Presiding Judge Defends Much Maligned County Court Realignment Plan

SAN BERNARDINO (March 20)—San Bernardino County’s current presiding judge and immediate past assistant presiding judge this week said the scheduled realignment of the county court system in May is one that has been necessitated by the state drastically cutting back on court budgets and raiding the reserve funds county court administrators were previously allowed to maintain.
On March 19, the last full day of winter and less than two months before the opening of the new downtown San Bernardino Courthouse and the initiation of the realignment, Presiding Judge Marsha Slough, Judge Larry Allen, whose term as assistant presiding judge ended in January 2014 and San Bernardino County Court executive officer  Christina Volkers met with the Sentinel to provide a description of the realignment, explain the factors necessitating it and answer criticism that the move is a counterproductive change that will effectuate minimal cost savings while imposing on the residents of the county an insufferable burden by consolidating the various functions of the court in too few locations and requiring most residents to travel tremendous distances to access justice.
The makeover will include transferring all civil cases countywide to the new San Bernardino Justice Center, an eleven story edifice with 40 courtrooms now in the final stages of completion. In addition, San Bernardino district criminal cases, now being heard in the San Bernardino Central Courthouse built in 1927, will be tried in the new San Bernardino Justice Center.
West Valley Superior Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga, which currently is the venue for both civil and criminal cases originating on the west end of the county, will be devoted primarily to criminal cases, including those arising on the county’s west end and other felony and misdemeanor cases from the county’s central district which are currently routed to the Fontana Courthouse.  A small portion of the criminal cases now heard in Fontana will be adjudicated in San Bernardino. At least temporarily,  hearings on both civil and domestic violence restraining order matters will be heard at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse.
The historic San Bernardino Courthouse will remain as the forum for the family law cases it currently hosts and will soon serve as the venue for the family law cases presently heard in Rancho Cucamonga.
The Fontana Courthouse will become the stage for all small claims, landlord tenant disputes and traffic/non-traffic infractions from the San Bernardino, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga districts. The lion’s share of criminal cases now being heard in Fontana will transfer to Rancho Cucamonga. A lesser number of the Fontana criminal cases will go to San Bernardino.
The Victorville Courthouse will remain a venue for High Desert family law cases.
After the terms of the realignment were spelled out to the county’s legal community, alarm spread among the county’s lawyers in general and particularly among attorneys working on the county’s west end.
A chorus of those attorneys pointed out that the closures of the Needles courthouse at the county’s north east end, the closure of the Chino courthouse at the county’s southwest end, the closure of courthouses in the San Bernardino Mountain communities and the removal of civil cases from the Victorville and Joshua Tree courthouses had already greatly inconvenienced large numbers of the county’s residents and compromised their access to justice. The realignment set to take place in May, they assert, will virtually prevent a major segment of the county’s population from going to court altogether.
Far flung San Bernardino County, which spans more than 20,000 square miles, is the largest county in the lower 48 states, with a land mass greater than the states of Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.
Even before the civil courts were closed in Victorville, it was a forbidding sojourn for some county residents seeking justice. Driving distance from Needles to Barstow is 144 miles one way, with an average traveling time of two hours and eleven minutes. The trip from Needles to San Bernardino, which in less than two months will host the only courtrooms in the county where civil cases will be heard, is 212 miles, with an average traveling time of three hours and nine minutes.
Residents of Chino Hills and Chino, who two years ago had the courthouse in Chino at their disposal but since December 2012 have needed to travel anywhere from 20 to 30 miles to reach the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse, will need to travel 45 to 55 miles to access the civil courts in San Bernardino.
Large numbers of attorneys, including Dennis Stout, who was formerly the county district attorney and mayor of Rancho Cucamonga; Gus Skropos, a former judge and former mayor of Ontario; Richard Anderson, who has been practicing law since 1968 and was formerly Upland mayor; as well as James Banks and David Ricks, a past president and the current president-elect of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association, respectively, assailed the realignment as an ill-conceived move that would produce only marginal cost savings for the court system itself while transferring the financial burden to the county’s residents and other public agencies, while simultaneously legally disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of the county’s residents.
Numerous problems with the realignment were cited, including:
•    The sheer distance large numbers of county residents will need to travel to have their cases heard
•    The disadvantage that poorer defendants and litigants will suffer vis-a-vis contesting charges against them or responding to or pressing forward with lawsuits filed by or against well-heeled adversaries
•    The concentration of criminal defendants into Rancho Cucamonga’s downtown district
•    The lack of adequate parking in downtown San Bernardino to accommodate the influx of litigants, lawyers, witnesses and jurors
•    The perception that transferring all of the county’s civil cases to San Bernardino was being done not to conserve finances or improve the provision of justice but to assist with the urban renewal of San Bernardino, which as the county seat and the largest of the county’s 24 cities, suffered the ignominy of having filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Judge Marsha Slough, who has served as presiding judge for San Bernardino County since September 2012, rejected those criticisms, saying the realignment was a carefully calibrated and crafted approach to a nearly impossible challenge.
“We are doing it this way because it allows us to focus our resources where we need to focus them,” she said. “I know for those on the outside looking in and even for some of those on the inside it is very hard to get your arms around this. The rationale behind this may not seem clear but if you are sitting in this seat as I am and you see and are living every day with the decline in the money we are receiving year after year and you still have the statutory obligation to handle those files in a timely manner, you better figure out how to do it. Missing statutory deadlines is not something you can do once you have taken the oath to uphold the constitution. We understand what this will entail. We have gotten into our cars and driven throughout the county.”
Slough sought to provide a financial backdrop to the situation she and Allen, who was previously presiding judge in 2006 and 2007, face.
“In 2008-09, the court system in San Bernardino County had a budget of $110 million,” she said. “Most of our funding for that year came directly from the state, such that the county courts spent $1.1 out of its reserves that fiscal year. In 2009-10, the state began cutting the amount of money the county court system had to work with, resulting in a $99.2 million budget, with $6.3 million of that coming from the system’s reserves. In 2010-11, the court system in San Bernardino County saw a respite in the funding reductions, based upon the state providing an infusion of funds consisting of one-time transfers of funds from other state accounts that pushed the San Bernardino County court system budget back up to $108 million, with $1.8 million coming from reserves. But that did not last. The following year, 2011-12, the state was again reducing funding to the courts, with the budget being reduced to $103 million, requiring the expenditure of $4.7 million from the county system’s reserves. In 2012-13, the money supplied by the state to the county court system dropped precipitously to $84 million. The county dug into its reserves that year to come up with $15.4 million.”
At that point, Slough said, new legislation went into effect that called upon all court systems to maintain a reserve of no more than one percent of their annual budget.
In the current 2013-14 fiscal year, the court system for San Bernardino County has a projected budget of $98 million. In 2014-15, Slough said the court system for San Bernardino County’s budget was projected at $98 million again.

