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By Mark Gutglueck
Seemingly out of nowhere, the southeast Los Angeles County municipality of Commerce has inserted itself into the sweepstakes to commandeer Tres Hermanos Ranch and pursue the likely agenda of using the property to host a massive solar farm.
The move came last month, ending a lull in the activity with regard to the 2,445-acre property, which a significant number of Chino Hills residents want to see kept as open space but which is coveted by multiple entities in both the private and public sector for its development potential.
Long the rustic play ground of oil baron Tom Scott, former Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler and the heirs of California pioneer John Rowland, the property was acquired in 1978 by the City of Industry in 1978 for $12.1 million. That city had taken possession of it with what was then a somewhat vague intention of utilizing it as the grounds for a massive reservoir to ensure that the City of Industry, which as its name implies is largely dedicated to the proliferation of manufacturing concerns, would have access to water that would be adequate to keep in operation the more than one thousand light, medium and heavy factories, foundries, manufacturing and assembly concerns that permeate the city, which lies across the Los Angeles County boundary from Chino Hills some 16 miles distant. To facilitate that aim, the City of Industry banked the property within the Industry Urban Development Agency, which served as its redevelopment agency, but never brought the reservoir project to fruition. In 2011, the State of California closed out all redevelopment agencies statewide pursuant to legislation sponsored by Governor Jerry Brown and passed by the legislature. That legislation transferred ownership of redevelopment agency assets to entities known as successor agencies, which are generally ruled by a set of directors who were or are indistinguishable from the redevelopment agency board members that previously oversaw each redevelopment agency – usually city council members or county supervisors. That successor agency is charged with liquidating, i.e. selling, the defunct redevelopment agency’s assets and having the proceeds distributed to other tax receiving entities in that particular jurisdiction such as school or water districts as well as local public safety agencies such as a fire department or police department. This liquidation is supposed to take place under the direct scrutiny of a so-called local oversight board and the more distant watchful eye of the California Department of Finance.
While a handful of real estate development concerns including GH America Inc. and South Coast Communities of Irvine had expressed interest in acquiring the 2,445 acres at Tres Hermanos Ranch for the purpose of developing it both residentially and commercially, the City of Industry had not forsaken its designs on the land. In August 2017, it boldly took action to acquire the property, tendering a $41.65 million offer on the property. In very short order, at its August 24, 2017 meeting, the oversight board to the successor agency to the Industry Urban Development Agency directed the successor agency to sell the property to Industry for $41.65 million. That action was accompanied by a shrouded indication that the ranch would be in large measure converted into a solar power generating field utilizing photovoltaic panels to generate 450 megawatts of electricity while leaving some of the property dedicated as “open space” for public use. In nearly equally short order, the cities of Chino Hills and Diamond Bar raised objections with the California Department of Finance. After the California Department of Finance allowed the processing of the sale to proceed, Chino Hills and Diamond Bar then lodged legal challenges of the City of Industry’s ploy. In those suits, Chino Hills and Diamond Bar named both the oversight board and successor agency to the Industry Urban Development Agency, the board members of the successor agency, the California Department of Finance and California Department of Finance Director Michael Cohen as defendants and named as real parties in interest the City of Industry and its city council.
Noting that Diamond Bar and Chino Hills are among the “taxing entities” that are entitled to receive portions of the real property taxes assessed upon the sale of the property along with portions of the proceeds from the sale of Tres Hermanos by the successor agency to the City of Industry Redevelopment Agency, both Diamond Bar and Chino Hills in a lawsuit first filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and then amended and refiled in Sacramento Superior Court and now being heard by Judge Michael Kenney, Diamond Bar and Chino Hills alleged that in effectuating the purchase of Tres Hermanos Ranch the City of Industry “was, of course, negotiating with itself to acquire the property because the successor agency is governed by a board of directors (the ‘successor agency board’) comprised of the five members of the Industry City Council.” According to the suit, some 11 months prior to the sale “In September 2016, the successor agency tried to sell Tres Hermanos to Industry for only $41.65 million, notwithstanding the $85-122 million estimated value in the long range property management plan previously prepared for the land and that the Successor Agency had received a detailed and credible offer of $101 million from a residential developer. The $41.65 million purchase price was based on a deeply flawed appraisal, which determined that the value of Tres Hermanos was $41.65 million, which in turn was based on a ‘hypothetical condition’ that the use of the property would be restricted to open space. On September 8, 2016, both the city council and the successor agency board approved a purchase agreement with the $41.65 million purchase price. However, on September 29, 2016, the oversight board of the successor agency, which oversees the successor agency, rejected the successor agency board’s approval of the $41.65 million purchase agreement and requested that the successor agency obtain a new appraisal based on the highest and best use of Tres Hermanos, consistent with the current land use and zoning designations for the property.”
Subsequently, according to the suit, the successor agency obtained a second appraisal that determined the fair market value of Tres Hermanos was $100 million, based on the highest and best use of limited residential development.
Nevertheless, according to the Chino Hills suit, “The successor agency board’s approval of the $100 million purchase agreement was scheduled for review and approval by the oversight board at its August 24, 2017 meeting. However, the oversight board never took action on that agreement. Instead, Mr. Philips [Paul Philips, who was then Industry’s city manager], who is also a member of the oversight board, made a motion, following public testimony, to approve a purchase and sale agreement with a $41.65 million purchase price, subject to the oversight board’s imposition of a restrictive covenant that limited the use of Tres Hermanos to ‘open space, public use or preservation.’ The oversight board narrowly approved the motion by a 4-3 vote. The oversight board did not provide any opportunity to the public to comment on this sudden turn of events.”
Thus, according to Chino Hills and Diamond Bar, the City of Industry was seeking to have it both ways by obtaining the property at an artificially low price by committing to keep the property as open space and then seeking to develop it in violation of the terms under which the property had been obtained. The Chino Hills lawsuit states, “This was little more than a shell game by Industry, the successor agency and the oversight board. The $41.65 million appraisal assumed that Tres Hermanos would remain open space in perpetuity. The restrictive covenant, however, also allows ‘public uses.’ Therefore, the $41.65 million appraisal does not support a sale that allows public uses.”
Publicly revealed, both as a result of the lawsuits and other efforts outside the forum of litigation, was that the City of Industry had since 2015 been working covertly with a La Jolla-based entity, San Gabriel Valley Water and Power LLC, and its principal, William Barkett, to lay the procedural, legal and engineering groundwork for a 450-megawatt photovoltaic solar power project at Tres Hermanos Ranch and adjacent properties also owned by the City of Industry. In May 2016, the City of Industry had concluded a backroom deal giving San Gabriel Valley Water and Power a ground lease for Tres Hemanos Ranch, even though at that time the City of Industry did not have legal possession of the property. The arrangement between the City of Industry and San Gabriel Water and Power was to allow San Gabriel Valley Water and Power to produce electricity and sell it at a profit while cutting the City of Industry in on a portion of the proceeds.
According to the City of Chino Hills’ second amended lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court in January 2018, “neither the master ground lease nor any of the four lease amendments thereto (collectively, the “master lease”) were approved by the city council in open session at a public meeting. The master lease requires Industry to reimburse San Gabriel Valley Water and Power for up to $20 million in expenses relating to the development of the solar project.”
