Aversion To Government Dictates Has Yucca Valley On Outs With State

In Yucca Valley, a bastion of political conservatism where limited-government sentiment predominates, the ascendant ideology has created a circumstance in which the state is now threatening action that in the words of the town’s former mayor and current state Assemblyman Paul Cook could transform Yucca Valley into a “ghost town.”

Paul Cook

The town’s burgeoning population has created and accelerated the need for the construction of a wastewater treatment system and a demand by state regulators that locals build it. In reaction to what they perceive as heavy-handed government intrusion into their affairs, local voters have consistently elected leaders who have either outright defied or simply ignored the regulators, while consistently instituting policies that have delayed or obstructed the provision of the infrastructure.
The delays, in turn, are escalating the eventual cost of providing the infrastructure, lessening the likelihood that once the grudge match with the state is resolved, local residents will be able to bear the cost of the infrastructure.
Long a remote and rustic desert area that attracted those wishing to remain well off the beaten track, a major development in Yucca Valley’s evolution toward becoming a larger community was Norman J. Essig’s effort beginning in the 1950s to establish it as both a getaway to and private residency for entertainment celebrities. He ventured capital toward that end, acquiring hundreds of acres, which he improved with roads around the region’s major arterial, Highway 62, which is also known as Twentynine Palms Highway.
While attracting movie stars as well as recording and visual artists was only marginally successful, the improvements did succeed in luring others by virtue of the relatively inexpensive land prices, and Yucca Valley grew sporadically over the years, appealing to the independent minded and lovers of the remote desert beauty.
In November 1991, the town incorporated, becoming the 24th and last municipality in San Bernardino County to do so.
City officials, embodying the values of their constituents, eschewed big government and excessive regulation. Many town roads remain unpaved to this day. Other citified amenities such as wastewater treatment, are non-existent. When elements of the populace’s libertarian values clashed with popular sentiment such as the desire of some residents to maintain the town’s rural character and prevent urbanization, the issue was resolved by providing developers with carte blanche to build aggressively without incorporating urban land use standards.
The town did not undertake the construction of a municipal sewer system. Instead, the septic systems that had proliferated in Yucca Valley for a half-century remained a constant accoutrement of homes and businesses built within the 40 square mile city limits.
Ten years after incorporation Yucca Valley’s officials were notified by the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board that the lack of a sewage treatment system had resulted in nitrates accumulating in the water table. Simultaneously, the Hi-Desert Water District, which serves the Yucca Valley community, experienced  nitrate traces in district wells.
Local officialdom did not respond with alacrity. Rather some feigned outrage that the state felt it necessary to involve itself in what many perceived as a local issue. As a good number of those who had moved to Yucca Valley were senior citizens and retirees living on fixed incomes who had been attracted to the area by cheap land, they were alarmed by the concept of having to defray the cost for the installation of a sewer system. They were heartened and to a certain extent lulled into a state of complacency by their political leadership, which asserted the town would not fall victim to overreaching regulation imposed on it by Sacramento. Thus, the water table contamination issue was kicked down the road.
By 2010, Yucca Valley’s population had zoomed to 20,700, an increase of 3,835 or 22.7 percent over the 16,865 town residents counted in the 2000 Census.
In the previous decade, monitoring carried out by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and the United States Geological survey demonstrated that residues left in the ground that seep into the aquifer had risen to levels that presaged health threats if the matter was not addressed. Those contaminants included nitrates and other pollutants including pharmaceuticals and salts. Water levels are deep enough to have delayed the need for a wastewater treatment system.
In an effort to reverse severe declines in water tables resulting from limited recharge from rainfall,  the water district began importation of state aqueduct water into Yucca Valley, which in turn caused notice of the contamination.  Whereas historic pumping increases from the 1940s to 1995 resulted in the water levels dropping faster than the nitrates from septic systems seeped downward, with the completion of the Morongo Basin Pipeline project and the accompanying completion and activation of recharge basins in Yucca Valley, the Hi-Desert Water District began to percolate water into the aquifer and the water table began to rise. That water came in contact with the high levels of nitrates left over from decades of septic discharge and the nitrates found their way into some of the Hi-Desert Water District’s wells. This triggered a scaling back of the Hi-Desert Water District’s recharge efforts, and the goal of reestablishing the Yucca Valley water table to the natural level present in the 1940s has not been achieved.
