By Marian Nichols and Mark Gutglueck
Next Monday at the Upland City Council’s August 12 meeting, on display will be the degree to which the sweeping change Upland experienced with the 2018 election cycle will or will not impact a crucial element of governance in the 74,000 population city. With three of the council’s five positions filled with different office holders than this time last year, two appointments to the city’s seven-member planning commission will be made. The council is scheduled to ratify the two appointees arrived at by a selection committee, one of which is the reappointment of a member who has now served two terms. In addition, the council will make a determination if the planning commission’s long-serving chairman, whose current term does not expire for two years, should be allowed to remain in the leadership role his colleagues on the panel believe he merits.
While it would appear the city council is leaning toward continuity rather than a shake-up of the commission, there is a sizable contingent of civically active residents who feel that an infusion of new blood on the commission, which in a very particular way exercises nearly as much influence on the direction and character of the city as does the city council, is called for.
The City of Gracious Living has enjoyed top drawer status in San Bernardino County for generations. Set below picturesque Mt. San Antonio, and occupying the highland above Ontario, it was established as an upscale neighborhood where the movers and shakers in the Ontario business community at the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th Century moved to, a paradise of Victorian, then Edwardian and eventually Craftsman homes intersticed among citrus groves. From the time of the city’s founding in 1906 onward into the middle of the 20th Century and then into the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Upland rivaled Redlands on the county’s east side for the disputed claim to being the Inland Empire’s most stately city. Today, that section of Upland above Foothill Boulevard, Old Route 66, remains, along with sections of Redlands, Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga and some neighborhoods in Lake Arrowhead, among the most majestic of expansive San Bernardino County’s districts.
The planning commission has long served as the city’s primary arbiter of the development standards that apply to the builders of the city’s housing stock. For the greater part, the commission has acquitted itself admirably, despite some rough patches, including a scandal of major proportion when the city’s mayor from 2000 to 2011, John Pomierski, a contractor himself, utilized his position of trust and authority to shakedown those applying to build in the city, effectively in many cases denying the project applications of those who refused to pay him off, and arranging go-ahead for the projects of those who were willing to bribe him outright or engage in an elaborate ruse of kicking back to him by either hiring his construction company to do a portion of the work approved by the city’s planning department or otherwise hire him or one of his various associates and co-conspirators as a consultant or subcontractor on the project.
In the years prior to Pomierski’s reign, from the founding of the city’s planning commission in 1930, there was either by power of tradition, natural attrition or the rule of ordinance, regular turnover in the membership of, that is rotation onto and then off, the planning commission. Traditionally in Upland, the mayor selected or nominated the commission’s members, who were then ratified by the remainder of the council. Generally, a commission member would remain in place for a four-year term and on occasion be renominated and confirmed for a second term. Rarely did an individual stay in place on the commission for more than two terms, though in multiple cases the commission’s members graduated up the chain of command, as it were, to be elected to the city council, continuing their civic involvement there. Pomierski made a departure from that tradition. Carol Timm, who had made her mark in Upland in some measure as an advocate for historical preservation, was nominated and then appointed to the planning commission by the administration of the mayor who preceded Pomierski, Bob Nolan. During Pomierski’s tenure, Timm moved into something of an alliance with him and he reappointed her to a second term, then four years later to a third term, and then shortly before he was overtaken by the scandal that ended his political primacy in Upland, to a fourth term. Timm ran, unsuccessfully for city council in 2012. She persisted in her political aspiration and in 2014, shortly after her reappointment to a fifth term on the commission was blocked, she was elected to the city council.
Timm’s re-electoral effort last year failed. Thus, her legacy in Upland consists of her passionate efforts to preserve historically significant properties and structures, her four-year term on the city council and her list of accomplishments thereon, and perhaps most significantly, her having opened the way for planning commissioners to remain in place for more than the traditional maximum of eight years.
For a growing group of Upland residents, however, the wave of monopolizations of planning commission positions by a relative handful of Upland residents is not perceived as a positive but rather an undesirable trend. Those feeling this way cite multiple reasons. Most simply, they say, a continuous rotation alleviates stodgy and staid repetition. It prevents the formation of clubby and entrenched networks that entail long-running political alliances with members of the city council that come uncomfortably close to being political machine-like in their appearance and function. Constant changeover brings in fresh ideas and is more likely to bring to the commission collective perspectives with regard to new concepts and change in societal orientation and evolution, those advocating constant commission changeover mantain. Moreover, change in the panel provides an opportunity for more people who want to be civically involved to do so and participate in a way that is vital to the community.
