By Mark Gutglueck
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors this week lurched into controversy with the hiring of former Victorville mayor/councilman Ryan McEachron to serve as the coordinator of the High Desert Corridor Project, some ten months after he was turned out of office. While county officials maintain McEachron accumulated knowledge and contacts to augment his innate leadership skill to allow him to carry out the function of the role he is being entrusted with, others view it as an untoward move by the county’s ruling elite to provide a sinecure to one of their members as a political favor designed to keep McEachron in the governmental loop. The matter is exacerbated by perceptions McEachron lacks both the requisite expertise/skill set and the time to carry out the assignment, harbors affiliations with developmental interests that will impact his judgment with regard to the scope, nature and placement of the project, and that his business and financial connections to the chairman of the board of supervisors has mired him and the county in a conflict of interest.
Of note is that two county officials who would normally play crucial roles in the hiring of county employees, Mark DeBoer in the human resources division and deputy county counsel Cynthia O’Neill, were relegated to back-burner status on the hiring while the county’s de facto top in-house political operative, county governmental and legislative affairs director Josh Candelaria, made the evaluation of McEachron and consequent recommendation to hire him.
Ostensibly, McEachron, who served on the Victorville City Council from 2008 until last November, boasts some level of credentials in terms of dealing with traffic issues in general and traffic issues as they pertain to the High Desert and High Desert government.
In June 2015, McEachron was elected president of San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG), the county’s transportation agency. SANBAG, which has subsequently been reformed and renamed the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) and San Bernardino Council of Governments (SBCOG), is overseen by a board consisting of one representative from each of 24 of the county’s cities, either a mayor or council member, as well as each of the county’s five supervisors. The agency provides financial support toward and coordinates freeway construction projects, regional and local road improvements, train and bus transportation, railroad crossings, call boxes, ridesharing, congestion management efforts and long-term planning studies in conjunction with the California Department of Transportation, the county government, local municipalities and the regional public transportation agencies that offer bus and shuttle services, Omnitrans, Mountain Transit, Victor Valley Transit Authority and the Morongo Basin Transit Authority.
SANBAG formerly administered and now SBCTA administers Measure I funds, revenue from San Bernardino County’s half-cent transportation sales tax first passed in 1989 and extended by voters in 2004 to run through 2040.
In November 2006, the County of Los Angeles and the County of San Bernardino created the High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which took as its charter the creation of the High Desert Corridor, a 66-mile stretch of freeway connecting the Los Angeles County communities of Palmdale/Lancaster with the San Bernardino County communities of Victorville, Apple Valley, and Adelanto.
In support of this project. San Bernardino County agreed to provide a part-time staff coordinator for the project. The coordinator is to be provided with $98,363 in total compensation over the next nine months until the end of fiscal year 2017-18 on June 30, 2018, consisting of $60,378 in salary and $37,985 in benefits.
Since 2012, Robert Lovingood has been San Bernardino County’s First District supervisor, which includes the Victor Valley and the entirety of that portion of the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County that is contiguous with Los Angeles County. Earlier this year he was installed as the chairman of the board of supervisors. The entirety of the High Desert Corridor in San Bernardino County lies within the First District. Lovingood is the chairman of the High Desert Corridor Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors. In 2015, when McEachron was selected to serve as the president of SANBAG, Lovingood was elevated to SANBAG’s vice president’s position. Virtually since the county’s inception in 1853, supervisors have held tremendous sway over their individual districts, running them essentially as fiefdoms. Though there is not explicit documentation to prove it, word is that Lovingood was a prime mover in ensuring that McEachron was given the High Desert Corridor staff coordinator post. Rather than assigning the county’s human resources division to conduct a competitive recruitment drive to fill the position, that task was handed off to the county’s governmental and legislative affairs division, headed by Josh Candelaria, who is also charged with the hiring of the county’s state and national lobbyists. Without providing an assessment of McEachron’s qualifications, Candelaria in a report to the board of supervisors written prior to but dated September 26, recommended that McEachron be provided with the contract to serve as the coordinator of the High Desert Corridor Project.
Word of McEachron’s pending selection first emerged with the release of the agenda for this week’s board of supervisors meeting on which the ratification of his hiring was listed as item 14.
Before the weekend was over, however, a number of current and former public officials and citizen activists in San Bernardino County were expressing their objections to the choice, citing a host of reasons, nearly all of which revolve around the recurrent perception that McEachrons’s hiring was a demonstration of the way in which San Bernardino County’s political insiders are able to wield their political power to benefit themselves and illegitimately perpetuate that political power at the the expense of those subject to it.
