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Roundtable: A Look Back At The Top Stories Of 2018

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December 28, 2018 1:36 p.m.


Erik Anderson, environment reporter, KPBS News

Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Jean Guerrero, border reporter, KPBS News

Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

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Related Story: Roundtable: A Look Back At The Top Stories Of 2018


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

2018 was quite the year. So we're taking a look back at the year in politics. How big was the blue wave here. The Year of Environmental News is climate change. The new normal and the year of border news from migrants to family separation to the wall. Marks hour that PBS roundtable starts now.

Welcome to our special year end edition of the roundtable and Mark Sauer joining me for KPP as reporters been covering politics the environment and immigration throughout the year. KBB US border reporter Jean Guerrero metro reporter Andrew Bowan PBS environment reporter Eric Anderson and North County reporter Allison St. John. Well it was a year of deadly record setting wildfires hurricanes and dire climate change warnings clashes over asylum seekers at the border and in politics.

Democrats are offering a blue wave. We bid farewell today to 2018 but do we really. Lots to talk about. And let's start with the midterm elections and are big changes a San Diego City Hall. Remind us who's new and how party politics have changed locally.

Yeah there have been a number of big changes in the city of San Diego. So first of all we've seen two incumbent City Council members lose reelection. So that hasn't happened in a really long time. That's a pretty big deal. We also have now six Democrats on the council and that means a couple of things they could pursue their own policies independent of the mayor's office and if he vetoes anything they could override that veto with their six votes. They could also pursue tax measures which sometimes need six votes on the city council just to get on the ballot.

And then lastly I think another big change is that we now have a new council president in Georgia Gomez. She's from District 9. She represents City Heights parts of southeastern San Diego and Mid City. And she has really made clear that her agenda is equity. And it's going to be based on lifting up these historically underserved neighborhoods you know focusing more infrastructure more economic opportunity in those places.

And a majority of women as well because of chronic problems. We've talked about a lot on the show homelessness the housing crisis remain and we're going to get them Alison on the county with that. But those are going to be on the agenda again of course.

Absolutely. And housing isn't always a partisan issue in San Diego. You have Democrats and Republicans alike both supporting new development and sometimes opposing it. The where the partisan issue kind of comes into play is sometimes in terms of the mandates you place on private developers. So Democrats are sometimes more willing to require developers to include low income housing on their projects on site. They also might be more willing to you know push forward tax measures as I mentioned a new revenue for low income housing in the realm of homelessness. I think we have seen some dissent from some of the Democrats on the city council with regards to the mayor's approach.

So he has these tent shelters in San Diego that are currently sheltering hundreds of San Diego. But they're being funded with with money that often can come what otherwise go into affordable housing and more permanent solution. So we've definitely heard a lot of grumblings from from Democrats on the city council that they may not be willing to go along with that approach for very much longer.

All right Alison Pick up of that thread with the county some some changes there as well and a lot of similar issues as well.

I mean I think one of the reasons that we have a housing crisis is because we have not built enough new housing so it's not just the county and the unincorporated areas it's also the city's only other 17 cities around the county that are struggling with this issue because people don't want more traffic and they don't want more congestion and so they're sort of voting no. Whenever they're given a chance to new development and that's been true you know out in the unincorporated areas and one thing that I noticed this November that changed was the Saur initiative in Oceanside which would have given voters a chance to say no if they didn't like in a more dense development that failed.

And I felt like this is perhaps a sort of invitation that was an indication that we've we've realized that saying no to new housing is actually only going to cause a housing crisis and that perhaps it's not such a good idea to keep saying no. We'll see more of those initiatives coming up in the next two years and it's going to be very interesting to see how the general public comes to terms with these choices. Do they want to build more out into the unincorporated areas and fill up our hills and valleys which of course have other issues like fire or do they want to really look at how to do infill and you know you've got cities like Encinitas where everybody has said no no no no you said no to measure you this year.

And the judge has said you can't keep saying no you have to come up with a plan where you can build more housing you need to work with the state to do that. So I feel like we're sort of at a full can point now where people are beginning to say we have to say yes but how do we say to more housing there.

Is there a search for a market based solution here or is this going to land firmly in the lap of governments.

Gosh I mean that's anybody's guess isn't it. It seems like the developers are all hot to trot with new projects out in the back country. They are the ones who really like to make the big profits on the big developments.

Those kinds of developments aren't a single family homes like you're exactly on the upper end of yes spectrum.

Yeah we see a lot of houses for the upper end being built. And in fact. Yeah. It's like a big gamble at the upper end. There's a lot of houses. Then there's the middle bit. There's hardly any new houses being built for the sort of middle lower than the average you know people like us starter home Beverley's teachers saying that that shows is that it's extraordinarily difficult and expensive to do infill development.

