By Mark Gutglueck
Shrouded in niceties and politesse, a rare show of disagreement between the county’s governmental leadership was on display this week when Chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors Dawn Rowe called for an examination of the collective response to the blizzard that hit the county’s mountain region late last and early this month.
For the first time in two decades and primarily at Rowe’s behest, the board flexed its authority in a way that pointedly outlined its theoretical oversight of the county sheriff, a position which for more than two-thirds of a century has been occupied by a personage deemed San Bernardino’s primary and most powerful political figure.
In the wake of an unrelenting 11-day blizzard that blanketed the county’s mountain communities in both the San Bernardino Mountains and San Bernardino National Forest/San Gorgonio Wilderness to the east and the San Gabriel and Angeles National Forest to the west in snow drifts reaching or exceeding ten feet in depth, Rowe used her autonomy as board chairwoman to have County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez undertake a thorough examination of how well the various arms of the county working in concert with three state agencies met the challenges the blizzard represented. Inherent in that review is a critique of the performance of the sheriff’s department and that of Sheriff Shannon Dicus, who played a central role in the response.
Dicus is the current holder of the political scepter passed down to him as the inheritor of the Frank Bland political machine. Bland was first elected in 1954, the last sheriff of San Bernardino County to defeat a sitting sheriff seeking reelection. Bland overcame the incumbent, Gene Mueller, in that election, and in so doing established a political dynasty that has remained intact for 69 years. Bland, who began as a political reformer battling the twin evils of whorehouses where the men of the county indulged themselves sexually outside the bonds of marriage and pinball parlors where teenagers distracted themselves from their homework only to himself become entangled in connections with the prostitution industry, remained as sheriff for 28 years over seven elected terms. In 1982, he anointed Floyd Tidwell as his successor, handing off to him the political machinery he had built over the years, consisting primarily of a wealth of political donors whose generosity in terms of producing electioneering funding rendered Tidwell, like Bland before him, undefeatable. Tidwell in 1990 handed the Bland political machine, along with his endorsement, off to Dick Williams, his undersheriff, in 1990, after Tidwell, too, became personally linked with the prostitution industry through his 1982 and 1986 campaign manager, Garry Brown. In 1994, Williams opted against running for reelection, choosing to endorse Gary Penrod, who used the Bland political machine to achieve an easy victory over opponents. Penrod remained as sheriff for 11 years, resigning as sheriff and recommending that the board of supervisors, which complied, appoint Rod Hoops. Hoops, with the advantage of the backing of the Bland political machine was elected outright in 2010 and in 2011, himself resigned, installing, again with his recommendation and the complicity of the board of supervisors, his handpicked successor, John McMahon. McMahon used the Bland political machine to achieve election in 2012 and reelection in 2016 and 2020. In 2021, he resigned, at which point the board of supervisors acceded to his wish that it replace him with Dicus.
Dicus now controls both the sheriff’s department and the political machine that originated with Bland and was passed down to him through the brotherhood of the intervening last five sheriffs.
In San Bernardino County, as a consequence of the culture of what is the largest county in the lower 48 states, the general mentality of its residents, county history, the immense fundraising facility of the Bland political machine, the overriding advantage that fundraising capability confers upon the incumbent sheriff, the traditional authority of the sheriff’s position itself and the deference shown to the sheriff by virtually every other elected official within the county, the sheriff in San Bernardino County is, hands down, the most powerful and influential officeholder in the county. Every sheriff in San Bernardino County over the last four generations has been able to effectuate with a flick of his wrist what other accomplished politicians throughout the county have not been able to achieve with the application of their entire bodies and souls. No candidate for political office in San Bernardino County since Bland was in place as sheriff has achieved election in the face of the sheriff’s opposition. In the same timeframe, every candidate that has carried the sheriff’s endorsement – for municipal, state or federal office – has won.
In the aftermath of substantial delays in clearing the main highways leading into the county’s mountain communities, travel restrictions both up and down the mountain, accompanying difficulties in getting provisions up to the stores across the mountaintops from both Big Bear’s incorporated and unincorporated districts at the far east end to Lake Arrowhead to Crestline and Mt. Baldy, the failure to open the blocked larger roads that connect with those highways for several days beyond the highways at last being opened and the inability to even reach the smaller and narrower roads off the beaten track that lead to chalets, homes cabins and shacks where individuals and families were snowed in or trapped for, in some cases, more than two weeks, Rowe this week ordered an examination of the performance of county officials in coming to terms with the challenges of the blizzard.
