Roundtable: School Bond Donors; San Onofre Hearing; Homelessness Discussion; Tressles Tussle
February 22, 2013 1:15 p.m.
Will Carless, Voice of San Diego
Adam Townsend, San Clemente Patch
Kelly Bennett, Voice of San Diego
Tony Perry, L.A. Times
Related Story: Roundtable: School Bond Donors; San Onofre Hearing; Homelessness Discussion; Trestles Tussle
ST. JOHN: Today is Friday, February 22nd: I'm Alison St. John and with me, we have Will Carless of voice of San Diego.
CARLESS: Nice to see you. And Adam Townsend with San Clemente patch.
TOWNSEND: Glad to be here.
ST. JOHN: Kelly Bennett of voice of San Diego.
BENNET: Hi, Alison.
ST. JOHN: And Tony Perry from the LA Times. Freight to have you here.
PERRY: Good to be here.
ST. JOHN: School bonds are becoming an increasingly important source of income for school district business squeezed by tight budgets. They can only be used for bricks and mortar, not salaries. But now a report by voice of San Diego points out a potential conflict. Interest. Will, this is a report that you and Wendy Frye did, and it's about companies that donate to campaigns. What triggered your interest in this?
CARLESS: It's funny, actually. About three months ago after the whole Poway bond thing died down. This was the $1 billion bond in Poway, I decided I never wanted to write about school bonds ever again. And then Wendy called me and said we've got to do this story about donors, donations to bond campaign, and the fact that the people that pay -- give money to these bond campaign, more often than not end up getting contracts. And there was something that's been a rumor that swirled around for a long time. But we wanted to prove it.
ST. JOHN: Which districts did you survey?
CARLESS: Well, we surveyed 17 districts in total. And we basically looked to every single district that had passed a school bond since 2006. And the reason we went back to 2006 is that the county, this is astounding, the county only gets political donation records for school campaigns going back to 2006. So we looked at all of those campaigns and started off by looking at all the disclosures. Wherever anyone gives money to a campaign they have to fill out a form that says I gave $1,000 on this date to this campaign. Went through, tallied them, and we tried to figure out whether the same companies that had given large amounts of money, more than $5,000, had end up winning contracts.
ST. JOHN: So you found some districts where 100% of the donors who gave more than $5,000 to a school bond campaign got a contract.
CARLESS: So we're looking at gross month unified, and I think the other one was Oceanside unified. And I think the overall correlation was 72%. 72% of large donors ended up winning money from the bond campaign, getting a contract that they made money out of later on.
ST. JOHN: Aren't school districts supposed to have an open bid process before awarding a contract?
CARLESS: Absolutely. Now, to be clear, there's all sorts of different ways you could get work out of a campaign. You can build schools, finance it, being architect, the limited partership or the financial advisor. And there are different rules about how different contracts are handed out. Some of the biggest contracts, one of the eye-openers in this project was some of the big of the contracts are the underwriters who are the people who basically finance the -- they're like the middle men. They buy the bonds and sell them onto investors. The investment bankers in the deal. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars in most cases when school bonds are sold. There's no requirement to bid that process out who was in the government code.
ST. JOHN: Now, is this just for school bonds?
CARLESS: I think that's true of municipal bonds in general. There's no requirement to hold an open process. And without getting too into it, you can also do a -- rather than doing a competitive bond sell which is where you basically say we want to sell these bonds who can give us the best interest rate, you can do a negotiated bond sale where you just team up with an underwriter and you guys come up with a deal. The question is if you're teaming up with the same people that have just given you money for your bond campaign, how can you be sure that you're really getting the best deal for the taxpayer coming out the other end?
ST. JOHN: What role do School Boards and superintendents play in the selection process?
CARLESS: Again it depends on the contractor, right? So School Boards -- and it depends on the School Board. Some boards will be very actively involved in choosing who the groups are or the underwriters, the lawyers. Others will just sort of say staff, give us a recommendation, and then we'll rubber stamp it. We'll just pass it through. So it just depends on the district, really.
ST. JOHN: Now, Tony, I gather there's been some state legislation about this. Is this news to you? It was news to me. Are you surprised by this?
