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By Mark Gutglueck
A power play with overtones extending to the 2020 election cycle played out in Grand Terrace this week, ultimately failing and perhaps strengthening rather than weakening the two potential challengers of the city’s current political status quo the move was intended against.
Jeffrey McConnell and Jeremy Briggs are the two newest members of the Grand Terrace Planning Commission. Last week, Councilman Jeff Allen and Mayor Darcy McNaboe, respectively, working with City Manager G. Harold Duffey, placed items on the Tuesday night, December 10 agenda which called for the consideration of the removal of each.
As noted in the agenda, no cause for the removal of either was cited.
The Grand Terrace Municipal Code and state law does provide that a planning commissioner serves at the pleasure of the governing panel of the city or county wherein the commissioner serves and that the governing panel has the ability to make such a removal without citing cause. Those provisions exist primarily to allow, in the case of the Grand Terrace City Code the city council and in the case of state law any local governing board, autonomy to act and prevent an appointed official from claiming an entitlement to a position to which he or she has not been granted an electoral mandate, as well as to avoid the need for publicly slighting the commissioners. In general practice, most governing boards – city or town councils and county boards of supervisors – offer some level of justifications of their appointments and some rationale for terminating them.
Moreover, in order to obtained support for an appointment or removal, an individual elected officeholder seeking to make such a removal generally needs to provide the rationale for the removal to his elected colleagues.
Of note in Tuesday night’s action was that neither Allen nor McNaboe laid out a case for McConnell’s or Briggs’ removal to their council colleagues, whose backing was required for the removal to take place.
What was doubtless at play in the bid to remove both was Allen’s concern that McConnell will likely manifest as a rival for his reelection to the council next year and McNaboe’s trepidation over Briggs’ trajectory toward political viability in next year’s election, which would potentially provide him with a berth on the city council that could well position him to challenge her for the city’s mayoralty in 2022, when she will be up for reelection.
The request for McConnell’s removal had originated with Allen. The request for Briggs’ sacking had come from McNaboe.
When the council took the matter up on Tuesday night, Councilwoman Sylvia Robles said, “I would like to hear if there’s a reason. If each proposer declines a reason, I’d like to at least hear that and be able to substitute a way of going about this. I would hope that one of the things we could consider is to do a reset, [to provide] some training of all of our appointees. Obviously by this, the two individuals realize there is some big concern, and have some kind of method to [provide them] some training. Either our city attorney can do it or insurance authority can do it. They can sign that they understand the key points of the training. We can do a reset and move on.”
City Attorney Adrian Guerra said, “Under our Municipal Code Section 2.61.030 all members of the planning commission shall serve at the pleasure of the city council and may be removed at any time with or without cause. In this case there is a motion, or at least proposal to remove a commissioner. There is no staff report because there’s no staff action or research or anything that is necessary for this action. This is simply a council motion, second and a vote.”
The removals of Briggs and McConnell were considered separately, with the matter relating to Briggs being taken up first.
As public comment on Briggs’ removal was to take place, Mayor McNaboe noted there were a number of emails received at City Hall with regard to the removal requests. When she asked that the city clerk give a “summary” of the contents of the emails’ contents, several of the substantial number of city residents in attendance within the meeting chamber called for the emails to be read individually. This prompted McNaboe to rap the mayor’s gavel once, and she intoned somewhat determinedly, “Please, I’ve asked the city clerk to summarize the email. That’s what we are going to do.” When that did not cow the crowd, members of which repeated the call for the emails to be read into the record, McNaboe with considerably more force than previously hammered her gavel four times, sending a sharp report around the chambers. “I will put us in recess,” she said, and then did so, declaring a five minute suspension of the proceedings.
When the council resumed the hearing, Robles insisted on making a motion to have the emails read into the record, which was seconded by Councilman Bill Hussey. The motion failed with Robles and Hussey in favor and McNaboe, Councilman Allen and Councilman Doug Wilson voting in opposition.
City Clerk Debra Thomas then told those assembled that the city had received 29 emails from the public in opposition to the removal of Briggs, and she read the names of the senders.
During public comments, Rita Schwark told the council, “I hope this taking him off the planning commission is not personality-related nor is it politically-related. I think the decent thing is we should be told the cause, what is the reason. How would you like to be recalled? We have some representation on the west side. We need more representation on the west side. What you think is bad with their personality, whatever they did, maybe some other person would give them a chance and not think it is bad at all. Different opinions and different views of things are good for the community. That’s what we need. I think Jeremy and Jeff should be allowed to stay on the planning commission.”
Jeremy Rivera said that Jeremy Briggs was “a little bit passionate and a little bit outspoken. Some people can’t handle that in our little country bumpkin town of 13,000 with overpaid city officials. The planning commissioners are volunteers. And you are removing volunteers? You can’t even get a quorum for the park and rec[reation] committee. I think it’s something personnel. I think it’s something very personal. I do not want to see Jeremy Brigg’s removed. He does a lot for his city. He’s a wealth of knowledge. He helps the youth. He’s here for the kid’s. It’s a little difference, and we’re going to kick him off because we can.”
McConnell spoke against Briggs’ removal.
“This municipal code that is being quoted has no due process,” McConnell said. “It should have some due process. Some here are totally ignoring the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. We weren’t even notified to come here. We’re being publicly humiliated and kicked off, and we weren’t even notified to come here. What kind of message does this send to volunteers? This is a volunteer community. This is spreading around town. This is one of the reasons people don’t want to get involved, especially in politics, because of all the backstabbing. We have a general plan update coming up. I’ve been going to the planning commission for 18 years. I sat through the last 2016 general plan update. Experience is needed on the planning commission, whether it’s my experience as a general contractor and in real estate or Jeremy’s experience in the trucking world. We would both be a valuable asset. It is a very long, boring and arduous procedure. For political reasons, you are getting rid of experience and the city’s going to suffer for it.”
Briggs told the council that what was being done to him was a “blindside attack to my personal character. I don’t see why this should have been brought to the agenda. When I first got on the planning commission, I came to you, mayor, and asked for a sit-down meeting with you, to talk eye-to-eye with you. I knew from that meeting you wanted to have nothing to do with me. You tried to steer me in a different direction, put my efforts somewhere else. I knew what that meant from day one. Now this comes up from nowhere because I have been more vocal during the planning commission meetings. I have been having to say when something doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not going to sit back and be a guy who lays down, be the guy who goes along with the agenda that’s behind doors. We know what that agenda is behind doors. It is the secret that lies over here that we don’t talk about. But because I’m not part of that plan, let’s get rid of me. That’s exactly what it looks like. If there’s no due process, no staff report, no reasoning why this is, and we’re just going to make a vote on it, but you can’t tell me why? I put my heart and effort into this city the last six years. I have kids, right here. The reason I’m standing up here tonight is for those three girls and everyone that I’ve coached. I could come home everyday from work and be with my family and that’s it. I care about the girls and I care about every kid I ever coached in this city. I will continue to coach in this city. I will always put my heart and my effort into everything I do. To be blindsided… I’m just going to remove you without talking to you, tell you what you’re doing wrong… As a manager, I’ve always brought in employees that were failing and done nothing but to turn them around. I ask for the same thing, but obviously I don’t get that respect. So this shows me this is nothing but a personal attack against me and my colleague over here. It doesn’t show anything else. If there’s no staff report, no due diligence, why are we even here tonight? Why are we talking about his? I don’t understand this at all. This seems like a backstab move coming up to an election year. Removing me, removing Jeffrey off the commission takes up whole new eyes. We want the five same thoughts on the planning commission? We don’t want the five same thoughts sitting up there. It doesn’t do anything for us if there’s no controversy, no diversity on the board. We want to take that away? You want five people that vote the exact way that you want to vote.”
McNaboe then made a motion to remove Briggs. Allen seconded the motion. The motion failed 2-to-2, with McNaboe and Allen in favor, Councilman Bill Hussey and Councilwoman Sylvia Robles in opposition, and Councilman Doug Wilson abstaining.
The council then moved on a discussion of the removal of McConnell.
City Clerk Thomas said there were six emails from the public in opposition to McConnell’s removal, and she read the names of those submitting them.