Rowe felt a double imperative to initiate that inquiry. In January, a little more than four years after she was appointed to serve out the last two years of James Ramos’s term as Third District supervisor following his election to the California Assembly in 2018 and two years after her election to the post in her own right, Rowe was selected by her board colleagues to serve as board chairwoman, a post which traditionally carries with it responsibility beyond that of mere supervisor, making her the overseer/ombudswoman of the entire county. In addition, as of last December, following the redistricting of county that took place in 2021 as a consequence of the 2020 Census, the Third District Rowe represents underwent a border change by which it absorbed all of the San Bernardino Mountain communities, including those to the western side of the mountains, which had formerly been part of the Second District. While the Second District encompasses Mount Baldy and Wrightwood lies within the First District, the Third District communities of Crestline, Valley of Enchantment, Lake Gregory, Cedar Glen, Cedarpines Park, Blue Jay, Lake Arrowhead, Arrowbear, Running Springs, Big Bear Lake, Big Bear City, Forest Falls, Angeles Oaks, Green Valley Lake, constitute close to 90 percent of San Bernardino County’s mountain communities.
At the Tuesday, March 14 Board of Supervisors meeting, County Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez aired for the board and the public a video pertaining to the storm and encapsulating the county’s effort to respond to it.
The video featured background music that alternated between being wistful and upbeat, with what looked like overhead footage shot from a moving airplane or helicopter showing a blanket of snow over the mountainous landscape; a ribbon of cleared mountain highway surrounded by snow against the steep mountainside; snowplows, snowblowers and bulldozers being put to use in clearing out snow, boxes of supplies being offloaded from a sheriff’s department helicopter, rows of emergency dispatch personnel at their workstations before computer screens, telephones and walkie talkies; a crew of firefighters being briefed; firefighters digging vehicles out of snowbanks, packages being delivered to residents in homes nearly buried in snow along with similar scenes, together with Rowe addressing the public at a press conference in which she is heard saying, “It is our number one priority to get our residents the food, medicine and access that they need.”
Hernandez then briefed the board and the public on what had occurred and where things stood.
“A storm this widespread and this intense in the rim communities has never occurred,” Hernandez said. “The county did not have the size and scale of plows and other specialized snow removal equipment immediately on hand to quickly clear through the snow. This storm included a particularly strong band of snowfall that spanned over five days through Crestline and Lake Arrowhead. The Mt. Baldy, Wrightwood and Big Bear areas received more snow than they have seen in many years, the volumes of which stressed our response and resources to the limit. Public works and county fire received notice that the incoming storm had become a blizzard warning approximately 24 hours before it hit. Once our teams were notified, they entered a high state of readiness and began to actively monitor the storm and pre-position resources. In the hours leading up to the blizzard, the [California] Office of Emergency Services activated a stormwatch duty officer. Over the weekend, once it was realized that the snowfall was greater than anticipated, the Office of Emergency Services activated the emergency operations center. After conditions became worse and additional storms continued to hit, a unified command structure was stood up, which assures a stronger and more coordinated response to public safety needs. Represented in the unified structure were the sheriff’s department, fire department, county fire, CalFire [the California Division of Forestry], Caltrans [the California Department of Transportation], public works, public health, the American Red Cross, Southern California Edison and the California Highway Patrol, in n addition to the emergency operations center, which included the California Department of Emergency Services. Simply put, all agencies, partners and resources working in a focused partnership.”
Hernandez continued, “In addition to its highest concern, the protection of human life and safety, the priorities for the unified command included making county-maintained roads passable for first responders, ensuring the availability of food, water, medical supplies and prescriptions, assisting utility companies with access and restoring power, establishing multiple community resources, including commodity points of distribution, a prescription delivery service, a donation program, waste disposal sites. We also assisted residents in snow removal from private roads and other non-county roads. A storm this widespread and intense in the Rim Communities has never occurred. Therefore, the county did not have the size and scale of plows and other specialized removal equipment to quickly clear through the snow. “As for the band that struck the Crestline and Lake Arrowhead areas,” Hernandez continue, “we are working to understand whether adequate preparation was accomplished and if there would have been any way to ensure a smooth and quick return to normal. County leadership takes this incident very seriously and looks to learn from this experience to better understand how we can respond to future events. We recognize that this storm event has been an impact on the lives of the residents in the affected areas and believe that there are key takeaways from this situation that will be discussed and implemented for future response events.”