Subsequent to the filing of the lawsuits, a falling out between the City of Industry and San Gabriel Valley Water and Power occurred, as San Gabriel Valley Water and Power burned through the $20 million alluded to in the lawsuit by making what it claimed were legal and engineering preparations for the project, with no actual equipment and material being acquired and no physical work at the site of the power plant taking place. When San Gabriel Valley Water and Power continued to bill the City of Industry for work related to the project which Barkett claimed was being done, the City of Industry, concerned that the money it was putting up was being consumed into a black hole with very little prospect that there would ever be a return on the money, balked at making further reimbursements to San Gabriel Valley Water and Power until that company opened its books and allowed the city’s auditors to satisfy themselves that actual progress on the project was being made. San Gabriel Valley Water and Power refused to do so and the solar project, to all public appearances, fell dormant.
Unbeknownst to the public or the City of Industry, however, Barkett was maneuvering behind the scenes with what would have seemed to have been an unlikely ally – former state legislator and current lobbyist Frank Hill, who had served as a consultant to the City of Industry in its earlier development efforts with regard to Tres Hermanos Ranch, including the construction of a water reservoir there as well as those related to the solar project proposal. Both through Hill as an intermediary and then directly with City of Commerce through that’s city’s mayor, Hugo Argumedo, its city administrator, Edgar Cisneros, and its city attorney, Noel Tapia, discussions began with regard to the City of Commerce picking up at Tres Hermanos where the City of Industry had left off. Barkett intimated that the City of Industry had already paid for nearly all of the crucial advance planning and engineering work to allow San Gabriel Valley Water and Power to break ground, do some grading and begin erecting solar arrays on the ranch, which for more than a century has been used for nothing more than farming and cattle grazing. Commerce officials were thus led to believe they could see a substantial return on the purchase of the Tres Hermanos property within a relatively short period. That discussion was taking place very quietly, however. Word leaked out when the City of Commerce signaled that it wanted to put a proposal before the Industry Urban Development Agency successor agency’s oversight board that its purchase of the Tres Hermanos property be substituted for the stalled City of Industry acquisition. Through an apparent misunderstanding, just such an item was placed on the agenda for the November 26 meeting of the Industry Urban Development Agency successor agency’s oversight board. Though that meeting was canceled, the cat was out of the bag.
Instantaneously, the City of Industry, which had been at significant odds with both the City of Chino Hills and the City of Diamond Bar, had a major interest in common with both of its adversaries, namely stymieing the effort by the City of Commerce to interlope at Tres Hermanos Ranch.
On November 20, 2018, Elizabeth M. Calciano, Chino Hill’s assistant city attorney, dashed off a letter to the mayor and city council members in Commerce. In that letter, Calciano stated that with regard to Tres Hermanos ranch, the City of Chino Hills considers “open space as a priority.”
Calciano asserted that Commerce seeking the Industry oversight board’s approval of the land sale to Commerce is premature.
“This effort to have the oversight board approve the sale before Industry’s successor agency has approved it puts the proverbial cart before the horse,” wrote Calciano. “Unless and until the Industry successor agency approves the sale of Tres Hermanos to Commerce, oversight board action would be premature. The oversight board does not own Tres Hermanos, so it cannot itself consummate the sale of Tres Hermanos.”
Moreover, according to Calciano, the proposed purchase of Tres Hermanos by the City of Commerce at a bargain basement rate would be a violation of the oversight board’s fiduciary duties.
“The appraisal upon which Commerce relies in offering to purchase Tres Hermanos is artificially low, in that it does not value Tres Hermanos based upon its current zoning and general plan designation,” Calciano wrote. “Moreover, it does not appraise Tres Hermanos based on its use as a massive solar facility which, if its proponents are to be believed, will generate millions of dollars of annual revenue each year.”
Calciano said the City of Commerce’s effort to assume the authority to move into place and own or run the yet-to-be-built solar facility is invalid.
“Based on our review of the proposed purchase agreement, including the assignment and assumption of leases, it appears that Commerce believes that Industry’s successor agency can assign to Commerce the master ground lease previously entered into by Industry, as landlord, and San Gabriel Valley Water and Power, LLC as tenant. If so, Commerce is laboring under a misconception. The successor agency cannot assign a lease to which it is not a party. The successor agency has no legal standing to assign the master lease to Commerce.”
Calciano told the Commerce City Council that the proposed purchase violates the California Environmental Quality Act in that the act “requires that Commerce conduct an environmental analysis of a project prior to committing itself to a definite course of action in regard to that project. The California Environmental Quality Act requires that this analysis occur before Commerce purchases Tres Hermanos or leases it to San Gabriel Water and Power or anyone else, to develop the solar facility. No California Environmental Quality Act review has to date been conducted.”
According to Calciano, “Commerce may only buy property outside its jurisdiction for a valid municipal purpose. If the contemplated purpose of acquiring Tres Hermanos is to lease it to a private entity to construct a massive solar facility to generate general fund revenues, that is not a valid municipal purpose.”
In addition, Calciano wrote, “Commerce must submit its proposed use for a general plan-conformance finding by both Diamond Bar and Chino Hills prior to acquiring Tres Hermanos.” Citing Government Code Section 65402(b), Calciano said that “Commerce is required to submit information to each city’s planning commission and obtain a report from each, prior to acquiring Tres Hermanos. However, it has not done so.”
Chino Hills City Manager Konradt Bartlam commented on the spectacle of Chino Hills and Diamond Bar now finding themselves in the same foxhole with the City of Industry in seeking to ward off the City of Commerce’s designs on Tres Hermanos Ranch.
“In my view,” Bartlam said, “the devil I have come to know is better than the devil I do not know.”
Commerce is treading where it is neither welcome nor entitled, Bartlam said, suddenly sounding as if the City of Chino Hills and the City of Industry are allies.
“The City of Industry still wants to acquire the property,” he said. “It is clear that the City of Industry has a valid contract with the successor agency and has every intention of acquiring the property. The City of Industry has a right to pursue ownership of that property until that contract is expired. Commerce is in contravention of that, which is a litigatible offense.”
All the same, Bartlam said, the City of Chino Hills and the City of Industry are not exactly intertwined in a lovefest.
“We have litigation pending against them,” Bartlam said. “We have had some very constructive discussions about the property [Tres Hermanos Ranch]. If Industry does not intend to pursue a massive solar farm with San Gabriel Water and Power, there is still the burning question of what their intent is with that property. That discussion has not been forthcoming and they have not resolved any of those questions as of yet. The City of Industry is still not the most transparent of organizations. They have made some strides, but they are still not as open as we would like them to be.”
Bartlam continued, “It took us nearly two years, but we eventually shook out what their ultimate intention is. Now they tell us, ‘We have dumped our development partner.’ I believe them. I know that is the case. Now Commerce is in bed with these guys [San Gabriel Water and Power]. They are the worst of the bunch. They want to build a solar farm and blanket 2,500 acres in my city with solar panels. I can’t stand for that. Commerce is trying to come in the back door unannounced and uninvited. Commerce has no association with Tres Hermanos Ranch. It is 29 miles away from us on the other side of the county line, in another area code.”
Asked to look past the immediate concern of the Commerce proposal to the preexisting and more realistic prospect that the City of Industry will be driving the development agenda at Tres Hermanaos Ranch, Bartlam acknowledged that the City of Industry is clearly working at cross purposes to the interests of Chino Hills and its residents.