The imported water has actually diluted the nitrates so water tests now show nitrate levels below the maximum contaminant level allowed by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In the meantime, the discharge of septic waste continues and the United States Geological Survey determined that nitrates accumulating beneath Yucca Valley are present in ever increasing concentrations and at depths that pose a threat to the groundwater, including a calculation that 880 acre-feet of septic discharge currently reaches the groundwater every year.
In 2007, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state agency responsible for protecting water quality, adopted a resolution identifying the town of Yucca Valley as one of 66 communities throughout the state with groundwater threatened by the continuing overuse of septic systems. The board further declared Yucca Valley as a top priority for eliminating the use of septic systems, meaning Yucca Valley’s is one of the five most seriously threatened water supplies in the state.
Nevertheless, local officials resisted taking immediate action and refused to impose any kind of building or development moratorium that would stabilize the problem. While suspending any action at least five years into the future, the town of Yucca Valley forged a Memorandum of Agreement with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Hi-Desert Water District to allow interim permits for new septic systems while planning for a wastewater system proceeds. The city was not able, however to stave off state-imposed septic discharge prohibitions due to be triggered as of May 19, 2016. Under that mandate, phase 1 of a wastewater system must be completed or significantly on its way to completion by that date or the state will initiate enforcement action. The first phase of the project is to cover the downtown area of Yucca Valley, the area most proximate to the heart of the groundwater basin.  Similarly, phase 2 must be completed or nearly completed by May 19, 2019 and phase 3 must be completed by May 19, 2022. The last two phases lie further out where future concentrated development is most likely to occur.
Currently,  finding funding remains the main focus as grants and low interest loans are sought. The Hi-Desert Water Agency, which is to undertake the project, is seeking to lead the community into an acceptance of the sewer system. The town of Yucca Valley, while evaluating for the water district various funding options for the project, in keeping with the laissez faire, minimal-governmental-interference philosophy that has traditionally been the platform of its elected leadership, until very recently has stayed  at arm’s length from the matter.
Indeed, Yucca Valley’s leading citizen, Paul Cook, who served on the Yucca Valley City Council for eight years, from 1998 until 2006, and is now serving in the California Assembly and is one of two candidates who has qualified for a run-off in the newly drawn 8th Congressional District, more than any single political entity has prevented the wastewater project from moving ahead. As the region’s representative in Sacramento, Cook effectively undercut the project’s proponents, referring to the demand that Yucca Valley transition from septic systems to a sewer system as “just another unfunded state mandate.”   He has dwelled at length upon the cost of the project and what he considers his constituents’ inability to bear that cost.
“We have to look at this from some perspective of a cost analysis,” Cook said. “This is never going to happen. We have to remember what type of community this is. We got to be very, very careful when we start talking $125 million to people who cannot afford it because we do not have the businesses and the state’s not going to give you the money. I’m not afraid to talk to Governor [Jerry] Brown.  I work for you and we’re not afraid to get a bloody nose.”  Cook bragged he would tell Brown, “In Yucca Valley, we want you to declare Yucca Valley a historical site because we’re going to be a ghost town!”
More recently, Cook has acknowledged that building the sewer system is a desirable goal, but still maintains that the state is overstepping its authority by requiring that it be built on the local dime.
“When a state bureaucracy imposes a septic tank prohibition, sets a 2016 deadline, and doesn’t offer funding to deliver the project, it is without question an unfunded mandate,” Cook said. “It is imperative that the California Water Resources Control Board provide Yucca Valley residents and businesses access to extended term, reduced interest rate loans along with debt forgiveness.  Additionally, every Proposition 84 dollar appropriated to our region needs to be made available to the Hi-Desert Water District to help deliver the lowest cost sewer system to our community. While protecting water quality is a laudable goal, the costs associated with constructing a sewer and wastewater treatment plant could have a potentially devastating impact on Yucca Valley without these resources.”

