By Mark Gutglueck
The degree to which money originating with key players in the development industry provided to public office holders has become a driving factor in how government is being run in the aftermath of political prodigy Jeremiah Browsowske’s appointment to public office was given object demonstration this week.
On Tuesday, the Hesperia City Council, which was already the final authority in that city of 95,000 with regard to land use and development, gave itself even further control in influencing how project proposals are considered and received at City Hall. By a vote of 4-1, the council injected itself further into the protocol for vetting and approving construction applications by authorizing two of the council’s members to participate in the city’s Development Review Committee meetings.
The Development Review Committee gets involved relatively early in the project application/approval process. After a project proponent makes an application for project approval, relevant city divisions including the planning department, building and safety division, engineering and the fire department review the submission and plans. The project file, together with notations as to the project’s compliance with various city standards and how it fits or does not fit within the city’s codes and zoning ordinances goes to the Development Review Committee, which in a public hearing setting dialogues with the project proponent while reviewing the proposal, and either suggests or stipulates changes. The project is then reviewed by the planning commission and ultimately passed along to the city council, which alone has the authority to grant approval to the project and any deviations it might entail from the city’s zoning code, general plan or development code requirements.
By moving project proposals through the three levels of review before reaching the city council – city staff, the Development Review Committee and the Planning Commission – the aim is to fully acclimate the project proponent to the city’s codes and standards involving relatively independent perspectives which are intent on applying those standards without regard to any political considerations before the project comes before the city council. The council, as the elected body representing the city’s residents and their interests, alone possesses the power to suspend those standards if a majority of its members feel there is justification in doing so.
Heretofore, the members of the Development Review Committee were members of the planning department, representatives from the county fire department, the city’s economic development department and on occasions the California Department of Transportation, when a project might have a major impact on the road system, or the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, when a project might impact a major portion of the natural environment.
“The point is to have all the different eyes take a look at a project from all these different technical backgrounds to balance things and make sure we’re doing the things that are right for the community,” said Hesperia Principal Planner Jeff Codega.
When Codega was asked how he felt about the concept of having two members of the council on the committee, he was noncommittal, saying “We’re here to get direction from you with regard to the function and activity of the Development Review Committee.”
Queried directly about the presence of city council members on development review committees in other cities, Codega said, “It’s fairly unique in terms of looking at most communities. It’s typically not done that way but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done that way, certainly.” Mindful that his political masters on the council were leaning toward placing some of their numbers on the committee, Codega, using politesse, said, “My perspective is we’ll do whatever needs to be done to make it work as best as we can. These sorts of things are opportunities. They’re opportunities for us to do things in a different way and get better at what we do.”
It was noted that in the City of Rialto, the mayor and a council member are deemed to be members of that city’s development review committee. It was further noted that they rarely attend the meetings and they do not vote.
Browsowske posed a question to Codega in such a way that it called for a preconceived answer. He asked, “As a staff member, you wouldn’t have an issue having maybe two council members on the committee, right?”
Again using politesse, Codega responded, “Anything we do is a public activity and my feeling is we’re here to serve the community just like you are so, it’s just another way of doing that.”
Councilman Larry Bird took up the propriety of loading council members into a panel intended to act in an advisory capacity and make recommendations to the city council, since the two council members to be made into committee members would then be in a position of modulating the advice the full council is to get. With his questions and statements, Bird suggested that the change would compromise the independence of the committee. “How will that help the community?” Bird asked. “Rialto does it. How is this going to help the City of Hesperia to have additional representation from this council, which already oversees this process anyway?”
When Codega responded, “Like anything else, I think there’s way to make things work and work well if we approach it the right way,” this did not seem to cover the most compelling rationale that Councilman Paul Russ felt warranted the change. Russ suggested the committee was too lackluster in its embrace of proposed projects and he accused staff members who composed the committee of “overreach,” which manifested, he said, when they “ask for additional things that aren’t in the code but they’d like to see them happen. There’s a lot of instances of that happening and have been happening in the past.”
Putting members of the city council on the committee, Russ said, would be of benefit to the city by facilitating projects and eliminating red tape. He said the two members of the council should be made members of the committee “so we can hear what are the impediments to getting some of these projects completed.”
At that point, Bird enunciated concern that the pro-development sentiment of the council members to be designated as committee members might inhibit staff members from being insistent that standards be applied to the proposed projects. Referencing the city council’s handbook on how it is to comport itself, Bird said that manual instructed that “we let staff do what staff is supposed to do. The bottom line is we do policy here and our micromanaging is very limited. At least it should be.”
