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By Miriam Raftery


January 7, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) -- These are the stories that riveted our attention in 2013 and had major impacts on communities and residents across our East County region. We've chosen stories across a wide spectrum, from energy and politics to the arts, health, public safety, sports and much more.



Resignation of Mayor Lewis:    After 23 years at the helm in El Cajon, Mayor Mark Lewis resigned, citing health reasons.  The decision followed controversy over remarks Lewis made regarding Chaldeans and other immigrants.  His resignation led to Councilman Bill Wells’ elevation to become the new Mayor and the appointment of Star Bales, a Chaldean woman, to fill the vacancy on the Council, giving representation to the city’s growing  Iraqi Chaldean community.

Hannah Anderson rescued:  Kidnapping of the Lakeside teen made national news, prompting candlelight vigils locally and a nationwide manhunt after her mother and brother were found dead in her abductor’s burned home in Boulevard.  Hannah was ultimately rescued following a shoot-out in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness, in which her captor, James Lee Dimaggio, was killed.

Closed for fire season:  Our most important investigative story this year revealed that multiple rural fire seasons were closed  in Boulevard, Jacumba Hot Springs and Campo due to lack of funding, even during red flag alerts.  Supervisor Dianne Jacob met with fired-up rural residents and fire officials as a result of our report and the death of a Jacumba man following an unconscionably long medical response time.  Our report and her actions led to a approval of overtime pay to staff and reopen the stations. 

Quail Brush Power Plant plan defeated:  Efforts to defeat the proposed gas-fired power plant near Mission Trails Regional Park fueled  grassroots efforts that united citizens in San Diego and Santee, along  with elected officials on both sides of the political aisle in a rare show of unity.  The California Public Utilities Commission ultimately shelved the plans – but only for a year, so watch for a possible revival of this proposal in 2014.

Drone testing over East County shot down:  After Backcountry Voices, a newly formed citizens’ group raised concerns over proposed unmanned aircraft testing over East County, the Federal Aviation Administration decided against making our region a drone testing area.  The plan was overwhelmingly supported, though, by San Diego’s elected officials.

Wind ordinance prompts backcountry rebellion:   Blowing off legitimate concerns raised by residents, San Diego Supervisors voted 4-1 (with Supervisor Jacob opposed) to approve a wind ordinance that opens wide the door for more potential industrial wind projects in rural East County.  Community groups promptly sued the County .  ECM was the only media outlet covering meetings in Boulevard, documenting the efforts of powerful interests to destroy public lands and the character of a community.  See  Battle lines drawn in Boulevard over big energy projects and  The betrayal of Boulevard: Could this happen to your town, too?

Grand Jury reports on GUHSD:  The Grand Jury issued a scathing report on the Grossmont Union High School District titled “Fool us once, fool us twice?”  The report concluded that voters deserve clarity on the District’s intentions regarding building a high school in Alpine after voters twice approved bond measures for that purpose.  But the board majority opted to defy the Grand Jury, offering neither clarity nor certainty.  The Board’s actions could lead to the district splitting apart, as Alpine parents seek  to break away from the GUHSD and pursue unification with the Alpine Union School District.

County takeover of fire agencies meets resistance:  Our series, “The Chaparral Rebellion,” by David Ross chronicled citizens’ fighting back against the County Fire Authority’s efforts to takeover rural fire agencies.  Read part 1 and part 2.  Julian-Cuyamaca fire district resisted the takeover,  saving the district after an anonymous donor gave funds to keep the district independent.  Palomar Mountain’s volunteer fire department, which Ross credits with swiftly stopping a fire at his own home, also resisted the takeover.  Residents in the Rural Fire Protection District also voiced mixed feelings over the County’s takeover efforts.

Mayor Filner scandal:  Yes, the resignation of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner amid sexual harassment claims culminating in a guilty plea have important ramifications for East County, as residents of Lake Morena learned when interim Mayor Todd Gloria promptly reversed a Filner decision and ordered the lake drained down to feed the city’s water demands. 

Wind turbine explosion and fire in Campo:   Proving residents’ fears are rational, a wind turbine exploded and ignited a brush fire in Campo.  An ECM investigation found the turbine manufacturer has a troubled history  of fires and more, raising serious questions about the push for more wind energy development in our fire-prone region. 

Cedar Fire Anniversary:  The flames that scorched our region ten years ago have forged strength in survivors, though scars remain.  Listen to ECM’s special radio report, including interviews with fire survivors, firefighters and elected officials recalling the worst wildfire in California history.  We also covered the commemorative event at Lakeside’s Fire station, where a memorial will be built.

