Roundtable: Superintendent Roulette; Sequestration Reality; Plaza Reroute; License-Plate Readers
March 1, 2013 1:22 p.m.
Kyla Calvert, KPBS News Education Reporter
Dean Calbreath, San Diego Daily Transcript Reporter
Katie Orr, KPBS News Metro Reporter
Jon Campbell, San Diego CityBeat Freelance Reporter
Related Story: Roundtable: Superintendent Roulette; Sequestration Reality; Plaza Reroute; License-Plate Readers
SAUER: It's Friday, March 1. I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for being with us. Joining me, Kyla Calvert, education reporter for KPBS news.
SAUER: Dean Calbreath, business reporter with the San Diego Daily Transcript.
SAUER: John Campbell of San Diego CityBeat.
SAUER: And Katie Orr, metro reporter for KPBS.
ORR: Hi, Mark.
SAUER: Hi, Katie. So on Tuesday came the interesting news that Bill Kowba, the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District would retire in June. Wednesday's press conference, anything but routine, we were expecting to hear plans of a nationwide search for a new superintendent. What was revealed instead?
CALVERT: The board has selected Cindy Marten, who is the principal of Central Elementary in City Heights as their choice for the next superintendent. They made clear it's not exactly final yet, they have to go through contract negotiations with her, put the formal nomination on their agenda, but they say they are committed to hiring her. So she has six years experience as the principal at Central, she's been at the school for 10. But she doesn't have central office experience.
SAUER: Quite a departure from the past superintendents.
SAUER: You gave us a little bit about her background. Nothing in terms of running a big bureaucracy, big budget? What's the budget at Central comparatively?
CALVERT: She said that the school's budget is about $5 million. She's got about 100 employees. There are 850 students at that school. So the district's operating budget is around $1 billion, plus they have all the capital bond project money to manage. And there's about 14,000 employees in the district.
SAUER: So you're going from Single-A to the Major Leagues in one fell swoop.
CALVERT: It is, it's a totally different animal. And San Diego Unified as one of the largest school districts in the country, around the top-20, they have in the past had these kind of high-profile administrators, Terry Greer, new the superintendent in Houston, they have had other high-profile came come through, Alan Bersin.
SAUER: Certainly, who had a lot of experience running a big federal agency.
ORR: I have a question. If Alan Bersin had a lot of experience running the federal agency, and I don't know how, like, successful, was he judged to be a successful superintendent?
CALVERT: You know, it's pretty controversial. I haven't really ever seen someone who -- he did leads a high-profile effort in San Diego. He brought in a whole new reading curriculum that caused a lot of uproar.
SAUER: Teachers were upset with it, parents were.
CALVERT: But there's more than two, but in this case there's two camps of education reform-minded people, who say we need to run schools more like businesses, we need to bring in business principles to run schools. We need to look at data and be very, you know, efficiency-minded, and then there are people who are more on the side of teachers and teachers' unions, and -- I don't know, maybe a more touchy-feely approach to education. The business-minded people are still pro-Bersin, and what happened here. And it's sort of -- was it a precursor to a lot of the reforms that were popular in education under no child left behind in the time following when Alan Bersin was here, but there are plenty of people who say that it was really disruptive and detrimental to the morale in city schools.
SAUER: Do you have an opinion, a comment on the new school superintendent selection? Is there some hope of better relations with the teachers and the union? Will that be easier with this selection?
CALVERT: I think that's probably pretty dependent on the budget situation in the district. Personnel costs are 92% of the school district's budget. So if there's not money, the only place -- I mean, one of the only places left to cut at this point -- I mean, they're selling properties. One of the only places left to cut is with their personnel. And no union is going to like hearing anything about that. So at a certain point, even people who are pro-union and teacher are going to be put in the position of doing things the teachers' union doesn't like. And I think that's what we've seen a lot of with the San Diego unified School Board in the last couple years.
ORR: It's interesting. It just brings up a parallel in my mind to Bob Filner being the mayor. He's certainly an advocate of the union, but now he's the city's chief negotiator with the union, and in that role he's going to have to maybe tell them some things that they don't like or maybe that'll be ultimately up to the City Council. But it's sort of the same thing here. Just because she's a teacher -- just by the nature of the job, she's sort of put in this almost combative, potentially combative relationship with the unions because she has to tell them things they don't necessarily want to hear.
