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2010: The Year in News

A man protests Johannes Mehserle's involuntary manslaughter verdict on a downtown Oakland bus shelter July 8, 2010
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A man protests Johannes Mehserle's involuntary manslaughter verdict on a downtown Oakland bus shelter July 8, 2010
 
From the heights of human achievement to the depths of depravity, Bay Area stories fascinate

The Bay Citizen debuted May 26 under the premise that there were no longer enough working reporters to cover the soaring human achievement, the utter depravity, the mixture of the surprising and the mundane and the absurd that the Bay Area churns out on an hourly basis.

This turned out to be true.

Our first seven months of existence demonstrate that as bad as things have gotten in the news business, there's never been a better time for news. Compelling stories literally fell out of the sky this year (Edgar Renteria’s Ranger-killing homer in Game 5 of the World Series) and erupted from beneath the earth (the San Bruno pipeline explosion). Some of the best stories, in fact, were brought to light by this new news organization; others just happened.

Tim Lincecum celebrates after clinching the World Series by winning Game 5.
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Tim Lincecum celebrates after clinching the World Series by winning Game 5.
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San Francisco Giants

Any accounting of 2010 has to start with the Giants’ World Series run, the team’s first championship since moving to San Francisco in 1957. In 2002, the team’s last appearance in the World Series, the Giants were a mirthless, polluted enterprise, ruled by a despot who set an example for Bay Area youth by injecting himself with artificial greatness. This year’s team was thoroughly real and reflected its eccentric and diverse fan base. When baseball players list their hobbies in team yearbooks, it’s usually a cavalcade of “avid hunters.” Not these Giants. We had a bearded pitcher who dabbled in bondage, another pitcher who gave his wife a prize calf as a wedding gift, a stoner Cy Young award winner and a manager whose oversized head was reminiscent of the recent lunar eclipse.

Appropriately, the ride ended with Aubrey Huff pulling a red rally thong out of his pants and holding it up before a sea of fans at the Civic Center, like some debauched pope.

Proposition 8

California’s ban on same-sex marriage came before U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who bludgeoned the law with the same force as Renteria’s game-winning homer. Walker’s 136-page ruling spared the legal niceties to deliver a searing denunciation of hate and discrimination. Vaughn wrote that, because of laws like Proposition 8, gay and lesbian couples still lacked basic rights that were made available to emancipated slaves 150 years ago.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker
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U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker
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In one of the more memorable passages of his decision, Vaughn wrote: “Proposition 8 places the force of law behind stigmas against gays and lesbians, including: gays and lesbians do not have intimate relationships similar to heterosexual couples; gays and lesbians are not as good as heterosexuals; and gay and lesbian relationships do not deserve the full recognition of society.”

Walker continued: “In the absence of a rational basis, what remains of proponents’ case is an inference, amply supported by evidence in the record, that Proposition 8 was premised on the belief that same-sex couples simply are not as good as opposite-sex couples. Whether that belief is based on moral disapproval of homosexuality, animus towards gays and lesbians or simply a belief that a relationship between a man and a woman is inherently better than a relationship between two men or two women, this belief is not a proper basis on which to legislate.”

We’ll hear more of this story in 2011 as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals weighs the appeal, and the Supreme Court decides whether to take on the landmark case. But the force and clarity of Walker’s ruling is now etched into the history of the civil rights movement in this country.  

