Our 10 Biggest Stories of the Year

As 2013 comes to a close, we’re looking back on the 10 most popular inewsource stories as calculated by pageviews — and offering a little more insight into each as a Christmas bonus. We’ll add one each day for the next 10 days.

1. “Mello-Roos: The Tax You Choose”

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Takeaway: Our most popular story of the year wasn’t actually a story — it was the page that hosted our series of stories on “Mello-Roos.”

Mello-Roos is a tax named after two California legislators who found a way around the landmark, tax-limiting Proposition 13 to generate money for basic needs in new neighborhoods, especially schools. Landowners, most often developers, created districts that could issue debt and collect taxes. For a lot of reasons, the tax amounts vary wildly from district to district and even house to house.

Genesis: Kevin Crowe, who did the research for the Mello-Roos app before moving to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was pursuing data on assessments for another story when he realized there was a far larger pot of money going into Mello-Roos districts.  Crowe and Joanne Faryon saw the potential for a user-friendly app a long time ago as a way to personalize the tangle of taxes collected for schools. Using the interactive map, people in San Diego County can find out if they’re among the one in 10 homeowners paying Mello-Roos fees and compare their bill with what their neighbors pay.

Developers and school officials were reluctant to discuss how Mello-Roos fees are used and monitored. It took Kevin a week just to find out who was minding the Mello-Roos money at some school districts. He made more headway talking with the state treasurer about the bonds issued by many Mello-Roos districts. Then he turned to the county treasurer/tax collector’s office, which collects Mello-Roos fees along with property taxes.

For more details about how the map itself was designed and constructed, click here.

Following up: The Mello-Roos map and accompanying article generated a series of stories all contained on our Mello-Roos page. Homeowners used the interactive map to identify their homes and payments, and some even found they were being overcharged — and had been for years. inewsource found inconsistencies in tax bills as well, and a city councilman called for an inquiry by the city’s independent auditor.

The story has continued since its original publication in June 2013 with Joanne’s dogged reporting and follow-ups.

2. “Follow the Money”

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Takeaway: An election nobody saw coming presented inewsource with the opportunity to do something we’d never done before: provide readers with interactive, customizable and searchable campaign finance data on the city’s mayoral candidates as soon as that data was reported to the City Clerk.

Genesis: In early September, inewsource Executive Director Lorie Hearn realized that with less than 90 days until the November primary, state law required political committees report all contributions from individuals and other entities donating at least $1,000 within 24 hours. The question: could we take this campaign finance data — locked away in complicated spreadsheets on the City Clerk’s website — and turn it into something that would better inform San Diegans? The answer was yes. And therein lied “Follow the Money: Updated Daily.” What began as interactive charts was quickly upgraded to include a searchable database of campaign contributions and, eventually, a map that combined contribution data with Census data to show readers where — literally — candidates’ money was coming from.

Following Up: Just because the primary campaign is over doesn’t mean the money has stopped flowing. We’ve still got a runoff to get through and inewsource investigative reporter Joe Yerardi is still following the money, every day. He’ll be covering it through election day and beyond.

3. “The third retraction demand from NCTD, and our response”

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Takeaway: The North County Transit District — the subject of an ongoing inewsource investigation — reacted to a story about gender discrimination with a letter to KPBS and inewsource management demanding a retraction.

Genesis: inewsource reporter Brad Racino had spend a month speaking with sources and gathering documents about an alleged “war on women” within the Oceanside transit district. After publishing the story and reading the anticipated retraction demand (the third from the agency), Racino and first amendment lawyer Guylyn Cummins crafted a detailed response refuting all of NCTD’s arguments against the story.

Following up: NCTD dropped their demand hours after receiving the inewsource letter — failing to provide any documents (as requested) to back up their claims. The retraction demand, along with inewsource’s response, was circulated throughout transit insiders around the country — as evidenced by Google analytics and sources outside the agency.

4. “The truth about Nathan Fletcher”

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Takeaway: San Diego mayoral candidate (at the time) Nathan Fletcher discussed the dramatic custody battle his parents fought over him, the abuse — “a living hell” — he said suffered in his father’s home and how he believes the experience instilled an empathy that made him a strong Marine and an advocate for women and children. Fletcher said he agreed to the interview because people have been trying to distort his family life during the campaign.