SAUER: Right, yeah, it's a whole different relationship when you're close in a small school with -- or relatively small school with the teachers there, as running the entire ship and negotiating with the unions and all. What was the hurry? What was the explanation of this 24 boom, here you go!
CALVERT: I think people are still muddling through that. I don't think the board has really -- any of the trustees have given a solid reason for the sort of hurry here. Scott Barnett, one of the trustees was on Midday Edition yesterday, and he said that this is just sort of an example of efficiency. They're hearing from their constituents all the time, and they're getting input from the public all the time, and it's so rare that the five of them reach consensus on something, even though a lot of their votes are 5-0 or 4-1.
SAUER: But they're hardly getting input on Cindy marten. Nobody knew about that.
CALVERT: Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment.
SAUER: So it really did raise some eyebrows this week. How long has the district taken in the past to select leaders?
CALVERT: Bill Kowba, the current superintendent, he was the interim superintendent for a year before they completed the search that resulted in his hiring. And he had been the interim superintendent after Terry Greer left, I think. So it's common that these searches last months. I was speaking -- for a large urban school district like this, a superintendent search can cost about $25,000, $30,000, that that's very typical. So that's part of the reason that some larger school districts are moving away from doing those big national searches and hiring internally. But they tend to go with someone who has been internal to the central office administration, not to just running a school.
ORR: And I've heard too that the pool of people nationally to become superintendents is relatively small, and it's very quiet. When I was working in Cincinnati, the school district there was ready to make an offer to this woman, and at the last second she said oh, I actually took another job. She had been interviewing secretly for this other job, and it's just the way it's done. So then they had to start their whole process again. It's a very competitive, expensive, uncertain field.
SAUER: And it seems from all appearances that Cindy Marten was a rising star. Testimony us about how visible she had been.
CALVERT: Yeah, she is sort of always included in coverage of big issues in the district. She's always very available to talk about the principle perspective on any given issue. Last year she was very visible in urging the teachers' union to negotiate with the school district instead of holding out during the budget process. The year before though, she was instrumental on going to Sacramento and lobbying for more money for schools and for saying no, we can't cut teachers, we have to cut elsewhere. She was featured in the -- not the school district, but in the campaign ad for the precipitation Z, which was just on the ballot.
SAUER: Tell us again what that was.
CALVERT: That was the new construction bond, $2.8billion construction bond that voters approved in November.
SAUER: Now with this choice, is there any concern that selecting a new superintendent with no public notice is it a violation of the Brown Act, which is the open meetings -- the sunshine act in California?
CALVERT: Right. I was talking with a professor at Clairemont McKenna who was saying that any time the board has a quorum and is discussing district business, it needs to be during a a my that has been placed on their agenda, properly noticed to the probable, and that the public has the opportunity to comment on the items on that agenda before the meeting happens, which certainly didn't happen in this case. They say they voted unanimously, so a vote took place, and they were discussing this outside. There was certainly no scheduled meeting between the board meeting on Tuesday night when Kowba made his announcement and the press conference on Wednesday night when they announced Cindy Marten.
ORR: That brings to mind the question, if she's such a rising star and they think people will be so happy about this, why did they do it that way?
CALVERT: That's pretty much the question I've been asking since 7:30 on Wednesday.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: What are you hearing? What are people saying about the selection?
CALVERT: Cindy Marten is very popular. She's well-liked, well-respected. Central Elementary is one of the more challenging schools in the district. 99% of the kids qualify for low and reduced price lunch, 85% of them are learning English as a second language. And the test scores there have been rising consistently over the last several years, and she's been highlighted in the local press, the national press.
SAUER: So a real spotlight on her work there.
CALVERT: Yeah. So I think I can't imagine there would have been a lot of pushback to her going through a regular nomination process.
SAUER: Now, she made an odd comment on KPBS yesterday that she's going to leave the financial stuff to the board. Isn't the superintendent immersed in the financials?
