STORIES OF THE YEAR IMPACTING EAST COUNTY IN 2019

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By Miriam Raftery, Editor, East County Magazine

December 26, 2019 (San Diego's East County) --As 2019 draws to a close, we look back at the top news stories and issues impacting San Diego’s East County region and residents, as well as the people making headline news-- for better and for worse.

Here are the top local stories across all news and features categories this year:

ARTS

The Magnolia blooms:  Nearly a decade ago, East County Magazine’s reporting alerted the community to a proposal to tear down the East County Performing Arts Center and build a hotel on the site. Community members protested and the theater was saved. This year, it finally reopened as the Magnolia, under management of Live Nation, bringing headliner acts back to downtown El Cajon.

BUSINESS AND LABOR

Cities address cannabis businesses:  While unincorporated areas such as Spring Valley and cities such as El Cajon played whack-a-mole by shutting down illegal marijuana dispensaries that frequently reopened nearby, La Mesa voted to legalize recreational cannabis businesses including dispensaries, manufacturing and indoor cultivation starting in 2020.  Will legalization and regulation cut down on illegal competition, or will the black market still thrive? That remains to be seen.

Sycuan opens high-rise hotel:  The new 12-story hotel and resort next to the casino on the Sycuan reservation has created jobs in East County and is bringing revenues to the tribe, also providing several new restaurants for our region.

Merchants group loses control of La Mesa’s Farmer’s Market:  After months of squabbling over whether to end or move its popular farmer’s market, La Mesa’s City Council voted to keep it downtown – but take operation away from the La Mesa Village Association, the merchant’s group that benefitted from the event’s proceeds. 

Kaiser strike averted:  Mental healthcare workers and other Kaiser employees set to strike reached a last-minute settlement with Kaiser, averting a walk-out at facilities statewide including across San Diego County.

CRIME

Rancho San Diego deputy indicted for gun trafficking: Sheriff Captain Matthew Garmo sent shockwaves through the community when he was indicted on trafficking guns out of his official office, as well as tipping off his cousin, who owned an illegal marijuana dispensary, on raids. Also indicted were a Sheriff lieutenant and jewelry Leo Hamil, along with two others.

Poway Synagogue shooting:  A mass shooting in the Chabad of Poway killed a woman and injured the rabbi, prompting sorrow, shock and outrage. The crime drew national media attention, a White House visit for the rabbi, and a change in regulations approved by Poway’s City Council to improve protection of religious institutions.

Predator dumping in backcountry: East County’s rural communities including Jacumba and Boulevard are getting a disproportionate share of sexually violent predators placed there by the courts, after being released from state hospitals and prisons. These communities have slow Sheriff response times, enhancing public concerns. Supervisor Jacob has asked the state attorney general to take action and force a more equitable allocation, but so far, no action has been taken.

Missing and murdered indigenous people: A conference at Sycuan drew attention to the disproportionate number of Native American women and children who go missing or are found murdered, along with efforts to remedy the situation and protect those vulnerable from abuse and trafficking.

Police oversight in La Mesa:  After last year’s controversial take-down of a Helix High School female student by a La Mesa Police officer went viral in a Youtube video, citizens lobbied the City Council for a citizens police oversight commission. By year’s end, the Council and LMPD agreed to a modified proposal, in a win for transparency and public safety.

EDUCATION

Cajon Valley school board retaliates against media and whistleblower: Cajon Valley Union School District has defied public record requests and threatened to arrest our reporters for recording public meetings, resulting in two legal cease and desist letters from attorneys on behalf of ECM. The district’s actions also prompted board member/whistleblower Jill Barto to file a civil rights lawsuit against the district alleging infringement of her rights as a public official and retaliation for questioning issues including hefty expenditures for promotional videos and international travel by the Superintendent at a time when numerous schools are failing state academic standards and school safety needs have not been fully addressed. Barto also objected to Board Chair Tamara Otero failing to disclose that a construction company awarded a large contract is owned by her son.

Standing against hate: When Westboro Baptist Church announced picketing of two schools in the Grossmont Union High School District motivated by hate against gay and minority students, parents and residents held counter protests, far outnumbering the hatemongers with messages of love and acceptance.

Dehesa charter schools scandal:  Dehesa Elementary School District Superintendent Nancy Hauer was among 11 people indicted in a statewide charter school scandal. According to San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan, A3 Education recruited small school districts like Dehesa to sponsor charter schools in exchange for oversight fees. But A3 stole over $50 million from the state by creating phony, phantom online schools and pocketing money without serving students, according to prosecutors. Dehesa has since announced added oversight of its charter schools; call it a learning experience. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

Steele Canyon Charter:  The Grossmont Union High School District’s board rejected a charter renewal and bylaws changes proposed by Steele Canyon High School based on an undemocratic process that lacked transparency and sought to make it easier to remove a board member.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

Community choice energy advances: The County of San Diego, as well as the cities of La Mesa and Santee, have all moved forward on plans to adopt community choice energy alternatives that would allow residents to purchase power from their city or the county in hopes of providing clean energy at slightly lower rates, though details remain to be worked out in 2020.