Chad Mayes

Chad Mayes, the youthful mayor of Yucca Valley who championed limited government throughout his tenure in office before he resigned to become chief of staff to San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford in 2010, was similarly opposed to imposing the intrusion and expense of creating a sewer system on the town’s residents, businesses and landowners.
Mayes’ father, the Reverend Roger Mayes, is a member of the Hi-Desert Water District Board of Directors, and a longtime advocate of limited government.
With the May 19, 2016 deadline looming, one community institution – the Hi-Desert Water District – is pushing for a transformation in the way things are handled.
Jennifer Cusack, the spokeswoman for the district, sounded an alarm about further inaction. “There is a state prohibition on the discharge from septic system as adopted by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board,” Cusack said. “There are three ways for people to comply. We can build the sewer system or they can seal off their system and pump it or they can build their own package treatment facility.”
Only the first of those three approaches has practical viability for the entire town population, she said.
“This is the solution we believe will be best for community,” Cusack said, explaining, “We have so many in the community using septic systems that we have saturated the ground with nitrates. The United States Geological Survey has studied it for a decade-and-a-half and confirmed the nitrate concentrations are from the septic systems. Right now the water we are delivering to our customers is safe, thanks to the high quality water from the Morongo pipeline.”
But recharging the aquifer with the imported water is limited due to the nitrate concentrations existing in the soil, Cusack said.
“We cannot continue to use septic systems as water moves nitrates further into the ground,” she said.
Cusack said the water district has done much of the preparatory work for the wastewater system. “In fact, our plans for a wastewater treatment system are well under way. We have done all of the environmental studies. We have clearance though the California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Protection Act. We have surveyed and mapped the project’s phase one and are ready to go. The collection system, consisting of over 400,000 linear feet of pipe, is the largest part of the project. It will be the most time-consuming and expensive component of phase 1 of the project. Phase 1 will protect all of the groundwater at the base of the valley. By the end of this summer we will begin the design for the collection system and it will have been paid for entirely by grants.”
Cusack acknowledged “Financing is a huge issue. There are significant costs. A high percentage of our population are retired seniors living mostly on fixed incomes who came here to live because it is an inexpensive place to retire. We have to be sensitive to that. We are seeking low interest funding though state revolving funds. We have applied for a low to no-interest loan through the state revolving fund and continue to aggressively seek grants. We have a significant need financially and have a  $20 million authorization from the Bureau of Reclamation, which will help. We are still going to need a component that comes from the residents. The question we need to answer is ‘What is the affordability threshold?’ We need to find out what the typical household in our community can afford.  We believe a majority of people understand this issue and would be willing to pay between $20 and $40 per month.”
The $125 million cost of the project could be defrayed over 30 years, Cusack said, and the debt servicing would involve loans satisfied by assessments on property owners. “Public agencies can form assessment districts,” she said.
Previous figures, which Cusack now says are dated, put each parcel’s share in the debt burden at $16,700.
“We do not have new figures, yet,” Cusack said. “We would form the assessment district to lien the properties to get a loan though state revolving funds. The assessment district would become the securing mechanism. The lien would be passed on to the next homeowner when the home is sold. We would not need to be paid until a year after construction is complete, 2017 or later.”
The formation of the assessment district would be made, Cusack said, through a mail ballot sent to the town’s property owners. A simple majority vote approving the district would result in its formation.
As of three months ago, however, there did not appear to be majority support for the assessment district’s formation. At the water district’s behest, BW Research carried out a telephone survey of property owners to measure their willingness to support an assessment of $15,000 to construct the sewer system. Thirty-two percent of respondents said they would vote in favor of the assessment district’s formation. Sixty-eight percent said they could not afford the current cost estimate.
Nevertheless, Cusack said Yucca Valley residents understand the need for the project. She said lowering the cost remains the key factor.  She cited the  previous approval of the Morongo Basin Pipeline Project as an indicator of the local population’s willingness to invest in necessary infrastructure when doing so is in the collective interest. She said that if the property owners have the facts they will make an informed decision.
One method of education is to let Yucca Valley’s residents know what will befall them if the system is not built. An illustration of that peril consists of the experience of Los Osos, California, which was under a similar order from the California Water Resources Board and failed to heed it.
“The goal is to protect our groundwater on our own and not have the state enforce its order,” Cusack said. “Los Osos became subject to an enforcement phase, which involved cease and desist orders, and that community is now building a wastewater system at a greater cost than originally planned. Enforcement is done in a lottery fashion, selecting random property owners to receive cease and desist orders with the potential of daily fines for non-compliance. They are ordered to then discontinue the discharge from their septic system, seal it off and pump it regularly. If they do not, they levy fines which can amount to up to $5,000 per day and they start by sending request letters for the homeowners to stop discharging from their septic systems. What they try to do is motivate them through their authority to solve the problem.”
Cusack admitted that there are still “some” members of the Yucca Valley community who do not believe a sewer system is needed.
“Distrust of government has created a situation where people do not realize they are hurting themselves,” she said. “We are hoping our community can educate themselves and learn we can do ourselves more harm than good by fighting this. It is true that this is a conservative community. People out here like to be left alone. But our community is able to solve problems once people understand we have problems that need to be solved. As priorities go, this is very important.  People for the most part do understand that septic systems  pollute the environment. Without safe water Yucca Valley will be a less attractive place to be. It is a fantastic place to live.”
Cusack said the community cannot afford to temporize.
“We have limited time to educate the property owners of the situation we are dealing with and get the cost low enough so it is affordable,” Cusack said. Initiating the effort now makes sense, she said, because “of the competitive construction market. The sooner we move the better. We need money to construct the project. The assessment district is the security mechanism needed to obtain the financing.”
And lead time is required on a project of this size, Cusack emphasized.  “Delays beyond an 18-to-24 month design process could result in increased costs as construction costs rise,” she said. “If we cannot get the financing by the time the design is complete, a delay in construction would be necessary and the project may not be completed by May 19, 2016. That is not a hard line date, but if we do nothing, it could lead to an enforcement phase of the regional board’s prohibition on the discharge from septic systems. The bottom line is we need to protect our groundwater.”
Yucca Valley Town Manager Mark Nuami told the Sentinel, “The town of Yucca Valley is working together with the Hi-Desert Water District in their efforts to deliver an efficient and low cost sewer system. We are pursuing grants and state funding to upgrade our local sewer systems.”
Revenue sources for the project are likely to prove elusive, Nuami said.
“State budget deficits are anticipated for years to come,” he said. “Given the legal nature of the state sewer mandate and the potential for large fines, it is our responsibility to find a solution that will create certainty, keep costs low and protect property values. We can’t continue to put this issue off to the future. A centralized sewer system is long overdue.”
Nuami concluded, “The town and Hi-Desert Water District are working together to identify funding solutions that will significantly lower the costs of the state-mandated sewer system improvements for local taxpayers.”

Horse Operas Now Being Filmed In Lucerne Valley

The motion picture and television industry has discovered Lucerne Valley as a Western-themed location. Apple Valley-based Two-Gun Productions, which touts itself as a Christian-oriented media concern, is creating an answer to the once-popular HBO offering Deadwood. The series, called “Tales of the Frontier,” features far less, or more accurately, none of the foul language which was a staple of Deadwood. The family-oriented Tales of the Frontier has yet to be picked up by HBO, but in recent weeks it has been airing on AskMilton.tv, a global Internet-based television network. Two-Gun founders Tino Luciano and Garry Lee Brooks did not have to travel to far to find backdrops for the shooting of “Tales of the Frontier.” Portions of the series pilot were filmed at Lucerne Valley’s Lazy Lizard Ranch in northern Lucerne Valley.. Luciano and Brook’s production company have also made use of the Lazy G Ranch, located in southeast Lucerne Valley as a shooting location. Two half hour episodes of Tales of the Frontier play back to back from 7:30 to 8:30 Thursday night on Ask Milton.tv.

