Roundtable: O'Connor Falls; Prop B Stumbles; Trolleys Unprotected; Sidewalks Crumbling
February 15, 2013 12:59 p.m.
Katie Orr, KPBS News
Tony Perry, LA Times
Brad Racino, I-Newsource/KPBS
Liam Dillon, Voice of San Diego
Related Story: Roundtable: O'Connor Falls; Prop B Stumbles; Trolleys Unprotected; Sidewalks Crumbling
ST. JOHN: This is the Roundtable. Today is Friday, February 15th. I'm Alison St. John. And joining me at the Roundtable, Tony Perry, great to have you with us.
PERRY: Good to be here.
ST. JOHN: Katie Orr, our KPBS news metro reporter.
ORR: Hi, Alison.
ST. JOHN: Also Brad Racino, the investigative reporter of Newsource and KPBS who's just nipped out for an important phone message, and Liam Dillon. Great to have you here.
ST. JOHN: We also like it when you join the Roundtable with questions and comments. So we're not talking about meteors today.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: Fortunately they aren't threatening San Diego. But it came as a shock to most of us yesterday when we heard that former San Diego mayor Maureen O'Connor was arraigned in federal court on charges of embezzling $2 million from her late husband's foundation. She married into money and had no children. So what could possibly have motivated her to do such a thing? The news that she has a gambling addiction helped to explain the mystery but opens up numerous questions. And Tony, you are covering this story, and you've been around a long time. You were around when Maureen O'Connor was mayor. Would you have seen this coming?
PERRY: You know I had a journalism teacher define news as something significant not previously known. This thing was significant times a billion and not previously known. Nobody knew this. She had really removed herself from public life, cut off people that she knew since leaving the mayor's office in 1992, and it hit like the meteor, very unexpectedly and with incredible impact. No, this is the last thing I would have thought. If someone a week ago had said I saw Maureen O'Connor out at the casino, my retort would have been, yes, and I bet you she has a dixie cup full of nickels putting them in one at a time. But no! She was writing 1 Hun thousand dollars checks to cover her gambling addiction to the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and the way the U.S. attorney and IRS total it up, she made a billion and lost a billion-plus, and $2 million of that was from the foundation that her husband, are the founder of jack in the box, and very, very wealthy, had left behind when he died in 1994. She syphoned up $2 million of it to feed her addiction, and even when she made money, she didn't put it back to replace it but fed it right back in, and they say she was doing video poker. I didn't know you could lose that amount of money, apparently you can, and she did.
ST. JOHN: Just before we go into the current situation, what is she remembered most for as mayor? Let's just establish the Maureen O'Connor that we remember.
PERRY: Well, there's very little similarity between her and any other politician given her history, elected to the City Council 1971 at age 25 from a sort of very famous Irish Catholic San Diego family, written up in Parade magazine, and the Wall Street journal, and all of that. Elected mayor in 1986 upon the heels of Roger Hedgecock being booted from office for some criminality. Along she comes as a reformer. She comes in in 1985 as a maverick populist if you will, Democrat, and it reelected in 1988, and leaves in 1992. She did the Russian arts festival. She was a major player behind getting the trolley that we are all now so proud of. She did things like interview a homeless person to see how homeless were treated in the City of San Diego. She prowled the streets, talked to hookers when we had a string of murders to see if she could solve that. There hasn't been anything like Maureen O'Connor in the mayor's office before and certainly not now after.
ST. JOHN: And she was the one who fought off a hostile takeover, I believe, by Southern California Edison. Well
PERRY: Well, she was a native 16, and as a native San Diegan, she despised all things Los Angeles.
ORR: As we all do.
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: So she blocked the San Diego police from ever wearing blue uniforms because the LAPD wear blue uniforms. She fought the takeover of the local utility successfully. She fought the metropolitan water district of Southern California when it wanted to cut back water in San Diego during what they called a drought and she didn't call a drought. And then mother nature bailed her out with what was called miracle March with rain. She was a fighter.
ST. JOHN: She was a fighter.
ORR: I think it's just so fascinating that these casinos, these things are packed, and there are cameras everywhere. The fact that nobody knew this. I wonder if it says anything about the time that she was mayor, maybe there was a little less -- I don't know, a different kind of media focus on the campaign. I just feel like now if it had been Jerry Sanders or Bob Filner or somebody, someone would have spotted him, and we all would have known.
PERRY: You know though, she had been gone for a long time. 20 years. A couple of years ago, she popped up at a community meeting and very few people in the audience and very few of the journalists knew her by sight. Now, there were people watching, called the internal revenue service. They watch this kind of stuff very closely, and when he started cashing $100,000 checks at the bel annualio, they started a file.
