Cassie MacDuff

10:00 PM PST on Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cassie MacDuff

What never made sense to me about San Bernardino County’s $102 million settlement with Colonies Partners — besides the price tag — was why county officials gave up a fight they seemed to have a fair chance of winning.

In 2003, a judge in Rancho Cucamonga ruled against the county in the dispute with Colonies over a flood-control basin on the company’s land in Upland.

But in 2005, the state Court of Appeal overturned it, ruling in favor of the county on some issues and sending others back to a local court.

In July 2006, a different local judge ruled against the county even more strongly than the Rancho Cucamonga judge had.

But the ruling conflicted with the higher court’s, so I thought the county had grounds to challenge it. Instead, the Board of Supervisors decided on a 3-to-2 vote to give up.

I think the supervisors had battle fatigue from the four-year fight with influential developer Jeff Burum, his crackerjack legal team and influential consultants.

But now it seems the settlement could unravel.

The district attorney three weeks ago alleged it was tainted by bribery, extortion and conspiracy and that five unnamed, uncharged co-conspirators used a combination of bribes and threats to get then-Supervisor Bill Postmus and supervisors Gary Ovitt and Paul Biane to approve the deal.

On Wednesday, the San Bernardino Associated Governments — which the county is suing to recoup some of the $102 million — suggested the supervisors launch an independent investigation into how the settlement was reached.

If it indeed was tainted, the board should dismiss the suit against SANBAG, the SANBAG board said in a resolution.

A law firm that defended the county warned in 2005 that if a then-proposed settlement were found unreasonable, the county might not be able to collect the portions of the settlement it was to seek from SANBAG, Caltrans and Upland, a warning the SANBAG action now seems to bear out.

Several aspects of the settlement seem unreasonable.

It calculates the value of Colonies’ flood-control basin at $1.5 million per acre, what it would be worth if homes were built on it. But plans since the late 1980s always showed the basin as open space, flood control and groundwater recharge. Colonies knew that when it bought the land in 1997.

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