By Carlos Avalos and Mark Gutglueck
FONTANA–A close-knit group of the people Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren represents is seeking to remove her from office.
Alleging the 60-year-old leader of the city council “has not performed her duties as mayor of Fontana with the best interests of her constituents in mind and continues to waste taxpayers’ money to try and further her own political interests and ambitions,” the residents gathered over fifty signatures endorsing the process for undoing the results of Warren’s 2014 election.
A mere 20 valid signatures of Fontana’s registered voters were required to initiate the recall undertaking. There are two further steps in the process, however, both of which are daunting. Warren’s removal from office can only be effectuated if a recall question is put on a citywide ballot and at least fifty percent plus one of those voting endorse her removal. But even before the recall question is put on the ballot, those seeking her ouster must clear an even higher bar by gathering the valid signatures of 11,186 of Fontana’s registered voters. By state law, a recall in a city of Fontana’s size, with a population of roughly 204,000 and 79,060 registered voters as of last week, requires that 15 percent of the jurisdiction’s registered voters endorse the petition. Because of the formidable task of gathering that number of signatures, recall efforts in California have historically had only marginal success.
Nevertheless, the core of Warren-recall advocates, calling themselves Inland Empire First, feel they have a particularly strong and convincing case to make against her. Over the years, she has made a number of questionable, indeed problematic, political alliances with figures outside the city, and has built her political machine within Fontana by engaging in political horse trading involving sponsoring and promoting candidates amenable to her political agenda and opposing others who retain favor with a sizeable percentage of the city’s population. She made an unsuccessful stab at attaining higher office a little more than six years ago, which exposed her vulnerability and brought her into close association with wealthy donors whose developmental or entrepreneurial agendas are at odds with a wide cross section of her constituents.
According to the recall proponents, “Mayor Acquanetta Warren has received political contributions totaling $100,000 to ensure that the desires of special interest groups and land developers come before the needs of Fontana residents and she has supported reckless residential and warehouse development which has downgraded the quality of life, decreased neighborhood safety, overcrowded our schools, increased traffic and increased air pollution for Fontana residents.”
Under her watch, the recall proponents say, “both violent and property crimes including arson, mailbox theft and gang-related murders have increased in our city and neighborhoods while Mayor Warren has supported subsidizing nearby cities, namely Rialto, Colton and Redlands, with Fontana public safety programs on the backs of Fontana taxpayers, putting Fontana residents in danger.”
Moreover, those who want her removed say, Warren has failed in her elected role to ensure government accountability and that “wasteful spending is out of control” in their city. Emblematic of this, the recall proponents assert, is that “Mayor Warren regularly takes expensive trips at taxpayers’ expense, costing Fontana residents $10,000 annually, with no reporting for how it benefits Fontana.”
Warren grew up in South Central Los Angeles and attended Locke High School, from which she graduated a semester early. She took her first major stride toward a political career by attending Occidental College and majoring in political science and minoring in urban studies, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1978. Her first significant job was as a product manager for Lloyds Banking Group, a position she held from April 1981 until April 1986. She then landed a job as a vice president with First Interstate Bank, remaining there from April 1986 until April 1991. Her career trajectory then plummeted what might be considered two or three steps downward, at least temporarily, when she left First Interstate to become a consultant in the City of Upland’s housing department. After languishing in that spot for two years, she transitioned into a position in the City of Gracious Living’s public works department, where she saw her career advance as a consequence of her relationship with the man who would become her patron-of-sorts in Upland, then public works director Rob Turner. She was given a low-rung management position in 1995 and then moved into the acting operations manager post in 1998, largely upon the recommendation of Turner. In 1999, Warren was named Upland’s deputy public works director.
Residentially, Warren would make a number of progressions from the time she was a high school student taking occasional college classes until she reached Fontana, starting in Compton on both Compton Avenue and 130th Street; Anaheim, in an apartment on Orangethorpe Avenue; Downey, on Bellflower Boulevard; and hence on to Fontana. In Fontana, 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, while she was working for the City of Upland, two individuals who would prove key to Warren’s political advancement were elected: John Pomierski, to the position of Upland mayor, and Bill Postmus, as First District San Bernardino County supervisor.
In 2002, when a vacancy on the Fontana City Council occurred, Warren was appointed to fill the two-year gap. Able to run as an incumbent in 2004, she was elected in her own right to that position, and was then reelected in 2008. In both cases, those elections corresponded with Pomerski’s run for reelection as Upland mayor. The two endorsed each other.
In the meantime, Postmus’ political career was advancing. In 2004, he scored a political hat trick, being reelected as supervisor, being elevated by his board colleagues to the position of board chairman, and advancing to the position of chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee.