PERRY: No, because I figure that people who have an ideological or financial interest in politics or political issues contribute to them! The doctors, the lawyers, the Teachers' Unions. So I'm not surprised that people who might have a financial interest in bond elections give money. But yes, there is legislation. Ben Hueso is up in Sacramento and wants to limit a certain kind of bond that seems really risky, and the whole idea being that public agencies really ought to be limited in the amount of risk they take. And that's a nice chewy wonky issue that we can discuss at interminable length at some point. But what strikes me about the reporting, has this flown unnoticed by the district attorney? The grand jury? People who worry about how people money is being spent at school districts? Have they all been asleep?
CARLESS: So, it's interesting! The stuff that's going on down in the south bay or, you know, south of the county right now, these indictment, School Board officials under indictment, similar sort of thing. Basically allegations if you sweeten the up the people that are on the board, and you get contracts out of it. But this particular issue, this has been controversial for years. And I think the reason nothing has been done about it is we haven't reached the level of public knowledge and outrage about this. And I think gradually we're seeing more and more outlets focusing on this. The Orange County register had a big story about exactly this issue last week.
ST. JOHN: So it's not just San Diego school district.
CARLESS: Absolutely not. Statewide.
PERRY: You're saying this is crony capitalism.
CARLESS: Essentially what you're saying is there's certainly the capacity for pay to pay.
PERRY: Where has the district attorney been and the grand jury been?
CARLESS: Honestly, talk about the attorney general, for example, we -- just to digress for a second, we wrote about the Poway bond deal. And they wrote a letter saying your deal is illegal and then did nothing about it. As far as the district attorney is concerned,ir know those guys fairly well, and there's very few of them, and they're very, very overwhelmed with trying to deal with all the corruption or potential corruption that's out there. I think that's a good time to be a white collar criminal in San Diego, frankly.
ST. JOHN: Adam?
TOWNSEND: What struck me as bizarre is they only keep financial donation records since 2006?
TOWNSEND: Did they give you a reason why?
CARLESS: I'm still waiting to find out. Apparently they literally just dispose of them. And apart from that, only I think last year they started putting these online so that you can go and get them. Otherwise you have to go down to the county, very nice people down there by the way, who did help us out with this project. We spent an awful lot of time rummaging through drawers trying to find out campaign contributions. Really? It's 2012.
ST. JOHN: And the point is Jerry Sandusky
CARLESS: It's 2013, sorry!
[ LAUGHTER ]
CARLESS: That is at the root of this problem, you have to get money from somewhere to run a bond campaign. It would have been the PTA, community organizers going to door to door. That's the issue here. Now you have these very fancy campaigns that are run with a lot of money, and the money is coming directly from the industries that stand to benefit from the bond passing. So it's just sort of -- there's concerns out there that the process has been hay jacked by Wall Street. The process has been hijacked by large developers. And you lost something Democratically along the way.
ST. JOHN: Is it possible that if there was a bid process, ratepayers or -- yes, rate bayer, basically, are the ones who are paying off the bonds would not have to pay so much?
CARLESS: Absolutely. I think any time that this is an open competitive process, you get a better deal.
PERRY: Well, not necessarily.
CARLESS: Not necessarily.
PERRY: There's such a thing as the most responsible bid. And you can take in factors that don't have to do with the actual cost. What about performance, past history? If you're building, do your buildings stand up over a period of time?
PERRY: There are things other than the libertarian bottom line of all of this.
CARLESS: Absolutely. But there's a different thing between holding a competition of some kind where you look at qualifications and everything else and just say saying, EH, we're going to go with these underwriters.
PERRY: That's where the cronyism comes in.
CARLESS: That's it.
PERRY: The old joke, Joe's our guy, and he's done it before. Of
ST. JOHN: Kelly?
BENNETT: Well, and old Joe just gave us $50,000 to help pass this bond campaign. So let's give old Joe the contract.
PERRY: Isn't there another -- our very good friends in Missions Valley, they're concerned about some. This bonding. Why? Because they think that what's happening is school districts are signing onto long-term bonds so they don't have to cut back on teacher salaries, benefits, pensions.
PERRY: Isn't that some of it here? What they're really doing is throwing into into the future so they can continue to shovel 92% in the San Diego district into the teachers' pockets.
ST. JOHN: Is the San Diego unified school district on your list?