CALVERT: Well, yeah, the host Alison St. John asked her about sort of ideas about addressing the district's structural budget deficit, you know, they were going to sell a bunch of property this year to cover next year's shortfall, but there are shortfalls projected for all of the out years. After that, she basically said that she knows that the board is working hard on that and looking at lots of different options, but from going to different budget presentations at the board meeting, it's the staff that comes up with the budget proposal, it's not the -- the board doesn't sit around and sort of, you know, go through the books and look for places to cut. They direct the staff to do that. And it's the superintendent's job.
SAUER: The buck stops there!
SAUER: We have a new outspoken chief financial officer at San Diego unified, stan Dobbs. He raised some eyebrows over overpaid teachers and fattening the budget. How will he get along with a rookie superintendent?
CALVERT: Well, I certainly do wonder that. I have no insight into how they might get along.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: A lot of questions.
SAUER: My guests today on the Roundtable are Kyla Calvert and Katie Orr of KPBS news, John Campbell of voice of San Diego -- I'm sorry, of CityBeat.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: And Dean Calbreath, my old friend from the Daily Transcript. We're going to move into Dean's topic now. D-Day has arrived. We're going to shift from that surprising school on the School Board to one we've been hearing about for a long time: Sequestration. Why that unfortunate name?
CALBREATH: I guess because they wanted to introduce a new word to the public or something. Any time you use the word sequester on Microsoft word it will turn up as being misspelled because it's a verb. But they're lopping off 2-3% of the federal budget, of every single federal program.
SAUER: Lop off the top.
CALBREATH: Yeah. No matter how good, no matter how bad, no matter how big or small. But a lot of that is going to actually be felt much harder in a place like San Diego because we have such big tithes to the federal government. We have about three times the national average because of our military presence. So it'll be like a 6-9% cut here instead of 2-3% nationwide.
SAUER: President Obama addressed the nation this morning. He's calling -- blaming it all on Republican intransigence on taxes. And that means we're going to take an ax to the federal budget instead of some balanced approach. What do the polls say?
CALBREATH: I think the Republicans are shouldering most of the blame on this, according to the polls. The Obama administration also played a role. This was basically a bipartisan decision. We're going to put this gun to our head to make us come up with a reasonable budget. Of course we're not going to pull the trigger. We're just going to --
SAUER: Nobody would be that crazy.
CALBREATH: Exactly. But now apparently the bomb goes off at 11:59 tonight to be precise.
SAUER: Okay. So we're not quite there yet.
CALBREATH: Not quite there.
SAUER: And everybody left town today, right? Congress?
SAUER: And let's talk some of the specifics and details. We'll talk about specifically how it affects San Diego. But this isn't flipping a switch. This is really turning an aircraft carrier with pink slips going out, a process to it, contracts not being let, and it's going to build over month, is it not?
CALBREATH: It will. And ironically, the first people that are probably going to feel the impact were not going to be in government. They're going to be in the private sector. They're going to be the private sector contractors. Already you've got 2,000 or so provisional pink slips mailed out by NASSCO, and the ship repair people on the waterfront because it's harder to put people on furlough, they have to give notice to lay people off. In government it's harder to do that because you have to provide the appropriate notice. The private sector has been preparing this for a while. And so they already have been issuing these provisional pink slips. And as soon as 11:59 happen, some of those workers are probably going to be laid off.
ORR: Well, and I did a story about this, I forget, earlier this week, about the social service impact of sequestration. I talked to Rick gentry of the San Diego housing commission. Their biggest program is Section 8 housing vouchers. They received about $160 million last year.
SAUER: And who does Section 8 help?
ORR: It helps low-economy families. They're basically vouchers they can use to rent apartments or houses. And he said there was about 14,000 families believe that they help, and they get about $850 a month.
SAUER: And this is keeping some of these folks literally off the streets.
ORR: Oh, right. This is how they get their housing. The vouchers are a big part of affordable housing. And if these cuts go through, they're going to have to help fewer families or give them a lesser subsidy. How do you make that decision? He said they won't be affected until the fiscal year.
SAUER: But here in March, this month, are we going to see some pink slips going out?
CALBREATH: I think among government contractors, we are going to see those pink slips going out. And some of that would have happened anyway --
SAUER: Because of the military drawdown.
CALBREATH: Right. But on the other hand --
SAUER: But nothing on this scale and in this blunt approach.
