Mountain Vote Would Permanentize Hospital Augmentation Assessments

A measure on the March 3, 2020 Primary Election ballot to be voted upon by the residents of the western San Bernardino Mountain communities will make the current parcel assessment collected there to augment operations at the Mountains Community Community Hospital a permanent one.
The property tax override was put into place in 1989 as a means of staving off the closure of the hospital. Residents of the mountain communities agreed to impose on themselves a $40 per year assessment for vacant lots, $80 for homeowners, and $200 for commercial properties. As presented, the assessment regime was to be renewed every four years. Given the value the mountain communities place on having the hospital immediately available, as the closest hospital otherwise is St. Bernardine Hospital in San Bernardino some 35 minutes distant under ideal driving conditions, each successive measure has passed. Each of those votes has perpetuated the $40/$80/$200 yearly assessment. No increase in the tax to sustain the hospital has been made.
In the upcoming election, advocates for the hospital are asking for two things: the elimination of the four year renewal requirement, such that the assessment will remain in place into perpetuity, along with an annual increase in the assessment that is tied to the Consumer Price Index, pursuant to a 3 percent cap.
Hospital advocates maintain that eliminating the four-year renewal requirement will save the cost of having to pay for the elections and adjust the assessment to cover the continual increases in medical service provision costs.
Initially, at least, the assessment increase will be relatively light, as three percent times $80 translates into an assessment increase of $2.40.
Advocates for the increase point out that last year there were 6,800 patient visits to the hospital of all type, a record for the hospital’s 68-year history.
A press release put out by Mountains Community Hospital quoted Charles Harrison, the hospital’s CEO, as stating, “Our patient volume is up and we are seeing people with increasingly severe and complex conditions. Our cost to provide essential healthcare services has increased by more than 56 percent in just the past 10 years, but the tax has not gone up – ever. Approval of this ballot measure will ensure the hospital can continue to meet the needs of our community, today and in the years to come, as well as complete $40 million to $50 million worth of necessary improvements.”
Taxpayer advocates, however, point out that the current arrangement by which the community’s residents are given the ability to monitor on a continuing basis the degree to which the hospital has proven responsive to community needs and then has the option of renewing the subsidization of its operations by participating in a vote is preferable to granting the hospital an entitlement that is not subject to any future accountability or performance criteria. Moreover, taxpayer advocates point out, if the measure passes, by 2050 the mandatory assessment will have grown to $218.55 per household, without any mechanism for the homeowners to protest or limit the amount of money taken from them by the hospital.

