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Kent Lamar Taylor, a product of the mean streets of Inglewood and those of the nearby communities of Hawthorne and Lennox, acknowledged being a less than stellar student within the Inglewood Unified School District when he was attending grade school at Warren Lane Elementary School in the early and mid-1970s, Crozier Middle School from 1976 until 1978 and Inglewood High School, from which he graduated in 1982.
Ultimately at some point during his last two years at Inglewood High, he experienced an epiphany which he said transformed him into a serious academician committed to education as the key not only to the improvement of his life but that of others. He qualified for acceptance at the University of California at Riverside, where he earned a
Bachelor of Science Degree in business. He followed that up by obtaining his teaching credential from the University of La Verne. His first teaching assignment was as an instructional aide with the San Bernardino City Unified School District in 1986. Thereafter, he taught with the San Bernardino City Unified School District and then later in Yucaipa. He was employed as a teacher with the San Jacinto School District and at a private school in Colton. He eventually obtained a Master of Education degree from Cal State San Bernardino.
Meanwhile, in 1999, Taylor successfully vied for a position on the Colton Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees in that district’s Area 2, capturing 1,763 votes or 55 percent to outdistance Wendy Patrick and her 1,440 votes or 44.9 percent. In 2003, he was reelected by acclamation when no one vied against him.
Beginning in 2004, Taylor served as the director of curriculum and instruction in the Rialto Unified School District.
In the middle of the first decade of the Third Millennium the Colton Joint Unified School District changed its election cycle from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, thereby extending its members’ terms by one year. The district also redrew its jurisdictional map, which placed Taylor in Area Three. Of note was that at that point, Taylor had changed his middle name from Lamar to Hernandez. In the 1988 contest for the Area Three position on the Colton Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees, Kent Hernandez Taylor turned back a challenge by Todd Housely, prevailing with 12,670 votes or 54.61 percent over Housely’s 10,530 votes or 45.39 percent.
Taylor was something of an iconoclast as a school board member. Several of his colleagues on the Colton Joint Unified board, while well meaning, honest and dedicated, were neither as well-educated, as sophisticated nor experienced in the professional realm of education as was Taylor. From the outset of his time on the board, the district was yet dealing with a series of missteps in the direction provided to the district’s management and administration by the board in the years just prior to Taylor’s election, issues that included purchasing school sites that turned out to be unsuitable for a host of reasons, including seismic vulnerability, which entailed the district being saddled with property that it needed to then divest itself of but which could only be sold at a loss. Taylor made a show of working as a team member among board members who boasted no more than high school educations and routinely communicated in sentences that involved the use of double negatives. Taylor came across as someone who knew what he was doing and had a plan, and that he felt no need to defend his ideas or himself to anyone. He was satisfied to just offer his ideas, and if his colleagues bought them, fine, and if not, he just went on. In the meanwhile, the other members of the board entrusted him to study and examine and then clarify to them many of the convoluted financial issues facing the district, such that the board in making its decisions on such matters over time became more or less reliant on Taylor’s direction.
As a resident of Grand Terrace, which along with Reche Canyon was the most upscale of all of the communities in the Colton Joint Unified School District, Taylor was the foremost representative of that city with regard to education issues. A roiling issue during Taylor’s first three terms on the board was where the district’s fourth high school was to be built. With the parents of many students living in Grand Terrace concerned about what they felt was an excessive commute for their children to attend school in Colton and a commensurate desire to see a high school campus established in Grand Terrace, Taylor played a role in thwarting an incipient movement to have Grand Terrace secede from the Colton district altogether by achieving district consent to construct a high school in Grand Terrace. That came at the cost of Taylor having to go along with his board colleagues in naming the high school after Ray Abril, a longtime member of the Colton Joint Unified School District Board who was well thought of in Colton but whose votes over the years were considered by many to be slights to the Grand Terrace community. In 2009, Taylor, at the behest of an overwhelming number of incensed Grand Terrace residents, managed to make an absolute reversal of the position he had taken in supporting naming the high school after Abril as a prerequisite to get it built in Grand Terrace, and then through a torturous series of serial meetings with several of his six board colleagues managed to summon up one, then two and finally three votes other than his own using backroom political horsetrading to get them to support renaming the school Grand Terrace High School at the Ray Abril Jr. Educational Complex, which in common usage thereafter became simply Grand Terrace High School.
In July 2011, when he was offered the position of superintendent of the small Southern Kern Unified School District, which was at that time in financial distress, Taylor took it, moving with his wife and three children to the Antelope Valley town of Rosamond. When Taylor arrived, Southern Kern Unified was on a trajectory by which it would be unable to meet its financial obligations for the ongoing and the next fiscal year. Taylor, by looking at the district’s ledgers and expenditures, its contracts and commitments, its assets and needs, sized up in very short order where the district was hemorrhaging red ink and which financial issues could be quickly resolved. He determined which orders could be canceled, which contracts could be renegotiated at more manageable rates, and he proceeded at once, showing decisiveness and resolve without hesitation, in virtually every case taking action without first getting clearance from the school board. By the end of Taylor’s very brief tenure at Southern Kern Unified, the district was removed from the list of the State of California’s 13 arrearage districts which were functioning at such a structural deficit that they needed constant infusions of revenue from Sacramento to remain in operation.
Indeed, Governor Jerry Brown and then-California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson were so impressed by Taylor’s performance that they virtually drafted him in October 2012 to return to his old stomping grounds, Inglewood, to rescue the Inglewood Unified School District, which was teetering over a seemingly bottomless financial abyss that the previous administration had proven entirely incapable of coming to terms with. The board of education’s backing of the previous superintendent’s plan to drastically slash teacher salaries and payroll had created a situation in which teachers were ready to simply walk away from their positions en masse, essentially shutting the district down entirely. At that point the state effectuated a takeover of the district. In an effort to keep the district afloat, then-California Sentator Roderick Wright authored legislation providing the district with $55 million in loans to be paid back over 20 years. That bill was quickly passed and signed into law by Governor Brown. Taylor was entrusted with utilizing the funding to restructure district operations in accordance with oversight not by the district’s board of trustees but under the supervision of Torlakson’s office in Sacramento. The former school board and other local elected officials, union representatives, faculty, and district staff were recruited to act in an advisory role with Taylor responsible for overseeing day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year operations.
It was stated that it was anticipated that in no case would Taylor be in Inglewood for less than two years and that it was far more likely that the need for his guidance would not elapse for six years, at which point the goal was for the district to be able to function within the confines of a budget based upon the revenues normally provided to the district through property tax and standard state education funding. Additionally, it was expected that the academic testing of students at the nine schools in the district would improve to levels approaching 800 or better, a level comparable with the state average. At that point, control of the district was to return to the sidelined elected board members, which would have the option of keeping Taylor in place.
The decisive, indeed bold, character of Taylor’s leadership, however, played him wrong. Just two months after he took on the assignment in Inglewood, on his own authority he entered the district into a tentative agreement he made with the local teachers union. Torlakson’s office reacted with dismay that he had done so without approval from the state. As a consequence, Taylor abruptly resigned as Inglewood Unified’s superintendent in December 2012. He was given a $100,000 severance upon leaving.
For at least some, Taylor’s willingness to close a deal with the district’s teachers he thought the Inglewood district could live with financially in a way that was out of step with the state’s expectation of a closely-monitored and carefully-approved process was a flashing yellow light of caution.
However, in the nearby Lennox School District, which was wrestling with a few financial issues of its own and where there were political disagreements within the community and on the school board about the direction the district should take, Taylor’s actions was seen by some as desirable decisiveness.
The community of Lennox is an unincorporated Los Angeles County district just east of Los Angeles International Airport. The school district there has a preschool which runs mostly on state and federal funding, five elementary schools and a junior high serving roughly 5,000 students.
The district is beset with a myriad of challenges. The unincorporated Los Angeles County community of Lennox is proximate to and sits directly underneath the flight path of passenger jets landing at Los Angeles International Airport. It is bordered to the west by Interstate 405, i.e., the San Diego Freeway, and to the south by Interstate 105, the Glenn Anderson Freeway. As such, the Lennox District is considered an undesirable living environment and is populated in large measure by impoverished individuals and families with few options, a significant number of whom are immigrants with limited or no English language skills. There has been substantial and steady attrition in Lennox’s population over the last two decades and an accompanying drop-off in the number of students enrolled in the district, which has reduced the educational funding provided to the district by the state.
In March 2013, just four months after departing from his short-lived position as Inglewood Unified superintendent, Taylor was hired as deputy superintendent in the Lennox School District.
By that summer, Taylor found himself thoroughly enmeshed in the school district’s politics. In August, board members Mercedes Ibarra and Marisol Cruz had directed Taylor to make personnel changes at the district which bypassed Superintendent Barbara Flores and at least some of the other board members. In September, Flores protested this action.
In the November 2013 election, incumbent Lennox School District board members Cruz, Sonia Saldana and Juan Navarro were up for reelection. While Navarro managed to remain in office, both Cruz and Saldana were defeated by Shannon Allen and Sergio Hernandez Jr. After the election, yet a month remained before Cruz and Saldana were scheduled to depart from the school board dais. At that point both lame ducks were entirely disenchanted with the performance of Flores as superintendent. Just weeks before their departure as board members, Cruz and Saldana joined with Ibarra to jettison Flores and replace her with Taylor.
