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Longtime KPBS Reporter Alison St John Retires

January 31, 2019 1:39 p.m.

GUEST: Alison St John, North County reporter, KPBS News

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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.

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K PBS reporter Alison St. John has been a vibrant and knowledgeable presence on our air for nearly 30 years. Now she's decided to change course retire from broadcasting and move on to the next adventures and challenges in her life. But before we let her go we want to hear her take on things gained from her expertise on a variety of issues. She's explored so well and so diligently for years as a reporter and of course we want a chance to say goodbye. Alison St. John thank you for being here. Oh it's such a pleasure Maureen.

So you've gone through a number of different titles and beats in your time at K PBS. What came before North County reporter.

Yes well it goes way back to 1991 when the newsroom was getting going and I was one of the very first reporters there were like six of us in the NEWSROOM. Can you believe it. And now there's 46 things have changed and we started it all just being general reporters but then we had enough reporters that we could break into beats. So I remember I did welfare reform back in 96. You know when we were ending welfare as we know it followed a welfare mom and looked at how it was affecting her.

Then we did health care when health was changing to managed care that a lot of difficult transitions there covered that then I was the education reporter at the time that Alan Bersin came in and really shook things up. I was superintendent in San Diego city school. That's right. So there was a lot of big changes at that Unified School District during that time as he really tried so hard to get the scores to go up. I think he did will move them slightly but it's not easy to change education. That's one thing I learned.

And then of course there was the when I was the metro reporter for several years back in the early 2000s where we had the pension crisis. So that was a very intense time with a lot of sitting watching City Council at work and rushing off to press conferences with Mike Geary and learning a lot about city finances.

Former city attorney Mike Geary. Now what if anything do you think San Diego learned from that whole pension that whole Enron by the sea debacle.

Well it was a big learning experience and I feel like it's not exactly over yet. I mean it's a big cloud sort of hanging in the background of not only the city of San Diego but every other city in this county. I mean there were some specific situations whereby they had not only had they short changed the pension fund but they had also increased pensions and they had borrowed from the pension fund and they had like this trigger clause that meant that when it reached a certain point they would have to pay it all back which conveniently got ignored and they reached that point and so then there was a lot of cover up.

So you know even though a lot of cities I think have a big shadow hanging over them in terms of their pension funds not every city did what the city of San Diego did which was try to cover it up and then suddenly be faced with this huge billion dollar deficit. So I guess you know people maybe learned that transparency is important. But I have to tell you that I think there are a lot of cities right now that are looking ahead and worrying about how they are going to cover the pension costs of the future.

And you know there may come a time when potholes don't get filled because cities haven't managed their pension funds well enough. So it's it's a story that still continues to percolate in the background.

I think now during that time during and after the Iraq war you in essence picked up our military beat here on K PBS with a special focus on Marines returning to Camp Pendleton. How did that reporting affect you.

I would say Maureen that that was one of the most touching parts of my career. I felt so privileged to be able to interview these individuals who were coming back with stories that touched my heart so deeply and made me just realize what these people were sacrificing and how difficult it was for them to reintegrate into ordinary human society afterwards. That was that was really the issue. So you know I spoke to both men and women returning and I still remember the interviews that I had with some of those veterans and the the intensity of their stories and the privilege that I felt that they were willing to open up to me about their stories.

So I hope that some of those stories sort of helped people in San Diego become more aware of what you go through when you come back from conflict.

Allison in recent years I think most listeners have heard you reporting on the aftermath the accident at San Onofre and the ongoing controversy about the decommissioning of that plant. How difficult has that story been to make sense of it.

Well it is not easy because there are so many different perspectives and valid perspectives as well. So you have to somehow try to put all of perspectives on the table and try to help the the audience sort of make sense of it as best they can from what you hear. But it does seem to me that that we have made a kind of a feisty and bargain with nuclear power because it is clean it's cleaner than coal and oil and that is vital for our future with climate change. But we have not solved this issue of what to do with the waves.