San Bernardino City School District Tops In Homeless Student Support

The San Bernardino City Unified School District was one of five California School Districts and a single charter school statewide that were surveyed to form the basis of an auditor’s conclusion that the number of homeless students in the state’s schools are being severely under-documented.
At the behest of the state legislature, California State Auditor Elaine Howle beginning last March undertook an audit of the performance of six local educational agencies relating to their efforts to identify and support youth attending school in their respective jurisdictions experiencing homelessness during the 2017-18 school year.
State senators and Assembly members on the Joint Committee on Legislative Audits felt such a review was in order order based on a quarter of the state’s school district’s claiming that none of the students enrolled at their schools qualified as homeless.
Under California law and the federal McKinney-Vento Act, schools are legally required to identity homeless students, provide a limited array of services to those students and report the data back to the state. The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as ones living in vehicles, motels, shelters, campgrounds or those who are temporarily residentially doubled up due to financial hardship with another family, including extended family members. School districts are obliged to use the same definition. For that reason, the vast majority of the 25 percent of the state’s school districts’ assertions they had no homeless among their respective student bodies was not credible.
The audit, also referred to as a study, was aimed at determining how schools are obstructed from accurately identifying students experiencing homelessness, why those students’ status as homeless is going unreported, and how to identify and provide the services to best meet their needs.
Howle’s audit came to the conclusion that the state’s schools collectively under-counted their homeless students by no less than 37 percent in 2017-18, in so doing failing to provide them transportation, counseling, access to available social services and other benefits to which they are entitled under state and federal law.
According to the audit, school districts or individual schools within those districts reported 270,000 homeless children when a more accurate estimate of that number is roughly 100,000 higher, at around 370,000. In this way, of the state’s approximately 3.7 million school age children in families living below the poverty line, some ten percent of those are homeless by the applicable definition of that term, meaning their families do not have stable housing.
According to the audit, school districts that have fallen down in compiling accurate homeless numbers within their boundaries are missing out on available funding. In some cases, the number of homeless students within particular districts is being under-reported. In some other districts, it appears as if no effort to make a tally of homeless students was carried out at all.
Law dictates that schools survey families every year on their living conditions, and report the number of homeless students enrolled in their jurisdictions to the California Department of Education. California applies what is called the Local Control Funding Formula, by which districts or individual schools within those districts are augmented with funding to provide services for homeless students.
Statewide, school district officials identified fewer than 5 percent of their low-income students as homeless.
Howle’s audit was not exhaustive but rather focused on Greenfield Union School District in Monterey County, Gridley Unified in Butte County, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified in Los Angeles County, San Bernardino City Unified, as well as a single charter school, Birmingham Community Charter High School in Van Nuys.
According to the state auditors, none of the six educational service providers had adequately trained staff to identify homeless students and ensure their access to services. Two did not provide the required housing questionnaires to families, and five did not post information about services available to homeless families, as required by law.
Highlighted findings from the audit include a conclusion that “Available data suggest that California local educational agencies are not doing enough to identify youth experiencing homelessness. Homeless education experts generally estimate that 5 to 10 percent of economically disadvantaged youth experience homelessness. Four of the six local educational agencies we reviewed—five school districts and one charter school—identified 3 percent or fewer of their economically disadvantaged youth as experiencing homelessness. The six local educational agencies we reviewed could do more to identify and support youth experiencing homelessness. None of the six local educational agencies we reviewed sufficiently trained staff to ensure they were aware of information that would help them identify youth needing services. Only one local educational agency we reviewed has disseminated information about its homeless education program.”
The audit was likewise critical of the California Department of Education for not monitoring the overall situation and school districts more closely.
“[The Department of] Education is federally required to oversee the State’s homeless education program, but it has provided inadequate oversight and leadership,” according to the audit summary. “It monitors this program in less than 1 percent of the nearly 2,300 local educational agencies in the State each academic year. It does not effectively use the data it collects to identify and provide guidance to local educational agencies that may be under-reporting the number of youth experiencing homelessness. It has not conducted a staffing analysis to identify additional resources needed to provide adequate oversight of local educational agencies’ homeless education programs.”
California, the most populous state in the nation and one where in much of its expanse winter weather is far milder than in most other states, attracts more homeless than any other state in the nation, including homeless families. As such, California has consistently been host to the highest number of homeless children in the country, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Of the six local educational agencies examined in the survey, the San Bernardino City School District had the greatest saturation and largest number of homeless students.
While the San Bernardino City School District was lumped in with with the other school districts and the charter high school in terms of many of the audit’s negative findings, in fact, the San Bernardino City School District was yet found to be the agency that was most in compliance with the state and federal reporting requirements relating to homelessness.
For example, one section of the summary stated, “Although Birmingham Charter, Greenfield, and Gridley identified too few youth experiencing homelessness to make a meaningful comparison, the data from the other three local educational agencies support the reasoning that greater coordination generally yields better results. Specifically, Norwalk‑La Mirada works with other organizations to provide various services to families and youth experiencing homelessness; further, although San Bernardino could not always provide documentation, it claims that it also works with service organizations to provide services to these youth and their families. The data show that at these two local educational agencies, the youth experiencing homelessness had lower rates of absenteeism, suspension, and dropping out than statewide averages, whereas the youth experiencing homelessness at Vallejo, which told us that it generally does not coordinate with service organizations, consistently had higher rates of absenteeism, suspension, and dropping out compared to statewide averages.”
Furthermore, the first chapter of the audit stated that “youth experiencing homelessness in San Bernardino, the local educational agency with the largest student enrollment we visited, also performed better on some performance outcomes than the statewide average. During academic year 2017–18, 69 percent of youth experiencing homelessness statewide graduated from high school. That year, San Bernardino reported that nearly 80 percent of its youth experiencing homelessness graduated. Similarly, Norwalk‑La Mirada reported that 85 percent of its youth experiencing homelessness graduated. In contrast, Vallejo’s youth experiencing homelessness graduated at a rate of 40 percent.”
-Mark Gutglueck