Ironically, as recently as a decade ago, McEachron was himself a political outsider, who was once himself very much under the yoke of the political elite. Having graduated from Apple Valley Senior High School in 1991 and having obtained his Bachelor of Science in communications from Arizona State University in 1995, he did not come into the political game entirely unarmed. His father, Ross, was the founder and president of the successful insurance company, ISU-Armac Insurance Services. Shortly after he left college, Ryan was employed as corporate officer with the company, moving on to become first the chief financial officer and then the chief executive officer. His political ambition led him to apply for and get an appointment to the Victorville Planning Commission when he was 28. At the age of 31 in 2004, he acceded to the chairmanship of the planning commission. The same year, he became the president of the Rotary Club. He served on the Victorville Chamber of Commerce board of directors for a half dozen years, including a stint as the board chairman in 2000/2001. By the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, McEachron was on a trajectory toward a berth on the city council, having put himself in position to put on a viable campaign when an opening emerged. Nevertheless, Victorville was then one of San Bernardino County’s most, if not the most, politically stable municipalities. Its city council was led by Terry Caldwell, who had been a member of the council since 1972, making him one of the longest continually serving elected officials in the state at that time. Mike Rothschild had been on the council for over two decades at that point, having first been elected in 1984. Joanne Almond was first elected to the council in 1994. Bob Hunter was elected to the council two years later. Rounding out the council was Rudy Cabriales, the former fire chief. The watchword on the council was steadiness. While the council members were not in absolute lockstep with one another, whatever squabbles they had were hashed out in a backroom at City Hall behind a double- or triple-set of locked doors, well beyond the earshot of the public. In other places, like neighboring Adelanto, the changeover on those city councils ran at a rate on an order approaching four times what it was in Victorville, with differing factions warring with one another and carrying out competing and often successful recall efforts against one another. City leaders in Victorville, self-consciously it seemed, maintained an air of decorum and calm reserve, offering no hint of discord. Simultaneously, they generally maintained harmonious relations with elected officials at the county, state and federal levels. Within this political establishment, there was a ethos of all for one and one for all. To a considerable extent, they shared political backers; the moneyed interests such as developers, public employee unions and successful entrepreneurs, who as a rule contributed to all of the incumbents. Those incumbents made a practice of endorsing one another when election time came.
Though McEachron was then an up-and-comer who was doing all of the requisite ticket-punching to one day move into a council seat, there was an unspoken agreement that the time for his ascension to Victorville’s big political stage was not yet ripe, and that others, not he, would make the determination as to when it was propitious for him to move up.
Thus, when McEachron declared his candidacy for city council in 2008, the general sense of things in Victorville was that he had acted prematurely. Generally speaking, council runs by non-incumbents in Victorville were not taken seriously by the political establishment. Typical challengers rarely had name recognition or status; in no case did they have access to the mother’s milk of politics – enough money to run a campaign – and the donors the incumbents shared endowed them with political war chests that virtually assured their reelections. Most challengers were true outsiders, with little prospect of victory. Indeed, the incumbents appreciated the challenge; the easy reelections they achieved against their challengers validated both them and the electoral process, confirming their status as community leaders.
In 2008, however, the reelection of Rothschild, Hunter and Cabriales, in the face of McEachron’s candidacy, promised to be different than the ritualistic formality of the usual cake walk to be followed by a victory lap. McEachron was not a true insider. Neither, however, was he an absolute outsider. As a member of the planning commission, he fell somewhere in between: a semi-insider. And his filing of candidate papers made him an upstart semi-insider.
When the race was under way in earnest, the Victorville establishment – meaning the political machine that had grown up around Caldwell and which had welcomed Rothschild, Almond, Hunter and Cabriales into the fold, and which was fueled by the capital supplied by a coterie of business interests and investors – dug in its heels and began ruthlessly militating on behalf of the incumbents.
