By Miriam Raftery
December 29, 2021 (San Diego’s East County) – Turbulent times continued in 2021, marred by a persistent pandemic, vaccine rollouts, political divisiveness including an insurrection at the nation’s capitol, and local controversies such as growing homelessness, a housing shortage, power outages, protests over mask mandates, and SANDAG’s proposed mileage tax, to name a few.
Some national issues, such as pandemic relief, the infrastructure bill, the end of the Afghanistan war, and court rulings on immigration had strong impacts on our region.
There were bright spots. California reopened its economy mid-year, allowing all businesses and event venues to finally reopen. Hometown hero Joe Musgrove pitched the Padres’ first no-hitter. Residents organized to halt sexually violent predators from being placed in a Mt. Helix community. La Mesa named a new police chief committed to rebuilding community trust. Major land acquisitions by the county preserved riverfront land in Lakeside and the former Starr Ranch in Campo for posterity.
Two new Congressional representatives from East County took office and a special election sent a new Assemblywoman to Sacramento, while redistricting at year’s end will bring even more sweeping changes in 2022.
Below is a rundown on the top stories that impacted East County in 2021:
NEW REPRESENTATIVES FOR EAST COUNTY
The year opened with some major changes in East County’s representation. Term limits forced retirement of Supervisors who served for decades, including Dianne Jacob in district 2. In January, three new Supervisors were sworn in, shifting the balance of power to Democrats. In East County, Republican Joel Anderson was sworn to fill Jacob’s former seat, promptly laying out his priorities.
Two Congressional seats also changed hands, due to the retirement of Susan Davis and the resignation of Duncan Hunter after conviction on corruption charges. Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, a Democrat, and Republican Darrell Issa were sworn in, keeping the partisan balance in our region’s representation, though each set their own new priorities for the future.
VACCINES ARRIVE FOR SENIORS, ELIGIBILTY QUICKLY EXPANDS
The first week in January, COVID-19 vaccinations began for patients in local nursing homes – bringing good news for families barred from seeing loved ones in care homes for many months. Also in January 2021, vaccines for seniors still at home rolled out countywide, including at the PetCo Park stadium, shopping malls and more, bringing freedom to seniors self-quarantining at home since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Those eligible soon expanded to include all adults and teens over 12. By October 80% of all county residents age 12 and up were fully vaccinated and over 89% were partially vaccinated, before vaccines were approved for even younger children ages 5-11.
On January 6, the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists aiming to disrupt certification of the presidential election sent shockwaves around the world. ECM’s same-day coverage of the insurrection and subsequent interview with newly sworn-in Congresswoman Jacobs on her eye-witness account of the attack won major journalism awards.
The assault included shots fired, bombs discovered nearby, assassination threats against the Vice President and members of Congress, a police officer killed and many others injured. The violence further hit home with news that a woman killed storming the Capitol had Spring Valley ties.
Within two weeks, over 100 people were arrested and hundreds more under investigation for the attack on our democratic system. By February 1st, charges filed included conspiracy and assassination threats.
IMPEACHMENT SPLITS EAST COUNTY’S CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION
On January 13th, Donald Trump became the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice. East County’s representatives split their votes down party lines as the House voted to impeach Trump over his role in inciting insurrections to stop what he claimed was a “steal” of the election, even though 62 judges including several appointed by Trump all found no evidence of a stolen election.
The Senate stalled on voting until after Joe Biden was inaugurated, ultimately voting against a retroactive conviction when it acquitted Trump in February.
On his final day in office January 20, Donald Trump pardoned former San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Cunningham, a highly decorated former Navy fighter pilot, served seven years in prison after pleading guilty to bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. He was the second disgraced local Congressman to receive a pardon from Trump, who in December 2020 pardoned former Congressman Duncan Hunter of corruption charges weeks before his prison sentence was set to begin.
BIDEN TAKES CHARGE
On January 20th, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, California’s former Senator, were sworn in under heavy security after the Capitol assault and amid a global pandemic. Within his first 24 hours in office, Biden took dozens of major actions to address the pandemic and provide help to struggling Americans as well as local governments and schools.
He issued executive orders to rejoin the World Health Organization and to create a COVID-19 response coordinator to ramp up production and distribution of vaccines and medical supplies. Biden pledged to administer 100 million vaccines in 100 days – a goal that was met and surpassed. He also invoked the Defense Production Act to speed production of N-95 masks, vaccines and testing supplies.
Biden announced his American Rescue Plan in January that was later approved by Congress, sending funds to state and local governments as well as schools, plus $1400 stimulus checks for individuals. In addition, he laid out plans to safely reopen schools. He also announced his intent to protect Dreamers (young immigrants) and to ask Congress to approve comprehensive immigration reforms, though the latter two goals have been thwarted by the courts and blocked by conservatives in Congress.
EL CAJON OUSTS PLANNING COMMISSIONER
In late January, the El Cajon City Council voted to oust planning commissioner Humbert Cabrera. A staff report cited conflicts of interest by Cabrera in violation of the city’s ethics policy, since his company has numerous clients seeking city permits. Other reasons included his allegedly demeaning treatment of applicants before the planning commission and questions over his integrity based on conflicting residency statements that he made during a candidate forum hosted by East County Magazine, as ECM reported.