CARLESS: It's not. And that came as a real surprise to me. Unified accounts for about half of the bond spending in this county. So it's very, very significant. Their bond campaign was so massive -- there's a couple defining factors. They're very open and competitive about most of the contracts they give out. They don't do this process called lease lease back, which is the worry is that that's been hijacked and is being used to feed contracts to contractors. They don't do that. But every other district does do that. And they also get money from everybody. And when you've got a $2.5 billion to spend, anybody who's anybody in this business is going to give you money. We looked at them and concluded there weren't enough kecks between the companies that gave them money and the companies that received contracts.
ST. JOHN: What do they say?
CARLESS: We spent a lot of time on the phone and meeting in person with superintendents and superintendents of business, and they all pretty much said the same thing, which is these donations have no influence on who we give the contracts to. Interestingly enough, a lot of them also said we have heard of that happening elsewhere, but it does not happen here!
ST. JOHN: So they were surprised by the results of your research.
CARLESS: Exactly. Not so surprised, because look, they know that -- if you're a school district, and a company is giving you $25,000, you know who that company is. And you know they've got a contract too. I don't think they were surprised. They just said this is almost incidental, coindental.
CARLESS: I have heard about some possible work from the state level. They're really come into the public linelight, and I wouldn't be surprised to see something come down from the state level to deal with this issue.
ST. JOHN: We'll have links on our website
ST. JOHN: Let's move on now to San Onofre. It's tough to keep up with all the news that keeps breaking about the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The decision on whether to fire the plant up again is only one of the questions flying around. There's a question of who should pay for the millions -- hundreds of millions of dollars lost after what appears to be a major design error. Now, Adam, you were at this public hearing last night, and we heard a lot about safety at the NRC, but this one was the first time that ratepayers got to voice their worries to the state's public utilities commission. What was the mood at the hearing?
TOWNSEND: Well, there was a lot of folks that showed up, there's different factions that are lined up on either side of this debate. You have business groups, chambers of commerce, and other similar organizations that are in support of Edison starting up. Some of that is they're worried about the reliability of the electric grid, but also Southern California Edison is a dues paying member of pretty much every single Chamber of Commerce in the entire planet. So that happens, and then there's a bunch of different advocacy groups that are opposed to nuclear power in all its forms, and they've coordinated and adapted their message to focus on the finance for these hearings rather than their traditional message about safety and radiation concerns.
ST. JOHN: So the plant has been offline a little over a year, and we're all stale paying for it, right?
TOWNSEND: That's correct. The California public utilities commission, they act as a rate payer advocate, and they set -- they say how much utilities can charge ratepayers. And what they're trying to do now is figure out if Edison owes its ratepayers money for this nonfunctioning nuclear power plant, which according to the San Diegan unified school district resolution has been costing about $4 million a month to maintain.
ST. JOHN: Is there any estimate how much it's costing individual families?
TOWNSEND: It's hard to say because electricity -- you don't get electricity from one specific plant the every single time. But estimates have been thrown around it's about $10 a month per single family household.
ST. JOHN: Okay.
CARLESS: We talk about this a few months ago, and we were talking about possible lawsuits against the manufacturers of these tubes. Where does that stand? Wasn't there a report that was leaked recently that basically said they knew there were problems with these steam tubes?
TOWNSEND: Well, I've talked to people that are inside the industry, and they say this is probably the biggest engineering blunder in the history of the industry.
TOWNSEND: It's pretty clear that Mitsubishi heavy industries, the manufacturer of the steam generators, used faulty calculations, they used the wrong formula, plugged in the wrong number, drastically underestimated the amount of heat and pressure involved, which directly led to the phenomenon that caused the tubes to leak.
ST. JOHN: And there is this letter now that Barbara Boxer has referred to suggesting they knew there might be problems but did nothing about it. Where does the request stand to make that public?
TOWNSEND: It's not real clear what the process is to make that public. Tony Atkins and the assembly has called for it to be made public. The reason it's not public is because whenever the NRC does an investigation as a utility you have the right to request the certain documents that contain proprietary information be nonpublic. And you sign an affidavit saying this is why it shouldn't be public.
ST. JOHN: Well, the NRC has said they are going to release a redacted version of it.
TOWNSEND: Exactly. And they have not done that yet.
ST. JOHN: A week later? Nothing has appeared.
CARLESS: It's going to be a big piece of paper with a big black square on it.
BENNETT: Proprietary information about the construction of your devices or product, but also proprietary problems with your -- you could probably make a case as a company that -- well, that's proprietary the way we messed this thing up.