Rita Schwark again inveighed against McConnell’s removal, saying she had known McConnell for many years. “Jeffrey has given his volunteer time,” she said. “He has helped me personally. He has helped many of the neighbors. He’s a very good neighbor and he does want to represent us. Jeffrey McConnell needs to stay on the planning commission. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s very experienced. He might have different opinions, different views, but come on, guys! Grow up! This is life. If you have different opinions or different views, we’re all adults here. Work it out. We need him in this community. He knows what is going on in this city.”
Jeremy Rivera said, “I know Jeffrey can be rough, but I know he’s passionate and I know he’s good for our city. I don’t think there is any malicious intent that Jeffrey McConnell has brought forth towards the city. I think he’s only trying to better it. It’s important there are people on the planning commission that understand building and codes. We had two recent spec[ulation] tracts put in, one on Greenbrier Lane, I believe. Have you walked that tract? There’s not enough room on the driveways for cars to park on the driveway so you can walk on the sidewalk. That’s not neighborhood friendly. Then on my street, Van Buren, there was another tract of 17 houses, I think, on a little less than an an acre-and-a-half. Same thing. Driveways are not long enough to where you can walk on the sidewalk if the resident parks their car in the driveway. On top of that they put in two story houses that abut right up on Van Buren instead of a single story house. If you would have had somebody with some knowledge, perhaps like Jeffrey, you probably would have caught those things. So now I’m not going to walk in that tract of houses because I can’t walk on the sidewalk. I have to walk on the street, with my five-year-old. It’s important to have experience. I know sometimes roughness can come with a little liability, but we all do things that cause a little liability. I know there’s some personality conflicts. Mr. [City Manager Harold] Duffey and Jeffrey have had some issues that ended up in San Bernardino Superior Court this year. That worries me, but he needs to stay on the planning commission. You guys appointed him last year with Jeffrey Allen. Now, one person wants to yank him off? With Jeremy Briggs you all voted for him. There were six applicants when Jeremy Brings went [before you]. You chose him. We need people with experience and that’s why he should stay on.”
Jeremy Briggs said of McConnell, “He is a wealth of knowledge. I can look on him as a mentor since I have been appointed to the planning commission. He’s always steered me the right way. To take a guy like this off for personal reasons – which we all know it is definitely personal reasons why we’re trying to take him off the planning commission – to take someone off who has his years of general contracting experience, the community that loves him, I’m still flabbergasted that I’m even up here talking about this right now. Removing volunteers! At the end of the day, we’re trying to remove people that actually care about the community and not their own agenda. This is what it is, a personal attack over two men that care. They’re passionate. They speak their mind. They don’t do it for themselves. They do it for the people around them, the people they love. Jeffrey McConnell is not the person to move off of the planning commission. He is Farmer Jeff to all the kids. Do you want to badmouth Farmer Jeff to all the youth? He has probably done more than all of you up there. And you want to remove him? This is unbelievable, that this is where we stand as a city, a community so divided.”
Don Smith characterized the process McConnell and Briggs were facing as a “kangaroo court. It says here ‘without cause.’ How can the City of Grand Terrace, even in a pissing contest, remove somebody without cause? Is that Constitutional? Is that legal? Is that legitimate? Without cause? I really wonder at that very simple part. We need someone who’s not a moron. We need someone who’s got a little experience. You can’t cast him out.”
Darryl Moore said, “This proposed vote to remove Jeff [has] no requirement for proving any crimes or misbehavior, so the public in general has no idea why this is happening. However, just like at the national level, in would be very bad for our little city to get involved in popularity contests, petty squabbles, factions and vendettas. If Jeff did something wrong or deeply offensive and this vote came in 5-to-0 to remove, it would look justified. But if it passes narrowly 3-to-2, it’s going to smell like a vendetta. Anybody who serves in a city post makes a big investment in time and energy with no expectation to get rich, and deserves recognition and thanks. Jeff has been in the city a long time. He faithfully attends all the meetings. He keeps himself informed. He’s a very knowledgeable person in building and development. We have many issues coming, including the general plan update, and his knowledge would be very valuable. He worked on the last one. It’s the kind of thing that people really don’t want to work on, like reading the New York City Phone Book. It’s very boring. But it’s work that needs to be done. I would ask each person to consider this carefully before voting and I urge you not to remove Jeffrey.”
Janese Makshanoff said, “I am personally shocked that you are allowed to publicly humiliate someone for a volunteer job. If you are going to humiliate someone like that, you should at least have the nerve to say why.”
Jennifer Katuls said that McConnell was “always there to provide help around my home and our neighbor’s home. He has an awareness of what is going to happen at these meetings and lets us now what is going on in the community. At different events around town I’ve seen him there working.”
McConnell asked, “What is this really all about?” Referencing Allen, McConnel said, ” He won’t tell you,” McConnell said, referring to Allen. “There’s a lot of rumors going around. I ran against him in the last election. He’s up for reelection again next year. He just wants to humiliate us, so anyone won’t run against him. I am being publicly humiliated for doing my duty.”
Thereafter, Allen made a motion to remove McConnell, which was seconded by McNaboe.
In the discussion before the vote, Councilwoman Robles offered her comment that she believed the action the council was engaged in was “against the spirit of the Brown Act.”
The Brown Act is California’s open meeting law.
“Everything we do has to be transparent,” Robles said. “It has to be noticed to the public and really, there ought to be reasons why. When it comes to staff, they have rights, so we don’t disparage our staff in public. We have to go into closed session, but we are still obligated to come out and report any action that we take. I think there’s a problem when we don’t say why we’re doing something and explain to your peers why we’re doing something. I’m very strong on due process. I think as an elected official that is something we really have got to protect.”
Robles noted that in appointing Briggs the council had shown enthusiasm and was less excited about McConnell. She said that a recent controversy involving McConnell’s appearance before the planning commission not as a member but as a property owner on an issue relating to his land raised eyebrows, but she said that was mitigated by the consideration that he was there to “protect his property rights.” She acknowledged previous political differences with McConnell but said, “I let it go.”
Robles then said, “We don’t do things without cause. It’s not in the spirit of the Constitution. It’s not in the spirit of due process. It’s not in the spirit of a good community.”
Councilman Bill Hussey said, “Without cause leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I know it’s written in there ‘without cause.’ I don’t know why it’s written in there. It’s something that’s got to be changed. I think that if somebody is doing something wrong, it should be [dealt with] through a process. You know, ‘Hey, this is your counseling: This is is what’s going to happen this time. Don’t do it.’ But when we raise our hand and we take these positions, we get a little passionate, but we also have to use our integrity, our good judgment and sometimes it gets the best of us, but I don’t like it without the cause. People have got to know what’s wrong and then we’ve got to work with them and hone those skills. One thing I don’t like is if people ever use their position to manipulate staff or yell at staff or cuss staff out. That is not what we’re here for. I would want to be held accountable if I cuss staff out. I hope one of the council people gets on me for that. Staff members are not here to be our servants. They’re here for the betterment of the city, the residents. We’re here to be the voice of the residents, and we’re not here to belittle them, talk down to them, or treat them like you know what. So, I don’t know; without the cause [being stated], I don’t have a clear conscience in voting. I want to hear a cause. That’s something we need to look into changing in the future if we do have somebody giving [someone] a hard time on the council or even on the planning commission and it’s not working, it’s leaving a hostile environment, we need to bring it to the attention [of the council] so we don’t have a hostile chamber.”
The vote to remove McConnell failed 2-to-2, with Allen and McNaboe supporting the removal, Robles and Hussey opposed and Councilman Doug Wilson abstaining.
In 2000, as Upland’s franchise arrangement with Waste Management, Inc. was drawing toward its expiration, city officials elected to conduct a competitive bid process for its trash-hauling franchise going forward. It hired the R.W. Beck Company, which employed Richard Tagore-Erwin to evaluate which company the city should select. Tagore-Erwin recommended Burrtec.
The city followed Tagore-Erwin’s recommendation. Effective in 2001, Burrtec became Upland’s franchised trash hauler. That contract originally ran for three years, subject to renewal. In 2007, under then-Mayor John Pomierski and City Manager Robb Quincey, who were both later convicted on political corruption charges, the City of Upland retrofitted the franchise contract it had with Burrtec to adopt a seven-year “evergreen” clause, which extends the contract every year by one more year in addition to its seven-year life if notice to begin the seven-year wind-down of the contract is not given by June 30.
By 2014, the seven-year life of the contract as adopted in 2007 had run, and in those ensuing years the city had not served notice to begin the wind-down, such that at that point the city was yet obligated to keep Burrtec as its trash hauler at least until 2021. There was considerable talk in the community about the desirability of conducting a new bidding process on the franchise, and the consequent need to provide Burrtec with immediate notice to begin the seven-year wind-down of the franchise contract.
