By Mark Gutglueck
SAN BERNARDINO (July 28)–Members of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee last night took action to remove their chairman, Chris Robles, as a member of the central committee, which they maintain has the effect of removing him from his chairmanship.
Robles, however, says the ploy used to remove him was a rogue one that has no practical or official meaning, and that he remains as the leader of the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County.
It appears that Robles, who for more than three months was able to stave off a vote to remove him through the use of parliamentary procedure, ironically was ultimately removed through the utilization of the same parliamentary procedure when he adjourned the meeting but failed to properly process a vote to confirm the adjournment. This permitted those who had for so long been frustrated by his parliamentary maneuvering to themselves reconvene the meeting in his absence and hold the vote that resulted in his expulsion.
Discontent with Robles’ leadership of the county party apparatus has been growing for some time.
When he first transplanted to San Bernardino County in 2012 after working as a Democratic Party operative in Los Angeles County, he was embraced by many local Democratic Party activists. He worked professionally as a political consultant, and it was widely believed that his command of electioneering tactics would be turned to the party’s advantage.
The need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Democratic Party operations was manifestly clear. In 2010, after decades of San Bernardino County being under the rock solid control of Republicans, the number of voters registered countywide as Democrats eclipsed the number registered as Republicans. Despite that, the Republican Party in San Bernardino County continued to maintain the upper hand, as Republicans held on to more than 60 percent of the political positions throughout San Bernardino County, including federal, state, county and municipal offices. Consistently, registered Republicans showed up at the polls or participated by mail-in ballots at a percentage significantly greater than did their registered Democratic counterparts. In 2012, 2014 and again in 2016, Republicans continued to dominate the majority of political offices at nearly all levels throughout the county, despite the Democrats having significant and even overwhelmingly superior registration numbers in many of the voting districts where those Republicans yet hold office.
At present, the registration gap between Democratic and Republican voters has grown to 8.5 percent of the county’s electorate, as 360,030, or 40.2 percent of the county’s 895,395 total registered voters are identified as Democrats and 283,494, or 31.7 percent affiliate with the Republican Party.
Three of the five members of the county board of supervisors are Republicans; two of the county’s five Congress members are Republicans, with two of the Democratic Congress members having districts in which those portions outside San Bernardino County are overwhelmingly Democratic; three of the county’s four state senators are Republicans; five of the county’s eight members of the California Assembly are Republicans; and 17 of the county’s 24 cities have city councils composed of a majority of Republicans. Where the Democrats hold state or federal office in San Bernardino County, they hold a commanding registration advantage. In those electoral jurisdictions where the Democrats have close to parity with the Republicans or hold a lead that is substantial but less than entirely overwhelming, they have consistently lost to Republicans. Such is the case in the 40th Assembly District where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 91,615 or 40.4 percent to 76,234 or 33.7 percent, and a Republican, Marc Steinorth, holds office. In San Bernardino County’s Fourth Supervisorial District, where the registration numbers are lopsidedly in favor of the Democrats 71,859 or 43.1 percent to 47,128 or 28.3 percent, a Republican, Curt Hagman is in office, even though his opponent in the 2014 election was a then-incumbent Democratic U.S. Congresswoman, Gloria Negrete-McLeod.
Two months ago, a contingent of Democrats initiated an effort to remove Robles as central committee chairman, when more than 30 advocates for his removal showed up at the May 25 meeting of the Democratic Central Committee, intent on lodging a vote of no confidence against him. Robles, however, used his control of the proceedings to refuse to recognize the call for a vote of no confidence. He then stood down repeated and heated calls for a vote to be put to the entirety of the central committee with regard to effectuating his removal, doing so by simply pronouncing them as out of order. He utilized one of his primary allies within the central committee, Mark Westwood, to stave off further calls against him, surrendering chairmanship of the proceedings to Westwood. Westwood, who was not elected to the central committee in his own right but was appointed as an alternate to Rita Ramirez-Dean, an ex officio member of the central committee. An ex officio member is one accorded central committee membership by virtue of having represented the Democratic Party as a candidate in the most recent general election. In 2016 Ramirez-Dean unsuccessfully vied for Congress against Republican Paul Cook in California’s 8th Congressional District. Robles appointed Westwood to the executive committee of the central committee, a group of eight officials vested with decision-making authority with regard to a bevy of party issues. A bear of a man at 6-foot and 5 inches and well over 300 pounds, Westwood has exhibited extreme loyalty to Robles. Westwood twice ruled out of order calls for votes of no confidence against Robles that had been seconded.