Shut down of San Onofre:  Much of East County lies within the 50-mile fallout zone should a nuclear meltdown occur at San Onofre – an unthinkable prospect that would forever devastate the San Diego region.  Though radioactive wastes remain at the site, the shut-down announcement by Edison adds a layer of safety for all area residents.

Jimmie Johnson races into the record books:  East County’s hometown hero Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint championship, leading Sporting News to name him among the greatest athletes of all time.

Ocotillo wind throws off multi-ton blade:   ECM was first to break the news of a multi-ton blade that fell off a wind turbine onto a public trail at the new Ocotillo wind facility.  Our investigation revealed a pattern of corruption, bribery scandals and charges in 20 nations against Siemens, the manufacture.

Where is the wind?  Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo wind facility is producing only a small fraction of the energy promised, ECM has reported and an attorney has documented.  Is the federal government approving massive wind subsidies without demanding adequate proof of wind resources?  When our photographers caught a wind manager on video admitting power production was far below what Pattern promised the federal government, he retaliated with threats of violence – and a judge promptly issued restraining orders to protect our photographers.   

More Ocotillo wind controversies:   This ill-fated, so-called green energy project also had dust storms to rival the Dust Bowl after scraping bare the desert soil, sludge floods, opposition from the Native American Heritage Commission which declared the site sacred,  and a flurry of legal actions.

A hearty welcome for new heart and vascular center at Grossmont Hospital:  Little did we know when we covered the groundbreaking for this center in April that by year’s end, our own “East County Eater” , restaurant reviewer Leon Thompson, would be a patient undergoing  heart  bypass surgery and inspiring other patients with his rapid progress.

Fighting for veteran’s services:  An ECM special report found the County offers no veterans’ services in rural areas, though there is an abundance of services in wealthy coastal enclaves.  As a result, Supervisor Dianne Jacob has asked  County staff to look at feasibility of bringing veterans’ services to every library in the County.  The measure should be back before Supervisors in March. 

Arts revival:  El Cajon’s Council voted to fund renovations to reopen the East County Performing Arts Center in 2014.  The Lamplighters Theatre returned to La Mesa .  Plus art went wild in Jacumba Hot Springs, where residents commissioned sculptures by noted Anza Borrego sculptor Richard Breceda including a 1200 pound rattlesnake at the community center.

Teacher’s strike looms in Alpine:  At year’s end, the Alpine Union School District slashed teachers’ pay by an average of 30 percent, citing a budget crisis.  In January, the teachers’ union will vote on whether or not to go out on strike. 

Sequester and shut-down:  The effects of Congressional actions forcing sequestration and a government shut-down had impacts felt here in East County.  Local impacts included elimination of most public services for elderly and youths in La Mesa, threats to close the Ramona air traffic control tower used by Cal-Fire to fight wildfires, closure of Cleveland National Forest, and massive pay cuts to Border Patrol and other federal workers.   

Eagle expert pleads guilty:  David Bittner with Wildlife Research Institute pled guilty to federal charges involving his eagle research.  He operated without licenses for years, had freezers full of illegally acquired dead birds, and failed to turnover tracking data to federal wildlife officials after pocketing huge sums of money from energy companies. So whyare the federal, state and county governments still relying n his discredited data and allowing approvals of Tule Wind and other major projects to stand?

Chaldean business groups form:  Sixty percent of Chaldeans own at least one business. So the San Diego East County Chaldean Chamber of Commerce has formed to represent them.  A rival group, the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce of California, later formed, sparking a lawsuit alleging trademark infringement. Despite internal squabbles, the new groups make one thing clear: East County’s Chaldean community is flexing its muscle, gearing up to be a force to be reckoned with in both business and politics.

Chariot Fire devastates Mount Laguna:  A historic lodge at Shrine Camp was among 108 buildings destroyed by the blaze.

Public radio for East County:  Our radio show was born on the 4th of July,  when KNSJ 89.1 FM launched as an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public radio station broadcasting from Descanso in East County.  Hundreds turned out to celebrate the station’s launch party at Mission Trails Regional Park, where People’s Microphone Awards were presented.

Climate change record set:  Carbon dioxide levels topped 400 parts per million for first time in human history: in 2013. Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego confirmed findings as the world’s top scientists cal for action.  Climate change has big implications for East County, where more several wildfires are one anticipated consequence.