Post McStay Murder Conviction, Merritt Parts Company With His Lawyer

James McGee, a former prosecutor who early in his transition to being an attorney in private practice took on the high profile case of defending Charles “Chase” Merritt against accusations of having brutally murder all four members of the McStay Family in 2010, has withdrawn as Merritt’s co-counsel after an unspecified dispute developed between them.
Merritt in June was convicted of first degree murder in the deaths of Joseph McStay, 40, Summer McStay, 43, Gianni McStay, 4, and Joseph McStay Jr., 3. The jury then recommended that he receive the death penalty for the murder of Summer, Gianni and Joseph Jr., and that he be imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole in the death of Joseph McStay.
McGee, who had successfully prosecuted murder cases as a member of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office over a span of a decade-and-a-half, had taken on the assignment of representing Merritt in 2016, shortly after he had left the district attorney’s office and had forged a partnership with longtime defense attorney Raj Maline.
Maline and McGee then spent more than two-and-a-half years preparing for trial. Jury selection commenced in December 2018 and the trial began the first week of January, 2019. In the division of duties between the two attorneys, McGee handled the most scientifically intricate of the issues pertaining to guilt or innocence. Those included DNA analysis and the methods used to determine whether grainy and somewhat indistinct images captured on a neighbor’s security camera of a vehicle that appeared to be leaving the McStay home at 7:47 p.m. on the night of February 4, 2010 matched far clearer higher resolution three dimensional photos taken of Merritt’s truck. It was the prosecution’s contention that Merritt had killed the family on February 4, 2010.
The prosecution presented evidence to support the suppositions that Merritt owed Joseph McStay as much as $43,000 as a consequence of their business dealings together in the manufacturing and sale of high-end and large-scale decorative water fountains and artificial waterfalls, and that Merritt was embezzling from the business in the days just prior to the family’s disappearance. The prosecution’s theory was that Joseph McStay was cutting Merritt out of the business and that Merritt’s financial desperation and concern Joseph McStay was going to inform authorities about his thefts pushed Merritt to kill his business partner to silence him, and the circumstance necessitated that he kill the rest of the family. The prosecution bolstered its case with evidence showing Merritt was in financial straits; was gambling to excess; that he wrote checks to himself from the water feature company’s account and signed them using Joseph’s name, backdating checks written after the family’s disappearance to February 4; that he called a Quickbooks representative five days after the family’s disappearance in an effort to delete all information relating to check-writing activity on the business account; and that he shut his cell phone off at crucial times in the prosecution’s timeline relating to the murders. The prosecution further maintained that Merritt’s cell phone activity placed him in the desert area north of Victorville on February 6, 2010, at a time when prosecutors said Merritt was depositing the bodies of all four family members in shallow graves.
The McStay family lived in the north San Diego County community of Fallbrook, and the case had originally been dealt with by authorities there as a multiple missing persons case.
The skeletal remains of the family were found in November 2013, more than three years after the family’s disappearance. An investigation ensued and a year later, in November 2014, Merritt, who was in the midst of writing a book about the McStay Family disappearance, was arrested by members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for the murders.
The defense successfully countered much, though not all, of the prosecution’s case, which was laid out over more than two months in January, February and into March of this year. The defense in March, April and May offered a variant interpretation of the evidence in the case which held that the business prospects for Merritt’s and Joseph McStay’s mutual business was looking up at the time of the family’s disappearance. Moreover, McGee and Maline demonstrated, another of Joseph McStay’s business associates, Dan Kavanaugh, who had embezzled from the water feature business more than $207,000 – far more money than the prosecution alleged Merritt had stolen – was the more logical suspect in the family’s killings. In April, McGee, physically exhausted, collapsed, necessitating that Maline elicit testimony from several of the defense witnesses who McGee had spent months preparing to examine. Just prior to the defense resting, McGee had made a sufficient recovery to examine a crucial witness, Dr. Leonid Rudin, who had originally been retained by the prosecution to establish that it was Merritt’s truck seen leaving the McStay premises the fateful night of February 4, 2010. Under McGee’s guidance, Rudin told the jury that his in-depth analysis determined the vehicle seen in the neighbor’s security video was not Merritt’s truck, and that the prosecution grew disinterested in having him testify and did not call him to the witness stand after he made his findings clear in private communications with one of the prosecutors.
Despite the damage that McGee appeared to have inflicted on the prosecution’s case by his skillful presentation of Rudin’s testimony and its attendant evidence, Merritt was convicted.
Merritt was scheduled to be sentenced in September, with the judge who presided over the case, Michael A. Smith, constrained to two options: death or life without the possibility of parole. Over the summer, however, differences developed between Merritt and McGee. By the time for sentencing arrived, McGee had filed a request with the court to be relieved as Merritt’s co-counsel. Over prosecution objections, Judge Smith granted a delay in the sentencing as he pondered the implication of granting McGee’s request with regard to how Merritt’s loss of a main cog in his defense team would impact the appeal process that will inevitably follow his sentencing.
The grounds for McGee’s request are publicly unknown, beyond his assertion that a conflict had come about between him and his client. The detail of that conflict is in some fashion laid bare in sealed documents McGee submitted to Judge Michael A. Smith.
Without making those documents public or giving any hint as to their substance, Judge Smith earlier this month granted McGee’s request to be relieved as Merritt’s legal representative going forward. Maline is to remain as Merritt’s counsel and Merritt is now scheduled to be sentenced on January 17, 2020.
-Mark Gutglueck

