San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio's office is responsible for a slew of complaints filed against CityBeat vendor boxes this year.
Sort of. It's kind of a complicated and less-sinister situation. Rather, it's what happens when a government official indulges a single, hyperactive constituent.
In August, CityBeat learned of an uptick in complaints regarding the state of the red boxes around town that contain free copies of our paper. The complaints were mostly limited to Hillcrest and focused on graffiti.
In San Diego, newspapers must obtain permits for newsracks at a cost of $15 per rack per year, and it's the responsibility of the publishers to keep those things clean. A 2012 report from the San Diego County Grand Jury discovered gaping holes in the regulation system, finding that 39 percent of newsracks didn't have permits and 28 percent had graffiti or stickers.
All of CityBeat's approximately 140 racks are permitted, but the paper still struggles with the never-ending battle against vandalism. CityBeat's been fined in the past for maintenance issues, but not this year so far.
"It's not easy to keep up," CityBeat publisher Kevin Hellman says. "It's getting worse all over the city, especially in Hillcrest and North Park. We clean one day, tagged the next. Pacific Beach used to be the worst spot. Now it's Hillcrest."
Graffiti is indeed a widespread problem in the area, but it's not a city issue when it occurs on private property.
"I find that there are organizations—and CityBeat is one of them—that when you call them and say the newsracks look bad, they fix it," says Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association. "This isn't about news boxes. There's a graffiti problem we're trying to deal with, but the constructive way to deal with it is to go work with the property owners."
The earliest report was filed in April 2012, when a document called a "Citizens' Assistance Route Slip" was received by the city's Neighborhood Code Compliance office, complaining about graffiti on 10 of CityBeat's newsracks in Hillcrest, complete with photos. Periodically over the next few months, new route slips were filed about our boxes.
On all the Hillcrest slips, the blank for "Citizen's Name / Address Making the Complaint" was filled in with "D5 Staff"—that is, DeMaio's council office.
Our conspiracy engine started to cycle as we noticed several of the complaints more or less coincided with negative coverage of DeMaio's mayoral campaign. Some of the repeat complaints were registered against the two boxes closest to the offices of San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, a website run by DeMaio's partner, Johnathan Hale, with whom CityBeat has long been at odds. Hale had previously posted a photo of one of our damaged boxes to his Facebook page with the note, "I didn't do this I swear."
It stunk of retaliation—it also turned out to be a red herring. Well, reddish.
Hale's staff denied any involvement in the complaints. DeMaio's council office, which usually ignores our inquiries, spoke to us directly to explain that it didn't initiate the complaints. But it did file the route slips.
In May 2011, DeMaio's office spent $9,900 to launch a "311" smart-phone app that would allow members of the public to more easily report issues such as potholes, illegal dumping, dead animals and graffiti. Using the CitySourced app, a citizen can snap a picture of the problem, geo-tag it, then send it off. The complaint is then accessed by a DeMaio staffer, who fills out the route slips and forwards them to city administration. The user gets a notice through the app when the problem's been resolved.
A review of the app's logs shows that virtually all of the complaints against CityBeat's newsracks came from one user assigned the anonymous handle "Citizen52296."
But that's not all. That same user is responsible for the majority of the complaints (easily more than 500) forwarded by DeMaio's office regarding Hillcrest. The 92103 ZIP code, which covers Hillcrest, accounts for roughly 25 percent of the 3,428 properly coded complaints reported through the app, largely due to Citizen52296.
"Absolutely, [the app] has increased our workload significantly because of a number of complaints coming in through it," says Tony Khalil, the senior civil engineer who supervises Neighborhood Code Compliance. "For us, it comes all through the app from that council office, although that council office doesn't represent the bulk of the areas that it's being recorded from."
As a matter of policy, route slips are the department's top priority, Khalil says, and DeMaio's app has resulted in the unintended consequence of an imbalance in services, with more resources diverted to combating graffiti in Hillcrest, particularly along University Avenue.
"It just slows down our response time to other areas," Khalil says. "You're working with a fixed number of employees, and if you constantly have to respond to one specific area, you're taking them away from other areas."
We continued our pursuit of Citizen55296 through public-records requests, eventually digging up an email address and a name—Jim Smithson.
Smithson agreed to meet at the Starbucks at the Uptown District Shopping Center off Vermont Street and University. He was wearing dark sunglasses and had his gray hair tucked under a black baseball cap. Smithson showed us his iPhone, with which he's logged more than 325 graffiti reports. Before that, he used a Droid, and before that an earlier generation iPhone.
"I don't know if that's a little bit too much, but as a citizen, it's the least I can do to help my city out," Smithson, a resident of San Diego since 1998, said. "I love this neighborhood. It's a really great place to live, work, shop, eat, party and so forth. At the same time, I don't really do it for anybody else. I really do it as my own little personal mission, and if people notice it, that's awesome."
Smithson says he doesn't have a grudge against CityBeat; it's just that we have a lot of newsracks in Hillcrest. He doesn't have any affiliation with DeMaio and doesn't even support him for mayor, though he gives him props for promoting civic engagement with the app. The proximity of SDGLN's office is a coincidence; he just happens to live nearby, and it's on the route he takes to the gym.
He led us on a brief walk to demonstrate his technique. He reported graffiti on a light pole, on a wall, on an empty Homes news rack. We timed him on a stopwatch: It never took him more than 45 seconds to lodge a complaint. Sometimes he'd stop to pick up a piece of trash or to peel off a sticker.
"Everybody bitches and complains about taxes; everybody will sit there and want the government to do this with limited resources," Smithson said. "I look at it as I can be part of the solution."
But sometimes being part of the solution means causing new problems. We left him with a handshake and a request to save the city some effort by emailing us directly the next time he sees a CityBeat box that needs cleaning.
Send complaints about our vendor boxes to firstname.lastname@example.org.