Dem/GOP, Insiders/Outsiders & Winners/Losers Axis Seen In WVWD Dispute

The ongoing rhubarb in the West Valley Water District has pitted some dozen-and-a-half current or former public officials against one another, with the lines of demarcation being drawn along an axis that is both predictable and unpredictable, and at once transparent and opaque. One understandable divide in the fight is that between Republicans and Democrats. Another is between winners and losers, in the political sense. Yet another is the line between insiders and outsiders, the enabled and the disenfranchised. At the same time there are either hidden alliances or enmities or at the very least contradictory ones that make handicapping which side might come out on top somewhat risky. Thrown into the mix is the dynamic of race – including a 15-year-bygone rivalry between two of the region’s most politically advanced African American public figures that is continuing to play out. This circumstance has been superheated by charges, which have since been discredited, that the central and most powerful of the public figures in the controversy engaged in deprecating racial remarks aimed at a black woman, despite the man accused being an African American himself.
The roots of the contretemps extend back to 2003, when Gerald “Jerry” Eaves, a former Rialto mayor and member of the state legislature who in 1992 had forsaken his political career in Sacramento to successfully vie for San Bernardino County supervisor in the Fifth District, had found himself embroiled in scandal, which consisted of a series of charges that he was taking bribes left and right in his role as supervisor. Beginning in 1999, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles and the San Bernardino County were arm wrestling each other over which agency would proceed with a case against Eaves. Penultimately, both undertook prosecutions against him. This grew problematic, however, as Eaves’ defense attorneys protested that he was being subjected to unconstitutional double jeopardy, that is, being tried twice for the same crimes. This delayed for some time the case against Eaves, at that time the sole Democrat on the board of supervisors, and even in the face of the negative publicity stemming from the accusations of bribe-taking against him, he managed to gain reelection in 2000. Eventually U.S. Judge Manuel Real, a Democrat who had been appointed to the Federal Bench by Lyndon Johnson, threw the federal government’s case against Eaves out on the basis of the double jeopardy principle, and the criminal case against Eaves on the corruption charges went forward in state court. In 2003, his attorneys forged a plea arrangement with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office under which Eaves would avoid going to prison, but would have to admit guilt, pay a substantial fine and resign from office. There ensued a discussion among the four remaining members of the board of supervisors on selecting Eaves’ replacement. The circumstance presented a unique opportunity to the supervisors. Throughout the county’s 150-year history to that point, an African-American had never been elected to the board of supervisors and now that panel could by a simple vote install virtually anyone it chose, with the sole limitations that the individual selected be of the age of majority and live within the Fifth District. After contemplating a number of potential candidates, the board narrowed the field to two, both of whom were African-Americans: Cheryl Brown, the publisher of the Black Voice News, and Clifford Young, who was the Republican nominee for Congress in the 32nd Congressional District in 1976, was a Commerce Department Official in the Ronald Reagan Administration, and a professor of public administration/department chairman and later assistant president at Cal State San Bernardino. Ultimately, the four members of the board of supervisors, Republicans all, elevated Young, a member of the GOP, to the supervisor’s post over Brown, a Democrat. Young served out the remainder of Eaves’ term but chose not to run in 2004, instead returning to Cal State University San Bernardino as an educator. Subsequently, Cheryl Brown, who in addition to being a publisher had been a member of the San Bernardino County Planning Commission and the City of San Bernardino Planning Commission, was elected to the California Assembly in 2012, where she served two terms until being defeated for reelection by another Democrat, Eloise Reyes in 2016.
In 2013, after a hiatus of nearly a decade, Young, a resident of Rialto, ran for a position on the board 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. The population within the West Valley Water District’s jurisdiction is almost exclusively blue collar, with registered Democrats in that area outnumbering Republicans by more than two-to-one. Young, however, was able to cruise to an easy victory in the 2013 race, which is traditionally considered to be a non-partisan contest, based largely on his ability to call on the county Republican support network which has far greater sophistication than its Democratic counterpart. Thus, Young marshaled considerable electioneering might. Also elected in 2013 with some 73 more votes than Young, was Linda Gonzalez, a Democrat.