Chino Fire Board Member Williams Officially Rebuked For The Third Time

Having endured two previous censures and constant repudiation by his elected colleagues, Chino Valley Fire Board Member Winn Williams was once again reprimanded last month for his conduct considered unbecoming to the district.
The third censure in eight months was approved by a 3-to-1 vote of the board on October 9, with Williams dissenting and board members John DeMonaco, Sarah Evinger-Ramos and Mike Kreeger voting in favor of placing yet another black check next to Williams’ name. Board member Harvey Luth was absent from the meeting.
The case against Williams, and Williams’ case against the district is a long one, with an origin that involves past administrators, previous board members, and charges by Williams that the district has been incompetently run and tainted by nepotism. District officials counter that Williams has sought, gained and is now using his public office not to benefit those who put their faith in him by electing him but to carry out a personal vendetta.
Williams’ early experience with the district was positive. In 1969, at the age of 21, Williams was hired as a firefighter with the district. At the age of 26, in 1974, he became the youngest fire captain in the 124-year history of the district and its forerunners.
Things moved off course, however, in 2000, when Williams suffered a back injury while on the job. Following an extended leave as a consequence of that injury, he retired in 2002.
In 2004, he was elected to serve a two-year term on the fire board. In 2008, at the age of 59, Williams initiated an effort to be rehired as a firefighter, asserting he had by that point recovered from his injury. When the district declined to rehire him, he engaged in a series of three legal actions to be reinstated as a firefighter, two in state court and one in federal court, all of which were ultimately unsuccessful. During that time, Williams consistently sought reelection to the fire board, not achieving success until last year, when he displaced longtime board member Ed Gray.
Williams maintains tense relations between him and other members of the board and the hostility of staff toward him manifested almost immediately upon his swearing in in December 2018, enmity he says is a partially an outgrowth of his having unseated Gray, with whom he says the other members of the board had a chummy relationship.
The four other members of the board – DeMonaco, Luth, Evinger-Ramos and Kreeger – contend that Williams is obsessed with his own personal issues relating to his inability to rehire with the district, which they say has kept him from focusing on the district’s current challenges and demands. Williams having thrice sued the district puts them in an awkward position, they say. His constant negativism with regard to the department’s personnel, in particular Fire Chief Tim Shackelford, prevents them from having even the semblance of productive discussions with him, they contend.
Williams makes note of the fact that Shackelford’s father, Ray Shackelford, was previously the district’s fire chief, and he contends that the district was and is poorly run by both. He says the district is not a meritocracy in which the most capable are promoted, but rather one in which favoritism in the form of cronyism and nepotism dominates.
District officials have made much of an incident that occurred very early in Williams’ most recent tenure as a board member in which he had gone to the district’s headquarters and asked the district’s board secretary, Sandra Heney, to photocopy documents relating to two of his lawsuits, including the original complaints, to provide them to the district’s “conflict resolution” consultant, Mike Messina, whom Williams had been asked to meet with and who, apparently, expressed interest in learning about the basis of Williams’ animus toward the district. District officials maintain that asking Heney to use district equipment to make the photocopies was an inappropriate personal use of the district’s assets. Williams’ interaction with Heney has formed the basis of much of the board’s dispute with Williams. Williams contends his requests of, attitude toward and comportment with Heney has been proper.
In February, the board censured Williams for violations of what the board said were district policy. Censures of elected officials are exceedingly rare, and usually are a move of last or near-last resort by members of a governing board against a colleague with whom they do not get along. The February censure of Williams appears to be the most rapid application of the censure process against an elected official in San Bernardino County history. In June, the board censured Williams once more.
This summer, the board declined DeMonaco’s request that Williams be censured again. At the board’s September 11 meeting, however, Williams openly stated Fire Chief Tim Shackelford was inadequate for the assignment he had been given, and he accused him of indolence in ensuring the firefighters under his command are trained and prepared to fight fires. Citing the so-called Star Fire in Chino Hills that burned 156-acres and a high-priced home on July 28, Williams irascibly intoned, “Our leadership are all paramedics first and firefighting a distant second.” He then leveled this invective toward Shackelford: “You’re a disgrace to this department, and a disgrace to this community, and every day you remain as chief, your incompetent leadership puts the residents of this community at risk.”
In approving the third censure, the board held that such public criticism of district staff is unacceptable, damaging to district employee morale and counter to the efficient operation of the district. The board also relied on a report from Shackelford that said Williams had unscheduled contact with district personnel, and that Williams had gone into non-public areas of the district’s administration building at 14011 City Center Drive on October 2.
Williams was accused of violating rules previously imposed on him limiting his privilege of speaking with or contacting employees of the district, despite his status as an elected board member overseeing the district.
Additionally, DeMonaco objected to what he said was Williams’ gratuitous physical contact with district personnel when he has spoken with them.“If they don’t want to shake your hand,” DeMonaco said, “you are not to touch them.”
Williams said his rivals on the board and Shackelford are “manufacturing” evidence against him. He said the censure carries no legal weight and that the district does not have the authority to limit his right to seek out information he needs to function in his role as a board member.
-Mark Gutglueck