DILLON: For me what's interesting about this, it seems so based on her history out of character, right? She was known in office as I believe mayor goodie 2-shoes, and one of her vices was to skip out of City Hall and go to the movies during the day. These are the kinds of things that she was known for on the wild side, right? This is such a stark difference from that.
PERRY: And to hang out at casinos where there is smoking and drinking, neither of which she participated in when she was in public life? It is amazing. But --
ST. JOHN: So there's a brain tumor in this story.
PERRY: Brain tumor the size of a grapefruit, I guess, that was taken off during surgery in 2011. Her lawyer passed out pictures of her brain scan to convince reporters and the United States attorney admits that taking her to trial just wasn't an option. She wouldn't physically survive it. But she had been out of public life since 1992, her husband died in 1994, her really close friends started dying off, Helen Copley, Joan croft, and I guess while it's hard to feel super bad for the super wealthy, they can feel loam, and they feel they can only be friends with other super rich.
ST. JOHN: How significant a legal argument might it be that this brain tumor might have meant that she lost her sense of judgment? We've been joined by Brad Racino, by the way.
ST. JOHN: You were talking about how this may not be the first time that someone cited a brain tumor for an excuse for this kind of problem.
RACINO: Yeah, we were looking into something last year with a guy in San Diego in North County who was embezzling millions of dollars using a Ponzi scheme, and his defense was the brain tumor thing. And it just seems to me like it might be something that's kind of a any-to defense.
PERRY: There's always a reason why I'm a crook. Mamma didn't love me, I have PTSD from serving in Iraq, there's always an excuse. In this case, I think it wasn't so much the brain tumor but the medical evidence which the United States attorney believed that said this woman cannot stand trial. She'll keel over on ya. What do you get then? You spend years trying to convict her. She drops dead, and what do you get? Nothing. Here they cut a deal, two years if you're good, we can dismiss this. But you have to repay $2 million to the foundation, and you have to pay money in taxes. You start taking money from a foundation, putting it in your bank account, there are tax purposes, I think assistant U.S. attorney Phil Halpern was right on the nose, he said this is a very sad day for San Diego. She was San Diego, born and bred here, spent her whole life trying to make this city better, and now this. Draw a line though underneath all those attributes, the law is the law and you're not above the law. And a deal was struck.
ST. JOHN: Well, you have talked about some of the things that happened that could suggest that she was going through a lot of grief at this time. And there is a name, grief gambling. Do you think this raises questions about whether the casinos are taking advantage of people?
PERRY: Well, others have raised those questions, alcoholics anonymous, and gamblers anonymous, and all of that. That concern exists out there.
ST. JOHN: The UT San Diego to their credit today reported that there is a gambling addiction hot line at the state, and more than 10% of the 4,000-plus calls come from San Diego. Do you think we in San Diego should be more concerned about this since we have more casinos here?
PERRY: Sure. We've good all those Indian casinos, and that's an issue, and we could be on the firing line as it were because of this in San Diego County.
ORR: One thing, and I don't know how relevant this is, but I was at one recently for a friend's wedding. We went there and stayed, and I was shocked! I don't go to those casino, but apparently a ton of people do because we were there late at night, and this place was packed! You had to fight for a slot machine. So clearly there are many people in San Diego who take advantage of the casinos.
PERRY: And be they here or Los Angeles or Atlantic city, where Maureen O'Connor frequented all of them, they're make it easy for you! They bring drinks around and --
ST. JOHN: If they don't have a limo to take you, they'll meet you in a bus.
PERRY: Absolutely. You drive there in a $40,000 car and come home in a 1 quarter million dollars bus because you lost the car. They have make it easy for you to lose the money. There's a reason they make enough money to build those hotels. They're not nonprofit.
ST. JOHN: I do remember that the casinos, when they were given permission to open a casino had to contribute a certain amount of money to therapy for people who had gambling addictions. Do you think something like this with a very high profile person might kick in more investigation into whether the casinos are putting enough resources into that problem?
ORR: I don't think so. I think like Tony said, it might be notable while this is going on, but then it'll fade away. She claims she had a brain tumor that made her do this or she was going through some grief, you know Twasn't us, it was her physical state that caused her to do this. So I personally wouldn't anticipate anything being changed.
ST. JOHN: And one last question, the foundation that she took the money from had only three board members, one of them was her, one was her sister. Should we be worried about money that we contribute to the foundations?
