A “perfect political storm” of events has the City of Upland teetering on the brink of a meltdown, upsetting or threatening old political alliances and undercutting existing ones, played against a backdrop of palace intrigue and the manifestation of unintended consequences that are growing beyond the grasp of any of the players and the span of control of the city council or city management.
The catalyst in the current crisis is the commitment by the council earlier this year to disband its 111-year old municipal fire department.
For years, Upland has been beset by dysfunctional politics and governance. The most pronounced manifestation of this dysfunction was the scandal that embroiled the city’s former mayor, John Pomierski, who reigned over the city with an iron fist from his election in 2000 until he resigned in February 2010. That resignation proceeded by two days his indictment by a federal grand jury, which charged him with bribery based upon an established pattern of shaking down individuals with project proposals or otherwise having business pending before the city. Pomierski ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Also caught up in the matter was the man Pomierski had handpicked to serve as his city manager during his final five years in office, Robb Quincey. Ultimately, Quincey was convicted, as well, not in federal court but in state court, again on charges pertaining to political corruption and violations of the public trust. There were a multitude of casualties along the way, including the city manager Quincey replaced, Mike Milhiser, and the city’s then-police chief, Martin Thouvenell. By virtue of their positions, Milhiser and Thouvenell had an inkling of what Pomierski was up to and were among the first elements in the community to resist his designs. But Pomierski was able to use his political lock over three-fourths of the city council, which included at various times during his tenure a member of the district attorney’s office who would go on to become a Superior Court judge and another attorney who was a partner in a prestigious law firm, to give both Milhiser and Thouvenell the bum’s rush out the door.
Upland, or most certainly that portion of it lying north of Foothill Blvd., is one of the more upscale communities in San Bernardino County, with thousands of high-functioning professionals of all types living there. Nevertheless, that level of sophistication has not been reflected in many of its council members, few of whom have had any degree of sophistication commensurate with the lion’s share of those they have ruled. Blunders and worse by city staff, including outright venalities, have gone unaddressed by both previous and current city councils. During Pomierski’s unfettered reign, his sole political opposition consisted of Ray Musser, who had been elected to the city council in 1998, two years before Pomierski’s ascendency to elected office. Both instinctively and on the basis of his observations, Musser would eventually attempt to block, or at least retard, the Pomierski juggernaut. Musser proved famously unsuccessful at doing so. Shortly after he held the mayoral scepter in his hand, Pomierski had formed “Team Upland.” He fitted all of the city council members with Upland High School lettermen’s jackets, which they then wore in public together to symbolize their consonance. Pomierski was clearly the ringleader, the political boss of a Tammany Hall-type set up that included Tom Thomas, who had been on the city council since 1990 and had been put in his place in the 2000 mayoral election when he had placed third, with 4,970 votes or 21.3 percent to Pomierski’s 10,555 votes or 45. 2 percent; Ken Willis, who had also come into office in 2000 while supporting councilwoman Sue Sundell for mayor, who placed second in the race against Pomierski; and Michael Libutti, who was then a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. Even Musser, as an incumbent, was brought into the fold, at least initially. Milhiser, who had two decades of experience in managing municipal operations in Upland, Ontario and in Montclair before that, was directed to comport his management style with that dictated by the council and the council was dictated to by Pomierski. When Libutti was elevated to the Superior Court to succeed Lou Glazier in May 2002 by Governor Gray Davis, the support network around Pomierski promoted Brendan Brandt, an established attorney who was the son of superstar lawyer Barry Brandt and the brother of Brian Brandt, another successful attorney, to succeed Libutti. Like Libutti before him, Brandt’s presence on the council gave the Pomierski political machine the appearance of respectability and legal leverage along with the cachet of invulnerability it needed to proceed with its depredations. At that point, Musser, up for reelection in 2002, had not strayed off, or very far off, the reservation and he too was embraced as an ally. Two years later, however, Musser had begun to question what it was that Pomierski was up to and had grown to become the skunk at Pomierski’s garden party. He then challenged Pomierski in the 2004 election, giving the incumbent a run for his