Hunger Strikes, Water Rates And Drunk-Driving Fatality In East County
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Congressional candidates so desperate for debates they're on hunger strikes. A water project is halted because of a sacred Native American site. And there are calls to establish a new Bridgette's Law. There are a number of interesting stories coming out of San Diego's East County, and it's time to talk about them on our East County Update. I’d like to introduce my guest. Miriam Raftery is editor of the East County Magazine. And, Miriam, welcome back. It’s nice to see you.
MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): Good morning, Maureen. It’s great to be here again.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s start with this very interesting, some might even say dangerous, political event in the East County, a hunger strike staged by two congressional candidates. Tell us who’s not eating and why.
RAFTERY: Okay. Well, we have Ray Lutz, the Democratic candidate for the 52nd Congressional District, and Michael Benoit, the Libertarian candidate. And they say that they are hungry for debate with Duncan Hunter, the incumbent congressman. Now, Duncan, he did debate opponents in the last election but not until October and this time he’s said he’s happy to debate them in the middle of October. But the problem with that is that voting patterns in San Diego have changed and in the last election, 60% cast absentee ballots and the absentee ballots are in the mail the first few days of October. So, I think, understandably his opponents are saying they think the debate should be moved up and held in August or September.
CAVANAUGH: Now this seems like a rather desperate measure to go to. First of all, how long has this been going on?
RAFTERY: Ten days.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And have you been getting updates from either Ray or Michael on how this is going?
RAFTERY: Well, I have. Last time I talked to them, I think Ray had lost about 16 pounds, which is quite a bit. He’s half the man he used to be, I think. And Michael also has taken off quite a bit. So it’s definitely taking a toll on them and I don’t know how much longer they’ll be able to keep this up safely.
CAVANAUGH: Has this been getting much reaction from constituents or the press?
RAFTERY: Well, it has. It certainly has drawn mixed everything from, you know, they’re nuts to people who applaud it and – and who see them as some sort of, you know, folk hero for taking on this issue of incumbents that won’t debate or won’t debate in a timely manner. They’ve also actually gotten quite a bit of national publicity. They’ve been interviewed on CNN News, Newsweek, Time, all kinds of major national media has kind of latched on to this story. And the other thing that makes it interesting is that the Congressman initially said he could not debate before October because of the legislative session in Congress but actually they’re adjourned, and he did manage to make it back to town for a Chamber of Commerce function that was only for elected officials, not the people running against them, on Friday night. And, you know, our other congressman, Congressman Filner, his schedule certainly shows him making many public appearances in the district over the next week or two. So, you know, it raises some interesting questions.
CAVANAUGH: Well, indeed. What has Congressman Hunter’s reaction been to these two hunger strikes?
RAFTERY: He’s basically refusing to address it. I happen to know that Mr. Lutz hand delivered a letter to him prior to the Friday night event or at the Friday night event, and he refused to look at it, refused to read it, said my office will send you a letter, you know, and has basically just refused to even consider the option of any debates before mid-October. They’ve said they hope somebody slips Mr. Lutz a Twinkie so he can live until the middle of October, but they just are so far pretty adamant about not budging.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have any feeling about if this strike will – this hunger strike would – these hunger strikes…
CAVANAUGH: …will actually get results in terms of a debate or not?
RAFTERY: You know, I don’t know. I can’t predict what Mr. Hunter will do. I think, you know, it would be a good thing for the public, I think, if he were to come out and be willing to debate. And, as I say, he did do five debates against his opponent last time and that was in the month of October so he certainly, you know, must consider himself a capable debater. So I’m not quite sure why he doesn’t want to do this. But I think the point of the strike is that even if he won’t, these candidates want to draw attention to the fact of how difficult it is to get media attention in this area of shrinking media. You know, there’s been races where they would never interview the – even major party candidates for some of the high offices around here. I recall a few years ago Darrell Issa, they said he was the richest man in Congress and even the Union-Tribune, they never ran a single story about his opponent that election cycle. And this is Congress, this is not a little local, you know, dogcatcher or something.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Miriam Raftery. She is editor of East County Magazine, and we are getting an East County Update. We’re moving on now to an important topic in water. I understand the Helix Water District raised its rates recently. That’s a little hard to say. Tell us about the increase, if you would.