PERRY: You should always be worried about what nonprofit organizations do with money you contribute. And there are good websites and organizations that vet them, to talk about how well they're doing. In this case, as you point out, there were three trustees, Maureen, her twin sister, and a longtime family Peterson/O'Connor family retainer, and they knew, hey, this foundation went belly-up in 2009, it had contributed money to Alzheimer's funds, Sharp Healthcare, other things having to do with crippled children and medical research. It was doing the lord's work, if you will. And it went belly-up because one of the trustees, Maureen O'Connor took $2 million, put it in her account, and gambled it away, claiming it was only a loan, or she was borrowing, which is illegal in and of itself. You can't use a nonprofit tax-exempt foundation as a piggy bank to raid for loans.
ST. JOHN: And I realize there is one last question to wrap this up, there is a source of money that she could get that $2 million from?
PERRY: Oh, indeed. She and her sister are suing a German bank that arranged the financing for some folks that bought the resort up in Mendocino county that the O'Connors owned. And if that lawsuit pays off in a settlement or a trial, that could be millions. That could bail her out. And that's one of the gambling points of the United States attorney, go to trial, she drops dead on us, we get nothing. Go to trial, maybe we lose. Go to trial and she settles with this German bank and uses that money to fight us, or cut a deal make her say I'm going to give you $2 million in restitution plus the taxes, and maybe if that lawsuit pans out, the United States taxpayer will get paid off and also that foundation will be made if not whole at least back alive.
ST. JOHN: Okay. We'll see how this sad story ends then.
ST. JOHN: Let's move on. Voters passed Proposition B last year, and it was hailed by its backers as the solution to San Diego's pension woes. Ever since the scandal after it was discovered just how much San Diego underfunded its pension plan, the city has been at the forefront of a discussion about pension reform. And it seemed that things were getting under control. But now this latest ruling has put the cat among the pigeons again, as they say. So voters are always shocked when measures they passed run into trouble with the judicial system. Remind us what prop B is supposed to do.
ORR: Prop B pension reform was the measure that was supported by Jerry Sanders, Carl DeMaio, and it switches most new city employees excluding police officers from a pension to a 401K system. It also would clement a 5-year pensionable pay freeze, what they call a base pay freeze on all current employees for five years. And the end result is supposed to save San Diego hundreds of millions of dollars.
ST. JOHN: So now what is the latest twist here?
ORR: After this passed, it passed last June, and someone says it passed with an overwhelming majority which is true, but it was only about a 30% turnout of the electorate. Although it did win in every district. You can make what you will of that. But it had even before it went to a vote, are the labor unions were trying to kill this initiative. They had filed the complaint with the public employment relations board, PERB, which is basically the state agency that's supposed to mediate disputes between governments and their labor unions. PERB tried to get the initiative taken off the ballot, that was turned down, then after it was approved, it still decided to take up the issue. So it's been going through the process, an administrative law judge at PERB has been hearing -- taking testimony and considering the complaints, and recently it came to the conclusion that the city acted improperly when it was working to get pension reform on the ballot. Basically PERB said that then mayor Jerry Sanders should have negotiated with the labor unions on this deal instead of supporting a ballot initiative process.
ST. JOHN: Okay, so why --
PERRY: Mayor Sanders and the redoubtable Carl DeMaio, they did a thing. They ran this initiative not as public officials but as regular people. Why? Because they know they should have met and conferred with the employee groups if they wanted to do this. But if some just regular folks who just happened to be the mayor and the City Councilman ran a petition drive, all would be well! The employees at the time said, yo, that's a little too cute for words! So once again, have we been caught looking for that silver bullet?
ORR: Well, the administrative law judge says yes, that mayor Sanders was not acting as a private citizen. He is the mayor. And as a strong mayor, he is the city's leader negotiator, and he has a responsibility to meet and confer with the labor union which is he did not do.
ST. JOHN: Are you surprised that Jan Goldsmith and mayor Sanders was not an issue?
DILLON: The city attorney?
ST. JOHN: Are yes,
DILLON: Well, it's important to point out as the 50 page ruling does that the incredible sloppiness on the part of the mayor and his team to at one point the mayor's spokesman was pitching a pension initiative to Bill O'Reilly to go on TV to talk about bloated pensions. In journalist speaking, you can't use city staff resources to campaign for a ballot measure. This is clearly what they were doing, and certainly contributed to the ruling here.
PERRY: Wouldn't you say that this is another piece of proof that the city employees -- well, all public employees have spent years building up political capital in the state, in the council --
ORR: Well, I don't know.
PERRY: And you can't come in with one cute maneuver and undo it? People who work all day, every day, protecting their rights have an advantage when you try these cute maneuvers.
ORR: What you would call a cute maneuver the labor unions would call illegal.
