Riverside, Calif., Air Cargo Hub's Ills Have Board Bickering

Tempers flared Wednesday morning as a commission addressed allegations of mismanagement and scandal at the beleaguered cargo shipping hub at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.

The March Joint Powers Commission, made up of eight elected officials from surrounding cities and Riverside County, later voted to hire an auditor to evaluate how development of the civilian portion of the base is run.

A recent report from an independent counsel hired by the commission accused the cargo port's developer of misleading the public over whether DHL cargo planes would fly over residential neighborhoods late at night, and of minimizing findings in an aircraft noise study. A separate analysis reported that the developer apparently understated revenue the shipping company would bring to the base.

"There's so much being swept under the rug here, we're going to be tripping over it," said Bob Buster, chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and vice chairman of the commission, which manages development of land once belonging to the base.

March officials have been under fire since the release of the independent counsel's report last month. The 102-page report largely blames officials with March GlobalPort, the shipping center's developer, which it says deceived the public over cargo plane flight paths and noise to rush the deal through and beat bids from nearby airports.

"There was clearly no attempt to mislead people," said Rob Bower, an attorney who represented March GlobalPort in an environmental lawsuit filed by people living near the base. "When there was a mistake and when it was found, it was pointed out.

"We knew that this was a very controversial project and it would be attacked, as it was, on many fronts," Bower added. "A lot of the criticism was just absolutely outrageous and inflammatory and untruthful."

The base commission voted to hire Tom Evans, former director of Riverside Public Utilities and former interim city manager of Riverside, as the auditor. He has 90 days to review development of the base's civilian portion, said Richard Stewart, commission chairman and a Moreno Valley city councilman.

During the meeting, Buster also rebuked both the developer and officials of the March Joint Powers Authority, the base redevelopment organization that reports to the commission, for allowing at least 10,000 gallons of airplane fuel to be stored in water tanks -- not designed to safely contain fuel -- for five months. County Fire Chief Craig Anthony said his agency put a stop to that practice this month.

GlobalPort filed an application this week for approval of a temporary fueling facility, Anthony said.

The commission approved several measures Wednesday to begin installation of new, secured fuel storage tanks. Buster cast the lone dissenting vote, arguing that the commission needed to investigate the problems that led to the hazard.

"Apparently, there is not proper oversight by March JPA to even conduct fire inspections," Buster said.

During his critique, Buster was interrupted by Stewart, the commission chairman, who tried to cut him off for speaking about an issue that was not before the board at the moment.

Buster suggested that Stewart was trying to stifle dissent among commissioners and that he should resign; at another point, Stewart moved the microphone away from Buster to cut his comments short.

"I am appalled at your leadership," Buster told Stewart."Do you act this way at the supervisors' meetings?" Stewart replied. "This is ridiculous."

Stewart, in a later interview, called Buster's criticisms sour grapes over losing the vote on moving German shipping goliath DHL to March, which Buster opposed.

The commission had been scheduled to evaluate the job performance of Philip Rizzo, executive director of the March Joint Powers Authority, in closed session Wednesday.

Rizzo's evaluation was postponed until the commission's next meeting, April 19, Stewart said.

Nearby residents, especially in Riverside's Orangecrest and Mission Grove neighborhoods, complained to commissioners about being awakened by late-night flights.

"It's like, what a nightmare," said Catherine Barrett-Fischer, a Murrieta retiree who helps run the Community Alliance for Riverside's Economy & Environment, a local advocacy group of several hundred that challenged DHL's arrival at March and filed the environmental lawsuit.

She said that from 3:08 to 3:38 a.m. one Friday night in January, four DHL planes flew over her home.

"They're so inept over there," Barrett-Fischer said of the joint powers authority. "How many more revelations will there be? We're at a point where we can't believe anything they tell us anymore."

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