money – and the money of dozens of individuals willing to pay Pomierski under the table or provide him with bribes and kickbacks laundered as political contributions. But Pomierski was able to outdistance the challenger, 14,528 votes or 53.72 percent to 11,605 votes, or 46.8 percent. At once, Pomierski and his confederates on the council set about extracting their revenge, stripping Musser of all of his committee and joint powers authority assignments, seeking to neuter him politically. The following year, Pomierski gave Milhiser and Thovenell the heave-ho, at which point he in earnest set about looting Upland seven ways from Sunday. The more money he brought in, the better he was able to insulate himself from any possible accountability. He endorsed the district attorney, Mike Ramos, with whom he shared donors. Ramos, who was informed as early as 2005 about the intensive pay-to-play ethos that had beset Upland, looked the other way, and when Musser once again challenged Pomierski in 2008, Ramos along with Brandt, Willis and Thomas, endorsed Pomierski, who cruised to an even more decisive victory over Musser that year, 15,971 votes or 57.4 percent to 11,853 or 42.6 percent. Pomierski allowed a nepotistic arrangement in which Stephanie Mendenhall continued to function as city clerk, even as her husband, Jeff Mendenhall rose meteorically from the position of sergeant in the police department to lieutenant, then captain, then penultimately while Pomierski was yet in office, to acting police chief and ultimately, following Pomierski’s departure, police chief. Pomierski also arranged to provide Quincey, as city manager, with the same raises calculated along the same percentages as those provided to members of the police department. He then put Quincey in charge of collective bargaining with the police union. Stephanie Mendenhall, as city clerk, processed eight raises provided to Quincey, several of them provided to him under highly questionable circumstances, without, in at least two cases, a full vote of the city council but rather merely upon the authority of Pomierski’s signature. This gave Quincey a series of salary and benefit enhancements such that by January 2011 he was receiving a base salary and add-ons of $368,529 with benefits of $92,096, for a total annual compensation of $460,625, making him among the highest paid city managers in the state. The corresponding salary increases the members of the police department were receiving left them disinclined to pursue investigations of Pomierski, despite the constant rumors and reports that he was on the take. Having essentially bought off the police department and the district attorney, Pomierski was at liberty to enrich himself further and build his political machine. By 2010, however, word of the situation in Upland and the local authorities’ unwillingness to act reached the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles. On June 10 of that year, FBI and IRS agents raided Upland City Hall, Pomierski’s home and the offices of Pomierski’s contracting business and the offices and homes of several of his associates. In February 2011, knowing that his indictment by a federal grand jury was coming just a few days later, Pomierski resigned. Willis and Brandt, clearly flummoxed and chastened by what had just occurred with their political boss and whistling past the political graveyard themselves, eventually settled, after a suggestion that Brandt should succeed Pomierski as mayor, on elevating Musser to the mayoralty. That vote barely passed, as the councilman who in the 2010 election had displaced Thomas, Gino Filippi, refused to support Musser. Later that year, in August, Upland held a special election to fill the council seat that Musser had vacated to replace Pomierski. Eleven candidates, Thouvenell among them, ran in that race, which manifested and continues to redound as a watershed event in Upland. Despite his legitimate claim to being one of the few bulwarks against Pomierski, Thouvenell found himself paradoxically endorsed by the Upland Police Officers Association, the same organization that a growing segment of the electorate in Upland was coming to realize had participated in the corruption of the Pomierski Era, having achieved for its members substantial raises and enhanced benefits by sweeping the former disgraced mayor’s transgressions under the rug. Thouvenell thus found himself at odds with a major portion of the Upland business community, which had grown resentful of City Hall and having to constantly pay tribute to Pomierski in the form of kickbacks to be able to transact business in town. Moreover, the other major public safety labor union in the city, the Upland Firefighters Association, had swung behind a political neophyte, Debbie Stone, whose only substantial claim to fame in the City of Gracious Living was that she was by her former marriage and continuing employment linked to the Stone Funeral Home, an established element of the Upland business community as well as to Zella Stone, the first woman elected to the Upland City Council back in 1966. Stone nonetheless enjoyed several advantages, not the least of which was that her