PERRY: I was being nice.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: Presumably, the labor unions are jubilant about this.
DILLON: Well, are absolutely. And this could be the middle of a continual process that frankly has been going on since 2002 when some of these pension shenanigans came to light. This was supposed to be the end game, but this is something that basically both sides are digging in for what could be a year's long fight, and in the meantime, no one knows what's going to happen except the city attorney is saying we're just going to keep going until someone tells us to stop.
PERRY: Jan Goldsmith came in and said the era of litigation is over, that it ended when Mr. Geary went into private life. It seems like the era of litigation is still with us, and that seems to be the next move.
ORR: Yeah, and I have to say I did an interview with Goldsmith the other day, and I have never heard him as fired up as he was. I said so you're not going to back down, and he said we are not backing down! The state constitution gives citizens a right to an initiative, to sign petitions and put things on the ballot. We have a constitutional right to governor by initiative. And he says it's as sacred as you think the first amendment is being a journalist, and we are not backing down from there. It was interesting because he's a mild mannered guy.
ST. JOHN: So you have the rights of the voters and the rights to pass laws by initiative, but then you have the rights of the lake unions to meet and confer before things change.
ORR: The city attorney is maintaining that PERB is basically as bid organization, that they were always going to lose because PERB favors the unions he want in fact tried to get around PERB he want didn't want to go to them, and he went to the Court of Appeals and said can we just bypass them altogether, and they said no. Now they answer to appeal to a 3-member panel at PERB, then they can take it to the appeals court, then they can take it to the Supreme Court. So this can be years.
ST. JOHN: And why is this such an important issue? Would this affect governor Jerry Brown's pension reform? San Diego's reform goes beyond anything else that's been done, doesn't it?
ORR: Yeah, it's pretty revolutionary to switch public employees to a 401K system. I think a couple places have done it, but it's not widespread, and it's sort of a test case to see if San Diego, if this goes through and it's successful, you might see other jurisdictions starting to do this. But there's a huge amount at stake, especially for the labor unions. Pensions are a very valuable benefit. And if they lose them --
PERRY: What about that well-known friend of the working man and woman, mayor Bob Filner? How does he feel about it? He never liked prop B, said it was dreadful.
ORR: He has stayed pretty quiet on this so far. We haven't heard anything on the PERB ruling from him.
DILLON: Right, he hasn't said anything at all. And given the fact that this could take forever to get resolved, what he's going to do, whether he's going to fight Goldsmith on this, or whether he just says, listen, enough is enough. I can negotiate a deal that is similar to what prop B suggested. He says he wants to do a similar 5-year pay freeze with the employee groups as far as what prop B put in there. If he does that, maybe it's over and then he sort of has a Nixon to China moment, right? He's the democratic mayor who comes in and resolves the pension crisis once and for all.
ST. JOHN: So you think Filner might have the moral authority, as it were, to get the labor unions to accept this key fact, which is shifting over to a 401K?
DILLON: Well, are maybe less so of that and more that the thing that will actually save any money which is the pay freeze. 401Ks do not save any money as the city has studied it. That is the part of the measure that would actually cost money not just upfront but even over the life of it.
ST. JOHN: Long-term?
DILLON: 401Ks, yes, cost more over the life of the program.
ST. JOHN: So Katie, the city has not stopped the process of changing to a 401K as a result of this.
ORR: Right. I don't know if they have a final one, they at least adopted an interim 401K plan, and they are starting to do that. And Jan Goldsmith says the thing to remember is that PERB doesn't hold any legal power. It can't order the city to keep doing this. It's a process they have to go through but it's ultimately the Courts that will say, yes, you can keep going with this or no you can't. So he says it changes nothing. The city is going to keep going forward and implementing this 401K process. We've already seen in the pension payment for next year, it's going to be about $30 million more because it takes into account starting to switch over to the 401K plan. So at this point the city is still moving forward with it.
PERRY: So is this one of these Punxsutawney Phil things? He comes sought and says six more year was litigation?
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: Is this our present? It's been our past. Is it our future? These never-ending grinding fights about pension?
ORR: It is unclear because there are some people who are speculating that the new City Council might take back the city attorney's authority to go forward with this litigation. The city attorney says no, I got that approval last June to go forward and start filing appeals and all of that. I don't know if that would really happen. But there is some speculation out there that the new City Council, which is more friendly toward the labor unions might try and make a move to take that approval away from him.
DILLON: Well, you have five members on the council now who did support the measure.
ORR: That's true,
DILLON: It's in my mind hard to believe that they would have the majority to take it back.
ST. JOHN: And they did not choose to override the mayor's veto, which we want to move on to the port.