At that time, however, Upland’s assistant public works director was Acquanetta Warren, who between 2002 and 2010 had been a member of the Fontana City Council. Since 2010, Warren has been Fontana’s mayor. Burrtec, its owners and various employees had proven over the years to be among Warren’s major supporters in her electioneering efforts, providing her with tens of thousands of dollars in donations to her political war chest. Warren used her influence at Upland City Hall to blunt the impetus to put the city’s trash franchise contract out to bid. To evaluate its options with regard to its trash franchise, Upland at Warren’s suggestion in 2014 hired Tagore-Erwin through the company, R3, he had founded upon his departure from R.W. Beck in 2002. In looking at whether Upland should at that point conduct a bidding process that would potentially bring in a new trash-handler by June 2021, R3 recommended against doing so. Instead, the City of Upland found itself on track to drawing up a contract with language that conferred the franchise on Burrtec for at least another 12 years, until July, 1, 2026. The contract as drafted and under consideration by the city stated, “The term shall be for twelve years commencing on the execution of the third amendment. On July 1, 2019, and annually thereafter, the initial term will be automatically extended for one year so the remaining term shall always be seven years, unless either party notifies the other in writing (the ‘wind-down notice’).”
That city officials were about to sidestep the ongoing calls for conducting a competitive bid process generated considerable controversy, with elements of the community pointing out that this meant the city was committing to conducting no bidding on its trash hauling franchise for more than a quarter of a century. When pressed, members of the council in favor of the franchise extension, along with Burrtec Vice President Mike Arreguin, stated that this was justified by the consideration that the rates that Burrtec was proposing were ones calibrated to the mid-range of what was current in Southern California’s trash hauling industry and they would be “locked in” for the life of the contract. It was specifically noted refuse handling is an unpredictable province of human endeavor, chock full of vicissitudes in the marketplace as well as changing and tricky recycling mandates and regulations handed down and implemented by the government. Burrtec, city officials and the company’s corporate officers promised, would maintain its “locked-in” rates for a dozen years. They emphasized that the franchise contract committed Burrtec to maintaining those rates, throughout the life of the dozen-year contract, subject only to yearly modest consumer price index adjustments. Burrtec was taking a considerable risk in making that commitment while operating in a highly unpredictable industry, city officials and the company’s advocates said, and that justified the 12-year extension of the contract and foregoing the open bidding process. Burrtec was given the franchise contract extension.
This week, as 2019 is heading fast into 2020, Burrtec has asked the City of Upland to allow it to renege on the commitment it made in signing the contract in 2014 for the extension of the franchise. It is requesting the city and its current city council, which now has just one of the members on it who was in office in 2014, to dispense with the “locked-in” terms specified in the contract because the “unpredictability of the trash-hauling industry factor” the company agreed to brave to win the contract extension in 2014 has now manifested.
Since 2014, the State of California has legislated mandates with regard to the handling of food waste, also referred to as organic waste, provisions of which complicate the function of trash haulers. One such law now going into effect is Senate Bill 1383, which sets the goal of a 75 percent reduction in organics disposal by 2025 from 2014 levels. That will drive down the profitability of trash hauling and increase recycling costs, the trash industry maintains. Further, according to the trash industry, China, which previously accepted and paid for recycled materials, has lost interest in accepting them from the United States, creating a crisis for trash haulers, who no longer have a market for a significant portion of the material they haul away and now must dispose of at greater cost.
In the face of Burrtec’s request, the city again turned to Tagore-Erwin and R3 for advice on how to respond. At this week’s council meeting, Rose Radford of R3 addressed the city council. Without making any reference to Burrtec’s 2014 commitment to “lock-in” the rates it was charging in return for having the franchise extended another dozen years, Radford delivered a presentation, the upshot of which was that the City of Upland should grant Burrtec rate hikes above and beyond those specified in the 2014 contract granting the franchise extension until 2026, ones which exceed amounts incorporating adjustments commensurate with the Consumer Price Index.
Radford presented to the council her report, dated November 22, 2019, which states, “Burrtech requested a special rate review due to ‘uncontrollable circumstances’ including changes in law and tipping fee increases. Based on discussions with Burrtec’s vice president and chief financial officer, R3 concluded that those circumstances include:
* The effect of China’s “National Sword” policy significantly increasing costs and reducing commodity revenues at Burrtec’s West Valley Materials Recovery Facility, which is the facility used for tipping and processing city solid waste collected by Burrtec; and
* The effect of increased quantities of collected food scraps driven by state mandates requiring subscription to organics collection service at businesses in the city, which is in turn increasing the tipping fee costs for organic materials.
Based on the review of financial information provided by Burrtec during an on-site review, R3 is able to confirm that these factors are, in fact, increasing Burrtec’s operating costs.”
In the findings section of her report, Radford wrote, “With respect to Burrtec’s request for special rate review, R3 finds that Burrtec has sufficiently demonstrated that a special adjustment pursuant to Section10.06.b(1) of the agreement is warranted.”
Also present at Monday night’s council meeting was Burrtec Vice President Mike Arreguin. Following Radford’s presentation and the conclusion of the council’s consideration of the matter, which is to be taken up for a final determination at a special hearing before the city council on January 27, 2020, Radford and Arreguin left the council chambers, and headed out to the parking lot together.
The Sentinel engaged with Radford at that point. She was unable to offer an explanation of why her presentation and report made no reference to city officials’ and Arreguin’s 2014 assurance that in exchange for the franchise extension Burrtec’s rates would remain “locked in” through June 2026, even in the face of external market and industry forces that increased Burrtec’s costs.
R3 represents that it works exclusively for its public sector clients and does not work for or represent trash haulers in the private sector so that it can “deliver expert industry analysis and unbiased recommendations to our municipal clients.”
In addition to the recommendations favoring Burrtec which R3 or Tagore-Erwin has provided to Upland on three occasions, Tagore-Erwin or the companies he has been affiliated with have likewise made recommendations in Burrtec’s favor to the cities of San Bernardino, Colton and Rancho Cucamonga.
Radford said she was unable to give an example of Tagore-Erwin or any of the companies with which he is affiliated having made a recommendation against Burrtec, but said she thought it was possible that at some point he did.
Highland City Councilman Jesse Chavez’s inability to obtain the full complement of votes he needed to move into the mayor’s position this week prompted him to accuse his colleagues of bias, and allege violations of California’s Ralph M. Brown Act and of the federal Civil Rights Act.
Under the microscope was the Highland City Council’s nomination and voting process to name a mayor and mayor pro tem to serve the remainder of this year and most of 2020, a process not unlike that in many California cities. That process can be an awkward one, given that the voting ultimately involves a situation in which one of the members of a governing panel is called upon to vote for himself. Generally, that awkwardness is limited to the voting itself, which follows the person about to be confirmed as mayor having been nominated by one of his or her colleagues. Only in the most rare of circumstances, does an elected official/council member self nominate. That is what occurred in Highland this week.
After the Highland City Council began its meeting with its perfunctory opening ceremonies including the invocation and the pledge of allegiance, Mayor Penny Liliburn had the council take up the meeting’s first order of business, the appointment of new council officers.
Immediately upon the nominations for mayor being opened, Chavez said, “I’ll nominate myself, and let me say why real quick: Fifty-one percent of our residents here in Highland are Latino. The median age is 34. Twenty percent of our community lives in poverty. I live in that poverty. My family lives in that poverty. So, we need someone who can really represent our city. We know the mayor has no more vote, no more pull, than the other councilmembers. It has only to do with going to events, chair the council meeting, and so, I am just asking for your honest, ethical vote for me to be mayor of the city.”
Two seconds elapsed and Councilman John Timmer responded with, “I’ll nominate Larry McCallon.”
Following a four second pause, Mayor Penny Liliburn asked, “Any more nominations?”
When no one spoke up, Liliburn said, “Hearing none, we’ll go ahead and close the floor. All those in favor of Councilmember Chavez…”
Chavez and Councilwoman Anaeli Solano each stated, “Aye.”
“I’m hearing two, correct?” Liliburn said. “So, all those in favor of Councilmember McCallon…”
Liliburn, Timmer and McCallon registered their votes with “Aye” utterances.
