Donnybrook Breaks Out Over 5 Forced WVWD Departures/Suspensions

Following the public announcement of action taken in closed session by the board of directors of the West Valley Water District this week, proceedings declined into a donnybrook, with members of the district’s managerial echelon making allegations of improprieties by the district’s board president and a majority of the board suspending three dissenting administrators or staffers, firing another and placing the top administrator who was unable to deal with the imbroglio on leave.
At the center of the contretemps is Clifford O’Dell Young Jr., a professor of public administration and executive assistant to the president of Cal State San Bernardino who in 2004 was chosen as the first African American in San Bernardino County history to serve on the board of supervisors. Young was brought in at that time as the replacement for disgraced supervisor Jerry Eaves. Young is now the board president of the West Valley Water District.
The West Valley Water District provides domestic water to approximately 80,000 customers in portions of Rialto, Colton, Fontana, Bloomington, an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County, and Jurupa Valley in Riverside County.
In a startling across-the-board set of actions that took place over the course of two days this week, on Monday December 11 and Tuesday December 12, the board by an apparent margin of 4-to-1 placed suspended or placed on administrative leave district general manager Matthew Litchfield, assistant general manager Greg Gage, the district’s human resources manager Karen Logue and the board’s secretary, Shanae Smith, terminated chief financial officer Marie Ricci, and hired former Loma Linda mayor Bob Christman to serve as interim general manager.
The move knocked the wind out of Litchfield, who hunkered down immediately, licked his wounds and made himself unavailable for public comment.
That was not the case with Logue, Gage and Smith, however, who suggested that Young has been playing fast and loose with district funds and perquisites, and has improperly influenced the hiring of district personnel.
This week’s development follow by five weeks the November 7, 2017 consolidated election in which Young, with 1,428 votes or 27.53 percent, was reelected to a full four-year term on the West Valley Water District board. The other incumbent vying for reelection to a full term, Linda Gonzalez, was displaced by voters when she managed to poll 1,345 votes or 25.93 percent, which placed her in third behind Michael Taylor, who snagged 1,404 votes, or 27.06 percent. In the same race for a four-year term, Anthony “Butch” Araiza, who worked for the West Valley Water District for 52 years, the last thirty as its general manager until he retired in June 2015, also fell short in gathering 1,011 votes, or 19.49 percent.
Also up for election last month to a short two-year term was incumbent Robert Bourland, who had been appointed to temporarily fill the gap created by the resignation of Alan Dyer, who was elected to a four-year term in 2015. Bourland, however, who pulled in 1,350 votes or 45.15 percent on November 7, was ousted by Kyle Nelson Crowther, who garnered 1,640 votes or 54.85 percent.
The sun had not yet set on November when a flood of accusations relating to cronyism by Young and abuses of his travel and expense privileges as an elected official surfaced.
Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith provided a charge sheet to Litchfield in which they cataloged accusations, together with what was represented as documentation, that Young was overstepping his authority by promoting those with whom he was politically, personally or professionally connected into positions within the district, in some cases for which they were not qualified, Those included Cynthia Pringle, a former employee at Cal State San Bernardino who was hired as a public spokesperson for the water district, allegedly at a salary exceeding a quarter of a million dollars per year, according to Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith. Another colleague from Cal State San Bernardino they said was accorded favorable treatment was Christman, who, before being elevated to interim general manager served as assistant chief financial officer in the district at a salary of $180,585.
And, the quartet alleged, Young has gone some considerable degree toward constructing a political machine based upon his clique’s domination of the water district. Young’s growing political machine had taken under its wing Michael Taylor, who is the police chief in the Los Angeles County city of Baldwin Park, and one of Young’s neighbors and friends. Young promoted Taylor’s successful November candidacy, it is alleged. In addition, Young was able to get Robert Tafoya, appointed to the position of district counsel, they maintain. Tafoya, it is said, is connected to Taylor, in that both are employed with the City of Baldwin Park, where Tafoya is city attorney. Also affiliated with Young are board members Greg Young and Kyle Crowther.
Additionally, Young was accused of forcing the district into providing two controversial figures, public relations guru Patrick O’Reilly and lobbyist William Lowery, with no-bid contracts. O’Reilly has connections with a multitude of local politicians and has been given lucrative contracts to help the governmental entities those politicians represent overcome negative publicity relating to approvals of projects given to companies headed by those politicians’ major campaign donors. O’Reilly himself occasionally represents those companies or campaign donors. In 2010, he was delineated as an unidentified, unnamed and uncharged coconspirator in a criminal filing against former San Bernardino County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors/County Assessor Bill Postmus. Lowery was heavily involved in a major controversy attending former Congressman Jerry Lewis and his efforts to earmark bills, when he was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, that favored his campaign donors, many of whom had hired Lowery as a consultant. Lowery, it was alleged, had laundered money provided to Lewis from many of those who benefitted by those earmarks. Lowery and his lobbying firm provided $917,000 in political donations to Lewis.
