collective in the county near Gillespie Field in El Cajon.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

An East County Magazine investigative report raised concerns over long response times by the Sheriff’s office in some rural areas. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced break-up of a major gang conspiracy that included sex trafficking of East County school girls, handing down numerous indictments.

New sentencing guidelines could shorten sentences for thousands of drug offenders in federal prisons.

Another hot topic has been the increasing placement of sexually violent predators in rural East County, sparking strong resistance in rural communities such as Borrego Springs, Campo and Jacumba Hot Springs.  Proving that monitoring isn’t always effective, a predator in Jacumba Hot Springs broke into an elderly woman’s home and molested her.

Several major crimes made headlines in East County this year, including capture of Amber alert suspect Daniel Perez in Santee and the rescue of four children he had kidnapped.  The trial of Kassim Al-himidi ended in his conviction for murdering his wife, Shaima Alawadi,  then attempting to make it appear she had been a hate crime victim. Plus an arrest was made in a triple-homicide case involving victims with roots in Lakeside, as well as in the case of a Lakeside woman found burned in Alpine.

San Diego named a new police chief this year; meanwhile La Mesa is searching for a replacement for its Police Chief Ed Aceves, who has announced plans to retire.

At year’s end, the FBI confirmed that North Korea was behind a cyber-attack on Sony  and threats against movie theaters. Sony cancelled showings, but later released “The Interview” after all on Christmas Day—drawing mixed reviews in San Diego and across the nation.

PEOPLE POWER

We covered many heart-warming stories this year.   As the ice bucket challenge took the nation by storm, several local community leaders took the plunge to help raise money to right ALS disease—such as Barona’s tribal chairman, who also made a large donation to the cause.

In Alpine, an entire community rallied to help a toddler with neuroblastoma, turning the community into a sea of pink ribbons.  Meanwhile Ramona residents pitched in to help a local Marine who lost both legs in Afghanistan. By year’s end,  a go-fund-me-site on his behalf has raised more than $111,000.

In Alpine, Bobbi Brinks at Lions, Tigers and Bears has been criss-crossing the country rescuing bears and raising funds to build a better habitat for them all – along with welcoming a new tiger to her rescue facility.

Plus in La Mesa, NBA superstar Bill Walton returned to his roots to lead efforts to build a gymnasium for the Boys and Girls Club, after philanthropists Ron and Mary Alice Brady donated $3 million for a new teen center to serve underprivileged kids.

WILD WEATHER

Twice in one year, strong winds walloped East County.  In late April, gusts up to 101 miles per hour—hurricane force-- were recorded in Cuyamaca  in a storm that caused major damage and left some Descanso residents without power for 13 hours. Then in September, a powerful storm cell struck Mt. Helix and Rancho San Diego, toppling trees and sending patio umbrellas into treetops—all residual from Hurricane Odile off the Baja coast.

BUSINESS AND LABOR

An exciting business prospect for East County has been proposed by Noori Barka, a biotech executive who is launching a nonprofit to create an incubator business model aimed at creating good-paying jobs in East County, also helping reduce unemployment among East County’s refugee and immigrant populations. Immigrants are starting businesses and playing a crucial role in the U.S. recovery.

There were milestones this year; the East County Economic Development Council celebrated its 30th anniversary, while the East County Chaldean Chamber of Commerce marked its one-year anniversary this year with a Back to the Future celebration.

East County also lost a prominent business leader with the death of Joe Drew, prompting sale of Drew Ford in La Mesa and an end to its sponsorship of a long-standing local tradition, the Soapbox Derby, prompting cancellation of the event.

Labor flexed its muscle, with strikes and pickets Food 4 Less in East County and some Walmart stores, also winning passage of a minimum wage law by San Diego’s City Council—only to have it stalled after voters opted to put a minimum wage measure on the ballot.

WINE INDUSTRY GROWTH

East County’s wine industry is flourishing, thanks to a boutique wine ordinance passed in 2010.  New tasting rooms, such as La Finquita and Hatfield Creek, opened in Ramona—among the wineries showcased on a Holiday Wine Trail. The second annual Ramona Art and Wine Festival at the Amy Strong castle was even bigger and better than before. We launched a new Vines and Wines column, covered grape stomps and the Maness Vineyards’ Trailblazer Awards, held this year at St. Madeleine Sophie’s which recently installed its own vineyard. Tasting rooms and facilities are getting more expansive—such as Salerno Winery, which recently forged a partnership to bring opera and a sculpture garden to Ramona. Cheers!

The County is so enthralled with the results of its boutique wine ordinance that it’s now taking steps to encourage bee keeping, cheese-making, microbreweries and other agri-tourism endeavors.