10:00 PM PDT on Friday, May 21, 2010

Cassie MacDuff

Former Grand Terrace Councilman Jim Miller took a calculated risk when he decided last week not to plead guilty to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge and instead go to trial on a felony.

A jury could acquit him — or it could find him guilty. Juries are wild cards.

That’s why many defendants accept plea deals, even when they say they’re innocent. A bird in the hand (a conviction on a lesser charge) is worth two in the bush (a trial with an uncertain outcome).

But Miller is gambling that he and his lawyer can convince a jury that Miller didn’t have a conflict of interest when he voted for payments to his wife’s weekly newspaper for city legal ads and notices from 2006 to 2008.

There was no conflict, he told me, because Margie Miller owns the Grand Terrace City News as her sole and separate property.

The couple had a prenuptial agreement to keep their property separate when they married 23 years ago, and they have not commingled their funds, he said.

Also, Margie Miller never got a paycheck from the newspaper, Miller said. Any revenue has been plowed back into the business.

He hopes a jury will take into account that he voluntarily gave up his council seat, and his wife agreed to give back all of the money the city spent on the legal ads and notices in her paper.

Miller said he decided to go for a jury trial because pleading guilty to a conflict of interest would jeopardize his real estate license.

Miller has a devoted group of supporters who attend all of his court appearances wearing red, white and blue ribbons on their lapels; courthouse regulars recognize them and comment that a sighting means the Miller case must be back in court.

Miller said the support has been gratifying, but the case is stressful, so the Millers are eager for it to be over.

A recent news release from San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt stopped me in my tracks.

It trumpeted a $2.8 million solar-energy project to be installed on the county government building under construction in Hesperia.

Solar panels will generate about 70 percent of the electricity the building will use, saving $60,000 a year, the release said.

By my calculations, that means it’ll take 47 years for the project to pay for itself.

Granted, the county will pay only $623,000. A federal energy-efficiency grant will pay $1.48 million, and a state solar initiative will contribute $720,000. Still, it’s all taxpayer money.

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