Hernandez said, “For now, there is still work to be done. We are assessing current conditions, looking at the continued clearing of non-county maintained roads, locating areas with high snow berms, rallying teams of volunteers to assist with digging out homes and vehicles and establishing local assistance centers, which bring key resources and agencies to our communities. I appreciate the amazingly hard work and dedication of our county staff. We believe that working together with our partners residents and volunteer groups, there is much to learn and prepare for future extreme weather emergencies.”
Rowe said, “My heart goes out to everyone in the mountain communities who has suffered and continues to suffer. I commend and appreciate everyone on the county’s team for their hard work in responding to this natural disaster. There are many who have been working around the clock in very difficult conditions. However, we clearly have people in the community who feel that the county’s response fell short. I have concerns that the county could have been more effective in some key areas. I think we have to ask questions in four key areas as we move forward. What did we do right? What can we do better? What is the institutional knowledge that we’ve learned? How do we ensure that we are prepared for the future? Mr. CEO, I’d like to direct you to lead a comprehensive examination of how the county responded to this crisis and how to respond to emergencies in general and to report back to the board and the public, no later than six months if that’s doable from your perspective, preferably sooner, the findings of a detailed and innovative plan moving forward. The county is especially prone to natural disasters, as we know from our geographic size and the difference of our geographic locations from our mountains to the desert. We regularly face wildfires and floods. We were struck by a series of earthquakes four years ago, and we will have more to come, for sure. We had to respond to the horrific terrorist attacks in the past. Now we can add blizzards to that list. There is no reason for this county to not be the best prepared in the nation and to have a response both on paper and in practice.”
Rowe said, “My deepest thanks to everyone who has been on the front lines without rest helping our mountain residents.”
Rowe’s request of Hernandez reflected the perspective of the thousands of mountain residents who in the first four or five days of the blizzard saw little in the way of governmental response to the general situation on the mountain and their plight, efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, by those acting in an official capacity to prevent individuals and groups unaffiliated with the government to provide relief, and the initial ineffectiveness of the combined governmental assistance [effort] together with delays in rendering that aid.
A huge issue was, multiple sources have told the Sentinel, the triple inability of San Bernardino County officials to first recognize the depth/scope of the problems, second that the official response at least initially was inadequate and third that private or non-governmental assistance efforts that were under way or being attempted were effective and needed to be further facilitated. This was exacerbated by San Bernardino County officials refusing early offers of mutual aid from outside governmental entities such as Los Angeles County and orders given to private charity and relief efforts to desist or stand down.
Ultimately, San Bernardino County officials, working in conjunction with the California Department of Transportation, the California Office of Emergency Services, the California National Guard and the California Highway Patrol formulated and coordinated a generally effective response, but that took more than a week and in certain locations up the mountain more than two weeks to effectuate.
According to Sheriff Shannon Dicus, he did a helicopter tour of the San Bernardino Mountains on March 2, which was fully nine days after the first storm in a series of at least six storms that ultimately manifested as a blizzard. In the intervening time, according to mountain residents and outside relief volunteers who defied the situational and meteorological challenges to place themselves on the mountain top by either flying there or using vehicles outfitted to allow them to traverse the snow and ice covered shuttered roads up the mountain, neither the sheriff’s department nor the fire department had any significant presence in the mountain communities and no program of assistance or aid ongoing at that time.
On Tuesday, February 28, volunteers with the California Disaster Air Response Team were informed of the difficulties being experienced in the San Bernardino Mountains. Of particular concern at that point was a critical shortage of medicine. Initially, the leadership of the California Disaster Air Response Team, known by its acronym CalDART, was informed that the mountain roads were to be opened shortly. Nevertheless, consideration was given toward making preparation fly in supplies, medicine and food in particular, using a seaplane that would land on Lake Arrowhead. By the next day, with donations of food and medicine accumulating in San Bernardino but no means of getting them up to those in need because the roads remained closed and no prospect of them being opened in the short term existed, the circumstance on the ground worsened with the collapse of the roof at the Goodwin & Son’s Market in Crestline, which had been a key source for food for residents on the western side of the San Bernardino Mountains who were able to walk to it. Ultimately, CalDART volunteers made a determination that they would use helicopters in the supply effort they had resolved to mount, given the continuing road closures. On March 2, following a reconnaissance flight, the California Disaster Air Response Team, after hastily arranging to have the contributed supplies massed at San Bernardino Community Hospital, initiated supply flights when a break in the storm offered sufficiently clear weather to operate. Two flights that day brought approximately one ton of cargo to the Mountains Community Hospital helipad on the mountain.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of executing a dozen or more such supply flights over the next several days as weather would permit, CalDART called upon one of its volunteer helicopter pilots, Micha Muzio, who resided in the San Bernardino Mountains and was thus familiar with the lay of the land and was thus knowledgeable about landing zones and capable of orienting out-of-the-area pilots to the mountain locations and terrain, to assist in the effort. Because the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had imposed travel restrictions, however, Muzio was not able to come down off the mountain. Ultimately, Muzio at 3 a.m. on March 3, when he was able to get through the California Highway Patrol /sheriff’s department closure, Muzio made his way down to San Bernardino. That morning the California Disaster Aerial Response Team began what its volunteer members hoped would be an airlift effort in earnest. Because the Mountain Communities Hospital helipad was the location where other flights into the mountains – particularly those involving the belated flights of sheriff’s department helicopters – were to take place, CalDART, because it did not want to overwhelm the already swamped landing zone coordinator at Mountains Community Hospital with further complications, sought an alternative landing location, ultimately settling on using the Goodwin & Son’s Market parking lot, where a local volunteer, Zach Oliver, was on hand to provide crowd control.
