Once The Most Stable Of Cities Politically, Victorville Descending Toward Chaos

A generation after Victorville exploited its political stability and cohesiveness to seize the day, seize the future, seize the Golden Triangle, take control of Southern California Logistics Airport, establish itself as an economic powerhouse as the host to the lion’s share of commercial activity in the Victor Valley and generally outmaneuver and outhustle the other municipalities in the High Desert, it has over the last decade made a gradual descent into political divisiveness now bordering on chaos.
So contentious is the atmosphere that at council meetings, an extra contingent of sheriff’s deputies are now routinely on hand to maintain order and prevent riots from breaking out within the council meeting chambers.
Victorville’s transition from the High Desert’s premier municipality to its present state would make a fascinating study in political science. It is difficult to know whether the change represents a function of the personalities of several mavericks and political outsiders who managed to get elected to the council in the last several election cycles or an organic transition in a city that has grown in population to well over 120,000, making it the second largest city behind Palmdale in both the Mojave Desert and all of California’s deserts, the fifth largest city population-wise in San Bernardino County and the 48th largest city in California.
Victorville was the third city, after first Needles and then Barstow, to be incorporated in San Bernardino County’s expansive desert, having formalized its existence as a municipality in 1962. It beat neighboring Adelanto, which incorporated in 1970, to the punch, as well as neighboring Hesperia and Apple Valley, both incorporated in 1988, and the much more distant Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley, which incorporated in 1987 and 1991. Victorville used its maturity and governmental organization to facilitate development and economic expansion. In competing with Hesperia, for example, in bringing in major retailers and thus capturing the accompanying sales tax revenue, Victorville facilitated the efforts of shopping center developers by being both proactively and passively receptive to development proposals, particularly along Bear Valley Road, the major thoroughfare that divides the two communities east of the 15 Freeway. In this way, much of the north side of Bear Valley Road is almost entirely built out with stores of all types, restaurants and to a lesser extent offices and professional service providers. The south side, belonging to Hesperia, is host to far fewer and far less intense commercial operations. Similarly, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, shortly after Hesperia incorporated and made a move to annex the so-called “Golden Triangle” consisting of the three-sided district formed between the intersection of Highway 395 and the 15 Freeway, west and east, and Bear Valley Road to the north, Victorville used both its administrative sophistication and the political wherewithal it had as a consequence of its bureaucratic maturity to outgun Hesperia. Hesperia’s effort to place the triangle, with its prime commercial properties fronting the well-travelled freeway and state highway, in its jurisdiction failed and Victorville laid claim to it and the bonanza of tax revenue it provides.
When the Department of Defense shuttered George Air Force Base in 1992, Adelanto, which was the jurisdiction most proximate to the aerodrome, sought to take on possession of the base property with a proposal for the civilian conversion of the facility. But Victorville floated a competing proposal, which it did in conjunction with the County of San Bernardino and the City of Hesperia and Town of Apple Valley under the auspices of a joint powers effort, the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority. Adelanto found itself disadvantaged by the tremendous internal political rivalry it was plagued with, which essentially divided along the lines of those supporting Ed Dondelinger, a retired flight line sergeant at George Air Force who became Adelanto mayor, and Pat Chamberlaine, one of the original members of the Adelanto City Council who had acceded to become Adelanto city manager. The Dondelinger and Chamberlaine forces warred with one another, resulting in wave upon wave of recall efforts, many of them successful and resulting in one side and then the other temporarily prevailing over its rival and an ongoing accompanying lack of continuity and stability. During the 15-year time frame from 1990 to 2005, Victorville was ruled by eight council members who had few, if any substantial conflicts or disagreements. In the same time frame, Adelanto had more than 25 council members, some of whom did not remain in office for more than a year. Ultimately, because Victorville was able to offer, through the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority, a more cogent and coordinated takeover plan, the Department of Defense granted Victorville control of the base, which Victorville now administers as Southern California Logistics Airport.
Victorville continued to bask in an atmosphere of political stability beyond the millennial transition. In 2008, however, in the last throes of the Bill Postmus political dynasty, Postmus, the one-time chairman of the county board of supervisors who simultaneously served as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, threw his support behind Ryan McEachron after Postmus had a falling out with one of his former allies, incumbent Victorville Councilman Bob Hunter. McEachron did not enjoy the endorsement and support of much of the rest, or any, of the political establishment other than Postmus and his supporters, who were nonetheless substantial. Hunter was one of three incumbents vying for reelection in the race, the other two being longtime councilman Mike Rothschild and Rudy Cabriales, who was Victorvillle’s one-time fire chief and a darling of the Victorville political establishment. In the eight-candidate November 2008 race, Cabriales and Rothschild cruised to victory with 17.45 percent and 17.04 percent of the vote, respectively. McEachron outdistanced Hunter 15.85 percent to 13.03 percent.