“I’m hearing three,” Liliburn said. “So, Congratulations, Mayor McCallon.”
Upon the council dais nameplates being changed and McCallum assuming the mayor’s gavel and position, McCallon said, “Thank you. I appreciate the confidence of the council in putting me again for mayor. I don’t take the position lightly, and I’m humbled by your support.”
With McCallon having been advanced to the mayor’s post by a margin of a single vote and upon the crucial support of his own vote, his remark of being humbled by the action was too much for Chavez to let pass. “I genuinely don’t support you,” Chavez said, “although we know we violated the Brown Act. I knew this vote was going to happen anyway, so I just wanted to give it a chance. We’ve seen that the City of Highland violates the Civil Rights Act over and over again. This is just another example of the city not moving forward. I’m just very disappointed in this city council, especially you Penny. I’m very disappointed.”
Liliburn shot back, “Jesse, I want you to know when you came to me, I told you I spoke to Larry McCallon on this issue…”
“You did not,” Chavez interrupted her.
“I did,” said Liliburn.
“I’m sorry, but you did not,” Chavez insisted. “You didn’t tell me until the day we were at the picnic and that’s when you said Larry did get the vote…”
“Absolutely,” said Liliburn.
“…and then I said I can’t talk to you any more because that’s a Brown Act violation, and you recommended me to continue to talk to Larry about this vote, so don’t throw it at me Penny. This is your mistake.”
“Jesse, you came to have… You asked me to have breakfast with you so you could patch things up with me…” Lilliburn began to respond.
“And I did,” said Chavez.
“… and at the last minute you asked me if I would support you to be mayor because you wanted to be the youngest mayor in history,” Liliburn persisted.
“I said, ‘I could potentially be the youngest mayor,’ not in history, but in the State of California, and I still want to build… I don’t want this divisiveness. The city is divided and I’m sick of it,” Chavez said. “That’s why I went up to you, and I said, ‘Penny, we need to stop this.’ I got elected, when we got elected in 2016, honest, we came to our parties…”
“I felt like Larry’s the best candidate,” Liliburn this time interrupted Chavez. “That’s why I just voted with him. Thank you.”
“Okay, well, I’m trying to talk to you about this Brown Act violation. You violated the Brown Act,” Chavez said. “Violation and it’s wrong. The only thing that the city attorney did is send out a memo, and I can read that memo, and it says nothing about that. The community needs to know that we violated the Brown Act. I’m okay to admit it because you spoke to me. I didn’t know you spoke to Larry.”
“Well, that is incorrect,” Lilliburn said.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Chavez said.
At that point, McCallon asserted himself, saying “Let’s move on,” after which the council took up the appointment of the mayor pro tem, whereupon McCallon nominated Liliburn. Chavez responded by nominating himself. McCallon called the question and had Liliburn’s nomination voted upon first. When only McCallon and Lilliburn indicated assent, McCallon asked if there was a third vote, which induced Timmer to enunciate his support with an “aye.” That precluded a vote on Chavez’s nomination.
“As long as it’s documented,” Chavez muttered at a low volume, which appeared to be an indication that a formal complaint about what he had asserted was a Brown Act violation would be made.
The Brown Act is California’s open public meeting law. It prohibits a quorum of a governing board such as a city council from making decisions relating to official action in private, with exceptions to permit closed door executive discussions of personnel issues including hirings, firings and employee discipline; real estate transactions, employee contract negotiations, and both pending and anticipated litigation against the city. The Brown Act requires that all matters relating to a city or government agency that are to be discussed by its governing board be agendized, with the exception of so-called emergency items, 72 hours in advance of the meeting at which those discussions and possible action is to take place. The Brown Act does not restrict less than a quorum of an agency or municipal governing board, such as two members of a five-member panel, from discussing a public issue. However, the Brown Act does prohibit “serial” discussions between board members about official action from taking place, such as when one member of a five-member panel discusses an issue with a board colleague and then one of those two then discusses the matter with a third.
The context of Chavez’s statements on Tuesday night suggested that he believes Liliburn’s discussion with him about the mayoral vote in advance of the vote taken in conjunction with Liliburn’s exchange with McCallon about the mayoral succession prior to the vote constituted a Brown Act violation.
Efforts after the meeting to obtain from Chavez clarification on several of his statements during the meeting, including his assertions of both a Brown Act violation and violation of the Civil Rights Act were unsuccessful. Repeated calls to Chavez’s number, (909) 863-8085, consistently resulted in a busy signal.
It is unclear whether Chavez’s accusation of the city’s violation of the Civil Rights Act pertains to allegations of ethnic bias or sexual orientation discrimination or both.
Chavez was elected to the city council in 2016 in what was the city’s first by-district election. The city had previously resisted shifting from the at-large elections it had held since the city’s inception as a municipal entity in 1987, to by-district balloting.
In 2001, the California Legislature enacted the California Voting Rights Act, under which a plaintiff or plaintiffs can file legal action against a governmental jurisdiction alleging polarized voting has taken place in its past elections and seek the remedy of having that jurisdiction switch from at-large elections to ones involving ward systems. The theoretical justification for having a city or governmental jurisdiction form such districts is the perceived likelihood that it will create political subdivisions in which the election of a member of an ethnic minority is more likely to take place than in an at-large election. Upon proof being presented that such polarized voting exists, the courts will then require that the governmental entity in question adopt the ward system and require that the governmental entity pay the legal fees for the attorney or attorneys representing the plaintiff[s]. The California Voter Rights Act confers upon plaintiffs a significant advantage, such that even if the challenge does not succeed, a plaintiff is not required to pay the prevailing city’s legal fees.
In San Bernardino County, many cities were perceived to have foreclosed minority rights because of the relative scarcity of elected Hispanic office holders, despite a substantial Latino population. Highland was among those cities and it was the first San Bernardino County city served with a demand that it alter the way it elects its council members. That lawsuit was filed July 18, 2014 in San Bernardino Superior Court by a Lancaster-based lawyer, R. Rex Parris, in conjunction with the Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes and the Los Angeles-based Law Office of Milton C. Grimes on behalf of Lisa Garrett, a Latino resident of Highland. In response, the city put an initiative on the November 2014 ballot, Measure T, asking if the city’s residents were in favor of a ward system. Measure T went down to defeat, with 2,862 votes or 43.01 percent in favor and 3,793, or 56.99 percent opposed. The lawsuit proceeded and the city sought to assuage the demand by proposing to allow cumulative voting, in which each voter is given one vote for each contested position and is allowed to cast any or all of those votes for any one candidate, or spread the votes among the candidates. When the matter went to trial, despite making a finding that the socio-economic-based rationale presented by the plaintiff’s attorneys to support the need for ward elections was irrelevant and that the plaintiff’s assertion that district voting was the only way to cure the alleged violation of the Voting Rights Act was false, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge David Cohn mandated that Highland adopt a ward system.
In the 2016 election, both Chavez and Solano were the first political beneficiaries of that change in Highland. The city’s two districts most heavily saturated with Latino voters were the First District and the Second District, in which respectively, Chavez and Solano ran. Chavez prevailed in a three-way race in the First District, with 649 votes or 39.99 percent, edging out his opponents Osvaldo Heredia, with 569 votes or 35.06 percent, and Raymond Hilfer, who polled 405 votes or 24.95 percent. Solano, with 895 votes or 59 percent, claimed victory over her single opponent in the city’s Second District, Tony Cifeuentes, who pulled down 422 votes or 41 percent.
In years past, Highland, which does not elect its mayor directly but instead has the city council choose from among its ranks who will hold the largely ceremonial position, has established a pattern in which it rotates its members into the mayor and mayor pro tem positions. Previously, Liliburn, McCallon and Timmer have all served terms as mayor. Though no strict or firm and fast rule applies to the mayoral/mayor pro tem rotation, tradition would seem to have dictated that after Chavez and Solano have now served three years in office, one of them, would have possibly been elevated to mayor, and the other would have been given a turn as mayor pro tem.
Chavez’s remarks, and the 3-to-2 voting result with regard to the succession, imply that he is being held back by his colleagues. That is strongly belied, however, by the consideration that he was promoted to the position of mayor pro tem in December 2017, after having been in office just one year at that point, well ahead of the timetable for promotion historically accorded council members in Highland. It was perhaps Chavez’s comportment during the time that he was in the position of mayor pro tem that prevented his advancement to mayor last year. In the December 2017-to-December 2018 timeframe while Chavez was mayor pro tem, McCallon served as mayor. That the mayor’s position was given to Liliburn in December 2018 and then rotated back to McCallon following the one-year period while Liliburn served as mayor could be interpreted as double slights of Chavez. There are simultaneously grounds for other interpretations, nonetheless.