Virtually from the outset of his tenure as superintendent with the Lennox School District, Taylor and board member Angela Fajardo, who had voted along with Navarro in opposing Taylor’s hiring, were at odds. They skirmished off and on, with Taylor at one point accusing Fajardo of having it in for him because he was African-American.
In 2014, Taylor, living once again in Grand Terrace, ran for a two-year term on the Colton Joint Unified School District’s board of trustees that was up for election because of a vacancy on that panel that had emerged. He was victorious. Two years later, in 2016, he ran for reelection and was successful in capturing a four-year term.
In his professional function at the Lennox School District, Taylor often used his authority as superintendent to secure services on the spot without getting prior board approval. Most of those fell, at least initially, below his $15,000 spending authority. Normally, those contracts came up for review subsequent to the service arrangements being made. In virtually every case the board ratified Taylor’s decision, although occasionally one member of the board or other, quite often Fajardo, posed exacting questions about the expenditures.
Based in part on a connection Taylor had made with the Diocese of San Bernardino early in his teaching career, Taylor had developed a fondness for forging educational relationships with Catholic-affiliated learning institutions.
Such was the case in 2016, when Taylor devised a unique pilot program to bring an infusion of revenue into the Lennox School District. Having learned that the State of California would subsidize online education efforts, Taylor proposed the district could offer online classes to students both within and without the district’s boundaries and pick up a per-student stipend to cover not only the district’s cost in offering the classes but the cost of supplying every student who participated with a lap top computer. Dubbing the program the Lennox Virtual Academy, Taylor arranged to have St. Francis Parish School in Bakersfield, St. Joseph School in Hawthorne, St. John Chrysostom Catholic School in Inglewood and Resurrection Academy in Fontana participate in the effort, along with students from the Lennox District as well as some home-schooled students. Participation in the program was offered to and involved students who filled out the necessary paperwork and waivers with the Lennox School District.
some 120 miles away. Taylor assured everyone that he had researched everything thoroughly with the State of California and that the only requirement that had to be met was that the enrolled students needed to log on to a program known as the Acellus Academy, which embodied the Virtual Academy’s coursework, for at least 55 minutes every school day. The State of California paid for the program, with the lion’s share of the money coming into the Lennox School District, but money going as well to the Dioceses of San Bernardino, Los Angles and Fresno.
At its height, the Virtual Academy was bringing in more that $3 million in revenue to the Lennox School District.
In 2017, the Diocese of Fresno initiated some independent research into the program and abruptly ended its relationship with the Virtual Academy. Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles County Office of Education began examining the arrangement.
Earlier this year, state education officials took a close look at the virtual academy program. While their conclusion was that the Acellus Academy coursework passed muster in terms of state curriculum requirements, the district’s blurring of the distinction between public schools and private religious schools, not to mention the dual registration of students at two accredited schools simultaneously, was a highly questionable if not outright illegal use of public education money. Earlier this year, the Lennox School district committed to closing the Virtual Academy as of this year.
In retrospect, a recurrent relationship between the district and Ben Leavitt that flourished under Taylor has come into question. One of those related to the Virtual Academy.
Taylor had arranged for an outfit known as School Management Solutions to provide all of the administrative processing for the Lennox Virtual Academy, under a contract which paid the firm roughly ten percent of the roughly $10,200 per student per academic year that the district took in for each student enrolled in the Virtual Academy. In this way School Management Solutions has netted approaching $800,000 from the program.
Leavett is the principal in another company that had a very lucrative arrangement with the district, that entity being the consulting firm of Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt. Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt has handled a number of district affairs, most notably the district’s impoverished student nutrition program.
Taylor presented contracts relating to the arrangements with both Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt and School Management Solutions to the school board, which signed off on them. The deal with Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt for the nutrition management program involved rather exorbitant remuneration levels for services entailing hourly wages to Leavett of $165, a supervisor who received $120 an hour and a clerical staff person remunerated at $80 an hour. Administrative costs on the nutrition program over a three year period ran to more than $700,000.
A contract the district entered into in the Spring of 2013, while Taylor had not yet acceded to the position of superintendent, was that with A-Team Security, which had been hired to watch over the district’s campuses plagued by recurrent waves of vandalism. Despite the consideration that Barbara Flores was the district’s superintendent at that time, Taylor had taken the lead on and made the arrangements for the A-Team Security contract.
Initially, that no-bid contract had run the district just over $640,000 per year for video surveillance, patrol and general security at the district’s six campuses. The next year, 2014-15, A-Team Security went from simply watching the schoolyards and buildings during hours when teachers and students were not there and class was not in session to a more comprehensive 24-hour setup. The cost jumped to a cool million annually, calculated upon paying security guards $19 to $20 per hour and their supervisor and a full-time head of security $23 per hour and $27 per hour. Over the three years thereafter, the district was paying $1.2 million per year to A-Team.
During his time as superintendent, Taylor kept quiet that the district had spent over $5.2 million on campus security. When the Los Angeles County Office of Education came across that number last year, it sent a memo to the district relating to what one of the office’s auditor considered to be an “alarming” outlay. It is not clear whether the school board ever saw that memo or if it was intercepted and quashed by Taylor.
Taylor’s rocky relationship with Fajardo, who has been a board member with Lennox School District since 2007, never went away. That circumstance was exacerbated when Marisol Cruz, who had been voted off the board in 2013 and who is often at odds with Fajardo, was returned to the board when she ran again in 2015. Fajardo’s questioning of the items for action that Taylor had placed before the board over the years, her distrust of the positive relationship that Taylor had with Cruz and her occasional referrals to enforcement or auditing agencies brought scrutiny to the district that manifested, earlier this year, in a set of questions that Taylor was at last unable to provide satisfactory answers to.
Suggestions surfaced of a kickback arrangement involving Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt or School Management Solutions or both. A parsing of the district’s books by state auditors found that since 2013 the money salted away in the district’s reserve accounts had dwindled from $12.5 million to $1.6 million as of June 30, 2018. That is technically below the state’s minimum three percent reserve cushion.
On April 9, after state and Los Angeles County Office of Education officials had exchanges with district officials, Taylor resigned as superintendent. On the same day, information was likewise provided to Colton Joint Unified School District officials. A closed session of that district’s board ensued, the confidential minutes of which have been sealed into perpetuity, meaning no disclosure of that discussion will ever be made public. Immediately after that session, Taylor resigned as a school board member.
The Lennox School District Board of Trustees then appointed Nick Salerno to serve as interim superintendent. Already alerted to the issues that had prompted Taylor’s resignation, board members in the last two months have been buffeted by further revelations relating to fiscal mismanagement that have proven to be a drain on the district’s $69 million annual operating budget.
Exactly one month later, on May 9, after the Los Angeles County Office of Education had gone over the Lennox School District’s books very closely and raised pointed questions about district finances, the district’s chief business officer, Kevin Franklin, and the district’s human resources manager, Hiacynth Martinez, tendered their resignations.
On Sunday, June 9, with his wife Janet and one of their three children having gone several days before to Yosemite on a dual recreational vehicle camping trip/family reunion, Taylor waited until the early afternoon when he knew that both of his other older children were engaged and would not be at their Grand Terrace home. At that point, reportedly after leaving a terse note to prevent the sheriff’s department from having to chase down false and dead end leads against anyone else, Kent Taylor, 54, using a handgun shot himself once in the head.
Nick Salerno, the acting superintendent of the Lennox School District said, “We are shocked and saddened to hear about the sudden death of our former superintendent, Mr. Kent Taylor. On behalf of the board of education and myself, we send our heartfelt condolences to Mr. Taylor’s family and closest friends, and to all whose lives he touched.”
“We were deeply saddened this week to hear about the death of our longtime board member, Kent Taylor,” Katie Orloff, the spokeswoman for the Colton Joint Unified School District said. “We thank him for his service and dedication to the students, families and employees of our district. We send our condolences to his family for their tremendous loss. Our hearts go out to them in all ways.”
“Kent Taylor was the one person who kept the dream of Grand Terrace High School alive,” said former Grand Terrace Mayor Herman Hilkey. “For nearly ten years he was the only one on the school board who was committed to having that high school, which also served the south end of Colton, locate in our city. He kept that idea alive until there were enough others on the board to see the wisdom of that. He should be remembered for that. Kent will be remembered for that.”
Less than a week after garnering the attention of government officials and public employees up and down the Golden State, San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia and the council majority he controls receded from what was widely anticipated to be a major step in effectuating public employee salary reform.
Indications last week were that Valdivia and his council allies were on the verge of initiating an across-the-board effort to reduce by close to half the inflated salaries of the entire workforce at San Bernardino City Hall in an effort to stave off a looming second bankruptcy in less than a decade.
In 2012, the City of San Bernardino was forced to take refuge in Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection after years of overly generous salaries and benefits provided to city workers had created a $49 million annual operating deficit. The city emerged from bankruptcy in 2017, but now, two years later, expenditures in the soon-to-conclude 2018-19 fiscal year are on a trajectory to eclipse revenues in the same period by more than $11 million. If current trends continue, that deficit will zoom to over $16 million by the end of upcoming 2019-20.