Barstow Moves To Consolidate Police & Fire Department Dispatch Operations

BARSTOW—In a move toward self-sufficiency and faster response time, the city of Barstow will consolidate its fire department and police department dispatch functions.
Currently, the police department operates its own dispatch center and the fire department contracts with the county’s fire service dispatch system, known as Confire JPA Communications, which operates out of a communications center in Rialto. The contract with Confire currently runs at $179,000 per year.
The police department dispatch system fielded well over 33,000 calls of all type and order of magnitude in the last year. Roughly 10,000 of those were for emergency services most logically provided by the fire department. Those calls were immediately patched through to the Rialto Confire JPA communications system, which in turn reached a determination as to which of the Barstow Fire Protection District’s two fire stations would be the most logical first responder and second responder, and dispatched crews accordingly.
The Barstow Fire Protection District is a subsidiary district of the city. This month, the city council, acting as the governing board for the district, voted to enter into an arrangement by which the police department’s dispatch center will be expanded and the city’s contract with Confire JPA will be terminated so that the city’s dispatch center will handle all emergency calls, police, fire and medical.
The changeover will result in a one-time $164,000 cost to augment the existing police dispatch center with the requisite equipment and computer software to allow for the efficient sorting of calls and the routing of a call for action to the appropriate station.
The police department dispatch center, which already employs six full time dispatchers, will hire two more full-time dispatchers and another two part-time dispatchers. All ten will be provided with training to make them capable of dispatching in response to police, fire and medical calls and emergencies. The four new hires and training for all ten employees will cost the city an estimated $191,000 for the first year of operation.
City officials hope to have the fire department weaned off of the Confire system by September, at which point the new safety division dispatch center will be entirely up and running.
By eliminating the middle call from Barstow to Rialto, officials believe response time will be improved and that coordination between the police department and fire department will be improved, and in certain cases provide for greater safety for responders and superior response to those involved in traumatic incidents.

At Rancho Cucamonga’s Victoria Gardens, Big Brother Is Watching You

RANCHO CUCAMONGA—The city of Rancho Cucamonga and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department are stepping up video surveillance around Victoria Gardens.
The video cameras already in place at the popular shopping mall will be augmented with 20 more of the devices.
The images captured are displayed at a viewing station located within the sheriff’s department’s Kew Avenue quarters adjoining the AMC Theater and lying south of Cultural Center Drive and north of North Main Street.
From that vantage, a trained and quick-eyed deputy will scan the multiplex of monitors, looking for any indication of trouble or overt criminality.
The cameras are being strategically located near spots that have already shown themselves to be likely scenes of illicit activity. The deputy at the monitor, who will be tied directly into the 911 system, will be able to monitor the locations where crime has been reported, note descriptions of suspects and relay that information to a deputy or deputies in the field who have been dispatched to the scene, potentially aiding in the apprehension of a suspect or suspects.
In addition, the high-resolution cameras will record activity at all of the locations under electronic surveillance, allowing an after-the-fact review of events and suspects who escaped real time notice in the commission of their illegal acts.
The sheriff’s department and the city refer to the videotaping capability as a force multiplier and have declined to disclose the equipment’s cost or the cost of mounting it. Nor would officials discuss the locations where the cameras will be installed.
While city and sheriff’s officials and others hail the videographic devices as a safety and security enhancement, others see them as further evidence of the intrusion of government and the extension of mass surveillance,  authoritarian presence, and oppressive control of the population as was expounded upon in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

Rialto Refuses To Schedule Referendum On Water Department Outsourcing

RIALTO—The city of Rialto will move ahead with the outsourcing of its water and sewer operations to New Jersey-based American Water Works Co. Inc., despite outsourcing opponents’ successful gathering of sufficient petitions to force a referendum on the takeover.
City officials, guided by city attorney Jimmy Gutierrez, are referencing what they claim is a technical glitch in the circulation of those petitions for the referendum as grounds deny the request for the citywide vote.
After more than two years of contemplating an arrangement by which American Water Works Co., Inc. would take over maintenance, operation and administration sans ownership of the city’s dilapidated water and wastewater system for 30 years, the city council on March 27 voted to do just that.
Under the terms of the deal, American Water Operations and Maintenance, Inc., a division of American Water Works, was to function as a local company known as Rialto Water Services and take over operation and maintenance of the water district. The city was to retain the district’s water rights.
The for-profit company would take on all aspects of operations, maintenance and billing, effectively running both the water and sewer utilities for the next three decades.
Some water and wastewater division employees were to be allowed to transfer into the city’s engineering or public works divisions, remaining as city employees with their public pension plans intact. Others would go to work with American Water, which was to be required to guarantee those employees will remain employed for at least a year-and-a-half with salary and benefits equal to those offered by the city. That guarantee was to sunset after 18 months.
According to city officials, the company had agreed to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $45 million in upgrades to the water system. American Water has also agreed to assume all debt owed by the city’s water utility division.
In return, city officials agreed to a 114.8 percent increase in water and wastewater rates by 2016, such that the average water bill of Rialto households utilizing 17,000 gallons per month will jump from the current rate of $26.27 per month to $64.14 monthly and increase the wastewater treatment fee from $25.97 to $61.46 as of January 1, 2016.
Members of the Utility Workers of America together with citizens irate at the prospect of the rate hikes organized a signature drive to require that the outsourcing be approved by the city’s voters. The city council’s 4-1 vote with councilman Joe Baca, Jr. dissenting was an unpopular one, and a capacity crowd attended the March 27 meeting to lodge protests.  The petitions collected in April and early May requesting the referendum were handed off to the Rialto city clerk’s office on Saturday May 12,  The union submitted 6,379 signatures to meet the threshold of 3,800 valid signatures of registered voters needed to force the matter to a vote. According to the city clerk’s office, 1,545 of the signatures were determined to be invalid during a certification process conducted by the county Elections Bureau, leaving 4,834 valid signatures, which seemingly qualified the call for a referendum.
On June 26, however, the city council voted against scheduling the referendum on the outsourcing agreement to coincide with the November November 6 general election.