In office, however, his Republican leanings proved to be somewhat awkward, and Young found himself to be at odds with at least some of the district’s personnel, who considered him to be autocratic, demanding, arrogant and too Republican for their tastes. They resented, as well, Young’s tendency to promote the hiring of his colleagues or other staff members previously employed at Cal State San Bernardino. One of those troubled by Young’s ascendancy at the West Valley Water District was
Shanae Smith, who had been hired as an executive assistant with the district in February 2011. She eventually promoted to board secretary. On January 13, 2017, Smith lodged a complaint with Los Angeles district office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing identical complaints in which she claimed to have been harassed by Young on September 13, 2016. Smith’s complaint referenced, “Dr. Young making an offensive comment (i.e. ‘subservient black woman’) about my race and gender.” In addition, Smith said, Young in October 2016 had warned her to side with him rather than [board member Linda] Gonzalez with regard to a certain issue then before the board, telling her “If you do this, I will protect you. If you don’t, I can’t protect you!” Subsequently, according to Smith, on December 14, 2016, on which day water district officials held back-to-back meetings of the district’s external affairs committee and finance committee, Young prevented her from attending the finance committee meeting by telling her, “Madame Clerk, what is your role here? Your presence is unnecessary.” According to Smith, Young discriminated against her and other female employees of the district based on gender, race, age and pregnancy. In her complaint, Smith stated, “I believe I was discriminated against because of my race, black, my sex, female, and retaliated against for engaging in protective activity, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
In November 2016, prior to lodging the unfair employment practice complaints with the state and federal government, Smith informed the district of what she called a “hostile work environment and retaliation.” Shortly thereafter the district hired the Los Angeles-based law firm of Albright, Yee & Schmit, which specializes in protecting businesses and public agencies against claims and lawsuits by employees alleging discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wage & hour disputes and unfair labor practices.
Less than two months after Smith had filed her complaint, Stella Albright and Christopher Pantell with Albright, Yee & Schmitt, the district’s contracted law firm, issued an “internal investigation report” on March 3, 2017 which stated, “This investigation, initiated on December 15, 2016, and concluded as of the date of this investigative report, finds Ms. Smith’s allegations are unsubstantiated. Specifically: Ms. Smith’s charge that Dr. Young discriminated against her on the basis of race (African American) and gender (female) is unsubstantiated. Ms. Smith’s charge that her Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filing resulted in retaliation and harassment against her by Dr. Young in the form of a hostile work environment is unsubstantiated. Ms. Smith’s charge that Dr. Young discriminated against other female employees of the district on the basis of race, gender, age and/or pregnancy is unsubstantiated. Ms. Smith’s charge that Dr. Young targeted female employees for termination and that he maintained a list of those employees is unsubstantiated.”
Another district employee who found herself on the outs with Young was Suzanne Cook, who hired on as an accounting supervisor with the district in October 2010 and was elevated into the position of the district’s chief finance director in 2015. Within two months of moving into that position, Cook took issue with what she considered to be the haphazard way in which Young, in defiance of the district’s protocol, sought reimbursement from the district when he engaged in travel or other activities related to his role as a district board member. Cook maintained that Young insisted on using his own credit card in lieu of the credit card issued to him by the water district to pay for district-related travel, meals and other expenses. Young’s habit was to claim and collect reimbursement for those expenses, despite the district’s policy of having such charges lodged against board members’ district-issued credit cards. Cook alleged Young failed to fully document those claims with complete receipts. In a lawsuit she filed last July naming the district and Young, Cook alleges that in August 2016, shortly after assistant district general manager Matthew Litchfield had been brought in to replace district general manager Thomas Crowley, Young essentially forced Litchfield to fire her. Cook further claimed that Young violated the district’s hiring procedures by bypassing the district’s new hire screening and interview process and unethically pressuring Litchfield to hire Young’s handpicked candidates, many of whom were working at or had worked at Cal State San Bernardino.
Young, represented by the law offices of Barbe & Bauermeister, on September 21, 2017, filed a demurrer in the case. On October 10, 2017, Judge Donald Alvarez granted Young’s demurrer, dismissing him from the lawsuit. Cook’s lawsuit remains in play, but Young is no longer a defendant.
The district maintains that Cook’s firing was justified in that she had not yet achieved her one-year anniversary as finance director and, consequently, was a probationary employee considered at will, who thus could be fired without need to cite cause. A readiness for trial is now scheduled for August 2 and the jury trial, which is estimated as being of seven to twelve days in duration, is to begin before Alvarez on August 6.