[ LAUGHTER ]
TOWNSEND: Exactly. And I think that's what Senator Barbara Boxer and representative Marky and the assembly person is talking about here.
PERRY: What's your take on the NRC? Are they in bed with the industry? Or are they askance with the industry? Are they good watchdogs on this?
TOWNSEND: I think within the NRC there's a lot of tension. There's a lot of people from the industry, Gregory Yasko was the former director, and the other commissioners drummed him out because he was calling for too much reform. The individual inspectors and technocrats who get in there, I don't think they really have a dog in the fight other than the fact that they work with these people and saying this plant isn't safe is an indictment of their jobs. But at the staff level, the people who are looking at this, I think they're pretty straightforward. What the commission itself does with their information, they've never revoked a license for a nuclear plant in their history.
ST. JOHN: I think the fact is that last night's hearing was the beginning of the CPUC hearings, the state agency that looks out for the money for the ratepayers as opposed to the NRC which is looking after the safety issues. What's new is the money. And some people are saying that the state agency might reach a decision before the NRC what did you think is likely to happen? How do the two lots of hearings feed into each other?
TOWNSEND: Well, are the CPUC basically handles everything financial dealing with ratepayers and things like that. They don't have a lot to say about safety or a lot of authority over safety. The NRC is supposedly going to issue a -- an opinion on whether the plant can partially are restart safely by the end of April.
ST. JOHN: But if it turns out they say yes, you can restart, it'll cost this much, isn't it then up to the CPUC to say well, that's not cost effective?
TOWNSEND: That is correct.
CARLESS: So is this plant done?
TOWNSEND: It's a mes. You talk to people within the industry, it's a pretty huge mistake. And all the steam generators were made using the same set of calculations, and just because there's four at the plant, one was very severely damaged, and just because the other three aren't damaged yet doesn't mean that they're not subject to the same kind of problems.
CARLESS: It seems remarkable, and surely isn't somebody saying, look, at the end of the day, we're going to get the money back from the manufacturer who is screwed up building these things?
ST. JOHN: Isn't that the case?
TOWNSEND: Just this week, Mitsubishi issued a payment to Edison for $45.5 million which was connected to the warrant.
ST. JOHN: Which is nothing compared to the overall cost.
TOWNSEND: Right. There's giant armies of lawyers with sharpened knives waiting on the outskirts of this. But Mitsubishi and all these industry players right now are staying out of court because it's in everybody's interest to if you can get this plant fired back up again.
ST. JOHN: $45 million, are the cost of the generator was 600 something?
TOWNSEND: $670 million.
ST. JOHN: And Edison has spent up to $1 billion. What did they say last night? They were at this hearing. And I understand their chief nuclear officer spoke.
TOWNSEND: They started off the meeting, the public utilities commissioners asked for a presentation by Edison, efforts they've taken to plan for emergencies, and he discussed the nuts and bolts of the safety processes at the plant. They have on every shift 24/7 they have a team of employee, each has specific training to handle a bunch of different types of emergencies. They're also involved with the inner jurisdictional planning committee which has sheriff's deputy departments, fire department, and they meet every couple months and hash out their plans for evacuation.
ST. JOHN: What does this have to do with the CPUC hearing on cost?
TOWNSEND: Part of it was determining what they're going to investigate. Because right now, there's a lot of pressures on the CPUC because they have a modicum of authority over the plant. So people were saying you need to look at this, you need to look at this. So this first batch of hearing, there's going to be a couple more in San Diego this month. They haven't found a date yet.
ST. JOHN: where do the employees come in here? Those are pretty good jobs they have had for a long time. You used to say these vans going north in the morning from San Diego. Do they have any influence?
TOWNSEND: Yeah, well, the international brotherhood of electrical workers is one of the main unions at the plant. And they've coordinated their allies. They bussed in last week several hundred members. The labors' international union of North America to show up, put on orange shirts, and yell and shout at the right times. So they're allied with Edison and the business community, interestingly, in this one.
ST. JOHN: But they didn't show up last night?
TOWNSEND: I was at the afternoon session. There were two sessions. But there didn't seem to be a huge coordinated effort as there had been at other meetings.
ST. JOHN: And some people complain they were offered Costco cards to pay for the gas to be there.
