Newsletter: September 4, 2013

Dear friends of inewsource,

While we’re hard at work on upcoming stories, we’d like to take a moment to introduce you to our newest staff member, Joe Yerardi, as well as update you about some positive results out of San Diego’s North County Transit District — a subject we’ve been covering extensively since last October.

Stay tuned for some strong project work over the next few weeks. In the meantime, spread the word by forwarding this newsletter to a friend.

—- Lorie Hearn, executive director, loriehearn@inewsource.org

Meet Joe

Since losing our data specialist Ryann Grochowski to the East Coast last month, we’ve been looking across the country for a suitable replacement — someone who understands the importance of data journalism; someone with a hankering for investigative reporting; someone who won’t take no for an answer when dealing with hard-line public information officers.

Meet Joe Yerardi.

Joe started with inewsource Tuesday, settling into his new workspace by proudly displaying his Boston memorabilia. To help you get to know Joe, here is a brief Q & A with the man behind the Mr. Potato Head dolls.

So, Joe, where ya from?

“I was proudly born and bred in and around our nation’s Cradle of Liberty: Boston, Massachusetts.”

How did you get into journalism?

“I first caught the journalism bug writing for my college newspaper at New York University.  After a few internships and a stint as a Master’s student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I started my first fulltime job in April, 2012.”

Where were you working?

“Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was the data editor for the San Antonio Express-News, the daily newspaper of the Lone Star State’s Cradle of Liberty: San Antonio, Texas (see what I’m doing here?).”

What stories did you work on that you’re particularly proud of?

“If I could fit a spreadsheet into the reporting process, I could write about it. And write about it I did. In 16 months working in the Alamo City, I covered stories on beats far and wide: business, politics, demographics… you name it. A couple of the ones I’m most proud of were a story that revealed widespread miscalibration of gas station pumps — pumps that were cheating motorists – and an investigation into the struggle of minority and low-income borrowers to receive government-backed small business loans.”

What will you be doing at inewsource?

“I’ll be writing about a wide range of topics with a focus on data-heavy stories. Think about money-in-politics, government spending and demographic changes. I’ll also be working closely with other inewsource reporters to incorporate data analysis in their stories. Finally, we’ll be relaunching the website’s Data Center as a source of regularly-updated blog posts, databases, maps and other interactive elements.”

What are you most excited to get started on?

“The first topic on my to-do list is to dig into the money race for the upcoming special election. Not only will that go a long way in determining who the next mayor of San Diego is, it should also tell you who’s going to expect some favors once the winner takes office.”

Have you had the fish tacos yet? Surfed? Day drank in Tijuana?

“Tacos: yes. Surfing: soon. Tijuana: not yet, but can’t wait.”

News from North County

Several months ago, inewsource published a story in a continuing series on the North County Transit District — a taxpayer-funded public agency responsible for running the BREEZE, SPRINTER  and COASTER bus and rail services.

The story highlighted issues of accountability, oversight and safety, and one of the many takeaways was the district’s overuse of sole-source procurements.

From the story:

“When certain government agencies need a service they can’t perform on their own — from graphic design and marketing to manufacturing new train components — they put the job out for bid in the public market. Private companies compete by submitting proposals.

Through an evaluation committee, the government agency then picks the winner and awards the contract.

In certain “exigent circumstances” — and only if a set of very strict criteria is met — government agencies may skip this process and offer the contract to a single company without going through the bidding process. This is sole source.

The bidding process is in place to “eliminate favoritism, fraud, and corruption in the awarding of public contracts,” and also to ensure government agencies are getting the best deal possible for taxpayers. [NCTD was cautioned] it was awarding too many of these sole source contracts, and that continuing to do so
“may result in increased regulatory scrutiny and potential fines.”

inewsource specifically questioned one of NCTD’s sole-source contracts: an NCTD employee, Deborah Castillo, had awarded her former employer (an advertising company called Cook & Schmid) a $50,000 sole-source contract. She also sat on the committee which evaluated the company and served as the project manager on the account.

It has just come to our attention that NCTD issued a memo to its board of directors in response to this story. In that memo, the district’s CFO, Ryan Bailey, wrote about this particular sole-source award highlighted in the inewsource story:

“Management has reviewed this procurement and deemed it not justifiable as a sole source procurement. Management has also reviewed the NCTD Panel Selection process, and has prohibited NCTD employees from participating in procurement selection panels if they were formerly employed by any of the proposers.”

It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s progress.

— Brad Racino, investigative reporter bradracino@inewsource.org

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Lorie Hearn

Lorie Hearn is the founder and executive director of inewsource.