Since 2012, San Bernardino has seen two mayoral turnovers. Patrick Morris, a former Superior Court judge, was at the city’s helm when the bankruptcy filing was made. In 2014, the city turned to Carey Davis, a certified public accountant, who had been endorsed by Morris in his mayoral bid. It was widely hoped that Davis might infuse the city with the fiscal discipline needed to stanch the city’s inveterate hemorrhaging of red ink. While some cutbacks were made and a small reduction in the level of overspending was realized by the city under Davis, the city in the five years that the bankruptcy hung over the city balanced its books in the largest measure by simply skipping out on the mounting debt it had accumulated and continued to accrue. In the four years and ten months between the time it entered into bankruptcy in August 2012 and its emergence in June 2017, the city stiffed a combination of some 209 creditors, vendors and partners for just over $350 million. Left largely unscathed by that devastation were the city’s employees, who continued to draw paychecks throughout the ordeal. They have seen no reductions in pay and their benefits remain intact, including the pensions they were promised by past mayors and city councils, though going forward the city’s employees are now being called upon to make a slight increase in their individual contributions toward their retirement benefits. The employees’ pension plan remains in place, administered by the California Public Employees Retirement System, contributions to which constitute the city’s third largest current expense, behind salaries paid out to the city’s police officers and salaries to the city’s general employees. In order to convince Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge Meredith Jury that the city should be allowed to walk away from the debt it owed, the city utilized the services of the law firm of Straddling Yocca Carlson and Rauth, in particular its bankruptcy law attorney Paul Glassman. Straddling Yocca Carlson and Rauth has been paid $25 million in legal fees over the last six years and eleven months.
In November 2018, Davis was turned out of office by the city’s voters, who replaced him with John Valdivia, who since 2012 had been serving in the capacity of Third Ward Councilman. In the last three years of Davis’ term in office, which was extended by close to seven months when the city adopted a new charter that changed the city’s election cycle from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, Valdivia had emerged as Davis’ main rival on the council.
Since coming into office, Valdivia has had to deal with the legacy of the city’s spendthrift past which includes the unsustainable commitments it has made in terms of the pay level of city employees and the looming prospect that the city will once again fall so far into deficit spending that the only solution will be another bankruptcy or ending its 150-year run as a going concern and disincorporating.
Two weeks ago Valdivia and five of the council’s seven members who are generally considered to be allied with him fired Straddling Yocca Carlson and Rauth, which has continued since the city’s 2017 emergence from bankruptcy to bill the city at a rate of close to $200,000 per month to resolve outstanding claims made against the city by its past creditors who were unwilling to accept the city’s offers made in bankruptcy court to satisfy the remaining invoices against it with payments representing, depending on the case, ten cents, twenty cents, thirty cents or forty cents on the dollar.
Looking forward to this week, Valdivia and his team of strategists, which includes his chief of staff, Bill Essayli, political consultant Chris Jones, former San Bernardino City Councilman/former San Bernardino County Third District Supervisor Neil Derry and Republican Central Committee member Scott Olson, formulated a bold move intended to head off the financial maelstrom that had destroyed the Morris and Davis mayoralties. The plan consisted of reducing – indeed eliminating – the perpetual and overwhelming drain on city finances represented by the city continuing to employ at their inflated salaries all of its employees.
Over the past several decades, the public employee unions representing the city’s employees – the San Bernardino Police Officers Association, the former San Bernardino Firefighters Association and the San Bernardino Public Employees Association – had cultivated the city’s elected leadership, meaning its mayors and council members, by the practice of providing them with larger and larger donations to their respective political campaign funds to the point that union money was their essential lifeblood as politicians. If, and indeed when, any of those officials evinced the temerity of opposing the increasingly favorably-termed employment contracts providing higher and yet higher salaries or hourly pay to city employees accompanied by ever more ample benefits, the unions would instantly cease the flow of donations and vector the provision of money to the opponents of any elected officials who insisted on being hard-nosed in the collective bargaining process. The unions, with their virtually endless supply of money to be applied for this type of political persuasion, would pour whatever it took to provide the candidates they favored with enough of a monetary advantage to either keep them in office or remove from office any politician who did not adhere to the principle that keeping public employees well-paid should be the first priority of government. In turn, the elevated pay being provided to the city’s line employees necessitated that the supervisors of those lower- and mid-level employees, the city’s management division consisting of its administrative ranks such as department heads who were not represented by the unions, be provided with ever greater compensation in keeping with their status as the unionized employees’ supervisors. In this way, the cost of local government had risen into the stratosphere.
The Valdivia team’s plan was relatively simple and straightforward. Beginning where it could and had the unfettered ability to do so, it would impose on those city employees drastic, i.e., in the neighborhood of fifty percent, reductions in their pay and benefits. Upon effectuating those cost reductions, it would then proceed as logically and as efficiently as possible or as dictated by circumstance from there to a) ask of the city’s remaining workforce that they take voluntarily pay cuts in the 10 percent to 25 percent range; b) explore the reduction of that portion of the city’s workforce unwilling to accept drawdowns in their compensation either through layoffs or attrition; c) look into hiring by contract younger and more talented and energetic employees who were anxious to accept public employment and would be enthusiastic about coming to San Bernardino to replace the more expensive staff the city is now burdened with; d) direct the city manager to use the option she has to terminate the city’s remaining department heads who are not willing to reduce their remuneration by 25 percent in order to remain in place; e) fill the existing gaps in the city’s managerial ranks with capable talent hungry enough to take on the responsibility of leading a municipal department such that they would be willing to accept a pay level in keeping with the redefined standards being reformulated for the city; f) offer the city manager’s position to current interim city manager Teri LeDoux with the proviso that she accept remuneration set at a level of two-thirds that of recently-fired City Manager Andrea Travis Miller; and g) upon the expiration of the city’s current collective bargaining contracts, from a position of strength and authority, renegotiate those contracts based on the mandate of preserving the city as a going concern, such that the salaries and benefits to be provided will not threaten the city’s ongoing, continuing and future financial viability.
The gambit, if successful, would have the effect of not just placing San Bernardino on the road to long-lasting economic recovery, but widening and boosting Valdivia’s political prospects. It is no secret that as a young and ambitious up-and-coming politician, Valdivia has ultimate designs on the governor’s mansion in Sacramento. Though handicapped by the consideration that he is a Republican in a state absolutely dominated by Democrats, Valdivia and his handlers perceive, quite possibly correctly, that the Republican Party is just one charismatic Hispanic candidate away from making a vast turnaround in California. Moreover, the problem of excessive public employee salary levels is not one that is endemic to San Bernardino. Indeed, in all but the most economically vibrant of California 482 municipalities, public employee pay scales, by which workers in the public sector are paid by the taxpayers at a rate, on average, that is nearly double that paid to workers in the private sector holding roughly equivalent or comparable positions, exacerbated by the fashion in which public employees are further provided with retirement benefits that are overwhelmingly superior to those enjoyed by workers in private industry, has eaten up funding that would otherwise be used by cities and local agencies to construct and maintain vital infrastructure and provide the services which those agencies and municipalities were originally intended to provide. In the vast majority of those cases, California’s towns, cities and counties are not in danger, of ceasing as going concerns, having to declare bankruptcy or disincorporating as was the case with San Bernardino in 2012 and is again growing increasingly likely. Nevertheless, hundreds of California cities are unable to meet the reasonable expectations of their citizens with regard to maintaining and upgrading existing and dilapidating infrastructure or ensuring the timely delivery of basic governmental services because of encroaching public employee salary commitments. If Valdivia and those within his network could succeed in breaking the public employee culture’s lock on and monopolization of the financial means available to the San Bernardino city government and redirect it to the benefit of the city’s residents, he would very likely create a model that could be replicated throughout the state, demonstrate himself as a visionary, strong and determined leader with the character to stand up to the power and intimidation of public employees and their union, and show he is in possession of the mettle needed to function in a gubernatorial capacity. That was the goal toward which Valdivia was angling. Word to that effect had spread, and as result, thousands of government officials throughout the State of California had logged onto the City of San Bernardino’s website Tuesday night to watch the meeting, to the point that the server was overtaxed and kept crashing.
Thus, those who had the best vantage on what was happening at Tuesday evening’s specially-called meeting were those who were physically present in the room. In the main, the meeting had been called so the council could make a review of the city’s proposed 2019-2020 budget. The council was nevertheless purposed to also consider a proposed cost saving measure ostensibly derived by a subset of the city council recently created by Valdivia to consider cost-saving measures. Dubbed the Economic Development Council Ad Hoc Committee and consisting of council members Henry Nickel, Ted Sanchez and Juan Figueroa, that panel’s proposal related to the current positions of the city’s elected city attorney, elected city clerk and elected city treasurer. While under the San Bernardino City Charter established in 1905 all three of those posts were elected ones, the city’s new charter enacted by a citywide vote in 2016 transitioned the city attorney and city clerk into appointees of the council and dispensed with the city treasurer’s post altogether. Because, however, the current holders of those positions – Gary Saenz, Georgeann Hanna and David Kennedy, respectively – were elected in 2015 to terms set to expire at the end of March 2020, they are entitled to serve in those capacities until then.