Opposition to sand mines:  Sand mines proposed at Cottonwood Golf in Rancho San Diego and in Lakeside’s El Monte Valley have galvanized opponents, sparking community organizing with meetings and petitions striving to protect open spaces, wildlife habitat, and quality of life for residents. Our reporters have been on the scene, including video reports documenting community concerns.

Outage outrage:  Community concerns continued in 2019 over SDG&E’s frequent power outages during high winds to prevent wildfires. A growing number of residents weary of frequent economic losses and inconvenience turned to generators and off-grid solar with battery backups. Meanwhile PG&E’s widespread outages across northern California sparked outrage statewide, with Governor Gavin Newsom calling for protections for consumers and the Public Utilities Commission holding investigations into outages.

Santa Ysabel Nature Preserve:  The County’s first nature center in East County opened at the 6,347 acre Santa Ysabel Nature Preserve. Supervisor Dianne Jacob predicts the new center will be a “huge magnet” to attract tourists while educating the public on the area’s natural attractions.

HEALTH

Vaping deaths and illnesses:  The CDC reports 52 deaths and over 2,400 sudden, serious lung illnesses caused by vaping, including many cases in young people. THC in marijuana-laced vapes and Vitamin E Acetate are among substances suspected, though the CDC is advising the public to avoid all e-cigarettes and vaping products. Meanwhile vaping is on the rise among kids and teens, with flavored vapes and vaping products disguised as other items. San Diego County has taken the lead in pursuing regulations to ban many vaping products, but so far pro-vaping interests have snuffed out the voices of public health advocates in East County. El Cajon considered a ban on vaping items attractive to kids, but the Council voted 3-2 against the ban.

Newcastle disease found in Ramona: After virulent Newcastle Disease was confirmed in Ramona, 50 to 100 birds were ordered euthanized, spreading fear among poultry owners in the region. The disease started when a bird was illegally moved from a quarantined area to an antibodies lab in Ramona, and our reporting revealed that a local lab lied about conducting antibody research on chickens.  Fortunately, the disease was quickly contained here, preventing the mass extermination of flocks that occurred elsewhere in California.

Dangerous drugs:  Deaths from counterfeit opioid painkillers, some laced with Fentanyl, have skyrocketed across our region, County health officials warn.

HISTORICAL MILESTONE

Railway centennial: Hundreds gathered for the 100th anniversary of the San Diego & Arizona Railway, the final link in the transcontinental railroad.  An actor portraying John D. Spreckels drove in a replica of the first golden spike that completed the San Diego-Imperial County line. A representative of Mexico shared aspirations of restoring and reopening the transnational rail line to both passengers and freight – a dream that could boost tourism in East County if it ever comes to fruition.

HOUSING AND LAND USE

Housing shortage and development controversies:  With a shortage of housing, especially affordable homes, and high homelessness rates, battles have raged across the county over what sorts of residential development to allow, and where.  In 2020, voters will weigh in on the Save Our San Diego Countrywide initiative and the Newland Sierra ballot measure that will determine whether citizens or supervisors should have the final say. Traffic, loss of wildlife habitat, and safe evacuation routes during fires are among the concerns of residents in Santee over Fanita Ranch and along Highway 94 over housing projects and Jamul. Meanwhile many jurisdictions have made it easier to build granny flats as one way to create  more affordable units Late this year, open space advocates scored a win in court to block the Hoskings Ranch development on agriculturally protected land in Julian.

Santee development plans:  Santee’s City Council moved forward this year toward creating an arts and entertainment district, as well bringing a hotel and a movie theater to the city.  It continues to grapple with conflicts over major new housing proposals including Fanita Ranch vs. environmentalists who seek to preserve open space and commuters weary of traffic gridlock.

Library losses:  La Mesa abandoned its promises to voters to build a new library, voting to convert a civic-owned parcel in the heart of downtown to housing, including some for seniors. Santee similarly approved sale of a parcel long slated for a library, but Mayor Minto says the city will continue to seek an alternate location.

IMMIGRATION

After erection border wall prototypes in Otay Mesa, construction of portions of the wall moved forward—but a court blocked use of military funds for the wall. Meanwhile the national debate over treatment of refugees and asylum seekers hit home in our region, sparking widespread concerns over deaths of immigrants in custody, separation of children from their parents at the border, and squalid tent cities in Tijuana putting more lives at risk due to the controversial wait in Mexico policy now being implemented.