campaign manager was Bob Cable, the scion of the Cable Family and one of the owners of Cable Airport. Though Colonies-Pacific LLC, College Park Apartment Homes LP, MG Stoneridge Village Grove LLC, Rancho Monte Vista Apartment Homes, CT Retail Properties Finance II LLC, WNG Mountain Springs GP, Koll Per College Business Park LLC, the Dee Matreyek Kurth Non Exempt Trust, NU-168 Apartments LLC, and North Benson Apartments LLC are larger net property taxpayers in Upland than Cable Airport, by at least some measures Cable Airport yet qualifies as Upland’s most significant business operation. Cable’s wife was also Upland’s deputy fire chief. The 2011 special election thus turned into something of a showdown between the police officers’ union and the firefighters’ union. While the police officers threw more money into the effort to get Thouvenell elected than the firefighters put into Stone’s electioneering fund, the willingness of the firefighters to walk precincts for Stone as well as the lingering community hostility toward the police union over its link to Pomierski carried the day and she prevailed in the race, 3,589 votes or 34.93 percent to the 2,897 votes or 28.19 percent that went to Thouvenell as the second place finisher.
In 2012, Upland’s voters reelected Musser mayor in a race in which he was challenged by both Stone and Filippi. Also elected in the city council race that year was Glenn Bozar, a logistics manager at the West Coast distribution center for Tyco Connectivity, a $13 billion company. Bozar brought to the council a degree of financial sophistication that had not been present on the city council for a generation. Among the principles he recognized with an acuity his colleagues did not was the degree to which Pomerski’s giveaways to city staff, especially the police department, to prevent the likelihood that he would be held to account for his pillaging had exacerbated an almost universal circumstance among California governmental entities in which the escalating cost of benefits over the years – primarily in the form of generous pensions to be provided to retirees – had resulted in cities’costs outrunning their revenues, what in governmental parlance is referred to as an unfunded pension liability. Thus, for example, in the current fiscal year, $7.9 million of Upland’s $45,952,403 general fund budget is going toward pensions, i.e., payments to individuals no longer working for the city. Bozar took the lead in the effort to have the city come to terms with this financial burden, which is projected to continue to grow as more and more of the city’s current employees who were extended those generous retirement benefits reach retirement age.
Initially, Bozar had what appeared to be an alliance with the city manager who had replaced Quincey, Stephen Dunn. Dunn had been the city’s finance director under MIlhiser and Quincey, and he shared with Bozar an understanding of the city’s dire financial prospects and a recognition that the unfunded pension liability represented the major dagger aimed at the city’s heart. That alliance fizzled out, however, with the vicissitudes of politics, which resulted in at least some measure from Bozar’s council colleagues being more empathetic toward city employees than he was. Bozar was determined to eliminate as many existing employees as was practical and hold the line on any further salary or benefit increases among remaining city workers. Adamantly opposed to raising taxes to make ends meet and insisting that doing so would only result in the lack of fiscal discipline that had allowed city staff to expand beyond the city’s means, Bozar was butting heads more and more with the other council members who advocated raising taxes – either in the form of a utility tax or sales tax. By late 2013, Dunn had gravitated toward embracing the taxing proposal and the relationship between Bozar and Dunn soured. As a consequence, an alliance had formed among Stone, Filippi and Dunn. In the winter of 2013/14, the relationship between Bozar and Dunn deteriorated further and by the spring, an enmity between Dunn on one side and Bozar and Musser on the other had developed. Perhaps counting too heavily on the continued support of Brandt, Dunn at one point in a closed session of the council demanded that Bozar resign. Brandt, who was generally ill disposed toward any sort of precipitous action, saw Dunn’s demand of Bozar to be an unacceptable breach of the chain of authority. He joined with Musser and Bozar in dispatching Dunn into early retirement, conferring upon him a one-year severance package. Dunn took his exodus, hired on immediately as the executive director at Cable Airport, and in a show of pique declared his candidacy for city council in the upcoming November 2014 election. Together, Filippi, Stone and Dunn ran as a troika in a race in which Brandt opted out of running for reelection. While Stone and Filippi garnered reelection, Dunn fell short. Instead, longtime planning commissioner Carol Timm, whose primary basis of appeal was her dedication to the preservation of Upland’s historical homes, came in second between Stone as the first place finisher and Filippi in third.
