By Mark Gutglueck
Ricky Felix’s resignation from the Upland City Council has touched off a round of political intrigue in the City of Gracious Living that is every bit as intense if not more so than is the case during the traditional political season.
Felix’s exit from the city council will not be effective until the end of the month, but already his pending exit has seemingly ended the previous standing and long-assumed continuing alliance between a current councilman and a former one, and has resulted in entities of variable persuasions and orientations, including conflicting ones, lining up to support an individual touted by City Hall’s most outspoken critics as a logical appointment to replace the departing councilman.
The atmosphere in the city has also exposed a simmering tension between two major players in the community, both of which are major developers with legitimate claims to being Upland institutions, ones which have played a role in shaping the political ascendancy of the city’s elected leadership in the past.
When 2018 dawned, Ricky Felix’s political prospects did not appear overwhelmingly bright, although he was not a complete unknown, having sought election to the city council two years previously, when he placed fourth in a field of four. A series of providential events, however, resulted in fortune smiling upon him in the eleventh month of 2018.
The first star in the constellation lined up Felix’s way nearly three years prior to his ascendancy to the council, when the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project in December 2015 sent a letter to Upland city officials alleging that because of what it claimed was Upland’s historical dearth of elected officeholders who were Hispanic compounded by its at-large voting system for electing members of the city council, the city was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Rather than contest the allegation, the city consented to converting to a by-district voting system which was to initiate with the 2018 voting cycle.
Gino Filippi, who had first been elected to the city council in 2010, two years later unsuccessfully sought to unseat then-incumbent Mayor Ray Musser, who was also challenged by Councilwoman Debbie Stone in that election. In 2014, Filippi attained reelection to the council and over the next two years formed a solid alliance with Stone, as he gradually transitioned into an element of the Upland political establishment, one which consisted of a ruling coalition that included Stone and Councilwoman Carol Timm, who was elected to the council in 2014. After having misfortune with a succession of city managers, the city in 2016 brought in former Upland Police Chief Martin Thouvenell to serve in that capacity. Thouvenell, who had himself vied unsuccessfully for the city council in the special election in 2011 when Stone was originally elected, was retained to manage the city in an interim capacity in July 2016. As it turned out, Thouvenell remained in that assignment for nearly two-and-a-half years.
Filippi was particularly close to Thouvenell, and his status as a member of the Upland establishment heightened with the 2016 election, in which Stone was elected mayor, defeating dissident Councilman Glenn Bozar in that race. Elected for the first time that year was Janice Elliott, who in a come-from-behind charge that involved late arriving provisional and mail-in ballots, beat out Sid Robinson, another political newcomer.
Upon acceding to the position of mayor, Stone was obliged to resign her council position. To fill that gap, the council appointed Robinson. With Thouvenell dictating the city’s policy, a ruling coalition consisting of Stone, Filippi, Timm and Robinson rubberstamped virtually everything the former police chief brought forth.
Thouvenell’s proposals engendered no small degree of controversy, but with a four-member council majority to back him, any opposition to the direction the city was taking was steamrolled.
On January 1, 2018, Thouvenell departed as acting city manager, replaced in that role by journeyman municipal administrator Bill Manis. Nevertheless, Thouvenell remained very much in control at City Hall, functioning as the city’s so-called management consultant. That year, Thouvenell would hatch two undertakings that heightened the level of controversy in the City of Gracious Living to the point that the political status quo was not only threatened, but ultimately undone.
In a string of efforts that were as ham-fisted as they were politically tone deaf, Thouvenell orchestrated the reduction or shuttering of elements of the city’s parkland with little regard for the reaction this was to provoke from city residents. Specifically, Thouvenell proposed, and then Stone, Filippi and Timm endorsed, selling off 4.631 acres of Memorial Park, including an existing youth league baseball field, to San Antonio Regional Hospital for conversion to a parking lot. Memorial Park was widely considered the city’s premier recreational amenity. Robinson, whose major constituency consisted of the parents of Little League players throughout the city, arranged to be absent from the meeting when the sale was voted upon. The council majority then gave its blessing to another Thouvenell proposal, which called for selling 16-acre Cabrillo Park, located off 11th Street between Mountain and Benson Avenue, to the Lewis Group of Companies so the property could be developed residentially.