Under the charter established in 1905, the city attorney and city clerk positions were deemed full-time ones, with the treasurer serving in a part-time oversight capacity. There had been no salary requirement for the positions codified into law or ordinance and previous city councils had conferred upon the positions salaries and benefits they accorded to be fair and within the scale of wages consistent with municipal standards throughout the state for cities of a comparable size to San Bernardino.
Last year, the in-house attorney staff that had supported the city attorney for the last several decades was jettisoned, replaced with two attorneys with the firm of Best Best & Krieger, who are currently functioning in the capacities of assistant city attorney and chief deputy assistant city attorney. On April 1, 2020, with Saenz’ departure, Best Best & Krieger will become the city’s contract city attorney. Saenz has been working with the firm, acclimating it and its attorneys to the hundreds of legal issues the city is faced with.
The proposal by the Nickel, Sanchez and Figueroa committee, which had met on May 30 and June 5, called for reducing by 45.8 percent the compensation Saenz is to receive during the nine months of 2019-2020 that he will remain in office; reducing the compensation Hanna is to receive during the remaining duration of her tenure by 59.2 percent; and lowering the compensation Kennedy is to receive by 90 percent. Saenz currently receives $246,266 in total annual compensation as city attorney, including salary, benefits and add-ons. Hanna currently receives $171,466 in total annual compensation as city clerk, including salary, benefits and add-ons. Kennedy currently receives $65,000 in annual compensation as city treasurer, including salary, benefits and add-ons. Thus the committee was asking the council to reduce the compensation Saenz is to receive from July 1, 2019 until March 31, 2020 from $184,700 to $100,000, the compensation Hanna is tor receive over the same nine-month span from $128,600 to $52,500, and lessen Kennedy’s remuneration in the same timeframe from $50,200 to $5,000. Saenz was being called upon to see his compensation reduced by $84,700. Hanna was to sustain a reduction of $76,100. Kennedy was to accept losing $45,200. The calculated savings in payroll costs relating to the three as proposed was $206,000.
When the council took up the compensation reduction issue Tuesday night, Saenz weighed in.
The city attorney said that the city’s charter designates him to “serve as chief legal advisor to the council, the city manager and all city departments, offices and agencies” and that he represents the city “in all legal proceedings.” His authority stems from the city’s charter, Saenz said, asserting the “mayor and council are powerless to change my role, duties, authority, obligation and my responsibilities. Therefore, my role, duties and responsibilities are exactly the same now as they were before the city contracted with BB&K [Best Best & Krieger]. At this time last year, before the BB&K contract, I was provided an in-house staff with some eight attorneys, and near equivalent number of support staff for a total of approximately 17 to 18 staff members. That support staff changed by the council action of July 2018 to two in-house support staff and the contract with BB&K. So while the means by which my duties to the city are met have been so changed, my duties, role and level of responsibility are exactly the same. I am still the city attorney of the City of San Bernardino. While Best Best & Krieger provides the chief assistant city attorney and assistant city attorney and performs the majority of the day-to-day function of the office, BB&K understands that the city’s resolution to contract provides that Gary Saenz is the ultimate city attorney authority. And while BB&K is responsible for meeting its obligations under the contract, Gary Saenz is ultimately responsible for fulfilling the city attorney duties to the city. I am a salaried elected officer. This means that the city and I have agreed upon a reasonable compensation level for my filling the role of city attorney as described in the charter. I am compensated for acting and filling the role of city attorney as defined in the charter and not by the number of hours required to meet that responsibility. Whether I spend 50 hours or 30 hours, the compensation level is the same. The number of hours is not relevant; rather it is the level of authority and the high level of responsibility that justify my compensation. My authority and level of responsibility have not changed with the staffing by BB&K. The mayor’s chief of staff recently came to me and attempted to calculate a change in my compensation via some formula of hours times a dollar amount. Such an attempt demonstrates nothing but a complete lack of understanding of the role and responsibility of the city attorney. As attorney of record for the city in the bankruptcy court, I presently have a high level of responsibility to both the bankruptcy court and to the city as its legal counsel of record. The termination of Straddling Yocca Carlson and Rauth as bankruptcy counsel by the city council means Gary Saenz alone is responsible to the court and to the city. Likewise, in all case litigation pending I am listed as an attorney of record which means that I am responsible to both the court in which the action is pending and to the city with respect to each such case.”
Saenz said, “I am disappointed with the so-called Economic Development Committee’s recommendation, not only because of how it impacts me and my family but because of how it failed to address or recommend any plan of action for economic development.”
He noted that Nickel had said “We need to focus on revenue.” Saenz said, “So, I am bothered that instead, their recommendation is merely to chip away at the compensation of the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer, elected by the people, to address the city’s $11 million deficit. If cuts to compensation are an acceptable way to address our budget woes, shouldn’t cuts be across the board, to the council members, mayor, perhaps even to all staff? It remains a mystery to me how the committee believes singling out cuts to the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer and to no other elected officials or city employees is fair, just or reasonable.”
Saenz implied that Best Best & Krieger had advised the council against the compensation reductions. “If council chooses to defy the voters, defy the legal advice of BB&K, a court will address this issue at great cost to the city, including attorney fees for those who seek the court’s intervention, attorneys for the city, and all other costs of litigation, and I predict in the end the reductions in compensation will not be allowed,” he said.
Saenz’ statement was echoed in a warning provided to the council by former Mayor Patrick Morris, who said that the imposition of the compensation reductions would likely result in the filing of litigation against the city.
“Practically speaking,” Morris said, “the ad hoc committee indicates a savings of about $200,000. You can expect, as a mayor and council, immediate lawsuits by these officeholders asking the Superior Court for injunctive relief and a writ of mandate. I’m confident they will be successful in every aspect of their lawsuit, and the cost to the city will certainly be probably a lot more than the proposed savings the ad hoc committee suggests. You will pay your attorney’s fees and costs and maybe for depositions and interrogatories. Losing, you will pay the attorney’s fees and costs for the officeholders, as well. And you will suffer the embarrassment, quite frankly, of having attempted to drive from office and diminish the professional stature and careers of distinguished public officials officers we elected to these offices with the expectation that they would serve until the end of their elected term.”
Saenz said, “If you’d like to adjust my pay to a reasonable hourly wage, $300 per hour is a conservatively reasonable amount for an attorney with 40 years of experience. Last week I worked over 36 hours, which equated to $10,800, extrapolated to an annual compensation of $561,000. More typical for me now is a 25-hour week in the office, which extrapolates to $386,000 total compensation.”
When Valdivia offered Hanna an opportunity to address the compensation reduction proposal, she declined, citing the advice of legal counsel.
Nevertheless, P.J. Seleska addressed the council, in so doing relating events which strongly implied she was speaking on Hanna’s behalf.
“The San Bernardino City Clerk is a working master municipal clerk who reduced her office from six employees to three and one part time, and did cut seven percent this year as requested, while the mayor exploded his staff budget,” Seleska said. “Not a single council member has a clue how many hours the city clerk puts in, let alone what the job entails. This is not about the budget. This is not fiscal responsibility. This is about political retribution, corruption, and overstepping authority to exact revenge. The San Bernardino mayor and his chief of staff are angry because, in their words, ‘The people know too much.’ They want to censor access to publicly-funded information, insisting they should have the final say as to who gets access to what public documents. The city clerk refused this demand, as they do not have the authority. The mayor shared that he intends to limit public comment to 90 seconds and intends to challenge those who speak against him. He expressed his desire to scrub the city website of public officials’ statements of economic interest and other relevant information. This administration is blatantly terrified of the San Bernardino city clerk’s sunshine ordinance campaign, which calls for governmental transparency.”
According to Seleska, “On two separate occasions, San Bernardino Mayor John Valdvia has attempted to bribe San Bernardino City Clerk Georgeann “Gigi” Hanna. He summoned her to his doughnut shop on 40th Street, after hours, where he made an offer that Gigi Hanna turned down. Subsequently, John Valdivia called the city clerk into the mayor’s office and made multiple offers that were again turned down. The Economic Development Council Ad Hoc Committee recommendation is in direct retaliation of Gigi Hanna’s refusal to be bribed. The administration can’t buy her out, so let’s starve her out or force her to quit. All contemporaneous notes and evidentiary supporting information regarding these actions have been submitted to various appropriate authorities.”
Ultimately, the council voted 4-to-2, with Councilman Jim Mulvihill absent, to ratify the compensation reductions as proposed. Along the way, however, there were several remarkable developments, not the least of which was the Valdivia team’s abandonment of the underlying game plan, of which the reductions had been designed as a crucial starting point.
While councilmen Nickel, Figueroa, Sanchez and Councilwoman Bessine Richard voted in support of giving Saenz, Hanna and Kennedy the pay cuts, that vote had come on a substitute motion to a previous motion made by Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra. Ibarra, who heretofore had been a steady ally to Valdivia and one who could be counted upon to support his agenda down the line, had departed from his fold when the discussion regarding the compensation reduction matter intensified. Ibarra’s motion called for keeping compensation for Sanez, Hanna and Kennedy intact and instead reducing where appropriate the city’s contracts with and payments to outside counsel, supporting a staff recommendation to reduce outlays in the mayor’s office by four percent and an entirely unanticipated proposal to terminate Bilal Essayli as Valdivia’s chief of staff by eliminating that position. Councilman Fred Shorett seconded her motion but they were outmaneuvered through the majority’s use of parliamentary procedure whereby Sanchez’s substitute motion prevented Ibarra’s motion from being voted upon.
