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Highland Recall Follows State's Lead on Nastiness, Complexity

At last moment, San Bernardino County city calls for Jan. 13. vote. Three officials allegedly misused funds, met illegally.

September 25, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

At first, it was unclear whether the recall election would take place. Now a definite date for the vote is set. Or is it?

Sound familiar?

No, it's not the statewide recall of Gov. Gray Davis but a lesser-known campaign to oust three council members in the fast-growing city of Highland in San Bernardino County. The Highland recall campaign has become just as nasty and convoluted as the effort to unseat the governor, and it is filled with allegations of misuse of campaign funds and distortions of the truth.

The three council members facing recall, Mayor Raymond Rucker and Councilmen Steve Graves and Bradley Sundquist, have been accused by recall proponents of misspending city money, holding illegal meetings and delaying important city projects.

The councilmen have fired back, charging that the recall was launched by state firefighters who are under contract with the city and who worry that the three councilmen may cut the terms of that agreement.

It will be up to the voters of this community of 45,800 at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains to decide who is telling the truth. The recall election will cost the city between $50,000 and $70,000.

After putting off the decision for two weeks, the Highland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to set the recall election for Jan. 13. The council waited until the last day of the two-week period for scheduling the vote. If the council had put off the decision again, the San Bernardino County registrar of voters would have been required to intervene and schedule the election.

The council also added a wrinkle to the campaign by instructing the city clerk to ask the county registrar to certify each of the more than 4,600 signatures collected on the three recall petitions.

The registrar has already certified the petition by checking a random 12% sample of the signatures. But Rucker said Tuesday he wanted every signature checked to ensure that the recall election is valid.

"Absolutely not," county Registrar Scott Konopasek said to the request.

Konopasek said he is not required to verify every signature. Besides, he said, he already has his hands full with the other recall.

Ross Jones, one of the recall leaders, called the request to check all signatures a delaying tactic.

Jones and the recall committee, Stop Political Corruption in Highland, contend that the three councilmen violated the state's public meetings law by attending a meeting of the East Valley Water District in November, where, he claims, they offered to buy a parcel from the district for $10 million.

The Brown Act requires governing boards to issue public notices describing topics of discussion before they meet.

Graves called the charges preposterous. He and Rucker said they attended the water district meeting as individuals and did not make a formal bid for the property until the entire council met at City Hall.

Graves said the water district intends to use the land for a pipe yard, and he wants the land developed for a tax-generating retail business. The city is still negotiating with the water district.

Graves and Rucker say the real reason they and Sundquist are targeted for recall is that they announced plans to audit the contract with the California Department of Forestry, which provides fire services for the city. They say the call for an audit raised the ire of James Rissmiller and John Timmer, who are forestry department battalion chiefs and members of the recall committee.

Rissmiller and Timmer could not be reached Wednesday, but Jones denied a link between the forestry department contract and the recall.

However, the San Bernardino County Safety Employee's Benefit Assn., an employees group that opposes the recall, recently filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission, charging that Rissmiller helped funnel a $5,000 contribution from the forestry department to the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Coalition.

The association says the coalition then donated $3,000 to the recall campaign committee. Rissmiller is the treasurer of the taxpayers coalition, according to county documents.

Jones denied the allegation.

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