NEWSMAKERS OF THE YEAR 2012

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By Miriam Raftery

December 26, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)—Each year, East County Magazine selects those who made headlines in East County.  Some inspired and amazed our readers, others caused consternation and indignation.  Whether deserving of praise or outrage, these are the newsmakers' whose accomplishments were most noteworthy in 2012, listed in alphabetical order.

Ralph Achenbach – As food and farming marketing coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, Ralph Achenbach helped establish a community supported agricultural program for local refugees. The public can now purchase farm-fresh, chemical-free fruits and vegetables grown by refugees in our community. “This is a unique opportunity to support refugees in their efforts to rebuild productive lives for themselves and their families, while enjoying the benefits of a healthful diet for yourself and the planet,” said Achenbach.

Whitney Ashley-- San Diego State student Whitney Ashley won the national title in discus throw at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa in June. Ashley, a media studies student at SDSU, defeated 23 other entrants in the discus with a toss of 196 feet, 10 inches.  The mark set  a school record, Mountain West record and was a U.S. Olympic Trials “B” standard mark.

Mark Baker – Lakeside’s popular former Fire Chief won election to the fire board that fired him. The board never divulged details, though insiders have  suggested the termination stemmed from firefighters’ union members on the board who didn’t agree with Baker’s budget priorities for the financially struggling district.  He will serve alongside one of the very board members who voted to oust him. Now who’s in the hot seat?

Rick Barclay – When the Governor announced plans to close 70 state parks permanently, Rick Barclay, head of Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park, sprang into action. He mounted a drive to raise over $60,000 in pledges from area residents to stem the budget gap between revenues and expenses for Palomar Mountain State Park, then convinced State Park officials in Sacramento to accept the funds and save the park.  The model of public-private partnership was later adopted by state officials and used to save 68 more state parks.  Now that’s what we call a big impact!

Susan Barron  -- Inspired after reading online about efforts elsewhere to boost local economies, Susan Barron organized a series of “cash mobs” to bring customers into El Cajon businesses struggling  during the recession.  Her first effort brought more than 60 shoppers to Glamour Girlz Boutique, where participants spent more than $2,000.  “The best news is she has a new group of fans to her store, who didn’t know she existed,” Barron told ECM. 

Dave Billick – Publisher  of the newly launched Ramona Valley Wine Region Magazine, Billick is putting East County on the map as a wine lovers destination. The magazine features local vineyards and wineries, also highlighting  triumphs such as a local vintner whose wines beat the French in a wine-tasting competition.  The magazine, which has both online and print editions, is attracting visitors from out of state as well as elsewhere in California to our region.

Susan Brinchman – After her doctor confirmed that he believed her health problems were caused by electromagnetic radiation from  a smart meter installed by SDG&E at her home, Brinchman launched a successful statewide effort to allow consumers the right to opt out of having smart meters.  The La Mesa resident, founder of the Center for Electrosmog Prevention, is also working to reduce fees for opting out and ultimately hopes to ban smart meters.

Gov. Jerry Brown – During a visit to a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new substation in Japatul, Governor Jerry Brown outraged many local residents by declaring that opposition to large-scale renewable energy projects must be “crushed.”  His remarks became the subject of derision on nationwide radio and online, galvanizing opposition to industrial scale wind and power line projects that negatively impact the local environment, Native American cultural sites, and human health.

Don Butz – Viejas Fire Chief Don Butz was instrumental in forging a Joint Powers Agreement with Heartland Fire, the first-ever JPA between a government agency and a Native American tribe in California.  “This JPA finally allows Viejas to have a seat at the table and have a full and meaningful partnership with other fire agencies that we’ve worked with for years in a very productive way,” said Chief Butz. “Ultimately, this benefits the entire region, since wildfires and other natural disasters do not recognize geographic, political or other borders. We are all stronger and better protected when we work and train together.”

Abdimalik Buul –Chairman of the Somali Youth League, Abdimalik Buul received the Emerging Leader OceanLeaf Award from Somali Family Services in City Heights. A 2012 graduate of SDSU with a masters in education, he helped organize youths to raise $30,000 last year for the food crisis in his native Somalia. He escaped the war-torn country with his family as an infant and returned recently to deliver relief supplies. Driven by a commitment to give back, he also established a Three Generations Mentorship Program to help East African students advance from high school to the workforce, overcoming poverty, language barriers and cultural differences.  Buul is now a program specialist at San Diego Workforce Partnerships.

