STORIES OF THE YEAR IN 2017

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By Miriam Raftery

January 7, 2018 (San Diego’s East County) – 2017 was a tumultuous year by any standard – from storms and wildfires that impacted our region to political turmoil at the national, state and local levels.

There have also been positive and inspiring stories, lawmakers embroiled in controversies, and important community actions.

Here are the top stories, arranged alphabetically by category, that impacted people in our region.

ARTS

Performing Arts Center to reopen:  In a landmark announcement in December, El Cajon’s City Council announced it has forged a deal with Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter, to finally reopen the East County Performing Arts Center that has been closed for nearly a decade. Bravo!

BUSINESS AND LABOR

Minimum wage increases:  2017 opened with minimum rage rising to $10.50 for many employers, with the rate rising again in 2018 to $11 an hour for most employers – actions that have a positive impact for workers’ bottom lines, but may pose challenges for some business owners.

Revitalization in El Cajon:  El Cajon celebrating opening of a new Mercedes Benz dealership and a Courtyard Marriott Hotel broke ground on construction.

Farming rebounds:  After two years of decline due to the drought, the agricultural industry locally saw growth again in 2017, according to a county report.

Tax bill brings changes for businesses:  A federal tax bill signed into law at year’s end will bring sweeping changes, including deep and permanent tax cuts for many businesses.  But it also eliminates many deductions and incentives to itemize for self-employed business owners, as well as taking away incentives for charitable giving.

CLIMATE CHANGE

ECM interviews with top climate scientists: In a year when climate change has been blamed for the worst wildfires on record in the west, President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord drew condemnation from world leaders. But California and other West Coast states fought back, forming their own alliance to combat climate change. World famous climate scientist Jeffrey Severinghaus, PhD, from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, called Trump’s energy plan “tragic” in an exclusive interview with ECM. We also interviewed Walter Oechel, another top local climate scientist at San Diego State University, who warned about the rapid release of carbon dioxide from melting arctic tundra ice.

CRIME AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Homeless mother who saved officer gets help: A homeless mother of seven who came to the aid of a police officer who had been shot received help from grateful El Cajon officers, who set up a fund to help her family obtain a home.

Deputy accused of sexual assault: Sheriff’s deputy Richard Fischer has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault, including several alleged victims in East County, as we reported in late November. Since then, even more women have come forward with similar complaints, but no charges have thus far been filed.

Alfred Olango shooting aftermath:  A year after the shooting of Alfred Olango by an El Cajon police officer, events commemorating the anniversary of his death and birthday were held. Although the District Attorney exonerated the officer, the family is pursuing a civil complaint. One positive result of the tragedy is a new state database documenting officer-involved shootings and allegations of excessive force by police.

Charlottesville reactions: After a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd in Charlottesville, killing a protester at a white supremacists march, students held a vigil at Grossmont College, where the chancellor also spoke out against racism.

DAM SAFETY

Dams rated unsatisfactory:  After the Oroville dam spillway failure, ECM sought records on safety of local dams. Our request was at first denied on national security grounds, but ultimately state regulators turned over the data – which shows that nine dams in San Diego County fall below satisfactory on safety.

DROUGHT ENDS

Wet winter:  After five years of drought, we started 2017 with the wettest winter in 100 years, filling up local reservoirs. Those storms also caused damage, however, leading to a county emergency declaration. Relief from drought may be only temporary, however; the first snowpack measurements by the state in January 2018 are showing levels only 3% of normal for the season, so it’s wise to keep conserving water.

EDUCATION

Free community college tuition: A bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown makes college more accessible and affordable, providing one year of free tuition to all full-time community college students in California.

LMSV’s controversial appointee:  The La Mesa-Spring Valley school district board drew controversy for filling a vacancy by appointing a church administrative assistant, Rebekah Basson, over other applicants including a former teacher’s union president and a past PTA president who served on the district’s bond oversight committee. That controversy grew hotter when allegations of voter fraud by Basson surfaced.

