San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris hears news about the city’s finances at a council meeting July 16. The city filed for bankruptcy protection Aug. 1.
San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris hears news about the city's finances at a council meeting July 16. The city filed for bankruptcy protection Aug. 1. (Gabriel Luis Acosta Staff Photographer)
Financial meltdowns. Historic elections. Convictions. Corruption. Contamination.

From street corners to corner offices and courtrooms in between, San Bernardino County residents and their elected leaders made some big headlines in 2012.

The story of the year erupted in the heart of the county when the endless political warfare in San Bernardino left blood on the hands of officials as the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in August.

San Bernardino lined up behind Stockton and Mammoth Lakes as the third California city this year to file for bankruptcy protection.

The fallout was widespread.

City departments absorbed deep cuts as officials bore the burden of a $45.8 million budget deficit. More than 180 employees have been laid off or voluntarily left.

Among a host of service cuts that has yet to hit the bone, the city plans to close its three library branches, leaving Norman F. Feldheym Central Library to stand alone.

The city almost lost its famous Route 66 Rendezvous.

The California Public Employee Retirement System is poised to sue San Bernardino in state court over missed pension payments that could balloon to a projected $19.8 million by the end of fiscal 2012-13.

Only a stay by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Riverside stands between CalPERS - the city's largest creditor - and San Bernardino.

As officials in San Bernardino wrestled with bankruptcy, federal agents were preparing a raid in Chino Hills to foil an alleged terrorist plot.


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They swarmed a car near an apartment complex and arrested three Inland Empire men who they say wanted to join al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

The men in their early 20s - Ralph Deleon of Ontario, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales of Upland and Arifeen David Gojali of Riverside - planned to join 35-year-old Sohiel Omar Kabir of Pomona, who had traveled to Afghanistan and was gathering contacts from terrorist groups, authorities said.

The four men were arrested and face charges of providing material support to terrorists. They have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors found no shortage of work this year in the county.

They want the California Supreme Court to review an Oct. 31 appellate court decision not to reinstate bribery charges against high-profile developer Jeff Burum.

Burum is accused of conspiring with former county officials to settle a lawsuit for $102 million with his Colonies Partners LP investor group in exchange for bribes.

The county officials charged are former county Supervisor Paul Biane, former Assistant Assessor Jim Erwin and Mark Kirk, former chief of staff for Supervisor Gary Ovitt.

Burum and the others deny wrongdoing.

The men joined a countywide parade of politicos who garnered news coverage in 2012.

Former Upland Mayor John Pomierski in August was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty to a bribery charge.

He resigned as mayor in February 2011. Pomierski was named in 10 counts of an indictment in March that year. He pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement to one count of bribery. The other counts were dropped.

Electoral shake-ups

The November election added two first-time members to the county Board of Supervisors.

Former tribal chairman James Ramos defeated incumbent Neil Derry in the District 3 race.

Ramos is the first of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to be elected to the Board of Supervisors.

Robert Lovingood defeated Apple Valley Councilman Rick Roelle in the District 1 supervisor race.

The Board of Supervisors changeover marked but one spot on a political landscape that shifted under congressional realignment.

Voters on election night booted Rep. Joe Baca from Congress and handed the win to his fellow Democrat, state Sen. Gloria Negrete-McLeod.

Baca, D-San Bernardino, was first elected to the House of Representatives in a 1999 special election.

He blamed his loss in the newly drawn 35th Congressional District - which includes communities in the Chino Valley, Pomona, Fontana and Ontario - on outside spending by Independence USA, a Super PAC reportedly connected with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

The Super PAC spent roughly $3.3 million to send McLeod, D-Montclair, to Congress.

"It was a race that didn't get a huge amount of outside attention until the end," said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. "It was quite possible that she was running close to him anyway. There was no question that (the Super PAC) hurt him."

In another major race, Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea, defeated Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton in the new 31st Congressional District that ranges from Upland to Redlands.

While some officials were ousted from office, others simply left.

Sheriff Rod Hoops abruptly announced on Nov. 7 he was retiring to take a job with a think tank in Washington, D.C. His last day is Monday.

The Board of Supervisors on Dec. 18 appointed Assistant Sheriff John McMahon to replace him.

Movement at the higher levels of office overshadowed the mayoral election in Rialto, where veteran Councilwoman Deborah Robertson defeated longtime colleague Ed Scott to become that city's first black mayor.

Taking responsibility

Robertson takes the post in a city that will take a cut of an agreement among nine companies and the Defense Department to pay about $50 million to clean 160 acres of contaminated water on the north side.

The agreement announced in early December was not the only landmark decision related to contamination in San Bernardino County.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board voted 3-2 to approve a

$3.6 million fine on San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. related to chromium 6 contamination of groundwater in Hinkley.

It was the first fine the board imposed on PG&E in the 27 years the water regulatory agency has been involved with the Hinkley contamination.

Prosecutors for the water board alleged that PG&E failed to comply with an order to contain groundwater contamination by Dec. 31, 2008, and that the violation continued for about three years.

In October, 200 Hinkley families opted for a PG&E buyout offer on their properties rather than accepting an in-home water-purification system or staying on bottled water provided by PG&E.

PG&E was among a handful of those whose actions were called into question in connection with major projects, including an airport developer and the leaders of a desert city.

Scot Spencer was ordered by a federal judge on Oct. 19 to vacate San Bernardino International Airport and his business interests there.

The airport developer in 2005 came to notoriety when it was shown that the airport hired him with the knowledge that he served time in federal prison.

