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Roundtable: Balboa Park, Bridgepoint, Backcountry Killings

July 13, 2012 12:59 p.m.

Guests: Roger Showley, UT San Diego

Liam Dillon, VoiceofSanDiego

Rob Davis, VoiceofSanDiego

Related Story: Roundtable: Balboa Park, Bridgepoint, Backcountry Wildlife Killings

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

SAUER: I'm Mark Sauer, filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh. This is the Roundtable on KPBS Midday Edition. Joining me are Roger Showley of UT San Diego.
SAUER: Liam Dylan from VoiceofSanDiego.org.
DILLON: Hello.
SAUER: And also Rob Davis.
DAVIS: Thanks very much, mark.
SAUER: We'd love to have our listeners join our conversation. If you have a question or comment, that number is toll free, 1-888-895-5727. So with the City Council voting 6-1 to accept Irwin Jacobs' plan to remove cars from the Plaza De Panama in Balboa Park, it would seem it's all over. But the shouting goes on. So do the lawsuits from save our heritage organization and others. The Jacobs plan was passed at Monday's contentious City Council meeting. And I'll note that Irwin Jacobs is a supporter of KPBS. Roger, a steppe back question, why did we want cars out of the park to begin with?
SHOWLEY: Well, as you probably know, the Balboa Park center was created for the 1915 California Panama expedition, and we're going to be celebrating the 100th anniversary in three years. Many plans over the city have called for returning the Plaza De Panama outside the museum of art into a pedestrian zone. Last year, Irwin Jacobs and the mayor came up with this plan to eliminate cars from the center of the park and divert them on a bypass bridge over to a new parking garage.
SAUER: So it's not often a civic project engenders the kind of passions that we saw at that meeting and long before that. Why is that? Why all the drama and the angst?
SHOWLEY: Well, this is not the first time there's been a big controversy at the City Council. Any time there's a big issue, it's filled with people pro and against. The reason this was so vehemently fought over is Balboa Park is San Diego's crown jewel, it's been our cultural center for 100 year, and people have a very possessive interest in every square inch of that park. This is probably the most radical change to the park in a long time. And it will change people's habits and access into and out of the park. That's why it got a lot of people upset and interested.
SAUER: Seven hours was that meeting?
SHOWLEY: I sat through the whole thing. I went to the rally beforehand. I was there from, like, noon to 9:30, then I went to my office and wrote the story. So I was up until midnight.
SAUER: And Liam?
DILLON: No, I was able to get out of this one.
SAUER: Wow!
SHOWLEY: What a coward!

[ LAUGHTER ]

DILLON: No, my colleague Kelly Bennett did a fantastic job.
SAUER: Okay. You guys oughta get a differential. Were any minds changed in seven hours? What happened?
SHOWLEY: No, I don't think there was any great cheering at the end. Sherry Leitner was the one person who voted against it. Her main reason was that the parking garage would be charging for parking in for the first time in modern Balboa Park history. And she and some other council members wondered whether the charges levied there will be enough to cover the annual bond payments. The pro side from Jacobs are saying this is the one time we're able to change this park in all the years of debate. And there were 21 alternatives. Every one of them had arguments for and against, so there's never going to be a perfect plan for this. And this is the way it came out.
DILLON: What was interesting to me is that the sort of remarkable emotional vitriol that came out on both sides of the situation. The city's most prominent benefactor is giving away $25†million to accomplish a goal of getting cars out of the park that everyone seems to want. In the one hand, you sort of can't quite get where the conspiracy theorys and emotion came when someone is giving away to the city $25†million. But in the other sense, I kind of do get it. I think people get rightfully concerned about the idea of a rich person deciding what happens to the city's most beloved public asset, simply because they're a rich person. I think one of the biggest criticisms is that Jacobs didn't change much of the project from beginning to end. And again, given this is an asset that the entire city enjoys, there's a question why people would get upset at that one guy.
SHOWLEY: This is just one of numerous example was San Diego being cheap. If we had the money, we would do it ourselves and work it out to come up with the best plan which is really what the master plan for Balboa Park did in 1989. The difference here was that Jacobs as an engineer had an engineering solution in mind, and that's what he presented. And many people came up with alternative, but he did not budge from his concept, which was to get all the cars and parking out of the center of the park, not just in one section as the master plan calls for.