RAFTERY: Well, they did. They say it’s an 8% average increase that’ll take effect this fall but the problem is that, first of all, they just had a very large increase last year and economic times are tough. There are people out there on fixed incomes. The hearing last week was quite heated. They had a full room of people and every single person there testified against it but they still voted 3 to 2 for the rate increase. Their wholesale rates are going up. But there were a lot of people arguing that the rate – the tiered rate structure is perceived as unfair to people who have large families or large lots because they’re somehow expected to use the same amount as somebody with a small lot and one person living there. And if you don’t, and can’t, then your rate is going to go up, you know, much more steeply. You’re going to pay a lot more than, you know, than somebody else.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the Helix Water District, is their rationale what you mentioned, the fact that their – the wholesale price of water is going up?
RAFTERY: Yeah, that’s the main problem, and it is a big dilemma. It’s going up, I believe, it was 24%—I don’t have the figures right in front of me. It was quite steep. On the other hand, there was some rainwater. The reservoirs were replenished a bit. And a lot of people were arguing that maybe it’s time for pension reform or other, you know, other measures, other cutbacks. The director of the water district there took quite a bit of heat where people were grilling him about his salary and he said he didn’t think that was important. And finally with a lot of questioning, he admitted he’s making almost $200,000. And some people felt that perhaps, you know, repeated raises in the past for him could be rolled back as a symbolic gesture more than anything. Obviously, that’s only a drop in the bucket of, you know, the amount of millions we’re talking about.
CAVANAUGH: So to speak.
CAVANAUGH: And I know that there’s another issue about the water in East County, about a planned water project in Lakeside that has been halted by a court order. The State Native American Heritage Commission requested the injunction. What’s going on there?
RAFTERY: Well, what happened is that Padre Dam had plans to build a water project that would be a reservoir to provide a new water source for East County, and a pumping station that would, you know, provide more reliable water in case of a fire, kind of a backup system. But the problem is that Padre did not pay attention to the experts, the archeologists, who forewarned them in the EIR that they were likely to find a sacred Native American burial ground or ceremonial ground there, that there was a circle of rocks and some pretty obvious signs of this. And, lo and behold, they did, and so the Native American Heritage Commission wanted a halt to the project. They wanted a – You know, Viejas wanted a full assessment, not just 6%, but to see what else might be there after not only human remains were found but also pottery shards and shirts and arrowheads that are so old they say it could relate to the history of the introduction of the bow and arrow in San Diego County. So it was fairly significant from an archeological standpoint as well as the Native American standpoint.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, what happens when a site like this is uncovered? I know that this is – the court has halted this but…
CAVANAUGH: …have they halted it indefinitely? And how much time could we be talking about?
RAFTERY: Well, that’s a very good question. At this point, the ball is in Padres’ court to see whether they are going to appeal this or whether they decide to sort of throw in the towel and it is time to take another look and find another site. They originally said there weren’t any other sites that were suitable, landowners didn’t want to sell, but that was four or five years ago and the economy’s changed a lot and so maybe one of those landowners would be willing to sell to them now. The other thing is they could possibly ask to go back and do a full assessment, not just 6%, but look at 100%. Maybe they’ll find parts of the property where there are no remains where the project could just be shifted and built, so that would be another possibility. But that can only happen if they go back to court and, you know, make that argument.
CAVANAUGH: And what do the Padre Dam people say about this project? How critical is it?
RAFTERY: Well, they say that it is a critical project. Obviously, we need water, everyone knows that. Viejas, who’s been identified as the tribe whose ancestors are most likely buried there, they actually would benefit from the water. They want the water, they just don’t want to see the ancestors’ graves defiled, desecrated, you know, in their word. They want it respected.