Yet somehow, McEachron’s timing in making his challenge in 2008 was impeccable. As events had it, Hunter had committed a political faux pas in late 2006 and early 2007 that would undo him in 2008. In 2000, a 29-year-old political newcomer, Bill Postmus, had taken the First District by storm, garnering support from several unlikely spots while challenging the incumbent supervisor, former Apple Valley Mayor Kathy Davis. Like Postmus, Davis was a Republican in what was then a heavily Republican-leaning First District. But during her time as supervisor, Davis while in San Bernardino had entered into an alliance with then-Fifth District Supervisor Jerry Eaves, a Democrat who had previously served in the California Assembly and who was vectoring many of his campaign supporters from around the state in Davis’ direction. Postmus, representing himself as a rock-ribbed traditional conservative Christian family values, take-no-prisoners and give-no-quarter-to-Democrats Republican, painted Davis as a liberal Democrat-wolf-in-conservative-Republican-sheep’s-clothing and walked off with the title of First District supervisor. He then capitalized on this momentum once in office and by 2004 had acceded to the dual chairmanships of both the board of supervisors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. From those two perches, Postmus ruled San Bernardino County as an overpowering political colossus. Along the way, he solidified his hold on the scepter of power by installing a number of High Desert office holders or members of their families into positions within his supervisorial office or on the staff of the central committee. Among those was Hunter, who worked as one of the field representatives in Postmus’s supervisorial office. To all appearances, there were double covalent political bonds connecting Hunter and Postmus. They endorsed each other in their runs for reelection in 2004 and Hunter was an absolutely faithful instrument of Postmus’ policy implementation. Hunter went on record as saying that Postmus qualified as the most exemplary politician of San Bernardino County’s current generation of leaders, that he unquestionably was destined to have a stellar career in Sacramento if he did not first bypass that tier of government and go on to Congress first. Beyond that, Hunter intimated, Postmus was not only gubernatorial or senatorial material, but it was not unthinkable that one day he would be President of the United States.
In 2006, Postmus successfully vied for county assessor. In the span between Postmus’ election that November 7 and his swearing in the following January,he announced that several of his staff members in the board of supervisors office would be brought over to the assessor’s office when he made that transition, among them Hunter. Simultaneously, the board of supervisors weighed its options with regard to Postmus’ replacement on that panel. Postmus was dead set on being succeeded by his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt. The board, however, balked at merely accepting Postmus’ recommendation, and opted to conduct a recruitment drive among those First District residents expressing an interest in assuming the post. Contrary to Postmus’ preference for Mitzelfelt, Hunter applied for the appointment. This instantaneously rendered Hunter persona non grata within the Postmus camp. Hunter’s gambit failed, and Mitzelfelt was selected to serve out the remaining one year and 11 months of Postmus’ term. Postmus never forgave Hunter and neither did Mitzelfelt. Nevertheless, because Postmus already made arrangements to transfer Hunter to the assessor’s office and had announced doing so with considerable fanfare, Hunter could not be fired immediately. Instead, Hunter found himself isolated. Postmus did not speak to him again, did not tell him about his start date, and did not inform him of his job description or duties and responsibilities. After a two month interim, in March 2007, Jim Erwin, one of Postmus’ two assistant assessors, came into Hunter’s office, informed him that Postmus wanted him terminated, and fired him on the spot. In early 2009, Postmus and his once starbound political career imploded after an inquiry into partisan political activity within the assessor’s office led to an investigation and the serving of search warrants, which led to the discovery of methamphetamine and syringes used to inject it at Postmus’ home. But just months prior to that revelation, Postmus was still considered to be a powerful political personage. He threw his support behind McEachron during the run up to the November 2008 election.
McEachron had the support of his family, a few friends and associates along with that of Bill Postmus and the Postmus political machine. At the same time, McEachron found himself under attack on all sides. First, he was hit with some relatively mild rebukes from the Hunter, Cabriales and Rothschild campaigns. Then, as polling in late September and early October showed he was running neck and neck and even out in front of two of the incumbents, he was savaged in a blitz of hard-hitting, indeed in some instances below the belt, hit piece mailers. Prior to those attacks, McEachron, buoyed by the Postmus political machine, was running in a strong second place just slightly behind Rothschild, a schoolteacher and one time U.S. Navy fighter pilot. But the attacks eroded some of McEachron’s support, and a last minute advertising blitz on behalf of the three incumbents proved particularly helpful to Cabriales, who zoomed into the lead. But Hunter was unable to close the gap with McEachron, and in the final tally Cabriales captured 9,848 votes or 17.45 percent, Rothschild polled 9,616 votes or 17.04 percent and McEachron claimed 8,945 votes or 15.85 percent. Hunter fell short with 7,502 votes or
13.30 percent. Four others, Michelle Medina, Gary Douglas, Terrie Flint and Richard Gleason, accounted for the remaining 36.35 percent of the vote. McEachron was in and Hunter was out, to the no little discomfiture of the ranking powers that be in Victorville.