SAUER: We've got a caller. Peter, go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: I'm really excited about the adoption of the plan. I'd like to just point everybody's attention to the pedestrian usage of the east Prado. All summer long and every weekend, the east Prado is just jammed with pedestrian use, and I really see that flowing into the plaza and into the west Prado. I'd like to take issue with actually -- somebody said that it was Jacobs and the mayor who came up with this. I think it was the result of years of consideration of alternatives. But maybe that's splitting hairs. I'm thrilled with the result.
SAUER: Okay. Very good. Thanks very much for calling. Do you think it's going to increase pedestrian traffic and more usage in other --
SHOWLEY: Well, the question came up about the east Prado yesterday, and I looked it up, and it was closed in 1972, 40 years ago, and it's taken all this time to chose the west Prado. And you're right. The change is remarkable, and the activity and fun along the east Prado is obvious. I think the problem that people -- it wasn't brought up in any of the meetings, but I think the problem in this concept is what's going to happen in the offhours when people are not there in the park and The Old Globe isn't playing and it's just kind of a quiet Wednesday? What's going to happen to these two spaces? It may seem pretty blank and uninteresting and kind of scary if you're there by yourself with 20 other people in this 3-acre area. So the big issue, or the details to me, is how are we going to program this space when it's all done? If it is done. Soho has not filed a lawsuit. They only said they're planning to do so.
SAUER: Oh,ing -- I'm glad you corrected that. Josephine, go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: From my understanding, the alteration of the park, adding a bridge and whatever they're doing to the Cabrillo bridge, adding eight new buildings, including the parking structure, all of that essentially is going to remove the historic status that Balboa Park has. And once that historic status is gone, there's very little that's going to stop the development of that park, which could be expansive. It could include hotels, restaurant, shops, I mean basically at this point, the City Council has been bribed into allowing this plan to be approved, and there's nothing that's going to stop that plan from expanding into more commercialization of that park.
SAUER: Thank you very much.
SHOWLEY: Well, you're kind of jumping ahead of everything. The area that's affected is a national landmark. And it was approved by the national park service in 1977. Some opponents and critics have said if we build this bridge, it threatens the historic integrity of the landmark status. So ultimately, what could happen is that the national park service would hold meetings, have reports, go through a whole round of review of this, and at the end of the day, they could say San Diego, this is not a landmark anymore. Too bad.
SAUER: Does anybody care?
SHOWLEY: We care about it as a nice little Valentine to San Diego, but we never get any money from the landmark preservation from the federal government. And it's up to the public to keep other things from happening that might be bad for Balboa Park. So it could happen if Soho or somebody else asks the national park service to take away the status, which would be completely ironic since they're the ones that are big on preservation.
SAUER: Mel Shapiro is on with us. Go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I think this is a manufactureded crisis. You can get the cars out of the middle of the park there with a coat of red paint. Paint the land over red, it says no parking, and presto, the traffic problem has been solved. And you can take Mr. Jacobs' $31†million and use it to house the homeless. I think that's a better use of the money.
SAUER: Okay.
SHOWLEY: Well, when I was covering this for many year, I said that over and over again. All it takes is the mayor to say no more cars in the plaza, put up a no parking sign and it costs $10. The real reason why this has gotten to be such a great big project, the institutions object to losing 1†inch of parking space anywhere in the park, fear that losing one space will ruin their attendance. So if you go to the Plaza De Panama, I'd like to know how many people are listening, ever get to park there during a busy day because it's almost impossible. So you're right, they could have solved this with some participate and signs but they didn't.
DILLON: It's worth noting it's not just park --
DAVIS: It's not just parking in the park, it's also traffic through there. And the caller suggested that the Cabrillo bridge was going to close. It's not. But cars have to be routed around that, and that's what the plan accomplishes.
SAUER: Let's go back to that meeting. Liam you had written about Filner's appearance.
DILLON: Well, it's interesting. I'm covering the mayor election so obviously I'm following Filner and DeMaio. Now that they were two of the most polarizing candidates in the primary, they both made it through, it's interesting to watch and see in which ways they try to move to the middle and vacuum up the traditional San Diego moderates that tend to elect mayors.
SAUER: And on Monday, they're a few feet apart.