Alpine High School lawsuit and unification:  Grossmont Union High School won a court battle but Alpine taxpayers have appealed, seeking to get money promised in two bonds to build an Alpine High School.  A “unification” proposal that would actually split off Alpine from the GUHSD is still in the works, with a decision by the state likely to occur this year. The GUHSD board appointed Lou Russo, an Alpine resident who has criticized Alpine’s lawsuit against the GUHSD,  to its citizens oversight board.

Helix gets a facelift:  The GUHSD didn’t build Alpine’s high school, but did erect several new buildings to upgrade the aging Helix Charter High School campus, much to the delight of students and teachers there.

Charter school crackdown:  Key court rulings in 2017 impacted the future of charter schools in East County, making it easier for districts to shut down charters within their boundaries, even over objections of parents, teachers and students.

Betsy De Vos named Education Secretary: President Trump’s appointment of Betsy Devos as education secretary is impacting public education nationwide. Devos supports parental choice and backs vouchers and public funds for private schools. She testified at her confirmation hearing that she won’t enforce federal laws protecting disabled, minority and female students and revoked rights of students with disabilities. She has also rolled back protections for college students from predatory for-profit colleges.

ENERGY AND UTILITIES

CPUC denies SDG&E wildfire reimbursement request:  A decade after the deadly 2007 firestorms, the California Public Utilities Commission denied SDG&E’s request to charge ratepayers for its uninsured losses from three fires that state regulators found were caused by the utility’s equipment.

Outrage over outages:  Days after the CPUC decision, SDG&E shut off power to thousands of residents in rural and mountain areas, stating the action was meant to prevent wildfires during high winds.  Some were left without power for days or had repeated outages, causing residents to voice outrage and seek changes for the future to prevent being left without communications or electricity to power wells needed for drinking water, livestock and fighting fires. SDG&E’s response, and denial of loss claims for food spoilage, has not allayed those concerns.

Shut-offs for people with medical needs: The Governor signed into law a bill by Senator Ben Hueso banning utilities from shutting off power for people with critical medical needs due to nonpayment.  But Hueso has not responded to ECM’s questions regarding power shut-offs during Santa Ana winds, when even some with medical conditions were left in the dark.

Supervisors reject renewable energy overlay zone:  Supervisors voted against a renewable energy overlay zone feasibility study, which would have cost a half million dollars and could set the stage for fast-tracking major energy projects within the zone.

ENVIRONMENT

Wildflower super blooms:  Winter rains brought super blooms—and flocks of tourists—to the Anza Borrego desert in spring, causing wildflower traffic jams.

Dictionary Hill preserve:  Spring Valley residents scored a victory, persuading the County to purchase land atop Dictionary Hill as a nature preserve.

Contaminated water in East County:  A new state website discloses that many communities in East County’s mountain, desert and rural areas have drinking water contaminated with uranium, nitrates, arsenic and more, including schools and public water systems, as ECM reported.

San Onofre nuclear waste: Citizens Oversight, an El Cajon-based watchdog group, reached a landmark settlement with Southern California Edison that aims to provide safer storage of nuclear wastes—ideally, away from the beach at San Onofre. The deal drew both praise and criticism; it remains to be seen whether the outcome will protect our region from the chilling prospect of nuclear contamination.

Deadly mange linked to rodent poisons: Deaths of wildlife across our region from mange are believed to be caused by new type of rodent poisons. 

FIRES

10 year anniversary of the 2007 firestorms: Ten years after the 2007 firestorms, the county voices concerns that residents may not be prepared for the next big wildfire.  Our editor shared her reflections on covering the 2007 wildfires, and we profiled Deerhorn Valley’s rebirth out of the ashes of the Harris Fire.

More devastating fires:  2017 broke all records for the number and size of fires across California, devastating the wine region and large swaths of Los Angeles, Ventura, and Riverside counties. Locally the Lilac Fire burned a terrifying swath from Bonsall to Oceanside, killing 45 racehorses and destroying many homes, leading to state and federal disaster declarations.