CARLESS: You said essentially they're staying out of court. There's a big part of a machine that was broken that was badly made that everyone knows was badly made that there's a letter saying they knew it was badly made. But they don't want to sue them because they have to carry on in business with them and they don't want to go to court?
TOWNSEND: Well, they don't want to sue them yet. There's a bunch of -- that $45.5 million payment is just one of a bunch of different warrants that already exist in the contract. So they want to exhaust all the contractual means.
CARLESS: They probably have to.
TOWNSEND: Yeah, they have to. So I expect in the next couple years, there's going to be big federal lawsuits in this, and it's going to be a pain in the butt, and I'm going to have to sit through a lot of them.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: From Senator edmarky of Massachusetts, a letter to the NRC focusing on investors and what they might lose from this debacle.
CARLESS: Will someone please think about the investors!
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: It's interesting someone finally turned to them. Tell us about his letter.
TOWNSEND: He's saying that Edison may have violated -- in light of this letter that supposedly proves they knew there were problems with the generators before they installed him, by not revealing that, he's violating business law by not notifying the investors that they're potentially liable for this loss. A lot of this has to do with a lot of political capital to be made by piling on this issue. And that's another avenue to handle
ST. JOHN what about it is this plant does? Are we looking at energy shortage at some point? It's a little late to rebuild that plant in south bay, for example. It's as if this thing hasn't existed for a year, and had the my wife's hair drier still works.
TOWNSEND: Edison and the independent system operator which is kind of the blanket organization consortium that delegates and shuttles power around the state, the reason your wife's hair drier stayed on is because there was a ton of people working behind the scene, and they fired up a plant in Huntington beach, finished the sunrise powerlink. But they're operating in emergency mode all the time, like during the summer months. And especially this coming summer, the Huntington beach, the emissions credits for the plant they restarted last year expired. So they can't produce energy there. What they're going to do is they're going to transfer the generators there to the -- convert them to a device to keep the voltage up, even though it doesn't produce electricity. They have to use electricity to keep the voltage up to allow electricity to continue.
ST. JOHN: we still need San Onofre is what I'm hearing.
TOWNSEND: You still need the megawatts.
ST. JOHN: Edison, the operator, has just put out a small video arguing that really we'll be stuck without San Onofre.
CARLESS: Does it say turn your hair driers off?
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: It's worth having a look. It does help explain why San Onofre is important. But it is from their perspective.
TOWNSEND: Nobody is really arguing that we don't need those megawatts. But the antinuclear activists are saying we just went through one of the hottest summers on record and nobody's lights went off. We can get this power from other sources.
ST JOHN: the antinuclear people, is there anything that could satisfy their concerns or are their feet so heavily --
CARLESS: Presumably no nuclear power.
ST. JOHN into concrete that there's nothing that could be said to make them say, okay, start it up again.
TOWNSEND: No, this movement started before anything ever happened at the plant. This was right after the disaster in Japan, they started organizing in San Clemente, and then it just snowballed since. And I think I said a couple weeks ago when I was on the show, this engineering blunder was probably the best thing politically that could have ever happened for the antinuclear group in Southern California.
ST. JOHN: One more question before we leave this topic. The study by the legislative analyst's office that did an audit of the public utility commission, the people who are supposed to be protecting us as ratepayers.
CARLESS: Legislative analyst raised a red flag with the public utilities commission saying that there's a certain pot of money that the utilities commission was not accounting for correctly and was mismanaging. And that indicates that perhaps they can't even manage their own money. How are they supposed to oversee these massive utility budgets? It's tangentially related to this, but there's no evidence yet.
ST. JOHN: Although it does dovetail with some of the criticisms that the critics are making.
ST. JOHN: You're at the Roundtable. I'm Alison St. John. With me, Kelly Bennett, Tony Perry, Adam Townsend, and Will Carless. As home prices go up and the economy doesn't, the problem of homelessness is growing. The latest count suggests more than 10,000 people in San Diego are homeless on one night. Kelly, you've done a whole series on homelessness. Give us a sense about where we're at with homeless. I mentioned the 10,000.