DILLON: But a mile apart in their approach! Filner, a haphazard absent minded professor sort of speech where he suggested -- questioned what would happen if Irwin Jacobs died, he brought out a Kate sessions look-alike. An almost zany performance. While DeMaio attempted to be more states man-like, which is not in keeping with what his personality has been up to now.
SAUER: But Filner was pretty definite in his stance on this particular issue. Mr. DeMaio has gone back and fourth, right?
SHOWLEY: Well, he never really went back and forth. He just never committed to anything until now.
DILLON: We've tried to say, hey, do you fooz? He said, well, I support it if you're going to use another word, and other activists, well, I oppose if you want to use another word. So he did go back and forth on this. Filner has been against it since day 1.
SAUER: Bruce Cohen of Soho called the idea of an extreme desecration of the park. Is this hyperbole?
SHOWLEY: Well, I think from the preservation standpoint, it is. It will change the look of the park, it will change the way you get into and out of the park. Desecration seems a little bit hyperbole. And unfortunately, Bruce put all his cards into this game and lost. And he worked on it very hard for months, two years, trying to get Jacobs to change his ideas and plan. And he didn't win. And he sort of ended up at the council meeting throwing up his hands and saying to hell with you, in a way. And the next morning he decided to sue the city. Now --
SAUER: Threatened to sue.
SHOWLEY: And they can do that. They can question the environmental impact report, they can go to the national park service and complain about the designation. They can say the city didn't follow its rules properly. They even dredged up an 1870 law which says the park shall be free forever.
SAUER: There's plenty of fees.
SHOWLEY: At the end of the day, they can challenge that. I think their goal, they told me is that we want to stop this from happening by 2015, and then we think no one will be interested after the centennial celebration so it'll all go away. That's kind of the strategy. I think the issue with Soho, and perhaps some of the emotion that came out over this was a failure of the supporters of the project to really understand the importance of grassroots coalition building. Soho is usually involved in these development project where is they come in early, they say here are my problems, and the developer goes, okay, we'll mitigate this, that, and the other. So Soho gets something out of the deal and they don't fight it. This is different. That mindset wasn't here. The same could be said for organized laborer. They were nowhere to seen. No one reached out to them to say hey, become a part of this
DAVIS: I think the irony of that is highlighted by the fact the preservationists who are fighting are don't want parking in the Plaza De Panama. But they just don't like the way that it's going to happen.
SAUER: Yeah, yeah. What was Jacobs' reaction?
SHOWLEY: To his credit, he met with many people. I don't know how many hours he spent on this, it's amazing. But he met with Bruce, the committee of 100 people, the architect, he met with lots of people. And he was at the entire council meeting for seven hours. So he has a lot of staying power, even into the we hours of the evening. So he was committed to it. And the one thing that people should give him credit for, he doesn't want his name on the centennial bridge. He's not seeking anything profitable. It really is a philanthropic effort. The only misgiving I have is that he came up with the plan, said heres, take it or leave it. Unfortunately the timing was such that mediation wasn't possible.
SAUER: We're going to hear a lot more about this story and more details when construction begins and as we move forward.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

SAUER: You're listening to the Roundtable on KPBS Midday Edition. Many listeners may not realize that realize that one of San Diego's largest employer's is ash burn university. It's operated by San Diego based bridgepoint education. It employs about 3,000 San Diegans to host its online courses. Liam, what was it denied accreditation?
DILLON: Ashford, which is a university based in Iowa, was denied accreditation fithe creditor for west coast schools. It's key not only for its legitimacy and the ability to transfer credits between schools, but also the company's business model. Accreditation allows schools to have access to federal financial I'd. That's the way bridgepoint, Ashford, and most of the subsidiaries make most of their money. It's just important to note that this doesn't affect anyone who's attending Ashford now, but it does greatly impact the company's near and long-term outlook. It's already feeling the effects of that. I checked this morning, and the stock is trading at less than $10, which is down about 70% from where it was.
SAUER: I heard it was down, like 1/3.
DILLON: 70 percent from the year high.
SAUER: I see. Have accreditation agencies always focused on student outcomes?
DILLON: Well, this has brought more into focus given there's been a lot of federal concern. Criticism of Ashford, Bridgepoint, has focused on the fact they have really low graduation rates, they spend more on recruiting students than helping students. The taxpayers are on the hook if the loans go sour, and if you don't finish at Ashford, and you don't have the capability to repay your loans, then the federal government is on the hook for that. That's where some of the focus has come down, and creditors are responding to that. And this is an unprecedented move to strike down Ashford's ability to be accredited.