“When they said they were looking toward preserving Tres Hermanos as open space and were this benevolent entity that was being respectful of the region and there was nothing but an altruistic desire on the part of their city council, we knew they were trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” Bartlam said. “That they spent $41.6 million to acquire that property and said they were doing it so they could keep it as open space provoked laughter. It seems far fetched that they would spend $41.6 million to buy that property and leave it as open space. Is that realistic, that someone would buy property in some other city and just leave it? We would buy it and keep it as open space, because it is in our city. We have acquired 3,000 acres in open space already. Tres Hermanos Ranch is not part of the fabric of the City of Industry.”
Bartlam said the possibility yet remains that Tres Hermanos Ranch will be aggressively developed.
“The worst case scenario is that the City of Industry would continue with their plan to buy property and they will prevail in court so that they would have full land use authority,” Bartlam said. “That would then place the decision over the ultimate use of the property with five people residing in the City of Industry rather than five elected officials in Chino Hills. That may be a stretch, but who’s to say what a court will rule on this case, in which there is no real precedent? It could come down to the luck of the draw as to what judge we get.”
Bartlam said that if all of that comes about, the City of Industry could seek to put far more than the 657 houses on the 1,700-acre of that portion of Tres Hermanos Ranch that lies within Chino Hills permitted under the current Chino Hills General Plan.
“The state has clearly made affordable housing a matter of priority and public policy and it is pursuing legislation that promotes affordable housing for a public purpose,” Bartlam said. “In the worst case scenario the City of Industry could say ‘All we’re doing is trying to further a state goal,’ in which case you might see them blow our general plan to smithereens. In that circumstance, seeing thousands upon thousands of housing units on that 2,500 acres is not that big of a stretch. I have some confidence that won’t come about, but there are no guarantees.”
Bartlam said Chino Hills will not take what is being thrust upon it lying down. “We don’t have the bankroll that the City of Industry has but we have fortitude,” he said, indicating Chino Hills will use the court system as a tool to protect itself. “We have told them, ‘We will be deposing everyone and your brother and we will be looking at every document in your bank vault.’ They have spent a lot of money on some very questionable things. If they want that public airing of their business, then let’s schedule the court date. We have threatened to put them though a process they haven’t been put through before. It may be for that very reason they have now been willing to sit down and begin to talk about what their intentions are.”
Bartlam said the city cannot prevent the development of Tres Hermanos ranch outright by simply rezoning the property as open space.
“The property has a general plan designation and if we downsize it, that would reasonably be construed as the taking of a property right, regardless of who owns it,” he said. “It would subject us to a lawsuit to recover damages.”
In the final and therefore most dramatic of more than a half dozen actual or near reversals of the election day outcomes in the 2018 general election throughout San Bernardino County, political newcomer Karmolette O’Gilvie sprinted past Twentynine Palms incumbent Councilman John Cole in the home stretch of the race to serve as the representative in the 4th District of the 26,000-population desert city.
From the first count of votes in Twentynine Palm’s newly drawn 4th District until earlier this week, O’Gilvie trailed behind Cole in the first election under a district voting system in that city’s 31-year history. Cole had previously been elected to the council when Twentynine Palms held at-large elections in which there were no residency restrictions on those vying for council beyond living somewhere within the city’s 59-square mile confines. At that time, voters in the city were free to vote with regard to the candidacies of all of those running in the election and cast up to two votes for the two seats contested in years corresponding to the national presidential election and up to three votes for the three posts at stake in the years corresponding to California’s gubernatorial election.
At 8:05 p.m. on election night November 6, 2018, five minutes after the polls closed countywide, the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office released its first tally of votes across the county, consisting mainly of mail-in ballots that had been received up to that date. At that point, Cole had jumped out to a lead, which he maintained through the evening and into the morning of November 7 as all nine of the precincts in Twentynine Palms District 4 reported, by which time Cole was ahead 253 votes or 51.32 percent to 240 votes or 48.68 percent.
Nevertheless, O’Gilvie was never far off the pace, and with each of the registrar’s updates of the counts as more and more late arriving and straggling provisional ballots were validated and totaled, she continued to stalk Cole.
On November 14, with 624 ballots having been counted in District 4, Cole was up by 12 votes, 318 to 306.
Throughout the remainder of November, Cole maintained his lead with each tally, though the distance between him and O’Gilvie diminished by three or four with each count.
On November 29, O’Gilivie was just two votes off the clip, with 342 votes to Cole’s 344.
Over the next four days, four further votes came in from District 4, all for her, such that on the next count on December 3, she had eclipsed him, 346-to-344.
Yesterday, Thursday, December 6, the county did its final tally, at which point Bob Page, the county’s interim registrar of voters, certified the results, affirming in writing that the total number of votes cast in San Bernardino County had been recorded and that tally was “full, true and correct.” According to that final report, 692 votes had been cast in Twentynine Palms District 4, with 347 of those or 50.14 percent endorsing Karmolette O’Gilvie and 345 or 49.86 percent designating Cole.
O’Gilvie, the wife of a retired Marine formerly stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine Base and a Twentynine Palms resident for over 25 years, attributed her victory to a “grassroots effort.” She said she had “dreams of positive change for Twentynine Palms” that might now be transformed into reality by her victory. In office, she said she hopes to “embody transparency” and “streamline the process.”
Though O’Gilvie’s victory was the last come-from-behind win in San Bernardino County this year, it was not the only one.
In Victorville, Rita Ramirez-Dean had been running in fifth place on election night among 11 candidates for two contested seats on the council there. Over the next several weeks she passed Lizet Angulo, Lionel Dew and Eric Negrete to capture second place, with 5,196 votes or 14.13 percent as of yesterday to gain a berth on the council.
In Upland’s Fourth District, Rudy Zuniga had trailed incumbent councilwoman Carol Timm when the first several precincts reported the night of November 6. With the tallying of a final precinct early in the morning of November 7, Zuniga pulled ahead, and he was declared the official winner yesterday with 1,939 votes or 45.87 percent in a three-person contest.
In the San Bernardino Mayoral Race, Councilman John Valdivia trailed incumbent Mayor Carey Davis in the first three counts of the evening on November 6 but had pulled ahead by the next morning and thereafter never relinquished that lead. He was declared the official winner yesterday with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent.
In Rancho Cucamonga’s District 3, it initially appeared that Ryan Hutchison’s electoral bid had been thwarted by outgoing California Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, who continued to hold his lead until Hutchison passed him a week later. Hutchison is now confirmed as the winner with 4,215 votes or 34.39 percent among five candidates.
In Needles, where five candidates were vying for three positions, Zachery Longacre was running in fifth place in the initial vote returns, but has since bypassed both Barbara Beard and incumbent Louise Evans to finish in third with 491 votes or 18.72 percent as of yesterday, qualifying him for office.
In Hesperia’s Fourth District, Jeremiah Brosowske, despite his status as an appointed incumbent in an at-large council post, trailed Brigit Bennington on election night and for more than a week thereafter. He subsequently moved past her and has now prevailed with 1,688 votes or 52.08 percent.
In Barstow, Planning Commissioner James Noble fell behind incumbent Councilman Merrill Gracey on election night in their District 2 race. He overtook Gracey as more votes came in and he was the top vote-getter in that four-person race with 372 votes or 33.54 percent.
