From the outset of his political career, Upland City Councilman Sid Robinson has militated hard to swim in the middle of the mainstream.
In 2016, he vied for electoral validation in the City of Gracious Living, and on election night, it seemed that he had achieved it. In the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office’s first several tallies of votes from the November 8, 2016 balloting, the same night that Donald Trump was given his mandate by the totality of the American electorate over Hillary Clinton, Robinson was the top vote-getter in a tight race for a single position on the Upland City Council up for election in that year’s race, which featured himself, Janice Elliott, Dan Morgan and Ricky Felix. Robinson held the lead when the votes from the first arriving precincts were counted at 10 p.m., then at midnight, and again at 2 a.m. on November 9. The afternoon of November 9, he was still ahead of the pack. On November 10, 2016, however, as more and more provisional and late arriving mail-in ballots were processed by the registrar of voters, Elliott leapt past him. Over the next several days and weeks, as more and more of the provisional and postal ballots were verified and counted, Elliott’s margin of victory widened. At last, on December 6, 2016 when the final official certified results were posted, Elliot claimed 7,622 total votes or 28.1 percent, more than 300 votes ahead of Robinson, who polled 7,313 votes or 26.97 percent, to Morgan’s 6,474 votes or 23.87 percent, and Felix’s 5,711 votes or 21.06 percent.
Fortunately for Robinson, however, Councilwoman Debbie Stone had vied for mayor in the same election and was victorious. Stone had two years remaining on the council term she had been reelected to in 2014. Her elevation to the mayor’s post created a council vacancy, and at the first city council meeting in December 2016, after Stone and Elliott had been sworn in to their offices, the council took up the task of filling Stone’s now empty council seat. Rejecting the idea of holding a special election, which would cost the city upwards of $65,000, the council, in accordance with a motion made and seconded by Stone and Elliott, opted to select Robinson as the logical replacement, given his second-place finish in the previous month’s election.
Robinson fit in immediately. In short order he demonstrated himself to be a reliable member of the council majority, which in the early months of his tenure and that of Elliott, was a constantly unanimous one, as the council’s members voted in seeming lockstep on everything, with no disagreements on policy or the city’s direction.
It was not until March 2017, when a fissure in the monolith that was the Upland City Council betrayed itself. In November 2016, in one of the last acts of the city council as it was then composed before the addition of Elliott and Robinson, the city undertook to explore the possibility of shuttering its municipal fire department, which had existed for over a century, and instead arrange to have its fire safety, fire prevention, fire suppression and emergency medical response service provided by the county fire department. Under the leadership of then-Acting City Manager Marty Thouvenell, the city made further and further commitments toward the dissolution of the city’s fire department, thereby applying with the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission to close out its fire department and annex the entirety of the city limits into a county fire service assessment zone, entailing a $156 annual assessment on all parcel owners in the city, in so doing creating a new tax which was essentially achieved without involving a vote of the residents. The closure of the fire department together with the assessments created a revenue stream that was sufficient to pay the county for the county fire department’s services and provide the city with a recurring annual $3.2 million windfall, which could be used to defray many ongoing municipal costs, such as the ever-increasing pension burden consisting of stipends to retired city workers who in the early 2000s had been provided with generous salaries and benefits by the city council led by then-Mayor John Pomierski. The arrangement for the annexation into the county fire district included a provision that required that neighboring San Antonio Heights, an unincorporated county area north of the city, also be annexed into the fire service annexation district.
Initially, all of the members of the council acted and voted in favor of pushing the annexation through to completion, including Elliott and Robinson. But as city residents and residents of San Antonio Heights in ever increasing numbers began to question the move, then protest it and then openly resist it, Elliott made efforts to allow those residents to voice their concerns and get their protests on the record. This angered her council colleagues, who were fully committed to effectuating the close-out of the city fire department and the ratification of the fire service zone and its accompanying assessment district. Elliott’s indulgence of those seeking to stop the annexation transformed her into persona non grata at City Hall. The council sharply split into two factions, with Stone, Robinson, Councilman Gino Filippi and Councilwoman Carol Timm representing the city’s establishment and the status quo, and Elliott in the role of the dissident and outsider. The council gave all the appearances of abhorring anything less than a show of unanimity on all ranges of city policy. In the vast majority of the votes taken by the council, 5-to-0 approvals were given. But on those items of major or minor controversy, a pattern soon developed in which Elliott found herself cast in the role of the lone outsider, seeking to make a case for those out of the mainstream who had differences with the way the city was routinely conducting business. As Summer 2017 dawned, it was indisputable that Elliott was being ostracized, and the city council formally scheduled a review of Ellott’s status as an appointee to city committees and governmental entity adjunct panels in which city officials participate on joint powers authority boards or specific issue cooperatives with officials from other cities and the county. In an effort to bring Elliott to heel, her council colleagues, in June 2017, stripped her of those assignments.