BENNETT: It's a really interesting time in local homelessness because there's -- as long as I've been watching it here, almost seven years, the political momentum seems to have shifted. We have a mayor who just came into office who says somewhat vaguely that he wants to end homelessness in San Diego. Todd Gloria has talked about ending it downtown. There are various business group, not just the social service homeless advocacy side but business groups saying it's better for our bottom line if we do something about this and not just call the police and ask people to move along. There's an interesting time where there's more people talking about this or paying attention to it than there has been. And I think there's also significance in that as we look at those numbers, like the 10,000, which is calculated doing both counting the number of people who sleep in shelters as well as sending people out on this census every January, we ranked last year, San Diego, behind just New York and Los Angeles in terms of a homeless population. You would expect it from those two giant cities in the country, but then San Diego falls right behind that. I think there's a lot of people trying to figure out why that is and to address the number of people we have sleeping on the streets and in shelters.
ST. JOHN: Who were the homeless these days?
BENNETT: 10,000, there's different stories how people got there. But there are certainly substance-addicted, alcohol and drugs of all different stripes, there's mentally ill people living on the street, a ton of veterans in San Diego who are homeless. I talked to a woman last night who lost her apartment in November, took the opportunity to move into the city's winter tent for a few months to save up some money for a deposit to move back into a an apartment when the winter tent closes. In her case, she's working with a very limited amount of money in reserve. So a lot of people we talk about being a paycheck away from homelessness, that's the case for a lot of people in San Diego.
CARLESS: One of the things that strikes me about this issue as a whole, and obviously we've talked about this, but we do a lot of work as journalists going and taking a look at stuff the government does and finding out ways it doesn't do it very well, right? Saying if they only sharpened this up or got rid of waste, corruption, fraud, things would be okay. Homeless doesn't seem to fit into that category. It's an issue that we as a society don't throw enough money at. It's one of these things that it's not a case of this, you know -- I think it's fair to say, and this event last night which was fantastic by the way, crystalized this, obviously it's a very, very difficult subject to deal with. Anybody who's on the street, they're all individual, they all have their individual issues. But what do we hear again and again? We need more money to do this.
BENNETT: We heard from some really interesting folks last night. We have this event at the winter tent shelter actually because we wanted to have the discussion in a place where we weren't talking about people who are homeless without the chance to hear from them as well. And to at least have the conversation happen in a place where there could be a pretty wide spectrum of perspectives on this issue. And one of the things we heard from some of the people who come from innovative programs, whether they're directors or social workers is that they're doing these really innovative things. There's a group called project 25, that it has taken people who spend the most money because they go to the emergency room, they get picked up by police, go to the jail. They've found those people, chronically homeless, frequent flier, put them in housing, connected them with services. Somebody showed up on their door says we're going to the doctor. Even to some extent allowing for alcohol abuse to continue even though it's being cut back. So there's all sorts of relative terms on progress. But that program was originally funded for three years, and we're in year two. So what happens at the end of three years when that funding runs out? That was a point that kept coming up last night. Here are some ways that San Diego may actually be making an impact on reducing homelessness here. But there's questions in the air.
ST. JOHN: How important is federal money for this? If we have sequestration coming down the pipe, is that going to affect our homeless programs?
BENNETT: I've been doing some reporting on federal funding. Will is raising his eyebrows because we're working on a story. But one of the questions for federal funding is how does San Diego get funned compared to other places in the country? And everyone I talked with at the federal level says we don't want to raise our heads up too much because we've got our fixed -- I think it's $2 billion that's spent on homelessness across the country.
CARLESS: Did you say $2 billion? $2 billion? That's so little money! What is that, like half of one aircraft or something?
ST. JOHN: Is this the budget for homelessness?
BENNETT: This is the HUD budget for homelessness. This doesn't count the VA efforts that are happening and some other federal sources. San Diego shared that last year, $15 million, and that is not by any means the majority of the homelessness funding that's in the pie here between philanthropy and some of the other agencies.
ST. JOHN: Perhaps we're not relying on federal money as much as some other communities?
BENNETT: And the question is could HUD, the federal government see a ranking like what we had last year, this third highest in the country and potentially target more money or resources to deal with that.
ST. JOHN: Why do you think we don't have as much federal funding coming into San Diego?
BENNETT: You'll have to read voice of San Diego! I haven't totally solidified all of it, but there are some interesting disparities in the way that San Diego has been funded historically where this population seems to surprise people on the federal level that we are dealing with such a significant number of people who have become homeless.
