Four directors leave board in 2016

By JP Crumrine
News Editor

If anyone is glad 2017 is nearly here, it may be the staff at the Idyllwild Water District. Truly, 2016 has been a tumultuous 12 months.

During the span, the district has seen its general manger resign, some staff, as well as four directors. In addition, it has filed a lawsuit against one of the current directors.

The January 2016 meeting was canceled, which may have been a portent for the remainder of the year. Then-President Jim Billman decided to cancel the meeting because only four of five directors would be able to attend.

The only scheduled action items on the proposed agenda were the election of officers for 2016 and choosing an auditor for the next three years. Nevertheless, Billman felt it necessary to cancel the meeting.

In February, the board re-elected Billman president and Director John Cook as vice president. The vote was 3-1-1. Director June Rockwell abstained and Director Steve Kunkle had nominated Cook for president and Billman as vice president.

As the year progressed, attendance at meetings grew, as well as complaints about treatment of customers; the refusal to issue any new water meters, while charging owners stand-by fees; faulty meters; and higher fee tiers simply because a larger meter was required for fire sprinklers.

Although General Manager Tom Lynch continued to report that IWD was in a Stage 2 water emergency and narrowly averting a Stage 3 crisis, data on the district’s wells was not available.

At the June meeting, Kunkle requested a report on well status; but, Cook said this was an unfair request to expect a response within days. However, Kunkle pointed out that it had been six weeks since he had made his initial request to Lynch.

In July, the board revealed it had filed a lawsuit against Kunkle, a retired employee, alleging negligence. As chief sewer operator, the board said he allowed hydraulic fluid to leak from a piece of heavy equipment onto and into the ground near the IWD’s wastewater treatment facility.

In December, the board put the litigation in abeyance until new legal counsel is selected and has had time to review the case.

At the July and August public hearings on the district’s stand-by fee, which is assessed on vacant lots in anticipation the owners may request a connection to the district’s system, the board continued the fee but adamantly stated that new meters would be issued.

At one point, Lynch asserted that Stage 2 would continue until Foster Lake was completely filled.

In July, questions began being raised about whether Lynch had complied with a term of his original appointment — to obtain a state Water Treatment Grade II Operator Certificate.

In August, Lynch maintained the issue was a personnel matter and could not be discussed publicly. He stated that the certificate was pending, but state records indicated he had failed three times, which Lynch denied.

During August, signs began appearing through Idyllwild requesting the resignation of directors Billman, Cook and Mike Freitas.

On Sept. 12, Lynch submitted a letter of resignation and also noted that Billman was resigning, too. Five days later, Freitas resigned because of health reasons.

Cook assumed the board presidency and canceled the September meeting despite objections from another director. Then, with the cooperation of the district’s legal counsel, he ruled that all decisions needed to be unanimous. And he would not agree to appoint replacements for Billman and Freitas. He wanted an election in the spring of 2017.

Eventually, Riverside County 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington intervened and appointed Dr. Charles Schelly and Vic Sirkin to the board, which held one meeting with five directors on Dec. 9. The following Monday, Dec. 12, Cook announced his resignation.

Director compensation was a contentious topic throughout the year. In 2013, the previous board had raised the per-meeting stipend from $50 to $100. The new board members, Kunkle and Rockwell, had made rescinding that raise part of their campaigns in 2015.

In the spring, Kunkle requested that it be placed on the agenda for the board to re-consider. Lynch refused. He argued that only a majority of the board could place an item on the agenda.

“A Board member has no power to set the future agenda for a meeting by himself and needs the consent of a majority of the Board to add an item to a future agenda,” he wrote in response to a question regarding the process for setting the agency’s agenda.

“That’s interpreting the law in a self-serving way,” said Nikki Moore, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “It’s not necessary to require consensus of the Board.”

But at the Dec. 21 board meeting, Kunkle and Rockwell, with the support of Schelly and Virkin, voted to return the meeting compensation to $50.

On Dec. 22, Rockwell submitted her resignation from the board, citing personal reasons.

Even water production turned in an opposite direction last year. In 2015, total production declined to 74.4 million gallons, 10.2 less than 2014 and more than 17 million less than 2013.

However, the district’s January 2016 production was 12 percent greater than 2015. Through November, IWD production has totaled 75 million gallons, which is more than for the whole year of 2015.

IWD GM draws down IWD board

By Jack Clark, General Counsel and
JP Crumrine, News Editor

Tom Lynch, general manager of the Idyllwild Water District, encountered many questions about his performance and management decisions. Despite unheeded support from the board, his eroding credibility put pressure on the board. Eventually, after revelations in the Town Crier regarding his lack of progress on a requirement that the board placed on him when he was hired, Lynch unexpectedly resigned on Monday, Sept. 12.

When hired in February 2014, the board required him to obtain a Water Treatment Grade II Operator certificate. The board gave him six months to obtain the certificate in his letter of appointment dated Feb. 5, 2014.

In August, at the height of the investigation, Director Mike Freitas explained that the board had required Lynch to get the certificate when it chose Lynch over another applicant in 2014. While Lynch had more administrative experience, the other person had several certificates and a lot of water experience.

When questioned about the status of his certificate at the July meeting, Lynch replied it was pending. When asked what “pending” meant, Lynch responded “Pending means … pending.”

Lynch claimed that he had taken the examination for the certificate and the “issue is pending.”

Then-President Jim Billman said, “[Lynch] is doing what we asked. He is awaiting the final results of his exam.”

However, the Town Crier learned from the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency responsible for administering the test and issuing the certificates, what Lynch’s progress had been and what was pending with his certification.

On Aug. 3, the SWRCB response provided documentation showing that Lynch had taken and failed the exam three times. The first attempt at T2 certificate was Nov. 15, 2014. He tried again on May 16, 2015, and a third time on Nov. 21, 2015.