Over the last six months of 2017 and into 2018, as Elliott became more rigidly cast as Upland’s political pariah, her council colleagues defined her dissent as a display of contempt toward them, the entitled members of the city’s peerage whose vision for the community as a consequence of their vaunted positions on the council gave them the inside knowledge to recognize what was in the best interest of everyone in the city. In their view, it was demeaning to be subjected to the petty dissension and constant negativism that Elliott represented. All four took pride in the harmonious approach toward governance that they considered to be the ideal that might be attained by the class of political cognoscenti they held themselves out to be. There was no manifestation of any difference relating to an issue of significance between the four of them over the 18 months between December 2016 and May 2018. Their identification of themselves as a ruling elite grew ever more apparent when they would be confronted during council meetings with a motion or alternate motion put forward by Elliott, all of which consistently died for a lack of a second. For them, it was impossible to see Elliott as an independent individualist with an open mind who was approaching the act of governance from an equally valid point of view that differed from their own. She was, rather, a prodigal and wrongheaded outcast, a heretic engaging in blasphemies, a reprobate who rejected convention for the sake, it seemed, of getting some sort of egotistical lift out of rejecting the group’s shared values by being the skunk at the garden party.
With each successive meeting, the quartet’s disdain with Elliott grew until it culminated, at the May 29, 2018 council meeting two-and-a-half weeks ago, with the council considering and then passing a motion of censure against Elliott 4-to-1, with Elliott casting the lone dissenting vote.
Ironically, at the Upland City Council’s June 11 meeting, the first one following the censure vote against Elliott, Robinson at last found himself on the down side of a 4-to-1 vote, putting himself dangerously close to the personification of nonconformist which he and his council allies have for so long considered unacceptable in Elliott.
At the root of both Elliott’s and Robinson’s political apostasy in Upland are a set of events which began more than a decade and a half prior to her 2016 election. In 2000, John Pomierski was elected mayor and almost at once he engaged in a series of depredations that would continue for a decade until they were exposed and he was indicted, resigned from office and was criminally convicted. Essentially, he used his position as mayor to shake down individuals and businesses with applications for project approval in the city’s planning division. Either directly or through his associates, Pomierski would approach those applicants, offering his services either as a consultant or as contractor on the projects under consideration once they were permitted. As higher ranking city employees learned of the mayor’s graft, to keep his illicit dealings under wraps Pomierski was obliged to cut those city staffers, primarily ones employed within the city’s planning, community development and public works divisions, in on the action. Yet showing favoritism to a select group of city employees carried with it the danger of creating a growing circle of curiosity, suspicion and exposure. Ultimately, Pomierski used a formula of essentially bribing everyone at City Hall by upping city salaries and benefits, keeping everyone contented and buying the silence of those in the know about what he was up to. This, however, exacerbated the city’s long term financial picture, as the primary element of the benefits were the pensions promised to city workers upon retirement, and with the upping of salaries, which are part of the formula by which the benefits are calculated, a circumstance was created whereby a larger and larger portion of the city’s general fund was being routed to pay for those pensions. At this point, in 2018, the city is already committed to future pension payments in the neighborhood of $120 million, to just those employees who have already retired. When currently working employees retire, the commitment to keep the retirement fund solvent will escalate further. Of the roughly $41 million that flows into and out of the city’s general fund every year, at this point nearly $8 million goes to the California Public Employees Retirement System to pay the pensions of former city workers. This has left the city well behind the eight ball financially. For Elliott, a certified public accountant with a strong financial background, fiscal discipline which includes efforts to hold the line on staff salaries while reversing or reducing the excessive benefits promised to the city’s employees during the Pomierski years loomed as the most logical possible solution to the challenges now facing the city, currently and in the years going forward. The four-member council majority, however, has what it considers to be a favorable relationship with city staff – nearly all of whom are the beneficiaries of the formula Pomierski utilized to keep them quiet – and Stone, Filippi, Timm and Robinson are unwilling to ask the city’s employees to give back that portion of the generous compensation packages conferred upon them as a consequence of Pomierski’s malfeasance. The council majority instead looks more favorably toward boosting revenue by imposing on the city’s residents new or higher taxes and fees.