Fiery controversies in local fire districts:  In 2017, the San Miguel Fire Protection District’s new board voted to end its partnership with Cal Fire and return to independence. Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District’s board voted against consolidating with the County and Cal Fire, making it the only hold-out to remain an all-volunteer fire district. The bitter dispute has led to a recall effort against a board chair who backed consolidation and a no confidence vote by a firefighters’ association board against their chief. At year’s end, Cal Fire ended its paramedic engine service for Julian-Cuyamaca, heightening the importance of a ballot measure this year asking voters to hike fire fees.

Fire watch cameras:  One bright spot is a set of new fire watch cameras installed by SDG&E that are now accessible to the public.

No deducting fire losses:  If you lose your possessions in a fire, flood, burglary or other crisis you can no longer take a tax deduction for your personal casualty losses, under the new federal tax bill.

Fighting firefighter suicides: The tragic death of Cal Fire Captain Ryan Mitchell, who took his own life at the Pine Valley bridge, highlights a disturbing fact: more firefighters commit suicide each year than are killed fighting fires. But now one former battalion chief is working to reverses that trend and save firefighters’ lives with a new program to prevent suicides.

GILLESPIE FIELD

Gillespie Air Show cancelled:  One of East County’s most iconic events, the air show at Gillespie Field, was cancelled this year due to lack of funds. Organizers hope to raise money for a show in 2018, but if not, the popular event may fly off into the sunset.

Aerobatics plane crash: A fiery crash of an aerobatics stunt plane over a brushy area, after taking off from Gillespie Field, killed both pilot and passenger. It also raised troubling questions:  why are stunt plane flights from a company with a checkered safety record being allowed over a high-fire-danger area?

GUNS

Concealed carry controversy:  The state Supreme Court upheld California’s concealed carry handgun restrictions. That triggered efforts by local gun rights groups and the city of Santee to push Sheriff Bill Gore to ease requirements to obtain concealed carry permits locally. By year’s end, feeling the heat, the Sheriff pledged to issue more concealed carry permits.

Covert Canyon in default:  Covert Canyon, a controversial shooting range in Alpine used by military, law enforcement and private gun enthusiasts, has defaulted on payments and faces foreclosure and possible sale at auction. The site has long been opposed by environmentalists and neighbors.

Gate Fire caused by shooting:  Caused by shooting on public Bureau of Land Management property, the Gate Fire in the Dulzura area rekindled calls to ban shooting on BLM lands, prompting a heated discussion at the Jamul-Dulzura Planning Group with passionate arguments on both sides.

Las Vegas massacre: The mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert sparked a national debate on gun control, but thus far, no action has been taken at the federal level.

HEALTH

Hepatitis Emergency:  The County declared a public health emergency due to a hepatitis A outbreak that included cases in many East County communities. The outbreak is believed to have started in a homeless individual in El Cajon, which took proactive steps to help bring the outbreak under control.

Children’s Healthcare program: Congress allowed the Children’s Healthcare Program to expire, putting health of 9 million poor children at risk, as well as maternity care for low income mothers. Whether it will be restored early this year before funds expire is a key question when Congress reconvenes this month.

Flu deaths:  In late December, County health officials warned of the worst flu season in a decade, after thousands of cases sent hundreds to emergency rooms and the flu killed at least 11 people by year’s end.

Paramedic services expanded in mountain areas:  A bright spot in this year’s health news was the county expanding firefighter paramedic services to five more mountain and rural communities—an action certain to save lives.

Deadly counterfeit painkillers: If a national opioid addiction crisis isn’t bad enough, lethal elephant tranquilizer drugs are now turning up in counterfeit pain pills in our region.

Invasive mosquitoes: An East County Magazine investigative found that invasive Aedes mosquitoes capable of carrying diseases such as Zika Virus and Yellow Fever have spread across the county, including plaguing residents in several East County communities with aggressive daytime biting.