A half hour past noon on March 3, however, the sheriff’s department ordered the California DART to stand down. Reports as to why that order was given were varied and contradictory. One report held that the declaration of the San Bernardino Mountains as a disaster zone resulted in an automatic suspension of flights over and to the area. Another version was that sheriff’s department officials were upset that a landing zone had been established in a town parking lot. Word spread among the hundreds of people who had come to the Goodwin’s Market parking lot, mostly by trudging several miles over the snow-covered landscape, that sheriff’s department commanders did not want their department to be upstaged by other entities in the provision of emergency services and supplies.
Many mountain residents experienced having their families separated or divided by the circumstance that grew out of the blizzard or a combination of the circumstance and restrictions imposed by the government. In hundreds of cases, individuals who were employed down the mountain and who routinely commuted to work in the morning and back home at night, found themselves trapped where they were when the roads were closed. Some workers thus were unable to return home and for days had to remain down the mountain, either overnighting at a hotel, motel or with family and friends and in other cases sleeping in their cars. Some people were unable to get down the mountain to get to work.
In multiple cases, husbands and wives were separated for days and in some cases for more than a week-and-a-half. In at least two cases, children ended up stranded at home without their parents. In one of those instances, a 12-year-old, i.e., a sixth grader, had to look after her siblings for three days before an adult made it back to the family home.
Later, after the opening of the main highways to the mountain communities but before any, many or most of the roads that lead off those main highways were cleared of snow by snowplows, some were able to make their way down into the valley below but were then unable to come back up the mountain. This led to mountain residents having to make what could be some very tough decisions. In some cases, mountain residents on the western side sojourned down on Highway 18 all the way to where the California Highway Patrol in conjunction with the sheriff had set up a barrier at Upper Old Waterman Canyon Road. Those who went south and below that barrier could drive to San Bernardino and beyond but would not be able to return north beyond the barrier. Large numbers of people elected to drive to the barrier, park off the road north of the barrier and then either walk down to a market in San Bernardino to pick up groceries and supplies or phone for family, friends or acquaintances they knew in that area to come up from or through San Bernardino to pick them up and take them to a store and then return them to the barrier. The distance from the barrier at Upper Waterman Canyon Road to the most common destination, the Stater Brothers Market on 40th Street in San Bernardino was 6.4 miles. Thus many mountain residents, to keep themselves in food and domestic supplies, needed to walk a distance of 12.8 miles, both down and up the San Bernardino Mountain foothills grade. The county did not offer a shuttle service from the barrier at the Highway 18/Upper Waterman Canyon Road junction down into San Bernardino and back.
Throughout much of their ordeal, Mountain residents found themselves coordinating their own neighborhood assistance efforts in an atmosphere that was absent any such assistance provided by the government. In the more remote areas, which county and state officials were unable to reach at all during the first week and in a majority of cases through to the end of the second week of the blizzard, elderly and less mobile residents were dependent upon their younger, more hardy, intrepid and daring neighbors who were willing to defy not only the elements but the authorities by venturing out to get supplies and return. The authorities, however, were less than fully accommodating of such efforts. In some cases, the Sentinel is told, individuals who made it to places where food was being distributed were informed that there were strict quotas on how much food they would be given. Even when those individuals told those distributing the food and supplies that they were there to pick supplies up for other households than their own, they would not be provided with anything beyond that amount in a single household quota. In multiple instances, this necessitated return trips to the points of distribution.