Treasure Ortiz, who last month vied unsuccessfully against Figueroa to succeed Valdivia as Ward 3 council representative, addressed the council. “You really think we’re here talking about a budget the ad hoc committee thinks is going to save $200,000 when you had behind the scenes tried to give the chief of staff a $20,000 increase in his pay?” Ortiz asked. “He makes $94,000. You gave the police department over $430,000 in raises. This is about a budget? No. What this is about is retaliating against the city clerk because she controls public records and you want to control the information that comes out of this city.”
Valdivia had Nickel explain the rationale for the council’s action. While asserting that ultimately, “cuts are not the answer” and that “growth is the answer,” Nickel lamented a bleak budget picture consisting of an $11.2 million shortfall as the current fiscal year is concluding and prospects that look even worse as 2019-20 is about to start. Wielding the budget rapier, he said “reflects the reality we are having to face this fiscal year. We’ve got, over the next year, a very short window of time to turn around a very dire situation. We stood back and we said, ‘What makes sense?’ We proposed some cuts, but we knew when you start diving into salaries of individuals, first of all, it’s radioactive. I wouldn’t want anyone diving into my salary, but the reality is the charter allows that. That’s the way it works. So I’ve learned to deal with that. The fact of the matter is we have a firm, BB&K, on board. We also looked at the functions of the city clerk. I’ll be honest: There’s some cities where the city clerk is more or less a figurehead, especially the elected city clerks, some of the appointed city clerks. They are. That was information that was presented to us. That’s not to say that that’s necessarily the case here. And certainly, if we want to keep time cards now, when they were elected officials, they didn’t have to keep time cards. If they want to consider themselves employees, then yeah, we’re going to have to track your time, because at the end of the day, the taxpayers pay all of our salaries here. And we have to respect the taxpayers. It’s never easy to cut budgets, and we have quite a few competing priorities in the city,” Nickel said. “This isn’t an easy process, and nothing we do up here in the context of our budget this year is going to be easy or pleasant.”
Ultimately, after achieving the reductions in Saenz’s, Hanna’s and Kennedy’s compensation, the Valdivia team abandoned the strategy of seeking across-the-board reductions in employee pay, when they came to terms with the consideration that two of Valdivia’s council allies whose votes would be instrumental to carrying out his plan are themselves government employees pulling comfortable salaries with a considerable investment in the public pension system. Councilwoman Bessine Richard, has been an employee with San Bernardino County since 1981. In 2014, she was promoted to the position of workforce development supervisor with the County of San Bernardino Workforce Development Board and was working that job when she ran for the city council in San Bernardino’s Sixth Ward in 2015 and finalized her election to the council post in a run-off in February 2016 before being sworn into the post in April 2016. Five months later she was promoted to a senior position as workforce development manager.
Councilman Henry Nickel is an analyst with the County of San Bernardino Workforce Development Board, having been in that position since November 2016. He previously worked in government as a rail analyst with the Riverside County Transportation Commission.
Were the City of San Bernardino to prove successful in cutting city employee salaries and benefits, in the event that would trigger similar governmental employee pay decreases, both Richard and Nickel would potentially be impacted, seeing their own paychecks reduced.
Contacted by the Sentinel after Tuesday’s vote, Valdivia’s chief of staff, Bilal Essayli, indicated that a move to trim San Bernardino’s operational costs by drastic reductions in employee compensation in general was no longer and had never been a seriously contemplated option.
Essayli acknowledged that the city’s participation in the California Public Employees Retirement System represented a major drain on the city’s finances.
“We will be paying CalPERS [the California Public Employees Retirement System] $3 million more than last year,” he said. “It’s the pension plan that’s the problem, not salaries.”
Asked directly if the Valdvia team was preparing to secure salary and benefit reductions from city employees as part of the effort to stave off another bankruptcy, Essayli said, “I would say no. I haven’t heard anything like that. The issue is CalPERS. The reality is that San Bernardino has been harder hit by the loss of revenue. Revenue has stagnated. That is a problem in every jurisdiction in the state. It is not something that is going to be solved by San Bernardino.”
Queried as to whether what the council did Tuesday was a first salvo in the war against overpaid employees and if the balance of the city’s employees should prepare themselves for a round of similar belt tightening, Essayli said, “That action was very specific. Those three positions have been abolished by the charter. There has been a significant reduction in their duties. Their suggestion that they should receive the same amount of pay is ridiculous. Their reduced compensation is directly related to their reduced duties under the new charter.”
Essayli again resisted the Sentinel’s invitation to divulge what efforts the Valdivia administration is on the brink of taking to either impose salary and benefit reductions on city employees or request of them on a voluntary basis to head off massive layoffs.
“We have very limited leverage,” Essayli said. “Under the collective bargaining contracts now in place, their salaries and benefits are locked in, and when we go into negotiations, if we don’t come to an agreement they continue on the same terms as before. They can never lose. They can only gain. It is a very difficult situation. The problem is not salaries. The real problem is the ongoing cost, the total ongoing and future cost of pensions, the unfunded liability.”
The prosecution in pre-trial hearings and throughout the trial strongly implied that the family had been killed in their Fallbrook home on the evening of February 4, 2010, but during its closing arguments backed away from that theory after the defense had repeatedly brought that into question by drawing attention to the conspicuous lack of evidence of mayhem within the premises, which was the focus of an extensive search 15 days after the family’s disappearance when San Diego County Sheriff’s investigators had obtained a warrant to search the McStay home in conjunction with its inquiry into the highly mysterious multiple missing persons case.
After the family seemingly dropped off the face of the earth with only the most misleading of traces, as when the family vehicle had been found some half mile away from the Mexican border in Ysidro four days after the disappearance, the mystery intensified and continued for three and a half more years until a motorcyclist in the desert area between Victorville and Oro Grande came across a piece of what was later determined to be Joseph McStay, Jr.’s skull. That find led investigators to two shallow graves nearby in a wash off a rarely-used dirt road used for utility facility maintenance. In one of those graves, from which predatory animals had unearthed Joseph McStay Jr.’s body, was the corpse of his father, Joseph McStay. In the other grave were the skeletal remains of his brother, Gianni, and his mother.
Just a few days short of a year later, in November 2014, investigators with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, after having carried out an investigation in which they continuously connected Merritt to events and circumstances relating to Joseph McStay and the events seemingly relating to the family’s demise, they arrested Merritt and charged him with the murders.
The case the prosecution put together against Merritt was an entirely circumstantial one, which featured no direct evidence linking him to the murders. What physical evidence relating to him that did exist, such as trace amounts of his DNA turning up in the family’s Isuzu Trooper left abandoned at the border in San Ysidro, was subject to differing – meaning both sinister and benign – interpretations. Evidence in the form of cell phone records that placed him somewhere in the High Desert in the Victorville/Oro Grande/Hesperia/Apple Valley area on February 6, 2010 was implicative only if several of the prosecution’s speculative assertions, in particular that the family had been buried in the shallow desert graves on that particular day and that the cell phone activity was an indication that he was at the grave site rather than anywhere else in the 240-square mile environs of the Victor Valley, were accepted. Perhaps the strongest evidence against Merritt consisted of a series of checks totaling more than $20,000 on the account for Joseph McStay’s business, Earth Inspired Products, he had apparently written to himself in the days just prior to, the day of and over the four days following the family’s disappearance. The prosecution maintained that Merritt had first stolen from Joseph McStay out of financial desperation brought on in part because of his gambling addiction, and that he then murdered McStay and his family after his thefts were discovered to cover up his larceny. Merritt was the primary contractor for Earth Inspired Products, which involved a relatively lucrative arrangement by which he constructed high end water features, that is decorative fountains and artificial waterfalls, that Joseph was marketing to their mutual financial benefit. Those checks embodied certain specific anomalies, such as an atypical lack of capitalization in the names of the payees to whom the checks were made out or in the checks’ memo lines, as well as all of those checks drafted after the family’s disappearance being backdated to February 4, 2010. Based upon those differences in the way Joseph McStay drafted the checks written against the Earth Inspired Account, the prosecution asserted that Merritt had been engaged in embezzlement from the company. When Joseph became aware that Merritt was pilfering from the company, the prosecution alleged, it precipitated a confrontation between McStay and Merritt that occurred on February 4, 2010, which in turn led to Merritt’s homicidal rampage, using a three pound sledgehammer against the skulls of all of the victims, that night. A sledgehammer was found in the grave containing the bodies of Summer and Gianni McStay.
The prosecution maintained that Merritt had driven from his home in Rancho Cucamonga to Fallbrook the night of February 4 to carry out the murders, relying upon gaps in Merritt’s cellphone activity that night and a brief and grainy footage from the front yard security video camera of one of the McStay family’s neighbors on Avocado Vista Lane showing the lower portion of a vehicle, at 7:47 pm, pulling out of the McStay family driveway, to support that claim. The prosecution adamantly claimed the vehicle was Merritt’s work truck, while the prosecution’s own original expert witness on the matter and the expert for the defense said there were features of both vehicles that conclusively demonstrated the vehicles could not have been one and the same. The prosecution then ditched its first expert witness and brought in a second measurement-and-photographic-analysis-and-comparison expert to state that he could not rule out the possibility that it was Merritt’s truck depicted on the security video.