Often you have to go through a very long this discretionary review processes you have to get all this community input. If you just go into a neighborhood where no one is living now there are fewer people who are going to be rising up and saying no absolutely not in my backyard.

It's also referenced more initiatives and people weighing in. I didn't want to see your response to a possible special election again in 2019. And the mayor's going to come back with has it teed up ready to go. This raise the tax on tourists to pay for tell us what he's paying for.

Yeah well said this measure is called yes for a better San Diego fund convention center expansion a bit of homeless services and infrastructure. And so he you know he hasn't formally asked the city council to call a special election that hasn't happened yet and I'm not sure that it will next year given the fact that there are now six Democrats on the Council they've been reluctant to fund special elections in the past because they do cost money millions of it in fact. And so you know I think the mayor absolutely wants to get this done.

He needs a legacy project like the convention center expansion he doesn't want to be remembered for the hepatitis A outbreak in only two more years to do it. And he's got two years left. And so you know that that measure you know if it just goes as as without a special election would be voted on in 2020. And you know that's a long time to wait.

And Alison speaking of politics and want to broaden this a little bit. A lot of Democratic victories throughout the region Orange County we had the forty ninth of the 50 that didn't work out so well for Democrats. We're very close there. Explain what happened after change.

Well it really was a blue wave a tide sort of spreading north. I mean the is being predominant Democrat for a long time. But now we've sort of seen reaching up the 49ers like Levin who is really quite a progressive down a Democrat replacing Darrell Issa of an Orange County. I mean all of their congressional representatives now are Democratic ones.

What's very very red orange county.

Yes so it's really a change. And then here I think in San Diego County you know having Nathan Fletcher who's a Democrat on the County Board of Supervisors is like the beginning. It's like the camel's nose under the tent a beginning of a change. That board has been uniquely all without exception Republican for decades. So we now have one Democrat on there who has some different perspectives on the priorities that the county should have. Should they be doing more with you know helping the dispossessed the homeless social services or should because up until now they've been very concerned about keeping financially safe at the county and having a good budget.

But but there has been a lack perhaps of use of the public money to be helping with the homeless problem and maybe a change with the San Diego Association of Governments with the new faces at the county new faces at the City and elsewhere.

Yes. We're seeing new faces on the sandbag board. You know we could be hearing new ideas about how they should be spending all their transportation dollars. Also a new executive director who is leading all of the staff at that agency. So I think we're you know as next year as they're putting together their next regional transportation plan we're absolutely going to be hearing some new ideas and a new direction.

I'd like to just mention also that even at the city level we've had in Escondido quite a surprising turn of events where Sam Abed was defeated by Paul Mara and in Carlsbad even the little man Matt Hall has remained in position Republican. The the city council there is now predominantly Democrat. They've got three Democratic women on the council so that is going to make a difference so there's some some definite shifts political shifts in North County to be seen.

All right well you were talking about housing and sprawl and that does lead us into another discussion here on the environment. Well ridiculous commutes gridlock traffic lack of public transportation options can all be laid at the feet of urban sprawl and in California growth has long since sprawl into wild land areas. That means wildfires spread into urban areas and Eric 2018 just a terrible year in California for that. And remind us how one record setting fire after another just plague the city.

Well there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 100 wildfires across the state of California in calendar year 2013 which is almost thousand more than the average the typical typical year. The fire season is longer here in California. We can credit that with climate change. There is less moisture although this fall did start off with a bit of a bang. But there has been less moisture up in the mountains that creates conditions ripe for wildfires. The campfire was the one that grabbed all the big headlines one of the deadliest wildfires the deadliest wildfire in California history.

Eighty six people died in that blaze and we should note again that's north of Chico the town that's correct.

More than up in the mountains more than 20000 buildings were destroyed in that fire. Just an absolutely devastating fire there and that wasn't the largest fire the largest fire was up in the Mendocino County the Mendocino complex fire. More than 460000 acres burned. And just to put that into perspective our biggest fire back in 0 3 was like 280000 acres so almost twice the size of San Diego County's biggest fire which at the time was the largest the state had ever seen. 280 structures destroyed there one death. And even here in San Diego County we didn't have a destructive wildfire this year but last year in December we did the lilac fire which burned 40 100 acres.

It destroyed 157 structures and left people homeless so with all the signs are pointing toward the environmental conditions that are to blame for many of these which are longer hotter summers drier conditions and windier conditions all those things that make wildfires such a danger.

Year of drought. Well of course that brings up the political clash here we saw President Trump before he came in and visited the campfire area up there in paradise with Jerry Brown and the incoming governor Newsome and he has a completely different approach to this than the officials in California when it comes to climate change and regulations and addressing it.