Danielle Cook – Jacumba resident Danielle Cook has been a leading voice in organizing her community to combat an infestation of eye gnats.  Jacumbans Against Eye Gnats garnered TV and newspaper media coverage, as well as the attention of County Supervisors who ultimately declared the pests vectors.  The organic farm blamed for the infestation also pulled out the town, after a well ran dry.  The County ordinance increases protections for communities, while also preserving rights of farmers who comply with the law and don’t plague area residents.

Melissa Fagan-This savvy student from San Diego Jewish Academy placed in the top .000005% of science students worldwide at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Her project, which focused on reducing silver toxicity in medical treatments, has the potential to save the medical industry millions of dollars.

Bob Filner – The feisty former Congressman from our border region is now San Diego’s Mayor—pledging inclusiveness for all communities.  His vision to build a thriving “aqua” economy based on green and ocean-based technologies could have broad impacts on our region’s energy policy. Plus with control of 40% of the votes on SANDAG, Mayor Filner wields substantial power to change policies on issues such as transportation that affect residents countywide.

Mike Garcia – What compelled a La Mesa mortgage industry professional to join up with the “99%” as a stalwart member of Occupy San Diego?  “There is no question that our system of government no longer functions that way our founding fathers put it together,” said Garcia, who believes corporate greed has trampled human need, robbing the people of power.  Arrested for protesting at a mayoral speech for a mere 16 seconds, Garcia was charged with felony conspiracy –a charge usually reserved only for grave offenses. The case raised First Amendment issues; ultimately District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis declined to prosecute what case law indicates was constitutionally protected free speech. 

August Ghio – San Miguel Fire Chief August Ghio sparked controversy early in the year when the district’s board moved to outsource firefighting services to Cal-Fire.  Just days before his retirement, Chief Ghio was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident while riding with a friend in the Anza-Borrego Desert. 

Lorena Gonzalez - Quite possibly the most powerful woman in San Diego County, Lorena Gonzalez revitalized labor as a force to be reckoned with as Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diegio-Imperial Counties Labor Council. In East County, Gonzalez led picketing  at Walmart and Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. Now she’s flexing her political muscle even further, having announced plans to run for the State Assembly.

Wilma Groh – Blind and arthritic at 89, Wilma Groh has led efforts to weave sleeping mats and other items for the homeless out of plastic bags.  She’s enlisted help from church members and others, drawing national attention last January when the Huffington Post news site named her “Greatest Person of the Day.”

Marc Halcon – Animal rights activists and some neighbors squealed in outrage after a TV news crew ran footage revealing that live pigs were being shot and wounded during live military medic training at Halcon's Covert Canyon site in Alpine, while others defended the methods.  Congressman Filner introduced a bill to ban the practice and require use of simulations in place of live animals, but the bill stalled in committee.   

Jillian Hanson-Cox – She resigned from the El Cajon Council amid an FBI probe that ended in her conviction and revelations that she embezzled millions from her employer.  Revelations that she spent lavish sums on celebrities for the Mother Goose Parade, trips for city employees and an extravagant personal lifestyle shocked those who knew her, also sparking controversy when some city leaders wrote leaders in support of leniency in sentencing.

Robert and Kathleen Hayden- Founders of the Coyote Canyon organization, Robert and Kathleen Hayden are working to restore San Diego’s only heritage herd of wild mustangs to their native habitat.  Descendants of Spanish horses that escaped from rancheros and were later hidden and protected by Native Americans, only four stallions survive today.  Over 23,000 horses of Spanish colonial bloodstock were driven to Utah in 1940.  Now the Haydens have brought mares from a Utah herd to breed with the stallions at their preserve in Santa Ysabel, with plans to reestablish Ramona’s original wild horse herd. 

Darrell Issa –Congessman Darrell Issa, powerful hair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made headlines by holding hearings probing federal funds to Solyndra, a failed solar panel manufacturer. But the self-described “watchdog” became the target of some oversight himself, when Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) named Issa  among the most corrupt members of Congress. Issa earned a “dishonorable mention” for illegally disclosing contents of a sealed wiretap in what CREW called a “politically motivated witch hunt” against Attorney General Eric Holder.