Young was further alleged to have used his own credit card in lieu of the credit card issued to him by the water district to pay for what he claimed to be some $42,000 in district-related travel and meals and another $43,000 in other expenses. Young then claimed and collected reimbursement for those expenses, despite failing to fully document those claims with complete receipts, the four allege. When the district’s former chief financial officer, Suzanne Cook sought to have Young fully account for those expense claims, according to Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith, Young orchestrated her firing. This led to a wrongful termination suit against the district being filed by Cook.
Caught between Young, on one side, and Cook, Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith on the other, Litchfield was driven to distraction and near paralysis by the circumstance. Young and his allies on the board, consisting of Greg Young, Kyle Crowther, and Michael Taylor, interpreted Litchfield’s immobility as disloyalty toward Young and his ruling coalition. They scheduled a special meeting for Monday, December 11, ahead of the water district’s regularly scheduled meeting for Tuesday December 12, and on Monday night put Litchfield on indefinite leave, and fired Ricci, who had no civil service protection as she was yet within her one-year probationary term as an employee and could be terminated without cause.
Board member Donald Olinger, who is not considered to be among the contingent supporting Young, did not support the suspension of Litchfield or the firing of Ricci.
Reflexively, or so it seems, Young and his supporters on the board then promoted into Litchfield’s post Robert Christman, whose connection through Cal State San Bernardino seemed to lend credibility to the accusations leveled at Young by Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith.
On Tuesday, in a way that Young did not appear to have anticipated, a full house of residents/customers of the West Valley Water District were on hand for the district board meeting, a large number of which had been galvanized by the action against Litchfield and Ricci. That group included Araiza, former Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, A. Majadi, president of the San Bernardino office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Don Griggs of the Westside Action Group. In that atmosphere, with a clear majority in the meeting room displeased with the action of the board, the convocation devolved into chaos, after the board took the dais after meeting in a closed session and Tafoya announced that both Youngs, Crowther, and Taylor, again without Olinger participating, had voted to put Gage, Smith and Logue on paid administrative leave and initiate a personnel investigation which would be aimed, essentially, at justifying terminating them and Litchfield.
At that point, with Hell seeming to erupt through the floor and Logue launching into a tirade that included what some interpreted her tendering her resignation, the police had to be called in to restore order.
Christman told the Sentinel, “It is correct that several employees were placed on administrative leave pending some investigations. Those investigations are confidential in nature and I am not at liberty to to discuss them. At this stage, only one was actually terminated, the chief financial officer who did not pass her six month probation.”
Christman said he did not believe the accusations were in any way substantive. “I have seen the memo,” he said. “The charges in it, in my opinion, are without merit. Some of that stuff is extremely petty. They are non-issues and I am absolutely surprised that people would engage in those types of petty attacks on the board president.”
What was perhaps the most damaging of the complaints leveled at Young – that he had directed the hiring of a one-time colleague from Cal State San Bernardino into a public relations post at a salary exceeding a quarter of a million dollars per year – was a fallacy of overstatement, Christman said.
“The problem is they are conflating two different people,” he said. “The one person who was said to be getting $260,000 per year was not an employee, but someone who was brought in to take care of a special project at an hourly rate of $115. This was a month-long project that was completed over a year-and-a-half ago. The way they got to that $260,000 figure was to extrapolate on the amount of money that was paid during that one-month period on an outside contract. You can extrapolate anything, and go to ten months or a year or two years or five years or ten years, at which point you would be talking about $2 million or $3 million. This was a contract that lasted for one month. That is not a valid accusation. There was another person who was hired as the district’s external affairs manager. She was an employee, but she is no longer employed here.”
Christman addressed the assertion that Young had been reimbursed for expense claims that extended to items or services the district should not have been paying for.
“I was the interim chief financial officer from August 2015 until June 2016,” Christman said. “I processed and signed off on his expense reimbursements during that period. There were some claimed expenses prior to that which I cannot speak to, but I can absolutely guarantee you, all expenses that he claimed which I processed were valid, honest and straightforward business expenses which covered a little less than a year that I was there. Board members do get reimbursed for meetings they attend. Someone may want to challenge that, but board members often talk with other government officials or with lobbyists. Sometimes it produces results and sometimes it doesn’t. That does not mean it is not a valid expense. They are saying that he didn’t break his credit card charges down as to what was a meal or what was an alcoholic beverage. He has assured me that he was not reimbursed for, nor had he asked for reimbursement for, any alcoholic beverages. And those that are bringing this up have supposed that may have happened. There is no documentation that I have seen to support that supposition. I dismiss that claim completely.”
The $42,000 in claims were made not in a single year, Christman said, but over four years.
Young was, Christman said, “duly elected four years ago and duly reelected last month. There are people who don’t want to accept those election results. If there were problems as they allege, then they should have gotten that information in front of the voters before the election. In my opinion, the accusations against Dr. Young are without merit. He was reelected to the board of directors. Just this month his colleagues asked him to be president They have confidence in his leadership capability and vision, as do I. The board would just like to go forward. Some people feel differently, and I appreciate that we live in a society where people have the opportunity to differ. This protest has gone on long enough for everyone to hear what they have to say. My job is to stabilize things and start moving the district forward, and that is what I intend to do.”

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