Poisoned alcohol in Mexico:  The U.S. State Department has advised travelers to Mexico to beware, after an American tourist died and others were sickened at Mexican resorts after drinking tainted alcohol.

IMMIGRATION, REFUGEE AND BORDER SECURITY ISSUES

“Dreamers” lose protections:  In September, Trump ended Obama-era protections for Dreamers, or young people brought to the U.S. as children of undocumented immigrants.  The President gave Congress six months to save Dreamers from deportation, but that clock is swiftly running out. ECM profiled the anguish of a Dreamer student at Grossmont College to put a face to this national news story. Meanwhile California filed suit in an effort to block the DACA repeal.

ICE crackdowns and Sanctuary state status: The president’s sweeping orders to deport many undocumented immigrants, even some who came here decades ago, has led to a crackdown on immigrant neighborhoods in California after Governor Brown signed a “sanctuary state” bill.  Raids sparked fear in immigrant communities, going far beyond targeting criminals, tearing apart families, and even deporting spouses, children and parents of military veterans. Rep. Hunter introduced a bill to defund sanctuary states, cities and colleges, even though that would mean huge funding losses for California communities and students.

Trump travel ban:  The President’s ban on travelers including refugees from mostly Muslim nations was met with numerous lawsuits and several court decisions that struck down most, but not all, of the ban.  ECM interviewed leaders from the International Rescue Committee and Survivors of Torture on how the ban impacted local refugees and those hoping to come here to find safe haven or reunite with family.

Border wall prototypes: Trump sought to fulfill his campaign promise of tighter border security, authorizing construction of border wall prototypes in San Diego. But some local leaders including San Diego’s mayor concerns  such as cost, diversion of FEMA funds meant for emergencies to build the prototypes, and impacts locally on tourism.

IRAQI CHRISTIANS

Local Iraqis rally to protect people in their homeland: Iraqis driven from their homeland, including some 50,000 Chaldean Christians in East County, took heart in news that ISIS has been driven out of Mosul and other cities in Iraq. ECM published dramatic photos from the battle of Mosul. But the victory proved bittersweet. In El Cajon, Chaldeans held rallies to protest a proposal by the Iraqi government to curtail women’s rights and called on the U.S. and Iraqi government to save Christians from genocide in Iraq, where Islamic extremists continue persecution of Christians and moderate Muslims.

Deportation orders:  Despite unsafe conditions in Iraq, President Trump ordered deportation of many Iraqi immigrants, a move temporarily halted by a judge after the ACLU and the Minority Humanitarian Foundation filed suit to protect detained Iraqis.

MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION

A patchwork of regulations:  Although California voters approved legalizing recreational marijuana effective January 1st of this year, our region has a patchwork of conflicting ordinances. County Supervisors voted to ignore voters’ wishes and outlaw all marijuana sales and commercial growing), even phasing out legally licensed medical marijuana over the next couple of years. We toured the County’s only legal facility and reported on the contrast between conditions there and at illegal outlets.

The city of San Diego opted to allow sales, delivery and agricultural operations.  La Mesa took action to implement the will of its voters to allow medical marijuana dispensaries and deliveries.  Lemon Grove similarly is working to comply with a ballot initiative passed by voters and will likely see dispensaries by summer. In El Cajon and Santee, however, all marijuana sales, delivery and commercial growing remain illegal, and all pot use, sales or growing remain crimes under federal law, with enforcement now up to each state’s U.S. attorneys.

POLITICS: LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Lemon Grove:  Lemon Grove celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017.  The City Council also approved an ordinance to allow breweries, wineries and distilleries to open up businesses, so watch for some big changes in the near future.

El Cajon: The city broke ground on a new animal shelter, inked a deal to reopen the East County Performing Arts Center under management by Live Nation, brought a Marriott Courtyard hotel to town and had a Mercedes dealership open, while also implementing a package of actions to help the homeless, proposed by the East County Regional Task Force on the Homeless. The city also took heat for a temporary ban on feeding homeless in public places due to a hepatitis emergency. But Mayor Bill Wells, in an exclusive December interview with ECM, shared his vision for supportive housing for the homeless in the future.