Slough said she realized that many lawyers and others are lamenting the consolidations that are to be put into place with the realignment in May, but pointed out that the trend in consolidation has been ongoing for several years now.
“We had an informal juvenile court,” she said. “We did away with that. We closed the courthouse in Chino in December of 2012. We closed the Barstow Courthouse but we have now reopened one courtroom there three days a week for handling small claims, unlawful detainers, domestic violence/restraining orders and traffic trials. Barstow does not do a full traffic calendar. It does not handle criminal cases. It does not handle civil cases, all of which have been removed to San Bernardino. San Bernardino already does all of the civil cases from Barstow and Victorville, Joshua Tree and Big Bear. Victorville has not had civil cases for years. At present Victorville is limited to criminal cases, family law, traffic, small claims and unlawful detainers.”
Both Slough and Allen used the term “evolving” in reference to the ongoing changes in the court system, which contrasted with the depiction of devolvement which the critics of the realignment lay at the feet of the court’s executive office.
“At one time, we had almost thirty courts in this county,” Allen said, indicating the closures over decades and the more recent accommodations that he said were carefully weighed and considered. “This has been something that has been a long time formulating. This reorganization, realignment, reengineering or whatever you want to call it did not spring  full form like Athena with a full panoply of war from Zeus’s head.   There has been an evolution toward efficiency and consolidation. If I had my way, it would not be like it is today, with only six active courthouses. I would do it differently with many more small local courthouses. But we are left with what we have. We cannot just tear everything we have down and start over. We have to make our changes incrementally on what we have and our vision of the future.”
Slough said she inherited from her predecessors as presiding judge a situation in which the county’s court system had been hamstrung by funding limitations.
According to California’s Judicial Needs Assessment, San Bernardino County should have 156 judges and
The state has authorized 91 judges to serve on the courts located in San Bernardino County but has provided funding for only 86.
“We have more than fifty percent fewer employees – judges and staff – than we need,” Slough said. “This is a horrific situation. It is remarkable, to be honest with you, that we are still functioning and meeting our statutory requirements. With the budget cuts we have made layoffs to our staff. When the employees you had go away, that workload stacks on top of the employees that remain. Our courts are still running and I cannot say enough about how much our staff does, year after year, by the month, the week, every day, every hour.”
Referring to court staff as those serving “on the front line,” Slough said they were carrying out their duty despite having been undercut by budgetary decisions made in Sacramento.
“For every dollar that comes out of the state general fund, the courts get 1.2 cents,” she said.
Allen said that the governor and the legislature have fallen into a pattern of raiding the courts’ financial allotments early in the budget process and then making slightly less draconian cuts with the final passage of the annual budgets, calling the pittance that is restored new money.
“It’s not new money,” Allen said. “What they put back in does not equal what they took away.”
Slough said she has had no choice but to make the unpopular changes to the way the county’s courts function.
“If you look at the background and what has been going on since 2008-09, you can see we are confronted by a financial crisis,” she said. “We could not continue to operate in the same way we always had. When the state takes that big of a chunk of your funding away from you and you are limited to one percent on your saving account,  you are called upon to reallocate and reshuffle where and when you will do the work.”
One aspect of Slough’s realignment that was roundly second-guessed was concentrating the county’s criminal cases in Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino. Both Slough and Allen dismissed the suggestion that this was in any way a disservice to the county’s residents or resisted by the sheriff’s department or the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices.
“The response from the sheriff with regard to our reduction in criminal court locations is very favorable,” Allen said. “We will now be functioning entirely from more secure locations. At the central courthouse you have defendants in custody chained together who are then moved through corridors or hallways where members of the public are exposed to them. In Fontana, these shackled prisoners require constant monitoring by bailiffs and sheriff’s personnel. In Rancho Cucamonga and in the new San Bernardino Courthouse, a member of the sheriff’s department is able to put our in-custody defendants unescorted into an elevator and send them up to a specific floor where they are met by a bailiff. That is a far better arrangement. This reduces the need for personnel. The courts have always been looking for ways of reducing the number of bailiffs. This is a much more efficient and safer way of processing defendants. The sheriff’s department loves it. They will now need to transport their prisoners to fewer places.  This consolidation offers the same cost benefit to the public defender and district attorney from the standpoint of reducing their need for multiple facilities and offices.”
Slough met accounts of widespread resistance to the realignment by judges, court staff and prosecutors with the response that “not every individual deputy or probation officer is going to be happy with being transferred  When Larry was presiding judge I was sent out to Joshua Tree. I did not appreciate it at the time. If I recall, I don’t think he got a Christmas card from me that year. But looking back on it, I now see it as one of the best times I served. Yes, there are judges who do not want to move. Was every single judge counseled? No. Each was informed. Many were advised. Some told me straight out ‘You have to make the hard decision. I’m glad it’s you and not me,’” she said.
Slough continued, “If you take every big decision out to a committee you will flounder in frustration because there will always be differences of approach among even those with the same basic goal. The best you can do if you are charged with making the decision is to get educated on what you are faced with, what the facts are and the limitations you have to work within, local and global, and then you make the tough decision and execute.”
The perception that the realignment plan was formulated in secret and is being imposed by executive fiat is inaccurate, Allen said, although he acknowledged it was abruptly unveiled to prevent the dissemination of inaccurate information.
“The courts and the people who work within them are incapable of keeping a secret,” he said. “Once the information is out there it goes all over the place, in a mutated form usually. You have to be discrete in discussing things of this nature. That is just an outgrowth of the process.” Allen said the realignment in its “early version was displayed at a full bench meeting. Many had not heard of it before that time. We put it out as a proposal. We asked for suggestions.  The judges had their chance to weigh in then. This outcry that some talk about was never said directly to Judge Slough. At one time we were considering polling all of the court reporters in family law about this. When we consulted with the judges about that we decided not to go that route.”
Allen continued, “The presiding judge is not a Caesar-like figure who can disregard her colleagues. She can be recalled. We have to live with this image that in this office [of presiding judge] there is this monolithic power, but there is no monolith. If there are people who are against this but do not want to be quoted, you have to ask why they are not willing to take a stand publicly. That they are unwilling to be identified, I think, brings what they are saying into question.”
Allen said he and Slough had formulated the best approach to the financial crisis they can, given the constraints they must function within. He owned up to some degree of inconsistency in approach and strategy over the years, but said this was an outgrowth of changes in the state’s economic support network.
