EAST COUNTY STORIES OF THE YEAR IN 2018

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By Miriam Raftery, Editor

December 20, 2018 (San Diego’s East County) – It’s been a turbulent year across East County.  Some of our top stories were purely local issues – a fire that ravaged Alpine, battles to stop sand mines in Lakeside and Rancho San Diego, debate over the future of Julian’s fire department, the controversies embroiling El Cajon Councilman Ben Kalasho, the indictment of Congressman Duncan Hunter, growing pains in Santee, and protests over a proposed parole office in La Mesa, to name a few. 

Other top stories reflect local impacts of national  and statewide actions, such as  impacts of marijuana legalization, concerns over a child migrant detention center in El Cajon, protests over gun violence in schools, the e-scooter craze, homelessness, and new faces swept into office during the election.

Here are the issues and events with the biggest impacts across East County that East County Magazine has covered in 2018, from January 1st through year's end.

Dictionary Hill Preserve:  Spring Valley residents celebrated New Year’s Day on January 1, 2018 with a hike to the top of Dictionary Hill, now a county preserve thanks to a 15-year-battle waged by the community to save this scenic vista from development.

Marijuana legalization:  Legalization of recreational pot in California began in January, with San Diego allowing sales of pot products and consumers statewide allowed to grow six plants for personal use.  Lemon Grove and La Mesa have wrestled with implementing  voter-approved measures legalizing sales of medical marijuana, prompting lawsuits.  La Mesa voters in November passed an initiative to tax marijuana sales. By year’s end, state regulators ruled that deliveries must be allowed in all cities to assure access to legal products, despite law enforcement objections.

Power outage outrage:  In January, Supervisor Dianne Jacob urged the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate intentional power outages in East County that SDG&E imposed to prevent fires on windy days.  SDG&E held a community meeting and provided a generator for merchants in Julian in outages this year, but many rural residents remain frustrated at being left in the dark without access to well water powered by electricity or emergency communications.

Homeless concerns:  El Cajon was in the national spotlight on Martin Luther King Day in 2018 by arresting activists who defied a city ban on feeding homeless people in parks.  The activists were later released and the city ban lifted automatically with ending of a county hepatitis health emergency declaration.  An East County task force on homelessness led by Chamber CEO Eric Lund made major strides, succeeding in having El Cajon enact several measures to help the homeless as some other East County cities joined the task force.  But at year’s end, with Lund announcing he’s leaving the Chamber and moving out of state, it’s unclear who will spearhead East County efforts on this serious problem. Meanwhile this December, new data shows San Diego has the fourth highest homeless population in the nation.

Fanita Ranch fight:  In January, a revamped version of Fanita Ranch sparked a new round of community activism to halt the massive housing project in Santee.  Activists got enough signatures to qualify a ballot initiative to give the people a vote on Fanita Ranch and other projects that exceed what the General Plan allows. But the City Council voted to postpone it until 2020, prompting a heated election campaign.  Opponents of Fanita Ranch lost, but at least two of the winning Councilmembers stated they believe the people should vote on Fanita Ranch.  Will they keep their word?  We may find out in 2019.

Police use of force:  Video of a La Mesa Police officer at Helix High slamming a handcuffed female student to the ground prompted a student walk-out, concerns raised to the school board and  oversight by the La Mesa City Council, which commissioned an independent study. The former Helix student, Brianna Bell, a lawsuit against the city in October.

Starry, starry nights:  Anza-Borrego Desert State Park received an International Dark Skies Park designation,  assuring protection from light pollution for astronomers and stargazers in California’s largest state park.  The neighboring town of Borrego Springs is already an international dark skies community, too.

Alpine High School dreams die:  A loss in court forced advocates of an Alpine High School to settle with the Grossmont Union High School District.  The state’s decision soon after to deny a unification petition for Alpine’s school district to expand to K-12 eliminated any hope of an Alpine High School for the foreseeable future.   A gag order in the settlement may also have had a chilling effect, since the most vocal opponent of the high school, Jim Kelly, won reelection unchallenged.