The SWRCB response affirmatively stated, “Mr. Lynch to date has not passed the T2 exam.” Lynch described this information as “erroneous.” Two weeks later, SWRCB confirmed their initial response to the Town Crier — three exams, three failed exams.

Director John Cook characterized this performance as, “… making satisfactory progress towards the goal.” Then he asserted, “Jeff Smith and the Town Crier administration is barking up the wrong dead tree.”

According to another director, the board did not know about Lynch’s failures and he could not provide information or data refuting the SWRCB.

On Sept. 12, 2016, Lynch submitted his resignation along with Billman’s.

Lynch succeeded Terry Lyons, who was the IWD general manager from November 2003 until his retirement in February 2014.

Boulder blocks Highway 243 for days

By JP Crumrine
News Editor

On Sunday night, Jan. 10, 2016, a 48-ton boulder rolled off the hill just north of Deadman’s Curve on Highway 243. It took nearly three full days for Caltrans to remove it and the boulder resisted its extirpation the whole time.

In order to reduce the boulder’s size so that it could be moved off the highway, Caltrans ordered special equipments — a 50,000-pound excavator equipped with a hydraulic breaker.

However, on Tuesday, the boulder broke the excavator’s tip. A replacement was ordered. By Wednesday evening, Caltrans had chipped enough of the boulder that it could be moved off the highway permitting traffic use to re-start.

That night, Jan. 13, Caltrans announced, “All lanes on SR 243 are open,”

Still, the complete effort to remove the boulder affected traffic flow for another day as crews continued to break apart the rock and remove it from the shoulder.

The road closure created a major inconvenience for traffic between Idyllwild and Pine Cove. Some people used a residential street off of Franklin Drive to get back and forth, causing concern from residents on the street.

The closure also created a potential crisis for emergency responders.

American Medical Response’s ambulance for Pine Cove is housed on Franklin Drive, south of the blockage. AMR Operations Manager Jack Hansen immediately ordered a second ambulance from AMR’s Banning unit. This was housed at the Riverside County Fire Station 23 in Pine Cove during the emergency.

“We called it Pine Cove North and South,” Hansen said.

Idyllwild Fire Department watched the Pine Cove area south of the blockage since Station 23 engines would have difficulty reaching that area.

“From the county perspective, it was largely a Caltrans situation,” said Riverside County Emergency Management Department Director Kim Saruwatari. “They assessed it. If they needed anything we’d support them, but they didn’t need us.”

Mountain Fire lawsuits set for trial

By Jack Clark
General Counsel

In July 2013, the Mountain Fire spread from Mountain Center eastward then north, burning around Strawberry Valley and the town of Idyllwild. The blaze destroyed several homes and other structures, and caused the evacuation of thousands of Hill residents.

The fire originated on private property owned by Tarek M. Al-Shawaf. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection investigators placed the blame with electrical failure at a junction box they said had been negligently maintained, resulting in sparks and hot materials falling to the ground, igniting the blaze.

In 2015, Cal Fire filed its lawsuit in state court in Riverside against Al-Shawaf and two of his employees, James and Donna Nowlin, for about $8.5 million in fire-suppression costs. Several private parties also filed suits for damages last year, and more were added in 2016. The state court lawsuits now total seven in number and have been consolidated for trial.

On July 14, 2016, one day before the running of the three-year statute of limitations, the federal government filed its suit for damages in federal court in Los Angeles against the same defendants, seeking more than $15 million in fire-suppression costs and another $9 million in damages to natural resources on federal lands.

In court documents, defendant Al-Shawaf has admitted that the Nowlins were his employees on the property, but all three defendants have filed answers denying any liability.

Currently, the state court trial is set to begin before Judge Daniel A. Otolia in Riverside on Nov. 9, 2017. The federal court trial is set to begin before Judge Otis D. Wright II in Los Angeles on April 24, 2018.

Pinyon homicide case re-opened

By JP Crumrine
News Editor

In June, more than two years after their original arrest, both Robert Pape, 28, and Cristin Smith, 28, were re-arrested for the 2006 triple murder of Jon Hayward, Vicki Friedli, and Vicki’s daughter, Becky Friedli, in Pinyon Pines, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announced.

Three counts of murder, with a special circumstance allegation of committing multiple murders, were filed on Wednesday June 8, against both men.

In obtaining a warrant for their re-arrests, new information was revealed. One of the major items was the retesting of DNA found at the scene, which matches Smith’s. According to the Riverside County Sheriff’s office, the chances of the DNA being misidentified is 1 in 28 trillion chances.

Also, a better forensic analysis of cell-tower data places Smith and Pape together on Monterrey Avenue, which becomes Highway 74 to Pinyon Pines, before the murders. This contradicts their earlier statement that they had never left the Cathedral City area.

And a confidential informant Jeremy Witt, who worked with Smith at Soak City Wave Pool in 2007, testified Smith admitted to being involved in an arson. Witt heard Smith say, “Something went wrong and we torched the whole f…ing place.”

On Oct. 31 after several hearings, Judge Bernard Schwartz of the Riverside County Superior Court ruled that he found sufficient evidence to try Pape and Smith for the 2006 triple homicide.

Both men had been arrested in March 2014 and charged for the three murders. Then on Oct. 6, 2014, nearly seven months later, the DA’s Office dismissed all the charges against Pape and Smith.

In a press release from October 2014, the DA’s Office stated, “Upon a closer review of the grand jury proceedings, the District Attorney’s Office has determined that legal issues arose during the proceedings against defendant Pape that make it appropriate to dismiss the case at this time.

The release did affirm that the investigation would continue. And after taking office in January 2015, Hestrin promised the office would continue to review the case.