Unbeknownst to authorities, a relative handful of mountain residents with specially outfitted all-terrain vehicles were guardedly defying the travel restrictions placed upon the general public. Despite the road closures and barriers that were in place, some people were making trips back and forth between the mountain communities and San Bernardino, in some cases on a near daily – usually late at night or very early in the morning – basis. One such individual, who resides on the west side of the San Bernardino Mountains, was described to the Sentinel as having “a real talent for getting around things like that.” In his case, he managed to pick up food and supplies, including medicine and prescriptions, for over two dozen families/households.
Over the last two weeks, those individuals living in the mountain communities who were willing to defy the civil authorities, up to and including being arrested, to ensure that their family members and neighbors did not starve or were not forced to go without their medical prescriptions or life-sustaining provisions, even as those civil authorities were demonstrating their own inability to keeping the roads into and out of the community and lifelines they represented open, have at this point taken on the cachet of folk heroes, modern day Robin Hoods defying King John within the snow-covered confines of San Bernardino National Forest.
Logically, county officials placed a higher priority on clearing snow and ice from the major highways leading up to, between and into the mountain communities such as Highway 18, Highway 138, Highway 330 and Highway 138 and then moved onto the wider streets or roadways those Highways linked up with and then onto the narrower roads and streets that led to the more isolated, stand-alone neighborhoods. On March 3, Sheriff Dicus said, “[O]our state highways are like arteries. Then you go down to county roads, which are like veins, and you go to individual services and homes that are like capillaries. Those services and homes that people need to access are blocked by walls of snow. So, even though we’re making progress, we still have to knock down those walls, get peoples’ driveways cleared, get businesses cleared, and a number of things. We’re making huge strides in that area.”
Once things were coordinated, the county made fair progress toward opening the major highways and getting the streets and road immediately accessible to them cleared, though it areas such as Twin Peaks, Cedarpines Park, Cedar Glen and Valley of Enchantment, smaller roads are still blocked and have proven accessible only by means such as Snow Cats. In certain parts of Crestline, streets remained impassible for two solid weeks.
By the first week of March, accounts appearing in local, regional and national publications contained text or headlines suggesting that there were delays in the rendering of assistance to trapped or snowed-in residents or reports which were in some fashion critical of the quality of local government’s planning for or response to the storms. This prompted responses in which officials downplayed or denied such suggestions. Assemblyman Tom Lackey, whose district includes the San Bernardino Mountain communities, noted that the driving factor in what had occurred was the weather, which was beyond the ability of government to control. San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey, while acknowledging that his agency and others were caught flatfooted at a certain, said no one could have anticipated that multiple weather systems stacked one upon the other would descend on the region in such short order. On March 8, Sheriff Dicus, piqued by the stinging criticism of his department and the team of the other county and state emergency responders of which he and his department were central parts, responded in an interview with the San Bernardino Sun in which he pointed out that the perception that enough wasn’t being done in reaction to the blizzard was a consequence of the consideration that his department was actively engaged in quiet but effective action rather than in a public relations gambit of flashily promoting and publicizing what it was doing and accomplishing.
“When we’re out there trying to do things, the last thing we are doing is taking pictures of us doing our job,” Dicus told Sun reporter Brian Rokos. Whatever delays that were occurring as a consequence of the persistence of ice and snow on the ground that came about as the result of sustained storm conditions, his department and the other agencies had provided, Dicus asserted to Rokos an “immediate… response… in terms of doing what’s important — protecting human life.”
In San Bernardino County, there has long been a culture and code by which criticism, valid or invalid, of the sheriff as a person and the sheriff’s department as an institution is considered heresy.
The Blizzard of ‘23 triggered a litany of such criticisms. Some of those stand as serious indictments of San Bernardino County officialdom.
Among the county’s sheriff’s deputies are ones who live in the San Bernardino Mountains. Some of those, however, expressed frustration with how the department had virtually no presence in that area during the first week of the Blizzard. When personnel in sufficient numbers reached those spots where they could do the most good, however, in many cases they lacked the equipment to be able to render the assistance they were there to provide. Twin Peaks, an unincorporated community of 2,826 people about four miles west south west from Lake Arrowhead and five miles east from Crestline, was the one location in the entirety of the county hardest hit by storm, with 786 calls for assistance, many of them desperate, having come in between February 22 and March 3. In reaction, the sheriff’s department by March 2 had temporarily transferred 15 of its personnel to Twin Peaks. Yet only one of the eight Snow Cats that were available to the sheriff’s department and fire department, was on location in Twin Peaks. Tracked vehicles that are not dependent upon wheels to motivate, Snow Cats have proven to be the one means of transportation that can function efficiently on the mountain terrain in the aftermath of the blizzard.