Healthcare reforms:  Rollout of federal healthcare reforms has far-reaching impacts, and ECM offered info for our readers on how the changes could affect you, your family or your business. By year's end, over 2 million people had enrolled in the "Obamacare" plans, or about two-thirds of the enrollment goal set by the White House despite initial problems with the Healthcare.gov website.

Campo tribe votes down Shu’luuk wind:   Following extensive opposition from neighbors, Campo’s tribal members voted down the controversial Shu’luuk Wind project on their reservation.  The move came after mounting evidence suggests negative health impacts on neighbors, including Manzanita tribal members.

Lawsuit aims to block Tule Wind:  A lawsuit by local citizens and environmentalists aims to stop construction of Tule Wind, which was approved for McCain Valley, a scenic federal recreational area on Bureau of Land Management land.

Party of the century:   La Mesa pulled out all the stops at its Centennial celebration, celebrating 100 years of cityhood as ECM documented, partying hearty.

Cedar Creek Falls reopens:   Closed since the death of an El Cajon teen in 2011, Cedar Creek Falls was finally reopened  in spring 2013 by the U.S. Forest Service, much to the delight of hikers in East County, though rule changes prohibit alcohol and jumping off cliffs, plus permits are now required to visit this popular attraction.

Poverty and hunger on the rise:  The poverty rate is rising countywide, with some areas of East County having nearly a 30% poverty rate.  Unemployment is also high in many areas here.  Yet there’s a disconnect; one federal official  representing the poorest parts of our region voted  for abolishing Food Stamps  and against extending unemployment benefits .

Viejas opens a resort hotel:  Billed as a “world class resort,” the project adjacent t Viejas Casino in Alpine provides a center for tourism and jobs in East County.

Predator watch:  Rural residents protested the proposed release of two violent sexual predators in their communities, Douglas Badger and Mikel Marshall.

La Mesa Council votes to defund PBID consultants:  Plans for a Planned Business Improvement District fizzled in La Mesa, due to opposition from small business owners. 

Town sells, takes back historic name:   Jacumba Hot Springs has gone back to its roots, petitioning the state successfully to take back its historic name.  The town’s downtown district also sold, along with the Jacumba Hot Springs resort, to entrepreneur David Landman, owner of the De Anza clothing optional resort. 

Live Oak Springs Water scandal:  Repeatedly caught illegally selling water to developers and falsifying water quality reports, Live Oak Springs Water District was fined a million dollars and taken into receivership by the state. 

Lake Jennings’ uncertain future:  Helix Water Board considered closing down the popular lake or removing campgrounds and other amenities to save money.  Ultimately the Board voted to postpone its decision for one year. 

Alpine businesses sue SDG&E:  Alleging that the utility failed to adequately compensate them for lost business due to two years of Sunrise Powerlink construction, Alpine business owners are taking their case to court

Prison realignment:  A federal judge ordered release of state prisoners to ease prison overcrowding, sending more prisoners back to county jails.  Read our story and hear our interview with Sheriff Bill Gore on how his office is dealing with this issue. 

Shining a light on sex trafficking:  A local documentary producer created a disturbing film,  Indoctrinated, revealing the prevalence of sex trafficking in our region – a film every parent should see.

Room for growth--urban agriculture comes to East County:  El Cajon launched a series of community gardens and a farmer’s market last year, also including opportunities for refugees to earn income growing crops.

Lemon Grove redevelopment:  The city of Lemon Grove unveiled its long awaited redevelopment projects at the heart of town including Citronica One and a Pioneer Modernism park.

El Cajon cracks down on alcohol:  Following a spirited hearing, El Cajon’s Council enacted a  tough alcohol ordinance to crack down on merchants selling alcohol to minors and those repeatedly arrested for public drunkenness.  Though supported by residents who testified, the measure prompted Neighborhood Market Association’s leader, Mark Arabo, to threaten to launch recall elections against Council members.   

Castlerock approved:  San Diego’s City Council approved the controversial master-planned development community, Castlerock, then promptly arranged to annex the land to Santee—much to the disappointment of environmentalists and many residents.

Red light cameras halted:  Following San Diego’s lead, El Cajon eliminated its red light cameras. 

Out of control burn:  The San Felipe Fire started as a controlled burn, but quickly spread out of control, scorching 1800 acres of wilderness and raising questions over the criteria used to allow controlling burning in East County. 

Potent growth in our region’s wine industry:  Local winemakers cheered a court decision upholding the County’s boutique winery ordinance. The ordinance has led to an explosion of new family-owned wineries, including La Mesa’s first winery, a cattle rancher in Campo branching into winemaking, and a Ramona winemaker who also raises Peruvian horses. ECM’s editor Miriam Raftery picked up an award from Maness Vineyards for her in-depth coverage of our region’s fast-growing wine industry.