Colton Joint Unified Elects To Replace Armendarez By Internal Promotion

The Colton Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees has decided to replace outgoing Superintendent Jerry Armendarez through an internal promotion.
Frank Miranda, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, will move into Armendarez’s role overseeing the district as of the date of his departure, which is January 1.
Armendarez was hired by the Santa Ana Unified School District earlier this month. A student in the Colton Joint Unified School District in the 1970s and 1980s before he went onto a career in education, Armendarez, after working as a classroom teacher elsewhere returned to Colton Joint Unified as a principal in 1999, then served as the district’s director of human resources from March 2004 until March 2007 and became the assistant superintendent of human resources in July 2008. He stayed in that assignment until October 2010, at which point he acceded to the superintendent’s spot.
Santa Ana convinced Armendarez, who is being paid an annual $239,241 salary presently along with another $1,500 in compensatory add-ons and $51,257 in benefits, to leave Colton Joint Unified by offering him $327,000 in salary, other pay of roughly $33,000 and benefits of $75,000, equating to total annual compensation of of $435,000.
Miranda is a former teacher and principal, and was the business services division head under Armendarez.
Miranda, Colton Joint Unified Board President Joanna Thoring-Ojeda said, offered the advantage of coming “from within our own team.” She said he will “ensure that the purpose and vision that comes from all of us collectively continues in the right direction.”