“Every decision you make in retrospect may not have been the best,” Allen said. “When I was presiding judge, we built another courtroom in Joshua Tree. That was before we experienced all of the budgetary cutbacks we have gone through. I did not foresee the downturn in the economy.”
Allen was presiding judge in 2006 when the plan to build the new courthouse in San Bernardino was approved. He said that he and other decision-makers at that time had a somewhat differing conception of how it would be utilized than the range of uses to which it will actually be put when it opens in less than two months.
He said previously a portion of the courthouse was envisioned as being devoted to juvenile court. That has been abandoned, he said.
“It turned out that the juvenile operational portion did not have proper sight and sound barriers for juveniles in adult custody,” he said. “How it would be used is changed dramatically because of the budget cuts we have experienced in the years since.  The process of running a court is very fluid.”
Efficiency is the watchword, Slough insisted.
“As the administrators of the court, we are responsible for making decisions so that our precious resources are distributed as efficiently as possible so we can provide the best service to those we are charged to serve,” she said. “We have looked at the numbers and have tried to efficientize our case loads. Family law being consolidated in one building consolidates the self-help and mediator services where people can come to access them rather than having them spread all over and for these family law cases, which are very important to people, we have a broader source of judges and staff. In Rancho Cucamonga there are four family law judges with just over 1,000 cases a piece filed in 2013. San Bernardino has five family law judges and their case load is 1,500 each from 2013. We are taking this opportunity to more equitably distribute the handling of the cases from throughout the county. This is not being done for the convenience of the judges but for the people we serve. We will be able to have self help services and mediation services in one location. When we consolidate like that we can offer everyone who needs them a higher level of service and ensure everyone of the same level of service. It is not just the efficiency we are looking at but the quality of service.”
In a similar fashion, Slough said, moving the entire court system’s civil division to San Bernardino will allow disparities in case loads to be rebalanced.
“Our judges and staff in Rancho Cucamonga do substantially less civil work than our judges in San Bernardino,” she said. “The civil judges here [i.e., in San Bernardino] have almost 600 cases more per judge. Having all that work load is not good. The five judges hearing civil cases in Rancho Cucamonga have an average case load of 2,300 cases filed in 2013. In San Bernardino, the judges average case loads of 2,900. from 2013  By bringing all of the civil judges and civil cases to San Bernardino we can essentially distribute and equalize the case loads between judges. This won’t happen immediately but as new cases are filed, the ones with the shorter case loads will see their number increase, so the work will be more equitably distributed. The same applies to our family law judges.”
Additionally, Slough said, “By having all of the civil cases in San Bernardino, we can pool the courtrooms sharing court reporters affiliated with the civil and criminal divisions and we can backfill with those court reporters as it becomes necessary.”
Slough sought to deflect charges that in planning for the new courthouse in San Bernardino, parking issues had been neglected.
Conceding that “from the beginning we knew parking here is atrocious,” she said she and her staff have been “meeting with the county of San Bernardino and the city of San Bernardino to fix problems that have been in place since the 1980s. We are aware that the city has been working with the county and the district attorney to add a multi-level parking structure off of Arrowhead Avenue south of Third Street.”
She said she and Allen had been mindful that a significant portion of those adding to the parking problem are people coming to court to address traffic citations.  “We are taking all of the traffic cases and moving them to Fontana,” which she said would eliminate “single rider vehicles” from the downtown San Bernardino district altogether.
Slough downplayed suggestions that concentrating criminal cases at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse would have a deleterious impact on the city of Rancho Cucamonga by serving as a magnet for the county’s criminal element.
“They are already there,” Slough said of criminal defendants in Rancho Cucamonga. “We already have death penalty cases, murder trials being heard there along with serious felonies. A huge segment of our criminal calendar is already being heard in Rancho [Cucamonga]
Allen said he did not believe there will be an exodus of lawyers and a closure of their offices from around the civic center in Rancho Cucamonga or an influx of bail bond businesses into the area. “Bail bondsmen will open up around the jails and the holding facilities, not the courthouses,” he said. “Apparently there are people in Rancho Cucamonga who do not want all these criminal cases transferred there. What are they saying? ‘We only want high class civil people here?’”
Both Slough and Allen bridled at the suggestion that any factors other than streamlining the judicial system were factors in formulating the realignment. There was a twang of impatience in Slough’s voice when she responded to the charge that the realignment had as a goal urban renewal in downtown San Bernardino.
“What has happened to the budget over the last five years is the driver,” she said.
“San Bernardino will be getting a new court facility downtown, which is certainly of some benefit to them,” Allen said. “It is a nice facility. San Bernardino is the city where the newest and largest facility is located. But San Bernardino was six years away from bankruptcy in 2006 when I, as the presiding judge, made that decision. The civil case loads were moved to San Bernardino from the desert a few years ago. No one said then that we were moving civil cases there at that time to help the city of San Bernardino.”
Resistance to change is understandable and inevitable, Allen said. The true test of the wisdom of effectuating any change is time, he suggested, referencing a decision he made with regard to how and where the county’s probate cases were heard eight years ago.
“We have to reimagine,” he said. “The way we did business in probate ten years ago was we had it in all of the courts in the county but not as a full assignment to anyone, just as an add-on calendar. Probate was in no way a full assignment, with a half afternoon or afternoon at most in one courtroom. No one judge had developed an expertise in it. It had become the poor step child. My determination when I was presiding judge was to move probate courts from all over the county to Redlands. There was a great outcry. Attorneys complained that their clients could not get there. We went to great lengths to accommodate them and made it so people could go to the courthouse nearest them and appear by means of video hook-up. No one used that. But we set up the probate court in Redlands and now it is seen like sliced bread. Attorneys and their clients alike loved it because they found that we then had two judges devoted to probate who had developed an expertise and knew what they were doing and the lawyers were able to get to know them and know what direction they were going in. Now everyone thinks it was the greatest idea I ever had but that is not how they thought of it at the time.”
Allen said he hoped the realignment would be similarly perceived down the road.
Slough and Allen would not accept the suggestions that they had failed the citizens of the county by opting to realign and redesign the county court system to the convenience of themselves as the court’s executives, the judges and the court employees at the expense of the citizens of the county.
“Judge Slough’s efforts have been unparalleled,” Allen said
Citizens, lawyers and whatever discontented judges and court employees there are need to look past the immediate inconvenience of making the change, Slough said. “We have seen historically that cycles come and go and some have created chaos in our court system,” she said. “What I am trying to do is put our operations on a solid foundation so that we can weather those cycles and keep providing the utmost level of service even if we are in the position of the governor and the legislature taking away even more of our money.”