SHOWLEY: Now, they have an out, don't they? By moving their people from here to the midwest? Tell us about that.
DILLON: That's a really, really good point. Why should you care if you report a student? Bridgepoint really have a huge impact on San Diego's economy, and it involves other aspects of civic life. They have about 3,900 employees, and five years ago, they were nothing.
SAUER: That's remarkable.
DILLON: A huge economic boom at a time when the city really needed it. So it's sponsored philanthropic stuff, a summer pops series for the symphony, one of the city's college football games, it's starting to give money to local politics. It supported Nathan Fletcher's failed mayoral bid. With the proposition B pension initiative that passed, they gave a lot of money to that. What was interesting, a key takeaway from what was happening, it looks like they may be able to retain their accreditation and legitimacy if they move some of their employees to the midwestern region where they are now currently accredited. Where the bricks and mortar school is actually based. Even if the company survives this hit, there's a really good chance that San Diego won't survive this hit.
SAUER: Oh, okay. So it's really going to be a down thing for us.
DILLON: Absolutely.
>> What is the possibility that the midwest people will take away their accreditation too?
DILLON: Well, they are up for review. So this is a question. But some of the analysts that were quoted in a great story the UT did on this this week said maybe if they get 50% of their employees into the midwestern region, they might look more favorably on that. Right now, I think the figure is somewhere around 30% of bridgepoint employees are in the midwest.
SHOWLEY: The substance of it, if they spend more money on marketing than they do on education, these other issues about the quality of their education and the defaults on student loans and whatever, it seems like that would threaten their accreditation in the midwest.
DILLON: Absolutely it would, it would. But there are a lot of schools that have poor graduation rates. A lot of schools that have poor student loan payback rates. University of Phoenix which is probably more well known is much worse than Ashford and bridgepoint is. Certainly it's a concern. But it's not necessarily unreasonable. But how much are they being made an example of for some of the concerns about online education rather than being the worst of the worst?
SAUER: Is there any politics involved? We had a U.S. Senator making some comments here recently.
DILLON: Any time there's a U.S. Senator involved, there's politics involved. Lives
DILLON: Tom harkin is from Iowa, which the bricks and mortar school, Ashford, is based in Iowa. But the jobs aren't there. The jobs are in San Diego.
SAUER: It's confusing a lot of people. If they're credited there, why do they have to be accredited here?
DILLON: The way the accreditation system works for higher education, it's based regionally. So there are somewhere around six accrediting agencies in the country. What Ashford was trying to do was get accredited in the west because most of their employees were here, and that was the logic they were following, rather than in their bricks and mortar institution, which is based in Iowa.
SAUER: Let's talk about for-profit college and universities to begin with. How is it for-profit? How do they make profit for San Diego's based bridgepoint? If
DILLON: Well, it's the same way that schools make money. It's tuition, right? And so that's obviously a big part of that. And where the federal government comes in, when you're getting -- when students are going to your school, 99% online, they have 100,000 students across the country, tuition is a huge part of that. And the federal government comes in because they give students loans to pay for these schools.
SAUER: And most schools are classified as nonprofit, but they may have all sorts of endowments and funds and grants, and people leave them money and that sort of thing. Among the complaints were the relatively small numbers of instructors for the relatively large number of students.
DILLON: That's correct. There's also a veterans component, another way to get federal money. But again, they argue that a lot of these people that they're educating, and the reason why their graduation rates are so low other nontraditional student, people who can take classes online, not go to a brick and mortar institution.
SAUER: We talk about qualifications of students, are they cherry picking folk who is have some government money behind them and their ability to pay?
DILLON: Well, they have a pretty vast recruiting effort. When we were writing about this, we heard stories and read articles about a boiler room type atmosphere trying to recruit students, folks just type in online education in Google, Bridgepoint pops up, they click on a sponsored links, they get on a list, and the list becomes a free for all for for profit places to reach out to them. They're increasingly becoming more and more of a player in San Diego. As I mentioned, they sponsor a series with the summer pops with the symphony, they are -- the bridgepoint education holiday bowl, which is one of the two college football bowls here every year. They are becoming increasingly involved in local politics as well.