Solano has yet to be raised to the position of mayor pro tem. Whether this supports Chavez’s contention of bias against Latinos among the council’s three non-Hispanic members is a point of interpretation or conjecture.
There is another social crosscurrent to be considered in Chavez’s failure to accede to the mayor’s post. He is one of the few openly homosexual elected officials in San Benardino County.
With his propensity for drama while asserting that he is being unfairly and unjustifiably overlooked in his ambition for promotion within the political milieu of Highland and San Bernardino County, taken together with his readiness to accuse those he must work with in this political context of criminal acts, as well as his flair for self-promotion, the 28-year-old Chavez may not fully comprehend that his self-absorbed boldness runs counter to the politesse and tact politicians must cultivate and apply to ingratiate themselves with their equally ambitious peers to achieve the promotion they seek
Less than a week after what appeared to be a key change in the leadership of the West Valley Water District’s board of directors that may or may not signal a substantive shift in the governance of the district, the lion’s share of the department heads in the politically embattled district banded together in a petition seeking the ouster of West Valley’s general manager, Clarence Mansell.
At press time, no action had been taken by the board, and Mansell was yet in charge of the district, which operates five treatment plants, 385 miles of pipeline, 25 reservoirs and 17 wells in the Chino, Bunker Hill, Lytle Creek, North Riverside and Rialto-Colton water basins to serve more than 80,000 residents in Rialto, Fontana, Bloomington and north Riverside County through more than 24,000 service connections.
Following the June 2015 departure of Butch Araiza, who had served as the district’s general manager for three decades, the district went through a series of general managers who lasted only a short time. In 2018, at the suggestion of Board Member Michael Taylor, the district hired Clarence Mansell to oversee the district. At the time of Mansell’s recruitment, there was a spirit of bonhomie on the district board, which was then headed by Dr. Clifford Young as president. The board included Dr. Young, Dr. Taylor, Kyle Crowther and Greg Young, who is no blood relation to Dr. Clifford Young, all of whom are Republicans. The lone Democrat on the board was Don Olinger. Though the board posts are technically non-partisan ones, party affiliation is nevertheless a major factor in the board’s governance of the district. In the latter half of 2018, an internecine Republican rivalry broke out between Dr. Young and Dr. Taylor, at which point a factional divide formed with Taylor, Crowther and Olinger on one side and Dr. Young and Greg Young on the other. Clifford Young was deposed as board president and Dr. Michael Taylor was installed in that position.
While most staff members at the district attempted to steer clear of politics, the factionalism on the board was reflected to some degree at the staff level. Mansell, the district’s general counsel, Robert Tafoya, and the district’s human resources and risk manager, Deborah Martinez, hewed to Taylor’s side of the divide. The district’s chief financial officer, Naisha Davis, and the district’s assistant board secretary, Patricia Romero, aligned with Clifford Young.
With the transition from 2018 to 2019, tension within the district deepened and the relationship between Young and Young, on one side, and Taylor, Crowther and Olinger, on the other, worsened. In February, Clifford Young, Davis and Romero filed a qui tam lawsuit alleging widespread wrongdoing within the district, including kickbacks provided to Taylor and Crowther from Tafoya and Martinez, as well as from other attorneys and consultants employed by the district. The lawsuit, which was filed as a gesture on behalf of the district and its ratepayers with Dr. Young, Davis and Romero as plaintiffs, was allowed to proceed because of the nature of the suit which contested the legitimacy of district expenditures, despite the consideration that Clifford Young did not have aligned with him a controlling majority on the district board and that a clear majority of the board – Taylor, Crowther and Olinger – did not support the filing of the suit.
The West Valley Water District holds its elections in odd-numbered years. With Crowther, Olinger and Greg Young up for reelection, the political control of the district was at stake in the November balloting. In an effort to ensure the continued dominance of his faction, Taylor worked assiduously during the campaign in support of Olinger and Crowther and against Greg Young.
Taylor provided Crowther with $6,192.50 provided directly from his campaign fund to assist Crowther in his reelective effort against challengers Betty Gosney and Linda Gonzalez in the district’s newly-formed Division 1, consisting primarily of eastern Fontana.
In the district’s Division 5, covering virtually all of Bloomington, Greg Young was in a contest against Angel Ramirez and Jackie Cox. Taylor put up $19,128.04 to help Ramirez, using money from his own campaign fund that went either directly to Ramirez’s campaign or which was spent to pay for pro-Ramirez materials provided by a third party or an independent expenditure committee.
Olinger, competing in the district’s Division 4 which is contained within Rialto, found himself up against another Democrat, Channing Hawkins. In support of the effort to keep Hawkins from replacing Olinger, Taylor utilized $22,620.48 from his own campaign war chest to help the incumbent by either transferring funds from his account to Olinger’s campaign fund or purchasing electioneering materials in the form of ads or mailers for Olinger.
Once the dust settled after the November 5 election, Crowther had prevailed with 282 votes or 53.41 percent; Greg Young had held off his two challengers by capturing 340 votes or 52.63 percent; and Hawkins had trounced Olinger by capturing 623 votes or 64.83 percent.
Quietly, behind the scenes, Clifford Young had supported Hawkins. With Taylor having worked to keep Hawkins out of office, it appeared that Taylor’s political hold on the West Valley Water District was about to elapse.
At the December 5 board meeting at which the victors in the November election were sworn into office and the board took up the selection of board officers for the coming year, Dr. Taylor utilized his hold on the board president’s gavel to make a political maneuver that would, if not maintain him as the dominant player on the board, at least prevent Dr. Young from again taking control of the district. In a slick use of parliamentary procedure, Taylor in the last minutes of his tenure as board president used his authority in presiding over the meeting to immediately nominate the newly elected Hawkins to succeed him as board president. Hawkins, who appeared to have been in on the maneuver, made a lightning-fast second of his own nomination. A vote was taken before a competing nomination could be made. With Dr. Young abstaining, the board voted 4-to-1 to elevate Hawkins to the chairmanship of the board. By his action, Taylor appeared to have made significant amends with Hawkins. With the maneuver, Taylor caught Clifford Young flatfooted. In the immediacy of what was occurring, and dismayed at the chairmanship of the board having eluded him even before he could get a grip on the gavel, Dr. Young made the mistake of abstaining on the vote to make Hawkins president, undercutting any further progress toward an alliance between himself and Hawkins that might have been heretofore taking shape.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the election, to district staff it had initially appeared that Taylor’s ruling coalition was about to dissolve, and with it Mansell’s continuing viability as general manager. What was not widely known outside the confines of the district’s offices was the degree to which a significant portion of the district’s staff was chaffing under Mansell’s direction. Many of the district’s employees believed that with Hawkins’ election and the anticipated changing of the guard that would follow, Hawkins would line up with Dr. Young and Greg Young to take control of the board. Thereafter, it was anticipated, those members of the district staff seen as being Taylor’s associates – Mansel, Tafoya and Martinez – would be sacked, perhaps as early as this month, but in no case any later than January or February. Taylor’s assistance in establishing Hawkins as board president, however, put those assumptions on hold or may have made them inoperative altogether. Accordingly, early on December 12, just less than a week after Hawkins’ acceptance of the board presidency, a letter from all but two of the district’s eighteen department managers was delivered to Hawkins and the remainder of the board, pressing them to relieve Mansell of his position as general manager.
“Morale has never been lower at West Valley Water District,” the letter states. “General Manager Mansell has alienated employees by removing responsibilities from specific individuals to those who will do his bidding. We bring this to your attention because of our commitment to our customers and employees. We the undersigned, management and supervisory staff of the West Valley Water District, are bringing to you, the board of directors, our extreme concerns with regards to the executive management and overall unsatisfactory performance of General Manager Clarence Mansell, Jr. Our water district is at a crossroads and we felt compelled to take this action because it is our fundamental belief that without a change in leadership, our once proud West Valley Water District will continue to decline and water services will be at risk to our customers. Unfortunately, after continued lack of transparency, communication, honesty, professionalism and respect for employees of West Valley Water District, we have come to the firm conclusion that the only way to save our water district is to change the leadership of the West Valley Water District.”