In San Bernardino’s Ward 4 contest, incumbent Fred Shorett narrowly avoided being the also-ran in what had all the markings of a potential come-from-behind victory by Alexandra Beltran. Shorett’s lead on election night was neither substantial nor truly comfortable, but was more than marginal. With each subsequent reporting of Ward 4’s 38 precincts, however, that lead eroded. That trend continued as absentee and provisional ballots were counted in the intervening intervals. Shorett, by the skin of his teeth, was declared the winner yesterday with 3,709 votes or 50.05 percent to Beltran’s 3,701 votes or 49.95 percent.
In a symbolism-laden statement of disdain toward reformists seeking the elimination of graft in county government, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors this week signaled it will extend its commemoration of Robert Covington, whose facilitation of crooked land deals and contractual arrangements with county vendors while acting as the city’s senior staff member in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is legendary.
Since 2003, the main public meeting quarters for the board of supervisors located on the ground floor of the county’s current administrative building, located at 385 North Arrowhead Avenue, which lies adjacent to the county’s historic 1926 courthouse in downtown San Bernardino, has been known as the Robert Covington Meeting Chambers.
Beginning on December 19. 2018 and running until next June, renovation of the chambers is to be undertaken by contractors working on behalf of the county. During that time, the board of supervisors will hold its meetings in the cafeteria, also located on the ground floor of the county administrative building. This week, the board adopted an amended annual meeting calendar for itself in 2019 that changed the meeting location from the Covington Chambers to what it deemed “the Temporary Covington Chambers,” i.e. the cafeteria. According to Laura Welch, the clerk to the board of supervisors, the cafeteria is now “undergoing renovation in order to provide a temporary location for board meetings.”
Welch indicated the county will continue to honor Covington during the renovations as well as after the chamber is spruced up. “The name of the temporary board meeting location is ‘Temporary Covington Chambers’ and the board will hold their regular meetings in the temporary location from January 8, 2019 to June 30, 2019,” according to Welch. “Beginning July 1, 2019, the board will resume their regular meetings in the Covington Chambers.”
Robert A. Covington, established himself as a member of the San Bernardino County establishment while he was yet a young man attending the University of Redlands in the late 1930s and early 1940s. At the University of Redlands, Covington was elected student body president and was a member of the Pi Chi fraternity.
Some six years after leaving the University of Redlands, he hired on with the county as its planing director in 1948. While with the planning division, Covington became intimately familiar with the lay of the land both geographically and politically throughout the 20,105-square mile expanse of San Bernardino County and an absolute master of all manner of land use policy and development standards.
Eleven years after he had begun with the county, Covington rose to the pinnacle of San Bernardino County’s governmental structure, becoming San Bernardino County’s top executive, a post then known as the county administrative officer. He held that job from 1959 until 1976.
His tenure lasted into a portion of what is now recognized as the county’s “Golden Age of Corruption,” during which the county’s attorneys routinely warded off the exposure of the depredations county officials were engaged in by threatening legal action against anyone merely using “the c word,” i.e., corruption, telling them that if that term were to be uttered or entered into print in conjunction with the mentioning of county officials, legal action within the county’s equally corrupt court system would be taken that would result in those speaking or writing in any such fashion “losing your house.” Covington was known for playing fast and loose with the rules. Those unwilling to “play ball” would be subjected to a strict application of the county’s zoning and codes, as well as its land use polices. For others willing to grease the skids of their project applications with money, either through under-the-table payments or by structuring creative ways of rewarding elected and appointed county officials, just about anything went. After years of accepting nickles and dimes from land owners, speculators, developers and contractors in exchange for facilitating their projects, toward the end of his tenure as county administrative officer, Covington was chaffing to get in on the bonanza. Eventually he would do just that, using his mother’s name to bootleg 22 lots on 80 acres in a dry lake in Apple Valley. Covington then sold the lots, at an inflated cost, to unsuspecting buyers intent on building homes there. The property, hamstrung as it was by drainage issues, could not be developed without the addition of a prohibitively expensive flood control system, and most buyers were unable to get building permits for the property. Ultimately, however, the scheme unraveled when some of the buyers came to understand that the county’s senior executive was the hidden principal behind what was being perpetrated. When the board of supervisors as it was then composed – Dan Mikesell, Nancy Smith, James Mayfield, Dennis Hansberger and Robert Townsend – learned of the full range of what he had been involved in, the 55 year-old Covington was quietly forced to make his departure in the Spring of 1976, seven years before what was intended as his eventual rendezvous with retirement, preventing the burgeoning controversy from boiling over into a full-blown scandal.
The atmospherics within the county that existed under Covington did not depart with him. Rather, the putrescent foundation of the misapplication of governmental authority to benefit those willing to buy influence and disadvantage those who were either not prepared, nor equipped, nor sophisticated enough, nor willing to engage in the pay-to-play ethos flourished thereafter. One such follow-on who emulated the fashion in which governance in San Bernardino County was conducted under Covington was Robert Hammock, who came onto the board of supervisors at the end of 1976.
Like Covington, Hammock recognized where the money to be made in government was – in the control over development. Hammock’s primary constituency as supervisor was the development industry, and he jockeyed as a supervisor to put himself into a position by which he could clear the way for development companies and individual developers to carry out their agendas and designs. He took a leaf out of Covington’s book and virtually commandeered control over one of the primary elements of governmental function: land use authority. He served as the head of the county’s redevelopment agency and as the vice-chairman of the San Bernardino County Industrial Development Authority. He wangled an appointment as California’s designee on the National Housing and Community Development Committee. His most effective gambit in taking control of the government’s regulatory function with regard to development was achieving a position on the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which possesses the authority to hash out jurisdictional and border disputes between the county’s cities and other governmental entities. During the era in which the LAFCO board was under Hammock’s influence, he used his power and votes on that panel to arrange deals with cities that were competing with their neighbors to annex properties in the frontier between their then-existing borders. Of significance to the development companies that coveted building within those disputed areas were the development standards that the cities intended to apply to that land once it was annexed. More exacting standards on infrastructure and restrictions on density could make developing that property less profitable than it would be otherwise. Accordingly, Hammock would ascertain which city would be willing to apply the least cumbersome land use standards and then make arrangements to have his Local Agency Formation Commission colleagues support giving that city the nod in making the annexation. This redounded to the benefit of his development industry patrons, who rewarded him with hefty political contributions. The losers were the general public, who then had to live, commute and function within the communities that were hampered by substandard infrastructure to accommodate the growing population.
Hammock remained in office for four terms, growing bolder and more nonchalant about the marginal, highly questionable and even illegal activity he was involving himself in as an elected official as the years went by. He would brazenly trade campaign contributions for votes in support of those donors’ projects. When citizens of the Fifth Supervisorial District that he represented, other county residents or his political opponents expressed outrage over his unabashed support of his financial supporters or came forth with evidence or documentation of his wrongdoing, Hammock typically would not stand up for himself but rather allow his defense to be handled by his political and board colleagues, many of whom were striving to utilize the same formula he was applying, albeit with a lesser degree of audacity. Meanwhile, a cross section of his accusers found themselves on the outs with the county administration or the targets of crooked high ranking county law enforcement officials and prosecutors, and at the mercy of dishonest judges aligned with the political establishment of which Hammock was a part, a circumstance that served to dissuade others from becoming too vocal in their opposition to him and providing him with further insulation.
Like Covington, Hammock was never held to account or prosecuted.
One of Hammock’s contemporaries on the board of supervisors was Cal McElwain. McElwain’s staff had a reputation for asking virtually every one of his constituents who sought McElwain’s assistance for a campaign donation.