Jamul Indian Casino:  Jamul Indian Village revived its long-held dream of building a casino by partnering up with Penn National, unveiling scaled-back plans for a Hollywood-themed Casino.     Changes didn’t satisfy neighbors, however, who complained of back-door meetings between the Governor’s staff and casino advocates.

Sycuan documentary chronicles Kumeyaay heritage: In an impressive cultural milestone, the Sycuan band of the Kumeyaay nation has  created a documentary, Our People, Our Culture, Our History, chronicling the rich and poignant story of the Kumeyaay people in our region.  Read more and hear our radio interview with Sycuan Chairman Daniel Tucker here

Safety concerns at Gillespie Field:  ASAP, a citizens’ group, has raised concerns over training of foreign pilots at Gillespie Field in El Cajon—training they believe poses safety risks and elevates noise levels over their homes.  The FAA has taken note of problems with foreign student pilots following some high-profile crashes, announcing tighter regulations, ECM reported.

Valley Fever on the rise:  Valley Fever cases have risen dramatically across the southwest and in California, reaching epidemic proportions in some places.  An ECM investigation suggests a possible link to big wind and solar projects that scrape bare desert soils, releasing potentially deadly Valley Fever spores. 

Viejas brightens holidays for families in need:  Viejas broke a local record, giving over 12,000 toys to the local Salvation Army this holiday season to help East County families in need.

Barona helps typhoon survivors:  After Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Phlippines, Barona came to the rescue with substantial donations totaling over $37,000 by year’s end to help survivors.

Help for foreclosed homeowners:   A new state bill reduced foreclosures by 40% statewide, cracking down on predatory lending practices and bringing relief to homeowners in areas with high foreclosure rates, including portions of East County.

Traffic woes on Highway 94:  Residents in communities along Highway 94 have grown increasingly vocal in raising concerns over the high number of traffic fatalities and delays.  Aa truck carrying an oversized load became stuck for days, causing headaches and long delays for area motorists, highlighting the legitimacy of residents’ concerns over evacuation routes being blocked.

Supreme Court ruling restores gay marriage:   Wedding bells for gay and lesbian couples resumed in California after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Proposition 8.  The high court also struck down denial of benefits to same-sex couples under the Defense of Marriage Act.    

Rep. Hunter suggests support for use of nuclear weapons:  East County Congressman Duncan Hunter, in a televised interviewe stirred up controversy with his remarks backing possible use of nuclear weapons if an air strike is launched against Iran.

Are there bears in the woods? In San Diego and East County, the answer may be “yes” based on recent sightings.

Rose Parade honors Meatball:  A float in the Tournament of Roses Parade paid tribute to Meatball, a rescued bear now residing at the Lions, Tigers and Bears rescue facility in Alpine, which seeks funds to expand its facilities to assist more animals in need. 

Unsolved freeway shooting:  Xusha Brown Jr. was gunned down in cold blood on Interstate 8 in La Mesa. The Sycuan tribe has offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of his killer, but thus far the crime remains unsolved.

Sierra Club wins lawsuit against  County:  A judge agreed with Sierra Club that the County’s priorities for addressing climate change were out of whack, giving too much weight to building more freeways and not enough to improving public transportation.  Read our coverage of how this could potentially impact East County.

Not for the birds:  One of the year’s most shocking stories revealed that some desert solar projects are burning birds, a troubling finding for advocates of this renewable power source.

Standing up against NSA surveillance:  Warrantless surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records by the National Security Agency have sparked controversy nationwide. In July, East County residents joined a rally in San Diego calling on the federal government to restore Fourth Amendment rights.   

County keeps inmate fire  camps open:  When the state cut funds, the county stepped up to the plate to protect this vital firefighting resource for our region. 

An alternative to SDG&E for consumers?  The San Diego Energy District  moved closer to forming a community choice aggregation that would create a publicly owned utility district and give consumers an alternative to SDG&E. 

Wild horses in East County:  Efforts to restore a heritage herd of wild horses in East County has met with resistance, as a property owned issued an eviction notice for the herd mid-year, but at year’s end the battle continues to save these magnificent steeds.

Tiger deaths:  Lions, Tigers and Bears in Alpinesuffered two tragic losses, bidding farewelll to  beloved tiger patriarch Raja  who died of renal failure and his daughter, Sitarra, who ruptured a spinal cord disk in a freak accident.

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