In November 2017, the forces aligned with Young turned out en masse, assisted by the Republican political machine that militated heavily on behalf of Republican candidates in the district. Without emphasizing the party affiliation of the candidates they were backing – Young and Michael Taylor, who is the police chief in the Los Angeles County City of Baldwin Park but resides in Rialto – the Republican machine put out mailers making a positive celebration of Young and Taylor and others which reflected negatively on Gonzalez. Also competing in the race for the two four-year terms up for election was 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. When the votes were tallied, Young polled 1,428 votes or 27.53 percent, to garner reelection. Gonzalez, who gathered 1,345 votes or 25.93 percent, was displaced on the board by Taylor, the Baldwin Park police chief, who snagged 1,404 votes, or 27.06 percent. Araiza also fell short with 1,011 votes, or 19.49 percent.
Also up for election two months ago was a short two-year term for the position held by 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, 2017, was ousted by Kyle Nelson Crowther, who garnered 1,640 votes or 54.85 percent.
In the aftermath of the election, there was considerable discomfiture among Democrats, who had simply been outhustled at the polls, as well as among several district employees, who were hoping Young would be turned out of office. But the election had gone triply bad for them, as Gonzalez was ousted in favor of Taylor – a solid Young ally – and Crowther had replaced Bourland. This put Young firmly in control of the district. What was more, Araiza, who for decades had exercised an extensive degree of control over the district as its general manager and could make a rightful claim to being the most knowledgeable individual with regard to the nuts and bolts, pipelines and pumps, reservoirs and cisterns and the practical intricacies of the district’s operations had been for a second time left on the outside looking in, having lost in his effort to get elected to the board in 2015.
Trouble was brewing, as whispers among district employees relating accusations of cronyism by Young and abuses of his travel and expense privileges as an elected official grew into a hum, then a buzz, then a drone, gradually loudening into a crescendo. A charge sheet, one that was put together by Smith, assistant general manager Greg Gage, the district’s human resources manager Karen Logue and chief financial officer Marie Ricci surfaced, alleged that Young had assembled a clique that had grown to become a political machine dominating the water district. That machine, which had already included Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya as the district’s newly hired legal counsel, had metastasized to include Taylor on the board, it was pointed out, a conflicting entanglement since both worked together in the City of Baldwin Park. And the charge sheet cataloged a myriad of 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 Bob Christman, a former mayor and city councilman in Loma Linda who had served as assistant chief financial officer in the district at an annual salary of $180,585.
The ruling coalition on the board, surveying the burgeoning mutiny, demanded that Litchfield clamp down on the insurrection. When Litchfield failed at that assignment, on Monday, December 11, the board went into a hastily called special closed session at which it voted, by a 4-1 margin, with director Donald Olinger dissenting, to place Litchfield on administrative leave and fire Ricci, who like her predecessor as chief financial officer Cook, had no civil service protection as she was yet within her one-year probationary term as an employee and could be terminated without cause. Unheedful, it seemed, of the accusations leveled by Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith to the effect that Young was perpetually installing his associates from Cal State San Bernardino into positions with the district, the board named Robert Christman from the college’s finance division, as Litchfield’s interim replacement.
The next day, December 12, the board came to its regularly scheduled meeting with the four-member ruling coalition intent on bringing the curtain down on the insurgency that was manifesting at the staff level, making a show of strength and thereby reestablishing its command of the district. The board’s first order of business at the meeting was to adjourn into closed session, where outside the prying eyes of the public, it endeavored to show everyone who is boss by placing Gage, Logue and Smith on administrative leave, pending an investigation. When the board’s members emerged from the closed session, it found itself faced with an overflow crowd, which had already been galvanized by action against Litchfield and Ricci. Among the teeming mob were: Butch Araiza; Cheryl Brown; A. Majadi, the president of the San Bernardino office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Don Griggs of the Westside Action Group. After the board filed back into the room and its members took their places on the dais, to Tafoya, the district’s attorney, fell the task of informing the already restless and agitated horde that the district was now going to have to function for the readily foreseeable future without three more of its senior staff members. He stated that these members, like Litchfield, were placed on administrative leave and that a personnel investigation into their action and that of Litchfield, was being initiated. All those in the room recognized the investigation was in essence aimed at justifying terminating the four. Bedlam ensued. Order was not restored until officers with the Rialto Police Department arrived.
