By Mark Gutglueck
Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren deleted all of the data from the computer at her work station before she abruptly resigned as the City of Upland’s assistant public works director last year, Upland city officials have confirmed.
Warren’s action in departing the employ of the City of Gracious Living put a troubling cap on her nearly quarter of a century as a municipal employee, leaving questions with regard to whether Upland taxpayers paid the freight for her political activity elsewhere.
Warren, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and attended Locke High School and graduated from Occidental College with a degree in political science and urban studies, initially began with the City of Upland in 1991 as a consultant in the housing department. She eventually went on to a position in the the Public Works Department, carrying out several assignments. She was given a management position in 1995 and then moved into the acting operations manager post in 1998, under then public works director Rob Turner. Warren was named the deputy public works director in 1999.
While employed with Upland, Warren was living in Fontana, where she signed on to become a member of the Village of Heritage Citizens Landscaping Committee. Later she was a member of the city of Fontana General Plan Advisory Committee.
In 2000, John Pomierski, who had been on the Upland Housing Board, was elected mayor of Upland. Warren, who was appointed to the city council in Fontana in 2002 and elected in her own right to that position twice and has been Fontana mayor since 2010, developed a political alliance with Pomierski.
As deputy public works director, Warren oversaw the city’s fleet and maintenance divisions, and was responsible for the crews that engaged in the upkeep of streets, sidewalks, parks, street trees and landscaping.
Her political position in Fontana did not hurt her professional career in Upland. A Republican despite hailing from blue collar Fontana, she fit in well with Upland’s political ethos and the political machine that had grown up around Pomierski, which included former council members Michael Libutti, Tom Thomas, Ken Willis and Brendan Brandt.
Indeed, Warren as a city employee involved herself to an uncommon degree in the politics of Upland, endorsing Pomierski in his bids for reelection and receiving his endorsement of her campaigns for council and mayor in Fontana. Militating on behalf of Pomierski entailed slighting another member of the city council, Ray Musser, who had first been elected to the council in 1998 and unsuccessfully opposed Pomierski in his 2004 and 2008 reelections. As a part of the Pomierski political machine, Warren played a central role in the 2009 effort by Pomierski to censure Musser after he made remarks about the good behavior of the crowd at the first Barack Obama inauguration which were deemed insensitive and insulting to African-Americans by some. Pomierski, along with Warren and councilman Willis, suggested that Musser had disgraced himself and the city and that he should resign. The tables turned, however, when Pomierski was indicted by a federal grand jury on political corruption charges in 2011. Musser was chosen by his colleagues to replace Pomierski after his resignation.
Warren survived Musser’s ascendency to the Upland mayoral slot, but that development attenuated the status she had previously enjoyed on the dual basis of her political position in Fontana and as member of Pomierski’s team.
Fortune continued to smile upon her, as a mere six weeks before Pomierski’s indictment, Upland’s then-finance director, Stephen Dunn, who had previously been the finance director in Fontana before coming to Upland in 2001, was elevated to the position of acting city manager. Four-and-half months later, he was elevated to the position of full-fledged city manager. Dunn was close to Warren and had served as her campaign treasurer. During his tenure as city manager, Dunn would serve as Warren’s protector of sorts. In Upland, only department heads are at-will employees, and all other city workers, including sub-department heads such as deputy public works director, had civil service protection, meaning that they could not be terminated without the recitation of well-documented cause subject to a hearing process. Dunn was able to blunt any council pressure aimed at forcing Warren out of her post.
In late 2013 and early 2014, however, relations between Dunn and Musser, who had long been Dunn’s strongest supporter on the council, soured, as did the relationship between Dunn and another council member, Glenn Bozar. By late spring 2014, with Dunn’s position as city manager growing increasingly untenable and his willingness to remain in place waning, he and the council forged a departure settlement in which the city agreed to pay him one year’s salary as a severance package and he officially departed as of June 2014.
Warren remained in place the remaining six months of 2014 but just eight days into the following year, on Thursday January 8, 2015, without any pre-announcement, she abruptly resigned as deputy public works director.
Shortly thereafter, there were reports that all of the information contained on her computer at City Hall had been erased. Inquiries as to whether that report was accurate elicited a series of non-responses from City Hall. Public works director Rosemary Hoernig, who had been Warren’s immediate supervisor, last year told the Sentinel she was unaware of any irregularities with regard to Warren’s computer, and that she assumed the information on it was intact. Similar inquiries with city management were met with semi-disavowals of the report that fell short of outright denials of its accuracy. Recently, however, Jeanette Vagnozzi, Upland’s deputy city manager and city clerk, informed the Sentinel that an examination of Warren’s computer revealed the hard drive had been “wiped clean.” Vagnozzi said that Warren had purged the computer of all of the data it contained with the assistance of one of the city’s information technology division employees but without the knowledge, consent or permission of the information technology division’s director, nor that of Hoernig nor the city manager.
While it is difficult if not impossible to determine the extent and value of the deleted data, its loss potentially represents a liability to the city in the range of several hundred thousand dollars to upwards of three million dollars, as the documentation of and extent of certain public improvement and maintenance projects is no longer available, resulting in mystery or opacity with regard to what work or maintenance has or has not been completed and potentially leading to the failure or breakdown of city infrastructure and assets or wasteful redundancy of already completed work or efforts.
Destruction, theft or alteration of public records, including emails, is subject to statutory penalties including imprisonment and fines. Public officers with custody of records, maps, books, or court papers or proceedings who willfully steal, remove, secrete, destroy, mutilate, deface, alter or falsify any part of such records or permit any other person to do so are subject to imprisonment pursuant to section 1170(h) of the Penal Code for two, three or four years.