Dianne Jacob – Supervisor Dianne Jacob has been outspoken on behalf of  backcountry residents facing enormous challenges this year. She gave compelling testimony to the California Public Utilities Commission against SDG&E’s scheme to charge wildfire victims for uninsured fire costs-a proposal the CPUC ultimately rejected.  She decried the state fire parcel tax as unfair to rural residents already paying fire district fees and high insurance rates.  She cast the lone vote against wind turbines on county-controlled land in McCain Valley, cast a deciding vote to save community planning groups, and she has successfully pushed for new parks and trails in East County.

Mark Jorgensen – The former Superintendent of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park turned whistleblower after retirement, revealing that State Parks employees were prohibited from submitting comments  they spent months preparing on potential negative impacts from a massive wind energy project on adjacent federal land in Ocotillo.  “Alternative energy projects in the right locations and of the right method are the way to go,” Jorgensen concluded, “but ruining our back country with fast-tracked high impact projects is going to be the ruin of the West.”

Ben Kalasho-El Cajon is home to a large population of Iraqi Chaldeans, descendants of the ancient Babylonians. Ben Kalasho and Christopher Shamoon each sought to become the first Chaldean elected to the El Cajon Council, Though neither won, Kalasho came close—and showed that the Chaldeans are now a political force to be reckoned with in El Cajon. 

Gary Kendrick –Chickens can now come home to roost in El Cajon, thanks to a measure introduced by Councilman Gary Kendrick.  Kendrick’s measure legalizes ownership of chickens, though not roosters, in El Cajon, reflecting the region’s historical agricultural roots in El Cajon’s centennial year.

Michael Kobulnicky – Lemon Grove resident and former San Diego Tea Party leader Michael Kobulnicky made headlines when he was arrested for allegedly raping a hitchhiker one week before his scheduled marriage. Police initially stated that the woman had been “brutally assaulted,” however charges were later dropped  after the victim recanted her  story and said that the tryst was consensual. 

John Chuol Kuek –Born in the Sudan, John Chuol Kuek experienced first-hand the trauma of living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and struggling to adapt to a clash of cultures coming to America.  Former General Secretary of the Sudanese Community Association in San Diego, he has worked as a community health advocate assisting refugees here. Ultimately, he hopes to turn around those who are troubled in our community and in his homeland, now a new nation. Toward that end, he has coauthored a book, South Sudanese Community Insights, along with public access TV host Walter Davis.   

Dave Landman – Best known as the owner of DeAnza Springs Nudist Resort, Landman recently purchased 29 parcels totaling 750 acres—most of the town of Jacumba. He has grand visions for the town, which he hopes to rename Jacumba Hot Springs, starting with renovating and reopening the Jacumba Hot Springs Resort.   In its heyday, the town’s hot springs drew Hollywood celebrities, before the 1920s hotel and bathhouse burned down.  Landman hopes to rebuild both.  Along with resident Howard Cook, he’s also been instrumental in refilling Lake Jacumba and ultimately hopes to transform tiny Jacumba into an arts and resort destination comparable to Taos, New Mexico.  The town won’t be clothing optional, however,  except possibly for a topless hotel pool.

Ryan Lindley – Drafted as quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals in the National Football League this year, Lindley got his start on the El Capitan High School football team in Lakeside, where he also played baseball.  He went on to become quarterback for  San Diego State, scoring 28 touchdowns and completing 3,830 yards of passes in 2010, also helping lead the Aztecs to victory in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl.  He made his major league debut in November 25, 2012 after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft.

Ray Lutz – Founder of Citizens Oversight in El Cajon, Lutz focused on two key issues in 2012. His efforts were instrumental in preventing El Cajon’s city council from tearing down the East County Performing Arts Center and building a hotel on the site.  Lutz has also been a leader in efforts to persuade federal regulators to keep the aging San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down amid revelations of leaks, possible sabotage, and more serious safety violations than any other nuclear facility in the U.S.

Art Madrid – Presiding over La Mesa in the city’s centennial year and his 22nd year as Mayor, Art Madrid drew controversy after the Council voted against pursuing Fair Trade USA designation for the city. Undaunted, Madrid did what he defends as “the right thing” by issuing a proclamation to declare La Mesa a Fair Trade city without his Council’s support.

Meatball - The black bear captured by Fish & Game officials captured hearts of our readers, as did successful efforts by Lions, Tigers & Bears in Alpine to raise funds for a new enclosure to house Meatball. The 5-year-old  bear was relocated to the rescue facility locally after repeatedly scavenging in a Los Angeles neighborhood, even taking a dip in a resident's swimming pool.

Duncan McFetridge  - Duncan McFetridge, president of Save our Forest and Ranchlands and executive director of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, was honored in June by statewide leaders of the Planning and Conservation League for his legacy as an environmental champion.  The Descanso resident has led many battles to protect agricultural and rural areas from development, most recently filing a lawsuit against the County planning agency over its regional transportation plan. He helped sound the alarm over a scheme to eliminate community planning groups as recommended by a “Red Tape Reduction Task Force” composed of developers. McFetridge warns of a “war” on environmentalist in Sacramento and Washington, adding,  “We can’t lose our homes, we can’t lose our community—because what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves.”

Will Metz – The Cleveland National Forest Director has issued a bold proposal to protect tens of thousands of acres with roadless wilderness designation.  Metz has also made news  with a proposed permit system to access Cedar Creek Falls, striving to protect resources and public safety while preserving  public access following a lawsuit filed by the family of a youth who fell to his death. 

Lorrie Ostrander – When victims of the Shockey Fire needed help, Lorrie Ostrander of Jacumba was there to help. She organized fundraisers, took  those who lost everything shopping, and reached out to local media to increase donations to assist these local families in need. 

Jim Pelley-An engineer and award-winning photojournalist, Jim Pelley has dedicated himself in recent months to documenting on a daily basis the destruction caused by the Ocotillo Express Wind project, potentially the canary in the coal mine for East County, where similar industrial wind projects are planned.  Pelley has also raised serious questions about wind speed estimations made by developer Pattern Energy in an area with seemingly very little wind.

Scott Peters  - Defeating an incumbent Congressman isn’t easy. But former Councilman  and Port commissioner Scott Peters pulled it off, ousting Brian Bilbray to flip the newly redistricted 52nd Congressional District from Repubilcan to Democratic representation.  Appointed to the House Armed Services Committee, Peters will strengthen San Diego’s voice on matters that impact military personnel and their families. 

Bill Powers and Lane Sharman– What if you could buy power from an alternative to SDG&E—and all the power was generated locally through rooftop solar and other small-scale clean energy sources?  That’s the premise of the San Diego Energy District Foundation, brainchild of Powers and Sharman.  They seek investors to create a local energy cooperative that will give consumers choices on where to purchase their power. With the election of Bob Filner as mayor, who has voiced strong support for the concept, the vision may soon to become a reality.

Bob Reidel— He opened Mother Earth Alternative Health Cooperative Inc. in El Cajon, the first medical marijuana clinic legally licensed by the county Sheriff in 2011.  But a crackdown by the U.S. Attorney due based on marijuana’s illegal status federally forced Reidel to shut down this summer, even though the Sheriff confirmed he violated no state or local laws.  Determined it was high time to fight back  on behalf of patients and clinic operators, Reidel filed a lawsuit challenging federal enforcement actions. ““This is a conflict between states and the federal government,” he said, “and needs to be resolved in a manner which ends this insane waste of federal tax money and resources.”

Estela de los Rios – Recipient of the Ashley Walker Social Justice Award  presented by the San Diego Human Relations Commission at the Martin Luther King. Jr. All People’s Breakfast, Estela de los Rios has been a tireless champion battling discrimination and most recently, human trafficking.  Born in Mexico, in her youth, she picked grapes during the Cesar Chavez movement to win rights for farmworkers.  Today, she is executive director at CSA San Diego and has also forged a coalition to combat hate crimes in our region.

Dave Roberts – The all-Republican County Board of Supervisors will have a Democrat once Dave Roberts is sworn into office in January.  A centrist who has backed some Republicans in the past, Roberts drew bipartisan support including the endorsement of retiring Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, whose seat will be filled by Roberts, a former Solana Beach Councilman.

Save Mission Trails – In one of the most successful community organizing efforts in recent memory, Save Mission Trails formed a large and diverse coalition to oppose the Quail Brush power plant proposed near Mission Trails Regional Park.  Their efforts helped persuade San Diego’s City Council to oppose the plant. In late November, two California Public Utilities Commission officials deemed the facility unnecessary to meet our region’s power needs and recommended denial.  No individual organizer’s name appears on the Save Mission Trails website or Facebook page in what has truly been a community collaboration.

Rick Sitta – He earned a commendation for bravery as a firefighter battling the Cedar Fire in 2003. Now he’s been promoted as the new Chief of Heartland Fire & Rescue, providing fire protection for La Mesa, Lemon Grove and El Cajon. Sitta replaces retiring Chief Mike Scott. 

Christine Stevens –Our story on Upbeat Drum Circles, a local organization founded by Christine Stevens, has attracted over 36,000 readers.  Through Shifaa drumming classes, she is uniting refugees and others in our community, bringing together people of all faiths and ethic backgrounds. Stevens has also authored a book, Music Medicine, putting forth a theory backed by medical research which indicates that music has the power to reduce stress at a DNA level and strengthen human immune systems.

Jim Stieringer – In a race that could have big impacts for students across East County, Stieringer defeated incumbent Gary Woods to win a seat on the Grossmont Union High School District Board.  Woods and the board majority repeatedly blocked expending bond funds on a new high school for Alpine, despite two bond measures passed explicitly for that purpose, triggering a Grand Jury investigation into possible bond money misappropriation.  Stieringer has pledged to support an Alpine High School, and holds promise to be a swing vote on the long-divided board.

Ralf Swenson – The Superintendent of the Grossmont-Union High School Board drew controversy when he voted to pull funds for the Alpine High School, an action that has drawn the attention of a Grand Jury investigation possible misappropriation of bond monies earmarked for the school. He also sparked concerns when he pushed through a redrawing of district boundaries without notifying area parents of children in middle school, also failing to send out mailers as promised. 

Donna Tisdale – Known as the “backcountry warrior,” the chair of Boulevard’s Community Planning Group is among our region’s most dedicated public servants.  Her community has been bombarded with an onslaught of major projects, including multiple industrial wind and large-scale solar facilities. Tisdale has tireless provided analysis and commentary. She has also filed multiple lawsuits seeking to protect rural East County and nearby deserts from projects that threaten the wellbeing of local communities—all while enduring a wildfire that raged through her community, scorching portions of her own ranch.

Daniel Tucker –Under Chairman Daniel Tucker’s leadership in the past year, Sycuan moved forward with plans to triple the size of its reservation. Supervisors agreed not to oppose the plan, which must be approved by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs,  after Sycuan offered to reimburse the County for some property tax losses.  Sycuan also sponsored and convened a regional workshop at the U.S. Grant Hotel to focus attention on impacts of large-scale renewable energy on Native American cultural sites and the environment.   

Unidentified Hero- When a child abuse suspect opened fire with a high-powered in Lakeside and shot Sheriff Deputy Ari Perez and Sergant Craig Johnson, a third officer who has not been named physically shielded his fallen comrades and helped Sgt. Johnson to a safe location nearby, risking his own life in the process. Other officers also rushed to intervene despite the serious risk.  “I have never been more proud to be their sheriff,” said Sheriff Bill Gore.   

Juan Vargas-Son of farm workers from Mexico, Juan Vargas is an American success story. He graduated from Harvard Law School, where his classmates included Barack Obama.  After serving in the state Legislature, Vargas successfully ran for Congress to fill the seat vacated by Bob Filner in a district that includes the southern portion of East County. 

Racquel Vasquez – A city planner and active community volunteer who received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2010, Racquel Vasquez brings experience with the U.S. Navy as well as the cities of San Diego and Lemon Grove to her new job as Lemon Grove’s Councilwoman. Her election is historic, marking the first time an African-American has been elected to the Council, also restoring the Council’s Democratic majority. 

Bill Weaver – Past president of the Alpine High School Citizens Committee, Weaver has been a tireless champion fighting to hold the Grossmont Union High School District accountable to taxpayers who twice voted for bond measures to fund the new school.  Confinement to a wheelchair  from serious injuries suffered in an accident haven’t slowed him down. This year, Weaver ran for the GUHSD board of trustees. He didn’t win, but his campaign drew public attention to  a grand jury investigation into the board majority’s refusal to build the Alpine high school, no doubt contributing to the ouster of incumbent Gary Woods.

Shirley Weber-This sharecropper’s daughter with a PHD knows the value of a good public education.  Past president of the San Diego Board of Education and Chair of the San Diego Equal Opportunities Commission, she’s now headed to Sacramento as San Diego County’s first African-American elected to serve in the State Legislature.

Terry Weiner--Co-founder of Solar Done Right and head of the Desert Protective Council, Weiner has emerged as an outspoken advocate for sensible clean energy policies such as rooftop solar that don’t wreak havoc with the environment in our region.  She has also been instrumental in forming an Energy Democracy coalition that calls on federal officials to embrace a new energy policy that is local, democratic and free from centralized monopolies that are currently pushing industrial-scale energy projects onto public lands.