SAUER: Now, bridgepoint ran into some trouble about a year ago. There were class action lawsuits. Iowa attorney general is investigating and the U.S. Senate.
DILLON: I don't believe they've gotten to the process where there's been a definitive decision on it either way. But it's a snowball effect. Once you have a U.S. Senator calling the company on the carpet, you have complaints that tend to be universal from around the country, you're going to see lots of people jumping onto the bandwagon.
DAVIS: I think the key takeaway for people who are interested in what Bridgepoint is doing, just look at its stock price. The entire business model of this company is completely thrown up and completely in question right now. And there's at least from the stock market, very little and increasingly lower expectations of what this company is going to be able to produce in terms of profit, if any, going forward. And its stock dropped 35% in a day earlier this week. And today it's down 25% again. That is staggering. And I think that sends a really strong signal from people who are interested in profiting off of them profiting. They're very strongly questioning whether that is going to be sustainable.
SAUER: Now, does that say something about for-profit models in general and stock trading in universities?
DAVIS: Absolutely. I think that it's just a strong reflection that people who are interested in making money off of their money-making don't think that it has the same power that it did a day ago, or six days ago.
DILLON: Yeah. It's very interesting. We contrasted in the story we did about a year and a half ago, looking at their impact in San Diego, they benefited in the beginning because of friend he regulations. So what they did in their ino vationin the for-profit market, instead of trying to start a school from scratch, which is a very long process, they went out and bought a school. So they purchased a struggling school in Iowa, which they renamed Ashford university. And by doing that, they basically bought the accreditation too, which allowed them to really ramp up their product at a rate they wouldn't have been able to do if they started from scratch. And here the regulators are acts against them, and look at what happens.
SHOWLEY: We can address the quality of education, but the concept they have is remarkable. It basically applies to regular universities and courses where you can take online courses rather than going to the campus. When I looked into this, I discovered the online courses are not the same as you would expect. You don't watch a lecture by anybody. You don't actually interact with anybody personally. The professors. You never meet anybody in the class like some of the other for-profit, and it's all completely online. They send you materials to read, and you answer questions. So the downside of the whole idea from bridgepoint, I think Swhat good is your diploma when you're done with it?
SAUER: Doesn't sound like a lot of fun in the fraternity house.
SHOWLEY: I think there are plenty of adults who need to go to college and they want to, and this is the best way to do it. The question is, what are they getting out of their $20,000 a year, whatever they're spending on these expensive courses?
MAUREEN SAUER: Do you think when folks sign up for this, they kind of know what they're getting into it?
SHOWLEY: Well, when I asked some students, disgruntled students about this, they said they had to take a course on how to use a computer, and it cost them $900 for a two-week class. So the school could easily make some money without getting any student back. So I don't know if they're really focused on the substance of what they do, or any of these others, and that I think is kind of the basic policy question. If we're going to have higher education, what are you going to get from it? And in a way, their approach, their model is up for question.
DILLON: To bring it full circle, what are the outcomes that we're looking for? If we're looking at the outcomes being graduation rates and ability to pay back loans, they're not doing very well. And who knows what sort of nonmetric --
SHOWLEY: And they don't have any job office where you can go and say I have my diploma, can you help me get a job? I asked and they said, no, most of our students already have jobs. This is just for their internal improvement. So they don't help the students in their career, it's up to you.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

SAUER: You're listening to the Roundtable on KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Mark Sauer. Roger Showley of UT San Diego, Liam Dylan, and rob Davis from VoiceofSanDiego.org. Rob, I want to read the lead of your article. "A little known federal agency is leaving a trail of death in San Diego County, exacting a body count large enough to stock the San Diego zoo five times over." That's pretty amazing. What agency? What are they doing? What's going on?
DAVIS: So there is a branch of the U.S. department of agriculture called wildlife services. And it employs trappers that go out and kill animals. If I am a rancher and a mountain lion has killed my goat, or if I am even a government agency, and I am sworn to protect endangered species, like the California lease turn Z, I would turn to them to come and kill the great blue herons or the egrets who are endangering those animals.
SAUER: Favor comment or opinion or question, call us at 1-888-895-5727. What's behind the idea of killing the animals? What's the mission?