Well I think if you ignore some of the colorful means that popped up after that after that visit I think his underlying principle was the fact that somehow California was not managing its forests very well and that's why we're having these out of control wildfires and that if they have done a better job there wouldn't be these fires. But I think that ignores the environmental conditions that come into play the drier conditions the winds which can be fierce up in the mountains that can be 80. These are hurricane force winds that are pushing not water but flames there pushing flames and embers through a mile or more ahead of the through these areas that have just tons of dry fuel.

And California has not been particularly strong in building structures designed to cope with that kind of wildfire environment. A trailer park a mobile home may be a good housing option that's affordable.

But when it comes to withstanding the fury of a wildfire the wrong wrong structure Jane methods that aren't being discussed to mitigate the problem.

You know I'm not sure that there is a lot that can be mitigated if you're talking about a change in environmental conditions that those are things that you you can't you can't make defensible spaces.

You go you go do all those things and those are those are longstanding practices in California.

But but if you have 100 feet of defensible space around a home in the wildland urban interface 100 feet is nothing when you have an 80 mile an hour wind blowing embers are moving a mile I have to.

And I think one group that's kind of seized on that sort of lack of you know why do you even do when you have these hurricane force winds bringing fires in our communities is is the pro housing of in California. A Yes in my backyard. No insane. Well listen we can't keep building in this wild land urban interface. We need to do more infill development and that's where we have to focus our housing growth. And you know the more that we shut out new homes in our cities and in the areas that are already in are disturbed.

They've already disturbed the environments where infrastructure exists and where you know people are already living and where people are working. The more we shut out new growth there the more we're going to be pushing growth into the back country. And that's where the wild and wild fires are going to be happening.

Well I wanted to do a step back here because this was quite a year for dramatic dire reports at the international level the Trump Administration's own agencies by law have to have a report that came out last month. They're ignoring that to a large degree but the government itself is saying we have a short window here to do something about stop burning fossil fuels and mitigate it in the United Nations report.

I think what was most striking because it involves so many scientists from around the world who've been looking at this problem the last couple of years and they presented their findings together and the findings were overwhelmingly bad for us. If things don't change and change quickly and change quickly. We were anticipating many of the climate models. Look at three different scenarios three different possible outcomes an extreme outcome a middle of the road outcome and a minimal impact outcome and I think many of the science many people in the science community here are studying this thing are starting to look at those projections and they're saying well you know the middle outcome probably not even realistic the medium ground outcome also kind of on the fringe what we're looking at is the severe impact.

And that's something that will happen in 10 years. If there is no change now in ten years the situation could become even more dire than it is right now. And to give you an example in San Diego County say for example you live in El Cajon right now and you're experiencing it in the summer and in the fall you know 10 or 20 or 30 days that are over 100 degrees warm you can expect that to go up to 40 or 50 and maybe even 60 days where you're living in an environment that's over a hundred or 110 degrees.

And that has real world impacts real and elsewhere in the country.

They're seeing these terrible hurricanes these once in a century floods are happening over and over 50 inch rainfalls which you've seen in Texas the hurricanes in the south are just all the signs all the signs are there right. Exactly right. I wanted to bring this around. We got a couple of minutes left on this topic too to politics here. Democratic hopefuls are already starting to dip their toe in the name. You know they're in Iowa. Other names are emerging here.

Well we're going to finally see climate change as a central plank of politicians and a strong national debate on that because a couple of Democrats have already signaled Yes I think I don't have a crystal ball into the future and I can't see clearly what's going to happen but I do sense that here in California more politicians at the local level are beginning to acknowledge the fact that this is an issue that we have to deal with and it's an issue that we have to deal with. In practical terms whether it's rising sea levels on a coastline whether it's increasing temperatures in the East County I think there's that acknowledgement on a national level.

I just my crystal ball can't see quite that far.

It's interesting that people think that Governor Jerry Brown moved to have all new houses have solar panels is an extreme measure whereas that seems like like thank God now we actually have something concrete that we're doing here in California that has so much sunshine. It's amazing really. They plan to vote.

I think there are. Governor Brown is someone who definitely had this in mind you heard this a lot from him when he was in office. Aggressive plan for the state. He's trying to get the state to be carbon neutral by 2045. He wants to take more fossil fuel power cars off the road replace them with electric of electric vehicles. He wants to make sure that the power that the people use is renewable power. So there are things that a carbon friendly power that there are things that are being done here in California that aren't necessarily being done elsewhere.

And so I think there's a recognition and the simple will actually start to see it in our local coastal communities. They're all having to come up with local coastal plans to meet the Coastal Commission. And that requires us to really think carefully about what we do and the sea levels rise.

Obviously a big story we're going to continue to talk about into this coming year and moving into the election year. We are going to move now. This is another huge event in 2018. Refugees trekking a couple of thousand miles to our southern border.

And Jeanne let's start there. This story has been so much in the news what's the situation right now. The overview of what's happening with these folks and the latest caravan.