Jimmy Gutierrez

The council’s rationale was based upon city attorney Gutierrez’s rendered opinion that the referendum applicants had failed to include with the signed petitions when the signatures were being gathered a copy of the ordinance authorizing the deal with American Water, including the several-hundred-page-long concession agreement between the city and the New Jersey-based company.
Gutierrez’s citation appears to be to California Elections Code Section 9238, which states, “(a) Across the top of each page of the referendum petition there shall be printed the following: ‘Referendum Against an Ordinance Passed by the City Council’ [and] (b) Each section of the referendum petition shall contain (1) the identifying number or title, and (2) the text of the ordinance or the portion of the ordinance that is the subject of the referendum.”
Petition circulators did offer a copy of the city council resolution to city residents before they signed the petition. There is a legal question as to whether that inclusion would have provided the signers with enough context and information upon which to make an informed endorsement of the petition or if, as Gutierrez is suggesting, voters needed to be provided with the full text of the agreement with American Water as was approved by the council on March 27.
Utility Workers spokesman Mark Brooks told the Sentinel that the union is now contemplating legal action to force the city to conduct the referendum.
“We are studying what the city did before determining what action we will take,” Brooks said. Without getting into specifics, Brooks said “It appears the council acted on very bad advice with regard to whether the referendum qualified. We are examining all of our options.”
Brooks said the union was mindful that there is a deadline for items to appear on the November ballot that will elapse later this summer, requiring timely action in challenging the council’s decision.

State Cuts Have County Contemplating Closure Of Barstow Courthouse

San Bernardino County, which is proceeding with the construction of a new courthouse in downtown San Bernardino next to its existing criminal and civil courthouses at the county seat, is contemplating closing the Barstow courthouse in response to anticipated funding reductions from the State of California.
Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed 2012-13 state budget calls for $21 million in funding takeaways from the Superior Courts in San Bernardino County. In making the cut, the state would suck $14.5 million out of a reserve fund specifically set aside for San Bernardino County Superior Court, reducing that cushion to $13 million.
San Bernardino County would have the option of tapping into that $13 million remaining in the reserve account to sustain service levels, but is simultaneously faced with making up for a $5 million deficit in the just concluding year’s budget.
When all is said and done, the county court system expects to see its 2012-13 budget reduced from $103 million to $82 million.
As a consequence, Court Executive Officer Stephen Nash in conjunction with presiding judge Ronald Christianson is proposing simply closing the doors of the Barstow Superior Court. Cases that otherwise would be heard there will for the most part be moved to Victorville Superior Court. That change will come with Barstow’s three judges being transferred to other courthouses and all 37 court employees there being laid off. The earliest the closure will come would be September 1.
In addition, court administrators will seek to effectuate other economies including measured staff reductions at courthouses in general and imposing on the remaining court employees the loss or reduction of certain benefits.

Teacher Charged In School Hazing Incidents

FONTANA—The previously-underreported but now increasingly spotlighted proliferation of schoolyard and classroom bullying drew even more attention to itself last week and throughout this week when a teacher and four students attending his class at A.B. Miller High School were arrested for hazing two students at the school. The teacher and an eighteen year old student were charged by the district attorney’s office on June 26 with felony counts including child abuse and false imprisonment, prosecutors said.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office charged the teacher, Emmanuel De La Rosa, 27, with child abuse, two counts of attempted sexual penetration by a foreign object involving a minor victim older than 14  and two counts of false imprisonment by violence. De La Rosa was also charged with failure to report suspected child abuse to a child protective agency.
Eighteen-year-old Fernando Salgado was charged with two counts of sexual penetration  involving a minor victim older than 14, and two counts of false imprisonment by violence.
The felony complaint references two unidentified victims. According to Fontana Police, the three students hazed the two victims while all were attending a summer-school masonry class taught by De La Rosa. While there is nothing to indicate De La Rosa was directly involved in meting out the abuse, police allege he knew it was taking place and investigators suggested De La Rosa might have consented to the hazing to “discipline” what he considered problem students.
Supporters who flooded a special school board meeting on June 26 said that the charges leveled at De La Rosa were out of character with the man they knew. Some suggested that he was being scapegoated for excesses in a culture of violence that permeates local schools.
De La Rosa was freed on $100,000 bond and has been put on administrative suspension from his teaching assignment. He was arraigned on June 28.
Salgado remains in custody on a $100,000 bond and was arraigned on June 28.
The child abuse allegation lodged against De La Rosa states he “willfully and unlawfully, under circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm and death, injury” caused and permitted “a child to suffer and to be inflicted with unjustifiable physical pain and mental suffering.”
In an affidavit submitted by police to the court, it is alleged that on June 21, one victim related that while he was in De La Rosa’s class three students held him and pulled his pants down while Salgado attempted to penetrate him with a piece of steel rebar. During their investigation, officers came across a second alleged victim who told them that on June 14 three students in the same classroom tried to hold him down while Salgado attempted to force a wooden broom handle into his body. De La Rosa was aware of both incidents and others like them that had occurred in his classroom, according to the affidavit.

San Bernardino Educator Links Truancy To Fatal Violence

San Bernardino City Unified School District Director of Youth Services Ray Culberson this week publicly stated  chronic absenteeism by high school  students in San Bernardino is correlated with the recent proliferation of gang violence that has been plaguing the city.
In May, there was a spate of 12 murders within San Bernardino, most of which appeared to be gang related. In 2012, according to the FBI, the city had a homicide rate of 8.57 per 100,000. That rate was 13.33 in 2011 and 15.56 in 2010. Those statistics place San Bernardino second behind Compton as the most murder-prone municipality in Southern California in recent years.