ORR: Oh, the port.
ST. JOHN: The port issue which is is the other big event in city politics recently. Mayor Bob Filner's veto of the two City Council appointments to the port commission. Why did he veto the appointments?
ORR: He said because he wants to establish a procedure for picking people to put in these appointments in the first place and that he also wants to wait until the currently vacant district 4 seat is filled. Republicans say no, you were just trying to wait until another Democrat is on the council and you don't have to sign off on a Republican. The appointees were a Democrat and Republican, and they're saying he doesn't want any Republicans on there.
ST. JOHN: And it wasn't for the City Council to agree on these appointments, was it?
DILLON: The sanctimoniousness on both sides of this is funny to me. Filner, before the port commission vote happened pretended like -- or didn't actually know that the port commission vote was the day that it was. We were in a press conference, and I asked him who do you want to be on the port, and he said is that vote today? So if he didn't know --
ST. JOHN: You should never have mentioned it.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ORR: It's Liam's fault!
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: Is there a public policy involved here? What does he want from the port that he doesn't --
DILLON: Well, it was the cornerstone of his whole campaign, to economic development and a procedure in place to vet port commission candidates.
PERRY: What does he want done at the port that he does not think will happen? The idea of turning that port into something that will compete with long beach, the horse is way out of that barn.
DILLON: Absolutely. He just says he wants greater investment. And we tried to pin him down, but he just wants more.
[ LAUGHTER ]
DILLON: Basically he just says he wants more then doesn't say what that means. And that's been a problem with him for two years on this issue.
ST. JOHN: So what happened on the City Council?
ORR: Well, the City Council tried to override his veto of these two men. The four Republicans and Todd Gloria joined up to approve the appointments of these two men. They tried to override -- they tried to basically convince Sherri Lightner to vote with them to override the mayor because you need six votes to override a mayor's veto under the new strong mayor government. And she wasn't convinced. She is now at the rules committee that she chair, she wants to hold a workshop on presenting guidelines for appointing people to the port commission. I think it's funny that we had a whole thing about appointing people to SANDAG, and those were council members and stuff, but we make those appointments all the time. Other members of the council have made these moments before. Now we need guidelines. I'm not saying the guidelines a bad idea. But it's just interesting that now they're coming up.
PERRY: I keep remembering that Bob started his career in San Diego as an academic. And it does seem to me that this fight follows the rule of academic politics. The smaller the issue, the larger the fight. I have trouble understanding what difference one person or another makes on the port commission.
ST. JOHN: Let me just ask Liam, what is at stake here?
DILLON: Let's push on their sanctimoniousness too. They're pushing saying we neat representation, etc, but let's not forget that they put both candidates, the Republican and Democrat, together to Filner in one resolution. If they were so concerned about getting representation on the port, why not separate them and see if he would approve the Democrat and not the Republican? They're concern is that they're not going to have a Republican on the board, and they should be because after the 4th district vote, it's not likely they'll have one.
ST. JOHN: Could we get to the nitty-gritty why the average citizen of San Diego should care?
ORR: It's funny because I tried to ask Kevin Faulconer that. Where they said they're going to call for appointments again, and I said does it matter? San Diego is supposed to have three representatives on the port. We have one right now. I said does it matter? Do you think that these two people on the board will change the outcome of any votes on the port? And he said basically, well, you don't know. We don't know. But we want our full representation. But like you're saying, the specifics of why it should matter, the port is a huge industry, they control a lot of land, they have their budget coming up, they have the convention center expansion going to the coastal commission.
PERRY: But isn't the port district really staff-driven? I mean I've always thought that the port staff plays off those various commissioners, the little cities versus the big city.
ORR: That's true, that's true.
PERRY: And it's really a staff-driven -- like the water district is a staff-driven organization.
ST. JOHN: Katie and Liam are saying this is more about politics than actually about something that might actually happen in the port distribution.
DILLON: Filner has an agenda. He's going to need people who are friendly to him to get the agenda completed on the port. Upon the Republicans want a Republican on the port, and that's what this fight is about.
PERRY: But we're still going to get our statue! That pitchy statue that's going up, so all is well.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: Let's move on here.
ST. JOHN: You're at the Roundtable here on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John. With me we have Katie Orr, Brad DILLON, Liam Dillon, and Tony Perry. We're also open to your calls. 1-888-895-5727.
More and more people are riding the train and the trolley in San Diego, and it's beginning to look like we have a viable public transit system like any city would. But it turns out that if there were an accident, those uniformed guards that you see on the platform might have no idea how to respond. Brad DILLON of investigative newssource has discovered that some of them have received virtually no training. So Brad, we'll get to the training in a minute. First give us some background. What made you start looking into this story?
