Jon Mikels, Rancho Cucamonga Founder, Mayor & Later Supervisor, Dead At 66

(January 2)  Jon Mikels, one of the founders of the city of Rancho Cucamonga and a member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors for four terms, died this week after an extended illness. He was 66.
In 1977 Mikels was working for the California Youth Authority when he successfully ran to become a member of the charter Rancho Cucamonga city council at the conclusion of an incorporation drive that melded the communities of Cucamonga, Alta Loma and Etiwanda into a municipality.
After he was on the city council, his political clout redounded to professional advantage when then-Second District County Supervisor Joe Kamansky successfully lobbied the presiding judge of the county to appoint Mikels, who possessed a degree in psychology from Cal State LA, a masters degree in behavioral science from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a masters degree in public administration from USC, court coordinator at the West Valley Courthouse, which was then located at Sixth Street and Mountain Avenue in Ontario. After several of his older council colleagues rotated into the position of Rancho Cucamonga mayor, Mikels was chosen for that honor in 1982. In 1986, he successfully vied against incumbent San Bernardino County Second District Supervisor Cal McElwain.
The then-38-year-old Mikels rapidly moved to become one of the dominant political figures in the region, ascending to chairmanship of the board of supervisors in 1990. While he was yet Rancho Cucamonga mayor, Mikels acceded to a regional political leadership role, that of chairman of Southern California Associated Governments. He was reappointed to the post of chairman after he became county supervisor.
. Mikels held the chairmanship of a second regional planning agency, the South Coast Regional Air Quality Management District Board.
Throughout his quarter of a century as an elected official, Mikels oversaw what was the most dynamic period of growth for both of the entities he headed. Rancho Cucamonga, which consisted of 30,000 residents upon incorporation, saw accelerated growth during Mikels’ tenure on the council, nearly tripling in population by the time he departed to become supervisor. That frenzied pace continued for the duration of the time Mikels represented the Second District – consisting of the western portion of Fontana, Wrightwood, Lytle Creek, the unincorporated frontier between Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana, all of Rancho Cucamonga and Upland, San Antonio Heights and Mt. Baldy. San Bernardino County, which had eclipsed the million population mark at about the same time Mikels became supervisor, maintained its explosive pattern of growth while he remained in power at the county seat. His district in the later portion of his tenure included Crestline and Lake Gregory and a portion of the San Bernardino Mountain Community extending nearly to Lake Arrowhead. Today, eleven years after Mikels left office, Rancho Cucamonga boasts nearly 170,000 residents as the third largest city in the county. San Bernardino County’s population today exceeds 2.1 million.
Even with the aggressive land use policies that occurred under his watch, Mikels nevertheless maintained a reputation as a moderate in terms of growth, whose accommodation of development extended only as far as the willingness of project proponents to participate in defraying a major portion of the cost of the infrastructure needed for that development.
Mikels’ educational background in psychology, behavioral science and public administration equipped him when he was a Rancho Cucamonga official with the tools to get along with others, and handle the onslaught of growth that was emanating further inland from Orange and Los Angeles counties, and the accompanying self interest and influence of developers. He sought to temper the growth and maximize concessions from project proponents with design and land use intensity standards that were more exacting than were then current in other communities. He also successfully pushed for historical preservation and tree-saving ordinances. This approach did not endear him to some elements of the building industry, who saw such measures as ones that interfered with their profit margins.
While he evaded scandal, Mikels was subject to controversy.
In 1986, as he was putting on an energetic campaign against McElwain for supervisor, he was deposed as mayor by his city council colleagues who sensed that his political ambition might leave him vulnerable to being influenced by campaign donors. As supervisor, Mikels became estranged with the political leadership in Rancho Cucamonga over development issues involving land in the city’s sphere of influence as well as the divided city council’s decision, in 1989, to fire city manager Lauren Wasserman, who had headed city staff throughout Mikels’ tenure there.
In particular, Mikels was embittered when a prominent developer, Joe DiIorio, who had relocated from Orange County to make heavy investments in and around the area that became Rancho Cucamonga, saw a large scale project by his development company, the Caryn Company, falter in the early 1990s because of difficulty he encountered in dealing with the city of Rancho Cucamonga. DiIorio had named his company after his daughter who was killed in a traffic accident and he had been one of the sponsors of the drive to incorporate Rancho Cucamonga. Early on, while Mikels was still serving as an elected official with the city, DiIorio experienced success with his development projects and was in seeming consonance with the higher design standards Rancho Cucamonga was insisting upon to distinguish itself from its surrounding cities.
A few years after Mikels left the city to become supervisor, however, DiIorio saw his financial empire collapse when he became embroiled in litigation with the city of Rancho Cucamonga over issues related to his entitlement to proceed with his project. This created a technical default in more than $20 million in outstanding loans secured by the property he was developing. One of the loan requirements was that there be no lawsuits encumbering the project. The loans defaulted when the suit was filed. The lawsuit held up the project. As the project stalled. DiIorio, who had been one of Mikels’ major political backers, took his own life.