Chimneys and scorched trees remain during a massive fire in a residential San Bruno neighborhood Sept. 9, 2010
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Chimneys and scorched trees remain during a massive fire in a residential San Bruno neighborhood Sept. 9, 2010
Getty Images/Max Whittaker

San Bruno Explosion

Around dinner time Sept. 9, a natural gas transmission line exploded beneath San Bruno, causing an inferno that ripped through the middle-class Crestmoor neighborhood like a bomb blast. The explosion killed eight people, destroyed dozens of homes and left a 72-foot-long crater that continues to scar the Peninsula. The disaster was one of the worst in the history of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which is a ubiquitous presence in our lives, and raised numerous questions about the company’s inspection procedures and its cozy relationship with its chief regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E, by definition, is guaranteed a substantial profit, and any unexpected costs it incurs are passed on to consumers. Following the explosion, The Bay Citizen reported that the company had determined three years earlier that the transmission line that blew up was at an "unacceptably high" risk for failure. In recent weeks, the Chronicle has exposed that CPUC inspectors issued written warnings about PG&E's persistent safety problems, and that PG&E lobbied heavily for cheaper pipeline inspection procedures that many saw as deficient, even as the National Transportation Safety Board was citing inadequate welding as the potential source for the catastrophe.

A scene from the gathering at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland after Mesherle's sentence was announced
Roberto Daza, Oakland North
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A scene from the gathering at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland after Mesherle's sentence was announced
Roberto Daza, Oakland North

Johannes Mehserle Verdict

The former BART police office was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, on the platform of the Fruitvale station shortly after New Year’s 2009. Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Oakland to protest the light verdict, and some splintered off after dark to clash with police. The mayhem caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage and led to dozens of arrests, but it could have been far worse if not for the preparations of Oakland’s police force, which methodically sealed off the downtown area, despite budget cuts that have decimated the department. In one memorable scene near the end of the night, a group of young men, looking for an opening, stared at a phalanx of officers clad in riot gear. “They outnumber us everywhere around this bitch,” one of the men said.

Still later, when Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, protesters engaged in another inevitable and weary march through Oakland, trailed by police, who made more arrests. The anger over Mehserle appears to have run its course, but the generalized frustration over inequitable justice, coupled with the police cuts and Oakland’s continuing crime problem, is a recipe for more tense times.

Politics, Politics…

In a contest that at times looked like it was lifted from a Family Guy episode, septuagenarian Jerry Brown managed to best his Republican opponent for governor, Meg Whitman, who, after all that spending, will likely be remembered for her old-school maid furor and cell-phone flinging rages during her stewardship at eBay.

Candidate Meg Whitman speaks to Cisco employees at a town hall style event Sept. 29, 2010 in San Jose
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Candidate Meg Whitman speaks to Cisco employees at a town hall style event Sept. 29, 2010 in San Jose
Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

Brown also snuffed out San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s current aspirations for the governorship, triggering the chain of events that is still playing out at City Hall. With Newsom leaving to become lieutenant governor, whatever that is, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is engaged in a fascinating run of political theater to determine not only the next mayor but also the next generation of power brokers in city politics. This is a story that looks destined for the top of next year’s list.

Over in Oakland, Jean Quan knocked off Don Perata for mayor, a huge upset fueled by the inscrutable ranked-choice voting system.

Once again, though, San Francisco and California look strangely detached from the rest of the country. Even now, after the Republicans’ midterm massacre, it’s all Democrats, all the time around here.

School District Payment Scandal

Tipped off by community contractors who wondered where all the money was going, San Francisco Unified School District officials stumbled upon a group of veteran administrators who, for years, allegedly handed out unauthorized cash gifts — to themselves. The case has been referred to the district attorney’s office, which is conducting a criminal investigation, according to the school district. But it has already raised numerous questions about district oversight at a time when San Francisco schools are facing $113 million in budget cuts.

A document notifying Linda Lovelace of her termination
Zoe Corneli/The Bay Citizen
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A document notifying Linda Lovelace of her termination
Zoe Corneli/The Bay Citizen

Most everyone agrees that Trish Bascom, the former head of Student Support Services who is at the center of the scandal, operated a department with a $20 million budget as her personal fiefdom, despite years of complaints about her conduct and irregular accounting practices to school board members and administrators, including Superintendent Carlos Garcia. Even Bascom’s lawyer says, “There was no oversight.”

Investigators so far have charted tens of thousands of dollars in suspicious payments, but administrators say they are combing records dating back years and involving millions of dollars. The scandal goes beyond the money, though.