POLITICS

Congressman Hunter Pleads Guilty:  Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s guilty plea to conspiracy to spend campaign funds on personal expenses, along with his announced intent to resign after the holidays, will open up the seat held by Hunter and his father before him for nearly four decades. The 2020 race is drawing national attention and funding, with at three prominent Republicans and a Democrat who nearly ousted Hunter in the last election among the contenders.

Councilman Kalasho resigns:  The resignation of El Cajon Councilman Ben Kalasho immediately after a settlement in a civil suit alleging sexual harassment, fraud and defamation capped more than a year of controversies sparked by Kalasho, who once threatened our reporter with an attack dog for our dogged pursuit of truth.

Congresswoman Susan Davis retiring:  Her announcement not to seek reelection has triggered a slew of candidates voicing intent to run for her seat.  To date, the Registrar has not yet certified which candidates have qualified for the March primary ballot, but one thing is certain: a new face will soon be representing the 53rd Congressional district, which includes much of East County.

Race to replace Supervisor Dianne Jacob: Stepping down due to term limits in 20201 after more than 25 years in office, Supervisor Dianne Jacob will leave big shoes to fill. Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, endorsed by Jacob, is vying for the seat, as is former State Senator Joel Anderson and Kenya Taylor, a mental health counselor.

Lemon Grove Sales Tax Initiative:  Little Lemon Grove lacks the hefty property tax and sales tax base of larger cities. With 85 percent of the city budget allocated for police and fire protection, Lemon Grove residents will vote in March on whether to raise the sales by three-fourths of a penny.  But opponents have filed a court challenge that could overturn the will of voters if the measure passes.

Lemon Grove Councilmembers’ conduct: Councilman David Arambula and the City are defendants in a suit claiming Arambula beat up a cannabis dispensary applicant in a meeting at Arambula’s home, where the mayor was present earlier in the evening. Arambula claims self defense. Depositions show conflicting stories of what happened that night. The plaintiff contends that Arambula and the mayor also showed bias by voting against one of his projects and failing to disclose the violent incident. Late in the year, Councilman Matt Mendoza, who had called for an independent investigation, resigned. His replacement, Yadira Altamirano, was served with a lawsuit her first week on the job over disclosure issues involving her role as an organizer of the Lemon Grove sales tax initiative.  

Impeachment:  The impact of the impeachment of President Donald Trump was felt in East County, where a pro-impeachment rally was held in downtown El Cajon. A handful of counter-protesters also voiced their views. East County’s Democratic representatives in the House voted for impeachment, while Rep. Hunter cast no vote after being banned from voting due to his guilty plea on a campaign finance conspiracy charge. In early 2020, the Senate will hold a trial to determine whether or not the President will be removed from office on charges of

PUBLIC SAFETY

Dissolving Julian’s volunteer fire department sparks concerns: After the County stripped funding from the region’s last volunteer fire department, voters by a slim margin approved dissolving the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District and having the County Fire Authority/Cal fire take over. Supporters of the volunteers filed a lawsuit that remains pending; meanwhile many of their fears have materialized, as ambulances without four-wheel-drive became mired in snow and response times to some fires and serious medical emergencies were delayed due to help coming from units far away, instead of fire engines and an ambulance based in Julian.

Fire insurance loss:  After devastating wildfires ravaged our state, insurance companies have been refusing to renew policies for residents in high-fire risk areas, including much of San Diego’s East County. After elected officials have clamored for action to protect constituents, the state insurance commissioner issued a moratorium on on nonrenewals for many recently burned areas—but none are in our county. However, he has also called on insurers to voluntarily halt nonrenewals statewide, an action that may or may not help local homeowners fired up over losing coverage.

TRANSPORTATION

SANDAG’s new director put forth his vision for a regional transportation plan heavy on mass transit and long-term projects such as high speed rail.  But East County leaders pushed back, arguing for completion of long-promised highway projects to reduce gridlock and improve safety during evacuations, as well as more frequent trolley service to areas served by the MTS line.

WATER

Liquid assets: advanced water purification:  An estimated 30% of East County’s water supply may soon be provided by recycled water through an advanced water purification project.  The County of San Diego, City of El Cajon, Padre Dam Municipal Water and Helix Water District have forged a joint powers authority to help assure that in any future drought, our region will have a vital local water supply.

Poway water woes:  Storm run-off led to clouding of tap water in Poway this winter, forcing a week-long boil-water order and shut down of many restaurants. Regulators found the city-run water district in violation of state requirements, though Poway claims the state has been inspecting the aging system for decades and never mentioned a compliance issue in the past. At year’s end, the public has been urged to patronize Poway restaurants to help impacted businsses and employees who lost income to have a brighter holiday season.

WEATHER AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Numerous all-time heat records shattered locally this year, as well as unprecedented destruction from wildfires statewide and  extreme winter storms are all signs of global climate change now being felt in our state and local communities, scientists and a growing number of political leaders warn. What steps are taken locally and around the world to addess climate concerns will be a key issue to watch in the New Year.

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