CALBREATH: No; no. You aren't going to see a wave of people losing jobs tomorrow. And the danger is that the public is going to look at that, you know, this is going to take 2-3 months. The public is going to say, hey! This isn't so bad! Nothing's happening.
ORR: I was calling around to school districts about how this was going to affect them, and a couple did sort of know, it means $50,000 from this, whatever, and this year we'll cover it in reserves. But some of the districts were saying it's too early to tell or some didn't even know which programs were impacted. So they were, like, well, we're not really thinking about it yet. We're just betting on the fact that they're turn it around, basically.
ORR: If real job cuts are going to start happening in the private sector, it seems that school districts which are very dependent on state tax revenues might be hurt even if something does happen to lessen the impact of the sequester later on.
CALBREATH: The White House projects if this actually happens and goes on, if it lasts a full year or whatever, that about -- in terms of education, about 1,200 jobs will be lost statewide, which means maybe proportionately San Diego would lose 120. This is only 2-3%. The people that it hurts most are civilian defense department workers. Their paychecks will go down maybe 22% because they're going to bear the brunt. They're in the going to cut back uniformed military, but they will cut back these civilians.
SAUER: Economist are pretty -- they don't tend to broadly agree on much. But this week, there was report saying more than 95% of top U.S. economist believe growth is likely to be negatively affected. Many are predicting going back into recession. Federal reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said we're going to be significantly harmed, adverse effects on jobs and income here. So it may be slow-motion, but the train wreck is starting.
CALBREATH: If it survives. They don't figure out a way of stopping this, then yeah. San Diego especially would probably go -- stands a very big chance of going back into recession, largely because of our ties to the military.
SAUER: Such a central part of our economy.
CALBREATH: Right. Nationwide, it could cause maybe half a percent of growth, a slowdown, but not a recession. In places like San Diego, Norfolk, Virginia, Alabama, big ties to the military, they could go back into recession.
ORR: Dean and I were at a media event with the mayor last week, and I asked him about that, and he was in Congress for 20 year, and he had told me throughout the campaign that I asked about the sequester, he'd say, you know, Congress is dumb but it's not stupid, meaning they would come to an agreement.
SAUER: Never going to happen!
ORR: And he said, well, I think they might be stupid.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ORR: But he said I would still bet that they will come to some kind of agreement if it's the last minute. He said I've been there, this is how it works. But he made it very clear that it would be disastrous for San Diego if it goes through. It would just be -- 375 layoff notices NASSCO has issued.
SAUER: We talked about some of the direct stuff, the direct layoffs and pink slips. But in an economy, certainly an economy as enormous as the United States, as we go over time here, you're talking about ripple effects down the line.
SAUER: Suppliers and people who rely on this, things you might not even connect to a check from the federal government eventually will be affected throughout the economy.
CALBREATH: Also one other thing is that just a few weeks from now, by the 27th I think of March, Congress has to once again face the fiscal cliff question. And if we go through the sequester and we're not feeling any pain, we're not seeing an immediate effect, there's going to be a lot less pressure on them to address the fiscal cliff, which actually that is the bomb.
SAUER: Remind us what the fiscal cliff is and what happened last time when we tip-toed up to the brink of that.
CALBREATH: Well, it's basically a real halt in federal spending.
SAUER: We're not going to pay for what we already promised to pay for.
CALBREATH: Exactly. You're not going to incur anymore debt, you're just going to pay for what you can pay for in cash, which would basically bring government to a halt.
SAUER: And the faith and credit of the United States would suffer enormously. Just the threat of it looked at a downgrade unprecedented in U.S. history. And that's coming up. That's the timetable
CALBREATH: I think it's the 27th of March. Only a few weeks from now.
ORR: I heard an interesting story on Marketplace. They did a story about tax returns and said if you want your tax refund, you better file now. Once the sequester goes through, and some employees are laid off, it's going to be a huge backlog. You might not get your return in a timely fashion.
ORR: So it was just get on your taxes.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: And we've got some folks this week trying to refinance mortgages. And they have been told interest rates are starting to go up now. So the impacts are really enormous beyond just direct payment.
CALBREATH: Especially if this is convinces them to not be worried about the fiscal cliff. That is kind of -- that would ground us to a halt. And a lot of people would be very happy about that, the tea party and everything would be very happy about it. Probably less happy when we stop repair think our roads, when we shut down national parks.