While Robinson has generally gone along with the philosophy that the city must balance its budget not by cutting employee salaries but by increasing revenue through more taxation, this week he ran into a situation in which his own allegiance to those he considers to be his primary constituents required that he set out on an independent path.
Robinson’s status in the community, more than anything else, hinges upon his involvement, when his children were of the participatory age, in Upland National Little League. It was, indeed, largely upon his involvement with Upland National Little League that he garnered the name recognition, credibility, reputation and popularity to be able to compete as a candidate for city council as well as he did. Beyond that, Robinson truly believes that Upland National Little League is an asset to the city and community as a whole, providing an experience for Upland’s youth that is priceless, together with being a forum that strengthens the bonds between parents and children, in particular fathers and sons, as it involves them in the same American Pastime that has united generations of Americans since Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839.
Simultaneously, parents going back three generations in Upland have volunteered time and money to maintain the baseball diamond and surrounding amenities where the league plays, above and beyond what the city provides in terms of facility upkeep. This charitable participation is replicated in many of the city’s other youth sports leagues.
This week, city staff, looking to shore up city finances and maintain their salaries and pensions, undertook to subsidize themselves further by proposing to have Upland’s youth nonprofit sports leagues defray the cost of using the city’s athletic fields. According to the proposal put together by Doug Story, the city’s recreation services manager, and approved for presentation to the city council by City Manager Bill Manis and Assistant City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi, as of July 1, Upland-based sports leagues will be charged usage and lighting fees to help cover the city’s field maintenance and electricity costs. The schedule called for increasing the fees on January 1, 2020 and once more on July 1, 2021.
Story characterized the charge as “a small fee.” He said, “We’ll take that money and be able to use it for some of the maintenance requests that are coming through.” The city has $500,000 in annual field maintenance and lighting costs, Story noted, saying, “It does take a lot of effort, a lot of resources on our end. What we need to be really aware of is just the extent of that use from all these great nonprofits, all these great youth organizations.”
Andrew Decker, president of the Upland American Little League, which plays at Citrus Park, pointed out that the league already does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of keeping the ball field in playable condition. “The nonprofit youth sports leagues of Upland have been left to fend for themselves to maintain the parks and facilities that the city owns,” Decker said. “We budget annually for repairs, field upkeep, aesthetics and more. Under this new fee schedule, approximately 5 percent of our budget will instantly be consumed to pay for these fees and that fee balloons to 10 percent by 2021.”
Starting July 1, lighting fees will be $2 per hour at the softball and little league fields, $1.25 per hour for the north fields at the Cabrillo soccer complex and $2.50 for the south fields.
On January 1, 2020, lighting fees will go up to $3 for softball and little league fields, $2 for the north Cabrillo fields and $3.75 for the south fields. On July 1, 2021, fees will be $4 per hour for the softball and little league fields, $2.75 for the north Cabrillo fields and $5 for the south fields.
The first year’s fee is 10 percent of what the city charges other groups, the second is 15 percent and the third is 20 percent. Those leagues will be eligible to get the discounted fees if they can establish that 75 percent of their participants live within Upland.
While current and past city councils have transferred the costs created by the legacy of fraud and mismanagement under Pomierski and his confederates at City Hall to city residents using a number of strategies, imposing a portion of that hardship on the city’s youth leagues was too much for Robinson. He asserted that league volunteers and participating parents have sacrificed by raising funds to carry out regular maintenance.
“I’m not sure the fee system is the way to go,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with charging for lighting on perhaps a metered basis, but I would just hate for us to try to be pennywise and in the end be pound foolish because we are putting our leagues at risk.”
Robinson, while conceding that “those leagues that are using those fields do need to cover something,” suggested that the city consider the leagues on a case-by-case basis, hinting that those heavily involved in maintenance on their own should perhaps be charged a lesser amount than other leagues.
So strongly did Robinson feel about the issue that in an historic moment for Upland, his was the lone dissenting vote when Stone, Timm, Filippi and Elliott approved the fees.
From the outset of his political career, Upland City Councilman Sid Robinson has militated hard to swim in the middle of the mainstream.