Ray Culberson

One of Culberson’s primary responsibilities at San Bernardino City Unified is to see to it that students attend school and he has been carrying out a literal crusade against truancy, utilizing authority granted him through the district and the state educational code to issue citations to both the students caught skipping school and their parents.
On June 18, some 100 truant students and one or more of their parents were subpoenaed to appear at district headquarters.
The assembled multitude was then treated to Culberson’s exhortations, which boiled down to a demand that students attend school and that their parents take steps to ensure their children get an education and stay off the streets.
Playing hooky is a deadly pastime, Culberson said, indicating that ditching school is related to serious crime and violence. And that violence is particularly acute in San Bernardino, he said.
“I’ve known probably every kid who’s been killed under 26, 27,” Culberson said. “In fact, I’ve known a lot of the ones who did the shooting. I’ve had kids in my office on a Thursday, and on a Saturday they’re shot dead.”
The intense, no-nonsense Culberson, who has been the recipient of the “Beyond Boundaries Award” given for his commitment to providing services to the school district’s students, has also been credited with transforming the district’s School Attendance Review Board, which takes a relatively moderate approach to redressing truancy issues, into one of eleven model school attendance boards recognized by the California Department of Education.
But Culberson says that effort is insufficient and he is serious about utilizing stronger methods of persuading parents that their kids belong in school.
Under a California law in effect since January 1, 2011, parents of truant students can be charged with a misdemeanor and face a series of fines and punishments if found guilty, ranging from a $100 fine for the first conviction and reaching on the far end to up to a year of incarceration and a $2,000 fine for having chronically truant children.
Under the law, students missing school are placed in one of three categories.  A truant is a student who is 30 or more minutes late to class on more than three school days. A chronic truant is a student who misses more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. A habitual truant is a truant who continues to miss class even after school officials have taken corrective action with regard to that student’s attendance. The truancy rate in California is an astonishingly high 24 percent. Culberson says the truancy rate in San Bernardino is far greater than the state average, with close to 2,000 of the San Bernardino City Unified School District’s students habitually truant.
Throwing parents in jail, if need be, is something he is willing to do, Culberson indicated.
“I’m tired of watching kids get killed,” he told the parents. “And I’m tired of watching you die because you’re not in school,” he said, speaking to the students themselves.

Report: FBI Probe Of Site Hacking By Sheriff

The Sentinel has received a report that the FBI is investigating the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s alleged hacking of the website iepolitics.com.
The FBI, which has a strict policy prohibiting comment with regard to ongoing investigations, did not confirm that report.
According to that unconfirmed report, some sheriff’s department higher-ups grew concerned about the provision of what was considered to be sensitive information to the website or its administrator, and sheriff’s department assets were used to hack the website to obtain the IP addresses of those in communication with the blog. An IP address is an identification code specific to a computer or device connected to a network.

Sharon Gilbert

Iepolitics.com is a website that was set up more than four years ago by one-time county employee Sharon Gilbert,  which features both original reports and reprints of news articles from disparate sources, including newspapers and other websites, along with commentary by readers. The primary subject matter on the blog pertains to politics and government in San Bernardino County. It has become a magnet for input from a host of individuals identified and unidentified, including some purporting to be current or former members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Some of those have offered criticism and inside details about department operations and policies.
Information made available to the Sentinel is that administrators in the sheriff’s office who have long been concerned about the leaking of information to Gilbert and iepolitics became particularly alarmed at references on the blog to a major anomaly in the operations of the Inland Regional Narcotics Enforcement Team (IRNET), which is composed of sheriff’s narcotic division detectives and deputies working in concert with other local and state agencies.
Word is that federal investigators at one point removed five San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigators/IRNET members and possibly an IRNET investigator employed by the Rialto Police Department to an out-of-state location to either interview them as witnesses or interrogate them as suspects in an ongoing probe of IRNET and its activity. Reference to that matter on iepolitics.com, including the inclusion of information thought to be held only by members of the department’s command echelon or their staff, allegedly prompted the effort to crack the iepolitics.com system to determine the source of the leak.
The accuracy of the underlying report with regard to the FBI’s questioning of IRNET members could not be determined and the sheriff’s department has had no comment on the matter.
Gilbert, in a cryptic posting on iepolitics this week, alluded to being contacted by the FBI and stated, without referencing the hacking of her site directly, that “there has been a major new development in reference to the blog” and that as a consequence “the blog will go down on the 23rd for good or at least for a very long time.” As of press time, the iepolitics website was still in place, though the Sentinel’s efforts to reach Gilbert by email and phone were not successful

Dunn’s Tenure With City Due For Council Review On June 25

On June 25 or shortly thereafter, members of the Upland City Council will make a crucial decision with regard to their city’s future when they   determine whether to keep city manager Stephen Dunn in place.

