Staff Picks: Our Favorite Stories of 2016
The real story behind a South Park school’s success. Police using a law meant for dumpsters to target the homeless. A deep dive into Western water politics. Those are just a few of the stories VOSD staff members singled out as the pieces they’re proudest of this year.
Life is hard, and sometimes — as we discovered again and again in 2016 — it’s tougher than it has to be in San Diego.
Kindergarten has gotten so advanced that many kids aren’t prepared for it. In downtown, the homeless are being targeted by a law designed to keep dumpsters out of everyone’s way. And in National City, a small market’s simple bid to sell alcohol set off a neighborhood outcry that — surprise! — was led by a rival whose motives may not be pristine.
Our coverage of these topics came up when we asked VOSD’s journalists to name their favorite stories that they wrote in 2016.
There was another common theme: Denial — not just a river in Egypt — by those in power.
Education officials touted the turnaround of a South Park elementary school but failed to acknowledge the full story behind its success. A fatal police shooting sparked community outcry, but the cop’s bosses failed to discipline him or even give him any feedback. And a coalition of local governments went into defensive mode when challenged over a botched $18 billion prediction (yes, that’s billion with a B), only to later acknowledge that it screwed up.
Our scribes are proud of other articles too, like an exploration of the sorry state of the Starlight Bowl, a deep dive into Western water politics, an investigative series about substandard turf at local high schools and a history flashback that explores San Diego’s hidden gay past. Our nifty new Culturecast podcast gets a mention too.
And we make special note of one of the most extraordinary VOSD stories of 2016, one that launched a national conversation: contributor Kelly Davis’s wrenching personal essay about the death of her sister, facilitated by California’s new aid-in-dying law.
VOSD, of course, wasn’t the only outlet to produce stellar San Diego journalism. Check out our compilation of notable 2016 stories from other news outlets here.
Here are our favorites from the past year:
Nobody Expects the Kindergarten Inquisition
Scott Lewis, Editor in Chief
The story: The Kindergarten Shock
What it’s about: Kindergarten has gotten kind of hard. Even the best prepared parents don’t seem to realize the vast change that comes when their child switches from small, private preschools to the large classes in public kindergartens. And for those who don’t have the resources to send their kids to preschool, it’s getting even harder. I talked to one mother struggling with it and explored the inequities of the state’s transitional kindergarten program and the challenges parents face.
Why I liked it: No topic I wrote about (besides the Chargers) all year got this much feedback, and parents are still reaching out to me.
What’s happening now: The state hasn’t changed any of the very restrictive income requirements for participating in subsidized preschool programs.
Shortly after my piece ran, the San Diego Unified School District debuted a bizarre “Pre-K for All” program that is anything but. Because of the income requirements, many open spots at free preschools remain open, yet there is no shortage of people who could use the spots. What the district did was simply allow parents to pay for the spots, and it’s not even clear that it is a very good deal.
A Fatal Shooting, a Collective Shrug
Sara Libby, Managing Editor
What it’s about: The San Diego police officer who shot and killed an unarmed mentally ill man in the Midway district didn’t receive any on-the-job criticism, feedback or discipline following the shooting. No one talked to him about it at all. In fact, it didn’t even come up in his performance review.
Why the writer liked it: We’ve led the way on coverage of this story since it broke — we were the first to report that a witness who’d seen footage of the shooting found it hasty and unprovoked. We initiated the lawsuit that several other media outlets eventually joined that led to footage of the shooting being unsealed.
But once the video was made public, the story mostly dropped off the radar.
This story is important because it’s a reminder that there are very real decisions being made by police in the wake of shootings like these. Though the department has been admonished before for its officer discipline policies, it still did nothing.
The officer went on to have another shooting incident not long after this one. He accidentally shot into a baby’s crib.
What’s happening now: The family of Fridoon Nehad is suing Officer Neal Browder and SDPD over his death. The lawsuit is still making its way through the court system.
Barrio Logan’s Gentrification Crucible
Kinsee Morlan, Engagement Editor
The story: Voice of San Diego’s Culturecast
What it’s about: Culturecast is Voice of San Diego’s arts and culture podcast that launched this year. For the entire first season, I focused on the tension between the artistic renaissance and gentrification happening right now in Barrio Logan.
Why the writer liked it: When I first stepped out onto the streets of Barrio Logan with my headphones and giant microphone, I had no idea how to make a podcast. I wanted it to sound as much like “This American Life” or “RadioLab” as possible. That turned out to be ridiculously hard.
But I absolutely love when it all starts coming together, and hearing the final product always makes me giddy.
What’s happening now: Barrio Logan’s art scene is still growing, but galleries are also closing and artists are moving out. The first wave of artist-led gentrification is likely coming to an end as real estate prices everywhere in San Diego continue to rise.