Three months before Timm’s victory, the city council hired Rod Butler to serve as city manager. Upland had eliminated its deputy city manager post in the 1990s. In February 2015, Butler recommended that the city reclassify the administrative services director position, which at that point Stephanie Mendenhall held in addition to being city clerk, to deputy city manager. The council voted 3-2 to approve the change. Stephanie Mendenhall retired in July 2015, joining her husband, who had retired at the beginning of the year. Together, the couple began drawing $276,283.38 in their combined annual pensions. Before the month of July 2015 was out, Butler moved to fill Stephanie Mendenhall vacated position with Jeanette Vagnozzi.
Throughout the remainder of 2015, Bozar’s discomfiture with Butler grew, as the city manager seemed unwilling to make the personnel parings that Bozar wanted. Bozar found himself increasingly isolated on the council, which flirted with the concept of tax proposals. Bozar at that point had few allies at City Hall. One of those was Scott Williams, who had started as Upland’s finance manager in March 2015. Despite the seeming resentment of many city employees,Williams provided Bozar with the comprehensive data he needed to make his arguments for the downsizing of municipal operations. Significantly, in November 2015, when city staff brought forth a proposal to place on the November 2016 ballot a half cent sales tax measure, the council appeared to be ready to place it before the voters and promote it. But Bozar railed against it, saying it would be unprincipled to impose a higher tax burden on the city’s residents when the revenue would ultimately end up paying for the too-generous salaries of current employees and bank-breaking pensions of current and future retirees. In the face of Bozar’s opposition, both Stone and Filippi lost their nerve and the council rejected placing the measure on the ballot by a 4 to 1 margin, with only Timm in support.
In the spring of 2016, as Bozar and Stone were gravitating toward a run for mayor which ultimately manifested when Musser declined to seek reelection, Bozar, as chairman of the city’s finance committee, pushed Butler again and again and again in April, May and June to further reduce planned-for expenditures in the then-upcoming 2016-17 fiscal year. Butler at first complied, as the rest of the council gave Bozar at least lukewarm support in that request. But then Butler balked and when Bozar angled for a showdown over the issue, the remainder of the council, including Musser, sided with Butler. Stone, at the meeting at which the council passed the budget Butler had provided, upbraided Bozar, telling him, “Glenn, just let Rod do his job.” The budget passed with Bozar casting the lone dissenting vote. Remarkably, a month later, by a bare 3-2 majority, the council terminated Butler. Voting in favor of the dismissal, which conferred upon Butler a $206,997 severance package to be paid over nine months at $22,999.67 per month, were Stone, Filippi and Musser. Bozar and Timm opposed the firing. The council simultaneously voted, with Bozar dissenting, to bring in Thouvenell to act as interim city manager.