MASK AND MANDATE PROTESTS
With our region’s ICU capacity at zero amid a post-holiday COVID surge, some chafed at restrictions on religious freedoms.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells spoke in an opening prayer at a religious rally and concert titled “Let Us Worship” in downtown El Cajon on January 17 attended by a mostly unmasked crowd, drawing a rebuke from the county’s public health officer for defying public health orders.
“There is an unfortunate irony that unsafe events only serve to increase the case count--and punishes businesses and those who have lost loved ones,” Dr. Wooten said, a reference to the fact that surges in cases lead to stricter and longer shutdowns.
His actions drew praise from some on social media, however, including Lakeside Water District’s elected board member Steve Robak, who likened people wearing masks to “sheep” taunting, “Baaahhhh. Do as you’re told.”
IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES IN LIMBO
On his first day in office January 20, President Biden laid out an ambitious immigration proposal that included bold immigration reforms and a pathway to citizenship that would affect millions of Americans, including many in the San Diego region. In February, he issued an order to allow asylum seekers in Mexico to await court hearings in the U.S. But Republican opposition stalled action on immigration reforms in Congress.
In June, a federal district court declared the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program illegal, putting the fate of young immigrants in peril because the Obama administration failed to publish the rule in the Federal Register to allow public comments. Local immigrant advocates voiced shock at the court’s order to halt approval of new DACA applications. In October, Biden remedied the matter in part by publishing the rule and opening it up for public comments.
The Supreme Court in August ordered a return to the Trump-era wait-in-Mexico policy, forcing the administration to reverse course. The Biden administration took action where it could legally do so to protect vulnerable immigrations, such as ordering a stop to detention of most pregnant or nursing immigrants, as well as raising the cap on refugee admissions, much to the relief of San Diego refugee advocacy groups.
LA MESA RIOT: ACCOUNTABILITY AND REBUILDING
Accountability was the watchword for La Mesa in 2021. In late January, an independent report commissioned by the city found that the police department lacked preparation for the May 2020 protest and riot. By the anniversary of those events, the city had made strides toward accountability, healing racial rifts helping businesses harmed and rebuilding, as ECM reported. A bright spot came in July, with groundbreaking to rebuild Union Bank which burned during the riot.
As for the rioters, a man who brought explosive devices to the riot was convicted and in August, he was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison. But an arsonist who pled guilty to setting fire to Chase Bank, one of three buildings that burned down, was sentenced to only probation, with credit for time served while awaiting trial. That prompted consternation among many residents, as did a jury finding Officer Matt Dages innocent in December of falsifying a police report accusing Amaurie Johnson of assault. A viral video of that altercation was a key factor that ignited anger, fueling the riot two nights later. But those matters aren’t over; both Officer Dages, who was fired, and Johnson have filed lawsuits against the beleaguered city.
LAKESIDE LAND PRESERVATION
Hundreds marched and over 1,500 signed a petition in early February, including Native Americans and other Lakeside residents, asking Supervisors to purchase and preserve 98 acres of land in El Monte Valley up for sale by Helix Water District. Many feared the land along the San Diego River could be snatched up by sand miners if the County didn’t take action.
The area’s new supervisor, Joel Anderson, at first voiced opposition to the proposal but ultimately listened to his constituents and not only voted with fellow Supervisors to acquire the land, but also added an amendment to fund needed cleanup, a testament to the power of democracy in action.
SHIRLEY WEBER NAMED SECRETARY OF STATE
On February 8, East County’s former Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, Ph.D. was sworn in as California’s Secretary of State, the first Black woman to hold the position. She was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to fill a vacancy left by the appointment of former Secretary of State Alex Padilla as California’s U.S. Senator; Padilla’s appointment filled the vacancy left by Kamala Harris’ election as Vice President.
The daughter of sharecroppers who were once denied the right to vote, Weber went on to earn a doctoral degree and rise to prominence as an educator and later, a powerhouse champion in the Legislature for voting rights, police reform and strengthening public schools. In September, she spoke at ECM’s Community Champions Awards presentation on the importance of protecting voting rights, racial and social justice.
COVID RELIEF FOR BUSINESSES AND INDIVIDUALS
The Biden administration opened a new round of COVID relief funding for small businesses and self-employed workers starting February 24, in recognition that earlier relief funds had largely favored big corporations.
On February 27, the House passed the American Rescue Plan without a single Republican vote. The measure, soon approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Biden March 11, brought $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief funds to help families, individuals, businesses, workers, the unemployed, schools and local governments. East County’s representatives split their votes down party lines.
SANTANA SHOOTING ANNIVERSARY
March marked a somber anniversary in Santee, where parents, teachers and former students held a candlelight vigil at Santana High School to commemorate those lost in a school shooting on campus 20 years earlier.
STARR RANCH PRESERVATION IN CAMPO
In a win for conservationists and preserving rural community character, San Diego County supervisors voted in March to purchase the 2,151-acre, historic Star Ranch property in Campo, its largest acquisition of sensitive habitat, wetlands, potential passive park land and hiking trails in a decade.
March marked the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic due to COVID-19. ECM asked local residents to reflect on losses and lessens learned during a difficult year of quarantines, lockdowns and uncertainties.
We also held video interviews via Zoom with Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s intensive care unit team, true healthcare heroes, on their memories as front-line workers risking their lives to save others during the past year.