It was revealed during discussion that the Development Review Committee has two meetings with regard to the development proposals, one that is held behind closed doors and one that is held in public. Bird expressed concern that the council members on the committee could be overbearing on staff during those closed meetings and that the public would have no way of knowing that occurred.
“Are we looking at something that is not seen by the public eye?” Bird asked. “I’m not necessarily against the idea of our being connected to that except for a concern that we would be too intrusive in the process and staff may not be as open to giving their thoughts on things with basically having council there, especially if we don’t have that added oversight of having that [the meeting proceedings] streamed [publicly broadcast].”
Ultimately, the council voted 4-to-1, with Bird dissenting, to place two of the council members on the Development Review Committee and to delegate Browsowske and Russ as those representatives.
Al Vogler, the husband of late Hesperia Mayor Rita Vogler, found the concept of the council’s interference in the function of the Development Review Committee troubling. Moreover, he expressed concerns about both Browsowske’s and Russ’s political entanglements, including monetary ties to the development community, which he said are likely to compromise the Development Review Committee’s commitment to have project proponents adhere to the city’s development standards. Browsoswke, as the executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, and Russ, as a member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, have been heavily involved in fundraising for the Republican Party, which in San Bernardino County has tapped into hefty donations from the development industry. This, says Vogler, compromises both Browsowske’s and Russ’s independence. Vogler noted that the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee is involved in promoting Browsowske’s political ascendancy, even beyond the position he now holds on the Hesperia City Council, toward the posts of San Bernardino County supervisor or a member of the California Legislature. This leaves Browsowske, who was appointed to the city council two months ago following the untimely death of Hesperia Mayor Russ Blewett, even more beholden to the development industry, which will be called upon to directly support his ongoing campaign for city council in November and to indirectly bankroll his future political campaigns through continuing contributions to the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Vogler said.
Browsowske, who is 27, is considered by a significant segment of the San Bernardino County GOP to represent the future of the Republican Party in San Bernardino County. Vogler said he perceives parallels between Browsowske and Bill Postmus, who gained election to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors at the age of 29 in the year 2000 and then went on to become the chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors as well as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee at the age of 33 in 2004. Postmus built a political machine that installed his allies Tad Honeycutt, Bill Jenson, Jim Lindley and Dennis Nowicki on the Hesperia City Council in the early 2000s, later placed his ally Anthony Adams in the California Assembly, and which saw his ally, Brad Mitzelfelt succeed him as First District supervisor when Postmus ran successfully for San Bernardino County assessor in 2006. Vogler, who at that time was himself a member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, and was instrumental in assisting his wife in her two term career on the Hesperia City Council in which she served as mayor, holds a close perspective on that span of political history. Vogler points out that Browsowske, like Postmus before him, has come to heavily rely upon the development community to bankroll his political career. In late 2008 and early 2009, events and a series of scandals overtook Postmus, not the least of which were revelations about his willingness to compromise the public offices he held in return for money from the development community. In 2009, he resigned from office, was charge with a first set of political corruption charges which were followed by further charges in 2010. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to a total of 14 felony, conspiracy, bribery, conflict of interest, misappropriation of public funds, fraud and perjury counts.
It was blurring the lines of distinction between what was good for his own political career and what was in the interest of his constituents that felled Postmus, Vogler said. Browsowske is on the verge of doing the same thing, he said. “Bill Postmus took money from the developers and then had his associates – Dennis Nowicki, and Jim Lindley, and Tad Honeycutt and Bill Jensen – do the bidding of those developers in Hesperia,” Vogler said. “He lost his moral compass. He defined anything that was good for him as being good for the people he was supposed to be representing.” The money the development community donated to Posmus’s political machine, Vogler said, “may have helped the Republicans in some of those elections… but it wasn’t good for Hesperia. Go look at some of those neighborhoods now. Some of them are half empty or two-thirds empty because no one wants to live there. The developers are long gone. They got their money and they’re out of it. The city’s standards got sold down the river for political donations.”
Russ and Browsowske are engaged in the same pattern of behavior, Vogler said. “I have been at past Development Review Committee meetings with Paul Russ there where he was simply in attendance allegedly outside his of his official capacity. He used his presence and his council position as a platform to push the agenda of his developer friends, on things like zoning. This change in the composition in the membership of the committee represents another power grab. He nominated himself and Mr. Browsowske. This is an attempt to micromanage the city’s development approval process. You can be sure his presence at the Development Review Committee meetings will benefit his developer friends and supporters and intimidate staff.”