Warren was a relative rarity: an African-American Republican woman who was also an office-holder. As such, she was an ideal ally to Postmus, who as the head of the Republican Party in San Bernardino County, was constantly seeking a means of warding off charges that the GOP was hostile to both minorities and women. He embraced Warren and she was equally willing to accept his enthusiastic endorsement and whatever political campaigning largesse Postmus could funnel her way. In return, she endorsed him.
Similarly, in Upland, the symbiosis that had developed early on between Warren and Pomierski, another Republican, intensified. Aligning herself politically with Pomierski, who was the ultimate boss of her boss in Upland, was an adroit move, at least initially. To a very real extent, Warren came to serve as Pomierski’s cat’s paw. In 2009, after both endorsed each other in their respective reelections the previous year, hers for city council in Fontana and his for mayor in Upland where he held off a challenge by Upland Councilman Ray Musser, Warren lent her voice, indeed became the loudest and shrillest in the chorus, denouncing Musser in the aftermath of a statement he had made regarding the crowd at the Barack Obama inaugural in January 2009 many considered patronizing and which Warren characterized, somewhat hyperbolically, as racist. While Musser hunkered down under this withering attack, Pomierski moved to further neuter him politically, stripping him of any remaining adjunct committee or governmental appointments he had as a council member.
In relatively short order, however, both Postmus and Pomierski would experience dramatic falls from political grace.
In 2008, revelations about Postmus’ drug use and abuse of his political office began; then worsened in 2009 with his arrest for possession of drugs and his resignation from the post of county assessor to which he had acceded in 2007; followed by the filing of a total of 15 criminal charges against him in 2009 and 2010 relating to bribery, conspiracy, misappropriation, conflict of interest, the illicit use of public facilities and resources for partisan purposes, perjury and narcotics possession. In 2011 he entered guilty pleas to all counts.
In June 2010, more than a dozen FBI and IRS agents descended upon Upland City Hall while a similar number served search warrants at Pomierski’s home, his construction company’s headquarters and the homes and offices of his business associates. In February 2011, Pomeirski resigned from office and in March 2012 he was indicted and charged with extorting individuals with permit or project applications pending at Upland City Hall. In April 2012, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in a federal prison.
Just as Postmus and Pomierski were spiraling down, Warren used her accumulated political capital to springboard from the city council to the Fontana mayoralty in 2010.
And while her ascendency to the mayor’s post put her into an enviable position of authority, Warren has been embattled ever since, with the constant surfacing of questions about the propriety and legality of her actions.
In Upland, Pomeierski’s demise was accompanied by the advancement of his only political rival over the previous decade, Ray Musser, whom the city council, chastened by what had befallen Pomierski, voted to designate Musser as the mayoral replacement. Musser was then elected mayor by Upland’s citizens in the 2012 election. This put Warren into a very delicate position, as her political calculations in 2004 and 2008 to endorse Pomierski over Musser and her subsequent role as Pomierski’s political attack dog had come back to haunt her. Musser, essentially, proved magnanimous in his ascension, publicly maintaining a show of cordiality toward Warren, with whom he served on several regional governmental panels. But in her Upland position and as a consequence of her dual roles as an employee in one municipality and an elected official in another, Warren repeatedly stepped into controversy and worse.
As an Upland employee serving in a capacity below that of management, Warren was considered a rank-and-file employee, and as such was a member of and represented by the San Bernardino Public Employee Association. Similarly, Fontana’s rank-and-file municipal employees were represented by the same association. Rather than recuse herself from approving the employee contracts arrived at through the collective bargaining agreement process between Fontana’s human resources/personnel division and the San Bernardino Public Employees Association, Warren voted with the rest of the city council to approve them, a highly questionable action, bordering on illegality.
As mayor of Fontana and in her 2010 run for the Assembly, Warren accepted political donations from Burrtec Industries, which held, and continues to hold, the franchise for trash hauling in both Fontana and Upland, among over a dozen other communities in San Bernardino where it also holds franchises. And while state conflict of interest law, as codified in California’s Government Code and the Political Reform Act of 1974, allows her to legally vote on or approve items relating to a project, permit or contract relating to a campaign donor, such as the franchise contract Burrtec has in Fontana while functioning as an elected member of the city council or mayor there, Warren is and was precluded from voting on or participating in a vote impacting a campaign donor when she is serving in an appointed, or non-elected, capacity. Yet Warren did just that when, as Upland’s assistant public works director, she made a recommendation to the Upland City Council, during the forum of a city finance committee meeting in 2013, to extend Burrtec’s franchise contract with the City of Upland. In 2014, the City Council followed her recommendation and approved that contract extension.