The Victorville political establishment was intensely determined to hang on to its advantage during the last throes of Bill Postmus’ primacy, and McEachron represented, at least in those establishment figures’ minds, a threat to their way of life. The county’s civil grand jury began to look into irregularities in Victorville city government in the late winter and early spring of 2009, including hidden deficits, defaults, overstated assets, misrepresentations to bondholders and city vendors, and skipping out on contractual obligations. The grand jury also began probing the activity of Victorville’s shadow government, the power behind the throne, the political machine that was a creature of the political establishment. A major focus of that investigation was the smear campaign that had been carried out against McEachron. A team of grand jurors questioned the entirety of the city council, along with Jim Cox, the former city manager who had come out of retirement to reassume that position in an effort to right Victorville’s listing financial ship; John Sullivan, the city’s finance director; Keith Metzler, the city’s economic development director; and city attorney Andre De Bortnowsky. What emerged was that the blitz of hit pieces targeting McEachron originated with William “Buck” Johns, the president of Newport Beach-based Inland Energy Inc., who was involved in a multitude of projects in and around Victorville as either a proponent or investor. He initially put relatively modest amounts of $5,000 into the 2008 campaign for a slate mailer supporting Rothschild, Hunter and Cabriales; contributed another $3,000 to Rothschild; then gave $2,750 to Cabriales and $1,000 to Hunter. Johns at one point denied having anything to do with the negative onslaught against McEachron, but it was shown through a document trail that he and Inland Energy were indeed behind the mailing of the vicious hit pieces, as an “action committee” he controlled provided the Cabriales, Rothschild and Hunter campaigns with a $103,116 “nonmonetary contribution” in the form of the provision of the attack propaganda against McEachron. The grand jury fell short of establishing that Cabriales, Rothschild and Hunter had direct knowledge beforehand that Johns was going to launch the fusilade of invective against McEachron in the form of handbills mailed to all of Victorville’s high propensity voters, although given the ferocity and wide distribution of the material, it strained credulity to suggest the three incumbents did not at some point know what was happening. Johns, however, as a civilian rather than a government official or employee, fell outside the purview of the civil grand jury and he was not indicted, charged or even cited. His sole liability was that it was illustrated all too well to McEachron, who now held power in the form of being in office, what Johns had done to him.
In a remarkable reversal and recovery, Johns and the political establishment he represented, in a relatively rapid fashion made the necessary adjustments and apologies, thereby repositioning the establishment with regard to McEachron, this time offering him support rather than opposition or victimization through skullduggery. Overnight, seemingly, McEachron was accepted as the newest member of the establishment, a favorite son, and he was provided money – substantial amounts of it – for use in his future campaigns.
Two years later, in 2010, Terry Caldwell, who had been on the city council for 37 years, chose not to seek reelection. JoAnn Almond, who in 2006 had been reelected to four more years on the council with no effort whatsoever when no one ran against her and Caldwell, became the second incumbent turned out of office in as many election cycles when she was defeated by Victor Valley College Board Member Angela Valles. Jim Kennedy, another political newcomer, who happened to be the husband of Caldwell’s law partner, was elected with Caldwell’s endorsement. After the 2010 election, McEachron, at that point with two years’ experience in elected office, was chosen by his council colleagues to serve as mayor. Upon taking her place on the Victorville council dais, Valles garnered a reputation as a political outsider perennially cast as a dissident challenging the status quo. She found herself crossing swords with Rothschild, McEachron and especially Cabriales. Saying she saw City Hall as tainted by “corruption and kickbacks,” she distinguished herself from her council colleagues, fighting them, if not at every turn, on a number of major issues. She alleged cronyism between the city’s elected officials and city staff, accusing the council of giving city employees raises while failing to make bond payments. In that year’s primary election – the one held in June – McEachron was able to use the infusion of money flowing in from the backers of the political establishment to seek higher office by running for Congress in the 8th Congressional District, where Jerry Lewis was retiring after more than three decades in the nation’s Lower Legislative House. The degree to which McEachron had transitioned from outsider to insider was demonstrated when Rothschild and Cabriales endorsed him. He finished a disappointing eighth in a 13-candidate race for Congress. That November, McEachron sought reelection to the city council. Cabriales, wearying of the attacks from Valles, opted out of running. Rothschild, who had been in office for 24 years, was defeated. McEachron managed to stay in office with a third place showing in the 14-candidate race. Replacing Cabriales and Rothschild on the council were Jim Cox, Victorville’s former longtime city manager, and Gloria Garcia.
Over the next four years, McEachron grew into more and more of an establishment figure. He continued his representation of the city on two major regional governmental entities/planning agencies – Southern California Association of Governments, known by its acronym SCAG, and San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG). SANBAG served as the regional transportation agency for the entirety of San Bernardino County, the board for which consisted of a mayor or council member of each of the county’s 24 incorporated municipalities and all five members of the board of supervisors.
In 2015, McEachron was selected to be chairman of SANBAG. While in that capacity he furthered – and championed – proposals to create toll lanes along Interstate-10, and Interstate-15.