The $18 Billion Boo-Boo
Andrew Keatts, Assistant Editor
What it’s about: Back in 2004, voters approved a half-cent sales to pay for transportation projects across the county. But revenue from that measure is woefully undershooting the expectations presented to voters, partially due to flawed assumptions within the forecasting models used by the San Diego Association of Governments.
Turns out a new tax measure the agency put before voters in November suffered from those same flawed expectations. That meant the $18 billion it promised to voters on the ballot was bunk.
Why the writer liked it: SANDAG’s day-to-day operations don’t get much scrutiny. Once we started digging into their numbers and their revenue projections and found that they didn’t add up — which was confirmed by multiple outside experts — it became clear that the complexity of the organization had let it hide some serious broken promises to San Diego voters, and that the grand visions for San Diego’s transportation network of the future were a fantasy.
What’s happening now: When the story first broke, SANDAG officials pushed back aggressively. But just before the end of this year, the agency acknowledged that it would need to find $17.5 billion by 2048 from state or federal sources in order to build everything — and that it has no idea how to make that happen. The agency also said it’s now using outside forecasts.
Starlight, But Not Star-Bright
Lisa Halverstadt, Staff Writer
What it’s about: For decades, the Starlight Bowl was an iconic place for concerts and plays. But for more than five years, the venue built for the famed 1935 California Pacific International Exposition has been vacant.
The nonprofit that had long operated it hadn’t hosted a show in 3,500-seat amphitheater in years. By early this year, it was filled with weeds.
Why the writer liked it: I was curious about the Starlight Bowl before I moved to San Diego. As a frequent tourist from Phoenix, I visited Balboa Park often and wondered why I never saw anyone using this historic structure. By the time I moved to San Diego in fall 2012, the abandoned theater was blighted.
What’s happening now: The Starlight Bowl now has hundreds of champions. Former Starlight sound technician Steve Stopper, who sued the city to try to force an end to the former Starlight lease, has founded a nonprofit called Save Starlight.
His group held an August clean-up event that drew nearly 300 volunteers and has received about $375,000 in donated sound and light equipment that Stopper hopes can be used for future shows and events. The city is now in talks with Save Starlight about a possible agreement that would allow the group to take additional steps to revitalize the theater.
The Real Story of a School’s Success
Mario Koran, Staff Writer
What it’s about: For years San Diego Unified leaders have pointed to McKinley Elementary in South Park as the kind of neighborhood school they want to create in every neighborhood.
Because quality neighborhood schools are the focal point of San Diego Unified’s vision for the district, I had to check McKinley out to find what made it tick.
Why the writer liked it: On its face, McKinley gives us an uplifting narrative about what’s possible when parents discover their closest neighborhood school is actually pretty good, and work to make it better.
It’s easy to see why district officials would want to promote this kind of story: Don’t leave the district. You, too, can “rediscover” your neighborhood school!
But there’s another side all this. Between 2006 and 2015, as test scores rose, the school was also becoming whiter and more affluent. The percentage of white students doubled and the poverty rate was cut nearly in half. Money made possible many of the improvements happening at the school, and the parents moving in were financially stable enough to donate and raise that money themselves.
Look past the uplifting narrative, and you’ll see a profound and troubling question about the degree to which similar turnaround stories are even possible when parents can’t fund school programs themselves.
What’s happening now: McKinley Elementary is still going strong, hosting successful chili cook-offs and serving as a model for parents elsewhere who want to start school foundations — parent-led, nonprofit entities that raise money for individual schools.
Schools Just Can’t Quit Failed Turf Company
Ashly McGlone, Staff Writer
The stories: The FieldTurf series: Part One: Across the County, Taxpayer-Funded Turf Fields Are Falling Apart After Just a Few Years, Part Two: The Consummate Salesman, Part Three: Despite Failures, San Diego Unified Just Can’t Quit FieldTurf and Part Four: How a Turf Company With High Prices and a Defective Product Cornered the SD Market
What it’s about: Unwitting San Diego County school districts paid a premium for loads of defective artificial grass in recent years that fell apart years before the warranty ran out.
Manufacturer FieldTurf sued a supplier over the problems, but kept local schools in the dark while prodding them to pay more money for better turf.
School districts elsewhere in the country are suing FieldTurf for fraud, but the turf giant’s San Diego customer base remains strong thanks in part to lucrative no-bid contracting deals.
Why the writer liked it: Never before had the public been made aware of the vast and costly turf problems experienced at the region’s public schools. This series offered a troubling glimpse of public school contracting, and makes you wonder why so many districts have remained loyal customers and thrown more public money at a private company’s problem.
What’s happening now: At least one local district was exploring litigation against FieldTurf, while another said it would sue if others were successful. Following our reports, another series of FieldTurf articles were published in New Jersey that spurred lawmakers to call on the Federal Trade Commission for a nationwide investigation to review whether taxpayers were defrauded across the country. Two class action lawsuits were also filed, and the attorney generals for New York and New Jersey are reportedly examining the problems.