The letter alleges that Mansell has engaged in favoritism in the hiring process for the district, saddling it with employees who cannot perform adequately.
“Hiring practices are more flawed than before,” the letter states. “Job description vacancies within our departments are molded to fit specific individuals our general manager desires, most of whom have a personal relationship with him. Often, these employees lack the qualifications and experience required to perform basic tasks and begin at an inappropriately high pay step, creating tension among long term employees of the district.”
Mansell has recruited and hired employees without adequate screening or consultation with department managers, and has bypassed interviewing candidates as well, according to the letter. “Mr. Mansell has justified all of his actions by stating that the board is aware of and in support,” the letter states. “We believe this to be an untrue statement as his actions are oftentimes in direct contradiction to your statements on the dais.”
The sheer number of high level district employees signing what amounts to a letter of no-confidence was noteworthy. Sixteen signatures were affixed to the bottom of the two-and-a-half page missive, which bore the water district’s letterhead, which includes Mansell’s name and title, along with those of several other district officials, including the board members to whom the letter was sent. Those signing the letter were Public Affairs Manager Naseem Faroqi, General Services Manager Jon Stephenson, Acting Human Resources Manager Paul Becker, Operations Manager Joanne Chan, Engineering Services Manager Linda Jadeski, Business Systems Manager Albert Clinger, Accounting Manager Jose Velasquez, Geographic Information Systems Manager Telat Yalcin, Purchasing Supervisor Al Robles, Production Supervisor Joe Schaak, Water Quality Supervisor Anthony Budicin, Customer Service Supervisor Alberto Yulo, Chief Treatment Plant Operator Ernie Montelongo and Chief Treatment Plant Operator Sergio Granda.
According to the district’s employees, this is the first time staff has en masse sought the resignation of the district’s top administrator. Questioning of the district’s leadership has intensified in recent years and months, as audits of the district by the California Controller’s Office and a firm hired by the district are underway.
Hawkins, who had campaigned on a reform platform and had pledged to make needed changes to ensure the district was focused on its relatively limited charter of delivering water to its ratepayers, appeared to be paralyzed by the letter and its call for Mansell’s removal. Given Mansell’s connection to Taylor and that Hawkins is in the early stages of acclimating himself to the intricacies of the district and the treacherous, conflicting and shifting alliances on the board, the call for him to jettison Taylor’s designated manager before the terms of his own relationship with Taylor and the other members of the board are fully settled was a challenge Hawkins clearly did not wish to deal with at this juncture. At press time, he was seeking to maintain a low profile and not engage with the public to avoid having to make a statement that would create a contretemps that had the potential of careening out of control.
Mansell could not be reached by press time. The district, did, however, offer a terse statement that appeared to have emanated from Mansell. “The leadership at West Valley Water District has received a letter expressing items by our employees,” it said. “I can say we are very concerned and will be reviewing the matter. President Hawkins and the board of directors are committed to maintaining the confidence of our employees and ratepayers.”
Upholding the county’s planning commission and over the objections of a contingent of local residents, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday granted San Francisco-based Clearway Energy Group license to proceed with a massive, 3,500-acre solar-generating facility near the Barstow-Daggett Airport.
On September 19, 2019, the county’s planning commission gave approval to the project involving six conditional permits that collectively provided for the construction and operation of a 650-megawatt photovoltaic solar power generating facility, including 450 megawatts of of battery storage, to be built in phases over the 3,500-acre project site. Clearway made the application under the veil of a limited liability company known as Daggett Solar Power Facility 1. The commission made findings and imposed conditions of approval that included major variances to exceed the allowed height limits and allow transmission structures and lines up to a maximum of 159 feet with findings that their placement was needed and justified. The commission approved a tentative parcel map to consolidate the 51 existing parcels into 15 parcels, made findings and gave certification of a final environmental impact report. The commission also provided statements of overriding consideration, and signed off on a mitigation monitoring reporting program, including approval of a water supply assessment.
On September 30, 2019, the Newberry Community Services District filed with the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors an appeal of the San Bernardino County Planning Commission’s approval of the Daggett Solar Power Facility.
The Newberry Community Services District is the closest approximation of a local government authority in the area, providing fire protection, parks and recreation and street lighting services to residents in Daggett and Newberry Springs.
The district, on behalf of the Daggett and Newberry Springs populace, decried inadequacies in the environmental documents compiled by Clearway’s consultants which were filed in keeping with the California Environmental Quality Act.
Clearway’s filing of the application for the project predated the board of supervisors’ approval of a policy last February which prohibits utility-scale renewable energy development in rural zones and most of the county’s unincorporated districts. That policy restricted development of something along the lines of Clearway’s project to areas already in agricultural or mining use and the remote outlying areas of Amboy, El Mirage, Hinkley, Kramer Junction and Trona. Because the Newberry/Daggett project proposal was already being processed by the land use services division, those restrictions did not apply, although the county made use of them in its analysis.
The ban carried with it a loophole allowing solar or wind power project proponents to seek a general plan amendment, or a boundary change, to allow such a project to proceed if a proponent has a site that otherwise meets the county’s criteria for a renewable energy project but is within a prohibited zone. The supervisors have discretion to grant such an exception.
County Land Use Services Director Terri Rahhal said that the sole snag in the application under the new standards the county is applying is that a portion of the project’s footprint involves some parcels zoned for rural neighborhoods. Otherwise, she said, the project meets the requirements that the land was previously used for agricultural purposes, and it is proximate to other energy facilities and transmission lines.
According to a document entitled “Consistency Assessment with General Plan Policies and Objectives” generated by the county’s land use services division, “The project is compatible and harmonious with surrounding properties and land uses. The project provides an important source of clean and renewable energy. The project is properly sited adjacent to existing energy infrastructure and is compatible with surrounding land uses.”
One of the objections the appellants had raised was the project’s untoward impact on air quality. As was stated in the appeal, “The health hazards and the damage to homes, property and property values from airborne dust are major concerns of local residents.”
The county’s land use services division responded, “Currently over 60 percent of the project site is disturbed, mostly by agricultural and other uses that contribute to blowing sand and dust. In compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, the final environmental impact report provides extensive information and analysis describing the air basin in which the project is located and the project’s potential air quality impacts.”
The document did not say, however, that the described impacts were mitigated.
Another objection was the concentration of energy at the site. The appellants said this constituted a “hazard. The amount of energy that Clearway proposes to store on-site in lithium-ion battery storage systems is staggering. At full power, the recently decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station had the capacity to generate 2,150 million watts of electrical energy. Clearway proposes to store 450 million watts of electrical energy in lithium-ion batteries. This is almost one-quarter as much energy as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station produced.”
The county’s land use services division responded, “Clearway’s battery storage system will have a number of advanced safety features not present at the battery storage project referenced in the appeal to ensure a higher level of safety and protection for the Daggett energy storage systems. Clearway will use small cabinets about the size of a household refrigerator designed and tested to isolate and extinguish an internal battery fire prior to it spreading to any nearby batteries, thus isolating the fire event to much less than 1 percent of the total energy storage system facility.”
The turnout for the board hearing Tuesday included a large number of Daggett and Newberry Springs residents opposed to the project. Clearway sought to counter that with the presence of Clearway’s senior director of development, James Kelly, and a number of blue-collar construction workers and union members who spoke in favor of the project because of the employment it would provide them. Those who commented on the project during the public input portion of the hearing were Sheri Buchanan, David Buchanan, Robert Shaw, Robert Kasner, Carl Pugh, Jesse Wright, Thomas Ruiz, Margie Roberts, Justin Dillman, Brian Fisher, Donna Alvord, Adam Kington, Linda Parker, Ted Stimpfel, Fred Stearn, Glen Van Dam, Andron Harter, Sean L. Swoboda, Tim Rohm, Jay Lindberg, Bill Perez, Paul Smith, Steve Bardwell and Constance Walsh.
Kelly acknowledged there were “seven or eight” homes in close proximity to the project’s later phases, with one that will be less than a football field away, at roughly 185 feet.
Kelly’s statement that Daggett Solar Power Facility 1 will comply with the board’s wish that the solar field be placed somewhat further away from the existing nearby homes and that his company would endeavor to monitor and control dust and deal with air quality issues at the site convinced the supervisors, on a motion by Supervisor Robert Lovingood seconded by Supervisor Janice Rutherford, to unanimously uphold the planning commission’s approval of the undertaking, with an amendment that the developer address the project setback requirement to lessen the impact on nearby homes.
