Saenz Shutters Investigative Unit In First Act As SB City Attorney

(November 18)  Newly installed San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz quickly moved to terminate all nine of his office’s investigators as the first significant act of his term in office.
Saenz was elevated to the city attorney’s post as a consequence of the successful recall effort against his predecessor, Jim Penman, who had served as elected city attorney for nearly 26 years.
Penman was targeted for recall in April by San Bernardino Residents For Responsible Government, a group that sought to remove the mayor, all seven city council members and the city attorney in the wake of the city’s 2012 bankruptcy filing.
Ultimately, the group failed to qualify recall questions against council members Rikke Van Johnson, Fred Shorett, Virginia Marquez, Chas Kelley, Robert Jenkins and it dropped the recall attempt against mayor Patrick Morris after Morris opted not to run for reelection in November. But the group did qualify recall votes against Penman, councilwoman Wendy McCammack and councilman John Valdivia. Valdivia survived the vote but McCammack and Penman did not.
Saenz, who competed as an alternative city attorney candidate against Tim Prince during the November 5 balloting, prevailed in that contest. On November 13, he was sworn into office. The next day, he cashiered all nine of the investigators working for him.
Under Penman, who was first elected in 1987, the investigative arm of his office was expanded dramatically.  Penman maintained that a substantial investigative staff had not been his idea but rather one that was suggested by former city manager Fred Wilson as a way of lessening the burden on police department investigators who were being detailed to look into civil issues and thus were diverted from their province of criminal probes. Whether or not the idea originated with Penman, the city attorney took advantage of the opportunity to draw to himself more power through the acquisition of resources of potential political and authoritative application.
He had recruited investigators almost exclusively from the ranks of retired law enforcement, individuals over the age of 50 who were drawing substantial pensions. To ensure that they did not lose those pensions, they were hired on a part time basis, being paid $32 per hour and working no more than 960 hours per year.
Some of the investigators’ function was legitimate and related to civil issues as well as the city’s  earnest effort to expand the city’s code and civil enforcement processes. Nevertheless, there were accusations that the detectives were also being marshaled as a political hit squad, moving into provinces well beyond their charter, digging up derogatory information pertaining to Penman’s political adversaries and generally abusing their authorty. Indisputably, the investigators’ first loyalties were to their boss and his agenda, professional, political, personal or otherwise.
In time, Penman would acquire a reputation of acting in manner that went beyond his elected authority of city attorney. Instead of merely acting as an advisor on legal matters, he became actively involved in influencing policy decisions or seeking to do so. At city council meetings, he routinely went to the public speaker’s podium to weigh in on matters before the council.
Occasionally, charges that Penman was misusing the investigative staff as well as seeking to expand the city attorney’s authority beyond that conferred upon him by the city charter was made. He was called upon to curtail his office’s investigative activities and reduce the size of his detective unit. He defied those requests, expanding the number of positions over the years, installing retired undersheriff Bob Peppler as the unit supervisor, who until last week oversaw eight investigators. After the economic downturn and dwindling revenues pinched all of the city’s departments and it was suggested that his investigative staff should be subject to the same economies as were imposed elsewhere at City Hall, Penman stubbornly refused to downsize his investigative staff, going so far as saying he would simply balance his budget by decreasing the number of outside lawyers he was using to augment his in-house stable of attorneys to keep his investigative reach intact.
Beneath the surface was tension between the city attorney’s office and the police chief and the upper echelon of the police department over the investigators, borne of the impression that Penman was treading on the turf of the department, although no public airing of the dispute was made.
The perception that Penman was utilizing those investigators as a secret police force and political enforcement squad contributed toward the atmosphere that led to the recall effort against him.
In the run up to the recall vote, Saenz questioned the need for the city attorney’s office to employ investigators at all. He was sworn in as city attorney on November 13. Less than 24 hours later, he terminated Peppler and his eight underlings. Saenz then issued a statement that he considered the unit duplicative and that it interfered, overlapped and was not coordinated with the function of other city departments. He said the city would reap an immediate $250,000 to $300,000 savings as a result of transferring the unit’s activities to the police department, city clerk’s office and code enforcement division.
Despite Saenz’s clear indication during the recall election campaign that he intended to do away with the unit if Penman was recalled and he was selected to succeed him, the investigators talked of being blindsided and caught totally unaware when Saenz acted.
They said that the move was pennywise but pound foolish, given that the code enforcement activity they engaged in and the fine revenue they generated far outran the cost of maintaining the unit.

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