Revitalizing Casa de Oro advances:  Supervisors in February gave tentative approval in February to a blueprint to move forward on revitalization of Casa de Oro, a Spring Valley community blighted by graffiti and an infusion of alcohol and tobacco outlets.  Supervisor Dianne Jacob called this a “critical first step.” In August, the Casa de Oro Alliance received a half million dollar grant to help improve the Campo business corridor through the heart of Casa de Oro.

Tribal hotels:  Two East County Native American tribes celebrated milestones in 2018.  Viejas opened a second high-rise hotel, The Willows Hotel & Spa, in February. Later in the year, Sycuan broke ground on its 12-story resort hotel.  These projects signify the maturation of Native American business ventures in our region, as tribes expand beyond casinos into additional business enterprises including bringing high-end resorts to East County. Meanwhile the Jamul Indian Village took over management and rebranded its Jamul Casino.

Lemon Grove Councilmen in controversies:  In March, marijuana dispensary advocate Christopher Williams accused Councilman David Arambula of assault, later filing a lawsuit. Arambula disputes the allegation, which came just a week after the city settled a separate suit accusing Councilman Jerry Jones of violating free speech rights of a contracted city worker. 

Gun violence on campus sparks local actions:  In the wake of the massacre at Parkland high school in Florida, local schools saw student walkouts and protests at school board meetings. In April, Cajon Valley school board member Jim Miller drew criticism for donning a National Rifle Association hat and slamming  speakers concerned about guns on campus, touting his affiliation with the organization.  A La Mesa-Spring Valley school board member similarly drew fire for his insults to concerned citizens over this heated topic, where passions run high on both sides of the gun rights vs. school safety debate.

Farmer’s market moves downtown in La Mesa:  La Mesa moved its farmer’s market downtown starting in May with an aim toward drawing crowds into the historic village.  But some merchants, including most restaurant owners, objected to the Friday night dates and have complained of lost business.  Facing financial woes of his own, businessman Aaron Dean resigned as head of the La Mesa Village Association, but new leadership continues to operate the market. At year’s end, La Mesa’s City Council voted to continue the market for another six months downtown, with a revamped layout.

Immigrant children:  Amid national concerns over the treatment of immigrant children,  Congressional members Susan Davis and Juan Vargas toured a detention facility in El Cajon in June and voiced concern over child separations from parents at the border.  A later report revealed the center failed to report several runaway children, prompting El Cajon’s City Council in December to vote to notify agencies with oversight of their concerns. The local issue comes on the heels of revelations of child abuse and lack of vetting of those hired at some immigrant child detention centers across the nation.  Family separations also drew a protest march through downtown El Cajon this summer.

June primaries:  Two embattled Republicans beat down challengers in their own party.  Randy Voepel weathered accusations of “stolen valor” or inflating his military record to defeat a former Navy Seal, while Congressman Duncan Hunter, target of a grand jury probe that later resulted in indictment post-primary, still picked up the GOP endorsement to defeat El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and others. Democrats however scored a win with Matt Brower beating out challengers to square off against censured Judge Gary Kreep, whom Brower defeated in November. Sheriff Bill Gore and District Attorney Summer Stephan, both Republicans, won their elections outright in the June primary with substantial margins of victory.

Marriott opens:  A ribbon cutting in June welcomed the Courtyard Marriott, a four-star hotel, to downtown El Cajon—all part of revitalization plans to bring new revenues and travelers to the city’s downtown district.

West Fire scorches Alpine:  The fast-moving West Fire scorched 34 homes in Alpine in July, leading to acts of heroism and community fundraising efforts through the Alpine Community Foundation and others to help survivors rebuild their homes and lives.  Our own East County Wildfire & Emergency Alerts helped save lives, too, getting notice out within six minutes after the fire began, long before any fire agencies sent out alerts and before any homes had burned.

Councilman Kalasho’s controversies:  Facing accusations of fraud, sexual harassment and defamation in ongoing civil litigation, El Cajon Councilman Ben Kalasho faced calls for resignation at hostile public meetings in July. He was also accused in July of threatening an ECM reporter and later a process server with an attack dog.  After settling a federal suit in which he agreed to stop blocking opponents on social media, Kalasho removed his Facebook page and Twitter feed He  lost his election bid against Gary Kendrick by 85 to 15 percent in the city’s first district election in November, but can stay on the Council another two years in his existing at-large seat. 