SAUER: Mail service, a lot of other things that directly affect people. You had something this week on the small business administration.
CALBREATH: Yeah, again it's this 2% deal, 2-3% of everything. But these loans that go out to small businesses, they need to expand and everything, they have been having a hard time getting money from banks which are still tight on their lending, so the government is a last spot for them. And if it makes it harder to get money from the government, it can quash their growth. And small businesses are really an engine of driving the economy forward.
SAUER: So it gets to what we've been talking about indirectly all along, WHICH is job growth. Not just layoffs. I've seen figure of 3quarters of a million potential jobs through the end of the year that just won't materialize with small businesses being crippled like that. You went out to the Mira Mar business, Label King.
CALBREATH: Yeah, they're touting it as an example. The head of the small business administration, she was out there because due to an SBA loan, they were able to expand their businesses, they turned a 2-employee business into 15 employees. They're exporting to Brazil and South Korea, and China. And this is the help with a $500,000 SBA loan. So that shows how much she's little loans help. But if you cut down the amount of those loans, you cut down the amount of businesses we can benefit.
SAUER: All right. We're going to have to bury the budget ax right there for now.
SAUER: Welcome back to the Roundtable. Katie, in the short time at office, Bob Filner has shown he'll meet with practical anybody, anywhere, as long as they're not carrying a reporter's notebook. The exception is his once-a-month press chat which happened the other day.
ORR: So far he says he's still trying to figure out how the city run, she's trying to get up to speed over. He said in the first chat he might have been a bit of a micromanager, but that's because he's learning the job, and she assures us that it'll all smooth out eventually. But in the meantime, it seems to be sort of the way he's set things up. He's had two monthly meetings with reporters, he comes on to Midday Edition and evening edition once a month. He has some other monthly appearances on other television news shows. So that's sort of -- seems to be for now his method of handling the media, kind of on his terms. And he'll talk to you about whatever you want to talk about, and for a good amount of time. The media briefings are about an hour.
SAUER: But it's his turf.
ORR: Definitely his turf.
SAUER: Have you got a question or comment about the mayor and his engagement with the media? 1-888-895-5727. At this month's briefing, he surprised people with an announcement. He's going to get a plan to get cars out of Balboa Park's plaza de Panama after all.
ORR: He never was a supporter of the Jacobs plan. The plan was to make a bypass bridge off of the -- road off of Cabrillo Bridge around the Alcaczar Gardens, and to build a parking garage behind the organ. The save our heritage organization failed a lawsuit, and ultimately prevailed, a judge threw that plan out. Now we're in the current state, and the city had wanted to get this ready in time for the 2015 centennial celebration. But that's not going to happen. Filner has long said that he can stop the traffic through Balboa Park in the Plaza de Panama with some traffic cones!
SAUER: Put up a sign.
ORR: And essentially sounds like what he's going to be doing. He says they're going to get rid of the parking in front of the art museum there, the valet parking by the prado, and they're going not traffic cones necessarily, but they're going to alter traffic patterns so a majority of the Plaza de Panama would be pedestrian friendly.
SAUER: Which was the idea, after all.
ORR: Right. And he has said also about starting a tram service. And I don't know -- I'm not clear if that's going to be part of this. He said it's an experiment. People have said well, how can he do this? Part of the reason the other plan won't down is because the judge said that parking is a reasonable use in that parking lot. But this isn't altering anything historic. I think that's how you got around that.
SAUER: Okay. The -- he's talked about needing $500,000 just to do this simple change? This signage?
ORR: He hasn't released his specifics. So I can't tell you where that money is going to. But he is getting that money from a surprise mid-year budget surplus that the city has, $3.6 million budget surplus. So $500,000 of that he's proposing be used on this plan.
SAUER: Now, that was just one of the several controversial issues the mayor has taken, such as withholding the tourism marketing dollars. That's caused a lot of backlash in certain parts of the community.
ORR: Right. So the tourism marketing district it's basically all of the hotels in San Diego charge an extra surcharge on the bill. Like a hotel with 30 rooms or more charges an extra 2% on to which the 10.5% hotel room tax people already pay. The money from that 2% is supposed to go into a pot that could be used to market San Diego. The City Council signed off on this deal last September. They had had a trial run for five years and liked it so much they extended it for 40 years. And you can come back and re-examine it every five years, but it's a 40-year term.