La Mesa:  La Mesa’s City Council grappled with state regulations mandating trade-offs of parking for affordable housing, giving a green light to Silvergate’s housing project on the site of the former Little Flower Haven convent despite objections from neighbors. The City Council also turned over running of La Mesa’s car show to a new merchants’ group, but without the long-time DJ.  La Mesa Councilmember Kristine Alessio also made headlines when she announced she is leaving the Republican Party to become an independent.

Santee: Santee will soon be getting its first movie theatre (other than a drive-in) thanks to the Council approving Cinemark to build a theatre multiplex. But the city also had to pay nearly a half million dollars to fix sink holes after a water pipe undermined homes. Coming up in 2018, watch for a revived proposal for Fanita Ranch that may come before planners and the City Council.

District Attorney and Sheriff races: Supervisors appointed Summer Stephan as interim D.A. after Bonnie Dumanis retired. Public defender Genevieve Jones-Wright says she’s running for D.A. on a platform of justice, fairness and accountability.  The Sheriff’s race is also heating up, with Sheriff Bill Gore facing a challenge from Dave Myers, a commander in his department. Hear our interview with Myers.

POLITICS: KALASHO CONTROVERSIES

El Cajon’s newest Councilman Ben Kalasho has been a lightning rod for controversy.  He threatened to sue the City over a redistricting map,  threatened another suit when Council sought to limit how many items any member could add to the agenda, and filed a discrimination complaint with the state after Council banned use of personal electronic devices by members during public hearings.

Kalasho also suffered business setbacks including revocation of his Chaldean Chamber of Commerce’s trademark by the federal government and  the state Attorney General ordering cancellation of nonprofit status for a beauty pageant that he ran. After he failed to recuse himself from a Council vote on city trash collection liens despite his Chamber getting hefty funds from Waste Management, the city had to hold a revote at taxpayer expense and Waste Management withdrew its support of his Chamber.

He also faces legal challenges.  A dethroned pageant contestant filed suit accusing Kalasho of posting fake nude photos online and running a fraudulent pageant; a second pageant queen sued and accused Kalasho of offering to trade sex for the crown. A taco shop owner also in the suit claimed Kalasho defamed him on social media. Kalasho denied the allegations and filed a countersuit, which was dismissed by a judge who found it to be an illegal SLAPP suit filed to retaliate against people exercising their constitutional rights. The embattled Councilman also threatened and insulted a Union-Tribune reporter, drawing sharp criticisms from First Amendment lawyers. He also threatened and defamed ECM, continuing his pattern of attacking media for publishing truth.

POLITICS:  LOCAL CONGRESSIONAL MEMBERS

Local Congressional members’ town halls:  Congressman Duncan Hunter faced a raucous town hall in Ramona, fielding tough questions after his staff banned constituents with the group Indivisible from his district office and threatened protesters with arrest.  Congresswoman Susan Davis also drew a large crowd at her town hall, though the tone was far more sedate.

All local members press for disaster aid: All five San Diego legislators participated in successful bipartisan efforts to obtain disaster aid for our region after the Lilac Fire.

Hunter’s campaign finances investigated:  The U.S. Justice Department launched a criminal probe into Congressman Duncan Hunter’s campaign finance controversies, which included spending lavish sums on personal expenses such as a family vacation to Italy, high end jewelry, oral surgery, tuition at his children’s school, and airfare for his son’s pet rabbit. Hunter has denied wrongdoing but did take out a loan to repay his campaign over $65,000. We interviewed Morgan Cook, journalist at the San Diego Union-Tribune, who won a major award for her investigative reporting uncovering Hunter’s campaign finance irregularities.

Conflict of interest concerns raised over Hunter votes: Rep. Duncan Hunter took huge campaign contributions from the tobacco industry, then introduced a bill to ease regulation of e-cigarettes and vaping. He also took big money from the telecom industry before voting to sell out consumers online privacy, a measure that was signed into law. Just whose interests was he representing?