Winds of change:  In late July, Boulevard’s Planning Group voted to oppose Torrey Wind, a massive wind energy project proposed in Boulevard.  Later in the year, planning group members heard testimony from residents complaining of noise and cellphone disruption from new Tule Wind turbines in MccCain Valley.  Now yet another new project, Campo Wind, is proposed in a community that has been plagued by wind turbine problems ranging from fires to sleep disruption to fears over impacts to wildlife and human health.

Syrian refugees:  Trump’s immigration restrictions and travel ban have kept many families separated, including some here in East County, where refugees from war-torn Syria are beginning a new life.  In August, ECM profiled their efforts to adapt to life in El Cajon, along with efforts by some in the community to help these newcomers to America.

Lemon Grove budget woes:  Despite an upbeat state of the city speech in August delivered by Mayor Raquel Vasquez, Lemon Grove faces a budget shortfall and the prospect of having to draw down reserves to pay expenses.  Some in the community have called for consideration of unincorporating and reverting back to county control.

 Indictment of Rep. Duncan Hunter:   Congressman Duncan Hunter’s indictment on federal corruption charges in August, along with his wife, made national news. The embattled Republican representative narrowly won reelection by 3.4% over Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar in November, but could wind up in prison if convicted in his trial which begins in September of next year. Meanwhile he’s been stripped of his committee assignments in Congress, leaving his district which includes much of East County with only limited representation.

Senator Anderson censured:  In late August, State Senator Joel Anderson was accused of threatening to “bitch slap” a female lobbyist at a Sacramento restaurant.  A legislative investigation resulted in a bipartisan censure of East County’s  Senator.  Anderson, a Republican, stepped down due to term limits and ran for Board of Equalization in November, but lost to  Democrat Mike Schaeffer who is also tainted by scandals, including being disbarred in two states for fraud.

Battle to save Julian’s volunteer fire department:  In September, the Local Agency Formation Commission voted to dissolve the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, the county’s last all-volunteer fire department. But residents fought back, qualifying a ballot initiative for a March 2019 special election to save their fire department—the first time any community has made it this far in the process to block a LAFCO action.  The community also elected new board members who favor remaining independent instead of being absorbed in the County Fire Authority. 

Scooters hit East County streets:  “A new bird has landed,”  La Mesa Councilman Bill Baber said in August after hundreds of electronic rental scooters turned up in the city.  Bird, Lime and other scooter companies also introduced scooters into other local communities, which have since sought to regulate the new transportation means to find the balance between helping residents and visitors get around without motor vehicles, while also protecting public safety.

Borrego water shortage:  A state mandate for Borrego Springs to dramatically reduce water use led to a victory for preservationists in September, when county Supervisors rejected the Borrego Country Club Estates proposal to build 169 homes on land that’s home to ocotillos, bighorn sheep and other protected species.  But in November,  a state water bond was rejected that would have helped buy out farmers using most of Borrego’s water. That leaves Borrego in a dilemma over how to prevent the town’s sole-source aquifer from running out of water.

Climate Action:  In October, Governor Jerry Brown signed a landmark climate action bill requiring California to get 100% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2025.  Locally, La Mesa passed a climate action plan and other East County cities are preparing to do so as well. San Diego’s Mayor has announced intent to form a community choice energy option for consumers to buy electricity from the city instead of SDG&E, an option some other local cities may weigh in the coming year.  It’s all part of an international push by nearly every nation on earth to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the wake of a dire report from the United Nations authored by top scientists around the world, even as U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the global climate change pact and enacted policies to increase use of fossil fuels in direct conflict to what climate experts advise.

Shooting banned on public land in Dulzura:  Supervisors vote in October to ban recreational target shooting (but not hunting) on public lands in Dulzura, in partnership with the federal government.  The decision came much to the dismay of target shooters but the relief of homeowners fearful after shooting sparked multiple brush fires. 

Sand Mine in Lakeside:  County planners got an earful at an October hearing in Lakeside, where some 500 irate residents turned out to oppose a proposed sand mine in scenic El Monte Valley and voice concerns over a draft environmental impact report.  The developer says sand is needed for local road building.  But residents fear deadly Valley Fever spores will be released, also objecting to noise, traffic, air pollution, ground water degradation, and harm to wildlife including many protected species found here.