SAUER: And they signed off, to remind listener, before Filner took office.
ORR: Right. When Jerry Sanders was mayor. Filner does not like this plan, he doesn't like giving this money over to the hoteliers unless they give him more money in return. So he has refused to sign off on it, and they have sued him saying that they -- he needs to give them this money. And they had a big meeting this week, all the tourism boosters were down there talking about if you don't market San Diego, it will just basically all fall off of the radar of many tourists because there's so much competition out there. They played ads from L.A. and Las Vegas. Everyone knows the what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas line. I mean, that's marketing! So they're saying if we don't have this money, forget it want
SAUER: Maybe we could start a catchy slogan campaign here.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: We'll give you a KPBS mug, come up with the San Diego -- keep your car out of the Plaza de Panama and --
[ LAUGHTER ]
CALVERT: How do other cities pay for those marketing efforts?
ORR: They all have tourism marketing districts. They said there's about 75 others, I believe, in the state, in San Diego. So this begs the question, if this tax is found to be illegal because the hotel union workers -- sorry, hotel workers union has filed saying that this is an illegal tax, they say basically if you want to put this on the hotel bill, everyone in the city has to vote on it, and two thirds have to approve. So if that is found to be illegal, that will have an impact across the state. This is how all the cities depend -- where they all get money to do their marketing from. And the tourism marketing tell will tell you that before this was established, money for marketing came out of San Diego's general fund. So say they it's a net savings. People on the hotel workers' side say our workers are not paid anything, they can barely afford to live in San Diego, you need to give them a fair wage. And if marketing is so valuable, then you pay for it yourself. You don't need city money.
SAUER: We've got a caller, Mel, you're on with the panel.
MEL: Yes, I think the effect of the TOT is greatly exaggerated. Nobody mentions that the city, aside from the tourist marketing district, spends $60million a year on promoting San Diego, on promoting tourism. So it's a drop in the bucket.
ORR: And to that point, the independent budget analyst issued a report saying it's really hard to judge the impact of the TMD. Marketing people will tell you people come to San Diego because they see ads and want to come stay in San Diego. But there's no way to tell if that is in fact true. And the money is just all lumped into, you know, the pot that they get from people paying here. So it's hard to quantify the impact of the tourism marketing district.
CALVERT: I think we should station you in lobbies of hotels downtown and just survey the tourists that come and go to assess, what is bringing people to San Diego?
[ LAUGHTER ]
ORR: I know! And that's the point too! We have had these conversations before, like how high is too high for a hotel room tax? So in downtown, if the TMD stays in effect, on top of the 10%, that's about 12.5%, and if the similar plan to finance the convention center goes through, that's another 3% for downtown hotel so it's 15%! I don't know, does anyone think about their hotel taxes when they book a room? I don't know.
SAUER: You've got to pay it. I just happened to be down in Costa Rica recently, and boy! It's so onerous down there, it's 15-17%, that you sit with a menu, and they have the price of your meal, and then in parenthesis, they have the price when you add on the tax. So where does the City Council figure in this?
ORR: The City Council totally backs the TMD. They had that meeting, just an informational meeting on Monday. But no one made any effort to change anything about it. I think they're looking at their legal options to see whether or not they can compel the mayor to release this money. But he has to sign off on it ultimately. And it doesn't sound like he's going to give ground unless he gets some of what he wants as well.
SAUER: Let's shift to another thing that we were talking about this week, part of running the city is having relation with other officials including the city attorney. Did mayor Filner have anything to say about his public confrontation with Jan Goldsmith?
ORR: Right. I think it was last week. The city attorney had a news conference to address some of these issues. Mayor Filner basically came in uninvited and made a statement at the podium, and it got pretty ugly. He says this isn't the kind of relationship he wants, but both of these men are elected officials. They're both very different in their political views. And I think the conflict is kind of inevitable. I don't see them becoming best friends or anything like that.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ORR: He said that's not the way he would like to run the city. But it seems to be how things are at the moment.