Three days into the blizzard, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department offered to provide 25 equipped personnel to assist with relief, supply and rescue operations. San Bernardino County turned that offer down.
As the storm conditions continued and worsened, many of those impacted residents and those informed outsiders who were on hand to see what was going on and how San Bernardino County officials were flailing in their efforts to get a grip on the situation did not remain silent.
After the Sheriff’s Department ordered the California Disaster Airlift Response Team to stand down in the very early afternoon of March 3, the stockpiles of donated food, propane and domestic supplies continued to pour into the holding place at San Bernardino Community Hospital, from which it was to be loaded into helicopters and flown to the mountaintop. But because of the stand down order, that day’s flight time, during which the clouds had thinned, making flights into Crestline and other locations would have been possible, were squandered. Mountain residents, who had previously been told that supplies were to continue to come their way via CalDART helicopters that day, found themselves waiting in vain for flights that never arrived. When those who had hiked, in many cases five, six or seven miles in the snow to Goodwin & Son’s Market with the expectation of getting rations to sustain them for several more days, were told that the sheriff’s department had ordered the discontinuation of the flights, many became livid. By late that afternoon, sheriff’s department dispatch switchboards were overloaded with calls from residents demanding explanations, accusing Dicus and his executive staff of having a laissez-faire attitude toward crucial issues of life and death and pleading for a rescission of the stand down order. Simultaneously a group of residents reached out to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, with some of those saying that if the declaration of the San Bernardino County Mountain Districts as a disaster area indeed carried with it an automatic and blanket suspension of civilian flights over and into the area, the governor should at once waive that provision of the declaration to allow the fights to continue.
With the convoys of trucks and other vehicles escorted by the sheriff’s department, the county fire department and the county public works department succeeding at that point of merely putting a dent into the supply deficit in the mountain communities and the affected population growing more irate by the minute, the sheriff’s department relented, allowing the CalDART to resume deliveries, pursuant to the face-saving requirements that those landings take place at the Mountain Community Hospital helipad or an alternate landing site of a field adjoining a local school under the condition that two ground observers with safety vests and radios allowing them to communicate with the pilots be present at the landing zones when the helicopters set down.
Flights resumed, such that the California Disaster Airlift Response Team had succeeded in bringing in a total of a tone-and-a-half of supplies. On March 4 and March 5. however, the weather, consisting primarily of dense clouds around the landing site, shut down the aviation operations. With the accumulation of supplies at San Bernardino Community Hospital but no immediately readable means of transporting them, CalDART’s management arranged to move the mountain relief operation base from San Bernardino Community Hospital Helipad to San Bernardino International Airport, while simultaneously seeking to recruit as many of the organization’s pilots and helicopters as were available to get the supplies to their delivery destination as rapidly as possible when the next break in the weather allowed that to take place, before any further bureaucratic obstruction to the effort could manifest.
On Tuesday, March 6, clouds on the mountains continued to limit how many flights could be made. California Disaster Airlift Team members, however, were lining up two Robinson 44, two H125 and one each 600N, 407, 145, EC125 and a 206L4 model helicopters, along with a total of ten pilots to begin a cargo transportation effort in earnest, weather permitting. Muzio gave those pilots a crash course on the landing sites, the lay of the land around them and other geographical and aeronautical peculiarities of the mountain district.
On March 7, with Ron Lovick, a retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department helicopter pilot, serving as the CalDART incident commander, intensive operations in the face of relatively clear skies began, with nine flights carrying 7,218 pounds of supplies that day. The next day, March 8, the California Disaster Airlift R Team conducted 13 flights, carrying roughly 7,100 pounds of cargo up to the mountaintop.
At that point, with substantial ground transportation having been reestablished and nine of the ten pilots recruited for effort and eight of the nine helicopters that were at the ready having been utilized, what had been dubbed Operation Mountain Strong was halted after a total of 37 flights carrying roughly 21,000 pounds of supplies to their destinations in the mountains.
In the same timeframe, the effort to clear the San Bernardino Mountain road system was progressing slowly, hampered by snowdrifts as high as 10 feet in some areas. Repeatedly, the depth of those drifts completely covered and obscured vehicles parked along the side of roads, and there were recurrent instances of the snowplows hitting them. For that reason and other complications narrower and less-traveled roads off the beaten track in more remote areas were not and have not yet been cleared. Additionally, roads not maintained by the county have been in virtually all cases been ignored.