There had been a longstanding relationship between Thouvenell and Filippi. Mayor Musser, who had been in the same foxhole as Thouvenell during their war with Pomierski, held Thouvenell in high esteem and had faith in him. For Stone, who had vanquished Thouvenell’s political aspirations in 2011 and was now in a race for mayor against Bozar, forming an alliance with Thouvenell made all the political sense in the world. Timm was equally disposed toward getting along with Thouvenell. Thouvenell, who had briefly served as acting city manager in the 1990s when the city was between city managers, made the rounds at City Hall in early August 2016. Among his initial primary assignments, aside from seeing that City Hall remained operational on a day to day basis, was making a recommendation to the city council on what it should do about getting a new city manager, and, when they emerged, evaluate candidates for job. In his initial size-up, he was less than fully impressed with Vagnozzi, who some saw as potentially succeeding Butler. To a few city officials, Thouvenell expressed his belief that the presence of Vagnozzi as Butler’s right-hand woman was a sign of administrative weakness, that she was an unnecessary vestige and that the next city manager should be one that would be able to function with complete autonomy and on his or her own authority. The implication was that Vagnozzi would soon be a permanent part of Upland history.
One of those Thouvenell conferred with was Williams, the finance manager. For Williams, it was an anxiety-producing time. The city manager who had hired him had just been fired. But the circumstance also presented opportunities. Williams was not without ambition of his own. As the city official in Upland with the best command of the lay of the financial land, his advancement to the city manager’s post, especially given the continuing need to reduce municipal operational costs, on at least one level made sense. Less than a year before Williams began with Upland, the city had outsourced its library operations. While he was finance manager, Upland had outsourced animal control division. In seeking to assist Thouvenell in mapping out a strategy for Upland’s economic recovery, Williams mentioned the possibility of further outsourcings, creative means of driving down municipal operational costs. The biggest potential money savers Williams said, consisted of shuttering the city’s fire and police departments and annexing to or contracting with the county fire agency and the sheriff’s department. In the case of letting the fire department tend to Upland’s fire safety, Williams said, the city might reap a savings of $2 million. Having the sheriff’s department subsume the police department, he said, would save the city upwards of $4 million annually, he said. Thouvenell recognized at once that Williams represented a mortal threat to the Upland Police Department. For thirty years Thouvenell had been a policeman with Upland P.D., from the lowest level as a patrol officer right up the chain of command to police chief. The department was a continuing element of his personal legacy, one that would outlast him and his time on this Earth. He could not bring himself to participate in its demise.
Nevertheless, the city’s financial picture remained a troubled one. Operational savings had to be found somewhere. The police department, where the greater savings potential lay, would not be touched. But the fire department would go, Thouvenell decided.
In Upland, personnel files are kept within the department of human resources, which was the deputy city manager’s bailiwick. Within weeks, information lifted directly out of Williams’ personnel file was being bruited about City Hall and had reached the ears of the council, specifically references to his own personal finances. The damage was immediate and the implication clear: the person at the forefront of overseeing and managing the city’s finances had a round of difficulty with his own financial affairs. The impact was that Williams’ status within the Upland organization was lowered and any prospect that he would be considered for the city manager’s post ended.
Out of the blue, Upland Fire Chief Paul Segalla was placed on administrative leave in August. Two-and-a-half years previously, Upland and Montclair had entered into a joint powers arrangement for shared management and administration of their fire departments. When inquiries were made as to the grounds for Segalla having been put on leave, Upland officials indicated it was because of a complaint from Montclair. Montclair City Manager Ed Starr, however, told the Sentinel at the time that the action against Segalla was unilaterally taken by Upland. With minimal fanfare and without first informing Montclair that it was doing so, Upland at its last city council meeting in September 2016 terminated its joint powers arrangement for the shared management and administration of the fire department with Montclair. Simultaneously, Thouvenell had prepared for the council a proposal to “study” the cost savings potential of having an outside agency assume firefighting responsibility in Upland. The city council consented to undertaking the study.