All right so this was the largest exodus of Central Americans that we've seen so far. President Trump characterizing them as criminals and as invaders. But really it's a very it's not a homogenous group it's made up of people from different backgrounds different motives for coming. And right now there's about 3000 of them still left in Tijuana most of them have gathered in a shelter about 30 minutes east of downtown an old abandoned concert hall where they were put by the federal government. Some of these people are waiting. To apply for asylum in the United States.

And they've told me that they're willing to say to wait as long as it takes there is and there is a tattered notebook that has been improvised as a sort of wait list for getting in. And again it can take weeks or months because of the backlog that we're seeing at the ports of entry. So some of them are crossing illegally a minority of them and. Who have come for economic reasons are crossing illegally and are being apprehended. And what we most recently saw is the U.S. DHS secretary Kirsten Nielson's says that there that anyone who applies for asylum in the United States will will be and will have to weigh in not we've got experts who knows how long.

I wanted to add some context. We were talking earlier a lot of stories national stories all the debate on this. They failed to put this into perspective November report from the Pew Research Center provided a key perspective on this. There were twelve point two million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2007 the figure dropped to ten point seven million in 2016. That's a 13 percent decline of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. 50 percent now are from Mexico. The rest of course from other countries. In about two thirds of undocumented adults have been in the U.S. for more than a decade.

So despite a lot of Donald Trumps fact free claims we've talked about that a lot of the people have noted that do we really have a crisis compared with recent years is this kind of a manufactured.

I mean if you're talking about a crisis in terms of illegal immigration the answer is really no. I mean the only thing we've seen a significant increase in our asylum claims people coming to the ports of entry and saying that they fear for their lives they fear persecution in their home country.

We're talking about most of Central American countries lately.

Yeah exactly. And so that for this past fiscal year there were ninety two thousand almost 93000 migrants who filed for asylum at the border and 67 percent increase from that from the previous year. But there is this tendency to talk about the caravan as you know illegals and criminals.

But that's really misleading language is dehumanizing language.

And in reality what we're seeing is people who are fleeing desperate condition and they have a right to seek asylum and were part of international treaties where you can come and state your case.

Exactly under what our own federal law the Immigration Nationality Act people have the right to apply for asylum regardless of whether they try to ports or even if they enter illegally. Because that takes into consideration the fact that when people are fleeing desperate conditions they don't really have time to figure things out like that. And then you have the U.N. Refugee Convention which prohibits countries from turning people away if they fear of persecution in other countries.

So it seems that Mexico is willing to let people stay well they applying for status here in the United States what's good for Mexico why are they cooperating like this.

So I think it's so much like there really doesn't seem to be anything at least nothing that that we are aware of publicly for Mexico. It's sort of the best option for Mexico in order to keep positive relations with the United States so they don't want to say absolutely not. We're not going to help you with this because that could potentially impair the relationship which would hurt trade and. The economy of Mexico. And so it sort of also because the current president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has built his whole. Campaign on the idea of advocating for the poor and of allegedly not doing what he calls the dirty work of the United States for.

Yeah the dirty work of the United States when it comes to curtailing flows of asylum seekers. So it's like he's say OK well they're welcome here I'm going to provide a safe space for them while they wait for their asylum claims to be processed in the United States. But the fact is that they don't really have the resources to deal with it. We've already seen these migrants transported from location to location. And you just see these really unsanitary conditions. The government doesn't have enough resources to feed them. So you see religious organizations and nonprofits coming and bringing food aid and donations and even so you know I walk around the camps and children come up to me and ask me for food.

They're hungry. So it's not enough with their what they're getting.

We've got about a minute left. I didn't want to bring up. Talking about nasty images and stories of children in cages and tear gassing and everything that we've seen. The news here. What impact is the administration's approach on this side of the border having the whole issue here are Americans going for this going for the wall. How do they feel about them.

Well I mean after the family separation prices we saw a lot of people become increasingly sympathetic towards migrants because of these really heartbreaking images of children in cages as you describe and crying and being torn from their mothers and fathers. But it is important to note that that that that never actually ended. From my reporting at Camp UBS has shown that family separations actually continued to happen at the border especially when it involves asylum seekers with U.S. citizen children and which is more often if it actually happens quite often people who live in the United States have children here go back and then have to come back for some reason.

And it's just it's a crisis that continues to unfold. Not all of the children who were separated have been reunited.

So it's unfortunate that it was never fully resolved where we are at all time but we are certainly something to be talking about in the weeks and months to come another big story moving into the election season. Well it does wrap up our special roundtable look back at some of the biggest stories of 2013. Thank you to our team of KPBS reporters Jean Guerrero and Andrew Bowen. Eric Anderson and Alison St. John. And a reminder you can find all the stories we've covered throughout the year at our Web site KPBS dot org and I should say on behalf of all of us here at KBB.

We wish you nothing but the best in the New Year. Happy New Year. And join us again for the round table in 2019.