The San Bernardino County ambiance in which self-dealing by politicians and government officials was not only tolerated but expected and accepted that had taken root during Covington’s tour of duty perpetuated itself beyond Hammock’s tenure in office, which lasted until 1992. Thereafter, two of Covington’s successors as county administrative officer, Harry Mays and James Hlawek, would drive the Covington’s pay-to-play ethos to its logical conclusion, functioning in a wide-open fashion where their depredations were absolutely obvious to anyone paying attention, as the provision of bribes and kickbacks were de rigueur for anyone who wanted to do business with the county or have a project approved. And while local law enforcement – the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office and the various municipal police departments – were willing to carry on as if nothing was wrong, that was not the case with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which in 1999 indicted Mays and Hlawek, along with then-County Treasurer Thomas O’Donnell and County Investment Officer Sol Levin. All four were convicted and sent to prison. Shortly thereafter, a chastened district attorney’s office, then headed by Dennis Stout, undertook a deeper examination of the county’s political milieu. The result was that the district attorney’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office embarked on almost simultaneous, and what turned out to be competing, political corruption prosecutions of Jerry Eaves, who was Hammock’s successor as Fifth District County Supervisor. Indeed, neither set of prosecutors – federal or county – were willing to back away from pursuing Eaves. Ultimately, however, Federal Judge Manuel Real would rule that subjecting Eaves to answer to a differing but very similar set of charges pertaining to the same alleged crimes in two courts was tantamount to double jeopardy, and the federal charges were withdrawn. Ultimately, Eaves was convicted, and a condition of his conviction was that he resign from office.
Before that occurred, however, the board of supervisors of which Eaves was a member voted to confer the honor of naming the board of supervisors’ meeting chambers in the county administrative building after Covington.
Several year’s later, two of the members of the board of supervisors when Eaves was forced to resign – Bill Postmus and Paul Biane – would be charged with bribe taking, receiving money in exchange for action they took as members of the board. Ultimately, Postmus was convicted on 14 felony counts of political corruption, eight of them relating to activity as a member of the board of supervisors and six related to his comportment while he was serving as county assessor. At his sentencing hearing last month, Supervising California Deputy Attorney General Melissa Mandel said that Postmus was so steeped in a “culture of corruption” that he did not understand that there was anything wrong with taking bribes, which he merely perceived as political contributions.
Biane, after a lengthy trial last year, was acquitted of all charges against him.
In 2012, Postmus’s successor as First District supervisor, Brad Mitzelfelt, accepted $48,100 in political contributions from Cadiz, Inc. and then convinced his board colleagues to surrender to the Orange County-based Santa Margarita Water District the board of supervisors’ authority to oversee the environmental certification and approval of Cadiz, Inc.’s East Mojave Desert water extraction proposal. Cadiz Inc.’s project called for siphoning 50,000 acre-feet (16.292 billion gallons) of water per year out of the Cadiz Valley and Fenner Valley water tables and piping that water westward to Los Angeles and Orange counties for use there. A primary recipient of that water was to be the Santa Margarita Water District, which is located some 217 miles from the water extraction site. The Santa Margarita Water District’s board of directors in 2012 signed off on the approval of Cadiz, Inc.’s water extraction plan. Though outrage over Mitzelfelt’s support of the Cadiz water project in exchange for the campaign contributions was a major factor in his being driven from office that year, no charges against him were filed by local, state or federal prosecutors. Two of the current members of the board of supervisors, Janice Rutherford and Josie Gonzales, supported him in allowing the Santa Margarita Water District take on lead agency status in the approval of the project and its environmental certification.
The county’s current crop of supervisors consists of Gonzales, Rutherford, Robert Lovingood and Curt Hagman. Gonzales has been on the board of supervisors since 2004, Rutherford since 2010, Lovingood since 2012 and Hagman since 2014. All have claimed ignorance about Covington’s action and performance in his role as county administrative officer. Others with a longer view of history find such assertions by members of the board, whose authority extends to having access to the record of the closed door discussions of current and past boards, to be somewhat disingenuous. Among the so-called initiated – those individuals who often have business before the county whose projects come before the board of supervisors or county planning commission or those who are vendors selling goods or services to the county – there is a far more acute and sophisticated understanding of the county’s history and customs than among the general public. For those with such sensitivity, the symbolism of Covington’s name being used for the meeting place in which the board of supervisors takes official action on behalf of the county has meaning as a sign that the current board members are like their predecessors ready to engage in the pay-for-play ethos for which San Bernardino County is well known, and that they will accept payments either under the table or as political donations to influence how they will vote on official county action. Whether out of claimed ignorance or knowing purpose, they have refused to entertain changing the name of the county’s primary meeting chambers.
Supervisor Curt Hagman this week told the Sentinel that it would “probably” be a mistake to assume that the current supervisors “know why certain names have been given to county facilities” and that as far as “some of the history goes, you could pretty much guarantee most people don’t know the story behind it.”
There is a likelihood that Hagman will become the next chairman of the board of supervisors, as that rotation falls in a pattern and he is next due to move into that spot upon serving in his current role as vice-chairman.
The county is not wedded to keeping the board of supervisors associated with the Covington name, Hagman said.
Upon acceding to the chairmanship, he said, “We may be in a position to go out and make some changes. There has to be a process, and we have a lot of issues I am focused on.” One concept, Hagman said, would be the creation of a citizens commission to examine how the county presents itself, and “the exhibits and displays the county has. We receive a lot of donations, historical items, trinkets, and we have no place to display them. The board would have to ratify it, but I am thinking of a commission that would involve volunteers, like the arts commission, that could be responsible for suggesting how we deal with these things appropriately. I am willing to say on the record that we would be willing to look at anything reasonable when it comes to updating, including looking at the names of buildings.”
The Chino, Fontana, Rialto and Upland police departments as well as Cal State San Bernardino are providing accommodations to the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health where mental health crisis response teams are being stationed.
According to Veronica Kelley, San Bernardino County’s director of behavioral health services, “Since 2015, the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health has partnered with various key agencies for no cost office space to place the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health crisis triage staff in underserved areas throughout San Bernardino County.”
The facilities of certain agencies, such as law enforcement, hospital emergency departments, colleges, and offices within the judicial court system, have been selected by the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health as “points of access” to assist those experiencing a mental health crisis, according to Kelley.
“The triage, engagement and support team’s co-located program allows immediate access to crisis triage by a mental health specialist which has resulted in thousands of successful outcomes,” she said. “In 2017-18, there were 3,840 encounters with co-located San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health Triage, Engagement and Support Team staff that resulted in crisis stabilization versus unnecessary incarcerations and/or hospitalizations. Crisis stabilization with case management and linkage to appropriate services reduce expenditures for law enforcement resources and hospital emergency departments. The non-financial memorandums of understanding outline the use of office space for the Triage, Engagement and Support Team to provide these services. All five of these agencies in the recommendation are current collaborating partners through board of supervisors-approved non-financial memorandums of understandings.”
The non-financial memorandums of understanding will allow the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health to utilize dedicated office space through December 31, 2023, and may be terminated by either party without cause. The memorandums of understanding reaffirm the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health’s commitment to provide access to crisis services for underserved populations at a variety of collaborated sites throughout San Bernardino County.
Each of the non-financial memoranda of understanding allows the Department of Behavioral Health to utilize office space located within the agencies at no cost to the county to allow the Department of Behavioral Health to provide crisis services through the Triage, Engagement and Support Team program.