DAVIS: Well, the mission as the agency puts it is to resolve conflicts between wildlife and people. But the why is at this point a little bit of a mystery. We sent the federal government a request for an extensive number of documents. I asked them for everything that they had about every animal that they killed in this county since 2005. And after a month, they sent back 19 pains of information. So they worked here for seven years and documented all their work in the stunningly efficient 19†pages of information.
SAUER: Geez! So many more questions at this point than we have answers for.
DAVIS: Well, yeah, exactly. I want to know when they killed animals, I want to know why they killed animals, I want reports that I know exist because they refuse to give me for every bobcat, pig, and mountain lion that they killed in this county. I want a database that they maintain of every animal that they've killed. The takeaway here is that this agency and its secrecy are making it impossible for me and for the public to judge their work. And elsewhere, it's been found to be indiscriminate, inhumane, and in some cases illegal. And I want to know if any of that is happening here. And though they're a public agency, working on the public's behalf, they have not provided the information that would allow the public to come to those judgments.
SAUER: Now, some of the information you do have, and what we do know, is that it appears some of these animals certainly weren't killed as part of their mission, right?
DAVIS: Right. There were about two dozen animals that were unintentionally killed or not targeted and killed. We're talking about house finches, which if you have a bird feeder in your backyard, and there's a little red-headed bird that comes up to it, that's a house finch. They accidentally killed two bobcats. They killed horned larks, which are another type of common song bird. And then they also killed some animals for which there's no explanation in what they provided me. They gave me a list of every animal they killed, then they gave me a list of all of the damage that had been reportedly done by animals in the county. So they killed two meadow larks, which any bird watcher would know they've got a bright yellow chest and a beautiful song, they killed two of them. Meadow larks feed on insects. They're small little guys, and there was no explanation for why they died.
SHOWLEY: Well, the insects obviously sued the birds. Lives
SAUER: Well, that's rather remarkable. Did you find some that did seem justified?
DAVIS: Well, I don't know yet. I don't have enough information to make that judgment. They killed about 300 American coots, which are a small duck-like creature that is in the rale family. And they like to, if you pardon me, poop on golf courses. And they like to swim in swimming pools. So they trapped and killed 3,000, they shot some, they poisoned some, and they captured some by hand and I don't know how they killed those.
SHOWLEY: You keep going on about they, but I gather this is not federal general services people on a salary doing this. Who are the hunts men doing these things?
DAVIS: They are trappered that are employed by the U.S. department of agriculture.
SHOWLEY: Are they government employos or contract employees?
DAVIS: There are many employees that are working for the federal government. They don't hire Bob's Creature-killing company to do this. These are staffers working for the agency that go out and kill animals.
>> So how many are there?
DAVIS: I don't know. They didn't tell me.
SAUER: That's one of the questions we've got to answer. Jim, you're with us.
NEW SPEAKER: Some of the wildlife services is really important in San Diego for the protection of nesting lease turns. I think I read auto-Internet the reason they have to kill meadow larks is apparently they go after the eggs of lease turns. So that's at least why some of those are taken. And a lot of the other, you know, birds of prey are taken -- I think they try to relocate most of them. But that's one of the big jobs in San Diego. And I think without what they do, we probably would have no nesting success of lease turns and snowy plover, since we reduced their habitat to the extent the places they're going to be nesting are going to be very predictal.
SAUER: Okay, thanks very much. That goes back to the issue of the lack of information. There seems to be a certain legitimate purpose here. But we just can't see a full picture at all.
DILLON:
DAVIS: Exactly. I mean, they killed an average of seven animals a day since 2005. And I think that it is -- and this is my assumption here as a reporter, it's entirely reasonable for the public to ask why and to be given the information that would allow you to answer that question. And there may be explanations for why each of those animals died. But I'm entitled to see them. And our listeners are entitled to see them, and the public is entitled to see them. And the government is not giving them out in a prompt manner.
SAUER: So Liam, you deal with them, we all do. Is this business as usual? Do you see this as normal for federal agencies?
DILLON: Well, there's what may be normal and there's what may be acceptable. I don't think it's in any way acceptable, no matter what the agency is, no matter what the state agency is.
SAUER: It's public money.
DILLON: What the special district is, whatever it is. The public has a right to know what you do, period, end of story. There's probably no more invaluable right that the public has with their tax money. Of
DAVIS: We're not talking about the CIA and Pakistan. We're talking about trappers going out and killing wildlife that belongs to the people. And we just want the ability to review that work and insure that it is not being done indiscriminately, inhumanely, or illegally.