McEachron’s victory marked the beginning of the end of Victorville’s political stability. The campaign between McEachron and Hunter had been a particularly hard fought and bitter one, with political hit pieces against McEachron having landed in voters’ mailboxes in the final stages of the race when the existing political establishment began to perceive him as a viable threat to Hunter. And though after McEachron was elected Hunter’s support network would make a grudging adjustment and reposition itself to make up with McEachron, offer him support as the newest member of the establishment and provide him with money as a favorite son in future campaigns, the code of civility that had accompanied the stability in Victorville had been breached. Two years later, in 2010, Terry Caldwell, who had been on the city council for 37 years, chose not to seek reelection. JoAnn Almond, who in 2006 had been reelected to four more years on the council with no effort whatsoever when no one ran against her and Caldwell, became the second incumbent turned out of office in as many election cycles when she was defeated by Victor Valley College Board Member Angela Valles. Jim Kennedy, another political newcomer was also elected with Caldwell’s endorsement. Upon taking her place on the Victorville council dais, Valles garnered a reputation as a political outsider perennially cast as a dissident challenging the status quo. She found herself crossing swords with Rothschild, McEachron and especially Cabriales. Saying she saw City Hall as tainted by “corruption and kickbacks,” she distinguished herself from her council colleagues, fighting them, if not at every turn, on a number of major issues. She alleged cronyism between the city’s elected officials and city staff, accusing the council of giving city employees raises while failing to make bond payments. She took major issue with Cabriales voting on a contract with the chamber of commerce when his wife was the executive director there. Under Valles’ withering attack and the criminal complaints she lodged against Cabriales, he chose to not run for reelection in 2012. Rothschild, who had been in office for 24 years, was defeated in that year’s race. Cabriales and Rothschild were replaced with Jim Cox, Victorville’s former longtime city manager, and Gloria Garcia.
In 2014, Valles did not run for reelection and was replaced by Eric Negrete, while Kennedy was reelected. In 2016, Cox and Garcia garnered reelection but McEachron found himself on the outside looking in when he was outdistanced by two of the seven challengers in the race, Lionel Dew and Blanca Gomez. While the early returns and initial unofficial results favored Dew, in the end Gomez prevailed with 8,628 votes, or 14.12 percent, to Dew’s 8,224, or 13.45 percent. McEachron polled 7,394 votes or 12.1 percent.
In a harbinger of what was to come, Gomez insisted upon being sworn into office by Valles on December 6, 2016. Almost immediately Gomez was emulating Valles in her role as the pepper in the pie or the skunk at the garden party, at engaging in what was for the rest of the council a minor irritant of not abiding by established meeting procedure and protocols. Initially, the council seemed understanding of her lack of familiarity with the process, such as wanting to initiate action that had not been agendized. But Gomez was soon at odds with nearly everyone, including her seeming mentor Valles. She sought to have the council proceedings translated in real time for Spanish speakers. The council resisted. On December 29 she attended a meeting in Rialto put on by newly elected Rialto Councilman Rafael Trujillo at which an effort to have Rialto declared a sanctuary city was the topic. This rubbed her council colleagues the wrong way, based on the perception she was using her status to support a cause the council as a whole did not support. Indeed, Gomez’s advocacy of immigration rights and her Democratic Party affiliation put her out of step with Valles, a Republican who last year made a run for county supervisor using a platform calling for greater vetting of and restrictions on immigrants into the United States.
While Cox, Garcia and Kennedy endeavored to remain on collegial terms with Gomez, early on an enmity developed between Gomez and Negrete. Negrete was critical of Gomez’s open immigration advocacy, saying creating sanctuary cities would interfere with federal efforts to control immigration. The relationship between Gomez and the remainder of the council deteriorated, brought on in gradual steps as the council vetoed her first appointment to the planning commission, then rejected her second choice and then her third choice. By January, the contretemps had escalated to include Garcia, who is now serving as mayor.
Gomez is not without her support base in the community, and the council meetings are now being attended by at least a handful of those supporters who have no hesitancy in being vocal in that support. This has, on occasion, exasperated Garcia, who seems fixated particularly, in preserving the decorum of the meetings. Over the last several council meetings she has made liberal use of her gavel and repeatedly declared, somewhat ineffectively, that Gomez is, and her supporters are, out of order. As a precaution, two and sometimes three sheriff’s deputies are on hand in the council chambers to ward off the possibility that the heated verbal exchanges might go physical.
This week, the council took up an agenda item proposed by Negrete calling for the “discussion and possible action regarding [the] censure process.” Negrete said it was his intent that Gomez be the object of the censure. “This council has been distracted from our solemn duty to serve the residents of Victorville by the conduct of council member Gomez,” Negrete said. “We are being subjected to the unprofessional, unproductive and petty conduct council member Gomez has displayed at every single meeting since joining the council.” Negrete called on his colleagues to make an “official statement of disapproval of Ms. Gomez’s conduct.”
Calling Negrete’s proposal “fascist and undemocratic,” Gomez threatened legal action, without specifying the grounds for such a suit. “If this passes, I will be bringing a lawsuit,” she said. She said she wanted to initiate her own censure of her colleagues and requested the city attorney “take this off the calendar. As a point of privilege I ask to table this for a future agenda.”
Ever the diplomat seeking a compromise or middle ground, councilman Kennedy made a motion to table the motion to censure Gomez and instead refer the censure to the city attorney to determine if the city had to have a policy relating to censures before initiating one. Gomez seconded that motion and the council supported that course rather than calling for the censure immediately.
In the public comment portion of the meeting that ensued, there were residents who spoke either in support of Gomez or in support of the council majority. Some encouraged her to remain committed to her role as a dissident and others said she had disgraced herself and the city and should resign.
Word on the street late this week is that Gomez’s political rivals have recruited her ex-husband to assist them in derailing her political career by alleging she is no longer in residence at their former domicile in Victorville, but rather living in Adelanto. –Mark Gutglueck

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