In the late 1990s, Mikels was seen as a rising star in the Republican Party. But two of his family members – his wife, Marjorie Musser Mikels, and sister-in-law, Ruth Musser-Lopez, began to actively campaign against then-Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s effort to site a nuclear waste repository in Ward Valley at the northeastern end of the county. Though the county, including Jon Mikels, initially endorsed Wilson’s plan, a petition drive against the nuclear dump proceeded. Eventually, Mikels and his colleagues on the board endorsed opposition to the project, ultimately resulting in the project proposal being abandoned. The break with Wilson, then the most powerful Republican in California, curtailed Mikels’ political advancement.
As Second District Supervisor, Mikels opposed having the county’s flood control division undertake at taxpayer expense stormwater diversion infrastructure improvements at the Colonies at San Antonio and Colonies Crossroads projects, which were developed on what had formerly been regional flood control and water recharge property in northeast Upland. His colleagues on the board of supervisors deferred to Mikels’ judgment with regard to this issue within his district. This led to wrangling with the developers of the property, the Colonies Partners, who bankrolled in large measure the 2002 election effort by then-Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Paul Biane against Mikels. Biane ousted Mikels as supervisor, bringing the curtain down on Mikels’ political career. Simultaneously, the Colonies Partners sued the county over flood control issues at the Colonies developments. That lawsuit was settled in 2006 with a $102 million payout to the Colonies Partners by the county.
Dennis Stout, Rancho Cucamonga’s first directly elected mayor after the city went to direct mayoral elections in 1986 and later a two-term district attorney, was close to Mikels. In the maiden 1977 Rancho Cucamonga municipal election, Stout had been with Mikels one of the 36 candidates for the five-member city council. Stout ran thirteenth in the race, losing out to Mikels, who placed fifth; along with Jim Frost, the city’s first mayor; Phil Schlosser; Mike Palombo; and Charlie West.
“I first got to know Jon through my wife,” Stout said, “before the city incorporated. His wife and mine worked in the department of social services at that time as social workers. That is how I met him.
“I liked Jon,” Stout said. “He and I were friends. He was beneficial to the city. He was bright. You usually do not find people in local politics who are as educated as he was. He had a degree in public administration. During the infancy of Rancho Cucamonga he was innovative, and instigated some of the things that made the city unique. He was instrumental in attracting other people with good ideas. He wasn’t as threatened as some other elected officials by having people on the planning commission who might prove to be future candidates for city council.”
Among those were Stout, whom Mikels first appointed to the Rancho Cucamonga Municipal Advisory Committee and later to the planning commission. It was from the platform of being a planning commission member that Stout successfully ran for mayor in 1986.
It was a feather in Rancho Cucamonga’s hat to have one of its young lion’s accede to the board of supervisors, Stout said.
After Mikels moved on to the county, DiIorio became involved in a protracted dispute with the city over his large planned residential subdivision, which was to be built on land that lay both within the city limits as well as north of the city in the unincorporated county area. DiIorio, a graduate of Harvard Business School, sought to use his status as one of the city’s founders and his connection to Mikels to make headway in his negotiations with the city. When the city and DiIorio did not iron out their differences, Mikels sided with DiIorio.
“After Jon got on the board of supervisors the relationship between the county and the city became somewhat strained over what should be going on in the county area within the city’s sphere of influence,” Stout said. “The differences were over what the density should be there and we weren’t in agreement over some design specifications as well. The city wanted tile roofs and a few other things. There was some tough discussion while I was still mayor and as a city we took the position that we wanted our design and density criteria if that property was going to be brought into the city. We took the position that if they did not build to our design standards and density specifications, they could build but we would not annex the property. It would have to stay in the county. What occurred, in the end, was they built to our design standards but at greater density than we would have allowed. The property was eventually annexed. So there was a compromise.”
Stout said Mikels had strength of character. ‘”He was able to stand up to people who had money, big money” Stout said. “It takes courage for a politician to be able to do that.”
Moreover, Stout said, “There are others who have not given him the credit he was due. The consortium that came about so that the Etiwanda storm drain system near the I-15 Freeway could be built was almost entirely his doing. It involved the cities of Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, and Ontario, along with the county and the federal government which consisted of the Army Corps of Engineers. It was very involved and required intense cooperation and coordination. It took someone with his skill and patience and vision, his political ability and negotiating capability to make that work.”
Stout said Mikels’ talent as a political leader was beneficial at a regional level.
“He also deserves credit for protecting the right-of-way for the 210 Freeway,” Stout said. “Other cities allowed development in the area where the freeway had been planned because they did not think, after years and decades of delay, that it would actually be built. It took foresight and courage to protect that right-of-way.  People do not realize how much more difficult it would have been to build the 210 Freeway if that corridor had not been protected.”
As a relatively young man in office in Rancho Cucamonga, Mikels was looking ahead toward long term goals that will be appreciated by future generations, Stout said. “He was part of the leadership in the city that set aside 100 acres obtained from Lewis Homes for Central Park,” Stout said. “At that time the city had no park land and the breakthrough the city achieved in having set aside 100 acres was a major accomplishment.”
Despite Mikels’ considerable accomplishments, Stout said, he probably did not reach his full potential when his political career was foreclosed in 2002. Mikels never ran for office again.
“My belief is he grew frustrated with politics at the county level,” Stout said. “At that point it had turned into a vicious bloodsport.”
A lifelong smoker, Mikels was felled by lung, prostate and bladder cancer. He is survived by his ex-wife, three daughters and seven grandchildren, his brother, sister and mother..

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