At the June 22 San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee meeting, Robles was again confronted by a substantial number of committee members intent on initiating a review of what they maintain was Robles’ violation of a key bylaw alleged to provide grounds for his removal from the central committee: advocacy work he had done through his campaign consulting company, Vantage Campaigns, for a Republican, Gus Skropos, who had vied for the Ontario City Council in the 2016 election. Those calling for Robles’ ouster were armed with a California Form 460 campaign financing disclosure document filed by the Skropos campaign with the Ontario city clerk’s office on July 20, 2016 showing it had paid $1,850 to Vantage Campaigns and another Form 460 filed with the Ontario city clerk’s office on January 31, 2017 showing the Skropos campaign had paid $6,147 to Vantage Campaigns for “consulting.” They also put on display an email from Skropos sent on September 13, 2016 to Laurie Stalnaker, who in addition to being on the Democratic Central Committee is also involved with the AFL-CIO. In that email, Skropos sought the AFL-CIO endorsement in his run for city council, and stated, “My consultant is Chris Robles, should you wish to work with him.”
Robles denied working for Skropos, insisting that Sam Crowe, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who had been on the Ontario City Council 50 years ago and had later been the Ontario city attorney when Skropos was on the Ontario City Council in the 1980s and mayor in the 1990s, had chosen to run on a ticket with Skropos in 2016. His work had been on behalf of Crowe, Robles insisted, which inadvertently brought him into the Skropos political camp. His critics, citing the Form 460s, would have none of it and pressed again to have Robles removed. Robles was able to use his position of being in control of the meeting, as well as interpretations of the committee’s bylaws provided by the parliamentarian Robles had appointed, Carol Robb, to maneuver out from underneath the onus of the attack against him. But because of the continuous back and forth between Robles and his detractors, virtually nothing on the committee’s June 22 agenda was approved that evening. And to alleviate the situation, either Robles or one of his supporters phoned the police, whose arrival was used as a pretext to adjourn the meeting.
Last night, July 28, Robles was again confronted by committee members seeking to effectuate his removal or resignation. After the meeting was initiated, several members sought to add items to the evening’s agenda, two pertaining to “removal of a member” which Robles resisted, calling them out of order on the basis of procedural error. This provoked numerous objections and calls for points of order which Robles rejected, again relying upon Robb for support. There were further points of order with an appeal that Robb read from the rules and bylaws. Having partially worked through the agenda addition requests but before considering any actual agenda items, Robles eighteen minutes into the proceedings adjourned the meeting, having wearied of having to respond to his critics’ carping upon what they insisted were his unforgivable shortcomings.
He momentarily left the podium but returned when protests were heard that there had been no actual motion for adjournment, nor a vote on such. Robles requested a vote, calling for ayes. Upon hearing a half dozen or so ayes, he declared the meeting concluded without calling for those opposed to register their position on the adjournment. He disconnected the cord to the podium microphone, during which a series of shouts calling upon Robles to ask for “no” votes on the adjournment can be heard on the recordings of the meeting. Robles, with several of his supporters, including Mark Westwood and Sam Crowe, then took his leave of the room, prompting a loud round of applause, which is audible on the recordings of the meeting. Prior to exiting, Robles instructed sergeant-at-arms Sean Houle to call the police.
With most of those in the contingent opposed to Robles yet in the room, a member announced that the meeting had not been properly adjourned as another member promptly began calling the roll by California Assembly district. As the roll call was proceeding and Ron Cohen, one of two members of the executive committee who is not closely affiliated with Robles and the senior member of the executive committee present, was in the process of reconvening the meeting, the police arrived. Cohen entrusted the conducting of the proceedings to the other member of the executive committee there, Jim Gallagher, while he dealt with the police. Gallagher proceeded with the motions to amend the agenda. Cohen explained to the police that there was a quorum of the committee present and that party business was being conducted. The police allowed the proceedings to continue, but remained present to ensure order. A tally was taken and it was determined that there was a quorum, meaning that twelve or more members of the central committee were in attendance and that at least one representative from each of the county’s Assembly districts was present. Mark Westwood, as an executive committee member dedicated to Robles, would normally have at least sought to assert his authority to block the dissidents’ action. But he was unable to do so because Rita Ramirez Dean was present, and his eligibility to participate in the meeting was voided because his charter as a member of the committee consists of participating only in her absence.