A similar rule relating to remaining in place beyond two terms applies to the chairperson of the planning commission. Chairmanships run in two-year terms. The commissioners themselves choose from among their ranks who will serve as chairperson. That selection, however, is subject to the confirmation of the city council. A chairman or chairwoman need get only three council votes to confirm his or her first two two-year tenures as leader of the panel. Upon a third nomination or any nomination thereafter, however, the council must ratify the chairmanship appointment by a minimum of four votes.
A post-Pomierski reform that was put in place was that the mayor no longer has sole nomination authority to the commission. Instead, the mayor, the mayor pro tem, the planning commission chairperson and the city’s development services director interview and evaluate the applicants, with the mayor, mayor pro tem and planning commission chairperson determining who the nominees are to be, with the development services director offering input.
A vestige of the previous principle of term limits yet exists. Any newly nominated individual need only obtain support of a simple majority of the five-member city council to be confirmed. Since it is a foregone conclusion that the mayor, who nominates the candidate, will support his or her own nomination, that means a new nominee need get only two votes of support from the remaining four council members to accede to the planning commission. The same standard applies upon the renomination of a commissioner who has come to the end of his or her first term, such that only three votes of the council are needed to remain in place at that time. However, after a commissioner has served two full terms, if renominated the commissioner must then receive at least four votes to stay on the planning commission.
Among those who feel that the incumbents on the commission who have been renominated and reapproved over and over again are monopolizing a privilege that should be shared more widely is Steve Bierbaum, an active member of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens of Upland.
“From my perspective and in the opinions of most of the members of the coalition, term limits are there for a reason,” Bierbaum said. “The city has gone through an electoral process last year to get new blood on the council. Since that time, we are noting that there have been a few changes in personnel. What we are now in the midst of is selections for the planning commission, and we believe the council should take a very close look at the number of people who did apply. There were more than a dozen applicants. We think there were some outstanding applicants on the list. The planning commission is a very important element of city operations. The commissioners make decisions on approving development applications before they come to the city council. To my knowledge, the city council has never second-guessed the commission. That trend is not likely to change. So the way things are going now, the commission is the gatekeeper for the development of the city. The problem is, when you look at it, there has been very little change on the commission going back over the years. You have the same people, with too few exceptions, in place. For the most part, if someone wants to stay, they stay. One council after another has continued to reappoint the same members. The change comes when someone either gets elected to the council or decides to leave on their own. You have these decisions being made, and I hate to say it, but it’s a little bit of an old boy network. You’ll see something that’s going before the commission and you know it’s a done deal because of that old boy network. Every once in a while you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised, but most of the votes are entirely predictable. No one who is on there is willing to really stir things up and deviate from what the groupthink is.”
An outgrowth of the contention on the city council going back the last couple of years, Bierbaum said, is that people are paying attention and making their views known on a scale heretofore unknown in the city, both by speaking at the city council meetings and by postings on social media.
“That’s not such a bad thing, in my opinion,” Bierbaum said.
What is apparent, Bierbaum said, is that the dynamic range of opinion and perspective in the city is not reflected in the membership of the commission.
This year, reflecting the dynamic Bierbaum referenced, there were 15 applicants for the two positions on the commission for which the terms expired at the end of June. That is significantly more than have applied on most occasions in the past, yet another indication of the widespread interest and attention for and toward the topic of development in the city.
Fourteen of those 15 turned out to participate in the interview process. Those 14 were Linden Brouse, Grant Genge, Thomas Grahn, Stephanie Guide, Susan Higgens, Brigitte James, Candice Moffitt, Allen Nicely, Beverly Reyes, Sid Robinson, Brinda Sarathy, Lois Sicking-Dieter, Shelley Verrinder and David Wade.
Of those 14, Verrinder is a current member of the commission, having served at this point the entirety of her two terms.
Following the interviews by the panel that included Mayor Debbie Stone, Councilwoman/Mayor Pro Janice Elliott, Planning Commission Chairman Gary Schwary and Development Services Director Robert Dalquest, both Verrinder and Candice Moffitt-Bowcock were nominated.
Verrinder has 25 years professional experience in transportation planning in the public and private sectors, and is currently the executive director of First Transit Access Services, one of the largest providers in Southern California of transportation services to the disabled.
Moffitt has 20 years experience in municipal planning and has a bachelor’s degree in urban and regional planning and a master’s degree in public administration. She has worked for the City of LaVerne for the past 17 years and is currently that city’s principal planner. Her father is Robert Bowcock, who is a Chino Basin Watermaster.
At its Monday evening meeting, the city council will vote upon confirming the Moffitt-Bowcock and Verrinder appointments.
The council will also take up ratifying the extension of Planning Commission Chairman Gary Schwary’s tenure as the commission’s chairman for another two years. Generally, a chairperson is limited to serving in the chair capacity for two consecutive two-year terms. To remain as chairman beyond that point, the city council must ratify the extension by a vote of at least 4-to-1. Schwary has been a member of the planning commission since 2002 and has been chairman continuously since 2010.