One termination notice obtained by The Bay Citizen underscored the outrage. Addressing an administrator accused of padding her overtime pay, the district’s chief administrative officer wrote: “Your conduct in intentionally requesting and receiving an additional four hours of compensation every single day is tantamount to stealing. Particularly at a time when the district faces a multimillion-dollar deficit and forced layoffs of many skilled and diligent professionals, such conduct is appalling.”

Proposition B

This was the year that the arcane issue of pension reform became a blood sport in San Francisco. The issue was pushed by unlikely reformer Jeff Adachi, the public defender and potential mayoral candidate. With pension liabilities projected to soar beyond $1 billion by 2014, Adachi sponsored a ballot proposition that would have required public employees to make a more significant contribution to their retirement benefits.

San Francisco unions mounted a full-frontal assault on Adachi, and ultimately buried the proposition and perhaps the public defender’s political future. After the election, the unions openly danced on the proposition’s grave and issued dark warnings for the public defender. One Democratic strategist told The Bay Citizen: ''This could be the end of the line for him: He bet it all on red, and he lost. No part of the labor movement will be ready to forgive Jeff Adachi any time soon.'' 

Bay Area Veterans: Death at Home

Bay Citizen reporter Aaron Glantz, who has extensive experience covering the Iraq war, set out to track the fate of California veterans once they return home. The result was one of the most startling findings to come out of the post-9/11 conflicts.

Reuben Paul Santos grave site at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma on Thursday, September 30, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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Reuben Paul Santos grave site at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma on Thursday, September 30, 2010
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

Examining death records for all 58 California counties, Glantz discovered that more than 1,000 California veterans under 35 died between 2005 and 2008. The figure is three times higher than the number of California service members who were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts over the same period.

Suicides represented approximately one in five deaths of young veterans, the data showed. Many other deaths resulted from risky behaviors that are common among those affected by post-traumatic stress. Iraq and Afghanistan vets were twice as likely to die in a vehicle accident and five and a half times as likely to die in a motorcycle accident.

''These numbers are truly alarming and should wake up the whole country,'' said Rep. Bob Filner, Democrat of San Diego, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. ''They show a failure of our policy.''

On Sept. 24, Berkeley police found Alex Lowenstein, an Iraq veteran who was months away from earning his degree in Peace and Conflict studies, dead in his room at the Delta Upsilon fraternity house. Lowenstein, a Mill Valley native who was 24, died of a bullet wound to the head from his own gun. Lowenstein was the second Iraq veteran to die of an apparent suicide on the Berkeley campus.

Ken Matthews, a supporter of Proposition 19, in Oakland as the city braced for results
Zusha Elinson/The Bay Citizen
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Ken Matthews, a supporter of Proposition 19, in Oakland as the city braced for results
Zusha Elinson/The Bay Citizen

Pot-pourri

This was also the year that Oakland moved to turn itself into the Silicon Valley of weed, an economic Hail Mary for the battered local economy. But the end of the year revealed the formidable obstacles to this dubious strategy, as Proposition 19 went down to defeat and the Justice Department threatened legal action against anyone who violates federal drug laws.

Even then, pot, as a retail business, is now officially out of control in the Bay Area. Harborside Health Center, the Oakland-based dispensary that boasts 58,000 “patients,” began selling pot gelato, along with dozens of smokeable varietals; San Jose became home to nearly 100 pot shops; and the Oakland City Council passed a law to license four immense pot factories, a plan that is temporarily on hold to bring the law into compliance with the federal government. Good luck with that.

Giuseppe Viola

Viola makes it as “Scam Artist of the Year.” In this scarcely believable North Beach tale, Viola sets up shop at Caffe Roma and bilks dozens of investors out of millions over a period of years. He fools not only the investors but also mistresses, friends and even Citibank, whose officers provide him access to an office from which he closes some of his deals.

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