With the county effort in that regard having come up short, a call went out to Dave “Heavy D” Sparks and Dave “Diesel Dave” Kiley, two of the so-called Diesel Brothers, for assistance. The Diesel Brothers are the prominent characters in an eponymous reality show that follows the activity of a group of 20-to-40 year-olds from Utah who modify, drive, operate and otherwise utilize pick-up trucks, off-road vehicles and heavy equipment. Sparks and Kiley were persuaded to bring snowplows and snowblowers to the San Bernardino Mountains to clear roads and streets in the rustic, snow-covered residential and lesser-populated areas of the district. They did, accompanied by a film crew that documented much of what they were doing. In the course of their filming, they made inroads on the problems local mountain residents were facing.
There were reports that some San Bernardino officials, including those in both the sheriff’s department and the fire department, were not, exactly, overjoyed at the presence of the Diesel Brothers in the San Bernardino Mountains. This discomfiture was based less upon concern that they might interfere with the county and state road clearing effort than upon the prospect that the reality show performers would steal the glory from the county and state government effort to alleviate the problem with impassible roads. Though the sheriff’s department could have used its authority to prevent the Diesel Brothers from engaging in the activity it did by ordering to desist because of potential interference with the county emergency response effort, it reportedly elected not to do so for four reasons. The first was that the entertainers might actually prove effective at clearing several of the roads in the area. The second was that the department did not want to risk the negative publicity that shutting down a television crew with a national following might generate. The third was that doing so might draw attention to the previous decision, in the initial days of the blizzard, to turn down the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s offer of assistance. The fourth was that it was Rowe who had invited the Diesel Brothers to work their magic on the mountaintop.
“I was responsible for getting Heavy D Sparks and the Diesel Brothers out when we realized that the snow volume was greater than anything we had equipment for,” Rowe said at the March 14 board of supervisors meeting. “Heavy D and the Diesel Brothers, who live in the Utah area, had equipment that was specialized for those large snow responses and they mobilized within hours and came down. Our incident commander, Chief Munsey, was able to inject them into the team and have them help our residents.”
It is not altogether clear whether Rowe recognized the full implication of, first, her action in bringing the Diesel Brothers in to undertake an assignment normally left to the county’s traditional team of public safety/public service/public works functionaries, which includes the sheriff as a key, indeed the primary, member nor of her call for Hernandez to carry out a review of the performance of that same team of functionaries. What is clear is that by her action, Rowe has created a degree of tension between the board of supervisors, the body which is by the terms of the county charter the dominant political entity within the county governmental hierarchy, and the sheriff, who in reality is practically, historically and by tradition the dominant political entity within the county governmental hierarchy, not seen for nearly two decades.
Certainly, the challenge to Sheriff Dicus’s implicit authority issued by Rowe with her call on Tuesday for an investigation of the performance of the county’s first responders is not as pointed nor direct as the challenge the entire board of supervisors issued to then-Sheriff Gary Penrod in 2002. Nevertheless, she has crossed a line whereby she has asserted her authority – and by extension the authority of the entire board of supervisors – as being co-equal to or perhaps even exceeding that of Dicus.
The board of supervisors’ 2002 challenge of Penrod – and that of the office of sheriff, generally – did not end particularly well for the supervisors. It is yet to be seen how much damage might be visited upon Rowe and her board colleagues over what she touched off this week.
In July 2002, the board of supervisors – then composed of Bill Postmus, Jon Mikels, Dennis Hansberger, Fred Aguiar and Jerry Eaves – adopted an ordinance empowering itself, as a body, to reprimand and remove all county officers, including the county treasurer, county assessor, the district attorney and the sheriff. The ordinance gave the board the authority to reprimand and, pursuant to a four-fifths or unanimous vote of all five of its members, to remove from office any elected county official other than a supervisor for a stated cause upon first providing the officeholder to be removed a written statement of the alleged grounds for such removal, and giving the official a reasonable opportunity to be heard in the way of explanation or defense of that action or actions.
Penrod, as the sheriff, filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the ordinance and seeking an injunction against its enforcement. After the San Bernardino County Superior Court granted a preliminary injunction against the ordinance as it was drafted, the board of supervisors adopted a redrafted ordinance which omitted the reprimand provision but retained the removal provision, adding language to clarify that the ordinance could not be applied to interfere with the independent and constitutional and statutory investigative and prosecutorial functions of the sheriff and the district attorney.