Sense Of Déjà Vu Haunts Dems In 31st District

(March 17) The chain of events that prevented Democrats from claiming what appears to be their rightful heirship in the 31st Congressional District in 2012 are replaying themselves once more in 2014. The internecine battle for primacy between four Democratic contenders in the district, which stretches from Rancho Cucamonga through a large portion of Fontana, Rialto, Colton, and San Bernardino to Redlands, could once again result in the GOP copping the Congressional seat now held by Republican Gary Miller.
Miller’s 2012 victory in the 31st Congressional District, which had been redrawn after the 2010 Census, was an extraordinary occurrence.
With the Republicans holding a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives and California being an overwhelming Democratic state, the Democrats have a real incentive to paint the 31st Congressional District blue, especially given the registration advantage they have over the Party of Lincoln within it.  Of the district’s registered voters, 127,690 or 41 percent, are affiliated with the Democratic Party.  Registered Republicans in the district number 104,938, or 33.7 percent.
Nevertheless, the Democrats foundered there in 2012, having been undercut by a lack of party cohesion and the advent of open primaries that year.
Four Democrats – Pete Aguilar, Justin Kim, Rita Ramirez-Dean, and Renea Wickman – sought election in the 31st in 2012, as did Miller and another Republican, Bob Dutton. Despite the seven percent Democratic voter registration advantage in the 31st, simple mathematics hurt the Democrats as their vote was divided four ways, while the Republican vote was split two ways. Dutton and Miller proved to be the two top vote-getters and under California’s open primary arrangement, the Democrats who ran third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the June race were shut out and the November general election came down to a race between Republicans Miller and Dutton. Miller prevailed in that race.
Now, two years later, déjà vu has descended on the 31st District. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, the top Democratic vote-getter two years ago, attorney and Democratic Party activist Eloise Gomez-Reyes from Colton, former congressman Joe Baca from Rialto and San Bernardino City Unified School District Trustee Danny Tillman have all qualified their candidacies in the race.
In February, Miller announced he would not seek reelection. That brought two Republican hopefuls into the race, Lesli Gooch, a member of Miller’s congressional staff, and Paul Chabot, a self-styled anti-drug crusader who in 2010 ran for the State Assembly but lost to fellow Republican Mike Morrell.
In 2012, 62,667 total votes were cast in the June Primary in the 31st District. Miller claimed 16,708 of those, or 26.66 percent. Dutton snagged 15,557, or 24.82 percent, which edged out Aguilar, who claimed 14,181 votes or 22.63 percent. Justin Kim came in fourth with 8,487 votes or 13.54 percent. Renea Wickman, the third most popular Democrat in the race, placed fifth overall, with  8,487 votes or 13.54 percent.  Rita Ramirez-Dean came in last, but siphoned off  3,546 votes or 5.66 percent.
Thus, 32,265 of the district’s voters, or 51.48 percent, voted for Republicans, and 48. 52 percent voted for Democrats in the primary.
Under normal circumstances, Republicans exhibit greater voter turn-out at the polls than do Democrats. Moreover, this disparity is even more pronounced in primary elections than in general elections. In November 2012, voter turn-out in the 31st Congressional District at the general election was well more than double what it was in the primary, with 161,219 casting votes. And in the voting for president, the district’s voters supported Democrat  Barack Obama with 57.2 percent of the vote to Republican Mitt Romney with 40.6 percent, which probably reflects what the outcome would have been had a Democrat opposed a Republican in the congressional seat voting.
It is possible that Gooch, who has picked up Miller’s endorsement and who has begun to tap into the funding stream Miller used including the National Realtors Association’s political action committee, and Chabot, with his name recognition among a faction of local Republicans, could cut the Democrats off at the pass again in June. In fact, many political observers consider such an outcome likely.
Meanwhile, an earlier effort by the Democratic establishment to break the GOP’s unlikely hold on the 31st District has sputtered.
Even before Miller outpolled Dutton in November 2012, Democratic strategists were conferring about what steps could be taken to ensure that Democratic disarray in 2014 did not perpetuate Miller’s incumbency beyond the current Congress. In short order, a game plan was hatched by which Aguilar was chosen as the logical party standard bearer. By promoting Aguilar early, engaging in brisk fundraising on his behalf and warding off any other Democrats so a concentrated party electoral effort to advance Aguilar could be mounted, high-ranking Democratic  Party officials believed Aguilar could beat Miller in a toe-to-toe slugfest in November.
Relatively early on, well-connected Democratic-functionaries acted to boost Aguilar.  In May 2013, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee selected Aguilar as one of five candidates nationwide to be included in its Jumpstart Program, which is intended to assist early-emerging Democrats seeking to unseat incumbent Republicans deemed to be vulnerable.
Party leaders convinced California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to endorse Aguilar. Party donors, inside and outside California, were encouraged to provide him with campaign cash, and money started pouring into Aguilar’s political war chest. More attention was drawn to him, ensuring even more contributions, when the Washington-based news organization, Politico, in July named Aguilar one of “50 Politicos to watch in 2013.”
Despite all that, Baca, Gomez-Reyes and Tillman somehow failed to get the message.