Warren’s survivability in Upland was in no small measure based upon the favorable relationship she had with Stephen Dunn, who had been an employee in the Fontana finance department beginning in the 1980s, throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. He had established a familiarity and then a friendship with Warren before he left Fontana to become Upland’s finance director. With the unfolding of the Pomierski scandal, Dunn was moved into the interim city manager’s post in January 2011 and then elevated to the position of permanent city manager in June 2011.
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 the 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.
By 2014, Dunn had fallen into disfavor with a majority of the Upland City Council and departed in June of that year under mutually acceptable terms, including a full year’s severance pay conferred upon him. Without Dunn’s protection, Warren found herself in an increasingly untenable position in Upland. She 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.
It would eventually be revealed that 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. The purging of that data took place without the consent of then-Upland City Manager Rod Butler or Upland’s director of public works. City officials initially offered no comment on the erasure, but in early 2016 at last acknowledged it had taken place. Warren had, city officials said, “wiped clean” her computer’s hard drive 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. Warren’s action had criminal implication in that 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. Upland officials, however, said they had not asked the police department to carry out an investigation into the matter nor would they seek criminal review by the district attorney’s office.
In Fontana, Warren was able to retain a firm hold on the scepter she wielded. Her power does not seem to extend beyond the jurisdiction in which she holds primacy, however. In 2010, prior to her run for mayor, Warren sought higher office, vying for the Republican nomination against seven others in the District 63 Assembly race. She placed fourth among the seven candidates.
A demonstration of her security within the realm of her incumbency came in the 2014 election. For that contest, Warren pulled down $173,622 in donations for her reelection bid. That included $10,000 from Hae Park, the owner of the Bel Air Swap Meet, $50,000 from Reggie King, $10,000 from YKA Development Group President Yoon Kim, $2,500 from Lewis Investment Company of Upland, $5,000 from Frontier Finance Company of Rancho Cucamonga, $3,000 from Burrtec Waste Systems, $5,000 from the San Bernardino Professional Firefighters Association, $15,000 from F.F. Gomez, Inc. of Whittier, $10,000 from Richland Management of Irvine, $10,000 from David Wiener, and $2,500 from Kirk Jensen of Upland.
In the 2014 Fontana mayoral contest, Warren demonstrated her primacy, handily turning back a challenge against her by former Congressman Joe Baca and three others. She outpolled Baca, 10,773 votes, or 60.57 percent, to 3,364 votes, or 18.91 percent.
A veneer of cooperation has long existed among the members of the Fontana City Council, with more than ninety percent of the council’s votes on routine items and even ones of minor controversy passing 5-0. Nonetheless, Warren has sought to consolidate her hold on the city and its politics. Previously, she had engaged in a certain degree of political networking, including facilitating candidacies for the Fontana School Board. This year, she put on a more energetic effort toward becoming Fontana’s political queenpin, actively supporting candidates not only for the school board, but promoting the candidacy of Jesse Armendarez for city council. Warren was instrumental in getting many of the well-heeled campaign donors who had supported her in the past to contribute to Armendarez’s effort. Armendarez was able to fashion a relatively narrow victory – 15,095 votes or 18.4 percent to 14,133 votes or 17.23 percent – over incumbent councilwoman Lydia Salazar-Wibert in the November election featuring ten candidates vying for two open positions. The other incumbent in the race, Jesus Sandoval, gained reelection. Armendarez’s victory gives Warren, who can count on the steadfast support of councilman John Roberts, command over the city council.
The election consigned Salazar-Wibert, the closest thing Fontana had to a dissident council member, to outsider status. The defeat of Salazar-Wibert, however, may have come at a price for Warren. Salazar-Wibert had a pronounced and faithful core of supporters in Fontana, most or perhaps all of whom have been galvanized by Warren’s militating against their candidate. Some of Salazar-Wibert’s supporters are now active in the recall effort against Warren.
The Sentinel’s repeated efforts to obtain from Warren comment on the recall effort against her, consisting of phone calls to her home and her City Hall office elicited no response by press time.
This is not the first effort by Fontana residents to remove Warren from office. In 2011, a recall attempt targeted the entire city council, including Warren. The committee supporting the recall fell far short of gathering the necessary number of signatures.
Karen Coleman, one of the prime movers in the current Warren recall effort, told the Sentinel that she recognized the recall proponents have a daunting task before them to meet the threshold of citizen support to trigger the recall question against the mayor. She said she and others are “committed to seeing this through because we still believe in transparency and integrity.”
According to Inland Empire First, “Mayor Warren is not willing to have the hard conversations that a mayor must have with people in the community. She lacks the integrity needed to be a mayor because she does not work well with those on the right or the left of the political spectrum. If she is opposed she is right and who ever opposes her is wrong. She is unfit to be in any type of governmental role.”
By Carlos Avalos and Mark Gutglueck