Genesis: inewsource reporter Joanne Faryon had interviewed Nathan Fletcher many times in the past, and in October, found herself reconstructing the mayoral candidate’s past through record searches, web research and old-fashioned phone calls. So when Fletcher decided he wanted to set the record straight about his childhood in early November, his campaign reached out to Joanne with the exclusive. Fletcher and his mother visited KPBS studios for the interview and were on tape for more than 30 minutes. 

Following up: Fletcher eventually lost the primary to candidates David Alvarez and Kevin Faulconer, but his story remained a top read for weeks after publication.

5. “Lincoln Club focuses on negative ads”

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Takeaway: The Lincoln Club — a 30-year-old, pro-business political advocacy group — wants a Faulconer-Alvarez matchup in the mayoral runoff. To see it happen, they’re spending big money on a harsh anti-Fletcher advertising campaign.

Genesis: Intrigued by the proliferation of mailers attacking Democratic mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher and bearing the name of The Lincoln Club, inewsource investigative reporter Joe Yerardi decided to take a closer look at the politically powerful advocacy group’s spending. When Yerardi investigated, the data proved what he’d been seeing and hearing from readers: the club, long-considered the voice of San Diego’s politically active business community, was investing huge sums of money in an all-out campaign to drive Fletcher out of the race. That a conservative, business-friendly political organization was attacking a Democratic candidate wasn’t surprising — what was surprising was how they were doing it. The group was sending out mailers attacking Fletcher for previously supporting many of the conservative policies that The Lincoln Club champions. The goal? To turn off as many Democrats as possible from Fletcher and boost the fortunes of the other Democrat in the race, David Alvarez. The Club hoped to have Republican Kevin Faulconer face Alvarez in the runoff because the first-term councilman was widely viewed as a less formidable opponent.

Following up: It worked. The Lincoln Club’s relentless attacks on Fletcher, combined with the support the Labor Council of San Diego and Imperial Counties provided Alvarez, helped the 33-year-old Democrat eke out a narrow second-place finish on election night. Faulconer and Alvarez will now face each other in a February runoff and Fletcher has announced his retirement from politics. The final chapter in this story has yet to be written, of course. Republicans got the candidate they wanted last mayoral election, too, in the form of Bob Filner. And we all know how that turned out.

6. “San Diego Election Path”

Takeaway: Researchers, analysts and academics around the world are trying to figure out whether social media outlets, such as Twitter and Facebook, can accurately predict the outcome of elections. One SDSU professor created an online application which he believed could analyze Twitter feeds and predict the San Diego special mayoral election results.

Genesis: inewsource data analyst Joe Yerardi and director Lorie Hearn met with SDSU professor Ming-Hsiang Tsou to discuss mapping the donations for San Diego’s election. During the talk, Tsou spoke of a new application he had developed, called “ElectionPath,” that he hoped would analyze social media in San Diego and predict the upcoming mayoral election. Lorie and Joe brought the idea of hosting the application back to Joanne and Brad, and after much debate and discussion, the team decided to host ElectionPath as an experiment on inewsource.org — with the caveat that it was simply an experiment.

Following up: The application was widely used in San Diego, according to analytics, and generated a ton of buzz. After the election, Brad went back to Tsou to talk about the outcome and reliability of his application. The story of what happened next can be read here.

7. “War on Women Over 40″

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Takeaway: Multiple lawsuits and sources both on and off the record described discriminatory hiring and firing practices within the North County Transit District (NCTD) — the taxpayer-funded public transportation agency operating in San Diego’s north county.

Genesis: inewsource reporter Brad Racino was openly investigating NCTD throughout 2013, and along the way, multiple sources inside (both men and women) detailed the seemingly illegal hiring and firing practices that were taking place. The problem was — no one was willing to be quoted by name for fear of losing their jobs. The number of sources continued to mount and their stories remained the same, yet inewsource couldn’t publish anything until someone went on the record. This happened in September, when a former HR employee filed a lawsuit against NCTD and called out its CEO for age and gender discrimination. The detailed allegations in the lawsuit were the same type sources told inewsource in the past. Then, a former grants manager at NCTD agreed to go on the record with her story.

Following up: NCTD did not take kindly to the story and sent a retraction demand to KPBS (why they sent it to KPBS and not inewsource, we still don’t know). We responded the next day with a letter of our own, and NCTD’s lawyer dropped the case. Since then, according to one source inside the agency, NCTD has made a conscious effort to hire women over 40 — although we haven’t verified that with NCTD.