Baca,  who had been a member of Congress for more than 13 years when he was ignominiously chased from office by another Democrat in the 2012 election, is less than accommodating at this point of his party’s alliances and priorities. His political demise in 2012 came about as a consequence of his own decision on where he would run, a visceral side-effect of open primaries and his Democratic rival’s readiness to enter into an opportunistic political arrangement with a well-heeled, out-of-state Republican.
Beginning in 1999 when he won a special election to succeed long-time Democratic Congressman George Brown after Brown died in office, Baca represented California in Washington D.C.’s lower house, serving the heavily Democratic-leaning  42nd and 43rd Congressional districts with solid Democratic support. In 2012, he found himself most logically ushered into the newly drawn 31st Congressional District as a result of the reapportionment following the 2010 Census.  Simultaneously, Congressman Gary Miller, whose 42nd district in northeast Orange, southeast Los Angeles and southwest San Bernardino counties had likewise been reapportioned out from underneath him, opted out of running against fellow Republican Ed Royce in the newly-draw 39th District. Instead Miller declared his intention of wrestling Baca for the voters’ nod in the newly drawn 31st District.
Though the 31st was a Democratic-leaning district, Baca, perhaps fearing Miller’s prodigious fundraising ability, decided to run in the neighboring 35th Congressional District, which was even more heavily laden with Democrat voters than the 31st.
Incumbent Members of Congress do not need to live within the geographical boundaries of the district they represent, and merely need to live within the state where the district in which they hold office is located.
Baca appeared to be a shoo-in in the 35th, where no Republican candidate bothered to run. He cruised to a relatively convincing victory in the June 2012 primary, capturing 12,619 votes or 47.17 percent to 9,078 or 33.93 percent that went to then-state senator Gloria Negrete-McCleod, another Democrat, and  5,058 votes or 18.9 percent, that went to Anthony Vieyra, a Green Party Candidate.
The switch to an open primary system  ended sequestered party ballots and effectively brought to a close the tradition of guaranteeing that a Democrat would face a Republican in the November general election. Instead, the open primary led to setting up a November race between the two highest vote-getters in June, regardless of party affiliation. Thus, a confident Baca in November 2012 squared off against Negrete-McLeod. On the strength of his primary showing, his incumbency, his perceived fundraising advantage, his superior name recognition, and his unwillingness to engage in a bare-knuckle political slugfest against a woman who was like him Democrat and Hispanic, Baca waged little more than a minimalist campaign, fully anticipating he would easily pick up at least three percent of the voting trend that had gone to Vieyra in the primary campaign to put him over the top.
In the final weeks before the general election on November 6, however, Negrete-McLeod’s campaign was infused with $3.8 million in donations from a political action committee controlled by Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which paid for a $2.3 million television advertising blitz during the last week of the campaign. Caught flatfooted and unable to respond in kind to both a bevy of negative hit pieces that attacked him on his record and upbeat mailers that lionized Negrete-McLeod for her service in the California legislature, Baca saw the election slip away, with Negrete-McLeod capturing 61,065 votes or 54.35 percent to his 51,281 votes or 45.65 percent.
Baca is now gunning to make a political comeback and he is not inclined to heed the pleas of Democratic Party officials who stood idly by a year-and-a-half ago while his Democratic rival utilized boatloads of Republican money to clobber him.  He is seeking to utilize the name recognition he has cultivated from two decades as a legislator in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, his indirect and residual political clout, together with an insider’s knowledge of issues and alliances, and sheer force of will to regain a berth in the House of Representatives. He is looking to tap into big money backing from national and even international players, such as ConocoPhillips and TransCanada, whose Keystone XL Pipeline intended to transport oil sands bitumen from Canada and  Bakken synthetic crude oil and light crude oil produced in Montana and North Dakota  to refineries on the Gulf Coast Baca has supported even as environmentalists have opposed that project.
Nor did Democratic honchos make any headway in convincing Gomez Reyes or Tillman to clear out of Aguilar’s way.  Indeed, Gomez-Reyes in particular, has demonstrated the seriousness of her campaign.
According to campaign finance reporting documents filed with the Federal Election Commission,   she has raised $315,520.94. Moreover, she has been gaining momentum and advancing in the early polling that has been conducted, making inroads against both Aguilar and Baca as she has earnestly propounded her message and pursued her maiden campaign after years of building goodwill among Democrats throughout Southern California as a party activist and campaign worker for others.
The money Aguilar, Baca and Gomez-Reyes appear poised to throw into the advertising onslaught in advance of the June primary will very likely ensure that the vote between them will be relatively evenly distributed, with Tillman claiming an inevitable three-to-eight percent of the Democratic vote as well.
Another factor that has increased the likelihood of a similar replay of the 2012 31st District outcome, with the advantage accruing to Gooch and Chabot, is that a third potential Republican candidate, San Bernardino City Councilman John Valdivia, who took out nomination papers, at the last minute decided against running.  Valdivia’s presence on the ballot would have likely divided the Republican vote significantly. His decision elevates the political prospects of Gooch and Chabot considerably.