The construction of toll lanes in San Bernardino County was – and remains – a controversial issue. Available polling data indicates a majority of county voters are opposed to the concept. Nevertheless, select urban planners believe toll roads to be an inevitability, and fiscal analysts believe it to be propitious to initiate their creation at the earliest opportunity to reduce burgeoning future costs. Along certain spans of the proposed route for the lanes, right-of-way acquisition must be undertaken. Opponents contend that funds from the Measure I half cent countywide sales tax override that was first approved in 1989 should be used to defray the cost of building extra lanes, while proponents maintain that the private operators of the toll lanes can pay for their creation and charge motorists for their use thereafter. McEachron joined with members of the political establishment, consisting of Highland Mayor Larry McCallon, Rancho Cucamonga Mayor L. Dennis Michael, Barstow Mayor Julie McIntyre, Big Bear Councilman Bill Jahn, then-Upland Mayor Ray Musser, Chino Hills Councilman Ed Graham, Yucaipa Councilman Dick Riddell, Yucca Valley Councilman George Huntington, then-Hesperia Councilman Mike Leonard, Needles Mayor Edward Paget, Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, former Adelanto Mayor Cari Thomas, then-Rialto Councilman Ed Scott, former San Bernardino mayor Patrick Morris and former Twentynine Palms Councilman Jim Harris in supporting the toll road idea. A minority of other county politicians, some considered members of the political establishment and others who qualify as politicians somewhat out of the mainstream – San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales, San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Montclair Mayor Paul Eaton, Loma Linda Mayor Rhodes Rigsby, former Grand Terrace Mayor Walt Stanckiewitz, Fontana Councilman Michael Tahan, then-Chino Mayor Dennis Yates and former Colton Councilwoman Deirdre Bennett – opposed the concept. It was under McEachron’s leadership of SANBAG that the agency laid the groundwork for the approval of toll lanes on the I-10 Freeway, which passed by a vote of the SANBAG board in July.
Significantly, McEachron did not participate in that vote in July. That is because last November he was turned out of office when he placed fifth in the council race. While Gloria Garcia and Jim Cox, who had come into office in 2012 when McEachron was reelected, finished first and second in the ten-candidate race for the three positions up for reelection/election in November 2016, McEachron found himself outdistanced by planning commissioner Lionel Dew and newcomer Blanca Gomez. In the initial counts the night of the election and the following day Dew was in third place. Ultimately, however, as provisional ballots and late mail-in ballots arrived and were counted, Gomez pulled ahead and she was seated on the council.
Last week, seemingly out of nowhere, McEachron was resurrected as a major player in public affairs and governance in the High Desert and San Bernardino County when Josh Candelaria, in his capacity as San Bernardino County’s governmental and legislative affairs director, recommended that the position of coordinator on the High Desert Corridor Project, which has been vacant for nearly three months and into which Candelaria has himself been substituting, be filled by McEachron.
Protests to that recommendation arose.
A recurrent theme in those protests was that McEachron, as a creature of the political establishment, was favored with the post because of his association with the establishment and because he had played a key role in promoting toll roads.
Furthermore, it was alleged that there exists a conflict of interest in the appointment, in that McEachron’s company, ISU-Armac Insurance Services, is the broker on the insurance provided to the temporary employee provision company, ICR Staffing, owned by Robert Lovingood, the current chairman of the board of supervisors and San Bernardino County’s First District supervisor. Suggestions were rampant that Candelaria’s recommendation of McEachron was merely a cover for Lovingood’s mandate that the job be conferred upon McEachron. There were further suggestions that McEachron has been handpicked by Lovingood to succeed him as supervisor, and that extending the High Desert Corridor coordinator position to McEachron was a ploy to keep McEachron in the political/governmental game.
Angela Valles, who served with McEachron on the Victorville City Council for four years, told the Sentinel she considered McEachron ill-suited for the post.
“Truth be told, Ryan McEachron has neither the expertise nor dedication to hold that position,” Valles said. “He is a spoiled rich kid who took over his father’s business. His father paved his way and paid for everything. He is an insurance company executive who does very little. His employees, in particular Mike Nutter, run the business. He is the definition of a manchild. He became a politician basically out of boredom with his life, and in the role of an elected official he has not taken his responsibilities seriously. I found him to be drunk at nearly all of the council meetings. At times he was so seriously intoxicated that I requested [then-Victorville] police chief [Don] Yoder to arrest him for being drunk in public.”