Reach Air Medical Services, an inadvertent beneficiary of the county’s assumption of fire protection service in Upland last year, saw its advantage extended yet further this week.
In 2009, following extensive discussions with the City of Upland, Reach Air Medical Services entered into a public/private partnership with the Upland Fire Department to open an operational base at Cable Airport in Upland in 2010 to provide 24 hour per day/7-days-a-week emergency helicopter service to Upland and the surrounding San Bernardino County area.
The Upland Fire Department’s contribution to the joint effort was to provide a flight nurse and flight paramedic on a helicopter owned by Reach and operated by a Reach-employed pilot, such that the airship was constantly available to provide emergency air medical transportation to the citizens of Upland and its automatic aid/mutual aid partners.
That partnership remained intact over the ensuing years, during which there were six amendments to the original contract. In 2014, Upland merged its fire department administration with the Montclair Fire Department and Reach extended its service area to Montclair. In 2016, the administration-sharing arrangement between the two cities ended. Later that year, Upland undertook to explore the concept of shuttering its municipal fire department and arranging to have the county fire department absorb the city department under the auspices of what the county refers to as the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District. In 2017, after the city council signed off on doing so, the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission took up the proposal and approved it. That included annexing the entirety of the Upland City Limits into a county fire service assessment district and imposing on each of the city’s parcel owners a $157 per year assessment along with turning over to the county in perpetuity 54 percent of the property tax collected in the city to pay the county for providing the city with fire protection service.
According to San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig, “Under the Local Agency Formation Commission’s terms and conditions of the Upland annexation that occurred in July 2017, the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District assumed the contract with Reach. According to the Local Agency Formation Commission approval, the end of the term of the Reach contract through the Upland annexation was June 30, 2018. Subsequent to the annexation, this public-private partnership has continued. As part of the annexation, the contract’s scope was expanded to include all areas within San Bernardino County Fire Protection District jurisdiction. The partnership has been a vital resource for Upland and now the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District. Under the partnership, Reach provides/operates/maintains the helicopter, bills the customers, and reimburses the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District for the cost incurred by San Bernardino County Fire Protection District to staff the helicopter with a nurse and paramedic.”
The agreement with Reach has previously been amended eight times. Upland approved six amendments from 2009 to 2017. The Reach contract has been amended two times since the annexation: once by the fire chief pursuant to board of directors authorization in connection with the annexation on July 11, 2017, and once by the fire chief executed in June 2018, extending the contract term to December 31, 2018. The amendment approved by the board of supervisors on Tuesday extends the term of the agreement through June 30, 2019, which will provide additional time for the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District to negotiate a new agreement with Reach for future services or explore any other available options.
“The amendment allows the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District to receive compensation from Reach through the end of the fiscal year,” said Hartwig. “The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District will continue to be fully compensated for staffing costs and management of the program regardless of the number of flights or the amount of billing revenue received by Reach.”
According to Hartwig, “Reach is a provider of air medical transports for critically ill and injured patients. Reach is fully accredited and regulatorily compliant with the Federal Aviation Administration. The lack of reliable air resources for emergency scene response has been an identified weakness in San Bernardino County for decades. A dedicated air resource for emergency scene incidents within the county has been a goal of the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District. Due to the county’s geography and size, one of the challenges the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District faces is providing adequate emergency medical services. There are areas of the county, including transportation corridors, that are more than an hour away from ground resources. Another challenge is the ability to quickly access the regional specialty centers including trauma, cardiac, stroke and pediatric centers. Extending this contract with Reach will allow the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District to continue to address the listed challenges while a new contract or provider for these services is investigated. Since the Upland annexation in July 2017, the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District has moved this resource, the helicopter, to a location in the Victorville area where it can best serve public needs, especially in the distant parts of the county. The agreement with Reach requires that the air resource be dedicated to emergency calls to ensure availability. The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District will continue to explore the best way to deploy this type of resource.”
The board of supervisors this week authorized the expenditure of just under $11,000 to enable the undertaking of the Sand Creek/Warm Creek Confluence Channel Project near the San Bernardino/Highland boundary.
The proposed project site is situated between the Sand Creek/Warm Creek Flood Control Channel and the Pacific Palms Mobile Home Park.
The county flood control district is planning improvements at the spot where the Sand Creek Flood Control System and the Upper Warm Creek Flood Control System come together. The two creeks are man-made drainage channels that are extensions of natural creeks modified to accommodate and divert water flow from surrounding developments. Sand Creek flows from the north and combines with Warm Creek flowing from the east, and the combined channel of Warm Creek continues flowing to the west from the confluence point.
The district proposes the construction of approximately 2,675 linear feet of flood control improvements at the confluence of Sand Creek and Warm Creek. The project consists of the construction of rock riprap improvements to the bottom and to the slopes of the existing channel to provide for bank stabilization to prevent erosion and reduce the velocity of flows. In general, the project is surrounded by residential properties including the Pacific Palms Mobile Home Park, apartments, and single family residences.
The project is slated to be constructed in two phases. The first phase of the project will involve improvements within the flood channels and widening of the channels. After the first phase of the project, it is anticipated that the access road along Warm Creek will be too narrow to accommodate vehicles and will require widening. Thus, the second phase of the project will involve reconstructing and widening the Warm Creek access road to allow flood control district vehicles to safely use the road.
The project will utilize a portion of the property at 2727 E. Pacific Street in San Bernardino, which is currently operated as Pacific Palms Mobile Home Park. The required acquisition area identified for the necessary improvements is 1,381 square feet (0.03 acres) and is located along the rear boundary of the larger parcel, primarily in the southeast portion, and approximately 60 feet away from the nearest manufactured home. The acquired land will provide the necessary amount of space needed for the channel access road.
The county flood control district asked the county’s real estate services division to appraise and acquire the parcel associated with the necessary right-of-way. The parcel was owned by the Pacific Palms Mobilehome Park Corporation, a California nonprofit public benefit corporation, which agreed to the sale of the property for $8,600. The county agreed to cover the estimated escrow and title fees of $2,000 to effectuate the property transfer.
By Thomas Gray
In the Sentinel’s November 30 report about the candidates under consideration by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors as a replacement for James Ramos, who has left his position as Third District supervisor to assume his place in the Assembly representing the 40th District following the November 6 election, Bill Emmerson was identified as among the three leading contenders for the appointment. The article stated that both California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte and Lewis Group of Companies Vice President Randall Lewis were lobbying on Emmerson’s behalf. The Sentinel was in error on this final point. Randall Lewis told the Sentinel this week: “It is not accurate that I am lobbying for Mr. Emmerson’s appointment, although I believe him to be, like many of the others who have been mentioned as candidates for the supervisor’s position, well qualified. I have met Bill Emmerson on maybe five or six occasions, but I have not seen him since he was in the State Senate, which was several years ago and I have not spoken with him at all in many years. I have trust that the board of supervisors will fill that open position with an appropriate choice.”
By Mark Gutglueck
Charles W. Piercy holds the distinction of being San Bernardino County’s sixth sheriff and the youngest person ever to hold that position. He was also among the youngest members of the California Assembly and a participant in the last political duel in California.
An individual of considerable dynamism, Piercy achieved all of that before eclipsing his 28th birthday. The full range of his potential was never achieved, however, as he perished in a gunfight in which his opponent was the equally dynamic Daniel Showalter.