San Antonio Hospital and the Lewis Group of Companies, together with the City of Upland itself, the Upland School District and the San Antonio Water Company, are Upland’s leading institutions. San Antonio Hospital, which began its existence in a different location within the city in 1907, has transformed itself from a community hospital to a regional one that features over 400 beds at its current location. The Lewis Group of Companies is the corporate successor to Lewis Homes, which began as a relatively modest home construction business headed by husband and wife Ralph and Goldy Lewis in the 1950s, and which grew into one of the largest residential developers in Southern California by the mid-1970s. The company is currently overseen by the couple’s four sons – Richard, Randall, Robert and Roger – and is now involved in obtaining construction entitlements for planned communities, housing tracts, apartment complexes and shopping centers in California as well as in Nevada. Its corporate headquarters is in Upland.
The cavalier fashion in which Stone, Filippi, Robinson and Timm had sought to dispense with city parkland to further the agenda of major business institutions in Upland created a firestorm which ultimately resulted in the city forsaking the sale of Cabrillo Park to the Lewis Group of Companies. The controversy over that issue proved so great that Robinson, who had originally been appointed to the council and was due to run for election that year to stay in office, chose not to run. Also on the ballot that year were Filippi, Timm and by her own choice because she had been elected to an at-large four-year term on the council in 2016, Councilwoman Janice Elliot, who sought election to represent the district in which she resided, that being the city’s newly-formed Second District in the city’s northeast quadrant. Elliott, who had opposed the parkland sale, the only member of the council to do so, was elected. Timm was voted out of office.
Filippi, who claimed to be living in the city’s Third District – essentially Upland’s southwest quadrant – found himself facing two challengers, Ricky Felix and Irmalinda Osuna. Having to compete as one of three candidates in the Third District rather than as one of seven or eight or nine or more competing hopefuls for three top spots in an at-large contest was a factor favorable to Felix.
Osuna had the residual benefit of being one of those who had protested effectively against the sale of Cabrillo Park, which is located within the Third District. The impetus behind Felix entering the race was his long-held desire to enter politics, with an eye toward making an eventual run for Congress.
As an incumbent, Filippi had a leg up against both of his opponents, or so it seemed, in terms of his ability to pick up campaign donations. While not setting any records, he nevertheless outperformed both of his opponents in generating the funds he needed to run an effective campaign, accumulating $35,905.74 for that purpose, including a $2,328.88 loan he made to his campaign. Felix collected $7,162 for use toward his electoral cause, which included $2,600 in loans he made to himself. Osuna generated so little money for her campaign that no documents relating to her campaign financing were filed with the Upland City Clerk’s office.
Unbeknownst to Filippi until relatively late in that year’s political season was the degree to which a third party independent expenditure committee known as Business Leaders For Ethical Government would come to play a major role in the 2018 District Three campaign.
Business Leaders For Ethical Government had been formed, in actuality, to support Jason Anderson in what turned out to be his successful bid to unseat incumbent San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos in the June 2018 Primary Election.
Two of the major donors to Business Leaders For Ethical Government were James Previti, the principal in Frontier Homes, and Jeff Burum, who is a principal in a number of development companies, including the Colonies Partners, Diversified Pacific and National CORE.
Both Burum and Previti have development projects in the City of Upland.
Previti had bankrolled Business Leaders For Ethical Government to the tune of $109,000. Burum had put up $20,000 of his own money and $74,500 from Diversified Pacific.
As an independent expenditure committee that in no way coordinated with either the Felix or Osuna campaigns, Business Leaders For Ethical Government put out hit pieces attacking Filippi at a total cost of $10,418.88.
In addition, Business Leaders For Ethical Government expended $1,500 getting Felix onto a slate mailer that recommended voters elect him, and the independent expenditure committee spent another $8,897 promoting Felix to the voters of the Third District.
For Burum, his involvement in the 2018 Upland election marked the first time after an interim of not quite a generation since he had been previously involved in Upland politics. While he had been quite active in San Bernardino County electioneering in the early and middle portion of the first decade of the Third Millennium, he had not been heavily involved in Upland city politics since the 2000 election when John Pomierski had benefited from a wide spectrum of local support, including that from Burum, to become mayor.
What brought him to the fore of Upland politics in 2018, Burum told the Sentinel, was Filippi’s obsequious fealty to Thouvenell and his slavish accommodation of the Lewis Group of Companies. “The last straw for me was when they were going to sell Lewis every bit of Cabrillo Park,” Burum said. “My kids used to play youth league soccer at that park. That deal couldn’t have been more one-sided. There was nothing in it for the residents, and everything for Lewis.”