Scott Olson, a member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee who was active in promoting Young’s candidacy, said, “There was an election. That was an adversarial contest. The other group tried to play dirty and we refuted 90 percent of their claims. Cliff was elected by a wide margin.” Olson said Young had the dual advantage of a solid track record in office and a reliable political team. “The voters were happy with what he did during his first four years in office and they put him back in,” Olson said. “He and the people around him also know how to run a campaign. When you are up against someone who understands what he is doing, then you have a challenge on your hands.”
He said that Young and Taylor simply executed better on their campaign strategy than had Gonzalez and Araiza. Of Araiza, Olsen said, “He may know how to run a water district, but he doesn’t know how to run a campaign.” He said that Young’s opponents used underhanded campaign tactics that did not work. “They decided to run a negative, false campaign. The had a fake FPPC [Fair Political Practices Commission] number, a false FPPC group, and they were using spoof phone calls. Cliff didn’t run a campaign against them as much as he ran one on behalf of himself. It wasn’t until they started with the negatives that he called them out.”
With regard to what happened in the run-up to and at both the December 11 and December 12 meetings of the board, Olson said Young’s political opponents had blurred the distinction between campaign activity and their duties as district employees.
“What happened to them [Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith] is something of their own bidding, a consequence of their own behavior,” Olson said. “Once the campaign is over with, they had responsibilities on the administrative side, and that included duties to listen to the directions of the board as conveyed to them through the general manager and to do their jobs. At the [December 12] meeting, they were engaging in outright insubordination and slander. The personnel director was literally inciting people to riot while the board was in closed session. She took over the microphone and was shouting down people who were not part of their group. When you have an employee who is inciting the public to riot, why would anyone expect anything other than that employee is going to be put on administrative leave? She slit her own throat by her outburst.”
Olson said it was not lost on the board, which possesses the only real authority with regard to the district, that Butch Araiza and Cheryl Brown were in the room, egging everyone on. Olson said Brown still bears a grudge against Young over the board of supervisors’ selection of him rather than her to replace Eaves a decade-and-a-half ago. The 2017 election is over, Olson said, and the time for governance is now.
“You have the campaign process and you have the job process,” Olson said. They [Gage, Ricci, Logue and Smith] took sides as employees with what one board member, Linda Gonzalez, wanted vs. what another board member [Young] wanted. They kept listening to Linda after the election was over and she was no longer on the board. They did not respect the authority in the district, as it is defined, which means the elected board members.”
Olson defended putting Litchfield, Gage, Logue and Smith on administrative leave.
“They gave the board no choice with the accusations they made,” Olson said. “When there is an investigation you have to remove the employee from that position so the matter can be looked into. You don’t go public with accusations and expect there is not going to be an investigation. They put themselves into that position.”
To the assertion that Litchfield had not engaged in any political activity and had not leveled any accusations at anyone, Olson acknowledged that to be the case, but said, “By the district’s bylaws and rules, the general manager serves at the pleasure of the body [i.e., the board]. When you are the general manager, it is the board’s choice whether to hire you or fire you. I have no idea why Matt was put on executive leave. There is an investigation pending. If he is a victim of the employees below him, that will be determined. The board has to make a decision based on the facts. You had people screaming during a meeting. It is not Cliff’s fault and it is not the board’s fault that accusations were made. These people are on paid administrative leave. They are on vacation while this investigation is being carried out.”
Olson said the board is being buffeted by others, such as Araiza, who have ambition and agendas of their own. “They are trying to create all of these crises and issues that do not exist,” he said.
He cited Araiza’s call for increasing water rates to ensure the district’s fiscal solvency and purchase earthquake insurance as an example. “The district has $40 million in reserves,” Olson said, somewhat ironically, given that the lion’s share of those reserves were husbanded during Araiza’s tenure as the district’s general manager. “The reserves are twice the district’s annual budget. How much money do you need as a nonprofit governmental agency to cover the bases?” he asked.
Olson said the district is well run and managed, in large part “Because you have people on the board with PhDs and masters degrees on how to run government. The more I look at it, I am at a loss to see how they [Araiza’s and Gonzales’s supporters and the Young political machine’s opponents] thought they could win. Was it because they were Democrats and they thought it [the election] couldn’t go any other way? Now they see they have put themselves in a bad position, and they’ve turned their anger up and are turning the agency upside down. And now you see the board reacting because they are having all of this nonsense shoved down their throats.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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