San Bernardino County Leader Sees Revival

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Bernardino County is working hard to shed its reputation as a haven of corruption, and must embark on an aggressive campaign to recruit new jobs and shed another image, as a bedroom community, a top official said Monday.

Fred Aguiar, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, offered that vision in Monday's "State of the County" speech before about 550 business and community leaders, politicians and government administrators.

The speech offered a glimpse at the machinations of an inland region that has long been a distant mystery to nearby urban sectors, but is fast becoming a significant population center and an integral part of Southern California.

San Bernardino, at about 20,000 square miles, bills itself as the largest county in the continental United States. The county's population swelled 20% in the past decade, to about 1.7 million.

A bribery and kickback case has unraveled steadily here since 1997, roiling the highest offices of the county and fostering intense distrust of government. All told, the county has sued 27 people and businesses to recover money lost to corruption, and three businessmen and four former county officials have pleaded guilty in three separate bribery schemes.

Acknowledging that the county's image has been soiled--and that new revelations continue to surface--Aguiar said that "we have no choice but to continue dealing with this issue."

And he offered a nod to the 18,000 county government employees who have shouldered the brunt of the public's wrath over the scandals.

"These employees take pride in their work and, unfortunately, the actions of a few have tarnished the image of the county and, in turn, their work," he said.

Overall, though, Aguiar said, the county has "begun to turn the corner" by securing legal settlements and enacting ethical standards, background checks and laws ensuring the integrity of government, such as an ordinance banning former officials from lobbying the county for at least a year after leaving office.

"The lawsuits, the personnel changes, the new policies and increased communication--all of these things have been aimed at addressing one critical goal: restoring public trust," Aguiar said. "Clearly, this will not occur overnight, and clearly, it will be a long process."

In the meantime, the county must try to lure new jobs to the region to become more self-sufficient. By some estimates, as many as 400,000 people leave the Inland Empire each day and drive to work in other counties.

Aguiar singled out an economic development group that has launched a media campaign that attempts to link local workers with local employers. In March alone, more than 1,100 workers called the service.

Even as critics say the region has grown too fast, Aguiar lauded several development-friendly proposals and said that "investment now will mean positive dividends."

Aguiar trumpeted progress reported on a number of fronts. For example, after weathering some tough years during the recession, when the county was forced to cut the operating hours of libraries, the general fund has reserves of $28 million, up from $18 million in 1997. And he said the county is in the midst of an $11-million campaign to beef up the parks system.

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