DILLON: Well, we got a tip in October from an anonymous guard that for years this has been going on, that they have no training when it comes to the things that you think would matter, from counter terrorism to just basic safety to first aid. So we looked into it over the next couple week, spoke with a couple of the security guards and confirmed that this was definitely true. And then as time went on, more and more of them came forward and said yeah, this is a big deal.
ST. JOHN: So who are these security officers that are protecting us?
DILLON: Well, they used to work for a company called heritage security services. They have been around for decades. MTS contracted with them in 1981. Of heritage was bought out last May by universal protection service which is the third largest security company in America. Took them over but retained all the staff and upper management.
ST. JOHN: And do other transit districts around the country rely on private security guards?
DILLON: We have found only two in the entire country. A lot of transits have private security for parking lots, but when it comes to first responders there's one in Florida and one somewhere else in the country that we've been able to find.
MAUREEN ST. JOHN: So we're one of the only people who is subcontracting it out as opposed to just using the police force?
DILLON: Yeah, contracting with the sheriffs or the police force, almost every other jurisdiction does it this way. But this is much, much cheaper.
ST. JOHN: Your story does say that the police guys don't seem to think this is a problem.
DILLON: Yeah, someone I talked with in the San Diego police department and sheriff's department both said they had no real comment on it, that they've never had any issues with these guys, which in and of itself is a good thing, but also nothing really major has ever happened here that would necessitate that.
ST. JOHN: So why should we as passengers be concerned if the police force isn't?
DILLON: Well, the best response would be an anecdote. One of the security guards told me, if something were to happen, the first thing you do is look for someone in a uniform with a gun and a badge. That's the first person.
ST. JOHN: Who's right there.
DILLON: Who's right there. And they're always right there. There's 180 of them between downtown San Diego and Oceanside between the stations and riding the trains, and they're always the first on scene, they're everywhere. Whereas there are only two contracted sheriff's deputies to patrol all of North County for 62 miles of rail lines.
ST. JOHN: Tell us about the training that they have or have not received.
DILLON: When they started out, they had to do a 40-hour course that was watching videos and reading a little brochure, fill out a test, and that's pretty much it. A few of them have some very basic firearm certification, first aid certification. Other than that, that's it.
ORR: So I watched your video piece, which was very impressive.
DILLON: Thank you.
ORR: And I was wondering, have you -- you talked to I think five or six of these officers?
DILLON: I talked to about 20. But in the piece we talked to seven.
ORR: Seven. Have there been any fallout from that?
DILLON: From what we've heard, as soon as the piece came out, there was -- the company was up in arm, and the next day they started investigating some of their guards, calling them into the office to do some checks on them. We haven't heard any particular -- anymore details about that, but it is only a few days out.
PERRY: A couple of years ago there was a scandal, if you will, that the trolley operators, the administrators, weren't given us the straight scoop on crime stats. Has that been straightened out? Can I plug into a website and find out for myself how much or how little crime there is on the trolley?
DILLON: You can find out how much crime there is on the trolley, but I've always been told that's something we're looking into, I don't want to confirm that's true or not. But what eave heard from a couple of representatives on the boards, that there may be some things going on with the crime stats specifically as it results to assaults against the officer, not just regular patrons.
ST. JOHN: You have reached out to North County district, and the metropolitan transit district. What kind of response did you get from that?
DILLON: We're not getting any response, to be totally honest. Yesterday I called -- or two days, called every board member on NCTD, did not get a response for anybody except for the chief of staff from Bill Horn, and she told me they weren't getting involved because this was a labor dispute. And this was the second time I've heard about this. What she couldn't answer was what a labor dispute between a private company and its employees have anything to do with public agencies and the company. There are some labor issues going on internally but that says nothing about the actual contracts and the millions of dollars that are being paid.
ST. JOHN: The thing about the transit district, we heard they had outsourced their bus drivers, and immediately after that, there was a case where a bus driver was found drunk on the bus, and the question was is the contractor doing the job? In this case right from the start, they've always had the security officers contracted out. But the question arises, who is monitoring that contract?
DILLON: Right, right who's monitoring it, and we know who's importanting Tthey will not respond to our questions or talk to us. But yeah, that's the main issue is the contracts and what we're paying them for.
PERRY: What is the overall resume, if you will of these folks? Are they people right off the welfare lines or are they former military? Are they people who'd like to be cops but can't get a job as a cop? Are they big dudes that can save me?