While acknowledging that both Schwary and Verrinder have exhibited competence and dedication during their respective periods on the commission, Bierbaum opined that it is time nonetheless that they leave in favor of bringing other applicants in to serve who otherwise are being prevented from making their own contribution to the Upland community.
“The selection committee has recommended that Gary Schwary be allowed to stay in place as chairman, assuming of course the full commission will again elect him to serve in that capacity, which is very likely to happen,” Bierbaum said. “He is not due to leave the commission for another two years, but it does look like he will stay as chairman until 2021. I think you could say he has done a fantastic job in his role as a commissioner and as chairman. Having said that, I think he should step down as chairman at this time and let someone else move in there. And I think in two years time we should say to him ‘Thank you very much for your outstanding service’ and tell him, sincerely, how much we appreciate what he has done for the city. Then someone else should be appointed. He is in, I believe, his fifth term on the commission. He has been on the commission since the Pomierski era. There are others, very qualified people, who are deserving of a chance to serve.”
With regard to Verringer, Bierbaum said, “I think her time to leave has come. There is nothing personal about that. Realistically, I think as a member of the commission she has made good decisions. She has been straightforward and forthcoming in her decision-making process. But she is ending her second term, and I think to be fair, it is time for us to give others the opportunity that we gave to her.”
Bierbaum is not alone in his view that Upland should share the opportunity to contribute that is being offered to only a limited number of those who have been honored with an appointment to the planning commission. Some of those others are harsher in their assessment of the planning commission’s performance than was Bierbaum.
Many consider the commission’s members to be lapdogs for the powers-that-be at City Hall, who have bent the city’s development standards too readily to meet the dictates of senior staff or project applicants who are politically well-connected or members of the council showing favoritism toward those project applicants. This has resulted in some project approvals that have hurt the city, those critics and observers say.
One case-in-point is the William Lyon project on 8th Street near Campus Avenue. Realistically, Upland has three major east-west arterials – 16th Street, Foothill Boulevard and Arrow Highway. Previously, conditions were such that 8th Street, which is considered a minor east-west arterial, could have have been transformed, in the future if the need materialized, to a major arterial. At a few spots along its length, some homes, garages or other structures were built relatively close to the roadway, such that the street narrowed at those spots. Nevertheless, the possibility of widening the street the entirety of its length across the city existed, had such been deemed absolutely necessary by condemnation of or alterations to those relatively few properties. Furthermore, paralleling 8th Street just to the north is a railroad track that runs the entire expanse of the city east to west. During the city’s highly contentious general plan update in 2015, then-Development Services Director Jeff Zwack pushed the city toward providing for maintaining the width of that rail corridor so a second rail line could potentially be accommodated there to ensure that a future commuter rail system tying San Bernardino County with Los Angles County could become an eventuality. Not six months after the general plan update was passed, Zwack inexplicably reversed himself in seeking to accommodate William F. Lyon in constructing a condominium/attached townhome development along 8th Street east of Euclid approaching Campus that encroached on 8th Street to the south, virtually ending any future possibility that 8th Street could be widened to four lanes at some point, while encroaching on the railroad right-of-way to the north, compromising the possibility of augmenting the railroad corridor there with a second line. No one on the planning commission nor the planning commission as a whole was willing to stand up to Zwack and prevent him from allowing the William F. Lyon Company to effectuate its agenda at the future expense of the Upland community.
Another example of the docile nature of the planning commission in the face of action being pushed by political or administrative forces is the Upland Central complex on Central Avenue. The setback on that building is extremely narrow, such that no possible future widening of Central Avenue at that spot could take place. Moreover, the doors into and out of the westernmost units there are so close to the street that allowing young children to reside in the complex is inadvisable, given the danger that ensues from the consideration that those exiting the building are merely yards away from passing traffic on Central Avenue. The planning commission failed to use its authority to insist that the Upland Central setback be increased. Among planning professionals, Upland Central is considered to be an illustration of incompetence, negligence or graft within the Upland planning division.
One of the 13 applicants for the planning commission apparently overlooked in the current selection go-round was David Wade. Wade over the last two years has made statements that have been critical of the stewardship of the city under Mayor Stone’s watch. It is Wade’s contention, and that of his supporters, that the evaluation of his application had less to do with his qualifications and his avowed interest in the city than it did with political considerations.