The defense subjected virtually every element of the prosecution’s case to some level of contradiction, vigorously cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses and then, after the prosecution concluded the presentation of its case, putting on a defense that lasted 10 weeks, one week longer than the prosecution’s presentation.
The defense labored to show that the Earth Inspired Products operation on which the defendant and Joseph McStay were collaborating was a financially successful one that represented income Merritt would have been unable to generate on his own, such that the defendant had no motive to kill McStay or his family.
The checks that were written during the eight-day window surrounding the family’s disappearance were a routine element of the water feature production operation, the defense team argued.
A major element of the defense strategy consisted of providing evidence and eliciting testimony that indicated another business associate McStay was involved with in marketing the water features, website designer Dan Kavanaugh, was the more logical suspect in the murders in that he had derived over $200,000 from the Earth Inspired Products operation in the nine months after the family disappeared, and McStay had nearly succeeded, at the time the deaths occurred, in cutting off the business ties he had with Kavanaugh.
Through this energetic and often intricate and involved set of expositions, including ones steeped in precise and complex technical detail, the defense sought to refute both the gravamen and the even less significant aspects of the prosecution’s case.
In their closing statements for the prosecution, both Supervising Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes and Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriguez, conscious of the sometimes elliptical and occasionally speculative nature of the theories and narrative of their own case, called upon the jury to disregard what they characterized as the defense’s efforts to stretch the perception of events toward conclusions that were within the realm of possibility but were out of keeping with the normally-defined boundaries of reasonable interpretation.
In the end, the jury rejected the alternative interpretation of the evidence the defense was propounding.
Prior to that outcome of the jury’s deliberations being officially announced, on Monday morning a crowd that had formed in anticipation of the verdict being read was queued up in the hallway before Department 1, the largest courtroom in the courthouse. Those seeking entrance to the proceedings had to run a gauntlet of security personnel. Once inside the courtroom, family members of the victim and a fair number of sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office personnel gravitated to the left side of the gallery, with most members of Merritt’s family, the press and neutral observers being shunted to the right side of the gallery. Before the jury filed into the room, Judge Michael Smith, noting that whatever way the verdict went there would be strong emotion among many of those present, called upon those who could not be depended upon to contain themselves to leave at once and for those who remained to refrain from any overt expression of emotion, as the court proceedings would yet at that time not be concluded. After the 12 members of the nine-woman, three man jury filed into the room and took their places in the jury box along with two of the alternative jurors who were present, the jury’s forewoman handed the sealed verdict over to the court clerk, who then read the verdicts to the packed courtroom. There was an audible collective gasp from several members of Merritt’s extended family when the first verdict was read, accompanied by several verbal expressions of shock and disbelief. Three members of Merritt’s family left the courtroom in tears as the remainder of the verdicts were being read.
Among the members of the McStay family present were Joseph McStay’s mother Susan Blake, and his brother Michael, both of whom made less overt displays of emotion, but were unmistakably pleased at the verdict. They engaged in congratulatory embraces with other members of their family and supporters as well as with the prosecution team of Imes, Rodrigurez and Supervising Deputy District Attorney Sean Daugherty.
Merritt, 62, now faces the possibility of the death penalty. The same jury that convicted him is yet charged with making a determination/recommendation as to whether he should be executed by lethal injection or be consigned to life in prison with no possibility of release.
The following day, Tuesday June 11, the jurors began hearing testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution to illustrate the heinous and destructive nature and impact of Merritt’s action, calculated to push the panel toward recommending the death penalty.
Susan Blake and Michael McStay were the first two victim impact witnesses to testify.
To Rodriguez, Susan Blake described her relationship with her son Joseph, whom she referred to as “Joey,” as being “super-close.” She said he was physically active, both as a surfer and as someone who had inherited a love of golfing from her father. “He loved soccer,” she said. Joseph was, she said “laid back… with a funny laugh. He was a very kind person and a very giving person. He was a very hands-on father. Joey loved kids.”
She described Summer McStay as “a very protective mother.” She said of her son, “He worked at home so he could spend time with them [his wife and children].”
Of Gianni, she said, he “was so smart. He loved dinosaurs.” Both children always wore hats, she said. Her son regularly put her youngest grandson, Joseph, Jr., whom she referred to by the nickname “Chubba,” to sleep. “Momma couldn’t do it, so he would put him on his chest,” Blake said, and rocked him into slumber. Blake said her daughter-in-law Summer organized elaborate and fun birthday parties for both children. “When there was a function or a party, she was the definite organizer of that,” Blake said. “She could put it all together.”
“Gianni was a lot like Joey with curly hair,” she said. “Gianni was calm and into books. and animals and things. If it wasn’t books, it was putting together a big train with tracks that you could remote control. It was always hands-on. Chubba thought he could keep up with Gianni, even though he was teeny. He ran like a deer. He would jump when he would run.”
Blake said that her grandsons “were very close” and that upon moving to Fallbrook from San Clemente, both boys “were excited to have a yard,” after living in a small apartment.
She said she had traveled to Mexico in search of the family out of a belief they might have been there, distributed fliers there, and that she arranged to have an article published in a Mexican periodical about the family in the hopes it would lead to their return. She said she constantly posted her son emails for about a year after the family’s disappearance, trying to contact him.
She said that well after the bodies were found, she learned that the family had been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer. “Your mind is like, ’Why? Who?’” she said. “The hurt will never go away. You miss their sounds and their laughter, and now I go to a gravesite and talk to them. I’ll never, ever be the same. Never.” she said.
Michael McStay said that growing up as the younger brother to Joseph, who was, he said, ”three years, two months, three days” his senior, was “kind of hard. Joe was good at a lot of things. I was in the shadows. He was really good at a lot of things, so I always looked up to him.” He said he shared a passion for surfing with his brother.
Michael McStay said of his brother, “He was so kind and such a good listener. We did everything. We raced motorcycles together. We fished. We camped every weekend at Ft. Hood when we were in Dallas. We did everything together.”
Of his brother, Michael McStay said, “I would describe him as a kind, strong Southern gentleman surfer.”
“So he adopted the beach lifestyle to his heart and soul, you would say,” Imes asked him.
“For sure, yeah,” Michael McStay responded. “Even if he had to live in a small apartment on Cabrillo [Avenue] for eight years in San Clemente, as long as he could be by the beach and have that lifestyle, that’s what he did.”
Michael said his brother was a “hands-on dad.” He said that Joseph had been ‘devastated” by the break-up of his first marriage and that in his brother’s relationship with Summer he had found happiness.
He described Summer as “an avid reader” who was witty and capable of funny comments.
He said his brother was supportive of him in all of his endeavors and encouraged him to explore his interests, including pursuing his own business. He said he had worked with his brother in building water features in the years before Earth Inspired Products took off.
His brother had a solid work ethic, Michael McStay remembered. “He was a hard worker,” he said. “He could just outwork anybody. He was organized. He was a good communicator. He put in the time.” Michael said Joseph gave him $2,500 in seed money to start his business.
Michael McStay said that his children had been deprived by the death of his brother. “They feel the loss, not to have their Uncle Joey around,” he said. He said his children were deprived of the relationship they would have had with their cousins, Gianni and Joseph, Jr. “To just take that away for whatever reason,” Michael McStay said, “you can’t get that back. I’ll never get that back. The kids will never get that back. And for what? Money? Gambling?”
Merritt’s defense team, consisting of Raj Maline, James McGee and Jacob Guerard opted not to cross examine Susan Blake and Michael McStay, indicating they will not question any of the prosecution’s victim impact witness. Nor will they call character witnesses to offer mitigating testimony in effort to spare their client from being executed. Rather, the defense intends to use the opportunity the defense is given during the penalty phase to offer evidence that will revisit the issues litigated during the guilt phase to see if they can appeal to any “lingering doubt” the jurors yet have about whether Merritt was the perpetrator.
Despite the jury’s verdict, McGee said, “We are still convinced of Charles Merritt’s innocence.”
Despite intensely concerted efforts over the last sixth weeks, authorities have yet to find the body of six-year-old Duke Flores, who was believed to have died at the hands, or as the result of the depraved and indifferent negligence, of his mother.
Duke Flores was diagnosed as suffering from autism. He was living with his mother, 29-year-old Jackee Contreras, and his aunt, Jennifer Contreras, his mother’s twin sister. On occasion, the child stayed with his grandmother.
Duke’s father, Jose Flores, did not cohabit with his son or Jackee Contreras, but had semi-regular contact with Duke. On Thursday, April 25, 2019, a blood relation to Jose Flores who has not been publicly identified requested a welfare check be carried out on the child.
Authorities have been less than fully transparent about what transpired thereafter, although some details are known.