NEW ASSEMBLYWOMAN ELECTED
Dr. Akilah Weber won a special election for the 79th State Assembly district handily in early April, winning the race to fill the seat vacated when her mother. Shirley Weber, was appointed Secretary of State. Dr. Weber’s victory created a vacancy on the La Mesa City Council, which the city later opted to fill via a special election. Dr. Weber, the only physician in the state legislature, promptly set to work to establish a pandemic task force, among other priorities.
SEXUALLY VIOLENT PREDATORS BLOCKED
Demonstrating the power of community organizing, residents in the Horizon Hills neighborhood near Mt. Helix coordinated efforts to oppose placement of two sexually violent predators in their community. After an April 6 community meeting and rally, Supervisors approved Joel Anderson’s measure to improve notification to communities of proposed predator placements. Judges later blocked placements of both Douglas Badger and Merle Wakefield. State Senator Brian Jones also introduced a bill to restrict the state from dumping violent sexual predators in East County.
In July, Borrego Springs residents followed suit, organizing to oppose placement of one of the same predators in their community. Subsequently his placement hearing was postponed until February 2022, while he receives additional in-patient treatment.
In October, Supervisors unanimously adopted a proposal by Supervisor Jim Desmond to oppose all future placements of sexually violent predators in the county until state law is changed to allow participation by local governments – including veto power.
MUSGROVE PITCHES PADRES’ FIRST NO HITTER
Local sports fans had plenty to cheer about on April 9, when Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove, a Grossmont High School alumni, pitched the team’s first-ever no-hitter game. Musgrove’s mom, who runs a coffee shop in Alpine, served up specials of her own – 50 gallons of cold brew for a #44 drink in honor of the number on Musgrove’s Padres jersey.
INDOOR EVENTS RESUME
On April 15, a milestone was reached in the Governor’s Blueprint for a Safer California when indoor events were allowed to resume, with capacity limits and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. The news came as welcome relief after more than a year of shuttered theaters, concert halls and wedding venues.
LEMON GROVE LIMITS COUNCIL SPEECH
After Council meetings droned on for many hours, Lemon Grove’s City Council took action April 20 to limit Councilmember’s speaking time. While some viewed the measure as necessary during increasingly contentious sessions, others objected to curtailing an elected official’s input.
CHAUVIN VERDICT PROMPTS LOCAL REACTIONS
The 2020 killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, prompted racial justice protests nationwide. On April 20, 2021, a jury found Chauvin guilty of murder. ECM published reactions to the historic verdict from local leaders in social justice, law enforcement and Congress.
SOUTHERN FIRE SCORCHES 5,200 ACRES
While much of California suffered devastating wildfires this year, San Diego County largely dodged the bullet – but not entirely. The County had several small brush fires and one substantial blaze. The Southern Fire scored over 5,200 acres May 1-3 near Agua Caliente, forcing evacuations and sparking fears. The blaze destroyed one home, but community members rallied to hold fundraisers to help the Valenzuela family.
TRIBAL LAND ACQUISITION
San Diego is home to 19 Native American reservations and 18 tribal governments, more than any other county in the U.S. In a major win for tribes, county Supervisors voted on May 5 to repeal a 1994 board resolution long viewed by Indians as racist. That resolution had required blanket opposition to all tribal requests to add land to their reservations under the federal fee-to-trust process.
The new measure requires that any future proposals for tribal land acquisitions be evaluated on the merits of each case. The county must consider economic benefits to the county in weighing future projects. The measure also makes alcohol requirements the same for tribal ventures as for other businesses. In addition, the landmark measure establishes a tribal liaison position..
The resolution passed by a 4-1 margin, with Supervisor Joel Anderson opposed. Anderson did not respond when ECM requested the reason for his opposition.
San Diego County has fared better than most areas in Southern Caifornia, thanks to proactive steps to increase water storage capacity and invest in a water purification/recycling program.
Heavy rain and snowfall in the Sierras in December, however, brought welcome drought relief.
The East County Advanced Water Purification Program will soon provide about a third of our region’s needs. But it comes at a hefty price. In May, the Joint Powers Authority reported a substantial price increase; in June the program was awarded a federal loan.
Jacumba Hot Springs residents held a community meeting in May to spotlight an array of issues with a proposed solar project that would surround their town. The 643 project on 1200 acres would be larger than the town’s downtown district.
Residents geared up to fight the project before a July planning commission hearing. But ultimately the project was approved by Supervisors, with event Jacumba’s own Supervisor Joel Anderson ignoring the community’s concerns to vote in favor of the massive green energy project. But the issue isn’t yet resolved; opponents of the JVR energy project filed a lawsuit in September hoping a court will block the project because Supervisors ignored the county’s own planning and zoning laws, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
GENETIC TECHNOLOGY SOLVES COLD CASE MURDER
Seventeen years ago, two legs were found in a Rancho San Diego dumpster. The victim and her killer remained unknown until May 2021, when the Sheriff’s department announced it had used genetic technology to solve the cold case murder.
In the first-of-its kind case locally, Sheriff’s investigators traced DNA from the victim to her son through an online genology company, then zeroed in on a suspect. Jack Dennis Potter was arrested May 12 for the murder of his wife, Laurie Diane Potter of Temecula.
