News in Review

What the heck happened in 2019?

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With another odd year in the rearview, we take a look at some sometimes-outrageous stories from the past year. Credit: Jon Tyson

Taking a look back over the year in news, there were plenty of stories that raised an eyebrow or two, let alone the occasional chuckle in our editorial offices. Here’s a roundup of those that did both for the news team at the Pacific Sun.

January

An analysis of 2017 Census data by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) revealed that the three least-diverse cities in the region are located in Marin County.

San Anselmo, Ross and Belvedere had the highest percentages of white people among the 109 cities, towns and unincorporated areas included in the study. The populations of all three cities are more than 87 percent white.

San Rafael is the most diverse city in the county. Its population is 56.3 percent white, according to the study. Marin City is likely the most diverse area in the county but it was lumped in with the rest of the unincorporated county in the study.

By contrast, the City of Vallejo in Solano County was the most diverse city. Its population consists of roughly equal proportions of white, asian, black and latino residents.

John Goodwin, an ABAG spokesperson, told the paper that the lack of diversity is likely due to Marin’s sky-high housing prices.

“Broadly speaking … communities with comparatively less expensive housing tend to be more diverse,” Goodwin told the paper.

San Anselmo’s then–vice mayor weighed in on his city’s diversity ranking.

“We live in an increasingly diverse country, we live in a very diverse Bay Area, and, by contrast, we’re kind of out of it,” Ford Greene told the Marin Independent Journal. “I think we lose out. We don’t have the benefit of as rich a social and cultural environment as if we were commensurately diverse.”

March

Three Marin County residents were arrested in mid-March for alleged involvement in a college-admission bribery scheme that made headlines nationwide.

The scandal centered around the college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer. Singer promised to increase wealthy parents’ chances of getting their child into a high-end college, whether or not the child was qualified.

Money was apparently no object for these folks. Two of the Marin County residents caught up in the scandal had children who attended Marin Academy, a private school in San Rafael where tuition cost a staggering $45,755 last year.

In the case of Agustin Huneeus Jr., one of the Marin Academy parents who hired Singer, the efforts involved flying his child to West Hollywood to sit for an SAT exam with a school director who was cut in on Singer’s crooked business.

Once Huneeus saw the test results, which were high, but not remarkably so, he gave $250,000 to USC’s athletics department in order to seal the deal.

This scandal no doubt triggered feelings of moral superiority among struggling public school kids across the country. All that privilege and these rich kids still can’t make it into a fancy college?

In October, a judge sentenced Huneeus to a five-month stint behind bars, with 500 hours of public service and a $100,000 fine tacked on for good measure.

Does this mean rich people will stop trying these schemes? One seriously doubts it.

Buying entry into a private college is hardly a new practice for wealthy, well-connected families. Jared Kushner’s real estate developer father, Charles, reportedly pledged a $2.5 million contribution to Harvard University shortly before his son, now-President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and aide, enrolled in the school in 1999.

More than half of Harvard’s top 400-plus donors sent a child to the prestigious school, according to an analysis by journalist Daniel Golden.

Still, unlike the practices uncovered during the 2019 admissions scandal, Charles Kushner’s well-timed donation to Harvard was perfectly legal, even if it looks pretty shady.

July

On July 9, Dixie School District’s trustees voted 3 to 1 to rename the district after years of simmering debate about the historical baggage the term brought to the small northern San Rafael school district.

The term “Dixie” is generally associated with the Confederate South, however defenders of the original name argued that the school’s founder, James Miller, did not intend to make that connection. Instead, they said, Miller named the schoolhouse after Mary Dixie, a Miwok woman who lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills and reportedly traded cattle with Miller.

The debate over the proposed name change took up hours of public meetings and drew international news coverage. In February, a school board trustee received a threatening anti-Semitic letter.

“In addition to slurs, obscenities and misspellings, the brief letter includes a mortal threat in that it asserts that ‘Hitler was right about you Jews,’ an allusion to the Holocaust where 6 million Jews were killed,” the Marin Independent Journal reported at the time.

Ultimately, neither side seemed to have conclusive proof about what Miller intended by naming the original schoolhouse “Dixie.”

“Why is one story more believable than the other? Neither one has any proof,” an unnamed representative of We Are Dixie, a group that argued that Miller was not a racist, told the Guardian in April.

Luckily, there is no need to relitigate the yearslong debate here.

The district trustees agreed to change the name in April and selected a new name in July. It is now known as Miller Creek Elementary School District.

October

In October, Marin County was plunged into darkness along with many other California counties. PG&E shut off power to approximately 850,000 buildings across its service area for days.

To make matters more chaotic, thousands of evacuees from the Kincade fire in Sonoma County fled south into Marin and the rest of the Bay Area.

While the shutoffs were intended to save the state from widespread fires at the tail end of the fire season, PG&E was widely criticized for its lack of communication with public officials and the public at large.

This issue won’t go away anytime soon. In December, PG&E Company CEO Bill Johnson told a Senate committee that public safety power outages could occur for the next five years, although the company will aim to make them smaller and less frequent.

At the same hearing, Stanford professor Michael Wara estimated that the October shutoffs cost PG&E’s customers $10 billion.

December

In two new lawsuits, a coalition of dog owners and recreationists allege that public officials engaged in crooked behavior while unveiling a new set of rules for the use of public lands in Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

Among the proposed changes, which the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) unveiled as a draft in September, park officials would be allowed to take an unleashed dog from its owner if the dog does not respond to voice commands “immediately,” according to the Point Reyes Light, which covered the controversy in a Dec. 18 article.

The GGNRA, a subset of the National Parks Service, manages public lands scattered throughout Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

The updated rules would include new seasonal closures at popular dog-walking areas, including Marin County’s Muir Beach, Rodeo Beach and Oakwood Valley.

“The new dog rules are arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act, the [first lawsuit] says, because the park service failed to provide written justifications and explanations for the rules and failed to publish them in the federal register to give adequate public notice and opportunity to comment,” reported the Point Reyes Light.

A second lawsuit by the same groups alleges that GGNRA employees failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, the federal law requiring public agencies to release documents developed or maintained by public officials to the public.

GGNRA staff even sought to sway the public’s understanding of the new rules, the lawsuit also states.

“[Emails showed] recreation area staff soliciting letters-to-the-editor in Bay Area newspapers from nonprofit supporters of dog-walking restrictions. Staff drafted talking points for them, and, the suit states, deliberately excluded scientific evidence from the planning process that could have supported lighter restrictions,” reported the Point Reyes Light.

This particular conflict has dragged on for several years. The same group of dog owners sued the GGNRA in 2016 about an earlier version of the proposed rules change.

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