Effort Under Way To Seek Voter Okay For Twentynine Palms Fire Tax Hike

TWENTYNINE PALMS (March 20)—Twentynine Palms Water District officials are on the verge of resurrecting a tax measure to fund the fire department.
Since 1958, the fire department in 29 Palms has been overseen by the water district. The department has grown to include two fire stations and seven firefighters to cover the 59 square miles within the Twentynine Palms City Limits and the 29 square miles of unincorporated county area that also falls under the water district/fire department’s 88-square mile jurisdiction. The city does not contribute to, participate in or subsidize the fire department’s operational budget.
In 2012, water district voters rejected Measure H, a tax increase proposal, and the water district explored  surrendering authority over the fire department to the county fire department.
That same year, the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission  indicated the water district would need to find augmenting funding for the fire department or relinquish control of it.
The water district and the city of Twentynine Palms worked on a proposal to have the county’s fire division subsume the fire department but that goal was not achieved after county fire chief Mark Hartwig said that in working within the confines of the $1.244 million in available special tax funding for local fire service, he would need to close down one of the fire stations and reduce the department to no more than four firefighters.
So far the water district has maintained control of the fire department but as of last July 1 the district closed out its Lear Avenue Fire Station.  The water district is now leasing the station to Copper Mountain College, which is using the facility to conduct fire science courses.
All of the fire department’s operations are now run out of the Adobe Road Fire Station, known as Station 421, and its paid personnel have been reduced to five. Response times to certain portions of the 88-square mile fire protection jurisdiction have increased.
Twentynine Palms Fire Chief Jim Thompson and Twentynine Palms Water District General Manager Tamara Alaniz have obtained an endorsement from the Twenty Nine Palms Citizen Advisory Committee, chaired by Adam Lunn, to again seek voter approval of an increase to the parcel tax imposed on residents within the water district’s boundaries.
The current parcel tax is $80. Lunn and his cohorts have advised that the district ask their customers to approve a $20.40 per year increase to that assessment on developed property and a $10.20 increase on vacant parcels. The committee has further suggested that the measure authorize the increase for three years and give the district the ability to add a three percent annual inflation adjustment in the years beyond 2018.
Were Twentynine Palms area residents willing to increase their fire tax burden, according to the advisory committee, the Lear Avenue station could be reopened and the fire department reconstituted to its former level, consisting of seven paid personnel and a complement of on-call firefighters.  Local control of the fire department would be guaranteed, according to the panel.
At present, Thompson manages the fire department for the water district, utilizing $1,244,800 in revenue from the special tax to fund operations that cost $1,209,525 annually, while salting away $52,775 in a reserve account.
At one point, county fire chief Hartwig proposed reducing the department to three firefighters and one station and utilizing volunteers/paid call personnel to function within the $1.2 million financial model. Eventually, the water board, under increasing pressure from members of the community, rejected the concept of handing the department off to the county, whose unionized firefighters draw higher pay and benefits than the current department’s members.
The advisory committee has suggested that the community could potentially be convinced to embrace the increased assessments by demonstrating that the reopening of the Lear Avenue facility, known as Station 422, would ensure a needed higher level of service to Twentynine Palms’ Indian Cove and Desert Heights neighborhoods.