On Thursday, April 25, at approximately 10:06 pm, deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department stationed in Apple Valley as members of that town’s police department responded to the Contreras residence in the 22000 block of Cherokee Avenue. Upon arrival, deputies were told by Jackee Contreras that she had not seen her son for approximately two weeks. Deputies immediately began a search of the area. Jackee Contreras was arrested, transported and booked into the High Desert Detention Center for child neglect, stemming from her delay in reporting her son missing. She was later transferred to the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.
There is a report, the provenance and reliability of which is unknown, that Duke Flores was actually seen in the front yard of his mother and aunt’s home earlier in the day on April 25.
Investigators say that both Jackee and Jennifer made a series of inconsistent statements to them as they labored to determine whether the boy was yet alive, and if so, his whereabouts.
Following Jackee’s arrest and booking on April 25, Jennifer was arrested on April 27.
According to a public release of information, investigators are given to believe that Duke Flores is dead and his body was disposed of in a dumpster. There has been no disclosure with regard to what led investigators to that conclusion.
Shortly after 7 am on Monday, April 29, a crew involving an unspecified number of homicide detectives, sheriff’s department volunteers and landfill personnel were actively searching the landfill in Victorville for the body of Duke Flores.
By 1 pm that day, the search team had swelled to four homicide detectives, 36 sheriff’s department volunteers, three canines, and 17 additional sheriff’s department members as well as landfill personnel. The primary area being searched was approximately 70 feet x 70 feet x 10 feet in depth, involving some 600 tons of material.
The search resumed on the morning of April 30. Also that morning, Jackee Contreras and Jennifer Contreras were brought before Superior Court Judge Lisa Rogan for arraignment in Victorville Superior Court. With more than a dozen of Duke Flores’ family members present, they each entered a single not guilty plea to one count of murder. Judge Rogan set their bail at $1 million each.
Intensified searches at the landfill continued on May 1, May 2 and May 3. Those searches typically involved detectives, additional sheriff’s deputies, volunteers, search dogs, and landfill workers. The search resumed the next week. In the several weeks since, the searches have continued, with differing levels of intensity and numbers of participants as the effort has dragged on. To date, the boy’s body has yet to turn up.
The search for several weeks was confined to one section of the landfill, which entailed sifting through some 1,200 tons of rubbish wherein the refuse disposed of at the landfill in April had been deposited.
Pre-preliminary and preliminary hearings for Jackee and Jennifer Contreras have been scheduled for June 26 and 27 at the Victorville Courthouse.
If the body of the child has not been found by June 26, a determination at the pre-preliminary hearing could be made to postpone the preliminary hearing.
Former San Bernardino County Supervisor and current West Valley Water District Board Member Dr. Clifford Young in conjunction with West Valley Water District’s chief financial officer and its assistant board secretary have filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging the district has traded lucrative employment opportunities at the district in return for bribes and the delivery of campaign contributions intended to perpetuate the hold that two of the district’s board members have on their elected positions.
The legal action is bringing into sharp relief the common practice within a wide cross section of governmental entities in San Bernardino County in which criminal conflicts of interest abound while elected officials with one agency or municipality are employed with other agencies and municipalities, which in turn are governed by office holders who themselves hold high paying positions with other public agencies. Many consider the focus this lawsuit is bringing on this this circular tangle of incestuous relationships between public agencies as long overdue. Critics of local government in San Bernardino County believe such arrangements have created a multiplicity of make-work assignments in which the holders perform tasks or occupy positions that contribute little or nothing to the public benefit or the underlying purpose of the agencies involved, increase personnel costs and detract from the pool of money that otherwise might be available to be budgeted for legitimate operations related to municipal or agency responsibilities. Moreover, the inflated salaries provided to these office holders in one jurisdiction who are given sinecures with other jurisdictions result in across-the-board inflation in the compensation provided to public employees in general, analyses of public employee remunerations demonstrate.
The lawsuit in which Young and West Valley Water District Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis and West Valley Water District Assistant Board Secretary Patricia Romero are plaintiffs names as defendants West Valley Water District General Counsel Robert Tafoya, who serves as the city attorney in Baldwin Park, and his law firm, Tafoya & Garcia; West Valley Water District Special Counsel Clifton Albright and his law firm, Albright Yee & Schmit; West Valley Water District Special Counsel Martin Kaufman, and his law firm Kaufman Law Firm; and West Valley Water District consultant Robert Katherman.
Named as co-conspirators in the suit are Michael Taylor, president of the West Valley Water District Board of Directors and the former Baldwin Park police chief; current Baldwin Park City Councilman Ricardo Pacheco, who acts as the West Valley Water District’s assistant general manager, West Valley Water District Board Vice President and Fontana School District Police Officer Kyle Crowther and West Valley Water District General Manager Clarence Mansell.
Young, Davis and Romero are represented by attorneys Rachel Fiset and Erin Coleman of the law firm Zweibach, Fiset & Coleman.
The lawsuit alleges that Taylor, who was chief of the Baldwin Park Police Department from 2013 to 2016, had been terminated by the Baldwin Park City Council. He was subsequently re-hired to a one-year contract to again serve as Baldwin Park police chief on December 1, 2017. That contract, drafted by Tafoya, raised Taylor’s pension by $25,000, and further barred him from being fired unless he committed a felony, and dispensed with the requirement that Taylor be subject to performance evaluations.
Six days after Taylor was reinstated as police chief under the deal Tafoya drafted, Taylor on December 7, 2017 acted as a newly-elected member of the West Valley Water District Board of Directors to effectuate hiring Tafoya as the district’s general counsel on a contract with no end date, according to the lawsuit. Tafoya’s firm has billed the West Valley Water District approximately $395,000 since being hired in December 2017.
Less than four months later, Baldwin Park City Councilman Pacheco, who had voted for Taylor’s reinstatement as police chief, was hired by the West Valley Water District as the “assistant general manager of external affairs.” He was later moved without board approval to the newly created position of “assistant general manager,” earning a salary of $192,000 per year. Since his hiring, Pacheco and the California Education Coalition PAC he controls have donated a total of $8,000 to Taylor’s campaign and $1,000 to West Valley Water District Board Vice President Kyle Crowther’s campaign.
According to the suit, in 2018, Taylor spearheaded the effort to hire his associate, Mansell, as the West Valley Water District’s interim general manager and subsequently as the permanent general manager, at an annual salary of $225,000. Mansell was hired by a 3-to-2 board vote without a recruitment effort, background checks, or other standard hiring reviews.
In 2017 and 2018, Tafoya paid for Taylor to travel and stay in Mexico and Las Vegas, trips that Taylor did not disclose on economic interest disclosure forms he was required to fill out as an elected official. In September 2018, Tafoya paid for Taylor, Crowther and Young to attend an Arizona Cardinal’s football game in Arizona. Tafoya paid for airfare, hotels, game tickets and meals on the trip. Taylor and Crowther did not disclose the trip on required filings, according to the suit. Tafoya paid for Crowther’s airfare to Miami and for football tickets to Miami Dolphins football games on at least two occasions in 2018. Crowther did not disclose the tickets or airfare on required filings. Tafoya contributed $500 to Taylor’s campaign and $1,500 to Crowther’s political action committee, Kyle Nelson Crowther for West Valley Water District 2017, and he hosted an August 2018 fundraiser at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for Crowther.
In September 2018, Tafoya told West Valley Water District Director Clifford Young that Clifton Albright of Albright, Yee & Schmit should be hired to handle new litigation against the West Valley Water District, and, in exchange, Albright would donate $2,000 to Young’s campaign. Although Young declined, the district ultimately engaged Albright, whose firm had worked for the City of Baldwin Park. Albright made $1,000 in campaign contributions to both Taylor and Crowther. His firm has invoiced West Valley Water District approximately $222,000 for its services.
At Tafoya’s request, the West Valley Water District Board hired Martin Kaufman and the Kaufman Law Firm of Ontario as special counsel to the district in March 2018. Kaufman regularly provided some board members and Tafoya with trips, event tickets and expensive meals and gifts, and paid for Taylor, Tafoya and Crowther to attend the Los Angeles Rams vs. Los Angeles Chargers football game in 2018, according to the suit. Kaufman contributed $2,500 to Taylor’s campaign after his firm’s contract was approved. The firm has invoiced at least $97,945 to the West Valley Water District since March 2018.
In February 2018, Robert Katherman began consulting for the West Valley Water District on water issues without a contract or board approval. Katherman paid for gifts and entertainment for Taylor, including bottles of wine valued at $500, boxes of cigars, and meals which Taylor did not disclose on required forms, according to the lawsuit. “Katherman has contributed $500 each to Taylor’s and Crowther’s campaigns since being hired, and the West Valley Water District has paid him at least $40,000,” the suit states. “Over the past year, defendants and their co-conspirators named in this complaint – including, but not limited to Board of Director Michael Taylor, the district’ s general counsel, Robert Tafoya, the district’s assistant general manager, Robert Pacheco, Board of Director Kyle Crowther, the district’s general manager, Clarence Mansell, the district’s human resources and risk manager, Deborah Martinez, and other law firms and consultants connected to Taylor and Tafoya – have engaged in illegal kickbacks and bribes to ensure contracts with the district and subsequent approval of invoices for payment. These illegal kickbacks were in the form of payments for personal travel, expensive meals, campaign contributions, and entertainment for board members and staff. Defendants and their co-conspirators also engaged in unlawful bribes as these expenditures were also made in exchange for continued business to be directed to defendants and for the board to approve their invoices.”