An intensified search for a lost hiker on Mt. Baldy had entered its fourth day today, with no sign of his whereabouts in the unforgiving terrain of the treacherous mountain that has claimed the lives of dozens of those who have braved it during the inclemency of winter over the years.
Though the official onset of winter will not come until the December 22 solstice, severe winter conditions enshroud the San Gabriel Mountains, with most high-altitude trails covered with waist-deep snow or slick ice.
Sreenivas Mokkapati, 52 of Irvine, said to be an experienced hiker, embarked with three colleagues on Sunday, December 8 from 4,324-foot elevation Bear Flats, determined to follow a steep trail that would take the party to the 10,064-foot summit of Mt. Baldy, involving an ascent of 5,740 feet in six miles, a challenging hike.
The Bear Canyon Trail does not involve the more popular and less grueling route from Manker Flats to the Baldy Ski Hut and then across the highly dangerous Devil’s Backbone, but it does entail a continuously angled route that is exposed for much of its distance, together with occasional sheer drop-offs on either side that are as terrifying as those on the Devil’s Backbone.
Mokkapati was said to have been well-equipped, with an extra pair of shoes and woolen socks in his backpack. He was wearing warm clothing, including a gray jacket and cargo pants. At some point he became separated from his companions.
On Tuesday, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue Team was in the area, having plucked two stranded hikers off of the Devil’s Backbone. It was at that point that the search for Mokkapati began in earnest.
Conditions on the mountain are brutal, with high winds gusting to more than 40 miles an hour, daytime temperatures in the 40s and 50s, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 30s and 20s, with the windchill factor lowering that to near zero degrees Fahrenheit.
By press time today, Mokkapati had not been located. An even more intensive search is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning, involving more than 100, with volunteer searchers and Alpine teams from Los Angeles, Riverside and Kern counties joining with their counterparts from San Bernardino County.
A San Bernardino native, Reynoso is a graduate of Cajon High School. He attended and graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. He is now in his last semester at Loyola Marymount University, in pursuit of a teaching credential.
“I’ve been involved as an organizer since I was 15 years old,” Reynoso said. “I‘ve seen issues remain while our political leadership’s focus for rectifying these issues hasn’t gotten any clearer; we are seeing fewer results and no progress. There is an extreme lack of inclusiveness. I’m tired of being on one side of the table and feeling that our representatives on the other side of the table still aren’t on their constituents’ side. I look at the people running things and I want real change.”
His candidacy is not based on any hard and fast political difference with the incumbent, Reynoso said.
“I have no problem with Henry Nickel,” he noted, stating, “Of those up on the council, he asks better questions than the other councilmembers. For me the underlying issue is still inclusiveness. There is not any inclusiveness, at all, even from Nickel.”
The city is beset, Reynoso said, with “tons of issues,” which he said fell into three basic categories. “The major issues in no particular order are education, health and development,” he said.
“Educationally there are things going on that are great,” he explained. “But we have not been getting results. Our education system is not supported by pathways to employment. The end of those pathways don’t exist. We have started people off and we have educated them, but there are no jobs here when they are through. The students we graduate from California State University San Bernardino have to move on to get work.”
Continuing his overview, Reynoso said, “We are a hub for goods moving to market. We have one of the highest concentrations of warehouses in the nation. People on the ground are feeling the impact from that. There is nothing to mitigate the pollution that comes with the current goods movement,” he said, saying the detrimental aspects of a distribution-based economy and the physical elements it entails such as worker exploitation, massive numbers of carbon-spewing trucks and the warehouses themselves offset their benefits. “People have to be smarter about development and putting pollution-intensive warehouses so close to houses and churches, closest to the most impoverished parts of our city,” he said. “Development is better than no development but that doesn’t mean we have to be in the pocket of whoever is doing the developing. Too often we have been bending over for scraps. I am calling for accountability from the development community and our city officials.”
In terms of solutions, Reynoso said San Bernardino has to replicate what it has done well in limited venues across a larger scale.
A case-in-point, he said, is the career pathway program his alma mater has for students interested in finding employment within the medical field.
“Cajon High has a biomedical career pathway program in partnership with Loma Linda University,” he said.
The San Bernardino community and its political leadership, he said, have to be both “intentional” and “deliberate” in seeking to have similar programs in place for its high school graduates and the graduates from Cal State San Bernardino and San Bernardino Valley College.
The Cajon High pathway program, Reynoso said, is a rare “example of the kind of career pathway programs that work. We need to be more intentional about retaining people who have been educated here into our work force locally.”
He said “Some of those attending the School of Education at Cal State San Bernardino are staying in San Bernardino, but we need to keep people we have educated here at a much higher level. The university has many local residents and those from out of the area who want to be students here, but they do not stay.”
Reynoso said he wanted to get a conversation started about educational programs “at middle schools and high schools” that would cultivate in the students attending them skills that could then be used in local workplaces which have a need for those precise skills. “The schools should make them ready for jobs at many levels,” he said.
On a separate track, Reynoso said, he envisions programs promoting local industry and employment venues, “that hopefully would create jobs for them.”
Because warehouse jobs are now so predominant in this area, Reynoso said, there should be an element of the education being provided to students which arms them with the faculties and sophistication “so they can advocate for better wages.”
Without being any more specific, Reynoso referenced the “International Baccalaureate Program,” which he indicated was available locally. “That program offers great teachers here but does not provide opportunities for people to stay here,” he said.
He said the area’s political leadership needs to be more aggressive in extracting from the major developers and strong national corporations doing business in San Bernardino funding to augment and supplement the city’s educational and social support programs.
“Amazon is the biggest private sector employer here,” he said, simultaneously referencing Hillwood Development, which is a corporation headed by Ross Perot, Jr. which, Reynoso pointed, has an exclusive development agreement for the civilian use conversion at the former Norton Air Force Base, now known as San Bernardino International Airport.
He noted that Hillwood Development is responsible for the creation of 26 warehouses on the grounds of the former base or immediately surrounding it. Warehouse, logistics, and product distribution jobs, while better than nothing, Reynoso observed, carry with them multiple negative facets, including relatively poor wages, negative environmental impacts, and the disempowerment of its workforce.
He said Amazon engages in “temporary” hiring, which he said “does not guarantee workers employment.”
He called for the city forging “community benefit agreements” with both Amazon and Hillwood to offset the harmful health and financial consequences of the Amazon operations and others being attracted into San Bernardino International Airport by Hillwood.
Reynoso said the city should use Hillwood as its proxy in negotiating concessions from Amazon. “Amazon is not the developer of that warehousing,” Reynoso said. “Hillwood is. I would have the developer, the landlord, push for more from Amazon.”
“If I were to be elected, I will say we should obtain from those companies all the community benefit agreements we can, obtaining money from the different carriers to augment our school system, so you can turn this into a hub for training people on real career jobs,” Reynoso said. “This could be the first step in a long effort toward what could be great development in our city.”
Getting rid of diesel and gas powered vehicles, increasing workers’ pay and giving them job security, Reynoso said, would “advance the community” away from “how the culture here has become 18-wheeler and warehouse first. I am proposing accountability for our public officials and our corporations. We have to seriously think about how we can put people over profits.”
Reynoso said “Education and awareness in general has to come from our [government] representatives. Representation is all about transparency to me. There has to be an intentional education about things around us impacting us. There needs to be a logical situational assessment of what all the blowback will be if people are damaged by a new warehouse right off of the freeway, next to their homes.”
“We need civic engagement, so that people can see what the impact of their participation is, see it and feel it, and know that their votes matter again,” Reynoso said.
Reynoso said that his political philosophy is a logical outgrowth of his family background. “I come from a long line of social workers and educators,” he said.
Reynoso said he normally does not dwell on his racial background, but said it perhaps has some currency and relevancy in his electoral effort in San Bernardino.
“Culturally, I was raised as a Mexican-American and African-American,” he said. “My father is Mexican-American and my mother is African-American. As someone who is bi-racial growing up in San Bernardino, I saw a lot of tension between those two communities. I also studied in Mississippi, which has given me a wider perspective. No matter what you think of that place, I am extremely grateful that it has given me a lens to see bias in more than one way. I think from where I sit, I am able to transcend all racial barriers and recognize that in the vast majority of common issues we face, race is an irrelevancy.”