In addition, Valles said, McEachron’s loyalty is not to the vast majority of High Desert residents on either side of the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County divide who will use the corridor but rather the developmental interests that stand to profit by the corridor’s construction. “He’s a sell-out to the BIA [Building Industry Association],” Valles said. “When he was on the city council, whenever there was an issue relating to a development project or issue impacting real estate developers, he would check with them first before voting. I have no reason to think it will be any different with him in this coordinator position. Look at his campaign promises and see how he voted. He will flip for the BIA and give the BIA whatever it wants. When the council wanted to go to larger lot sizes, that was the exact opposite of what the BIA wanted and he was the one vote on the council they could count on. Over that issue, he got the BIA to do hit pieces on his own council.”
The role of High Desert Corridor coordinator would be far better filled by a traffic or engineering professional. Valles said. “They never floated this to see if there are engineers who could do this,” she said. “You can’t tell me there aren’t plenty of engineers or transportation specialists who could do this job, who have experience in traffic planning and construction and engineering. They say he is qualified for this based on his being the president of SANBAG, but they are going with him because he voted yes on toll roads and he has a history of giving the big shots what they want. There are other people more qualified who are now retired who could have been brought in to oversee this. They are squandering this money on him.”
Valles said it is political favoritism and cronyism, tinged by a financial conflict of interest, that drove McEachron’s hiring.
“He used to be part of the good ol’ boy network in Victorville, but the dynamic has changed,” Valles said. “He’s out of sync with the community. He was an incumbent with the most money and he still lost to Lionel Dew and Blanca Gomez. He’s talking about running for office again, but he doesn’t have a chance with his voting record and what he stands for. This was set up by Bob Lovingood. Ryan’s insurance company provides insurance for ICR staffing. That is an out-and-out conflict of interest.”
Jeff Williams, formerly the mayor and currently a council member in the City of Needles, told the Sentinel, “My biggest concern is I don’t see Ryan as having the qualifications for the position. He’s an insurance salesman. I asked Robert Lovingood specifically about that and what he said was that when Ryan was with SANBAG he had been to a bunch of conferences on different transportation issues. He said that most of the people who go to those conferences go there to drink, but that Ryan went there to work. He said it like that was some kind of accomplishment. I don’t think attending conferences for elected officials on transportation issues, no matter how informative they are, qualifies you as a transportation guru.”
Williams continued, “I have worked with Ryan on a few different boards. I think they could have gone out and looked for a better person, someone with the credentials. They are paying him $98,000 for the rest of the fiscal year to be the coordinator and when I said something to Robert [Lovingood] about that, he said we [the county] are only going to pay part of that and the rest is coming from the JPA [joint powers authority between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and the cities of Palmdale, Lncaster, Victorville, Adelanto and Apple Valley]. I didn’t care for that answer. It’s still taxpayer money.”
Williams said others are troubled by McEachron’s appointment, as well. “There’s a rumor going around the High Desert,” he said. “It’s just a rumor at this point, but what people are saying is that Mr. Lovingood has picked him [McEachron] to be his replacement when he [Lovingood] doesn’t run. This looks like an attempt to keep Ryan in government somehow. He ran last time and he did not get elected. But if its true that Robert wants him for his replacement, then so much for having gotten rid of the cronyism and corruption.”
Jim Cox on Sunday told the Sentinel he believed McEachron “did a really good job on the SANBAG committee. When I was elected in 2012, the council chose him to represent the city. He did really, really well with regard to the east-west corridor study. He understood the issues the city was supposed to be on top of. His knowledge and understanding of traffic issues was such that he was elected to be the president of SANBAG and the chair of the mountain-desert subcommittee. He did a very good job. He did some fine negotiation in helping get improvements to one of the intersections in our city.”
With regard to McEachron’s relationship to the BIA, Cox indicated he was not aware of his former council colleague’s tie-in to that organization. “I did not know he was answerable to any group,” Cox said. “I did not know the BIA was involved with him in our regional road issues, if they are involved. I did not know of any relationship he had with the Building Industry Association. If he does have that relationship, I do not see how that would be linked to how he would recommend our road system should be built. Maybe I’m missing something.”
Cox did say, “I know that he was roundly criticized by some citizens for his support of toll roads. Some of those people who criticized him said he should be voted out of office because of that support. My recollection was he responded that if toll roads would help put another lane on the freeway and there was private money to build that, then that option should be explored. I know he has four or six years experience with SANBAG. I am not sure what his role is to be as coordinator or exactly what is in the job description. He is a good man and he has a lot of experience with regard to roads. Maybe that’s why they have chosen him.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, five county residents weighed in against McEachron’s hiring.
Gary Gileno told the supervisors before they voted on item 14, “This is one of the most offensive things I’ve seen brought forward. This is a direct slap in the face of the voters, this very large contract Ryan McEachron is going to be receiving. Ryan McEachron was on the Victorville City Council and instead of focusing on his city, he spent his time being a regional bureaucrat.”