According to the lawsuit, “Mansell has improperly contracted with vendors (who are friends, former coworkers, or affiliates at Baldwin Park and or the named defendants (particularly Tafoya and co-conspirators) based on kickbacks or bribes to Taylor or a co-conspirator within the district. Specifically, (1) Monsell and Tafoya routinely identified a contractor, wrote a contract and issued a purchase order; (2) the contractor would allegedly perform the work and invoice the district; (3) Mansell received the invoice and signed the invoice to approve payment; and (4) Taylor and Crowther would co-sign the checks for payment.”
The lawsuit continues, “Mansell would approve purchase orders up to $25.000 even if the contract was for a lower amount. Further, the payment of the invoices on these contracts has come from district funds not allocated for payment on the contracts resulting in a misappropriation of district funds. Mansell also failed to procure at least three requests for qualifications/proposals for these contracts in violation of the district’s procurement policies and procedures. The district’s professional services purchase orders have increased since Mansell’s appointment as general manager. For example, in September 2018, Mansell approved seven professional service purchase orders totaling $80,900. compared to no professional service purchase orders approved in September 2017 prior to his tenure. Tafoya has signed-off on these contracts and Taylor and Crowther subsequently signed checks for payment since October 2018. In doing so, Tafoya has violated his contract with the district, stating that “Tafoya & Garcia will not …retain the services of any outside investigators, consultants, or experts to be hired only after consultation with the district.”
Also, according to the lawsuit “on December 12, 2017 Martinez was appointed human resources manager of the district at the recommendation or Tafoya and Taylor. Prior to her appointment, Martinez and her husband contributed to Taylor’s campaign, and since her appointment, Martinez and her husband have contributed to Taylor’s campaign. Taylor did not recuse himself in voting for Martinez’s appointment as required by district policy. Since her appointment, Martinez and her husband have also paid for trips and meals for Taylor, including, but not limited to, trips to Mexico, Laughlin, Las Vegas, and Florida on numerous occasions.”
The suit further alleges that “Pacheco, a councilman at Baldwin Park, was hired in a newly created position as assistant manager of public affairs… at a salary in the amount of approximately $192,000 (which is more than the prior assistant general manager) plus a car paid by the district … to acquire state and federal grants for the district but to date no grants have been awarded to the district. Pacheco does not actually perform work on behalf of the district but instead manages Baldwin Park matters on the district’s time and resources.”
Further, according to the suit, “Pacheco has maxed out his credit cards paid by the district for non-district entertainment expenses including, but not limited to hotels, casinos, and expensive meals. Furthermore, Pacheco patronizes strip clubs during working hours unrelated to district business. Pacheco has asked other District staff members for use of their credit cards to pay for expenses.”
Fiset said, “In a web of corruption reminiscent of the City of Bell scandal, the players in this conspiracy employed kickbacks, bribes and fraud, swapping lucrative contracts that generated over $1 million in fees and salaries in return for campaign contributions, free trips, gifts and NFL tickets. Our clients are shining the light on this conspiracy to hold those involved accountable to the public. A pattern of illegal kickbacks in the form of free travel, expensive meals, campaign contributions, entertainment and gifts shows how these defendants and their co-conspirators acted unlawfully to enrich themselves at the public’s expense,” Fiset said. “Our clients’ goal is to bring this rampant fraud, misappropriation of public funds and violation of the public’s trust to an end.”
Naseem Farooqi, the public affairs manager for the West Valley Water District, in response to a request for a response to the issues raised in the suit told the Sentinel, “The District will not be commenting further on pending litigation.”
A herd of goats has been unleashed on the fire threat represented by the still green but rapidly desicating vegetation in the foothills above San Bernardino.
Some 600 goats are devouring virtually all of the plant life in their temporary grazing areas, which are changed out every week or so as the vegetation they are feasting on – grass, weeds and indigenous plants of all descriptions – disappears under the onslaught of the animals’ perpetual appetites.
Goats graze on hills too steep to be mowed, as well as in gullies that are otherwise unreachable.
A bonus in using goats to eradicate the proliferation of vegetation in places where its presence is unwanted because of its potential to dry out and break out into a conflagration with a mere spark is that these ruminants eat right down past the surface of the ground to feast on the roots of the plants, as they find those structures every bit as, if not more, tasty than the leafage. In eating the flowers of plants, goats consume the flora’s seeds. Poisonous plants present no problem to them. Over a period of two to three days, a fair-sized herd of goats confined to an area of roughly ten acres will eradicate the fire danger in that spot for the rest of the season.
Another key advantage to employing goats to do what they do naturally is that it eliminates the need to use pesticides or engage in mowing or harrow disking. Using mechanical means of disking or mowing brings with it the danger of creating sparks, which can ignite dry vegetation
Early this week, in the area around the Arrowhead Springs Hotel a sizable herd of goats was seen contentedly chomping away, with a few having migrated to the adjacent meadow and sparsely forested hillside.
Less than a week after garnering the attention of government officials and public employees up and down the Golden State, San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia and the council majority he controls receded from what was widely anticipated to be the first major step in effectuating public employee salary reform.
Indications last week were that Valdivia and his council allies were on the verge of initiating an across-the-board effort to reduce by close to half the inflated salaries of the entire workforce at San Bernardino City Hall in an effort to stave off a second looming bankruptcy in less than a decade.
In 2012, the City of San Bernardino was forced to take refuge in Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection after years of overly generous salaries and benefits provided to city workers had created a $49 million annual operating deficit. The city emerged from bankruptcy in 2017, but now, two years later, expenditures in the soon-to-conclude 2018-19 fiscal year are on a trajectory to eclipse revenues in the same period by more than $11 million. If current trends continue, that deficit will zoom to over $16 million by the end of upcoming 2019-20.
Since 2012, San Bernardino has seen two mayoral turnovers. Patrick Morris, a former Superior Court judge, was at the city’s helm when the bankruptcy filing was made. In 2014, the city turned to Carey Davis, a certified public accountant, who had been endorsed by Morris in his mayoral bid. It was widely hoped that Davis might infuse the city with the fiscal discipline needed to stanch the city’s inveterate hemorrhaging of red ink. While some cutbacks were made and a small reduction in the level of overspending was realized by the city under Davis, the city in the five years that the bankruptcy hung over the city balanced its books in largest measure by simply skipping out on the mounting debt it had accumulated and continued to accrue. In the four years and ten months between the time it entered into bankruptcy in August 2012 and its emergence in June 2017, the city stiffed a combination of 109 creditors, vendors and partners for just over $350 million. Left largely unscathed by that devastation were the city’s employees, who continued to draw paychecks throughout the ordeal. They have seen no reductions in pay and their benefits remain intact, including the pensions they were promised by past mayors and city councils, though going forward the employees are now being called upon to make a slightly increased contribution toward their retirement benefits. The employees’ pension plan remains intact, which is administered by the California Public Employees Retirement System, contributions to which constitute the city’s third largest current expense, behind salaries paid out to the city’s police officers and salaries to the city’s general employees. In order to convince Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge Meredith Jury that the city should be allowed to walk away from the debt it owed, the city utilized the services of the law firm of Straddling Yocca Carlson and Rauth, it particular its bankruptcy law attorney Paul Glassman, which has been paid $25 million in legal fees over the last six years and eleven months.
In November 2018, Davis was turned out of office by the city’s voters, who replaced him with John Valdivia, who since 2012 had been serving in the capacity of Third Ward Councilman a, and who in the last three years of Davis’ term in office, which was extended by close to another year when the city adopted a new charter that changed the city’s election cycle from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, had emerged as Davis’ main rival on the council.
Since coming into office, Valdivia has had to deal with the legacy of the city’s spendthrift past which includes the unsustainable commitments it has made in terms of the pay level of city employees and the looming prospect that the city will once again fall so far into deficit spending that the only solution will be another bankruptcy or ending its run as going concern and disincorporating.
Two weeks ago Valdivia and five of the council’s seven members who are generally considered to be allied with him fired Straddling Yocca Carlson and Rauth, which as continued since the city’s 2017 emergence from bankrupty
Despite intensely concerted efforts over the last sixth weeks, authorities have yet to find the body of six-year-old Duke Flores, who was believed to have died at the hands, or as the result of the depraved and indifferent negligence, of his mother.
All three were alpha males who left an indelible impression on the communities around them, which in more ways than one were shaped by their [character] and the forcefulness of their individual will.
As fate would have it, the three came together on the streets of San Bernardino in the late fall of 1881. Perhaps predictably, this resulted in something of a personality clash. All three survived, though one came out of it something the worse for wear, two sustained a blot on their legal records, and the resultant tiff is something still being talked about in San Bernardino nearly two score and a hundred years later.
On the basis o simply being the father of legendary lawmen Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp, Nicholas Porter Earp earned his way into American history. But he was remarkable in his own right in a multiplicity of roles throughout his life, including serving as a lawman himself in the roles of a constable and justice of the peace, as well as as a farmer, cooper, teacher, bootlegger and wagon-master. as a akrable would earned his
Nicholas Earp was born in Lincoln County, North Carolina in 1813…