In the 2016 election, the support network around Stone, including Cable, overwhelmed Bozar and she was elected mayor, 16,037 votes or 56.52 percent to 12,338 votes or 43.48 percent. Also victorious in the November 8 race was Janice Elliott, who was elected to the council post Bozar had vacated to run for mayor. Upon Elliot and Stone being sworn into office in December, the full council then moved to appoint Sid Robinson, who had placed second in the city council race, to fill the position on the council vacated by Stone to take the mayor’s position. Elected treasurer was Larry Kinley, a former problem loan officer with the Bank of America who espoused a public fiscal policy akin to that of Bozar. Kinley beat Stephen Dunn in that race.
Earlier this year, there was a flurry of activity impacting Upland. The city council in January moved to terminate its contract with city attorney Richard Adams and brought in James Markman, who was formerly Upland’s city attorney but who was pressured to leave because it was believed that his dual representation of Upland and adjacent Rancho Cucamonga represented a potential for conflict. Markman, who has been city manager with a number of municipalities, has a reputation as a city council enabler who liberally construes the law to permit city officials to engage in action or policies in the face of citizen opposition. The “study” with regard to the fire service annexation to the county was completed by the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission. The commission staff’s conclusion was that the annexation could be done and that the unincorporated county area north of Upland, San Antonio Heights, could be included in the annexation. This mimicked to a considerable degree similar annexations that had taken place over the previous two years in the cities of San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms and Needles. Included in the annexation package was a requirement that each parcel within the city and San Antonio Heights pay an annual assessment fee of $153 and that commercial establishments adhere to a fire protection service fee arrangement set by the county. The city council, upon Thouvenell’s recommendation, applied to proceed with the annexation application, which was heard by the commission board and passed over the objections of a number of Upland and San Antonio Heights residents. Immediately upon the joint city council/Local Agency Formation Commission action to close out the Upland municipal fire department, a firestorm erupted. A peculiarity of such mergers is that no actual vote of the citizenry impacted is required. Rather, residents are provided with a 30-day protest period to object to such an annexation. A resident’s failure to lodge a letter of protest is deemed to be support of the annexation. If a minimum of 25 percent of the jurisdiction’s parcel owners or voters lodge letters of protest, than an annexation vote is held. If 50 percent plus one or more of parcel owners or voters lodge letters of protest, then the annexation is annulled. In the history of San Bernardino County, no such protest process has ever resulted in a vote let alone an annexation nullification. Shrouded within this mix was the consideration that throughout its entire history since incorporation in 1906, the City of Upland had defrayed the cost of operating its fire department, using its own general fund. What the annexation would do is transfer firefighting duty to the county while simultaneously transferring the cost of paying the county for that service to the city’s residents, what is for them an entirely new tax or assessment, one they had never previously been required to pay. On its end, Upland city government would be relieved of the cost of the $11.98 million current annual cost of running the fire department. Thus, with one fell swoop, and without a vote of those to bear it, the city passed overnight a $11.98 million annual tax upon its citizens. This does not take into consideration that the annexation equally impacted the residents of San Antonio Heights, who are not represented by the Upland City Council. As the implication of this has spread throughout the city, growing numbers of people have come to see it as an unscrupulous exercise in sleight of hand by which they are being victimized. Moreover, a contingent of residents are disturbed by the prospect that the city is surrendering local control over its fire department to the county, compromising its ability to conform service to the specific and special needs of Upland.
Stone’s strengths and political talent do not include intellectual prowess or anything approaching what might be termed standard power of analysis or reason. She has progressed to the post of the mayor of the City of Gracious Living rather on her willingness to stay within the parameters laid out for her by her handlers and carry out the dictates of others, those being in general her supporters and that contingent of the Upland business community that has traditionally seen it as in its best interest to cooperate with City Hall. So, too, have Filippi and Timm made their political marks not by scintillating innovation and independent judgment, but rather by going along to get along, following, with only the rarest of exceptions, the guidance of city staff. All three of them, along with the rest of the council, seem to have been overwhelmed by the response the fire district annexation has triggered. They have taken to relying on Markman, who has trotted out his standard defense, which promulgates that the council and its members are acting within the law. That, however, misses the mark within the immediate and now encroaching political context, as it is not the technical legality of their action that has fallen under question but rather its wisdom.