Stephen Dunn

Fallout from the political corruption scandal that ultimately resulted in the indictment of and eventual guilty plea by former Upland Mayor John Pomierski put former city manager Robb Quincey under a cloud. In January 2011, less than two months before Pomierski was indicted and less than seven months after FBI and IRS agents served a search warrant at Upland City Hall, the city council put Quincey on paid administrative leave and selected Dunn, who for nine years had been Upland’s finance director, to serve as interim city manager. In May, 2011 the city terminated Quincey and the following month hired Dunn. In taking the position, Dunn agreed to accept a salary and benefits package that was more than 44 percent less than that provided to his predecessor.  Whereas Quincey had been provided with a base salary and add-ons  of $368,529 and benefits of $92,096 for a total of $460,625, by contrast  Dunn’s contract called for him to receive $189,425 in salary with $65,119 in benefits, for a total annual compensation of $254,544.
Dunn’s salary was on the lower end of the scale among city managers in Southern California and he was paid less than one of the employees he oversees, the police chief, who is provided with a base salary and add-ons of $229,724, plus benefits worth $76,898 for a total of $306,621 per year.
Significantly, Dunn declined a multi-year contract, insisting that the council review his performance after his first 12 months of overseeing the 73,732 population-City of Gracious Living’s 327-employee, $116-million-budget municipal operation.
Once he was installed as city manager, Dunn was entrusted by the city council with the Herculean task of instituting financial reforms to prevent the city from running aground. Like all California cities, Upland was seeing shrinkage in its revenues brought on by the foundering national, state and local economies. Moreover, Quincey, whom Pomierski had handpicked to serve in the city manager’s role in 2005, had negotiated extremely generous employee contracts with the city workforce’s bargaining units, a ploy which some believe was intended to allow Pomierski to proceed with all manner of depredations at City Hall, including applying a selective land use, zoning and permitting policy that benefited those willing to pay the mayor bribes while punishing those who refused to participate in the graft.  The financial commitments the city made in raising municipal employee salary and benefit levels as a consequence of the contracts negotiated by Quincey meant that the city’s expenditures would clearly outrun available revenue, resulting in a severely unbalanced budget. At the outset of Fiscal Year 2011-12, a budget was approved that contained a $3.1 million deficit.
Dunn, however, formulated a program to lay off 16 and grant 28 golden handshakes to reduce the city’s payroll to 283. He implemented that plan by the end of July 2011.  Among those eliminated were four department heads – fire chief Mike Antonucci,  who received a base salary and add-ons  of  $170,698 and benefits of $71,692 for a total annual compensation of $242,390; public works director Anthony La, who drew a base salary and add-ons  of $177,030 plus benefits of $58,974 for a total of $236,004 per year; community development director Jeff Bloom, who was paid a base salary and add-ons of $165,422 plus benefits of $54,197 for a total annual compensation of $219,618; and Haweda Nash, the human resources/risk management director. with a base salary and add-ons  of $159,230 plus benefits of  $54,902 for a total of $214,132. By late August, the $3.1 million deficit was entirely erased.
Left out of the bloodletting in 2011-12 was the police department. But in upcoming 2012-13, the imperative to trim spending remains and with most other municipal divisions already thinned out, Dunn brought his focus to bear there.
The police department presented a particular challenge on multiple grounds. First, popular sentiment in many quarters held against reducing law enforcement function. Second, the police union represents the strongest of the city employee bargaining units, with a law firm on retainer and a history of filing legal challenges that had proven expensive for the city to defend. Third, under the terms of one of his contract amendments, Quincey’s own pay hikes were tied into those to be provided to members of the police department, giving him an incentive, when he was negotiating with the police union, to provide them with salary and benefit concessions. One of the costly concessions Quincey had made to the police union pertained to contributions to the police officers’ retirement fund. While both the city and the officers have traditionally contributed to that fund, previously each police employee was making a contribution equal to 5.8 percent of his or her own yearly salary. Under the  terms negotiated by Quincey more than two years ago, each officer’s contribution is now reduced to 3.9 percent, as of July 1 the contribution will be reduced to 1.9 percent, and on January 1, 2013 the officers will discontinue making that payment and the city will pick up their entire 5.8 percent retirement contribution. That change is locked into the contract the union and the city signed. Dunn made an effort to have the officers give back that benefit, but the police union did not consent to doing so. Consequently, Dunn responded by targeting the police department for layoffs.
In the plan Dunn initially worked up with the assistance of police chief Jeff Mendenhall, it was proposed that the department eliminate one of its two captains, reduce its staff of ten sergeants to eight, drop from a force of 49 officers to 42 officers, while keeping in place all five of the department’s lieutenants and all nine of its detectives.  Simultaneously, Dunn proposed laying off one police service coordinator, three police service technicians, one evidence clerk, and one records specialist. That proposal gouged a nerve, prompting complaints that Dunn is intent on gutting the police department and public safety. Members of the city council were sent emails to that effect from both identified and anonymous residents and department employees.  Nevertheless, the police union has not consented to a rescission of the agreement to have the city pick up the police officers’ portions of their contributions toward their pension fund.
Dunn relented somewhat, moving forward with a plan that called for reducing the police department by 12, including six sworn officers and six civilian support staff. There were no actual layoffs of police officers, as there were already vacancies in six sworn positions. One of the civilian police positions was vacant as well, such that there will be five actual layoffs.
Despite the attenuation of Dunn’s police department reduction effort, he has not escaped criticism as a hardhearted, bottom-line oriented administrator.  His critics seized on the release of one of the police officers, Dan Tolliver, who had been with department since 1993 and was serving in the capacity of resource officer/police department liaison with the Upland Unified School District.
Tolliver was originally diagnosed in September 2005 with gastric cancer. After a six-month regimen of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation, his cancer went into remission in April 2006. He went back to work full time with the police department but in September 2007, Tolliver was hospitalized again. During surgery, doctors found a tumor in his pancreas, which was redressed with six more months of chemotherapy. He was back to work in the summer of 2008, and was given the assignment of school resource officer. In April of this year Tolliver filed a workers compensation claim with the city.