CALBREATH: Yeah, I was at the press conference. It was the most amazing press conference I've ever been at. And my press conferences have included Ozzie oz born talking about chewing the head off of bats.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CALBREATH: But it was very interesting. The people who came to the press conference, we were sent a press release -- not a release, Goldsmith's outline of his legal argument. And one of Filner's complaints, you're sending this to the press but you're not sending it to me or the City Council. You're not informing us that you're about to hold this press conference, and you're our attorney! You know? You're supposed to be working for us. It was very reminiscent of Mike Aguirre's conflicts with --
SAUER: Right. And that was a comfortable show for reporters for a long time. We'll see how this one continues to play out. We're going to leave it there.
SAUER: Welcome back to the Roundtable on KPBS. I'm Mark Sauer, and my guests are Kyla Calvert and Katie Orr of KPBS News. Dean Calbreath of the Daily Transcript, and John Campbell of San Diego CityBeat. John, not many San Diego County residents know anything at all about license plate scanners. Tell us what they are and how they work.
CAMPBELL: Sure, well, a license plate reader is a sophisticated type of camera, usually mounted on the roof of a police car. And it has one job, which is to zero in on license plates and snap a photograph, tag it with a GPS coordinate, and save it into a database. It can be used for all finds of crime fighting in San Diego County. And there's a pretty sizeable database that contains these scans.
SAUER: So that system and the database, who set that up and who's controlling that?
CAMPBELL: It's run by SANDAG, the San Diego association of governments. And it was set up around 2010. It's fed into by 13 different agencies in the county. All of the license plate reader data is sent to the centralized database. You get about 36 million scans in the system right now.
SAUER: So who uses these scans? Where are we getting them in San Diego County? All law enforcement agencies? Everybody out there who's got a police car?
CAMPBELL: No, not on every patrol car. Not by a long shot. There's about 56units right now, and they're adding more in the future.
SAUER: What does law enforcement do with this information?
CAMPBELL: Well, there's real-time, what they call hot-list policing, plating that are scanned that may match a list of wanted vehicle, vehicles that are involved in a crime or an amber alert are immediately flagged, and police can go and pursue that person. The secondary use is to add to the database. So every car, no matter who's driving it, if it's scanned by this device, it's added into the database and saved.
SAUER: How does it work specifically in terms of my car is stolen? Are we going to find it much faster than we would have before?
CAMPBELL: Absolutely. You certainly might be. It's been in use for about a decade, and that was kind of the primary goal of the device was to find things like that, stolen cars and wanted vehicles, and so yeah, it's been a great tool for finding stolen cars.
ORR: On one hand, it sounds like a good tool for law enforcement. On the other hand though, creepy!
[ LAUGHTER ]
ORR: You don't know --
SAUER: They're knowing where we're going! They're watching you!
ORR: That's a little weird, I feel like.
CAMPBELL: Privacy advocates groups like the electronic frontiers foundation, ACLU, they do have concerns about the technology. They point out that where you travel can say a lot about your private life. So if your car is scanned at a church or at a political rally, at a drug treatment facility, that can reveal a lot of personal information about you want
SAUER: Right. What if I happen to be in the proximity of a crime, a murder has been committed, I know nothing about it, nothing to do with it, I happen to be driving by twice the night before? You start to conjure up a lot of scenarios.
CAMPBELL: Right, well, one of the uses that police point to as being a miracle is the ability to find witnesses to crimes. So if there's a murder committed in a certain area, the police can go in and find any scans that may have been captured around that time. And it can help locate witnesses or suspects. And it really does contribute to solving a lot of crime.
ORR: I read in your piece that they wouldn't give you a lot of information, but they did tell you your car had been scanned several times?
CAMPBELL: They did. 24 times in about a year. And with 36 million scans in the system, it's an average of about 14 scans per registered vehicle. Obviously not every car is scanned 14 times, and some cars like mine are scanned more than that. But yeah, it's a growing system, and it's pretty widespread at this point.
CALBREATH: I imagine reporters especially would be susceptible to this because we go to these public demonstrations or crime scenes or whatever. Our licenses would show up a lot.
SAUER: Right. Well, years ago in the old days at the San Diego Union Tribune, they would have photographers covering antiwar rallies way back to the 60, and those photographs were turned over to the FBI and some federal law enforcement agencies to see who were the activists and the decenters. So it does raise those ACLU issues. They're talking about this being a kind of a no-warrant surveillance.