And I am concerned that it looks as though we are already moving ahead with plans for fast breeder reactors and nuclear power stations of the future without really having solved that issue. Now it may be that it's not going to be something that will be prove fatal in the immediate future but we do have to think about the future of our children and our grandchildren. So I mean this is this is a story that I feel like is of great importance I'm very happy to see that newly elected Congressman Mike Levin is starting a task force and will really focus on trying to break this deadlock in the national resistance to finding a safe place to store the nuclear waste.

Now San Onofre has of course been part of your North County beat. That's a huge area to cover. How do you manage to do that.

Well it is actually I think more difficult than the years I spent covering city hall because there are nine different cities and they each have their own political makeup and their own particular way of tackling problems like homelessness and affordable housing and land use and marijuana and all the other things that every city is facing so I feel like I've only really been able to sort of skim across the surface. But one thing I've quite enjoyed doing is taking on issues such as housing and then looking at those nine cities and comparing how have they done compared to each other and compared to the city of San Diego.

So for example I found out San Marcos was building more affordable housing than any other city in North County. I would love to find out how the coastal cities are all dealing with climate change. That's one of the stories that I have not managed to get to and I would love to because each city is now being challenged with coming up with their local coastal program and it's happening. You know it's already happening and many cities have hardly even started thinking about it. The other interesting thing is just how politically North County has changed in the last few years as we witnessed in the November election both in Escondido where the mayor changed hands and Carlsbad which now has a Democratic majority.

These city councils are nonpartisan technically but there is a sort of definite tilt in the way that people approach problems depending on their political allegiance. And you know I can see that that blue wave has really affected North County quite strongly.

You know lots of people say that they wonder if reporters slant their coverage toward their own opinions but they don't ask if covering a story actually changes a reporter's opinion. Has that happened to you.

Yes I would say land use is something which I've spent quite a lot of time on talking mostly about developments out in the unincorporated areas in the back country because of the push to build out there you know the bigger developers like to have big developments that have big open spaces rather than infill and the whole struggle to avoid the sprawl to try to maintain the plans that we spent so long developing to try to preserve the natural backcountry. And also you know even an infill there's a lot of problems with traffic and sort of watching how people are fighting that.

And I do feel now like rather than saying no you know in the early days I felt like I could see that there was a lot of good reasons to resist some of these developments. Now I feel like it's more a matter of not saying no but finding a way to get as many concessions and mitigating factors from the development that it can still remain your quality of life can be salvaged as it were from this higher density that we are facing because the consequences of saying no and coming back to bite us in the sense that our own children cannot afford anymore to live in this community.

So it's like that challenge where you're up against it you know land use has always been controversial in San Diego but it's really now we're up against it where we're having to find ways to say yes but make sure that we don't you know just throw away the baby with the bathwater we really hold the developers to the fire to make sure that things like transit and roads and fire protection are considered before these new houses go up.

Now Alison you're originally from Scotland but what we're hearing now is not really a Scottish accent. It's not thoroughly Americanized though either. So how do you describe it.

I guess you know I sort of I heard it described as a mid Atlantic or trans-Atlantic and I sort of had this image of myself a little comical in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Because when I'm at home in Scotland they all think I sound completely American. And of course while I'm here people think that I've got some British in me although some people think it's Australian. So it's just. And it's not fake it's not something I practice every night. I've been accused of that. It's just the way I speak.

Now that you're not covering the stories that you've been covering Are you planning to take a break from news entirely for a while.

I don't know exactly what the future is going to bring but I have learned in my life to trust that the sort of inner proportions will propel me in the right direction and I feel like I definitely want to stay involved with what is happening. I see climate change as being the predominant issue of our time. I may or may not be reporting but I think I was still stay very involved. You'll come back occasionally and I will definitely come back home. I love being on mid-day edition worrying you know that.

And so I am definitely looking forward to coming back and filling that chair from time to time that would be an honour and a privilege.

Well Alison thanks for your amazing work through the years and I know we all wish you much happiness. And please do come back. Stay in touch. I've been speaking with Alison St. John who is retiring as K PBS as North County reporter and Alison thank you so much.

Thank you Maureen and thank you to all our listeners.