Aggressive Action By Adelanto Mayor & Council Stirs Up Recall Contemplation

(July 14)  A recall movement appears to be afoot in Adelanto.
Eight months after the city’s voters voted incumbent councilmen Charles Valvo and Steve Baisden and Mayor Cari Thomas out and councilmen John “Bug” Woodard and Charles Glasper and mayor Rich Kerr in, questions about the newly-composed council’s adherence to various laws relating to how local governmental action is taken have emerged.
The background to the issue is that 31,765-population Adelanto faces deep financial adversity. In 2013 the city council declared that city was in a state of financial emergency and sought to have city residents impose a new tax on themselves to shore City Hall up financially. Voters rejected that proposal, however, and former city manager Jim Hart’s efforts to generate revenue through a host of strategies foundered.
In that context a relatively consistent four-to-one split had formed on the council with Thomas, Baisden, Valvo and councilman Ed Camargo outvoting councilman Jermaine Wright on a number of issues. With the results of the November election and the swearing-in of Woodard, Glasper and Kerr in December, a newly-formed ruling coalition materialized.
In particular, Kerr, a Marine Corps veteran, evinced a degree of impatience with the plodding nature of municipal governance. A major issue for him was the need for the council to work through the city manager in effectuating change, such as winnowing staff. Kerr, perhaps functioning on the basis of what was actually a consensus of the council, or his conception of what that consensus was or simply his own conception of what needed to be done, Kerr began directing staff to take various actions. In some cases, reportedly, he issued directives to Hart. In others, reportedly, he bypassed Hart, speaking with department heads or other staff members.
Under California general law and Adelano’s charter law, the city council is charged with formulating policy and then directing the city manager to use his administrative authority to direct the city’s department heads to institute the policy, change it or amend it, and/or take disciplinary action, promote or demote employees or terminate them. Section 609 of the Adelanto Municipal Charter forbids city council members or the mayor from directing the city manager to appoint or remove employees.
Kerr has since acknowledged that for the first several months of his tenure in office he had a misconception of the authority of the post he had been elected to and the extent and limits of that authority, sometimes blurring the distinction between his role and that of the city manager or even department heads.
By February, there was considerable frustration on the council at the city’s inability to get its arms around the looming financial crisis. With Kerr stepping up his pressure on Hart and staff, Hart abruptly took leave of his post, delivering the city’s state fo the city address on the afternoon of February 25 but not showing up at the city council meeting that evening. Within the next month, the city’s finance director Onyx Jones, likewise departed the city . Over the last two months, a collection of city residents, including ones close to Thomas as well as Carmargo along with both current and former employees began discussions about addressing alleged misconstructions of Kerr’s mayor authority and misapplications of such, as well as the either passive or active support that Wright, Woodard and Glasper had given him. Since that time, the group has armed themselves with a cache of internal city documents, including emails and memos that passed between Kerr and others. On that basis, members of the group allege, they believe a strong case can be made that Kerr routinely overstepped his authority and in fact broke the law. Last week, shortly after city public works director / city engineer Thomas Thornton, who had served as interim director city manager and was promoted to the position of actual city manager on May12, resigned that post to return to the post of city engineer/public works director, the collection of residents signaled they are ready to move forward with a recall effort that will definitely target Kerr and quite likely name Wright and Woodard as well.
Left open in this evolving development is whether the group will seek to have the district attorney’s office get involved in the mater. An important question in this regard is whether the district attorney’s office, which contains a public integrity unit, will consider engaging itself on the subject. Kerr’s actions, while violating perhaps provisions of the civil code and government code, are not violations per se, of the criminal code. Nor does the public integrity unit, while getting involved in matters of governance, such as political corruption and violations of the public trust, focus on issues that fall short of actual criminal activity.
Last week, those involved in the recall effort did seek to demonstrate that the council’s action fell into the criminal realm. On July 8, Adelanto resident Mark Smith summoned a sheriff’s deputy to City Hall in the midst of a council meeting to report “a violation of the city charter,” A San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy indeed responded but did not have the requisite understanding of the law or the city charter to ascertain if a violation had occurred. A report was taken involving allegations that the council was directing the firing of city employees.
Recall group members allege that Kerr, Woodard, Wright and perhaps Glasper had met covertly to discuss official city action outside the forum of agendized council meetings, a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law. During the course of those meetings, it is alleged, Kerr, Woodard and Wright formulated a strategy of paring city staff and subsequently directed Thornton to carry out hirings and firings. Evidence that has been marshaled to support this includes emails from Thornton to city attorney Todd Litfin. In those emails, which have now put Thornton, who is returned to the position of public works director, in Dutch with a majority of the city council. In those emails Thornton states that three of the council members appear to have gone “rogue” and are giving him improper orders and intruding “constantly with the day-to-day operations of the city.” Thornton bemoaned the motive and methodology the council majority was using to clean house at City Hall. He said the council probably had “the authority to eliminate positions [but that] it is my opinion based on many actions that have transpired since Dec 2014 that their reasons are personal in nature and not in any way connected with saving money,” Thornton stated.
Thornton expressed concern that directives outside the proper chain of command he had received to fire public works superintendent Nan Moore and senior planning management specialist Mike Borja would lead to a lawsuit against the city.
The Sentinel was unable to ascertain at this time the degree to which Thornton is cooperating with the recall proponents. It is possible his emails were provided to the recall movement by a third party.
The Sentinel has learned that another former employee, Belen Cordero, has said she was forced to resign after refusing to terminate certain of her colleagues. She said she witnessed Thornton being directed to fire some staff.
Unknown at this point is whether a recall effort will succeed. Historically, Adelanto has had more successful recall efforts in its 45 years of existence than any other city in San Bernardino County, experiencing a rash of such in the 1990s and early 2000s. .
What is at issue at this point is whether the recall advocates will be able to convince the requisite number of city residents to support calling for the recall question and then marshal adequate grounds to have a majority of those voting support the recall itself. At question would be with what degree of seriousness those residents view the action by Kerr and perhaps two or three of his council colleagues in seeking to hasten finance reform in the city where encroaching financial problems have pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. Voters in November supported a wholesale flushing of the elected leadership in favor of a more aggressive approach in reining in spending and Kerr’s action, while technically out of compliance with the city’s charter appears to have been part of an effort to meet the mandate voters had given him.

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