John Abad maintains his candidacy for 7th Ward Councilman is driven by his perception that the incumbent has been indolent in redressing the ward’s and the city’s obvious problems.
Abad, along with David Mlynarski, Damon Alexander, and Esmeralda Negrete are challenging Jim Mulvihill, who has been the 7th Ward councilman since 2013, when he was chosen in a special election to replace Wendy McCammack, who had been displaced in a recall election. Mulvihill, who is a retired urban planner and college professor, was reelected in 2015, when he defeated developer Scott Beard.
Mulvihill’s term in office began after the city’s 2012 bankruptcy filing. The city continued to function under bankruptcy protection until mid 2017, and all of his tenure in office has been marked by the fiscal constraints the city has been functioning under.
Abad, who in 2013 ran unsuccessfully for city council against Virginia Marquez in the city’s 1st Ward when he lived there, said he believes Mulvihill and the rest of the council have been less than fully engaged and energetic in coming to terms with the city’s myriad challenges.
“These things have been a major issue for quite a long time,” Abad said. “I don’t see too much progress in San Bernardino and the 7th Ward.” Other cities that had filed for bankruptcy protection had bounced back by “vastly increasing their tax base, improving housing and development,” Abad said. “That’s not what I see here. It is stagnant.”
Other than “some federal funds for freeways and the state’s involvement through Caltrans,” Abad said, “There is no federal funding that we should be getting coming through. San Bernardino needs to have an army of grant writers put into place. We should be going after federal funds to build a homeless veterans home. I think we need to work hard to get federal and state funds to improve San Bernardino.”
Abad said the city is locked in a vicious cycle whereby neglect has begotten deterioration leading to a variety of social ills and outward blight, creating a situation in which the remaining middle class residents are electing to take flight, leading to further deterioration and an accompanying unwillingness to invest in improvements and maintenance, causing further neglect.
“Because we have crime, things are bad and getting worse,” Abad said. “We need to improve the streets and the blighted areas. We need jobs to put more people to work and create a vital economy. There are so few jobs in this area, most people drive 20 or 30 miles out of San Bernardino to their work, which takes them outside of the area and they shop out of the area. We need to bring back the middle class and better housing, better condominiums and homes and businesses. We are not doing that.”
Abad said, “We need a better tax base to improve San Bernardino. Go up any street from Baseline to Highland. Follow Del Rosa up toward the foothills, then take another street back to the freeway and you will see the same thing. It is not improving. Over the years the city did a little eminent domain to where the city owns over 100 properties. They should sell those to anyone who is ready to develop them or use them. No one wants to build homes. The city is not going to attract developers without some incentive. We have to engage in quality building to make it more like Redlands and Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana. They [the council and city management] are not doing that.”
The city is failing to put its best foot forward, Abad said, by having its subsidized housing, much of which is in poor repair, in the center of the city, which is warding off any potential investors or developers.
“They need to put those Section 8 type of homes and apartment complexes somewhere else,” he said. “They are right there where it makes the city look bad. We need to give those people who live in the central core some self esteem. If we keep them there, it says to the world this is a lower economic area. That’s counterproductive.”
Mulvihill, despite his expertise in urban planning and other experience, is oblivious to the reality on the streets, Abad said. “He is a little older than I am and he has city planning degrees, but I think he is a little antiquated and being happy with the way San Bernardardino is,” Abad said of Mulvihill. “I don’t think he should be happy with the way San Bernardino is. I don’t think he goes to 7-11 in the morning for coffee and encounters homeless and the indigent people who are there begging for money. There are homeless all over the city. There are homeless and people living in transitional housing everywhere. You can see them in morning sleeping on the sidewalk or in abandoned buildings. Many are mentally incapacitated. They are on the roads where children are walking to school. You get worried about your children having to deal with them. The same thing happens up on 30th Street around the schools there. You have children who are afraid to go into 7-11 in the morning. Every morning on Highland you see the same thing, the homeless are in front of Circle K and 7-11 and the doughnut shops. You see the police encouraging them to move on. There presence is so disturbing, people will avoid shopping at the stores where they are.”
The city needs to migrate toward a higher standard than the one that has settled over it, Abad said.
“We have too many stores like the 99 Cent Store that appeal to that lower income bracket,” Abad said. “They are there for the 67 percent of the city that are in that lower income group, and they need those type of stores that sell what they can afford, but you have to bring in some quality shopping and attract some middle class people to the city. We need to be able to offer housing to people who work in Grand Terrace and Loma Linda at the hospital there and in Redllands, teachers from the districts around the area who have decent incomes.”
Abad moved to San Bernardino as a child with his family in the 1950s, and he attended San Bernardino schools and has lived in San Bernardino for 30 years of his adult life. As an adult he moved to Redlands for a time but returned to San Bernardino.
He says he is intimately familiar with the city, having lived in many of its districts. He says the city offers a number of features and amenities that make it a great place, but that neglect and mismanagement have created a circumstance in which the vast majority of the city’s residents do not avail themselves of them. An example, he said, are the sports competitions that are held at the various high school venues. Having participated in sports when he was a student himself, Abad said he is drawn to these.
“It is sad to see very few people at those sporting events,” he said. “I have encountered some people who are members of school spirit clubs who go to athletic competitions. Like me, they want to cheer on San Bernardino or the team of the school they attended, and they do. But there aren’t too many of us. We have plenty of population here to support those teams, but if you ask most people why they’re not willing to go, they’ll say, ‘It’s too dark over there. San Bernardino has too many vagrants, vandals and homeless. They’re around the school at night.’ That’s why they won’t go and watch a basketball game or a football game. I am not afraid to walk around the city. I’m a hometown boy. I’m not leaving, and if I want to watch a game or a wrestling match or a track meet, I’m staying right here in town to do it.”
As that school spirit has diminished, so has pride in San Bernardino, Abad said. “We used to be better than Riverside,” he said. “People don’t say they love San Bernardino anymore. We have got to get it back to being a respectable place, what it was in the past. I want to build the city up and give it some respectability.”
Abad said, “I’d like to at least try to donate something back to the community. Before, I was teaching high school students to be citizens, teaching history and economics, and then they’d go out on their own and come to their real life. Young people are going out onto the streets of San Bernardino and they see how life works. It can be really discouraging, when you see the reality, see how it really is, what the reality is in San Bernardino. Secombe Park used to be a very nice place. I’ll bet you half the people who live here now would never go there. They won’t go to the other run-down areas. The high school graduates, the young adults, if they have ambition, they don’t see any chance of fulfilling it here. They say there is no future here in the engineering field or the medical profession of getting on the police force. They want to get into a respectable place with a job that will pay enough to protect their future. San Bernardino Valley is a good college but they’d rather go to Chaffey or Riverside City or Crafton. I say ‘Why not San Bernardino?’ But for them, it is just that they see the surrounding community day after day and want to go to a newer community college. I want to see improvement that will convince them differently.”
Abad says he has engaged with Councilman Henry Nickel from time to time and a few of the other members of the council, but that he finds his exchanges with Mulvihill to be a frustrating dead-end.
“I was talking to him about trees,” Abad said. “There was a neighborhood where the city took them out. They never replanted them. I happened to run into Jim [Mulvihill] on the street and said I was interested in planting some palm trees to take their place. He said, ‘Palm trees are prone to disease.’ I asked what the alternative is. He said I should call the city about getting trees they have which would go in. I did that, or I tried. I had to get permission, and then it was nothing but a constant run around. My thinking is that Jim Mulvihill knows what the problem is but he is overwhelmed. He’ll consider something long enough to give a speech, and then he just turns the corner and forgets about it. With him, it’s out of sight, out of mind. That’s why I think he has competition right now. There are some good candidates running against him.”
Abad said, “I worked at the Stater Bros. warehouse and I was a high school teacher for 30 years. I know what it is to work hard. I know what it is to teach children.”
A Pacific High School graduate, Abad went to San Bernardino Valley College where he earned an A.A. degree in sociology before moving on to UCLA and earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in kinesiology. He subsequently obtained a master’s degree in education and counseling from Cal State San Bernardino. He began his teaching career at Shandin Hills Middle School and then worked for the Colton Unified School District teaching at Bloomington High and subsequently moved to the Fontana School District, teaching at A.B. Miller High School, including a stint as a special education teacher.
He is remarried after the death of his first wife. He has two grown children, one who is an adjunct college professor and the other a supervisor of laboratory technicians with Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco.