Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, who has functioned as the primary jurisdictional authority in San Bernardino County for the last 15 years, will be leaving as a contract senior staff member with the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission on September 27.
While some county residents were heartened at the prospect of Rollings-McDonald’s departure and the prospect that her exit presages a shift in what is considered an institutional bias in favor of government over citizens in the commission’s function, her successor yesterday gave indication the policies that are in place by which governmental agencies are afforded an advantage over residents or groups of residents when they have disputes over jurisdictional formation or authority will essentially remain in place.
San Bernardino County’s Local Agency Formation Commission was established in 1963 simultaneously with the creation of parallel agencies in California’s other 57 counties, which were given the authority to function under the auspices of California Government Code Sections 56375 and 56133.
In 2003, Rollings-McDonald, who had been a Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) staff member since 1979 and who was then the deputy executive officer of LAFCO, succeeded James Roddy as its executive director shortly before Roddy’s death. For seven years, Rollings-McDonald was the face of the Local Agency Formation Commission. In 2010, she retired after being a public employee for 35 years and eight months and began collecting an annual pension of $222,203.10. Almost immediately, she went back to work for the county in a contract capacity, retaining her title as LAFCO executive officer. Her contract called for her working an average of 19.2 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, at a rate of $121.87 per hour, or an annual salary of slightly over $117,000 per year.
While working in the capacity of contract Local Agency Formation Commission executive officer, Rollings-McDonald continued to collect her pension. According to available documentation, Rollings-McDonald was paid $339,268, salary and pension, in 2015-16 and drew similar amounts in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Effective July 1, Samuel Martinez, a fifteen year LAFCO staff member, acceded to the position of the Local Agency Formation Commission chief executive officer. Rollings-McDonald, who is to participate in LAFCO’s September 19 meeting, will depart from the county’s active payroll eight days later.
While a significant or majority of the issues dealt with by the Local Agency Formation Commission entail disputes between governmental entities, others relate to jurisdictional clashes or annexation processings in which common citizens or landowners find themselves at odds with governmental entities. Under Rollings-McDonald’s leadership, LAFCO has consistently rendered decisions in favor of the governmental entities with only marginal exception. For county residents involved in or touched by those decisions and a growing number of political observers, this has raised concern about the commission and the tendency for it and its staff to cut procedural corners and its failing to protect common citizens from the overreach of government.
In recent years and presently, the most visible indication of the dispute between residents of the county and the county’s existing governmental entities is that relating to the wholesale shuttering of local fire departments and the superimposition of the county’s fire service provision in those areas. Beginning in 2015 and continuing until last year, the cities of San Bernardino, Needles, Twentynine and Upland saw their municipal or local fire departments dissolved and all residents living within those cities’ respective city limits forced into accepting their annexation into a county fire service zone, which resulted in the county’s fire department taking on fire protection service responsibility. In the cases of San Bernardino, Needles and Upland, the residents of those cities previously had their city’s respective fire service provided to them as a consequence of standard municipal function and saw the cost of those services defrayed through the city’s normal stream of revenue including property tax receipts. With the closure of their municipal fire departments, those residents had imposed on them a fire service assessment to accompany their annexation into the county fire district. The same annexation process occurred in Twentynine Palms; the primary difference there was that previously the fire department’s operation had been managed not by the city but the local water district, which was augmented with a special tax paid for by the district’s service customers. In all of the cases, annexation into the district cost property owners an additional $146-to-$158 per year, levied as an annual assessment on their property tax bill. There was no commensurate refund to those annexed into the district, meaning the cities in question were allowed to keep that portion of the residents’ property taxes that were previously used to pay for fire department operations. This amounted to a new tax on those brought into – that is, forced into – the assessment/service district. While California law requires that any newly imposed tax be approved by a majority vote of those on whom the tax is to be levied, city officials in San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland skipped out from under that requirement by having the Local Agency Formation Commission approve using what is referred to as a “protest process” to serve as the vote. Under the protest process, those who are being annexed are alerted to the pending annexation and given a 30 day window in which they can file a letter of protest with regard to the annexation. Those landowners or voters who submit such a letter of protest are held to have voted against the annexation. For them, a vote of no is entered. Those who do not file a letter of protest are deemed to have supported the annexation, and for them a vote of yes is entered. Because of the level of apathy and dearth of information relating to such goings-on, protest processes virtually never result in an annexation being denied. This year, the county has initiated an annexation of virtually all of the unincorporated county areas in the desert region of the county into Fire Protection Zone 5. The county used LAFCO to undertake the same protest process to ratify those annexations.
Fire Protection Zone 5 is the same zone into which San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland annexed. Fire Protection Zone 5 was initially formed to provide fire protection and emergency medical service to the communities of Helendale and Silverlakes, which lie out in the desert between Victorville and Barstow. In undertaking the annexation of Upland into Fire Protection Zone 5, the city of Upland, the county and the Local Agency Formation Commission structured it in such a way that the unincorporated community of San Antonio Heights, which borders Upland, was absorbed into Fire Protection Zone 5. The San Antonio Heights Homeowners Association, with virtually all of its members resistant to the annexation, engaged an attorney, Cory Briggs, to sue over the annexation. After considerable legal sparring between Briggs and lawyers for both Upland and the county, the matter appears headed to trial. At stake in that litigation is whether a district such as Fire Protection Zone 5, which is not contiguous with other zones, can leapfrog over geographically intervening land and expand itself through the annexation of isolated property or properties, as was done in the San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles, Upland and San Antonio Heights annexations. The outcome of that trial could potentially impact all of those annexations including the ongoing ones absorbing virtually all of the county’s unincorporated desert communities. Inherent in that litigation is the soundness of the direction that Rollings-McDonald gave to the LAFCO board in her counsel that the board should side almost exclusively with governmental entities in their jurisdictional run-ins with residents.
The out-and-out bias against residents the Local Agency Formation Commission continually manifests is reflected in the composition of the LAFCO board of directors. The board consists of seven members, six of whom are drawn from the county’s public agencies, and what is supposed to be a public member untied to government. At present, the board includes Cucamonga Valley Water District Board Member James Curatalo, Mojave Water Agency Board Member Kimberly Cox, San Bernardino County Supervisor and Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Robert Lovingood, Highland Mayor Larry McCallon, San Bernardino County Supervisor James Ramos, and Rancho Cucamonga Councilwoman Diane Williams. The member of the board representing the public is Jim Bagley, a former mayor and city councilman in Twentnine Palms.
The Sentinel spoke yesterday with Samuel Martinez, who displaced Rollings-McDonald as LAFCO executive director more than two months ago, and sought to determine if his ascendancy with the agency betokens any change with regard to the balancing of the interests of residents against those of governmental authority. Based on Martinez’s responses, that does not appear to be the case.
Previously, in speaking directly to the Sentinel, Rollings-McDonald indicated that she had acceded to using the protest process to facilitate the requested annexations, her reasoning being that the annexations were requested by elected officials, whom she deemed to be the duly-embodied representatives of the local population whose direction to create the assessment districts reflected both practical consideration and the will of those who had elected them. While conceding that both the county as a whole and LAFCO had authority to use another form of ratifying the annexation than a protest process, she defended doing so as legal.
Asked point blank how the Local Agency Formation Commission under his direction would respond to a future annexation request and whether it would use the traditionally democratic up-and-down vote of those residents to be annexed or default to using the protest process to ratify the annexation and the imposition of an assessment district as has been done consistently recently, Martinez indicated he would use the latter.
“We have provisions in our policy that would call for qualifying any proposed annexation through what are protest proceedings,” Martinez said. “That is what LAFCO calls the conditional authority of annexation. If there are any further annexation requests we would use the protest process. The law requires us to use the protest process under Government Code § 5700.”
With regard to the prospect of the recent spate of annexations being undone by a court ruling in the case brought by Briggs on behalf of the San Antonio Homeowners Association and any adjustments to the manner in which LAFCO operates as a result, Martinez said, “I can’t comment on the Upland situation because it is under litigation.”