With Ron Cohen presiding over the meeting from that point forward, a vote was taken on whether to ratify Robles’ previous removal of Lori Stalnaker as the committee’s finance director. The vote to ratify Stalnaker’s removal failed by unanimous vote and she was given the opportunity to give her report.
Stalnaker said she has had difficulty completing an audit of the county party’s finances because she has been consistently rebuffed in her efforts over the last several months to obtain minutes of previous meetings so she can reconcile expenditures made out of the committee’s bank account with their authorizations. She referenced several questionable expenditures, including ones made with a lack of receipts, and noted that Robles had apparently authorized via email expenditures for ads with a radio station for which Mark Westwood works.
Cohen asserted that Carol Robb’s appointment to the position of parliamentarian had never been ratified so he made a nomination for Tim Prince to the position. Robb had previously been given the position based on Robles’ action. A motion was made to move Prince into the parliamentarian post, seconded and supported by all but one abstention.
Debbie McAfee moved to remove Chris Robles as a member of the committee, an item that had been added to the agenda after Robles’ departure. A discussion on the merits of Robles’ removal ensued, which included Socorro Cisneros advocating against removing him.
“He said he was not advocating for this Republican,” Cisneros can be heard saying on the recordings of the proceedings. “It was his company. So therefore it wasn’t him. Another argument that Chris used was the body cannot remove a member; that it can only go to the executive board.”
The sentiment of several others, ones diametrically opposed to the utterances of Cisneros, can be heard on the recording.
“Chris worked against someone endorsed by our committee…it is a conflict of interest,” one can be heard saying. “He overextended himself….This isn’t about one side or another, it’s about our committee and whether or not our committee was served, and it wasn’t.”
The members voted to close the debate and the acting secretary read the motion. The motion was moved by Debbie McAfee, seconded and the vote was counted by raising credentials. Chris Robles was removed upon approval by the aye votes of 27 with two abstentions and zero no votes.
Under the bylaws of the central committee, the full committee does not have the authority to remove the central committee chairman. That authority is instilled in the executive committee. Nevertheless, the central committee’s bylaws authorize the removal of any member of the central committee, on a vote of the committee’s general membership, for engaging in specifically proscribed prohibited activities. Among that activity is engaging in the promotion of the candidacy of a political candidate other than a Democrat. In taking the vote to remove Robles’ from the central committee, Robles’ work on behalf of Skropos was cited. The removal of Robles as a committee member by extension relieves him of the committee chairmanship. A vacancy was declared for Robles’ position on the central committee and the office of chair.
The question now is will the California Democratic Party recognize the action by the San Bernardino County Central Committee last night as official.
This morning, Robles told the Sentinel that nothing that occurred after he closed the meeting and took his leave bears the patina of legitimacy. “It was adjourned and no other meeting would be recognized as official,” he said. “What they held was a bogus meeting. Our bylaws are very specific about the removal of a member. It is not something you can do willy-nilly. I am an elected member of this body. It is the same with every organization in the state. You cannot just remove somebody on a whim. It is a serious process and they are not following the process. The executive committee starts the process and then only if the body finds something sufficient. They are trying to bypass that and go straight to the members. The executive committee considered a motion for my removal and found no wrongdoing on my part and found no reason to move forward. That is why you see them making these crazy accusations and holding some type of shadow meeting. When they make their motion, they don’t give the background and full details. They only give information they think will build their case.”
The vote to remove him, Robles said, carries with it no party imprimatur. “The official meeting was held and adjourned for the safety of all of the members when a small group became unruly,” he said. “I assume they are going to try to legitimize this second meeting by stating there was a quorum. But when a meeting is adjourned, there is no continuation. Despite the motion to remove me and the vote, it is not valid. There is more required than those people having a meeting and I am somehow booted out.”
The Sentinel has learned that Ron Cohen, who is among the prime movers within the central committee militating for the removal of Robles and one of only two members of the executive committee in favor of removing Robles as chairman, is scheduled to have a meeting with California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman tomorrow.
Ultimately it is the California State Democratic Party’s rules committee which will make the call as to the legitimacy of the meeting after Robles departed.
By Mark Gutglueck