Development standards are of crucial importance in Hesperia. The modern development of Hesperia was initiated by Penn Phillips in 1954 when his company, Omart Investment Company purchased a 36-square mile tract seven miles south of Victorville, representing roughly 90 percent of the entire township of Hesperia, for $1.25 million from the Appleton Land and Water Company and the Lacey Estate, which had owned the land jointly since 1888. Phillips simultaneously announced his intention to spend $8.25 million through the Hesperia Land Company, a subsidiary of Omart Investment Company, to prepare the property for development, indicating 1,000 acres of the property was to be allocated to industrial development, 8,000 acres for agriculture and that 5,000 homes would be built along with a two-and-one-half mile-long-and-one-quarter-mile-wide artificial lake, and a resort section.
Involved with Phillips in the Hesperia venture were one-time World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey as well as Charles Allen, vice-president of E.F. Hutton and Company of New York City; Fresno-based attorney Milo E. Rowell, Nat Mendelsohn of Riverside; Philip J. Farrar of Fresno; along with Los Angeles investment brokers, Dan Christy and Henry Paul Willis.
Phillips created the Hesperia Land Development and Hesperia Sales Corporation, which worked to promote his concept of the U-Finish Home, mass-produced housing units that were completely finished on the outside, leaving the buyer to complete the interior.
The formula Phillips applied in Hesperia was much like the one he used with his developments elsewhere: secure land, build homes on it, put in the minimal amount of infrastructure to make the homes habitable, bring in a population that creates the basis for a community that includes momentum for establishing some form of a jurisdictional governmental agency, sell all of the parcels acquired, take a profit and move on to the next development elsewhere.
Phillips built roads for Hesperia that were of a decidedly low standard, consisting of a mixture of desert sand used as aggregate and bitumen to create a road that was no more than one-and-a-half inches thick. The streets, when new, looked good, but under the withering sun and use, began to deteriorate within three to four years. The flash floods the desert is prone to further washed out these roads over the following decades, leaving many of Hesperia’s streets in poor condition, including some that eventually returned to being nothing more than dirt roads. Three generations later, much of Hesperia is plagued by an inferior road system.
Phillips was equally irresponsible in the creation of the town’s water system. He started with the tremendous advantage of Hesperia being blessed with a world-class water supply. The city lies near the headwaters of the Mojave River, the watershed area north of the San Bernardino Mountains, a pristine and perpetually recharged water supply created by melting snow and overflowing rainwater from the heights southeast of Hesperia. Nevertheless, in his headlong pursuit of an immediate profit, Phillips squandered that asset. The water system Phillips created for Hesperia consisted in large part of pipes cannibalized from a petroleum conveyance operation from depleted oil fields. Thus, the Hesperia Water Company, capturing water at the foot of the mountain before it rushed forward to become the Mojave River and wend out into the desert, used substandard pipes, which compromised the quality of the product provided to Hesperia for domestic use.
Part of Phillips’ legacy was that a succession of developers, charlatans and government officials that followed him into Hesperia sought to replicate the grift he had pulled off, many with some degree of success. A recurring motif was allowing the development industry to have its way with the community.
When Hesperia incorporated in 1988, it hired as its first city manager Robert Rizzo. Shortly after being established at City Hall, Rizzo went to work with those on the city council amenable to an elaborate depredation he plotted out: the city’s annexation of Las Flores Ranch in Summit which was to be converted into an 8,900 unit residential subdivision. The project never came to fruition after revelations of how the company promoting it had engaged in graft, money laundering and under-the-table payments to Hesperia officials at the time, including Rizzo, former city councilmen Percy Bakker and M. Val Shearer, as well as former Planning Commissioner Donna Roland. Rizzo departed Hesperia, eventually landing as the city manager in Bell in Los Angeles County. When he attempted to replicate many of the same tactics he had used in Hesperia, including conveying payments to members of the city council to obtain their cooperation in his money diversion schemes, Rizzo was caught and is now serving a 12 year prison term.
After lying dormant for more than two decades, the Rancho Las Flores project was resurrected as the 15,663-residential unit Tapestry master-planned community. Some have questioned the Tapestry project’s scope and intensity, which they believe will outrun the infrastructure meant to support it, creating gridlock on Hesperia’s already inadequate road system. Project opponents have suggested that the project proponents obtained the approval of project in large measure by the provision of political contributions to the city’s elected decision-makers, including Russ, the late Russ Blewett, and current Mayor Bill Holland, which resulted in those politicians ignoring the untoward ramifications of the massive subdivision.
By Mark Gutglueck