Hunter calls for first strike on North Korea: Rep. Hunter’s call for a first strike against North Korea, an action that could trigger a nuclear war, drew condemnation from both his Republican and Democratic opponents.

Opponents seek Rep. Hunter’s seat:  Many candidates threw their hat in the ring to vie against Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter in the November 2018 election.  By year’s end, the field appears to have narrowed to three viable contenders, two Democrats and a Republican.  Hear our radio interviews:  Democrat Josh Butner, a former Navy Seal and Jamul-Dulzura School Board trustee, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, former U..S. Labor Department public affairs officer and communications director for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Republican Andrew Zelt, a corrections sergeant with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.

POLITICS: NATIONAL

Trump’s first year:  In his fiery and at times divisive inaugural speech, Donald Trump pledged to stand up for his “forgotten” base of supporters. He pushed through appointment of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and rolled back numerous regulations on the environment and more.. By year’s end, his most significant legislative achievement was a tax bill signed into law.  The tax bill brings biggest benefits to corporations and the wealthy, along with smaller cuts to others that are largely negated by eliminating many popular tax deductions. It also ends the healthcare mandate under the Affordable Care Act, an action that nonpartisan budget analysts predict will raise the cost of healthcare for many Americans.

Special prosecutor’s investigation:  The President’s first year was marred by the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russian election meddling and Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign.  Thus far Trump’s foreign policy advisor has pled guilty to criminal charges regarding his dealings with Russians and two others, including his campaign manager, have been indicted on felony charges including conspiracy. Whether Trump’s presidency will survive Robert Mueller’s probe, or whether he may face impeachment particularly if the balance of power in Congress shifts in the 2018 elections, are key questions in 2018.

POLITICS: OPEN GOVERNMENT

A win for citizens’ access:  California’s Supreme Court ruled that when public officials use private emails or text messages to discuss the public’s business, those communications are public records that must be disclosed on request.

SPORTS

 

 

Chargers bolt:  It was a sad year for football fans, with the Chargers abandoning San Diego fans after 55 years to move to Los Angeles. But hey, you can always root for the Aztecs, who recently signed on two Helix High graduates to their team that actually has a winning record.

Stadium plans: Voters may soon be choosing between two competing plans for a new stadium in Mission Valley, including one proposed by San Diego State University and a second “Soccer City” proposal.

TRIBAL BEAT

Tribal giving:  Native American tribes gave back to local communities in substantial ways this year.  The Jamul Indian Village presented $2.6 million to the County Fire Authority to improve fire protection, also handing over keys to two new fire trucks. Sycuan, meanwhile, donated $25,000 for flood relief to help victims in Houston.  

Tribal business ventures: Sycuan broke ground on a casino expansion and new hotel resort slated to open this year. Viejas broke ground on a new luxury hotel tower opening in February. Hollywood Casino Jamul obtained a permanent liquor license, but drew strong objections from residents over traffic concerns. The Los Coyotes tribe announced plans for a commercial cannabis venture at its former casino site.

WINE INDUSTRY

Winemaking is a growth business:  We started the year with an upbeat story on Ramona’s winemaking industry coming of age, with dramatic expansion. Later in the year, Ramona launched a successful community grape stomp and Jamul held its first wine festival. Travel and Leisure magazine put our wine region on the map by naming Vineyard Grant James in Ramona as the second best winery in the U.S. to visit. Plus Ramona Ranch Vineyard and Winery became the first in our county to be certified as a California sustainable wine growing business. Cheers!

WOMEN’S MARCH

Standing up for women’s rights:  The year opened with a historic women’s march that drew millions of participants nationwide, including 40,000 here in San Diego. ECM interviewed East County participants in the march to protect women’s rights. We also interviewed women’s rights advocate Bonnie Price on the changes she’s seen through the years, and why she believes it’s important for women to stand up against efforts to erode hard-fought freedoms.

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