In recent weeks and months, the criticism of the city on social media has ramped up. Among those targeted by those postings, including some identifying themselves by their true names, those using avatars and those posting anonymously, has been Schwary, who fairly or not, has been associated with Stone. Stone, who was elected to the city council in a special election in 2011, then defeated in a mayoral run in 2012, reelected to the council in 2014 and elected mayor in 2016, headed a four-member council coalition which engaged in a number of ultimately unpoplular acts, including closing out the city’s fire department in 2017 while imposing on the city’s residents a parcel tax to pay for the county fire department’s takeover of fire service in the city, along with the selling off of more than four-and-a-half acres of parkland in 2018. All three members of the council who were part of her coalition were displaced with the 2018 election, either through defeat at the polls or by not seeking reelection.
Schwary told the Sentinel today he believes he merits, by virtue of his performance as a commissioner and as chairman, to remain in place as both.
He cited his consistent reappointment to the commission on four occasions, including three occasions when that reappointment could take place only by virtue of at least four members of the council voting for him. On two of those three reappointments, Schwary received unanimous support. Since 2010, Schwary’s commission colleagues have elected him once and reelected him four times to serve as chairman. “That has happened without any campaigns or rallies or anything like that,” he said. “The past councils have approved those selections. The chair isn’t appointed by the council. It’s the commissioners the chair works with who make that decision. Taking that into consideration, I have been the chair without opposition since 2010.”
Schwary said, “I honestly just want to serve. If the council doesn’t want me to serve as chairman, then I’ll serve out the remaining two years of my term as a commissioner and then go from there. If the council doesn’t allow me to be eligible to stay as the chairman, I’ll be disappointed, but I’m not going to throw a hissy fit. I recognize that is the council’s decision to make. I do believe I am qualified and I want to continue to serve in that capacity.”
Schwary acknowledged that “In past years there may have been people appointed and reappointed who were not qualified.” He said he did not consider himself to be among those.
The criticism being vectored at him, primarily that on social media, Schwary said, was undeserved. “There are things that are said, or posted, that are not true,” he said. “A lot of it is casting a black cloud over the city. They are within their rights to express what they feel. But many of the things being said are outright false and vulgar. For residents of the City of Gracious Living, they are not being very gracious. Some of it is coming from people who have never actually been to the meetings I have chaired.”
Were those critics to see the board in action while he is conducting those meetings, the criticism would melt, he said.
“I have gotten the confidence of a wide range of people from both sides of the aisle, so to speak,” Schwary said, “on the way I conduct the commission meetings. Whatever the positions are, I give both sides a voice. I don’t run a three-minute clock. I give them five minutes. If the five minute buzzer goes off, I ask if they are close to finishing and let them do so. People just want to be heard. In my opinion, that is the secret to the success of our commission. We are not a rubberstamp. The commission is very diverse.”
Both he and the commission as a whole have defied the preconceived notions of certain elements of the public who have made what turned out to be inaccurate assumptions of the direction the commission was going to take, Schwary said. He referenced a recent decision by the commission to deny the permitting of the erection of a cell tower.
“It was all over social media and everywhere else that it was going to be a 4-to-1 vote to allow it,” Schwary said. “There was one guy in particular who made that prediction and said a few other choice things. It ended up we rejected the application 3-to-2. Afterward, he came up to me and apologized.”
Schwary said he understood that there were plenty of others who wanted to serve on the commission. He said that many of those people are qualified to be appointed. Others, he said, had potential. Still, he insisted, he was a proven entity, and he offered the same assessment of Verrinder. “I am of the opinion that Ms. Verrinder is extremely well qualified,” Schwary said. “She comes to every meeting well prepared, and in discussions she is always on point and uncovers things the average person would not uncover. She has a background in city operations.”
Schwary said he was “puzzled” over suggestions by those opposed to his reappointment as chairman or Verrender’s reappointment to the commission that there was something wrong with them having achieved the favored status they have with the council.
“I would think most cities would appreciate someone who has had a long tenure and has contributed what they can based on their skills and talents,” he said. “When I hear people say that we should be ashamed for having worked so closely with the city’s leaders over the years, I just don’t get that,” he said.
He and Verrender have a well established track record and that is something the community can bank on, he said. He said there were people who had worked to effect the removal of some of the former council members and on behalf of some of the current council members who had now set their sites on him and Verrender. “They’re all for change and their attitude is out with the old and in with the new, but at what cost?” he asked.
On Monday night, Schwary said, he would come before the council and “during my three minutes or four minutes cover everything I can in requesting permission to be reappointed chairman. I’m not going to get crazy, but I am going to tell them I love serving on the planning commission and I am qualified to do so.”
Councilwoman Janice Elliott said that it was her belief that since the commission positions are appointed rather than elected ones, it was appropriate that a limit be imposed on how long those individuals can hang on to the posts they were selected to. “The people in those positions have a lot of clout and the public does not get to vote them in,” she said. “I think we should ensure that they not stay in place forever, no matter how qualified they are. We have a lot of others who are just as qualified interested in serving in those positions, as well.”
By Marian Nichols and Mark Gutglueck