CARLESS: Every time we talk about homelessness on the radio or TV or whatever it is, I try to make the same point, which is that we -- everyone who lives in this country needs to be clear that this is an American problem. This is something -- obviously I'm talking about in the first world, in the western world. You travel anywhere else in the western world, you do not see homelessness in the sort of scale and numbers that you have in this country. And when people come to visit me from Europe and come and -- I drive them around, I always make a point of driving downtown and sort of -- because I want them to see as well as La Jolla cove and Coronado and all the rest of it. And they're absolutely blown away by it. They're absolutely blown away that in the wealthiest country on earth we have tent cities! It's extraordinary!
ST. JOHN: So last night's meeting, you actually had some people there too as well as all the providers.
BENNETT: That's right.
ST. JOHN: Did any of them add some light on what's going on here?
BENNETT: What was interesting for me, and what was exciting for me was to have a couple of people who have transitioned past homelessness now, shared the stories of what needed to happen for them to do that. And there's a lot of political talk about what model is the right model, and what should we spend more money on? What should we front load for housing first? Neither of the people who spoke last night were situationally homeless, not chronically. Or they had come out of jail or come out of drug issues. And both of them highlighted several of the agencies here who provide a place to go during the day or a place to sleep at night. Or one night here or a meal here or there. And that's obviously just two examples. But I think it is important to remember as we have these political discussions and policy discussions that there are agencies who have the chance to impact one person's life on one day, and if we cut off all funding to that agency, what does that person do instead? Sleep on the street?
TOWNSEND: Is coordination of services also a problem? You mentioned philanthropy and the state money and city money.
BENNETT: I've been trying to get my arms around how big this pie is. And that is a problem. There is not a centralized place where we know how much money is spent on homelessness in San Diego. But that's new federal regulation to say if your community is not centrally coordinated and doesn't have X, Y, and Z for coordinating the way the resources get spent, your application for this federal money is going to be less competitive.
ST. JOHN: Ah, ha!
BENNETT: So there is a push, and there's going to be some targeted technical help from HUD coming here to say San Diego, you need to pull some things together to actually --
ST. JOHN: It always appears that the downtown services are very coordinated, whereas North County has a much more loose-knit network.
BENNETT: That's a great point. We have -- this county is huge. And we have urban areas, a traditional downtown, and we have people sleeping on the streets, the canyons, east county, North County, there's encampment, people sleeping under shopping carts. There are so many different faces on this. So targeting it with one or another program is not going to necessarily cover the entire spectrum.
PERRY: What about our friends on the San Diego City Council? I went downtown this week to see who the New York mayor was feuding with that day. And I was taken aback by the amount of homeless folks around City Hall, right there in the plaza.
ST. JOHN: They've got this new strategy starting up this winter, don't they?
ST. JOHN anything from the City Council?
CARLESS: Not at all.
ST. JOHN are they migrating? Is the population migrating more this and away from father Joe's facility or Balboa Park?
BENNETT: That's a good question. I think you're not supposed to loiter in front of a private business --
ST. JOHN I kept moving.
[ LAUGHTER ]
BENNETT: So the public spaces like C street or the library or the old post office building tend to magnetize a lot of people to sleep or hang out. But I think it's -- really I've been beating this drum, it's a really important piece of context. The new effort connections, housing, the new permanent year-round housing facility that's opening at 6th and A. It's opening formally in March. People are already moving in to get into some of the permanent supportive housing apartments, but this represents 1 drop in the bucket. And there's a commitment from the city to spend the money they usually spend on the winter tent, $400,000 to keep connections housing open all year-round. So a lot of people are saying, great, we've got a funding stream in place, all this, well, the model depends on being able to replicate it in other neighborhoods.
ST. JOHN: Right.
BENNETT: So when Todd Gloria talks about connections housing, how are you going to fund that in another neighborhood like Missions Valley or at the beach?
ST. JOHN: Well, one positive thing is that we're talking about this in February as opposed to November. Thank you very much for bringing us up to speed.
ST. JOHN: The beach boys came surfing into the fray over the trestles, the surf break up in North County. There's a wave of support for listing the spot on the national register of historic places. Marines are feeling threatened that they'll get swept off the beach. We have Tony Perry here who has done an article with the great headline, tussle or trestles. Tell us, what is the history that's worth preserving?