DILLON: Yeah, I think about 60-70% of them are exmilitary, and some are cops that just got out of the police force, some come from the private security field. But most of these guys have some kind of training when it comes to this field. But as they've all told me, the training amounts for squat when it comes to this unique transit environment. It's a very different environment than anything they're used to.
ST. JOHN: One of the things you quoted in the article, if there were an accident and a car went over, they would have no idea how to get into a car, to rescue someone, they haven't been given any training. And you tell us, this bizarre situation that there was a disaster drill for a training wreck held at Camp Pendleton, but they didn't go. Explain that.
DILLON: They weren't invited. And this seems to be a theme from the officers I've talked to over the last 4.5 years, they've never been invited to any kind of counter terrorism drill, joint task force drill. When I spoke to the representative, she told me they weren't allowed on base because they're wearing uniforms. So we called up Camp Pendleton, and I talked to the base commander, and he said that's absolutely not true. As long as you're on a list, you can get on the base. It has nothing to do with a uniform. So they just weren't put on the list.
ORR: The firefighters were in their uniform.
DILLON: And so were the sheriffs!
PERRY: Who does have training if a car tips over? The fire department?
DILLON: Yeah, fire department would be trained. As well as the sheriff's department.
PERRY: They're going to get there --
DILLON: They're going to get there probably after these guys are there. But what a couple of these guys have told me, there's a lot that falls on them as being first responders for when another agency shows up. If it were an accident, they need to secure the scene, hang onto witnesses, make sure nothing is tampered with. Just that basic training can cause a lot of headaches if it's not done right for the actual people who are going to respond and take over the investigation.
DILLON: Do the contracts for themselves not specify any training measures or anything like that?
RACINO: The contracts all layout exactly what kind of training these guys have, and it's all not true. They say they're going to butt through counter terrorism training, bomb detection, all of these things, and none of them have that.
PERRY: Who owns this company?
RACINO: Heritage used to be owned by a guy named Larry Richmond. And it was sold. Universal is a huge company. They have been buying up security companies for the last 13 or 14 months like crazy.
PERRY: Security R us?
RACINO: Pretty much.
ST. JOHN: How much are the guys being paid?
RACINO: Average around $11 an hour.
ST. JOHN: That's very different from the police and fire who have a completely different situation. And yet they would be the first responders in this case.
PERRY: Are they armed?
RACINO: Oh, yeah.
ORR: I wonder, so in San Diego, we have an issue with the police department being understaffed. If these transit organizations didn't back contract out to the police, would we have as many people on these trains?
RACINO: No, we would not. The average, I think the two sheriffs that are contracted are paid over $100,000 a year. These guys are paid 11 bucks an hour. So you can get a lot more of these guys than you can for the sheriff's department, obviously. But what are you getting for that money?
ST. JOHN: What is the contract that they're paying universal?
DILLON: It averages out more than $9 million a year. And this has been since 1981.
ST. JOHN: So that is a significant amount of money.
ST. JOHN: So do you feel like people who are traveling on transit -- people listening are wondering, well, there is the police and fire there to back them up. But do you feel like there is something to be concerned about in terms of your personal safety on the trolley or the train? And does this apply to buses too?
DILLON: It's mainly the trains in the stations. But as far as whether or not you should be scared, I'm not going to drag that out and try and scare people here. But pretty much, it's just if something were to happen, and as we went up to San Francisco and talked to the chief of security for the BART police, a lot of other people, and when it comes to terrorism against mass transit, it's a serious thing. And there are always constant threats against public transit systems in the U.S., and they have been hit like crazy in Europe. But we haven't had anything thankfully yet.
ST. JOHN: And in your article, this is the second busiest train corridor in the country?
DILLON: Right, besides the northeast between DC and Boston, this route between San Diego and through Los Angeles up to San Luis Obispo is the second busiest corridor in the country.
ST. JOHN: And yet it's one of the only ones that is subcontracting out its security.
DILLON: Right. Not the whole corridor. Just San Diego. North to Orange County and LA, they're all contracted with sheriff's departments and police departments.
ST. JOHN: You're listening to the Roundtable here on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John. So one of the most popular things a mayor can do is say he's spending millions of dollars on fix the roads. But what about sidewalks? They are an important part of the infrastructure. They may not break axles but they can break ankles. Liam, you have made quite a point of looking at sidewalks. You have a wonderful blog on the issue with some great photographs. What made you look into it?
DILLON: Because the city's policies are fundamentally illogical, simple as that. Basically, generally speaking, most people have no idea about this, it's the property owner, homeowner's responsibility to repair and maintain sidewalks outside of their house. And it probably bears worth repeating, it is the property owner's responsibility to generally repair and maintain the sidewalks outside of your house. However it gets even weirder. It's the city's legal responsibility generally speaking if someone were to trip and fall over the same sidewalk. So you have no incentive if you're a homeowner to fix a sidewalk because if someone sues, it's the city's problem, not yours.