In years past, Burum said, he had “considered Gino to be a political friend. But he brought Marty Thouvenell back into the city. Yes, Marty Thouvenell knew how to run things. But he was returning the city to a failed model. He got things done behind the council’s back, just like it was during the time Mike Milhiser was here.”
Milhiser was Upland’’s city manager during a portion of Thouvenell’s tenure as police chief.
“You had the same things that were going on 30 years ago, favoring a select few, including Lewis,” Burum said.
He said that under Thouvenell’s leadership and the blind support of the council, legitimate community building tools were misapplied.
“They took the valid concept of opportunity zones, which create incentives for dynamic community improvement, and put them not where they were needed such as downtown, but out on Mountain Avenue, which is already fully developed, as favors to their cronies,” Burum said. “There was nothing for the citizens in that. Gino was supporting Marty’s agenda. He wasn’t paying attention. He was just doing whatever Marty wanted.”
Burum said Thouvenell, whom he likened to “a viper in the hen house,” together with Filippi and the Lewis Group of Companies made up a significant portion of a cabal that was using the authority of the city to manipulate things to their collective advantage, which was simultaneously to the detriment of the city, its residents and its future.
“It’s no secret that I have some major differences with the Lewises,” he said. “Whenever they have a project, it is about what is good for them, and not for the community.”
His political involvement in the 2018 election was not about his support for Felix but rather his opposition to Filippi, Burum said. “I didn’t meet Ricky Felix until after the election,” Burum said. “I knew a little bit about him, but not that much. I supported him, basically, because he was running against Gino.”
In the November 2018 election, Felix managed 1,517 votes or 39.39 percent to Osuna’s 1,354 votes or 35.16 percent. Filippi finished a dismal third in the balloting with 980 votes or 25.45 percent
Felix was sworn in as councilman in December 2018, a little more than a month after he was elected. Because in the November 2018 election Elliott had successfully vied to take up the position of Second District councilwoman, she had to resign the at-large position on the council she had been elected to in 2016. There ensued a selection process in early 2019 to have a city resident complete the two years remaining on the four-year term to which Elliott had been elected in 2016. The council very nearly elevated Glenn Bozar, a fiscal conservative who had been displaced from the council dais in 2016 when he vied for mayor rather than for reelection to the council, and lost to Stone. Ultimately, when Bozar was unable to get a crucial third vote either from Stone or Felix in that selection process, the council settled upon a compromise candidate, Planning Commissioner Bill Velto, who had lost to Bozar during the 2012 election.
Earlier this month, on May 11, at the close of the regularly scheduled city council meeting, Felix announced that he and his family had been “given an opportunity at this time that will take us out of the city. The next city council meeting will be my last city council meeting and May 31st will be the last day I will be a councilmember for the City of Upland.”
His planned departure has set off frenzied speculation as to precisely what the city council will do, including holding an election in the near term to replace him, appointing a replacement to serve out the remainder of Felix’s term until 2022, appointing a replacement to fill the position until an election can be held in November, or leaving the post unfilled until an election is held in November. Even more animated is the conjecture as to who will ultimately fill the spot. A natural assumption, and indeed one that has been widely bruited about the community is that Felix’s exit stage right sets the table for Filippi to make a storied comeback. Conventional wisdom would hold that he would start off with two votes if the council elects to make an appointment. He had a more than four-year running alliance with Mayor Stone when he was last on the council. In 2012, Filippi endorsed Velto in his run for city council and he was instrumental in getting Velto appointed to the planning commission. And Velto had endorsed Filippi in his run for the city council in 2010, in his run for mayor in 2012, in his successful bid for reelection in 2014 and in his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 2018. During the two years Filippi and Elliott served together on the council between December 2016 and December 2018, the two had a rocky relationship, including a May 2017 vote by the city council including Filippi to censure Elliott. It thus would appear that Filippi would need the support of Councilman Rudy Zuniga if he is to regain appointment to the council this year. Still the same, given the widespread community animus toward Filippi, it is by no means certain that he would get as many as two votes.
A factor in this consideration is what might be termed the forced vicissitude in his relationship with Velto. In 2020, Velto finds himself in a position that is tenuous but also ripe with possibilities. Having never been elected, Velto is now faced with the necessity of achieving success at the polls or ending, at least for the time being, his political career. Appointed to the last remaining at-large position on the city council last year, he is, as a current resident of the First District, eligible to run for that position. He thus could run for election to the council in November, which will be the first time a by-district vote to elect a councilmember to represent the First District will be held. To maintain his political viability, then, Velto has three options. He can run for an elected office outside of Upland or he can vie for First District councilman or he can seek the Upland mayoralty in the contest for that position in November.