CAVANAUGH: Moving on in the East County Update that we’re doing. There’s a sad case of a young mother killed by a wrong way driver on Highway 67. This case may have resonance beyond the tragedy. First of all, tell us about the accident.
RAFTERY: Well, it was a terrible accident. It occurred earlier this year, I believe January. Bridgette Hale was a young mother. She was just turning her life around. She was engaged to be married. She had a brand new job that she was doing very, very well at. And she was on her way to work at two in the afternoon when a man who, something like 8 or 9 different witnesses say, was seen weaving all over the place and driving on the wrong side of the road, crossed the double yellow line, hit her head on and she was killed instantly.
CAVANAUGH: And how did the CHP handle the accident and the driver?
RAFTERY: Well, the driver was also seriously injured. He had a broken hip or femur and needed medical attention but the controversy is that they did not order a blood test and the CHP says they don’t really think that they had the grounds to do it because he was lucid, he was able to talk to them, he wasn’t slurring his speech and there wasn’t alcohol on his breath. However, there were definitely some trouble signs. The man admitted that he’d been gambling for 12 hours. He could not remember where he’d been for 12 hours before that, and before that he’d been off work. So he’d certainly gone, you know, maybe a day and a half without sleep. You know, there are unconfirmed reports that the hospital, you know, doctors drew blood there and that there were some findings but that would not be admissible in court if, in fact, that were true. He also gave CHP a false ID. It turns out that he’s been previously, you know, convicted or previously, you know, paid a fine for crossing a double yellow line elsewhere, in San Bernardino County. Those records are too old and have been destroyed and so we can’t find out, you know, whether he may have injured or even killed somebody up there in the past. But now the family is outraged and they say that they want to get a legislator to sponsor a law called Bridgette’s Law that would require that blood be drawn anytime there’s a fatality accident. And this is done apparently in some other states, and there are also states like Ohio where law enforcement is allowed to subpoena a hospital record even if it’s not drawn at the scene. If the hospital draws blood, you know, they can do that. And the very interesting thing is that there was a study done that was published in the American, I think it was AMA or American…
CAVANAUGH: Journal of American Medical Association?
RAFTERY: Thank you. Yes, yes, refreshing my memory. But it was very interesting. In Tennessee or Kentucky, they tested a whole bunch of drivers who did not seem to be obviously intoxicated but who had been involved in reckless driving incidents, and what they found was that more than half of them tested positive for either cocaine or marijuana, which were the two tests they said that they checked for. And in many cases, even when the officers at the scene who were trained in spotting, you know, abusers, thought that they were okay.
CAVANAUGH: So just to be clear, in this accident, the driver who crossed the yellow line, the CHP said they had no cause to test him for alcohol or drugs and they didn’t do it. And what happened? Is he facing any charges?
RAFTERY: He is facing a misdemeanor charge. The most he could get would be, if found guilty, and he has pled not guilty, by the way, would be one year in county jail and maybe some fines. Had he been, you know, been found to be under the influence of something then it could be a felony. There’s another case in the news right now very similar where it is being charged as a felony and someone’s facing potentially 14 years in prison.
CAVANAUGH: So this legislation has been introduced and working its way? Or is it really just brand new?
RAFTERY: No, he’s been talking with Nathan Fletcher’s office and they have not even confirmed whether they’re going to do that. I’m told that they are interested in it. He’s, of course, the one that introduced Chelsea’s Law. We ran a poll, by the way, and your readers can go on our site at eastcountymagazine.org and take the poll on the top right. But so far, it’s running 96%, astounding, 96% believe this should be a law.
CAVANAUGH: A lot of stories to keep on following in the East County. Miriam, thank you.
RAFTERY: Well, you’re very welcome.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Miriam Raftery, editor of East County Magazine. If you would like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, the head of San Diego’s Republican Party tells us how the GOP Convention went this weekend, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.