Charles Wesley Piercy was born in Decatur County, Iowa on June 11, 1833 to Nathan Piercy and Elizabeth Scott Piercy. In 1852 he came to California in a wagon train which counted among its members Daniel Showalter, who had been born in Greene County, Pennsylvania in 1830 and was some three years older than Piercy. Though their paths were very much one and the same during that sojourn to the Golden State, whatever interaction they may have had at that time has been lost to history and they went their separate ways once they were in California. Showalter settled in Coulterville, where he worked claims he made in the gold fields in Horseshoe Bend in Mariposa County.
Piercy went further south, settling in El Monte.
El Monte at that time was a crossroads between Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and the natural harbor at San Pedro. Given its location along the San Gabriel River and its fertile soil, it offered land valued for its agricultural potential, and homesteaders were flocking there. Cattle rustling and poaching accompanied the influx of settlers, and El Monte was soon known as a rough town where men often settled disputes with knives and guns in its gambling saloons. Defense against Indian raids and the crimes of bandit gangs, such as that of Joaquin Murrieta, led to the formation of a local militia company/vigilante squad called the Monte Rangers in February 1854. In this atmosphere Piercy burnished for himself a reputation as a sure shot if not an outright gunslinger, being quite accomplished in the use of a rifle. In 1857 posses from Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino converged on the area around El Monte in pursuit of a gang of bandits lead by Juan Flores and Pancho Daniel. Aided by the Monte Rangers and other El Monte vigilantes, the lawmen eventually ran Flores and Daniel to ground and the two were hanged. The manhunts for Flores and Daniel brought San Bernardino County Sheriff Robert Clift and his men, along with a volunteer militia unit assisting them known as the San Bernardino Rangers organized by Captain Andrew Lytle, to El Monte, where Piercy made their acquaintance.
In the winter of 1857/58, the leader of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, anticipating war between the United States and the sect he headed would soon break out, in an edict called upon all of the Mormon faithful to return to Salt Lake City for an apocalyptic last stand. Though that war never came about, large numbers of Mormons abandoned their settlements, pulling up stakes to make a mass exodus back to Utah. That included the wholesale departure of Mormons from San Bernardino, where they accounted for well in excess of three-fourths of the population there at that time. Piercy moved to San Bernardino, where he took advantage of the opportunity that had presented itself as he prospered buying and reselling the lands of Mormons returning to Utah to wage the Utah War, affiliating and aligning himself with a syndicate of speculators that included Bethel Coopwood who were so engaged. In September 1859, he was elected sheriff of San Bernardino County, and he assumed that post the following month. He was 26 years old. A year later, Piercy, described variously as a Breckenridge or Douglas Democrat, resigned as sheriff to run for a seat in the California Assembly.
The 1860 race, in which Abraham Lincoln was elected, was a bitterly fought one. Even before the election’s outcome was certain, alignments with regard to whether California should support the North or the South in the question over slavery and the anticipated upheaval that would just some months later become the life and death struggle between the Union and the Confederacy were evident. Piercy’s campaign against the incumbent, W. A. Conn, was an intense one. Piercy won, but the result was immediately contested, with charges of fraud being circulated. In particular, it was alleged that a Piercy supporter, James Greenwade, at whose residence the polling place in the Temescal Valley in what was then San Bernardino County and is now Riverside County was hosted, had kept the ballot box open for three weeks after the election and that whenever Piercy fell behind in the count, more votes materialized from the Temescal precinct. The matter was removed to a court of local jurisdiction to be adjudicated, with H. M. Willis arguing on behalf of the Republican Conn and Bethel Coopwood representing the Democrat Piercy. Coopwood had Confederate leanings as he was an Alabama native, the son of a slave owner and later himself a cavalry captain, major and lieutenant colonel who commanded troops in the battles of Canada Alamosa, of Albuquerque and of Peralta as well as the Fort Thorn Skirmish that occurred in Confederate Arizona during General Henry Hopkins Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign. Coopwood in addition would head a Confederate spy ring. Before they were over, the proceedings broke into a physical altercation between Willis and Coopwood, with Willis getting the better part of Coopwood, who sustained an injury. Though Coopwood lost the fight, he prevailed in the legal proceedings, and Piercy was declared the winner.
At that point, Piercy became reacquainted with Showalter, who had successfully run for the 6th District seat in the California State Assembly representing Mariposa County in 1857–1858 and 1861–1862 and had acceded to the position of Assembly speaker pro tem.
The major political issue roiling California during Piercy’s tenure in California’s General Assembly was the coming Civil War and then the position that California was to take once the war broke out.
Both Piercy and Showalter were Democrats. Nevertheless, they were on opposite sides of the secession question.
Barely a month-and-a-half after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina on December 20, 1860 seceded, followed in rapid succession by six more states joining the Confederate States of America. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces led by General P. G. T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The following day, Major Robert Anderson, Sumter’s garrison commander, surrendered the fort. The Civil War was under way.
By May, a political struggle was ongoing within the California legislature as to whether the state would remain loyal and support the Union, declare itself neutral or support the Confederacy and perhaps even secede itself. While there were supporters of the Confederacy both among California’s population at large and its politicians, the majority of Californians and their political leadership were opposed to secession, some stridently so. That did not prevent the secessionists in the legislature from seeking to persuade their colleagues to align California with the gray rather than the blue.
According to the May 18, 1861 edition of the Sacramento Daily Union, on the previous day, May 17, 1861, resolutions were passed in both the State Senate and the Assembly “expressive of the devotion of the State to the Constitution of the Union, and her readiness to respond to any requisition of the Federal Government to defend the Republic against foreign or domestic foes.” The Daily Union reported that Showalter was among the 12 Assembly members who opposed those resolutions against 49 Assembly members who endorsed them. The Daily Union account noted, “The resolutions were introduced by Senator Chase, and are short, patriotic and to the point. They did not pass, however, without evoking the bitter comments and complaints of the avowed Secessionists on each floor. In the Assembly, there was a personal altercation between Showalter and Piercy, which resulted harmlessly, however.” During the debate, Piercy prevented Showalter from stating the reasons for his opposition.
On the same day as that newspaper article appeared, Saturday May 18, 1861, pro-Confederate California legislators attempted to pass a resolution calling for the secession of the Confederate States to be recognized. During a debate over this, an argument over a procedural issue broke out and after some bitter back and forth between Piercy and Showalter, Piercy challenged Showalter to a duel.
Dueling was officially illegal in California, but both agreed to meet for just such a confrontation in Marin County, three miles west of San Rafael near the residence of Charles S. Fairfax on Friday, May 24, 1861. According to an account of the events that ran in the New York Times on June 26, 1861, the two assemblymen arranged “to fight it out in Marin County, where the courts always let off murderers easy.” As it turned out, however, the Marin County sheriff intervened on May 24, and they rescheduled the duel for 7 a.m. the next morning.
The Daily Alta California on May 25, 1861, reported in a story filed the previous day, “Mssrs. Showalter and Piercy left this town this morning for Saucelito, where it is proposed they fight a duel. Up to this hour no intelligence has been received from them, but I am informed that they will fight tomorrow morning at seven o’clock. My informant is certain they did not fight to-day.”