Highland To Repair Long Damaged Drain Near Base Of Rustic Arroyo

An expanse of rustic ground next to a residential neighborhood in Highland will undergo a transformation, the Highland City Council this week determined. On a unanimous vote, the panel approved an environmental and design service agreement to repair the Bledsoe Creek storm drain outlet near Highland Avenue and Rock Spring Lane proximate to the East Highland Ranch Homeowners Association orange grove.
The outlet was damaged by the extensive flooding that occurred in Highland in the winter of 2009/10.
The council agreed to pay Redlands-based Jericho Systems Inc. $23,435 with a 10 percent contingency amount of $2,344 to provide environmental services relating to the proposal. Those services are to include preparation of contract documents involving plans, specifications and cost estimates, and to provide technical assistance during the bid advertisement and construction phases of the project.
The project is to consist of the construction of approximately 175 feet of 36-inch pipe over a graded slope, the repairing of the inlet and outlet structures of the storm drain, placing a riprap pad at the base of the slope at the outlet structure and repairing the existing vertical slope west of the storm drain alignment.
Once the plans and specifications are drawn up, the city will seek bids for the construction activity, which is currently estimated to cost $100,000. The lowest responsible bidder will be chosen to complete the work.

San Bernardino Forest Winter Bald Eagle Counts End After 40 Years

To the disappointment of Southern California birdwatchers, the U.S. Forest Service this year will end its 40-year running bald eagle count at various locations throughout the San Bernardino National Forest.
With the Bald Eagle, the national bird and the most highly recognizable natural life symbol of the United States of America, facing a myriad of threats including encroaching urbanization and residual presence in the soil of DDT, a pesticide that caused the bird’s eggs to thin to the point that fewer than seven out of 100 eggs laid maintained their integrity long enough to hatch, the U.S. Government declared the bald eagle an endangered species in 1967. That had followed by 27 years the passage of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940.
The counts of eagles were initiated by the U.S. Forest Service in the areas around Big Bear Lake, Lake Arrowhead/Lake Gregory, Silverwood Lake, Lake Perris and Lake Hemet in 1979, all of which are ares where the birds of prey wintered, to provide a baseline on the species’ ongoing population numbers and survival. In 1995, the bald eagle was reclassified as a threatened species.
The counts were carried out on Saturday mornings one weekend per month from December until March. Announcement of the surveys and their results had become a staple in the Sentinel’s weekly wildlife column over the years.
“After 40 years of conducting monthly bald eagle counts during the winter at three sites, in recent years with the aid of the public, officials with San Bernardino National Forest are discontinuing the annual census effort,” according to Zach Behrens, who works with the U.S. Forest Service and is assigned to the San Bernardino National Forest. “Annual counts on the forest have shown the wintering population of the species remains level 12 years after the species was delisted under the Endangered Species Act in 2007. The number of wintering bald eagles in the mountains fluctuates, with the highest counts often reaching 12-15.”
Mountaintop District Ranger Marc Stamer said, “While it was a difficult decision to end this long-running program, the census is no longer needed from a scientific standpoint. We are excited to shift our focus and work with our partners to provide opportunities for the public to continue experiencing the thrill of seeing bald eagles in the forest.”
The forty-year scrutiny of the eagles culminated last year with a live nest camera having been installed near Big Bear Lake, from which two eagles cared for two eggs that had been laid, the eggs hatched and then one of the eaglets over the coming weeks froze to death in the aftermath of a spring arctic storm that moved through the area.
“Over the past two years, viewers have been able to see a pair of chicks hatch live online,” Behrens said of the Big Bear nesting area. “But with that excitement has come the sometimes harsh reality of nature: one chick in each pair has died during winter storms, bearing out the statistic of the 50 percent mortality rate for bald eagle chicks within the first year. The chicks face other threats, which include human presence around the nest. Bald eagles during nesting season are sensitive to human interference and may abandon nesting activities if feeling threatened. To that end, the annual closure of the area around the nest begins December 1. No entry, including snow play on the edges of the area, is allowed. The closure encompasses Grout Bay Picnic Area, the lower section of the Grays Peak Trail and surrounding national forest areas.”

Grace Bernal’s California Style: Black

I’ve never participated in it but here’s to Black Friday and those who seek it. And, thank you Coco Chanel for introducing black to the fashion world. Black is still a dominating favorite color specially for the cooler weather in California. Black is no longer for mourning but for celebrating.  Today there are so many variations of black, and it is the proper color for all the eating well be doing this weekend. Let’s face it Black is simple, chic, and slimming.  With that said gobble gobble, shop if you dare and wear “BLACK.”

“The best color in the world is the one that looks good on you.” Coco Chanel