Gileno cited McEachron’s support of toll lanes. “In the 2016 election he was voted out of office because the residents of Victorville don’t want their representative to be a toll lane liaison,” said Gileno . “You don’t seem to care that we voted Ryan McEachron out of office. Now you will pay him $98,000. We know that the council [position] paid him next to nothing. So Ryan McEachron not only gets to continue meddling in toll lane affairs but now he is getting paid very handsomely. He was better off losing his election because he gets to continue with what he was doing, except now he gets a 1,000 percent raise. I thought Mr. McEachron was a business owner. So now he has time to work what I presume is a second full time job, or is this one of those things where you give him money and he does nothing?”
Gileno said “Elected officials in San Bernardino County are a joke. You are all in bed with one another running these scams and throwing them in the face of the voters. This is supposed to be a republican form of government. What is the point of even having an election when losing is actually better than winning?”
Gileno then predicted that the board would not heed the calls by the public to forego hiring McEachron. “We know what you are going to do,” he said. “You all sit on SANBAG together and Ryan is one of your buddies. This is disgusting.”
Tressy Capps, a resident of Fontana, echoed Gilana. “San Bernardino County does have a culture of cronyism and corruption, and it seems like it is never going to end. The fact of the matter is Ryan McEachron had free health benefits [as a councilman] but the voters spoke loud and clear. He spent the most on his campaign and he came in fifth. So, when he lost that, he lost his free medical benefits, but you all have figured out a way to restore those for him. The voters in this county are getting sick and tired of the corruption and the cronyism.”
Robert Torres of Lytle Creek, a retired public employee who engaged in urban and transportation system planning, told the board the county should have carried out a more comprehensive recruitment to fill the post. “The position that is being created must be open to all the public employees that can qualify for it,” said Torres. Otherwise, he said, state labor law relating to public employment is being violated. “My experience tells me that the best qualified person for this position will be a licensed civil engineer,” said Torres. “A civil engineer would deal with all the different departments, all staffing needs, and verify that all those items that were supposed to be done are being done and the milestones are being achieved. Less than a qualified civil engineer will hurt the taxpayers of this area.”
Torres said the salary on the contract translated to $113,000 per year. Since federal funds are being used on the project, Torres said, open bidding on the project had to be undertaken. “You’re opening up an area where litigation can come in, especially in a county that has historically not allowed persons of color to participate in its leadership roles.” said Torres.
“You’re going to coordinate a staff of engineers, of accountants, of auditors and we don’t know what your qualifications are,” said Torres. “How much urban planning [experience and education] do you have? How much civil engineering background do you have? How much chemistry background do you have? Do you have the required science background to hold this position? Or are you going to do what we public employees call professional negligence? To allow an employee to fill the position and perform the duties and then bid on the job is not fair.”
John Willis said, “Shouldn’t this position be put out to bid? This man has no qualifications for this job. Does he have a civil engineering degree? No, he does not. What about this staff coordinating business? Does he have any experience in that? No, he does not. Do you just reach out your scepter and appoint the man you want to appoint? Put this job out to bid. Stop appointing your buddies to these positions.”
Steve Rogers said, “The real problem I have with this is Ryan is an insurance broker. My question is, ‘How many county entities has he dealt with or is he still dealing with in regard to his insurance business?’ Not only is he not qualified to have this coordinator position, but he has serious, in my opinion, conflicts of interest.”
Also on Tuesday morning, Candelaria told the board that for three months following the departure of the previous coordinator, whom he did not identify, he, Candelaria, had served in the coordinator capacity and that he had “determined what skill set was needed for this particular position. We got recommendations, went out and outreached into a number of potential candidates and henceforth made a recommendation, which is the item before you.”
Candelaria said McEachron’s duties will consist of coordinating action among regional state and federal agencies, and working among experts and the political laymen an identifying funding opportunities.
“It basically deals with coordination,” he said. “It deals with consultants, so it’s not necessarily a technical position. It is more of an intergovernmental relations advocate role and we identified what was really needed in that position, someone who has an historical context of the project to understand transportation extensively, the unique situation regarding all the different stakeholders.”
Candelaria spoke to the perception that there had been an inadequate effort to recruit individuals with the requisite skill to carry out the coordinator assignment.
“I talked to a number of – 3 – potential candidates,” he said. “When you look at the framework, you have a part time position. The compensation is already specifically spoken to, with the term for eight months, so as you can imagine, I think with that as the particular framework, it’s a little bit difficult to find a candidate with the expertise, in which we feel this particular candidate recommending has all that experience in addition to the knowledge base, to move the project forward.”