Superintendent’s Resignation Heightens Disarray In AESD

(March 18) The disarray in the Adelanto Elementary School District descended to an even greater depth this week with the resignation of Dr. Lily Matos DeBlieux as superintendent.
DeBlieux was brought in to serve as superintendent several months after the departure of former superintendent Darrin Brawley. Brawley’s leaving was precipitated by the district’s failed effort to prevent the “takeover” of Desert Trails Elementary School pursuant to an effort to utilize California’s Parent Empowerment Act to restructure that school.
Though she had gamely sought to run the district and make gradual improvements in the carrying out of its educational mission, DiBlieux was buffeted by a string of controversies that compromised the focus on improving the academic performance of pupils in the district. Most recently, the district hired, following a 4-1 vote of the school board, an administrative secretary at a salary of $87,722, with employer-paid benefits of $18,819.60 and additional health and welfare benefits of $15,864.56 for a total compensation package of $122,406.14. That clerical position is intended as an assistant to the school board.
At the time the hiring was discussed and decided upon in closed session, DeBlieux sought to distance herself from it, telling the public the hiring had been acted upon solely by the board. It was approved by a 4-1 vote, with board member Debra Jones dissenting.
The board sought to shroud the matter in a mantle of secrecy, claiming the hiring was actually the promotion of a district employee who had previously been put on administrative leave. Board members cited the confidentiality that attends personnel issues in refusing to disclose the rationale for the hiring, which triggered a round of public criticism of the district, both for the perceived inflated salary of a clerical worker and the manner in which the hiring had been carried out outside normal channels.
The district is still refusing to identify who the administrative secretary is.
In late 2011, a parent union was formed by parents at Desert Trails Elementary, in large measure at the instigation of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Parent Revolution, which is devoted to challenging the traditional authority of school districts.
In January 2012 the parent union submitted 466 signatures on petitions asking the district to undertake a set of what the parents union maintained would be reforms at the academically challenged school, where students had for years consistently scored near the bottom of state-mandated standardized academic tests.  A group of parents opposed to the parent takeover of the school formed and went to work obtaining rescissions of many of the signatures on the petitions.
Those petitions called upon the district to sack the school’s principal, David Mobley, and surrender to the school’s parents authority in hiring his successor, infuse in the new principal hiring authority for the school’s faculty, reduce class sizes and increase the number of school days and instructional hours, and include more science, history and art in the curriculum.
In February 2012, the school district, to whom the parent trigger petitions had been entrusted, announced that it had validated the signatures of only 301 of the 466 signatures on the petitions and declared that the parent trigger petitions were thus 20 signatures short of the 321 needed. The Desert Trails Parent Union, represented by Mark Holscher, a lawyer with the firm on retainer with Parent Revolution, Los Angeles-based Kirkland & Ellis, filed a petition for a writ of mandate and a complaint in Victorville Superior Court seeking a court order that the district verify the signatures and allow the Parent Trigger process to advance on behalf of five of the members of the parents union – Doreen Diaz, Kathy Duncan, Teresa Rogers, Olivia Zamarripa and Bartola Del Villar. Holscher maintained that the district did not make an impartial tally of the signatures and “engaged in a systematic effort to invalidate the petitions.”
Judge Steve Malone, to whom the case was assigned, restored 97 of the signatures tossed out by the district. Malone ruled the district did not have the authority or a basis in law to discount signatures that proponents gathered and he ordered the Adelanto Elementary School District to accept the petition as filed by the parent union.
The parent union modified its demand to having the school converted to a charter academy, offering an intensified curriculum. Delays prevented the school district from converting Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school at the initiation of the 2012-13 academic year.
The Adelanto Elementary School District thus became the first district in the state in which the “parent trigger” law had been successfully applied.  In the same time frame, the district’s superintendent, Darin Brawley, resigned.
At about the same time as DeBlieux was hired as superintendent in January 2013, the school board voted to accept LaVerne Preparatory Academy as the operator of Desert Trails Elementary School.
Under DeBlieux, who took the helm as superintendent in March 2013, the district achieved having Desert Trails converted to a charter school, although that transition resulted in hard feelings and controversy, as well.
A central component LaVerne Preparatory Academy’s approach consists in engaging parents in their children’s educational process.  That parent involvement had been consistently lacking at the school. Many of the parents and educators opposed to the takeover pointed out that a significant number of the students at Desert Trails Elementary have parents whose first language is not English and nearly all of the instructional materials used by LaVerne Preparatory are in English. Whereas 466 parents at the school signed the petition to move forward with the parent trigger process in late 2011 and January 2012, when the parents union held its election in October 2012 to determine which of the charter schools that had submitted proposals should be chosen to educate their children, only 53 parents participated in that vote.
On June 25, 2013 then-Adelanto Planning Commission Chairwoman Lori Yuan and another parent, Chrissy Guzman, both of whom were involved in the anti-parent trigger effort, were alleged to have done nearly $7,700 worth of damage to a Desert Trails classroom during what was said to have been an “act of protest” against the parent takeover while they were disposing of old art supplies in the PTA meeting room at the school. Both have been charged with felony vandalism and Yuan has been removed from the planning commission.
DeBlieux’s abrupt announcement that she will be leaving as superintendent at the end of the school year in June, appeared to have blindsided the school board, which apparently was not aware that DeBlieux had applied to become the superintendent of the Pendergast Elementary School District in Phoenix. The Pendergast Governing Board on Monday approved DeBlieux’s hiring under a three-year contractual arrangement effective July 1.

Twentynine Palms Band Of Indians To Open Tribe’s Tortoise Rock Casino On March 31

TWENTYNINE PALMS (March 20) — The Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians has scheduled March 31 for the opening of the Tortoise Rock Casino.
Tribe members and a smattering of public dignitaries will attend a private reception that afternoon, to be followed by a 5 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony. Afterwards, the gaming will begin at the 30,000-square foot facility’s seven tables and 490 slot machines.
Live musical entertainment has been arranged for the opening night.
The Twentynine Palms Band of Mission Indians also operates the Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella. Tribal Chairman Darrell Mike said the opening, which follows ten months of construction activity on the site at 73829 Base Line Road “is not only a significant milestone for our tribe, but we are also very happy to bring jobs and add excitement to entire High Desert community.”
The casino will employ close to 100 and will feature blackjack and several forms of poker.
The Twentynine Palms Band of Mission Indians initially proposed developing and operating the casino on tribal land in Twentynine Palms but discarded  those plans after the Department of Defense raised objections to locating the project so close to the Marine Base. In lieu of that, the tribe resolved to relocate the proposed project, redubbed the Nüwü Casino, some 23 miles away, in Joshua  Tree, on a 130-acre parcel on the north side of Twentynine Palms Highway west of White Feather Road and east of downtown Joshua Tree. That site was well outside the tribe’s reservation and what is recognized as the tribe’s ancestral land. To overcome the opposition of many vocal Joshua Tree residents as well as that of then-county supervisor Neil Derry and Joshua Tree municipal advisory council member David Fick, the tribe was forced to jump through a number of hoops, including filing an application with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the land in a public trust, transferring the tribe’s right from its tribal property to the Joshua Tree site and making a case that the tribe had ancestral roots in the Joshua Tree area, where it had an historical relationship to the property in question by virtue of aboriginal activity, including hunting, foraging and trading in particular.  That application would have entailed an anthropological study to demonstrate the tribe’s ancestors ranged into Joshua Tree.
Mike and his advisors, including the band’s chief financial officer, Steve Gralla, reassessed the likelihood of prevailing in a bruising battle with project opponents, and elected to resurrect its effort to develop and operate a casino on tribal land in Twentynine Palms.

Mondary Appointed Commander Of Morongo Valley Sheriff’s Station

JOSHUA TREE (March 18) — The sheriff’s department has installed a department veteran who lives in the Morongo Basin as the head of its regional station there.
Dale Mondary, who most recently has been serving as the commander of the sheriff’s department’s court services division, will be installed as the Morongo Basin station commander on April 19.
He is to replace retiring Captain Richard Boswell, who has been the head of the sheriff’s station in that portion of the desert since September 2012.
The Morongo Basin includes the two incorporated cites of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms, as well as the unincorporated communities of Morongo Valley, Landers, Pioneertown, Joshua Tree, Wonder Valley and the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Training Base.
Mondary has been a resident of Yucca Valley for 21 years, two fewer than the 23 years he has served with the sheriff’s department.
In his capacity as station commander, he will also serve as police chief of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms, both of which contract with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement service.
He worked previously at the Morongo Station as a deputy, detective, sergeant and lieutenant.  Mondary has a masters degree in criminology and criminal justice from Indiana State University and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Segalla And Chino Valley Independent Fire District Part Company