ST. JOHN: So the city is leaving itself up to a huge liability because it's up to the homeowner. Or if it's a business, is it the business?
DILLON: Generally speaking, it's the same way, the property owner. That's why around the city, you may see huge patches of asphalt around the sidewalks. The city will throw asphalt on them because it's cheaper, but that does help on the liability side.
ST. JOHN: And you have some pictures that show some pretty ugly patches of people who decide, well, we have to do it. Does the city have to approve your repair?
DILLON: Yes. And we went out with a gentleman who lives about less than a tenth of a mile from an elementary school in Pacific Beach. And he's lived there pretty much his whole life, 50-plus years, and there's no sidewalk there now. Wants to install a sidewalk along the stretch of his road, it's about 62 feet, which is a little longer than the pitcher's mound to home plate on a baseball field. And we got a contractor to go out and take a look at how much that would cost. $5,000, which is certainly a hit in the piggy bank, and 1/3 of that would be up to city permitting to do it.
ST. JOHN: Okay! My mouth is sort of dropping open as this unfolded.
DILLON: It's crazy.
ST. JOHN: How did this policy come about?
DILLON: It's a mix of lots of different laws. State law is actually the one that makes property owners responsible for repairs. City legal policy and others have led -- I kept saying generally as far as who's responsible for it. The city will come in from time to time and fix those sidewalks that have been ruined by city-planted trees, which is a big problem. Also the city does have a cost share program if you want to repair your sidewalk, they will come in and pay half the cost of doing that. And that waives the permitting fees as well. The problem with is that is there's about an 8-month delay.
PERRY: Isn't the city's position, hey, we didn't promise you a sidewalk? I mean there's nothing in the city charter that says and you shall get a sidewalk in front of your abode in Ocean Beach, wherever. So shouldn't we all just be thankful that we've got a sidewalk at all?
DILLON: And typically it's when you install a new sidewalk, it's the developer. When you have a new property that will go in, or major repairs to a property, and I talked to a gentleman and he was very pleased, he's on the planning board in Northpark, and pleased that for all new commercial and condo conversions and things like that, they made all the property owners put in and repair sidewalks. And that's something they can do. Then whose responsibility it is afterwards, no one takes the time to care.
PERRY: We're going to run this city as cheaply as the citizens seem want to, something has to give. And what may give is that crack in front of your condo there.
ORR: But I feel like -- I see your point, you're not guaranteed this stuff. On the other hand we have all these city leaders telling us how we have to be green, right?
ORR: If you want me to do that, give me a sidewalk!
PERRY: Does anyone use sidewalks anymore? People walk in the street!
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: With their dogs and bicycles and baby carriages.
ST. JOHN: Well, Liam, you actually do talk about San Ysidro where a lot of the kids are walking.
DILLON: You have at the top of a hill, San Ysidro high school, at the bottom of a high school, middle school, and up the hillside of a canyon for about a half mile in between, you have on one side a hill, a mountain, on the other side a dirt path next to the canyon that is about as wide as your shoe. And this is what kids walking down from the high school back to the community use every single day to get from the high school make home.
PERRY: Why doesn't the school district do something about that? It's their student, they could get sued I presume?
DILLON: They pay for bussing. They have a free bussing they give to students in the community, almost entirely because the fact there is no sidewalk there. It costs them about $600,000 a year.
PERRY: From the city's point of view, yay! We pushed the cost off onto another agency!
DILLON: Well, the city was using development fees in the hope to pay for the sidewalk and for some other things too. The reason it costs so much, it's a $7 million project, because the area next to the canyon is so narrow, they're going to have to blast into the hillside in order to put a sidewalk there.
ST. JOHN: Okay. So now the city has books full of all the infrastructure needs that need to be filled. Are sidewalk part of that?
DILLON: No. There is an infrastructure committee that was just started that said they want to take a look at city sidewalks and include that in your list of things they evaluate. 1 word of caution for that, L.A. last year tried to do it, they came out with a cost estimate and time estimate for what this would take to assess all the sidewalks in the city of Los Angeles. $10 million bucks and three years.
ST. JOHN: Wow. Of
DILLON: So there was pretty much a riot. And the proposal was killed, and they're still at a standstill.
ORR: We should all just tweet them pictures of our sidewalk, and they'll know. They don't have to do a survey.
ST. JOHN: It really is worth going to your blog and having a look at some of those sidewalks. We'll have a link on KPBS.org.