For more than thirteen years, an issue that attended Warren’s employment in Upland was the degree to which her political position in Fontana interfered with her function as a municipal employee. Her duties and responsibilities as an elected official, such as events in Fontana or meetings of agencies or boards to which she was appointed as an adjunct to her council position, sometimes presented scheduling conflicts for her as these occasionally took place during the business hours in which her physical presence in Upland was required or at least expected. Given her positive relationship with Pomierski, these were easily resolved or overlooked. Upon being elected mayor in Fontana, however, the demands on her time and presence increased, since as mayor she was called upon to participate in groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies and to attend the first-Wednesday-of-the- month meetings of San Bernardino County’s transportation agency, the San Bernardino Association of Governments, known by its acronym, SANBAG. Those meetings normally begin at 10 a.m. and continue on occasion into the afternoon. In addition to the time during the traditional work week when Warren was away from Upland, there was further concern that the City of Upland and its residents were getting shortchanged as a consequence of multitasking she might have been engaged in when she was at work, that is, fielding phone calls or engaging in on-line communications pertaining to the City of Fontana. Former city manager Dunn said a protocol had been put in place to allow her to divert her time as needed to issues relating to her function as a city councilwoman and later mayor, while ensuring that the time was strictly accounted for and that Warren after hours or on Friday, when Upland City Hall was not open to the public, caught up on her various assignments. There was, nonetheless, uncertainty as to whether Warren adhered to that protocol. One of the reasons the erasure of data from her work station computer has left Warren under a cloud is that the data offered, before it was destroyed, a window on Warren’s activity at Upland City Hall. This has opened her to the insinuation that she was allowing the taxpayers of Upland to subsidize her political career.
Of further note is that Warren’s serving in the simultaneous capacities of mayor in one jurisdiction and as a public employee in a nearby jurisdiction resulted in more than scheduling conflicts, but ethical and legal ones as well.
In 2013, Warren stepped into controversy when, in her capacity as Upland’s deputy public works director she recommended that the city extend its existing trash hauling franchise contract with Burrtec Industries, which had at that point held the franchise for more than a dozen years. As a councilwoman and mayor in Fontana, as well as a candidate for the California Assembly, Warren had received campaign contributions from Burrtec, its owners and its employees. And while under California law as an elected official in Fontana she was permitted to vote on approving Burrtec’s trash hauling franchise in that city, participating in or contributing to the decision-making process with regard to any of her campaign donors while she was serving in a non-elected capacity with a government entity, as she had done in Upland with regard to Burrtec, is prohibited.
Warren also moved out on exceedingly thin legal ice when as a councilwoman and mayor in Fontana, she voted to approve that city’s labor contract with the San Bernardino Public Employees Association pertaining to Fontana’s employees who belong to that union. Warren, as an Upland city employee, was herself a member of the San Bernardino Public Employees Association, which represented Upland’s rank and file in its collective bargaining with that city.
Under Pomierski, extremely generous salary and benefits had been conferred upon Upland employees. There have been suggestions that this was an act of collective corruption involving a wide cross section of Upland employees and their union, whose silence was being bought with regard to Pomierski’s depredations, which prominently featured shaking down individuals and businesses with projects, applications, pending approvals or proposals at City Hall.
The shadow of suspicion in this regard fell over Warren, who was not only “in the loop” at City Hall but one of Pomierski’s personal and political associates.
Musser’s ascendancy in Upland represented a major blow to Warren’s professional residency in the City of Gracious Living, taken together with the accumulations of questions relating to her, her alliances, associations and actions.
Warren’s exodus came as she was approaching an acceptable retirement age but while she was yet young enough, 57, to remain at her post for another five to ten years and thereby enhance her pension. She jumped the Upland ship just as the city council and city manager Rod Butler appeared to be girding themselves for a round of staff reductions, including the termination of some city department heads and/or higher ranking members of those departments. Though there was no firm indication that Warren’s head was on the chopping block, there was a widespread perception that she calculated that it would be better for her to leave at that time on her own terms rather than on terms that were dictated to her by others.
Efforts by the Sentinel to induce her, by means of phone calls to her office and written questions submitted to her by email, to explain if her departure was one of her own choosing and, if so, what considerations went into that decision were unsuccessful. Nor did she respond to questions about whether her departure from Upland was suggested to her, in some fashion forced on her or presented to her as an ultimatum.
Shortly after her departure Councilman Gino Filippi said he suspected Warren was unhappy with the situation at City Hall and that she was “fed up” with the council’s demands upon staff and the imposition of economies on city operations across the board.
This week, Stephen Dunn offered his assessment and perspective, saying that some time before his departure Warren was privately discussing leaving the city. “This didn’t just come out of the blue,” Dunn said. “She had been considering it for a while. It just took her some time to line everything up.”
Dunn dismissed any suggestions that Warren had been forced out.
“This was entirely her own idea,” he said, adding she had civil service protection that would have required that the city specify those areas of her function deemed inadequate and allow her to redress any alleged shortcomings within a specified period of time. If she failed to meet that goal, only then would the city have been allowed, he said, under the civil service system to take the matter to a hearing in which the burden would be upon the city to demonstrate that there were adequate grounds to fire her. Dunn said he did not believe the city could not have met such a burden.
In seeking to explain what he believed was Warren’s motivation for leaving, Dunn said, “She just got tired. She was in charge of the most visible part of the public works department, our roads, streets, sidewalks and the trees. All of those areas have been underfunded for a long time. Almost all of the city’s money is eaten up by public safety – the police department and fire department. So very little of what she was told to do was getting done because she wasn’t provided with adequate funding to do it. She just decided she’d had enough. That’s really all there was to it.”
By Mark Gutglueck