Aug. 22 2012 09:44 AM

10 ways CityBeat's made an impact on civic affairs

Horn teaches Life Perspectives
Photo illustration by Adam Vieyra

If you think of San Diego's political landscape like an ocean bay, then CityBeat has been sitting atop the cliffs for the last 10 years, chucking stories like stones into the water. We don't do it just to entertain ourselves; it's our hope that everyone in their comfy little houseboats moored along the dock will notice the ripple. Sometimes, we're able to wedge a great big boulder into the water. Other times, we'll skip pebble after pebble after pebble until it gets annoying, and then skip a few more just to remind you we're still here.

Today, if you look beneath San Diego's surface, you'll find a sedimentary layer composed of old issues of CityBeat. For our 10th anniversary, we fueled up the trawlers of our memory and dredged up these 10 story arcs and features that we think made the biggest splashes.

1. Election endorsements: The rent may be too damn high, but ballots are also too damn long, and we realize that a scary number of our readers rely on us to distill down and offer our recommendations. For our endorsements, we research the candidates and propositions thoroughly, seeking to balance progressive values with pragmatism, then lay it out in brutally blunt terms.  Often we bloody our chosen candidates more than the opponent we want them to defeat. Nevertheless, CityBeat's endorsements have become highly desired by candidates vying for votes from the left. It's difficult to measure the impact. Anecdotally, moderate Democrat Scott Peters says it was "critical" to his victory (by less than 1,000 votes) over hardline lefty Lori Saldaña in the 52nd Congressional District primary this past June. Statistically, we've made more than 300 endorsements during the last 10 years. Roughly 52 percent of our endorsements in local races turned out to be successful, 58 percent were successful over all. Not bad for a bunch of fringe pinkos, right?

2. Homeless Person of the Week: In late spring, 2007, we came up with an idea—each week for one year, we'd do a short profile of someone who's homeless: What was that person's story? How'd they end up on the street? The point of the feature was to put names and faces to a population too often seen as a homogenous group. We also hoped it would be a rallying call—at that point, the regional Plan to End Chronic Homelessness was all plan and no action. The feature wrapped up in June 2008, and Kelly Davis wrote a post-mortem: "It's safe to say we're ending on a note of frustration," she concluded—the project didn't seem to have effected much change. But, in the years since, we've learned that's not true. Downtown residents and beat cops have told us that it helped change their perspective on the homeless; readers still regularly ask us to resurrect the feature. We have no plans to do so, but all 49 profiles are still easily accessible under the "News" tab in the menu bar.

3. The Vortmann memo: On Feb. 2, 2005, we published a story by Daniel Strumpf that made public a memo written in April 2002 by Dick Vortmann, who'd been a member of then-Mayor Dick Murphy's Blue Ribbon Committee on City Finances. The memo, sent to other members of the committee, along with two city finance officials and a Murphy aide, expressed Vortmann's "growing and daunting concern that we possibly did our city a disservice by not ringing a very loud bell" about the looming financial storm heading the city's way. The memo referenced bonds the city issued to finance construction of Petco Park, leading some critics to speculate that city officials were painting a too-rosy picture so as not to derail ballpark financing. Murphy told Strumpf that the memo never got to him. The story was considered a bombshell at a time when the city was the subject of numerous investigations.

4. Carl DeMaio: Whenever the labor unions complain that the media isn't holding San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio accountable for his distortions, we have to gently remind them that we've been on that little goober's case since May 2004, when John R. Lamb was among the first to profile the "government budget geek." We've exposed how he's abused his office budget, misled voters on ballot initiatives, cheated on his Wikipedia page, booted children off a playground for a photo op, bullied colleagues, lied about a partnership with a homeless-services organization and just generally used every opportunity to score the maximum amount of media points while actually governing as little as possible. When DeMaio, a gay Republican running for mayor, was booed during the 2012 San Diego Pride Parade, it had little do with labor (as DeMaio's partner claimed) and lots to do with our reports that DeMaio sold out the LGBT community to anti-gay lawyer Charles LiMandri.