New faces elected in La Mesa:  Dr. Akilah Weber won election in November to La Mesa’s City Council, a Democrat and the first African-American woman to hold the seat. Weber narrowly defeated Councilman Guy McWhirter;  Councilman Bill Baber won reelection.  On the La Mesa Spring Valley School board, long a conservative bastion, two progressive women, Charda Fontenot and Rebecca McRae, won seats along with conservative Megan Epperson.    

Campa-Najjar shows 50th Congressional district is competitive:  Democrat Ammar-Campa Najjar came within 3.4 percentage points of beating indicted Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, who has won past races by  high double-digit margins.  Campa-Najjar achieved this despite vicious attack pieces mailed by Hunter’s campaign denounced by the New York Times as false and by national analysts as among the most negative and baseless mailers anywhere.  Campa-Najjar holds promise as a rising star in the Democratic Party,  and could opt for a retry at the seat if Hunter is convicted in 2019 and a special election held.   

Standing against hate:  Hate crimes are up nationally and locally at alarming rates, including anti-Semitic crimes targeting Jews.  On November 1st, local synagogue members stood together in solidarity with people of other faiths to renounce hate in the wake of the deadly massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Wells wins reelection:  El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells won reelection handily over challenger Joel Scalzitti.  Wells ran on his record of turning the city around economically and bringing new revenue sources to El Cajon, including luxury car dealers and a Marriott Hotel. The Mayor also oversaw a deal with Live Nation to reopen the East County Performing Arts Center next year. His opponent, by contrast, dodged interviews and was found by an ECM special report to have numerous tax liens filed against him – including by El Cajon, the city Scalzitti sought to represent.

Two new Supervisors elected:  Bill Horn and Ron Roberts have left office due to term limits. In November, voters elected Republican Jim Desmond (photo, left), former mayor of San Marcos, and Democrat Nathan Fletcher, former Assemblyman, to fill those seats  Desmond’s district includes portions of East County including Borrego Springs, Warner Springs and Ranchita. 

Jones elected to State Senate:  East County’s new State Senator in the 38th district is a familiar face. Brian Jones formerly served in the Assembly and on Santee’s City Council.  Jones, a Republican, defeated  Cal Fire Captain Jeff Griffith, though Griffith came the closest of any Democrat to run in the district in recent memory, trailing by only six  percent after all the votes were counted.

Cottonwood sand mine draws opposition:  An overflow crowd turned out at a  November 25 meeting convened by Stop the Cottonwood Sand Mine, a group organized to halt plans to convert Cottonwood Golf Course  in Rancho San Diego to a sand mine. The group has mobilized with petitions and more, arguing that the project would bring noise and pollution to neighbors and violates recreational zoning allowances on the site, which is also designated as a buffer to protect wildlife in an adjacent federal preserve.

Parole office proposed in La Mesa:   In December, La Mesa residents learned of a state proposal to open a parole office at the base of Mt. Helix near Grossmont High School, homes and businesses in an area far from mass transit.  Concerned residents launched a petition and lobbying effort in hopes of blocking the project, which would bring thousands of parolees a year into the community—all hardened criminals who served time in state prison for crimes ranging from sex offenses to murder. Days before Christmas, activists got a holiday gift with word that the state has dropped its plans for a parole office at this location -- but will seek an alternative site in East County.

East County Arts Center reopening delayed:  Plans to reopen the long-shuttered East County Performing Arts Center suffered a setback in December, when El Cajon’s City Council allocated additional funds to replace an aging/heating air conditioning system and fix additional roof problems after the recent rains.  The curtain is finally expected to rise next year, with headline acts to be booked starting in the fall.

East County Chamber loses its leader: San Di ego  East County Chamber of Commerce CEO Eric Lund announced in mid-December that he will be leaving January 11th to take a new job elsewhere.  Programs started or supported by Lund during his five-year tenure include the East County Homeless Task Force, Refer East County, Shop East County, East County Leadership, and San Diego County Tourism Marketing. The Chamber has established a search committee to find a new CEO, but Lund leaves behind large shoes to fill.

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