Inside the West’s Water Wars
Ry Rivard, Staff Writer
What it’s about: More than 25 million Americans depend on the Colorado River and sharing isn’t easy, especially in a drought. This story is about the national, inter-state and local politics of dividing up the river while trying to save it from running dry.
Why the writer liked it: In San Diego, we tend to view ourselves in isolation, but our most fundamental resource — water — is one we share with other Western states.
The outcome of negotiations like these dictate the course of civilization in this part of the country. Will there be enough water for farmers? For big green yards? For another million people?
What’s happening now: A deal, which some officials had hoped to reach this year, has been delayed until 2017 and could include Mexico, which also depends on the Colorado.
Small Town, Big Drama
Maya Srikrishnan, Staff Writer
What it’s about: The owner of a small market in National City applied for a permit to sell two refrigerator doors’ worth of beer and wine. Such a small request, which was endorsed by National City staff, opened a window into small-town politics and alcohol permitting drama. A liquor store across the street that feared the competition spawned overwhelming neighborhood opposition against the permit, and the scuffle even resulted in one city councilman having to recuse himself from the vote because he was accused of soliciting bribes.
Why the writer liked it: The story reveals the potential for predatory practices in places that don’t get much media attention.
What’s happening now: The permit was ultimately denied, and the owner of the small market has put her store up for sale. The councilman who was accused of bribes was re-elected in November and has hired a lawyer to deal with the accusations.
Meanwhile, the same man who spearheaded the opposition to this permit in National City helped lead the charge against a proposed 7-11 in City Heights, which was trying to transfer a beer and wine permit from an existing liquor store in the neighborhood.
Dumpster Law Used to Trash Homeless
Kelly Davis, Contributing Writer
What it’s about: Over the last several years, police officers have increasingly used a local law meant to combat trash dumpsters blocking public alleys to punish homeless people for erecting tents on sidewalks.
In 2011, just 11 people were arrested for violating the city’s encroachment ordinance. Midway through 2016, there had been 64 arrests. Citations for encroachment have also shot up, from 232 in 2010 to roughly 1,200 in 2015.
Rack up enough citations and you’ll be issued a court order to stay 100 yards away from where you were arrested. As a deputy public defender told me, “There are some frequent fliers who have nowhere to go downtown.”
Why the writer liked it: While the five-fold increase in encroachment citations was pretty surprising, what really made the story was Diana Butler, a 69-year-old homeless woman I met in East Village.
I happened to be downtown and pulled up to a stop sign at 16th and Market streets just as police finished issuing her a ticket. Butler, who’d been arrested multiple times for encroachment and illegal lodging — and did multiple stints in jail simply for sleeping on the sidewalk — had been ordered by a judge to stay away from that corner.
But the Public Storage at 16th and Market is where she kept belongings she couldn’t carry with her. As she was leaving the building, police drove by, recognized her and cited her for disobeying the court order.
Her situation really illustrated this vortex of criminalization that so many homeless folks fall into.
What’s happening now: Encroachment citations continue to be a popular tool for police. According to a recent public records request, as of Nov. 30, police had issued roughly 1,250 citations this year in downtown alone.
Our Hidden Gay Past of ‘Fairy Dives’ and Raids
Randy Dotinga, Contributing Writer
What it’s about: For gay pride week, I took a look at San Diego’s hidden gay past, uncovering a post-WWII era when we were home to gay bars, vice raids and a stunning scandal over a retired Coronado admiral’s fling with a young man.
Why the writer liked it: The inspiration for the story was a sensationalized 1950s book called “USA Confidential” that aimed to uncover the triple threat of Communists, homosexuals and labor organizers. The authors were appalled by San Diego’s “fairy dives” (gay bars) full of “prancing misfits in peekaboo blouses, with marcelled hair and rouged faces.”
The book’s hysteria aside, WWII was a crucial event for the nation’s gay and lesbians. Many landed in military towns like San Diego and created new — and freer — lives for themselves.
Bonus Entry: The Death of a Sister, By Her Own Choice
We’d like to take special notice of an extraordinary story that appeared in our pages in August.
Contributor Kelly Davis chronicled the final days of her sister Betsy, an artist who suffered from ALS and chose to take her life through a lethal dose of drugs.
“I am losing strength in my arms and hands quickly,” she’d written to Davis in an email. “I don’t want to live out my life paralyzed, eating through a tube in my stomach and communicating through a machine. I’d rather be free than entombed in my body.”
Her freedom came after a two-day celebration of her life. She’s waited until California’s aid-in-dying law had gone into effect.”My sister is an example of exactly what the law intended to do: allow a dying young woman the ability to assert control over the chaos and uncertainty of terminal illness,” Davis writes. “She turned death into a reason to celebrate, and she was there to enjoy the party.”
This deeply sad story, beautifully told, sheds light on issues both public and private. We’re proud to have published it as part of our mission to uncover the world around us.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. He is also immediate past president of the 1,200-member American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org). Please contact him directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.