Velto’s most realistic pathway toward staying in the political game is to run for council, but becoming mayor is not outside of his potential grasp. Mayor Stone could make such a move much easier if she were to choose not to seek reelection, leaving a potential void that Velto could fill. It is not clear, as of press time, what Stone’s intentions are. If she does seek reelection, Velto running against her would very likely end the relatively cordial relationship they have. In the 16 months Velto has been on the council, there has been little if any contention between them, with there being consonance between virtually all of their votes, with only a handful of exceptions.
A wild card, or wild cards, in that scenario is that another candidate, or other candidates, for mayor, including Elliot, might emerge. A consideration in this regard is that Elliott has established herself as the anti-establishmentarian on the council. While wearing that mantle may prove a disadvantage to Elliott in a head-to-head election against a lone representative of the establishment, particularly in relatively affluent and conservative Upland, it could well transition to an advantage if she finds herself in a race against two representatives of the establishment who might then split between themselves the constituency that undivided might be sufficient for one to claim victory. Elliott indeed possesses a following, one that has grown during her more than three years in office as she has repeatedly been cast as the iconoclast on the council, while the council has displeased several contingents, some of them highly vocal, within the community by its votes with regard to both policy and specific projects, proposals and undertakings.
As a consequence of all this, Velto is likely to find it to be politically expedient to turn his back on his longtime associate Filippi.
Indeed, when the Sentinel caught up with him by phone this week, he came across as decidedly uncomfortable when discussing the prospect that Filippi might apply to replace Felix.
Velto downplayed what many people see as indicators that Filippi has already or is to soon throw his hat in the ring. “You’re talking about what is being said on social media, which can be very unreliable, and what is on his Facebook page, which is dated,” Velto said. “What you see on his Facebook page is from years ago. I don’t think that’s his plan at all. I don’t think he knew Ricky was going to leave. I haven’t had contact with him and I haven’t been contacted by people reaching out for him on his behalf. If that’s what he chooses to do, I don’t see a reason for it. Sometimes with these things you get caught up in it and you are going to do it. But for him, right now, I don’t see a reason to do it or any benefit, even reviving his hopes. Sometimes serving on the council or serving the city isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. You want to do what is right but at the same time you don’t want to be a target for a small group of people. I haven’t heard anything from anyone who knows him. No one has reached out on his behalf. I think it is highly unlikely he would run. I am not even sure that he is still living in that location [the Third District]. If he is, I don’t know whether he has the base there he had in the city as a whole. He ended up in third place among three candidates the last time he ran there. I don’t see any benefit for him to come out and go through what he will need to go through to get back in there. But we’ll see.”
Forthrightly, Velto acknowledged he had supported Filippi in the past.
“I supported him, yes, like I supported most of those who served and who encountered the difficulty of the job and were trying to do what was in the best interest of the city.”
Velto acknowledged having provided Filippi with financial support, but said it was a minimal offering. “I think I gave him maybe $99,” Velto said. “I generally supported him. Did I support him in everything that he did? I don’t think so. When he ran for office, ran for mayor, yes, I supported him, absolutely.”
Potentially rendering moot any discussion with regard to Filippi succeeding Felix is the momentum behind Carlos Garcia, a well-spoken resident of the Third District who has involved himself in a number of civic issues since he moved to the City of Gracious Living a few years ago.
Garcia’s viability as Felix’s replacement was boosted substantially when Osuna opted out of seeking the appointment or vying in an election to replace Felix.
“I am not planning to pursue this position,” Osuna told the Sentinel. “Reflecting on all the personal sacrifices of time away from family, degradation of health, financial cost, etc., I decided it was time for me to disengage. That being said, I will continue to support in a very limited capacity other groups and individuals who align with my core values. I extend Mr. Felix and his family best wishes in their relocation to Utah, as it is a beautiful state, and look forward to our city council following a transparent and democratic process to find his replacement.”
Burum said he believes it is in the city’s best interest to make an appointment to fill the vacancy, even if it is only on an interim basis until a replacement election can be held in November. “You have to get three votes to do anything, so I think there will be better governance all the way around with five people,” he said. “It can be a real challenge to get that third vote on some issues if you just have four.”
