County Supervisor Janice Rutherford

Thursday, August 4, 2011
S. E. Williams
Staff Writer

When Janice Rutherford was elected Second District Supervisor last year, voters looked with renewed hope toward a future of clean government. Most were fed-up with the scandals and fraud that have plagued the county for nearly a generation.

The election, once again, gave voters a chance to elect new representation. Although this made voters hopeful—history in San Bernardino County has also taught them to be diligent and remain watchful.

As a result, when Rutherford approached the county’s Chief Administrative Officer Greg Devereaux and asked about the infamous “1,200 Acres” of undeveloped, surplus county flood control property in Rancho Cucamonga, alarm bells sounded and a weary constituency questioned, why?

With all of the problems pressing down on San Bernardino County, why did Rutherford choose to address this issue at this time?

In an exclusive interview with The Alpenhorn News, Rutherfords’s Communications Director Scott Vanhorne quickly asserted that there was nothing nefarious here. He stated that she [Rutherford] wanted a report on the “1,200 Acres” in order to, “know what the county has done and where it stands.” He added, “Because it was such a controversial issue, she just wanted to be aware of it.”

Vanhorne was defensive in his response and accused the reporter of reacting to blogs and asking questions that were accusatory in tone. However, as someone with media experience, Vanhorne should be aware of the role newspapers must play in a democratic society—most readers expect the media to act as a proxy for the public. They believe that it is a reporter’s job to ask probing, penetrating questions of elected officials—to dig for the facts.

On another level, Vanhorn was correct. It is exactly because this property has been embroiled in such highly visible controversy that some have questioned Rutherford’s sudden interest in it.

Rutherford has been in office less than eight months, the county’s economic outlook remains grim and voters are consumed with the impacts of high unemployment, a depressed housing market, and the combined austerity measures of cut-backs and lay-offs that have impinged upon constituency services across the board and touched everything from teachers to sheriffs. In addition, there is anxiety about the pending outcome of the county’s redistricting efforts.

In recent years, the saga of the “1,200 Acres” in Rancho Cucamonga has been covered extensively by the media; it was focused on in the Hueston Report that investigated corruption in the County Assessor’s Office; it was highlighted by the 2008-09 Grand Jury; included in the Colonies investigation; and, played a role in the felony conviction of Rancho City Councilman Rex Guitierrez.

Rutherford’s biography highlights a career that has afforded her opportunities to experience first-hand the mechanics of politics in relationship to real estate development. That experience includes the Fontana Planning Commission, and a term as its Chairperson; three terms as a member of the Fontana City Council; Fontana’s Mayor Pro-Tem between 2002 and 2004; and, Chair of the Fontana Redevelopment Agency.

And yet, despite the availability of information on this property that remains in the public domain and Rutherford’s experience relative to development, Vanhorne insisted that Rutherford was “Just looking at the county’s overall land policy and what would we do with the land.”

When asked about Ruthrford’s relationship with the Lewis family; the fact that the Lewis’ were in partnership with Burum to develop the property; and, the fact that Rutherford has received significant campaign contributions from the Lewis family of companies, Vanhorne responded, “I have never looked at her campaign information. I don’t know what goes on in her head.”

The 1,200 acres in question qre located near Los Osos High School in the foothills of Rancho Cucamonga. Its boundaries include Milliken Avenue and the Day Creek Channel. It is the last piece of undeveloped open space in the city.

Just a few short years ago, development of this land was imminent. But that was before it was put on the table as a bargaining chip during negotiations in the Colonies Scandal—it was ultimately withdrawn in favor of a $102 million settlement.

It was before the same 1,200 acres of land appeared to be part of what the grand jury saw as a potential sweetheart deal that ultimately added to the conspiracy case against Guiterrez. He was ultimately convicted on felony charges of grand theft and conspiracy related to his position at the Assessor’s Office and his relationship with Colonies developer Jeff Burum.

Today, the “1,200 Acres” in question still belong to the county’s Flood Control District and must be purchased by the county before it can be sold to a developer. But, back in 2008-09, the sale of this land had gained significant momentum.

At the time, rather than disposing of the property through auction, an agreement was struck between the Board of Supervisors and the Rancho Cucamonga City Council to have developers bid for its development; the council would identify the top two contenders and the board would make the final determination. But when the case of Rancho City Councilman Guiterrez broke wide open as a result of the Hueston Report, the grand jury recommended that the process be halted. This was largely due to the relationship between Guiterrez and Burum, who was a key member of the Rancho Alliance Investors, one of the five development firms competing for the project opportunity and viewed as the front runner in the process.

In 2009, an article entitled Concerned, connected, controversial: Jeff Burum has shaken up San Bernardino politics, housing, appeared in the April 17 edition of The Press-Enterprise. In the report, Randall Lewis of the Lewis Group of Companies said that he had tapped Burum to join him and others in the formation of an alliance (Rancho Alliance Investors) to compete for the right to develop the “1,200 Acres”. Like Burum’s development companies, the Lewis Group of Companies is one of the largest developers in the area. At times, the Burum and Lewis companies worked in cooperation; at times, in competition.

The Rancho Alliance Investors, in addition to the Lewis Group of Companies and Burum’s Diversified Pacific, also included Young Homes and Shea Homes, O’Reilly Public Relations (the owner Patrick O’Reilly was indicted by the grand jury in the Colonies scheme) and California Strategies, Jim Brulte’s consulting company. In addition to The Rancho Alliance, five other companies participated in the bid process.

The fact that Burum is now criminally compromised and facing felony charges does not detract from the lucrative potential still afforded by the future development of the “1,200 Acres”. Once the county makes a decision to move forward on the issue, The Rancho Alliance or the Lewis Group independently or in some other partnership configuration may once again be in competition for the development opportunity. This brings readers back to the initial question—with the housing still in shambles, why did Rutherford raise the issue to Devereaux?

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