8. “Security Breach”

Security Breach

Takeaway: San Diego’s transportation companies (MTS and NCTD) have paid a security company, Universal Protection Service, millions of dollars over the years for officers to protect their trains, trolleys and stations. The problem is — most officers never received the training necessary for protecting the nation’s second-busiest rail corridor… training such as administering first aid, handling a train derailment, or reacting to an active shooter or bomb scare.

Genesis: In October, one fed-up security officer reached out to inewsource to detail a long list of failures on the part of his employer, Universal Protection Service. Over the next few months, inewsource reporter Brad Racino spoke secretly with more than a dozen officers by phone, at their homes, and on-board trains and trolleys (away from cameras) to verify these complaints. All officers told the same story — their requests for training, equipment, and basic safety measures (like Hepatitis vaccinations) fell on deaf ears. Records obtained from California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and NCTD bolstered the officer’s stories, and in the end, NCTD threatened to terminate its contract with Universal if things weren’t fixed immediately. MTS said they’d look into the issue.

Mike Quattrocchi

Universal officer Michael Quattrocchi after being assaulted by a gang in mid-November.

Follow up: The fallout from the story was not pretty. Supervisors at Universal threatened officers who spoke out. Some guards were forced out of the company. Others were transitioned to dangerous shifts near the border.

Despite Universal’s promise to train all officers and open up its HR department to officer complaints, guards told inewsource not much had changed in the months after Security Breach was published. In February, MTS board members asked Universal executives to “open up their books” and show the transportation agency its contractor had nothing to hide. As far as inewsource knows, that never happened.

During a board meeting in November, NCTD renewed Universal’s contract for an additional five years. One officer who spoke out for more training and better protection, Michael Quattrochi, was hospitalized after an attack by seven gang members while on duty in mid-November.

9. “Bob Filner and the Monster Within”

Bob Filner

Takeaway: The disgraced former mayor of San Diego, according to an array of former colleagues, spent his political career professing compassion for the little guy but had difficulty mustering the proper concern for how his words and actions might impact the people who surrounded him in everyday life. Simply put, he had difficulty connecting on a basic human level.

Genesis: This story could only be had by someone with strong political connections in San Diego. inewsource Executive Director Lorie Hearn hired veteran reporter Alex Roth at the Union-Tribune “sometime around 2000″ after watching him work hard to establish a career as a master reporter and story-teller. Roth eventually left San Diego for the Wall Street Journal, then returned for a career on the other side of the fence: in the office of Mayor Jerry Sanders. When Sanders left office, so did Roth. And when Filner came under fire, Roth still had his reputation as a straight shooter — with a new perspective. Who better to delve into the scene behind the upheaval in the mayor’s office?

Following up: Filner, according to the UT San Diego, now spends his days in exile — very much alone and ostracized. He was sentenced to three months of house arrest and three years probation on Dec. 9, 2013, for harassing women while serving as San Diego’s mayor — a position he held for less than nine months before being accused by nearly 20 women of unwanted advances and assault.

10. “U-T Political Ads Don’t Add Up”

UT San Diego advertisement

Takeaway: The U-T San Diego appears to have offered discounts to favored candidates and causes in last November’s election. As a result, inewsource and KPBS audited ads in the U-T every day between Labor Day and Election Day 2012 and compared the list with campaign finance records. The audit showed the newspaper may have offered bargain rates to a campaign opposing then-Democratic mayoral candidate Filner. It also showed possible discounts to Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray.

Genesis: The U-T story was inewsource Executive Director Lorie Hearn’s idea after she noticed an abundance of ads for and against certain candidates in the paper, specifically in the mayor’s race and in the 52nd congressional district. inewsource delved into the campaign expenditure reports and found little reported. That prompted the decision to have interns build spreadsheets by auditing all the newspapers between Labor Day and Election Day last year. Amita Sharma, a veteran KPBS reporter, had reported extensively on the U-T and its changes in ownership, so inewsource partnered with her for the resulting publication.

Following up: The disparity aroused the suspicion of San Diego County Democratic Party Chairwoman Francine Busby. She filed a complaint with the FPPC. The agency reviewed her complaint, U-T invoices and other evidence. In June, the FPPC told Busby the paper did not violate the political reform act. There was “insufficient evidence,” the FPPC said, that the bundled rates offered to candidates differed from those offered to retailers. It appears that the FPPC has decided that while they may or may not be convinced by the U-T’s explanation, the paper did offer a plausible explanation. In our follow-up story, we found the U-T case may have exposed a flaw in how the law can be enforced.

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Brad Racino

Brad Racino is a reporter, producer and editor at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, email bradracino@inewsource.org or call (619) 594-3569.

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