Riverside County news review of 2012 includes quarry battle, official scandal, cop killer trial

RIVERSIDE – A divisive battle to stop a strip mine, the conviction of a cop killer, bad odors and the narrow defeat of a longtime supervisor were among the leading stories of 2012 in Riverside County.

In January, the county’s second-largest collective bargaining unit, Service Employees International Union Local 721, called a one-day work stoppage to protest the Board of Supervisors’ imposition of a contract requiring members

to pay more toward their own pensions.

Only a quarter of the local’s members took part in the walkout, during which a rally was held outside the County Administrative Center, followed by a march through the streets of downtown Riverside.

The county argued the union had refused to negotiate reasonably after eight months of talks and no compromise on pension restructuring, which impacted all county employees with the goal of holding down long-term financial

obligations. SEIU countered that its members could not afford to have more stripped out of their paychecks.

The two sides eventually reached a mutual agreement.

Also in January, R&B legend Etta James died. The Riverside resident, who had been struggling with leukemia and other health complications for years, was less than a week away from turning 74. James’ recording career spanned more than four decades. In the last two years of her life, the artist’s estate had become the center of a legal dispute between her eldest son and his stepfather.

The family squabble was not resolved by the end of 2012.

In February, Moreno Valley Unified School District Board member Mike Luis Rios was charged with trying to kill two men at whom he allegedly opened fire outside his house. Rios told authorities the pair had shot at him first, but there was no corroborating evidence to support that claim, investigators said.

The confrontation was triggered when Rios got the men kicked out of a bar for talking to his date, witnesses said.

A month later, Rios was charged with multiple additional felonies for allegedly running a prostitution ring out of his home. Allegations included pandering, pimping and rape. The scandal prompted a petition drive to have him booted from the school board. Rios continues to hold his seat. If convicted, he would automatically lose it.

Also in February, the Board of Supervisors held several public hearings on a mining company’s appeal for reconsideration of a proposed 414-acre strip mine just south of Temecula. Permits for the Liberty Quarry were denied by the county Planning Commission in 2011, leaving the board as a quasi “court of last resort.”

Opponents greatly outnumbered supporters of the mine, which was generally viewed as a health threat and potentially damaging to the Temecula Valley Wine Country. An environmental impact report commissioned by the quarry sponsor, Granite Construction, found that most negative impacts of the project could be mitigated. But critics cited numerous flaws in the document.

The board voted 3-2 against the mine. However, in May, board Chairman John Tavaglione switched sides and voted to certify Granite’s EIR, paving the way for the mining company to return with a revised quarry plan, which it did

in July.

Supervisor John Benoit, a Liberty Quarry backer, proceeded to seek amendments to county ordinances that would allow fast-tracking mining and reclamation projects. A series of contentious board meetings ensued, with Supervisor Jeff Stone leading the charge against fast-tracking. The measures passed anyway in a 3-2 vote.

In November, just weeks before Granite’s request to fast-track its revised quarry plan was slated to come before the board, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians announced that it was buying the mining site for $3 million, ending the Liberty Quarry proposal.

In April and May, the trial of cop killer Earl Ellis Green played out in Superior Court. Green beat and fatally shot Riverside police Officer Ryan Patrick Bonaminio on Nov. 7, 2010, after the officer chased him into a parking lot and slipped in a flower bed, giving Green the opportunity to grab the lawman’s firearm.

Testimony revealed the parolee ignored the injured officer’s plea not to shoot him and instead approached to within several feet of Bonaminio and opened fire at point-blank range. Green was sentenced to death in June.

In July, for the first time in four years, Riverside County began its fiscal year with a structurally balanced budget. With signs of a slowly improving economy, officials were cautiously optimistic that 2012-13 would end without the county facing a deficit.

In September, something was rotten in the county of Riverside — and neighboring counties, too. On the night of Sept. 9, a strong sulphuric odor became noticeable and prompted calls to area authorities. The stench hung on

the air for part of the following day, prompting an investigation by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which determined the source to be the Salton Sea, where organic decay has been an ongoing problem as water levels recede. A storm cell that started over the desert and moved west dragged the malodor with it, officials said.

At year’s end, a 20-year county supervisor, Bob Buster, lost his re-election bid to former state Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries. The victory was more than two weeks in the making, as absentee and provisional ballots took additional time to process by the registrar of voters’ office. In the end, Jeffries came out ahead by more than 1,000 votes. He attributed his victory to his anti-tax position and the desire among residents from the First District for a more responsive representative. Buster predicted future political campaigns.

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