Stone, in particular, appears incapable of appreciating what she has wrought for herself by relying upon the game plan formulated for the city by Thouvenell and Vagnozzi, having perhaps forgotten that it was the firefighters union and the city’s firefighters themselves that brought her into office in 2011 and remained as the backbone of her politicy. She has crossed up Cable, who, as the owner of one of the largest pieces of real estate in the city, the operator of a business to which more than any other the provision of fire protection service in Upland is critical and as a homeowner in San Antonio Heights, has been triply played false.
This has deprived Stone of the guidance Cable was previously providing her, leaving her without an important beacon by which to assess her progress as an Upland leader. And because Cable employs Stephen Dunn as the airport’s executive manager and because Dunn had grown to become one of her principal advisors as well, she is now without sustaining direction in much of her function.
In February, when Bozar came to a city council meeting to tell its members that while on the council he had supported the study of the fire district annexation only insofar as it represented a cost-cutting option and that utilizing it as a means of increasing taxes was not in his view an acceptable or wise policy, Stone’s anger and impatience were palpable. When Bozar later attempted to have the council recognize Williams for his efforts in wrestling with the city’s fiscal problems, Stone insisted that Bozar’s comments were out of order, inappropriate and untimely. She threatened to have him arrested if he did not yield the public speaker’s podium.
In an effort to further solidify control over the city’s politics, decision making authority and the flow of critical information, the council has taken Larry Kiney’s voting power on the Upland Finance Committee away from him. The finance committee is composed of two council members and the city treasurer. Traditionally, all three members had voting power within the committee’s purview, which was to provide city staff, in the main the finance director or finance manager, with direction on items relating to the city’s financial circumstance that are to be submitted to the city council for action. The council’s move to disenfranchise Kinley, whose 16,625 votes were more than was polled by Stone in her mayoral election, has not sat well with many members of the community.
In recent months and weeks, the public discontent with the council has boiled over. The council’s effort to allay that unhappiness has backfired. Timm, apparently relying on Markman’s formula, has propounded more than once that the annexation is a legal one and that the citizenry is being given the opportunity to “vote” upon it. Such representations have angered a significant portion of her constituency, which does not consider the process of mailing in protest letters to constitute a “vote.”
Sid Robinson, the newest member of the city council, works professionally as a publicist and public relations consultant, what he has termed a “strategic communications specialist.” His political formula of aligning himself with the majority has created, even before his six month anniversary in office, a crisis that threatens to derail his political future. Upland residents have begun to belittle his approach, maintaining that the crisis at City Hall cannot be addressed by glib statements and attempts at employing public relations. So overwhelmed by the public’s hostility has Robinson been that he has stopped returning phone calls from the public and the press.
City officials are now ducking desperately for cover. Precipitously, in an apparent effort to reduce the metastasizing anger, the city took down from its website the video broadcasts of city council meetings. Vagnozzi indicated that was mere coincidence. “We are in the process of converting them to the new format,” she said.
Beyond that, city officials appear to have crossed the line into illegality by violating the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law
At the May 8 Upland City Council meeting, the council was presented with a document bearing the heading “In House Policies of the Upland City Council.” Contained in the document are several statements. One is “If a city council person has a grievance with another council member, they must discuss it with that person. If the matter is unresolved, go to the city manager and that council person and the manager can speak together with them. Under no circumstances should a council member go to the general public and discuss personal matters or conflicts between council members.” It also states, “Social media is a great way to communicate meetings and tell about council meetings, final decisions of council, events, etc. but if a vote has been made by the council, a councilmember should support the decision of the whole council whether they agree or not on social media and at any public meetings. Monitor your posts carefully. Only the mayor with a majority vote of the council can call for ‘town hall meetings.’ If a councilmember wishes to meet with constituents, call it a ‘coffee’ or another name so that the citizens are not confused about the opinion you are espousing. It is advisable to have several people oversee any informational or newspaper articles that are submitted. The city manager should be aware of your article and submittal.”