CAMPBELL: Well, are the ACLU takes the view that, yes, this could amount to a kind of warrantless surveillance. Of the police counter that your license plate if you're traveling in a public place on a public roadway, you don't have a great expectation of privacy. And the Courts have upheld that view thus far. Groups like the ACLU argue that as these devices become more widespread, you can create an ever clearer picture or complete picture of people's movements, that that principle might start to change, and it may amount to a kind of tracking that could raise constitutional questions.
SAUER: So why does the sheriff keep the information for so long? Why are they storing this info for so long?
CAMPBELL: Well, the central database run by SANDAG, the data is maintained are up to 24 months. The sheriff retains it indefinitely. The justification for that is that crimes like murder don't have a statute of limitations. So if data was expunged after two years, you may lose valuable information that could be useful.
SAUER: And you have a specific example
CAMPBELL: Yeah, the case of John Gardner who murdered a couple of teenagers in San Diego County a couple years ago.
SAUER: Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. A scan in Escondido played some role, police are tight-lipped about how it was used, but it helped to establish his presentation in the city. And that wasn't discovered until about 18 months after the fact. So a good example of a crime that wouldn't have been solved --
SAUER: If they purged the information.
ORR: But to that point, he was still able to murder another girl. In the time between Amber Dubois and Chelsea King. So if this technology is so effective --
SAUER: It seems it's like any law enforcement tool, DNA for example, it's not the end all be all, it's one tool. So if some information came independent of this, that this fellow may be a suspect, now they can go back and look at, say, the license plate and track him in a certain area. Whereas that didn't generate the information, but it enhance the other information that came by.
CALVERT: Are they using this data for things other than crime fighting? Why is SANDAG the agency housing the database?
CAMPBELL: Well, SANDAG has a division called the automated regional justice information service. So many acronyms.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAMPBELL: Reporters probably to use this to look at crime statistics, it's just a general police database that happens to be run through SANDAG. And because this is a multiagency system, it's a logical place to go to centralize it want
SAUER: A caller would like to join us. Don, go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Yes, in regard to the license plate scanner, I'm not sure I see them as more invasive of privacy than surveillance cameras that are now very prevalent in large American city, and some small American cities.
SAUER: Okay. Well, thank you.
CAMPBELL: Privacy advocates would say that because the database is searchable and mappable, unlike a lot of closed-circuit television cameras -- there are some exceptions to that with facial-recognition software. That's kind of science fiction at this point. But a license plate database, you can type in a plate and pull up a map with points showing where your plate has been scanned in a period of time. So it's a more usable way of processing the data. Perhaps it's not any more invasive, but it's certainly more usable.
SAUER: So you can track it rather than a snapshot, is what the caller was saying.
CAMPBELL: Well, this is an important distinction to make. It's not tracking. It a snapshot. But when you have 24, to use me as an example, 24 different snapshot, you can start to piece together an idea of daily activities.
ORR: And also it's just one more step down that path, right? First it starts with a surveillance camera on a street corner. And that's not so bad. You get used to that. Then you're filmed when you're walking into buildings oh, it's okay. And then they take your license plate. Well, all right. Then before long, it's like 1984.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAMPBELL: The slippery slope argument can get out of control.
CALBREATH: If you go to England or something, there will be cameras all over the place tied to the police. And these cameras, they even have loud speakers attached to them. So the police can say to a jay walker, don't cross that street!
ORR: Oh, that is weird!
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: And that begs the question, who has access to this database?
CAMPBELL: The police all emphasize that there are controls in place to track and ensure that whoever is accessing the data is doing it for a legitimate purpose of the it's supposed to be tied to an active investigation. Anyone who tries to access the system has their activity logged so you can go back and see how it's being used. Police say they're very careful about controlling who has access to it.
SAUER: They cost about $25,000 each. They figure it's worth the cost. And how many do we have again?
CAMPBELL: There are about 56 in the county, and that price will vary depending on the deal that's struck by an individual agency with the vendor. The more you purchase, the cheaper it's going to be. I guess whether it's worth it depends on your point of view. But the police would say this is a force multiplier, and $25,000 is a lot cheaper than a policeman's salary.
SAUER: All right, very good.