Thinking out loud, Burum said that perhaps the best way of going about it would be to appoint a “placeholder,” meaning someone who would not run in the replacement election in November, so that no political advantage is bestowed upon one of the candidates by virtue of being an incumbent.
More important, Burum suggested, was that the council avoid appointing Filippi.
“I still have my own personal concern about Gino getting back in there,” he said. “Since he lost, I don’t think he should be appointed. I don’t think he should hold office without a major awakening in his life. I can’t imagine that he has changed sufficiently that we should allow him back on the council.”
As to the prospect of Garcia getting the nod, Burum said, “I supported Ricky Felix because he wasn’t Gino. I have never met Carlos, but if the alternative means Gino getting appointed, then I am supporting Carlos.”
As to the upcoming election in November, in particular the race for mayor, Burum indicated his preference for Velto. Nevertheless, he said, he could live with Stone serving a second term. He acknowledged that Stone had been a crucial vote to hire Thouvenell, but indicated it was his perception that she had been unduly influenced by Filippi in making that decision. “It was Gino who convinced her to do that,” Burum said. “And from there, Marty led her astray. Marty can be very manipulative.”
Unlike some in the community, Burum was not dismissive of Stone’s intellectual capacity or ability to handle the rigors of the office of mayor. “She is a successful businesswoman,” he said, referencing her position with the funeral home she runs.
Burum credited the Stone-led council with making an insightful promotion of Rosemary Hoerning, who had been the city’s public works director, into the position of city manager. “When I saw that on the agenda, I was frankly skeptical,” Burum said. “I was not supportive of that move. I thought it was irresponsible. But what we have seen is Rosemary’s growth in the job, an interesting evolution of a bureaucrat. She is good at determining what needs to be done. Since becoming city manager, she has met her calling. She gets the details. She has blossomed. And she doesn’t have the personality to manipulate people.”
With regard to Stone, Burum said, “She might not be the strongest leader. I don’t want to say who I’ll support, but if Debbie doesn’t run, I will definitely be supporting Bill. Bill Velto has the time and energy. He could be a better mayor because he is always paying attention. If he puts in the time, we will have someone who fully understands the job.”
Despite Elliott’s celebrated differences with Thouvenell, Burum said he did not consider her to be qualified to serve as mayor, and intimated that he thought it would be better for the city if she were not on the city council at all.
“The city can’t afford someone like that,” Burum, referring to Elliott, opined. “The city is facing fiscal challenges. If it follows her lead, it will go bankrupt. She has this myopic view of the world, in my opinion. She is anti-growth. I am not advocating unchecked growth, but the city needs strategic growth. Infill development is a no-brainer. If you allow the neighbors of where growth is coming in to have their way, there won’t be any growth in California ever again. To sustain itself, the city needs people living here and shopping in the city. Whenever there is growth, there are going to be complaints about traffic. Janice Elliott panders to that crowd. She wants to be popular. We need leaders who are able to figure out what the next paradigm shift is going to be. Upland doesn’t have that much land left. We need strategic growth, a plan to maximize development for the betterment of the city. We don’t have the luxury to say no to normal projects.”
Burum said resistance to the Amazon project, intended for 50 acres east of Central Avenue, north of Foothill Boulevard and south of Cable Airport, was pointless and wrongheaded. Prior to the construction of the 210 Freeway, he said, there was far more truck traffic on Foothill Boulevard than is on it now or will be on it in the future. Burum said that instead of resisting the project every inch of the way, those concerned about it “should have done an extreme analysis” that was aimed at improving the terms of the development agreement and upping the amount of money the city is to receive from the $16 million specified in the agreement to a larger sum that “would improve things. City leadership needs to strategically think of everything that goes into development and how it can help them with fiscal obligations. They need to consider what is being built, and work to see that it fits the community. Opposition is meaningless if it does not lead to improvement. Leadership has to be pragmatic. On that project [the Amazon warehouse], it struck me as a relatively noncontroversial matter. You can’t do high density residential there. It is between the airport and commercial frontage on Foothill Boulevard. What else could go there? This no-growth mentality is going to kill our community.”
Velto, who previously told the Sentinel he was not considering a run for mayor, this week told the Sentinel he is now contemplating doing so, but is not committed to that course of action. “I’m not 100 percent into this,” he said. “I don’t know whether the mayor is going to run. I’m considering it. I don’t know if there’s anyone else out there who might run. If there is someone better than me who brings more to the table, then I’m not interested. I find it complimentary when someone suggests I should run, but this isn’t the number one thing on my plate.”