Dunn has been attacked for callously terminating Tolliver against his will. According to those assailing Dunn and city clerk Stephanie Mendenhall, who last year was given secondary and tertiary assignments as the city’s director of human resources and risk manager in the aftermath of Nash’s departure, Tolliver, who yet had hopes of returning to work once again,  was informed by email that he was being handed an involuntary retirement.
One of Dunn’s more recent economizing efforts has yet to be embraced by the city council. Dunn recommended that the operation of the city library be outsourced and that the city negotiate a contract with Maryland-based Library Systems and Services, Inc. to do just that. But the Upland Library Board of Trustees has balked at that request, concerned that Library Systems and Services, Inc.’s profit motive would ultimately deprive patrons of services local tax dollars are paying for without any guarantee of savings to the city.
Perhaps sensing that with Dunn’s job review approaching he is more vulnerable than at any time in the last year, his critics have recently stepped up the effort to convince the city council to jettison him.
In the face of the layoffs, Dunn, and to a lesser extent Stephanie Mendenhall, are being blamed by city employees and their associates and family members for morale problems throughout City Hall, for creating an atmosphere of confusion and insecurity among employees as well as providing inconsistent information on how bumping rights (that is, a process by which city employees with greater seniority whose positions have been eliminated can supplant employees in other posts) will work.
Reliable reports have reached the Sentinel, confirmed by employees, that some employees “are at one another, yelling” and that at least some of Upland’s city workers believe “the team spirit that used to exist in the city has been totally destroyed.”
In this way, those  who are not favorably inclined toward Dunn report, there is a significant morale problem among employees in Upland and a perception that Dunn has sought to weaken city employees individually and collectively to create a stronger position for himself.
Dunn and Mendenhall have been criticized for using emails to inform employees that they were being laid off.
Furthermore, Dunn has been accused of protecting and promoting Stephanie Mendenhall and his own executive assistant, Annette Guthrie. Others have zeroed in on the consideration that Dunn was finance director during all five years of Quincey’s tenure as city manager and was thus implicated in the fiscal excesses the Pomierski/Quincey regime is accused of foisting on the city.
Dunn’s detractors are matched by an equally passionate group of Dunn’s supporters, who hail his efforts at reform and economy as exactly what the doctor has on order for the ailing City of Gracious Living. With regard to the charge that Dunn was complicit in the profligate spending policies that proliferated under Quincey, members of the city council, who will ultimately pass judgment on Dunn, are acutely aware that the past council provided Quincey with the authority to fire all city department heads at will. Consequently, Dunn did not have the authority nor the leverage to oppose Quincey’s financial plans. Nevertheless, he documented what could be construed as his dissent with regard to at least some of the former city manager’s spending habits by means of interoffice memoranda which were carbon copied to the city council.
Mayor Ray Musser, who represents one of five votes that will determine Dunn’s continued tenure with Upland, offered a positive assessment of the work the city manager has done.
“Well, he’s done a good job generally, in my view,” Musser said. “He’s reduced top management from nine to six department heads. He’s walked the talk. He’s come in for [i.e., being paid] a whole lot less than the prior city manager. He has encouraged us to get rid of lifetime medical benefits for all council members and department heads. Who else could have done that? That ticket is a thousand dollars per month per family. The clock is ticking and in two or three years it would have been even more. That was an unfunded liability we had no control over and he did an excellent job dealing with that. He’s wrestling with balancing the budget. That is not a fun job, but he is determined and he is doing the best that can be done balancing the budget. We are doing a whole lot better in that regard than some other cities.”
The same courage Dunn showed in recommending to the council members that they take away their own medical benefits is on display, Musser said, in his efforts to have the city’s employee unions give back portions of the generous benefits promised to them by Quincey.
“The city is committed to paying the entire pension contribution of our safety employees, which is nine percent of their salaries and for the pensions of our non-safety employees, which is seven percent,” Musser said. “That is a whole lot of money and it is breaking this city. Steve has asked them to forego that and told them that if they pick it up from here on that will save the city enough that we will be financially okay for at least the next two years. The unions have not agreed to do that and he has said that the only choice is to cut across the board ten percent. He had the courage to say that and he has the courage to do exactly as he said if he doesn’t get the concessions. He has gotten a handle on overtime in the public works department. He is now working on getting that done in public safety, which is hard to do because when you have a fire and need resources, it’s harder to control the hours worked. He is doing things that should have been done a long time ago. “
Musser said he understood that some of the employees who had been laid off were bitter and that many of the remaining employees are concerned about being laid off in the future. Dunn is merely dealing with financial reality, the mayor said, and cannot be rightfully blamed for carrying out the directions of a council that wants to put the city’s financial house in order.
The council is relying on Dunn to come up with sensible answers to the challenges facing the city, Musser said, indicating that the council evaluates the options he provides before ultimately voting to authorize the action.  Musser said he could not speak for the rest of the council and that as council members, “We dare not talk to more than one person about this except during meetings,” in reference to the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law which prohibits a quorum of a governing body from discussing official action. Yet he said his sense of it was that the rest of the council was satisfied with Dunn’s performance.
“He hasn’t been perfect and I feel we will give him feedback on where he needs to improve,” Musser said. “We’re a little bit late on doing this evaluation. His one year contract was up on June 4. I think after we get to his job review on the 25th, he’ll still be our city manager.”
Across the political spectrum on the city council, it does not seem that Dunn has too much to worry about in terms of job security.
Councilman Gino Filippi, who first came into office in 2010, is the sole declared candidate against Musser in the upcoming November mayoral election. There does not appear to be any significant difference between Musser and Filippi with regard to Dunn, however.
“From my perspective, the city manager continues to do what has been asked, which is to stop the bleeding, reduce expenses and identify methods to balance the city’s budget in order to avoid municipal bankruptcy,” Filippi said. “He has engineered Upland’s fiscal recovery plan and as painful as it may be, it had to be done.  He has met the challenge, keeping in focus that Upland residents and businesses are the priority.  There is much work to be done and he has my full support.  Of course, I believe his contract should be renewed.  He is a silver lining to say the least and I look forward to working with him for at least a couple more years at the minimum.”