In June, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury accused the city of Victorville of fiscal mismanagement that saw losses in the millions and possible violations of state law.

The Grand Jury said in its annual report that the city entered into hangar and plant projects at Southern California Logistics Airport that cost Victorville millions, including an unaccounted-for $13 million.

The city said the report did not show evidence of corruption, fraud or other crimes.

Fire, violence, marijuana

But plenty of crime filled the pages of local newspapers.

In September, jurors recommended that Rickie Lee Fowler receive the death penalty for the 2003 Old Fire that scorched more than 90,000 acres in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Prosectors said the fire led to the deaths of five men.

The same jury on Aug. 15 convicted Fowler of five counts of first-degree murder and two counts of arson in connection with the fire. It burned more than 1,000 structures.

Fowler said he did not start the fire.

Three people will stand trial in the slaying of a TV repairman in San Bernardino.

Laurie Cone, Gary Gallion and Shawna Bayless, all of San Bernardino, face charges related to the murder of Cone's estranged husband, 63-year- old John Cone.

Laurie Cone is charged with three felony counts of solicitation to commit murder.

Her estranged husband was hit in the head more than a dozen times with a blunt object. According to testimony at a preliminary hearing, his legs, ankles and arms were bound with duct tape and electrical cord.

The homicide was one of 46 in San Bernardino by the end of November. San Bernardino had 29 homicides by the same time last year.

In early December, police at Cal State San Bernardino shot 38-year-old graduate student Bartholomew Williams five times during an altercation with officers.

Police said officers tried to subdue Williams with pepper spray and batons, but the 6-foot man showed "superhuman strength."

Civil-rights activists suggested Tasers could have been used instead.

In October, a former Westminster police detective convicted of kidnapping and raping a local waitress killed himself inside his jail cell just hours before his sentencing.

Deputies at the Central Detention Center found Anthony Orban unresponsive in his single-man cell, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Orban was found guilty in June of kidnapping the woman at gunpoint in an Ontario Mills parking lot on April 3, 2010. He took her to Fontana and beat and raped her for about an hour.

Law enforcement officials made big drug busts in 2012.

On Aug. 9, state Justice Department, narcotics and local authorities shut down a meth lab operating for about a month and a half out of a rented home in Rialto.

The lab was linked to a violent Mexican cartel.

Authorities seized 191 pounds of methamphetamine from the Rialto home as well as $15,000 in cash.

In April, authorities announced that 15 people had been arrested on suspicion of dealing Mexican "tar" heroin in eastern parts of San Bernardino County, including Yucaipa, Redlands and Highland.

The arrests were part of a 10-month investigation by the Redlands Police Department, members of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department narcotics unit and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Juan Belez, a 20-year-old barber, gave his take on life in the county, while waiting outside San Bernardino City Hall on a chilly Thursday afternoon.

"If you kick it with the wrong people, it's bad," he said.

A friend of Belez waited with him. He goes by "Zee."

"I was raised here," Zee said. "But to an outsider coming in, it feels dangerous."

Medical marijuana shops continued to operate illegally. Or legally. Depending on whether an agency wanted to raid them. And what judges say when the cases shake out.

Rancho Cucamonga resident and medical marijuana businessman Aaron Sandusky is in jail awaiting his Jan. 7 sentencing in U.S. District Court for two federal convictions of drug trafficking.

He could serve 10 years to life.

California voters made medical marijuana legal 16 years ago when they passed Proposition 215. But marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Amazon comes to town

While marijuana dispensaries operated under hazy legal status, other businesses continued to push ahead in a tough economy.

Online retailer Amazon in October completed work on a nearly 1 million-square-foot warehouse at the former Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.

Bruxie, a popular waffle sandwich restaurant that started in Orange, opened a new location in Chino Hills in November.

In related business news, a December report released by Los Angeles-based Beacon Economics in partnership with the UC Riverside School of Business Administration showed that the San Bernardino-Riverside county economy is in the midst of an economic recovery that includes industries ranging from construction to hospitality.

A move to use eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages in San Bernardino County could come to fruition in 2013.

Mortgage Resolution Partners floated the idea to cities throughout the U.S., and the county was the first to take steps to consider it.

Parents take control

As the county mulls mortgages, parents in Adelanto took over a school.

In October, the parents announced they'd selected LaVerne Preparatory Academy in Hesperia to take over the struggling Desert Trails Elementary School.

La Verne Preparatory Academy is run by charter school operator Debra Tarver.

The parents used California's "parent-trigger" law, which allows groups who collect signatures from more than 50 percent of parents to impose changes on a school and force the school district to give up control of the campus when the current school year ends.

In other education news, Tomas D. Morales took over as Cal State San Bernardino's president, following the retirement of Al Karnig. Superintendent Dale Marsden began his first year leading San Bernardino City Unified School District.

Passings...

The year saw several notable passings that included: Rodney King; Grand Terrace founder Tony Petta; pioneer educator Dorothy Inghram; former county Supervisor Ruben Ayala; Tony Trozera, founder of The Mug restaurant in San Bernardino; radio legend Brian Lord; Tom Minor, former San Bernardino mayor; former Colton Fire Chief Leonard Temby; stalwart redevelopment lawyer Timothy J. Sabo; George Borba, founder and board chairman of Ontario-based CVB Financial Corp. and Citizens Business Bank; former Sun editor Wayne Cummings Sargent; and Don Tucker, producer of the Huck Finn Jubilee.


Contact Josh via email, by phone at 909-386-3894, or on Twitter @RialtoNow.