ST. JOHN trestles, 2.25 acres between the defunct nuclear plant and the county lines. Seven great surf breaks, and then also a green beach that the Marines like a lot for practicing what it is they do for a living: Amphibious assault. They didn't get along for decades and decades. Of the Marines owned the 2.25 acres, along comes Richard Nixon, forces the military to rent for a 50 year lease. The acre, exclusive of green beach, and they started to get along. And now along come the surfers, and they would like trestles listed as a national historic place. In part they're afraid of that toll road that might come south. Some people say that's a dead issue. The coastal commission blocked it. But you can never kill a toll road sufficiently. Marines don't like it, Navy doesn't like it, they've tried to talk the state commission out of forwarding the recommendation. They failed. Now it's up to the feds, civilians, to decide whether to list trestles 2.25 acres as a national historic place. It's unclear to everyone what specifically that means other than you put a nice plaque up.
MAUREEN ST. JOHN: I was wondering. Is this the beach or the waves? How far out does it go?
ST. JOHN exactly. And what does it mean in terms of civilian oversight? That's where the marines come in. Upon they're afraid that with this designation you come to a point where civilian bureaucrats will somehow be able to impact what can be done on that beach. They use green beach. Big exercise there, 2010, 2011, a couple of big ones planned for this year in May and October. They like green beach.
CARLESS: That's what I wanted to ask you. I've surfed trestles a lot of times. And some of the best breaks are north of there in the Marine base. There's a place called DMJs where the old-time surfers where they told you they'd sneak in there pre-911, but you can't go there now unless you're connected with the military. They've got miles of beaches! Why do they need it?
ST. JOHN that's the traditional argument against Camp Pendleton. You've got all that property, why do you need more? People who know something about this specialty called assaulting beaches say they need every grain of sand.
CARLESS: So they need to practice just in case there's a beach just like that beach somewhere else?
ST. JOHN you fight like you practice, and they may need to come ashore and open up for business.
ST. JOHN: Who owns the land?
ST. JOHN it is owned by the Department of Defense. A 50 year lease to the state for that state beach.
TOWNSEND: That lease is going to be up soon.
ST. JOHN yes. So round, two, three, four or five may be in --
TOWNSEND: I think it's 2020.
ST. JOHN about ten years? Less than ten years.
ST. JOHN: So is might not remain as a state beach.
ST. JOHN I wouldn't look for that to occur, but they're going to be fighting and fuming.
CARLESS: And they're not going to have Richard Nixon to get them through the process.
ST. JOHN exactly. I don't see a beach contingent in the White House. So we'll see. The Marines and the Navy are still fighting. And the state commission, they're forwarding it.
ST. JOHN: They voted unanimously.
BENNETT: Yes, they did. This to their mind, it's nothing but a plaque. It's going to stop landing craft issues from coming ashore.
ST. JOHN: Did they get a lot of people supporting this?
ST. JOHN 1,100 letters in support, including a couple of beach boys.
CARLESS: Surfers do know how to write.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN so do the grunts. They know how to write.
TOWNSEND: If you look at the packet they put together listing all the history, it was really impressive. 600, 700 beaches.
ST. JOHN you really got a clash between the bushy bushy blond haircuts and the high and tight folks. They say they need the beach. They're going to need it even more as we shift away from Afghanistan.
BENNETT: Beyond the plaque, there may be some clout with that register listing, if only we look at Balboa Park. That was a huge chip that the preservationists played, not even just to say they tried to make it about city, you're not following the secretary of interior standards, the federal sort of best practice for figuring out what to do. But also the city had codified this law that said here's how we deal with historic places.
ST. JOHN exactly.
BENNETT: So if the state or if the governing agencies over this left-hand have historic preservation laws, they should look at them.
ST. JOHN and once the feds get involved in something, who knows where it ends? Two state legislators pointed out or warned that should this 2.5 acres get a national historic designation, surfers and bureaucrats could be in charge of marine training at trestles. Wow!
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN overstated, indeed.
ST. JOHN: What about other surfing beaches? There's a lot of competition.
ST. JOHN indeed! Huntington beach and Santa Cruz! This would be the first beach thusly notified.
CARLESS: I thought Malibu has been designated as a historical --
ST. JOHN not on the fed level.
ST. JOHN: Do we know when the decision might be made?
ST. JOHN soon. They would like this off their plate quickly. They may come around.
ST. JOHN: We're going to have to end on that note.