What We Learned This Week - Voice of San Diego

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What We Learned This Week

Alarms at San Onofre signal bad things. Some animals killed by federal trappers had names. And (surprise!) stuff really does cost money.

 

You Really Don’t Want High Radiation Alarms to Sound at San Onofre: One of the selling points for the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station in northern San Diego County is its 24/7/365 reliability. The nuclear power plant is always on, providing 20 percent of San Diego’s power and feeding as many as 1.4 million homes across Southern California.

Scratch that. It’s always supposed to be on. It’s been off since January after a radiation leak set alarms abuzz and revealed major problems in its steam generators. They’re the largest part of the plant, and they’d just been replaced — a 10-year-long project that cost utility customers $671 million. I looked at the problems in-depth this week and came to a clear conclusion: The project’s been a big ole disaster.

San Onofre was already under heavy scrutiny from federal watchdogs at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when trouble struck. Those headlines had stretched across years: Whistleblowers, safety problems, internal upheaval, management overhauls.

There’s no clear connection between the historic trouble and the latest issue, but one expert we talked to likened it to criminals with long records showing up in court again. They’re not automatically guilty, but their records don’t look good, either.

In San Diego, Stuff Really Does Cost Money: Convention Center expansion? Free! New downtown library? Pretty much free! A new City Hall? It’d actually pay you, dear taxpayer, just to be built.

Mm-hmm.

In San Diego, our politicians and interest groups have perfected the art of selling big ideas as not costing taxpayers a cent, our Liam Dillon writes.

Which made for a pretty remarkable admission from Councilman David Alvarez at the recent council hearing about the Balboa Park Plaza de Panama overhaul.

Alvarez was in the majority supporting it, noting that it may eventually cost taxpayers about $1 million annually if revenue projections from a new parking garage don’t pan out.

The remarkable part: Alvarez said he was fine with that. As Dillon writes:

“Alvarez’s position on the Plaza de Panama makes him an outlier. He believes the plan, which passed 6-1, actually will cost money. And he said publicly that it’s worth the price.”

The takeaway here? A politician being intellectually honest with the public is unusual enough in San Diego that it makes headlines when it happens.

Some Animals Killed by Federal Trappers Had Names: My investigation of the agency that’s killed 18,700 animals in San Diego County since 2005 continues with a look at a remarkable mountain lion that was shot in 2010.

Its name was M56, and wildlife researchers tracked the young male’s movements for months as he wound south from Orange County, crossed four busy freeways, and nearly reached the Mexico border. M56 was killed after attacking sheep in an open pen on a Japatul ranch.

We’ve asked the federal government for extensive records to explain the killing of M56 and hundreds of other predators. So far, they haven’t provided them. As I noted in my story about the obscure agency known as Wildlife Services:

“[W]ithout public disclosure, it’s impossible for us to know whether they kill to protect endangered species or simply because predators did what predators do, attacking goats, sheep or chickens that weren’t adequately protected. It isn’t possible to know whether the deaths of more than 1,500 coyotes, foxes, mountain lions and bobcats were necessary for the public good or because, as in this case, livestock owners rejected more secure fencing.”

We Would Never, Ever Tell the Police Department ‘I Told You So’. But we might write it. A year ago, our Keegan Kyle reported on a growing trend at the San Diego Police Department. It was clearly shifting away from a proactive policing policy that once won acclaim. Instead, it was becoming reactive to crimes rather than reaching out to the community to prevent them in the first place.

When Kyle wrote the story, police pushed back. They insisted we’d gotten it wrong.

Now, the department is seeking a big boost to its budget. And, turns out, it’s now OK to admit that the trend we identified is happening after all. As Kyle wrote: “But now, in a new report to the City Council, police say their ties to the community have become stressed. They’re seeking more funding — $66 million over the next five years — and argue the money would help restore some of the proactive functions they’ve lost.”

Without the money, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne told the City Council this week that a recent uptick in crime would likely continue.

The Chief Might Want to Double-Check His Numbers: So, chief, about those crime stats.

When Lansdowne told the City Council that crime was going up (while asking for more money), he distorted crime trends in the city, Kyle writes. “In its push for more funding, police compared current crime levels against one of the most unusual periods in city history. … Criminologists generally discourage comparing crime over short periods like the Police Department did. They put more weight behind annual totals since crime can fluctuate radically in a matter of months.”

Cut the stats another way, and they actually show that crime is down this year compared to 2008 or 2009 and flat when compared to 2010.

Wait just a second, the police chief is using wobbly numbers? This sounds familiar. Our Will Carless investigated and revealed Lansdowne’s history of inaccuracies with crime stats way back in 2007.

Quick News Hits

• The suspected gunman in the Colorado theater massacre grew up in San Diego. NBC San Diego is following the story closely. James Holmes lived in Ranch Peñasquitos and is a 2006 graduate of Westview High School.

• With all the talk about San Diego Unified having cut its budget to the bone, class sizes must’ve grown, right? Not so much. The district has fewer teachers, but even fewer students. Keegan Kyle explains and highlights how the school district is shrinking in some must-see graphics. In short: It’s actually possible that because the district brought back the 1,500 educators it laid off, class sizes will actually shrink this fall.

• George Gorton, the Republican political operative who helped elect Pete Wilson is joining an anti-Bob Filner political action committee, the U-T San Diego reports.

Why does this matter? Turns out Gorton’s quite a character. So much so that we spent months trying to figure out his strange and wild life (and his worries that he was poisoned while clandestinely working on Boris Yeltsin’s presidential campaign) a couple of years ago. Here’s the story we came back with.

Number of the Week, Part I

4.

— The number of freeways a mountain lion called M56 successfully crossed before being shot after eating sheep on a ranch in Japatul.

Number of the Week, Part II

2.

— The number of mountain lions, including M56, that have been killed in San Diego County after eating livestock kept in an open pen.

Quote of the Week

“I’m not going to give my endorsement cheaply,” City Councilman Tony Young on the mayor’s race.

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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