Vote To Recall Him As City Attorney Brings Curtain Down On Penman

(November 8) Nearly 26 years after he stormed into office as San Bernardino city attorney, James Penman was removed from office by close to a three-fifths margin of voters in a special recall election on November 5.
For more than two-and-a-half decades Penman played a significant role in city politics, one that went beyond the traditional place of the city’s legal advisor. And while his self-enlarged demeanor  on occasion boosted him into a position rivaling the power of several of the mayors he served with at City Hall, his political involvement played a role in his being vanquished this week, as the city he guided was buffeted by financial problems that led it to file for bankruptcy last year.
When several of the city’s largest creditors challenged the legitimacy of the city’s bankruptcy filing, Penman’s role as the city’s defender in federal bankruptcy court compounded the impression that he was co-responsible for the city’s fiscal plight.
Formerly a Democrat who once bragged  about heading Students for Kennedy at Cal State San Bernardino, Penman created a handful of lifelong enemies among the Democrats he crossed swords with over the years and he eventually ended his affiliation with the party, declining to state his political preference on his voter registration document. He gravitated toward affiliations with Republicans both at the city and county level. Nevertheless, his  long term incumbency resulted in political support from the normally Democrat-aligned municipal employee unions, which occasionally alienated a portion of the Republican base he was striving to cultivate. And his political ambition at times put him into contests, electoral and otherwise, against members of the GOP.
These accumulated liabilities and his often acerbic personality, combined with the determination and money of the group that sponsored the recall effort, led to his ouster.
In 1987 Penmen defeated incumbent city attorney Ralph Prince, a Democrat, whose 28-year reign in that office was the longest in the city’s history. Seven years later Penman ran for district attorney, utilizing support from the county’s Old Guard Republican power base, which included then-incumbent DA Dennis Kottmeier, who elected not to run in the face of a challenge by one of his own prosecutors, Dennis Stout, a Republican who was then Rancho Cucamonga’s mayor. In that 1994 contest, Stout outgunned Penman, whose campaign was marred by accusations from the Stout camp that as San Bernardino city attorney, Penman had been a little too forward with San Bernardino’s female employees.
Despite his failure to advance to the county’s top prosecutorial spot, Penman consistently was reelected as city attorney in the county seat, where over the years better than a half dozen appointed and elected officials were arrested, charged, and convicted of violations of the public trust and/or political corruption, or were otherwise removed from office. Penman would take credit for many of these. At the same time that he was aligning himself with Republican elected officials in the city, he  associated with the unions or bargaining units representing the city’s public safety employees, i.e., police officers and firefighters. Over time, these associations grew to include one with the union representing the city’s general employees as well. His support of generous salary and benefit packages for municipal employees ran counter to the fiscal conservatism  advocated by the Republican Party, a circumstance that initially did not harm him politically as hefty donations from those unions assisted him in his reelection efforts. But as city finances grew ever more tenuous, his support of the groups increasingly viewed as being at the root of the city’s slide toward bankruptcy took their toll.
Moreover, in the early 2000s, Penman initiated challenges of then-mayor Judith Valles, a Democrat, leading to more contretemps. In 2005, Penman sought the mayoralty himself, running against former Superior Court Judge Patrick Morris, a Democrat. That bid failed, as did a rematch against Morris in 2009. The sniping between Penman and Morris continued even after the election season was over, with Penman blaming Morris for the city’s deteriorating financial posture and Morris citing Penman’s support of exorbitant city employee employment contracts.
While Penman touted himself as the conscience of the city, its moral compass and an astute lawyer who was guiding San Bernardino through a dangerous whirlpool of daunting legal challenges, others saw him as a blowhard who was unable to control his temper. In recent years he had run-ins with the city’s public works director and the director of community development in November 2011, then-police chief Keith Kilmer in October 2010; and then-city manager Charles McNeeley in 2011 and 2012.
In April of this year, a hastily formed action committee, San Bernardino Residents For Responsible Government, declared that they were gunning for the political heads of Morris, Penman and council members Wendy McCammack, Fred Shorrett, Rikki Van Johnson, John Valdivia, Virginia Marquez, Robert Jenkins, and Chas Kelley. The group said it was motivated in large part by the city’s filing for bankruptcy.
Eventually, the group called an end to its effort against Morris, who did not seek reelection this year and will leave office next March. It also discontinued the campaigns against Jenkins, Marquez, Shorrett and Van Johnson as well. It did proceed with the call to let voters decide on removing Kelley, Valdivia, McCammack and Penman, succeeding only in getting Valdivia, McCammack and Penman on the ballot for recall.
San Bernardino Residents For Responsible Government succeeded in getting 11,855 valid signatures affixed to the petition to remove Penman, 267 more than the 15 percent of the city’s registered voters  needed to place a citywide officeholder on the ballot as a recall candidate.
Two candidates, Gary Saenz and Tim Prince, emerged as alternate candidates to Penman. Prince is the son of Ralph Prince, whom Penman succeeded after his initial 1987 victory. And while Tim Prince failed to outpoll Saenz on Tuesday, meaning that Saenz is now San Bernardino’s city attorney, Tim Prince did run a spirited campaign calling for Penman’s removal from office. Prince will have the satisfaction of knowing that Penman’s defeat this week means that his father will remain, for the time being, the longest serving San Bernardino city attorney on record.
In the closing weeks before the election, on October 17, two of the members of the city council, Kelley and Jenkins, were charged with crimes, in Kelley’s case by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office, and in Jenkins’ case, by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.  Kelley resigned from office and pleaded guilty to utilizing political contributions for personal expenses. Jenkins, charged with a sordid assortment of crimes relating to fraud, forgery and identity theft in relationship to sexual harassment of one of his former homosexual lovers, has maintained his innocence. Penman, who was politically aligned with both Kelley and Jenkins, rushed to Jenkins’ defense, a move which may have hurt him on Tuesday. Penman also suggested without directly stating that he had been instrumental in launching the investigation that ended with Kelley’s guilty plea and resignation. The perceived implausibility of Penman’s claim regarding the prosecution of Kelley may also have hurt him at the polls on Tuesday.
Another factor in Penman’s removal was the $140,000 of his own money that Scott Beard, the leader of San Bernardino Residents For Responsible Government, threw behind the recall effort.
Penman, who prior to the recall vote said he was proud of his tenure in office and that he had the comfort of knowing that all along he had “fought the good fight,” was unavailable for comment after the election results were reported by the county registrar of voters office. Only 11,048 voters citywide participated in the recall vote against Penman, fewer than had signed the petition to force the recall question against him. Of those,     6,601 or 59.75 percent voted yes, while     4,447 or 40.25 percent voted no.

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