After Penrod filed a first amended complaint in June 2003, the granted the county board of supervisors’ motion for summary judgment, finding the removal provision to be constitutional and valid. Penrod appealed that decision, but the California, Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Two in Riverside in 2005 upheld the lower court decision that the ordinance was constitutional and valid.
While the board of supervisors prevailed with regard to sustaining the ordinance, it paid a rather steep political price.
Less than a year after the ordinance was passed, Mikels was voted out of office, replaced by Paul Biane. That was the end of Mikels’ political career.
In 2003, for reasons unrelated to the ordinance, Aguiar left the board of supervisors to go to work in the governor’s office. He was replaced by his wife, who voted as supervisor to seek to continue to defend against Penrod’s lawsuit and sustain the ordinance. She did not seek to remain in office in the following year’s election. From that point forward, the Aguiars have found themselves out of elective politics.
In 2004, Eaves, despite being one of Penrod’s political allies, was convicted of violating state conflict of interest laws and resigned from office. That ended his political career.
While Hansberger survived the 2004 election, in 2008 he was voted out of office.
In 2009, Postmus, who had left the board of supervisors to successfully seek the position of county assessor in 2006, was forced to resign from office. That was the end of his political career. He was charged criminally with regard to his action in office while assessor in 2009 and in 2010 was charged with crimes relating to his time in office while supervisor. In 2011, he was convicted on 14 felony counts.
In 2010, Biane, who upon being elected to the board of supervisors in 2002 had supported the county’s defense against Penrod’s suit and the effort to sustain the ordinance giving the board of supervisors the authority to remove the sheriff from office, was voted out of office. That was the end of his political career. In 2011 he was indicted. He went to trial on the political corruption charges that had been lodged against him in the 2011 indictment and was, after a nearly eight-months-long trial, acquitted.
On Tuesday, both Supervisor Joe Baca Jr. and Supervisor Curt Hagman sought to signal, subtly, there disavowal of the action Rowe had taken in ordering Hernandez to carry out the inquiry into the county’s handling of the Blizzard response.
The call for the examination was not made on a vote of the entire board but was rather ordered up by Rowe pursuant to her authority as board chairman. The prospect of the entire board endorsing an investigation into the performance of the county’s public safety divisions, in particular the sheriff’s department, would appear doubtful.
Baca tried to be diplomatic about it.
“I want to thank Madam Chair Rowe for her leadership on the response to the mountain community,” he said, avoiding saying anything which might be construed as support for the inquiry she had called for. He then emphasized his belief that the county’s response to the mountain blizzard was more than adequate.
“We’ve done a great job, and all of our team members have done a great job,” he said. “Number one has been safety of the residents, making sure our mountain residents are safe. I know it was a very challenging, a very trying, time for many people. I want to thank those for their patience. I saw our staff committed. They were boxing dry goods for our residents. They were working frantically to make sure our residents were taken care of. I just want to thank all our employees for the County of San Bernardino, their commitment and dedication in the public service to all of our residents. They did a great job.”
Hagman said he had personally witnessed “both our administrative and public safety teams, so many different agencies that came out, the mutual aid system, Chief Munsey, Sheriff Dicus and other departments were a part of making sure that every resource that we had [and] were requesting and other things to get up the mountain to work this once-in-the-history type of event. A lot of people are praising the county — and they should — and a lot of people are second-guessing a lot of things, but to respond to a natural disaster like the way our team did, it just makes us proud that we are doing everything.”
Hagman credited the county’s public safety employees with working “a hundred hours a week. I’m just very proud of the response. Each time there’s a new disaster about this county we rise to the occasion and take care of it as best we can.”
The Sentinel sought to engage with Sheriff Dicus with regard to the perception that the county’s public safety divisions, first responders and those involved in assisting the mountain community residents in the face of the blizzard had failed to coordinate adequately and in a timely manner with the myriad volunteers who had offered their assistance.
Mara Rodriguez, the sheriff’s department’s public information officer told the Sentinel, “The Sheriff is not available. However, I can provide you some information about the efforts by the volunteer group to provide food and supplies during the storm. The group was very successful in getting supplies together to aid those in the mountain communities during the February/March storm. The initial issue was a helicopter was attempting to land at a location that was already in use for other public aid. The sheriff’s department aided in securing a safe and workable landing area at a mountain hospital so that the supplies could be utilized by those on the mountain. Also, an additional landing point was secured for additional supplies to be brought in, this time at a school field. The efforts and supplies from these volunteers were not denied. We recognize the importance of community members helping community members and appreciate all the efforts made.”