(SAN BERNARDINO) – Proponents of three initiatives to bring reforms to corruption-ridden San Bernardino County have announced that, after a delay by the county’s legal representatives in providing the ballot titles and ballot statements for each of the three proposals, they are ready to move forward with collecting signatures. The Committee to Reform San Bernardino County Government hopes to have the petitions to professional signature gatherers by week’s end.
San Bernardino County is one of only 14 charter counties in California. As such, county residents can place initiatives on the ballot that, if approved, cannot be legally overruled or changed by its governing body. In the remaining 44 counties, the boards of supervisors can enact salary and benefit ordinances without voter approval and that are only subject to referendum. A county charter amendment, as this group is proposing, can only be enacted or changed by a majority vote of the residents.
San Bernardino County has been embroiled in scandal since the 1990s, thus earning its moniker of “California Most Corrupt County.” In 2000, former county administrative officer Harry Mays was sentenced to two years in federal prison in a series of corruption probes that also involved his successor, James Hlawek, and board of supervisors member Jerry Eaves, among others.
Since that time, a number of new scandals have hit the county, including the recent indictments of former board of supervisors chairman, Paul Biane, and former chiefs of staff, James Erwin and Mark Kirk in connections with the controversial $102 million Colonies settlement. Local developer and Colonies partner Jeff Burum was also indicted in connection with the settlement. He is accused of having bribed Biane, Kirk, and Erwin by donating to political action committees the prosecution claims were controlled by each of them. San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville recently tossed five of the seven charges against Burum and one charge against each of the other three. Prosecutors have appealed that ruling.
Earlier this year, former county assessor, Bill Postmus, plead guilty to three felonies and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. Former assistant assessor, Adam Aleman, accepted a plea deal in the case and is cooperating. Another former assessor employee, Rex Gutierrez, is currently serving state prison time. In addition, a second assessor’s office staffer, Greg Eyler, is awaiting trial. Erwin also served as an assistant assessor and faces charges as part of this scandal as well.
However, for the proponents of these initiatives, corruption is not the only factor in wanting to reduce supervisor salary, reform campaign finance rules, and reform the county employee pension system. San Bernardino County is the only county in California whose charter identifies the chairman of the board of supervisors as the “executive agent” of the county. In 2010, without voter approval, the county’s Board of Supervisors enacted an ordinance to override that provision of the charter and created an unelected position of County Executive Officer and transferred that power to someone not answerable to the voters. Additionally, the board included a “noninterference” clause that eliminates its ability to oversee county operations, including their ability to deal with fraud, waste, and corruption within county government.
Once the County Executive Officer position was created, several board members completely washed their hands of ongoing accusations of wrongdoing within the county. The most obvious example involved the county’s only county-owned hospital, Arrowhead Regional Medical Center (ARMC).
ARMC was on the verge of collapse, having received the most serious of warnings from regulators. It was on its final step before it could have been shut down. Medical Director Dr. Dev GnanaDev became a focal point in the complaints. It was discovered that he was responsible for administering over $21 million in contracts, some of which he awarded to himself. Upon reviewing his contract, it was also discovered that his contract required him to file annual statements of economic interest (Form FPPC 700); however, the supervisors had protected him by not codifying that requirement.
When an FPPC complaint was filed over GnanaDev’s non-disclosure of several interests and potential abuse by some board members in obtaining free services at the medical center, the supervisors again protected the doctor by advising the FPPC that no such requirement to report existed and that free medical care for themselves was one of their “benefits” under the county’s salary and benefit ordinance. Eventually, the medical director’s FPPC filing requirement was codified but at a level where he would not have to report his real estate interests near the hospital.
Amidst numerous accusations of patient abuse, free care being given to county supervisors, financial mismanagement, and malpractice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the hospital last year. The board continues to ignore the accusations and complaints, citing the ongoing FBI investigation as an excuse to leave the status quo even though the FBI investigation appears to be of limited scope without addressing all of the concerns including that of patient abuse and financial mismanagement. It is this type of head-in-the-sand approach to governing that has spurred proponents to promote a part-time board of supervisors with greatly reduced pay and benefits.
Currently, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors salaries and benefit packages range from a low of $249,000 per year to over $308,000 annually, reminding residents of last year’s Bell scandal. Furthermore, the board has reduced its weekly meetings to 26 per year, or in other words, half time. Between the board’s refusal to act on behalf of the citizens, take control of out-of-control county entities such as ARMC, and their reduced meeting schedule, proponents feel the lower salary and benefits package of $5000 per month is more than justified. Voters will make the final decision in June 2012.