Prior to the board meeting, Supervisor Josie Gonzales told the Sentinel that she had interacted with McEachron, including in the context of SANBAG meetings and that she “found him articulate and an effective advocate for the the infrastructure and needs of the High Desert.” She said that she had faith in Candelaria’s judgment. “I have every confidence that Mr. Candelaria fully vetted him,” and she said on the basis of that she was prepared to support hiring McEachron.
She said McEachron’s work would be monitored and “if he does not show us adequate progress and sets aside whatever political agenda that might interfere with his work, there will be a parting of the ways with him very soon.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Gonzales said, “I have known Mr. McEachron and I have found him to be above board. Back when SANBAG was SANBAG and before it became SBCTA, I had a good number of dealings with him, found that he was much on point, he was articulate and that is important to me. I understand there are some concerns. It is important that we be as transparent as possible.”
In response, Candelaria emphasized that McEachron “has been a member of the JPA. He is a former president of SBCTA [San Bernardino County Transportation Agency] and a member of SCAG [Southern California Associated Governments]. This is really a policy position that will make recommendations to the JPA, so I think he understands not only transportation, in addition to the lay and groundwork of the High Desert Corridor. As you know, it is substantially different working with the cities. He has a breadth of knowledge I think will complement this position.”
Gonzales then referenced what she called “conflicts of interest,” without specific reference to McEachron’s insurance company’s relationship to Lovingood’s company, though that was the seeming implication. “Were those addressed and how did you address them?” Gonzales asked.
In his response, Candelaria did not specifically reference the relationship between ISU-Armac Insurance Services and ICR Staffing.
“We had a long conversation,” Candelaria said. “He will be required to fill out Form 700 forms as every other county employee, so he will be underneath those same conflict of interest rules.” Candelaria then addressed the issue by referencing McEachron’s departure from the county’s local agency formation commission (LAFCO) board, on which he was recently serving as a citizen representative.
“He is no longer a public member of the LAFCO board as a result of that [i.e., concerns about conflicts],” Candelaria said.
Interim County Executive Officer Dena Smith sought to reassure the board that the arrangement with McEachron was not one that bound the county to a long term open-ended commitment to keep McEachron in place.
“The term is rather short on the contract and this is really part of what Josh [Candelaria] has referenced in terms of we’ve been speaking about: the possibility and the likelihood of the position transitioning out of our office really into the governance of the JPA or Metro.”
In deference to the suggestions of a conflict of interest, Lovingood excused himself from the discussion and the vote, although he expressed his belief that no actual conflict arose out of his company’s relationship to McEachron’s company.
“I don’t feel I am conflicted,” Lovingood said, but indicated he would recuse himself “out of an abundance of caution.”
Bill Postmus was one of Lovingood’s predecessors as First District supervisor. He engaged in a degree of cronyism that involved employing other elected officials and his political associates as his governmental staff members, ultimately resulting in Postmus’ conviction for utilizing his elected office for partisan political purposes. Some of those he employed were convicted as well. There have been recurrent suggestions in the last week that Lovingood is walking in Postmus’ footsteps in more ways than one.
Gonzales said, “Rest assured in our quest to find qualified individuals who are knowledgeable with the fair degree of background that is required in these positions. We want to be assured that we’re putting the right person in the right position. I am no different in that and I am averse to anything that would bring controversy, any continued black-eyes, to this county. I for one will say that I am willing to support this item and willing to support Mr. McEachron, but I will also be the first to say that if things go awry, if things go sideways, if I see that there is any cronyism or any self interest or tit-for-tat or some backslapping going on, I will be the first to call him out and say he’s got to go.”
The board voted 4 to 0 to approve the contract with McEachron.
Both McEachron and Candelaria spurned requests from the Sentinel to answer a host of questions with regard to the matter, including whether they were sensitive to perceptions of cronyism growing out of McEachron’s hiring, the degree to which McEachron’s support of toll roads and his status as a political insider resulted in his being selected to the post, whether Lovingood advocated on behalf of McEachron’s selection to fill the role, and McEachron’s response to reports of his alcohol use prior to public meetings.
County spokesman David Wert told the Sentinel, “As is detailed in the contract, this is not an engineering or construction position. It is a governmental relations position. Therefore, there could be no one better-qualified for this position than a former president of the county transportation commission. The people of this county and everyone who will benefit from the High Desert Corridor are very fortunate that a former transportation commission president was available for this position.”
Wert defended Candelaria making the evaluation of McEachron and the recommendation to hire him. “The position for which Mr. McEachron has been selected is a position that has existed in county government for many years, and the appointing authority for that position has always been the director of legislative affairs & government relations.”
By Mark Gutglueck