In May, funds became available for restaurants and other food and alcohol venues to apply for restaurant revitalization funds under the American Rescue Plan, a program that benefitted many local food and beverage establishments.
VACCINE EQUITY ISSUES
In 2021, ECM continued coverage begun in 2020 on disparities in vaccine access to communities of color, including coverage the East County People’s Forum in May, which focused on equity issues including vaccine availability in minority communities.
RESTRICTIONS ON UNVACCINATED
By mid-May, with over two-thirds of Californians at least partially vaccinated, a growing number of venues placed restrictions on unvaccinated individuals. ECM compiled a list of all the places restricting access to unvaccinated people, from cruise ships and colleges to senior care facilities, some stadiums, and many foreign countries.
FENTANYL DEATHS SKYROCKET
In June, San Diego’s top law enforcement officials sounded an alarm over the rise in deaths from fentanyl overdoses. The victims included users who didn’t know they were ingesting fentanyl-laced drugs ranging from methamphetamine to counterfeit opioids.
By December, county public health officials testified to Supervisors that fentanyl deaths are up a staggering 990 percent since 2016. One bright spot is the success in providing first responders with Naloxone a, nasal spray that counteracts fentanyl overdoses. Next up, the County plans a far broader rollout of 33,000 Naloxone kits a year to help save lives.
A highwater mark in 2021 came on June 15, when California allowed all businesses to reopen without capacity limits or physical distancing. That included Padre games at full capacity, as well as a resumption of outdoor festivals and more.
In an effort to curb COVID, Governor Newsom announced a “vax for the win” program offering a chance to win $116 million in lottery payouts as an incentive to get unvaccinated Californians to get the jab before the June 15 reopening date.
In addition, vaccinated workers finally gained freedom to go mask-free starting June 17 as part of the state’s reopening.
SUPERVISORS’ BUDGET FOR ALL
In late June, the County Board of Supervisors adopted a budget designed to meet the needs of all county residents. The budget included new priorities due to the pandemic that caused hardships for many San Diegans but also reflected the board’s shift to a Democratic majority after decades of Republican control, though in a show of unity all five Supervisors voted for the budget. It included significant funds to address health and environmental equity, homelessness, racial justice, justice system reform, and economic opportunities.
DEPORTED VETERANS GET HELP
Over the Fourth of July weekend, President Biden announced an initiative to bring home veterans who were deported despite being promised citizenship in exchange for military service. The action also provides a pathway to citizenship for deported veterans.
On July 4, Jamul Casino and Jamul Indian Village hosted an event honoring veterans, at which the tribal groups presented a donation of $10,000 to an organization helping deported veterans.
NEW POLICE CHIEF IN LA MESA
After a national search for a new police chief following the resignation of Chief Walt Vasquez shortly after a riot raged the city, La Mesa announced on July 1, 2021 that it had promoted from within, naming Ray Sweeney as the new chief.
After the tumultuous 2020 events, Chief Sweeney set out to rebuild public trust, initiating changes and hosting a series of community town halls.
STATE INVESTIGATES SD JAIL DEATHS
Why doe San Diego County have the highest rate of jail deaths of any major county in California? Newly elected Assemblywoman Akilah Weber sought to find out, introducing a measure requiring the state Auditor to conduct an independent investigation.
BORDER PATROL SHADOW UNITS
In shocking revelations, the Southern Border Communities Coalition informed Congress and the District Attorney in November of “shadow force teams” started by the Border Patrol in San Diego that have acted “without Congressional authority to obstruct justice, undermine public safety, and violate public trust.” Among other things, the group accused the shadow forces of covering up and destroying evidence to protect agents accused of murder. On November 7, East County Congressional members Sara Jacobs and Juan Vargas sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department calling for a federal investigation of the shadow forces.
2021 illuminated clear contrasts between licensed cannabis dispensaries and unlicensed pot shops. Areas such as Spring Valley experienced numerous violent crimes tied to illegal marijuana outlets. Most notoriously, in July three gang members faced charges including the murder of a guard and a plot to extort money from illegal dispensaries threatened with violence if they would not comply.
Supervisors, as part of a push toward legalizing and regulating cannabis sales in unincorporated areas, repealed a sunset clause and allowed five legal dispensaries in unincorporated areas to stay open and expand.
Even councilmembers in Santee, a conservative bastion, weighed options for potentially legalizing and regulating cannabis businesses, with some citing fears that citizens might otherwise push through a ballot referendum that might have more liberal language than councilmembers would adopt.
CAPITOL POLICE TESTIFY
The nation watched on July 27, riveted as Capitol police provided their eyewitness accounts with at times tearful testimony before the House Selection Committee on the January 6 insurrection, revealing how the mob violently assaulted, tortured and nearly killed law enforcement officers defending the Capitol. The investigation into the January 6 events continues, both in Congress and at the Justice Department.
ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CLASH IN EL CAJON
International tensions spilled over into East County in late July, when pro-Israeli groups held a rally in El Cajon to stand against growing anti-Semitism. Palestinians marched in a counter-demonstration. Outside agitators including white Supremacists and an Antifa group also turned out and stirred up trouble with physical altercations, though both the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups remained peaceful, as ECM reported.
SHERIFF TO STEP DOWN
There will soon be a new Sheriff in town. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore announced at the end of July that he will not seek reelection in 2022 and will step down when his third term of office ends in January 2023.
Two candidates promptly threw their hats in the ring: Undersheriff Kelly Martinez and retired Sheriff’’s Commander Dave Myers. The two squared off in a virtual forum in August hosted by the Deputy Sheriffs Association.
BRIDGE FOR MAX
The tragic drowning death of Max Lenail, a 21-year-old hiker, led to efforts to build a bridge over the treacherous crossing in Mission Trails Regioal Park. After approval by the Mission Trails Regional Task Force in May, a dedication ceremony was held in July at the San Diego River Trail site, where a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge are slated to be built—thanks to fundraising efforts by the Mission Trails Regional Park Foundation and a $1.5 million state grant secured by state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins.
JOURNALIST BRIANA GOMEZ KILLED
A bright light in local journalism was extinguished on August 1, when East County Magazine’s multicultural reporter Briana Gomez died in a rollover vehicle crash on State Route 94.
She covered some of our region’s most turbulent stories including the La Mesa racial justice protest and riot, COVID-19 impacts on local Latino and Middle Eastern immigrant communities, clashes between pro-Israel and Palestinian protesters in El Cajon, housing disparities, police controversies, protests over mask mandates, a Kumeyaay protest at the border wall, Syrian refugees in El Cajon, issues impacting foster youths and the homeless, a child’s death in ICE detention, journalism ethics, local city council meetings, and more.
TEEN TRAGEDY TIED TO STREET RACING
A teen driver with a history of street racing died in a high-speed crash on August 21 in Fletcher Hills. Gady Cruz, 16, was not wearing a seatbelt when the vehicle overturned several times, seriously injuring three teenage passengers, one of whom later died.
The tragedy is a grim reminder of the importance of wearing seat belts and teaching teens about the dangers of street racing, a problem that many area residents have long complained of on East County streets.
HATE CRIMES TARGETED
On August 25, Leonard Trinh, lead hate crime prosecutor with the San Diego District Attorney, held a community forum in La Mesa on hate crimes. Trinh shared concerns over a rise in hate crimes nationwide and in East County, also detailing successful prosecution efforts locally to hold those who commit hate crimes responsible.
AFGHANISTAN WAR ENDS
The U.S. pullout of troops in late August ended a 20-year war, as President Biden followed through on former President Trump’s agreement with the Taliban. But the rapid fall of Afghanistan’s government to the Taliban days after the U.S. withdrawal drew criticism. Though the U.S. successful evacuated over 100,000 Afghans, U.S. civilians and foreign nationals, the pullout also raised concerns over the fate of those who could not get out, as well as the fate of women facing a loss of rights under the Taliban takeover.
The news hit home when the Cajon Valley School District reported 24 students stranded in Afghanistan after traveling to visit family members. But several of the students and their families soon managed to escape, some after a near-miss in deadly attacks by ISIS at the airport. In the coming days, local Congressman Darrell Issa’s staff aided more Americans to escape to freedom.
AFGHAN REFUGEES ARRIVE
As the first wave of Afghan refugees began arriving in San Diego in late August, ECM publish a list of ways to help our new Afghan neighbors. As the flow of refugees increased, County Supervisors adopted plans to help in October, but the steps were insufficient to meet critical needs. In November, ECM profiled the successful efforts of the Helping El Cajon Refugees Group on Facebook, visiting one of the many apartment units they were setting up, fully furnished with food and other supplies, also speaking with a newly arrived refugee family and those helping them pursue their dreams in America.
In August, after poison control centers reported a 70% increase in calls from people who ingested the livestock deworming drug Ivermectin, the FDA issued an alert warning consumers not to take the medication touted on social media as a COVID treatment; it is not an anti-viral and can be dangerous to humans particularly in high dose.
Soon after, County Supervisors fed up with public speakers spouting false statements on COVID declared a medical misinformation “crisis”; the state Assembly followed suit with a similar measure. Supervisors invited panels of local doctors to address COVID misinformation after their meetings, such as this session in November to counter false statements on children’s vaccinations.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also sought to address dangerous misinformation. For instance, while some voiced hesitancy over vaccines during pregnancy, the CDC warned that COVID-19 can cause serious pregnancy complications and stillbirths, while as of October, no serious complications were found related to vaccines in 35,000 pregnant woman studied.
COUNTY ADOPTS COMMUNITY CHOICE ENERGY
Residents in San Diego County’s unincorporated areas will soon have an alternative to SDG&E, as a result of Supervisors voting in early September to join San Diego Community Power, a community choice energy program. The vote was 3-2, with East County’s two representatives, Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond, opposed.
Residents in unincorporated areas are expected to begin receiving power form clean energy sources starting in spring 2023, though utility users can opt out if they prefer to stay with SDG&E.
SDG&E’s pubic safety power shutoffs during high fire conditions have sparked frustration among rural residents repeatedly subjected to outages at times when communication is most needed. While some are resigned to outages to prevent lines from sparking fires, others have voiced outrage over frequent outages.
In September, Supervisors approved mitigation measures for public power safety shutoffs, such as making generators more available and strengthening VHF radio coverage. But none of that compensates residents for losses such as food spoilage or lost business income.
Days before Thanksgiving, as ECM reported, SDG&E warned of widespread power outages for up to 53,000 customers – blackouts that could last for days. ECM provided tips for coping with Thanksgiving without power (including recipes such as yam salad and ideas such as barbecuing turkey or serving alternatives such as smoked salmon.)
In the end, SDG&E shut off power to only a few thousand customers, far fewer than feared. But the problems remain largely unresolved. Meanwhile a new risk, AT&T dropping land lines, has residents in areas with poor cell service on edge, fearing being left with no communication at all whenever the power goes out.
20TH ANNIVERSARY OF SEPTEMBER 11 ATTACKS
Twenty years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks claimed thousands of lives in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, San Diego County residents shared their memories of the tragedy, including one who was an eyewitness in New York, as ECM reported.
HELP FOR HOMELESS PEOPLE
Homelessness is cited as a number one concern by many residents across East County. In 2021, several major steps were made toward finding solutions.
A groundbreaking report released in September revealed that one in four local homeless adults is over age 55 – and over 40 percent of these seniors are experiencing homelessness for the first time.
The County has never had a homeless shelter, relying on cities such as San Diego and El Cajon to shoulder most of the burden. But in late September, Supervisors approved a proposal by Joel Anderson that required staff to propose locations for homeless shelters in unincorporated areas, as well as wrap-around services to help homeless families and individuals get off the streets.
In November, a run in El Cajon drew attention to another oft-ignored demographic, homeless youths and runaways.
But the city of El Cajon, which stands alone among East County cities in providing major funds to help the homeless, tabled two agenda items in December for future consideration; these would have provided a safe parking program and RV rezoning for people living in their vehicles.
VOTERS REJECT RECALL OF GOVERNOR
Republican-led efforts to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, failed overwhelmingly. The candidates included San Diego’s former Mayor Kevin Faulconer and John Cox, who was criticized for bringing a live bear on the campaign trail.
Despite controversies over Newsom’s handling of the pandemic and more, voters resoundingly voted to keep him in office, defeating the recall in mid-September by a 2 to 1 margin.
HOME KITCHEN BUSINESSES
Supervisors voted in mid-September to approve a measure by Joel Anderson to legalize Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations, or MEHKOs, in an effort to make it easier for individuals to open up small retail cooking businesses based at home. A new state law authorizes MEHKOs, but gives power to counties to allow or ban such enterprises.
CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES’ DEADLY TOLL
California had another devastating fire season, as firefighters battled fires statewide. By year’s end, more than 2.5 million acres had burned, fueled in part by climate change, destroying over 3,600 structures and claiming nine lives.
Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the battle to preserve California’s heritage came in mid-September, as firefighters and state park service workers wrapped giant Sequoia trees in foil as flames approached. Sadly, an estimated 3-5 percent of all giant Sequoias (four feet in diameter or more) left in the world burned in 2021, including between 2,261 and 3,637 in California that are not expected to survive.
WIND TURBINE COLLAPSE--AGAIN
The trouble-prone Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility provides power to SDG&E for the San Diego region. But after a roughly 500-foot-tall wind turbine collapsed for a second time on September 16, the facility was ordered offline by regulators – and is still offline in December, three months later, raising serious questions about the reliability of this power source.
MILEAGE TAX FUELS IRE
The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) announced a plan to fund its ambitious regional transportation plan through a tax on every mile driven. The proposal drew outrage across East County, where residents particularly in rural areas would shoulder an unfair burden, paying hefty taxes for driving long distances in areas where no transit is available.
SANDAG approved the mileage tax over the objections of East County’s leaders in early November. But later, prominent San Diego leaders including Mayor Todd Gloria called on SANDAG to find an alternative funding source for its transportation plan without the mileage tax. Soon after, SANDAG approved its transportation plan to meet a state deadline, without yet designating a new funding source.
Thousands of San Diegans including many from East County took to the streets on October 3 in a march for reproductive rights for women. The marchers voiced alarm over a new Texas law banning abortion whenever a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks – before many women realize that they are pregnant and before testing for fetal abnormalities can occur. Many also turned out to march locally over concerns that a new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to block the Texas law, may be poised to overturn abortion rights protected by the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The controversy has also ignited pro-life forces, who hope the Supreme Court majority may ban abortion or leave abortion limits up to each state.
HOUSING CRISIS PROMPTS REFORMS
SANDAG estimates that the county needs an estimated 171,685 new housing units by 2029 to meet demand amid a statewide housing crisis. Seeking to spur new housing construction, the state passed two landmark housing laws, SB 9 and SB 10, as ECM reported in October. One allows homeowners in some areas to split their lots and add up to three housing units, bypassing local zoning ordinances. The other allows cities to streamline approval for multi-family housing near transit. Both measures drew significant controversy, as ECM reported.
Meanwhile some local cities took steps to meet housing demand. Santee rolled out a housing plan for 1,219 new houses over the next eight years. La Mesa’s City Council approved apartments on the site of its former police station and refused to block approval by the planning commission for a housing project on the former La Mesa Woman’s Club site.
JUDGE HALTS HOUSING IN PROCTOR VALLEY DUE TO FIRE DANGER
Expect pressure to build homes in urban areas to ramp up, after a judge in October ordered County Supervisors to reverse approval of a major housing community in the Proctor Valley/Otay area due to wildfire evacuation dangers that it posed to residents along State Route 94, already a traffic bottleneck.
CHRISTIAN YOUTH THEATER SCANDAL
In October, the District Attorney filed felony charges accusing two former Christian Youth Theater workers of sexually abusing students in El Cajon.
Shuttered for months after accusations broke earlier, CYT has resumed local productions despite allegations by an attorney for victims who says the youth theater company knew of allegations for years, but failed to take action to protect students.
A small plane crash into a Santee neighborhood on October 11 killed two people, later identified as the pilot and a UPS driver. ECM reporters were on the scene to cover this tragic breaking news, as well as a candlelight vigil held for the victims. Just two and a half months later, a Lear jet crashed into the Bostonia neighborhood of El Cajon near Gillespie Field, killing all four people aboard. The crashes heightened safety concerns for residents near the busy airfield.
With the Delta variant surging and vaccine efficacy against the new variant diminishing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved booster shots of all three vaccines in the U.S. and took the unprecedented step of allowing people to mix and match the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines and boosters. First doses reached San Diego in late October.
TRAVEL BAN LIFTED
The Biden administration lifted restrictions on vaccinated travelers from Canada and Mexico, allowing international borders to reopen for non-essential travel effective November 1st. The action boosted tourism and business in San Diego’s border region.
LOSS OF CIVILITY
Loss of civility in public meetings is perhaps one of the worst outcomes of the pandemic. Regionally, public board members from school boards to supervisors have faced rude tirades from angry residents, most related to pandemic mandates.
The matter reached a boiling point on November 2, when an anti-vaxxer launched personal attacks during a board of supervisor meeting. His verbal assault included racial slurs targeting the county’s Black public health director, Dr. Wilma Wooten, also suggesting that a supervisor should commit suicide.
The outburst, one of many, prompted calls for reforms later enacted to restrict certain public speech, but also raised concerns over potential violations of constitutionally protected free speech.
LOTHIAN WINS LA MESA SPECIAL ELECTION
La Mesa held a special election on November 3 to fill a vacancy on its city council left after Dr. Akilah Weber won a special election to the State Assembly.
ECM hosted a lively candidate forum. All six candidates were invited and four participated, including realtor Laura Lothian, a conservative who won by a hefty margin in a race in which Democrats’ votes were split among multiple candidates. Lothian ran on a platform of police and small businesses, as well as opposing the mileage tax just approved by SANDAG. Lothian’s backing of small businesses particularly in the village may also have resonated with business owners still reeling from pandemic shutdowns and civil unrest in 2020 following racial justice protests.
VACCINES FOR CHILDREN PROMPT PRAISE AND PROTEST
In November, the Centers for Disease Control approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, after approving vaccines for ages 12-17 earlier in the year. While many parents and educators welcomed the news, others took to the streets to protest school vaccine and mask mandates. ECM was there to cover a protest in La Mesa that drew hundreds.
After interviewing parents and teachers about their concerns, ECM then interviewed Dr. Mark Sawyer, a COVID expert at Rady Children’s hospital, and asked him to address their questions. ECM also interviewed Dr. Wiliam Tseng, Kaiser Pemanente’s vaccine expert, on vaccines for children and boosters for adults, to bring our readers accurate information from our region’s top health experts on these important issues.
In October, the City of El Cajon hosted its first-ever “Foodie Fest” aimed at helping restaurants that had suffered losses during the pandemic. The event proved deliciously successful, with all participating restaurants reporting a boost in business after the fest, Mayor Bill Wells reported in his State of the City address at year’s end.
COVID: TOP COP KILLER
Law enforcement officers risk their lives daily to protect the public. Yet many local police officers and their unions have resisted vaccine mandates, and some local departments don’t require vaccination of officers. But ironically, in 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 killed by far more law enforcement officers nationally and statewide than anything else. In California last year, COVID took the lives of more officers than all other causes of death combined, as ECM reported.
HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS TV
Sports fans had plenty to cheer about in late October, when Cox partnered with CIF to begin broadcasting local high school sports competitions live on Channel 4 TV and streaming online at Yurview.com.
SENIOR LIVING MODEL AT LANTERNCREST
Lantern Crest Senior Living in Santee has created a national model for how we provide care for our aging population. In September, the site opened its newest facility, “The Plaza,” as ECM reported. It includes a theater, a '50s-style diner with soda fountain, bowling lanes, on-site medical center and doctor, pharmacy, gym, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, dog park, community garden, an award-winning chef serving three restaurants and two bars, an elaborately appointed tea room, live music venues and more.
After a recent presentation at Harvard Business School, Lantern Crest’s business plan was “rated in the top two in the world,” according to Michael Grant, Managing Partner of Santee Senior Retirement Communities and owner of Lantern Crest.
SULLIVAN SOLAR LEAVES CUSTOMERS IN THE DARK
Sullivan Solar once had a shining reputation as one of the fastest growing companies in San Diego and the U.S., installing solar power for many residents in sunny East County. But by late October, the firm had closed its doors without notice to its customers – including some who reported being stiffed for thousands of dollars in deposits paid for work never done and subcontractors that Sullivan failed to pay while homeowners were left in the dark.
As ECM reported, Sullivan Solar was embroiled in numerous lawsuits and the State Contractors Licensing Board had issued multiple citations, with more pending. In December, Daniel Sullivan, the company’s CEO, also faced felony charges for allegedly stalking his ex-girlfriend, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, but was a no-show at a bail hearing in early December.
VETERANS MEMORIAL IN SANTEE
On November 11, Santee unveiled a new memorial and dedicated a Veterans Memorial Bridge to honor city residents who served in our nation’s armed forces.
REDISTRICTING BRINGS BIG CHANGES
Every ten years, new census data prompts redistricting at the federal, state and county level. Proposed new district maps sparked concerns from some East County leaders who didn’t want to see East County cities split among multiple districts sharing representation with San Diego and from some Chaldeans opposed to having their community divided.
On December 15, new county districts were approved, shifting Lemon Grove, La Mesa, Rancho San Diego, Mt. Helix and part of Spring Valley into Nathan Fletcher’s district; these areas were formerly represented by Joel Anderson.
Hours after new Congressional and state legislative districts were finalized, as ECM reported, Darrell Issa and Sara Jacobs announced they will seek reelection to Congress in 2022. While the boundaries shifted, both districts have strong registration advantages for the incumbents. Meanwhile Juan Vargas loses his southern portion of East County in his newly redrawn district. But the most dramatic changes are in state legislative districts, which bear little resemblance to the former ones. Near year’s end, SD Rostra published a detailed analysis of the changes.
INFRASTRUCTURE BILL SIGNED
In November, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the largest investment in our nation’s infrastructure since the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. ECM spoke with Congresswoman Sara Jacobs about local priorities for the funds, and also attended a press conference she held in El Cajon, where she visited with El Cajon business owners who benefited from COVID grants and spoke about local projects that could be funded.
California is on track to receive $44 billion in infrastructure funds, with San Diego likely to receive 8 percent of that for roads, bridges and other infrastructure plus additional local funds available through competitive grants for projects such as transit or shoring up aging dams.
BUILD BACK BETTER ACT HITS ROADBLOCKS IN SENATE
The Build Back Better Act passed the House of Representatives in November, but thus far remains stalled in the Senate due to opposition from all Republicans as well as Democrat Joe Manchin. East County’s representatives Sara Jacobs and Juan Vargas, both Democrats, voted in favor but Darrell Issa voted against, citing concerns over inflation and opposition to funding “Green New Deal activists.”
Negotiations continue on the landmark measure, which would expand the nation’s social safety net for the middle class and poor including increased childcare, Medicare benefits, college aid, housing support, and investment in renewable energy.
COVID SPIKE; DEATHS DRAMATICALLY HIGHER IN UNVACCINATED
A spike in COVID-19 cases occurred after Thanksgiving gatherings locally, with cases nearly doubling in the first week of December. The surge was fueled in part by the fast-spreading Delta variant and perhaps by as-yet-undetected cases of the Omicron variant first detected in South Africa in November.
But good news came via a National Public Radio analysis nationwide, which found death rates from COVID-19 were three to six times higher in red states with low vaccination rates than in blue states such as California, where leaders have encouraged vaccinations and as a result have high vaccination rates. Despite new variants, vaccines and boosters are saving lives in those who have heeded the advice of public health experts.
OMICRON VARIANT PROMPTS NEW MASK MANDATE
The first case of the highly contagious Omicron variant was confirmed in San Diego County by public health officials on December 9. Within days, the variant was confirmed in nearly all U.S. states.
California health officials issued orders for a new 30-day mask mandate for indoor public places Dec. 15-Jan. 15, as well as requiring stricter testing for mega-events to stem the spread of the newest variant that some experts say is as contagious as measles, though seemingly less deadly than earlier COVID versions.
NEW RETAILERS OPEN
Doing some part to put some holiday jingle into the local economy, ECM commissioned a four-part series in December on new retailers who opened during the pandemic. Our series highlighted a creative array of new retail shops in four walkable communities: downtown La Mesa, El Cajon, Lemon Grove and Julian. Looking for locally made craft items? Freshly brewed coffee, beer, or baked baklava? Perhaps you’re shopping for bibles or beauty supplies. Or products from the earth, such as geodes and gemstones, elegant clothes or traditional Afghan wear. One shop has original art and gently worn clothing, with all proceeds supporting help for local refugees.
These outlets are open year-round, so it’s never too late to shop local!
COTTONWOOD SAND MINE
A draft Environmental Impact Report on the controversial Cottonwood Sand Mining project was released by the county in late December. The developer seeks to extract over 6 million tons of sand over 10 tens from the site along the Sweetwater River on the existing Cottonwood Golf Club property, drawing widespread opposition from area residents.
The public has until February 14 to weigh in with comments, which can be sent via email or expressed at two public meetings planned in January, one in person in Rancho San Diego and one virtual with an option to phone-in.
RABBIT HEMMORHAGIC DISEASE
An extremely contagious disease which is nearly always fatal to wild rabbits and hares as well as pet bunnies has hopped across San Diego County and the western United States. Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Type 2 (RHDV2) was first seen in a wild rabbit in the county in June 2020. Since then, nearly a dozen more rabbits have tested positive for the disease locally, ECM reported in December. But there are likely many more cases, since the state and county lack resources to test the growing number of dead rabbits reported. Fortunately, there is a vaccine available to protect pet rabbits.