CHINO (March 17)– A year after Paul Segalla’s hiring as fire chief of the Chino Valley Independent Fire District was hailed as a giant step forward for the department and the community, he officially departed from his position, a month-and-a-half after he was placed on administrative leave January 24.
Segalla had continued to draw his annual $188,328 salary during his absence, which came about, board president John DeMonaco said, as the board made an “assessment of the compatibility of his management style with the goals of the district.”
Apparently, the board’s members were unable to collectively resolve the administrative and management differences they had with Segalla. The district said in a press release last week that Segalla, who  had been fire chief with the West Covina Fire Department for five years when he accepted the position in Chino Valley,  is intent on seeking employment elsewhere.
“Chief Segalla has informed the board that he is now desirous of seeking a new position outside of the district,” according to the district press release. “While it has been a pleasure working with him, on behalf of the board of directors we wish Chief Segalla future professional success and thank him for his dedicated service to the district.”
Segalla, who had been provided with a three-year contract upon his hiring, was removed from the district payroll as of March 4, an indication that there were unfavorable issues in the evaluation that the district is willing to cite in justifying the contract termination.
Neither Segalla nor the district, has gone beyond the district’s prepared public statements.
Segalla had been the fire chief with West Covina since 2008, and previously was fire chief in Lockpart Township, Illinois, fire captain with the Berkeley Fire Department, fire lieutenant in Aurora, Illinois and a firefighter and deputy chief with the Downers Grove Fire Department in Illinois.
Interim Fire Chief Tim Shackelford has been leading the department in Segalla’s absence.

Judge’s Ruling Rescinds County Approval Of Joshua Tree Dollar General

(March 12) A Superior Court judge has suspended, at least for the time being, the county’s approval of a permit to construct a chain discount store in Joshua Tree.
In January 2013 the county planning commission by a 4-1 vote approved a proposal by Dynamic Development in conjunction with the Goodlettsville, Tennessee–based Dollar General Corp. to establish a Dollar General store at the corner of Twentynine Palms Highway and Sunburst Avenue in Joshua Tree.
Maintaining that they prided themselves on the rustic character of their town, a number of people in the community including the entire membership of the Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance,  resisted the proposal to build the 9,100-square foot Dollar General. They said the presence of a national corporate retail establishment would compromise the Old West ambience of a desert town that relies on tourism. They appealed the planning commission’s approval to the board of supervisors.
In June 2013, the board of supervisors held a public hearing to consider the appeal that incorporated a video hook-up with the meeting room at the Joshua Tree Community Center, allowing Joshua Tree residents to lodge their protests without having to make the 200-mile round trip to the county seat to be heard.
Gus Romo and Ernie Perea, planners with the county’s department of land use services who previously recommended that the commission approve Dynamic Development’s conditional use permit application, set the groundwork for their boss, Terri Rahhal, the planning director for the county, who was tasked with reiterating the planning division’s earlier analysis and findings and building a case to justify the store at its proposed location.
Romo and Perea maintained the 1.45 acre site is compatible from a land use standpoint with the applicant’s plans. Romo and Perea stated in a jointly authored report and recommendation, “This area of 29 Palms Highway is designated for commercial development and intended to cater to pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The project is considered a general retail use permitted within the Joshua Tree Community Plan zoning designation subject to approval of a use permit. Therefore, the proposed development and retail use are considered compatible with the surrounding land uses and general plan land use designations.”
The board of supervisors denied the appeal and approved the project.
Joshua Tree residents and the downtown business alliance filed a lawsuit the following month, asserting the county’s land use services division did not fully examine the negative impacts of the project, including cutting into the profitability of preexisting businesses and upsetting the rural character of the district.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez sided with the plaintiff, ruling that the county needs to rescind Dynamic Development, LLC’s permit for the Dollar General retail store while county undertakes the preparation of an environmental impact report which Alvarez directed should specifically analyze the potential economic effects on surrounding businesses.
The county’s mitigated negative declaration of any untoward impacts of the project was insufficient, Alvarez ruled, in part because the analysis of the possible economic effects to existing businesses, which could result in urban decay, had not been done previously.
In reaching his conclusion, Alvarez relied upon a 29-year-old case pertaining to proposed new development in a less-than-highly-urbanized setting, the ski-resort community of Bishop. In that case, the court determined the California Environmental Quality Act called upon the governmental agency overseeing the project to “consider the secondary or indirect environmental consequences of economic and social changes.”
Though Alvarez said the California Environmental Quality Act is “not a fair competition statutory scheme intended to protect against economic competition,” he said the impact on preexisting businesses “must be considered if the loss of businesses affects the physical environment by causing or increasing urban decay.”
David Fick, speaking on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the Sentinel, “The Joshua Tree Downtown Business Alliance commends Judge Alvarez’ decision that requires the county to do an environmental impact report for the approval/disapproval of the Dollar General project according to California Environmental Quality Act requirements.”
Dynamic Development has given indication it will very likely appeal Alvarez’s ruling to the state appellate court in Riverside. Mark Ostoich, an attorney representing Dynamic Development, said the project met all the criteria of an acceptable property use.
The land uses surrounding the project site consist of single-family residential uses located within commercial zoning to the south across 29 Palms Highway, single-family residential uses within multi-family zoning to the north across Commercial Street, vacant commercial land to the east across Sunburst Avenue, and vacant commercial land to the west across Mountain View Street.
Opponents of the store alleged the project was inconsistent with Joshua Tree’scommunity plan, which encourages small businesses. The lawsuit also raised the issue of the project requiring a traffic study. Alvarez did not find in favor of the plaintiffs on those issues.
Rahhal said that the county was not bound by the Joshua Tree Community Plan and its precepts, and that it could not be cited as the grounds for keeping a business such as Dollar General from locating in Joshua Tree. “The Joshua Tree Community Plan articulates a vision of the community,” Rahhal said. “lt sets their vision. It is not the sole source of regulation for land use, though.”