5. Sex offenders: Since April 2008, Kelly Davis' reporting has sought to show the impact of Jessica's Law, the 2006 ballot measure that limits where sex offenders on parole can live, forcing many into homelessness. For a September 2010 story, she hung out with a group of sex offenders who, each night, bedded down in an alley near a parole office. Many of them were on parole for a non-sexual offense, but because they'd committed certain crimes in the past, Jessica's Law applied to them. That story and others highlighted the extensive research by criminal-justice experts and by the state's Sex Offender Management Board showing that where an offender lives has no influence on whether that person will commit a new offense—and that though media reports make it seem otherwise, sex offenders have one of the lowest rates of recidivism. Davis' reporting won a national award last year.

6. Life Perspectives: In July 2010, staff writer Dave Maass discovered that county Supervisor Bill Horn, an evangelical right-winger, had earmarked more than $80,000 in county grants over three years for a nonprofit organization that generates Bible-based K-12 lesson plans designed to indoctrinate children with pro-life and anti-gay worldviews. The La Mesa-based group, Life Perspectives, mostly used the grants to pay for its annual "Life Walk" fundraiser; in return, Horn got his name advertised on the fundraiser's promotional materials and T-shirts. That's a big, fat, church-state no-no. The story prompted the county to immediately suspend the most recent grant before the check could be cashed. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Supervisors voted to overhaul the rules for how these kinds of grants may be divvied out.

7. The Maryland Hotel: In late 2002, we got a tip that a developer planned to flip the 200-room residential hotel into an upscale "boutique hotel" and that residents—seniors, mentally ill and disabled folks—were given 30 days to move out. CityBeat was the first to report on their plight and the shady maneuvering of the hotel's new owners, who tried to bribe a tenant to drop her appeal against their permit, issued eviction notices two days before a state law took effect that would have given tenants an additional 30 days and finally made the hotel virtually uninhabitable by refusing to empty the trash. Despite having a single-room-occupancy (SRO) ordinance in place to protect Downtown's dwindling supply of low-income housing and the people living there, the city said it was too poorly written to be enforced. Attorneys Cory Briggs and Ann Menasche disagreed and, along with help from the city's Housing Commission, successfully fought to secure tenants more time and additional relocation assistance.

8. Call boxes: The San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies (SD SAFE) was the portrait of government waste. The agency was originally created to establish and manage an emergency roadside callbox network using funds generated from a $1 surcharge on vehicle registrations. With the rise of mobile-phone technology, the call boxes gradually became obsolete, but that didn't stop the agency from continuing to collect the fees and amassing $12 million in reserves. SAFE found new ways to spend money to justify its existence, including wacky marketing campaigns and unnecessary technology projects. After CityBeat's exposé ran, other media organizations jumped on the story. As a result of the collective attention and the work of San Diego City Councilmembers David Alvarez and Lorie Zapf, Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher introduced a bill that would dissolve SAFE. The bill's expected to pass with near unanimous support in September.

9. CLERB: In January 2010, Kelly Davis reported on a complaint filed by Danica James, an investigator with the county's Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB). James alleged that CLERB executive director Carole Trujillo had fired her after she refused to sign off on cases that, she felt, had been poorly investigated. This followed our report on efforts by Trujillo to revise CLERB's policies in a way that, observ ers told us, undermined the board's integrity. We stuck with the story and reported on how, under Trujillo's tenure—and for the first time in its almost 20-year history—CLERB was forced to dismiss dozens of allegations of law-enforcement misconduct under a rule that requires that cases be investigated within one year. Trujillo resigned in March 2010, leaving a backlog of cases that resulted in dismissals long after her replacement, Patrick Hunter, took over.

10. Jerry Sanders and Prop. B: Last month, Mayor Jerry Sanders found himself in a Glendale courtroom answering questions under oath about comments he made in a December 2011 interview with CityBeat editor David Rolland. The interview—in which Sanders explained why city-employee-pension reformers sidestepped negotiations with labor unions and instead launched a citizens initiative to overhaul the pension system—was played in court and is a key piece of evidence in labor's attempt to invalidate at least parts of Prop. B, which voters passed overwhelmingly in June. Under state labor law, the city of San Diego is barred from placing a measure like Prop. B on the ballot unless it makes a good-faith effort to haggle over the terms with the employee unions, so Sanders and Co. got some "citizens"—three Republican political insiders—to launch an initiative. That's an unfair labor practice, the unions argue.

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.

Email or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.

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