The document was signed by Stone, Filippi, Robinson and Timm. Printed next to several of the sentences on the document were JE, but it was not clear from the document that those were Janice Elliott’s signed initials or whether that meant to convey that Elliot had violated the policy. There was no indication on the council agenda that the document was to be discussed and there was no announcement by Markman after the council came out of closed session that the document had been ratified by the council. California’s Ralph M. Brown Act requires that all discussions of a panel of elected officials be announced 72 hours previous to the discussion. Closed session discussion, that is, those outside the presence of the public, can relate only to personnel items, contract negotiations, anticipated or ongoing litigation and real estate transactions. Elliott is the only current member of the council who has not embraced the fire district annexation in all of its ramifications. The document, which has now been widely distributed around the community, is perceived as an effort to prevent Elliott from assisting those opposed to the annexation, activity which Thouvenell and Vagnozzi, as well as some of the members of the city council, suspect she has engaged in.
Simultaneously, it is reported to the Sentinel, Vagnozzi has been militating to be chosen as city manager, to become effective upon Thouvenell’s departure as interim city manager. Among Thouvenell’s assignments is to make an evaluation of the city’s options with regard to its future city manager, determine whether carrying out a statewide or nationwide recruitment effort is necessary and assist the council in evaluating any of those who apply. He has the option of simply recommending that Vagnozzi, who presents the advantage of being up-to-speed with regard to the myriad of issues and challenges facing the city and who also has two years of accumulated institutional memory in Upland, be entrusted with leading the city. Despite his initial assessment formed during his first week as interim city manager last summer that Vagnozzi had been an unnecessary accoutrement to Butler’s office, Vagnozzi for nine months has demonstrated loyalty to Thouvenell and executed on crucial elements of Thouvenell’s policies. She has shared in the negative fallout associated with the fire district annexation and can be trusted, Thouvenell believes, in steering the current or any future city council away from dissolving the police department and contracting with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement services.
For the council and city management, however, things are likely to get worse before they get better. The protest period for the fired district annexation opened on May 12 and will run through June 14. An energetic drive to encourage Upland and San Antonio Heights residents to lodge letters of protest is ongoing, spearheaded by a group which includes Bob Cable and which is using Cable Airport as a pick-up and drop off point for protest forms. Nevertheless, it is anticipated that the city will survive the protest movement and the next step in the process of shuttering the Upland Fire Department will begin in June.
According to informed sources, the proposed annexation will at that point be moved into the courts. Some opponents of the annexation believe the annexation arrangement presented by the city and approved by the Local Agency Formation Committee is flawed in that the city did not have the authority to include San Antonio Heights in the annexation proposal. Litigation will likely ensue over this issue, one annexation opponent predicted, entailing an injunction preventing the closure of the fire department. Annexation opponents believe an ultimate determination by the courts that the annexation cannot proceed as drawn will be forthcoming, such that the city will need to once again apply for annexation involving the area within its city limits only. That legal action could convince the city council that proceeding with the annexation is inadvisable. Some annexation opponents believe that a council decision to persist with the annexation would have dire political consequences for those members who continue to support the annexation who must seek reelection in 2018 and could even form the basis of a recall effort against the members of the council who will not need to stand for reelection until 2020, namely Stone, Robinson and Elliott, if they continue to support it.
Efforts by the Sentinel, in the form of an email to Vagnozzi seeking a clarification with regard to the Brown Act issues attending the in-house council policies document signed off on during the May 8 council meeting, elicited no response by press time. –Mark Gutglueck
A “perfect political storm” of events has the City of Upland teetering on the brink of a meltdown, upsetting or threatening old political alliances and undercutting existing ones, played against a backdrop of palace intrigue and the manifestation of unintended consequences that are growing beyond the grasp of any of the players and the span of control of the city council or city management.