When Saturday May 25, 1861 dawned, the morning duel was delayed, perhaps because a herd of cattle wandered onto the place where it was to take place, a level field through the center of which a gentle stream flowed and which was surrounded by hills covered with dense chaparral, such that it was shut in from view on all sides. Piercy and Showalter then went to lunch together, and agreed the duel should nevertheless proceed later that day at 3 p.m. Both showed up at the appointed time. The weapons were rifles, to be fired at a distance of forty yards.
Piercy’s seconds were Senator Henry P. Watkins and Samuel Smith. His surgeon was Dr. Wake Brierly. Showalter’s seconds were Thomas Hayes and Assemblyman Thomas Laspeyre of San Joaquin County. His surgeon was Dr. Hammond. On tossing a coin for the choice of ground, Hayes won the flip for Showalter. In attendance were some 60 spectators, including several friends or associates of both men, as well as Senators Gallagher and Williamson, Assemblymen Chandler, Gregory and Gillette, as well as John Kelly, Charles Minturn, James Moore, Edward Birne and Frank Schell. Some sought to dissuade both parties from consummating the duel.
Piercy and Showalter took their places and the rules of engagement were read by Watkins to the effect that if either fired before the word “fire” or after the word “stop,” his opponent’s second would fire upon him. Hayes asked if they were ready. Both said they were. Hayes gave the word, “Ready,” and the count “one, two, three, stop.” Both fired at the utterance of “two,” with Showalter slightly in advance of Piercy. Neither was injured. Showalter then called for the weapons to be reloaded. Upon the guns being reloaded, Hayes again inquired if they were ready but then ordered, “Stop,” and instructed Piercy to hold his gun perpendicular, which brought a rejoinder from Watkins that “He can hold his gun as he pleases until the word ‘ready’ is given.” A moment later Hayes again inquired of their readiness and both responded, “Ready.” Hayes called, “Fire, one, two.” Both fired simultaneously at the word “one.” Piercy was struck and fell to the ground, blood gushing from his mouth and nose. The bullet had struck him in the mouth, slightly to the right. According to a contemporaneous account, “His eyes stared wide, and there was a twitching of his right arm for a single instant, but he was dead at the moment Hayes called the word two.” The surgeons attended him immediately, shortly after which his corpse was conveyed to San Rafael, where a coroner’s inquest was held.
In short order, a rumor spread that Piercy’s seconds had sold him out and that his gun did not contain a bullet, as both Watkins and Smith were “rank secessionists” who wanted him out of the Assembly.
In a letter dated May 26, 1861 to his brother, A. Showalter, Dan Showalter wrote “Enclosed you will find an account of that fatal duel between C.W. Piercy and myself. Deeply as I regret the necessity which compelled me to meet this man and kill him on the field, still I had to choose between that and disgrace and dishonor. I could have killed him on the first fire but I told my friends that I would not do it hoping that he would be satisfied with one shot, but he had bad advisors who were determined to have me killed or dishonored. When I saw this I ordered the weapons to be loaded again. I knew from the precision of his first shot that one or both of us must fall at the next fire. I determined to make mine tell. His last shot passed directly over my head and it could not have missed me more than an inch or two. To prove that I did not desire an advantage I chose rifles when I knew well that my opponent was one of the best shots in the state with this weapon and after the ground was measured off and I had won the position I offered to exchange positions with him if he thot there was any difference in them. I am well satisfied that parties on the outside who had not courage to meet any honorable man in mortal combat forced Mr. Piercy into the fight with the vain hope of disgracing me or the satisfaction of seeing me fall at the hand of my opponent. Should fortune ever point out those men to me there shall be a day of reckoning. I know how you all view matters of this in the old states. There a man may without dishonor refuse to fight, but here such a refusal would subject him to the insults of the whole community and the jeers of a corrupt press which apparently condemns dueling but always brands the man who refuses to fight as a coward. I intend to return to Marin County and stand my trial and I have no fears for the results. I know that it will give me a great deal of trouble and cost me all and much more than I am worthy, but nevertheless I will not attempt to avoid a trial. I would not have written you about this unfortunate affair, but I know very well that an account of it would reach you at some time. I would much sooner you should have the whole truth. Remember me kindly to all my friends. Your Brother Dan Showalter.”
Showalter, the Assembly speaker pro tem, was for a time in a state of limbo, as the duel he had engaged in was technically illegal, but had been engaged in freely by Piercy and was attended by more than a score of prominent California citizens, including members of the legislature. He made no attempt to mask his Confederate leanings and as California over the next several weeks and months grew ever more strongly affiliated with the Union, he was eventually declared a fugitive. Showalter made his way south to near El Monte, where he linked up with other secessionist sympathizers who wanted to go east to join the Confederate Army.
With the war on in earnest, Southerners and Confederate sympathizers were seeking to leave California and reach the seceded states and help with the war effort. Those loyal to the Union sought to stop them and have them arrested for disloyalty and treason. Garrisons of California volunteers stationed themselves along the most logical and heavily traveled overland routes through the Southwestern deserts to New Mexico and Texas.
In November 1861, Showalter and about a score of other Confederate sympathizers braved the overland trail, purposed to reach Texas. Union informers, however, alerted Union soldiers of the group’s intentions and cavalry patrols set out from San Bernardino and Camp Wright to patrol and search the hills of the Southern California’s back-country. After Showalter and his companions spent the night of November 27, 1861 in Temecula, they departed the following morning and headed into the southeastern hills. A patrol commanded by Lieutenant Chauncey R. Wellman from Camp Wright picked up the pro-Confederates’ trail as they were headed toward Warner’s Ranch. At 8:30 on the morning of November 29, 1861, Showalter awoke surrounded by Wellman and his men. Thinking on his feet, Showalter claimed he and his party were miners intent on establishing and working claims in Sonora. When further reinforcements arrived, Wellman insisted Showalter and his group accompany him to Camp Wright, where that installation’s commander, Captain Hugh A. Gorley, made clear he did not buy Showalter’s assertion that he was headed to Mexico. Showalter and his men remained under guard. In December 1861, Showalter took an oath of allegiance to the United States, but Gorley was unwilling to release Showalter on the strength of that, and instead sent him to Fort Yuma, where he was held prisoner until he and his men signed second loyalty oaths in April 1862.
After his release, Showalter eventually made his way to Texas, where, breaking his oath, he signed on as a Confederate cavalry commander. By February 1863, Union authorities knew where he was and had put a bounty on his head as a traitor. By March 1864, Showalter had achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and in tandem with forces under Colonel John Salmon Ford led his regiment in fighting around Brownsville, Texas, driving the Union troops out of South Texas. After the Union troops evacuated, Showalter occupied Brownsville on June 30, 1864. Later, when Colonel Ford fell ill, Showalter was put in charge of the Ford’s troops. Shortly thereafter Showalter was found drunk and unable to command his soldiers. On May 12, 1865, Showalter was again drunk when forces under his command were attacked at Palmito Hill. Without anyone in command, his unit, the 4th Arizona, panicked when it came under enemy artillery fire. George Henry Giddings, the head of a volunteer Texas militia, came up with his battalion, rallied the disorderly unit and stabilized the defense some miles east of Palmito Hill, relieving Showalter of his command, which was thereafter entrusted to Major F. E. Kavanaugh.
After the war, with the Union bounty yet on his head, Showalter went to Mexico in August 1865, and managed a hotel in Mazatlán. From a wound he sustained during a bar fight in Mazatlán in 1866, Showalter contracted tetanus and died of lockjaw.