SHOWLEY: In your story, you say San Diego isn't alone in this. This all started with the Sacramento bee story. And that leads me to think this is a national issue. And you think that senators and congressmen are going to jump on the bandwagon and say I want you down here today and tell me what this is all about.
DAVIS: This is happening across the west. They kill millions of animals a year. And so along the way they kill some housepets. And so, yeah, the Sacramento Bee did a groundbreaking series earlier this year looking at this agency, and some of the mistakes that it makes and that it has made. And that's prompted lawsuits from environmental groups, that has prompted questions from Congress. And so my goal here is to figure out just what's going on in our backyard.
SAUER: You asked a spokeswoman with the USDA to explain many of the killings and answer many of the questions you have. What do they say when you get them on the line?
DAVIS: Well, I asked them, for instance -- I was talking about what records they had, and I was trying to explain to them exactly what I wanted when I used the word "all." And they were talking about a database that they have that they maintain of every animal that they kill and how they do it and when they do it, and the exact information I had asked for. And I asked them, well, why don't you just send me that database? And they actually laughed at me, which is really stunning and I think offensive that an agency would respond with that type of arrogance to a member of the public's request for the public's information.
SAUER: What about the congressional delegation here in San Diego County? If you were to call up any of our Congress folks and bring this to their attention, are they sympathetic to the public having a right to know this?
DAVIS: That's a good question. If they're listening, they should call in and let us know. My goal for covering this agency is to roll out a series of stories in the coming weeks looking at their operations here. So I haven't drawn any conclusions yet about whether some of the deaths were avoidable or not. And that's a question I hope to be answering in the coming days and weeks. Once I have sorted that out, those folks may be on my list of people to call next.
SHOWLEY: Have you found any ranchers who have dealt with this service and asked them are you calling for help?
DAVIS: Yeah, I haven't yet. I've been focused on trying to get very basic answers to very basic questions. And then from there, jumping off into the specific issues, like you've killed seven mountain lions here in the county since 2005. What were the circumstances of each of those deaths? That's what my next piece is going to focus on. For the rancher, why were your sheep kept in a pen that didn't have a roof on it? Or why would you call? What problems do you have with coyotes or bobcats? The issue I'm having now is that that's a layer of complexity, or a question with a layer of complexity that can't be gotten to until the government bothers to send me information that I am rightfully entitled to.
SAUER: You've got to get smart to some degree before you can even ask some of the meaningful and probing questions. What about the USDA itself? Do they exercise much oversight over the wildlife services?
DAVIS: I don't know yet. There has been a push from the environmental community, and I think that it's telling that this agency belongs to the USDA, which is focused on farming and livestock, and ranching, as opposed to the Department of the Interior which is focused on maintaining the delicate balance between people and nature, people and wildlife. And so that's another question that needs to be asked. The office of the inspector general for the USDA has looked at this agency somewhat, but another question for my list.
SAUER: Now, you created a stir as I read at the outset. Your lead here, it is a startling story. What sort of response have you got sense your initial story hit on this?
DAVIS: Well, I've gotten dozens of e-mails from people who have said give them hell. We're owed answers on this. And there have been people as well who have said you're overdramatizing what they're doing, and there's a purpose to it. And again, there may be. But we should be able to figure that out.
SHOWLEY: This is interesting in a bigger sense. It really illustrates San Diego's, what you call urban-rural interface, where we're trying to live with nature and still not ruin it.
SAUER: We hear that with the wildfires all the time. Now we're learning about it with wild animals.
SHOWLEY: I could see how the service is in a bind. Which way do I go? Do I protect a lion and not a sheep or something? It's a conflict in sight, isn't it?
DAVIS: Absolutely. I talked to one person who worked for that agency who said often what I did when I went out to somebody who had called for assistance was to council them on what's called good animal husbandry, which is if you have goats, sheep, chicken, whatever in the back country, there are steps that you need to take just as you would if you had a dog and you lived near the 15. So that's certainly something they do. They're not just going out and machine-gunning everything that moves. And I don't presume that to be the case.
SAUER: So far, it's a real story about accountability.
DAVIS: Exactly.
SAUER: We're going to see something next week perhaps on this?
DAVIS: Absolutely.
SAUER: Very good.


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