In the first election under the City of San Bernardino’s recalibrated municipal charter, City Clerk Georgeann Hanna is challenging incumbent Mayor Carey Davis when voters go to the polls for the upcoming June 5 Primary.
Hanna, who goes by “Gigi,” first vied for political office in November 2011, when she ran for city clerk, which under San Bernardino’s original charter first put in place in 1905, was an elected position. That race, which involved five candidates, was extended to the following year when Hanna beat Amelia Sanchez-Lopez in a runoff.
She was reelected without opposition in 2015. The following year, a redrafted city charter was presented to the city’s voters, which passed by a margin of 27,478 to 17,890 or 60.57 percent to 39.43 percent. Among the new charter’s provisions was one which moved city elections from November in odd-numbered years to June in even-numbered years, corresponding to the presidential, gubernatorial and congressional primaries.
Hanna is now testing whether her vision for San Bernardino and the approach she wants to take toward governance better aligns with the expectations and perception of the city’s voters than does that of Davis, who because of the election cycle change ushered in with the new charter gained an extra eight months on the four-year mayoral term he won in a 2014 runoff that followed the November 2013 election in which he and Wendy McCammack were the two top vote-getters. Incumbent councilman John Valdivia, school board member Danny Tillman, movie producer Dan Malmuth and real estate agent Karmel Roe have joined with Hanna in challenging Davis.
She is running, Hanna said, because she believes the city’s current leadership has left the city’s residents disenfranchised, and has simultaneously failed in coordinating with other elements of government at the state and federal level to ensure the city’s needs are met and problems addressed.
“There are a couple of things that pushed me to run,” said Hanna. “I was having a conversation with Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes about the retrofit of City Hall. She was asking where it was as far as planning and what the possibilities were.” Hanna was referring to last year’s closure of San Bernardino’s 44-year-old City Hall, which was designed by the Argentinean architect, Ceasar Pelli. A determination that the six-story edifice is seismically vulnerable led to its shuttering, pending a determination as to whether earthquake-proofing it by shoring up its concrete pillars is financially feasible or whether it would be better to raze the structure entirely and construct a new civic center in its place. “It was a fascinating discussion but I asked her whether it wasn’t more appropriate and more productive for her to be having that exchange with the city manager and mayor,” Hanna said. “Eloise said, ‘Yeah, that’s right, but you return my phone calls.’ We cannot move forward if the city manager and mayor aren’t willing to talk to people, including our legislators. People aren’t being heard. Our current mayor is not responsive to the people in the community who have called to talk to him. That is unacceptable, and it is affecting our ability to grow. I’ve heard instances of large multinational corporations who want to build facilities in this town, which would provide well paid jobs for our people. Their representatives cannot get a response from the mayor or city manager’s office. And when the mayor is quoted as saying that he was supportive of Garner Holt Production’s move to Redlands, something is seriously wrong. His supporters say he didn’t know it was coming. That is exactly the problem. The current administration has not built close enough ties with the business community to know when a large employer is going to move. Had those relationships been in place, he would have known, and the city could have found a way to not lose what was a bright spot, a source of pride, and a large employer that had been in this city for 40 years. The mayor has been touting a police department business watch program, but one of the major businesses in this town, whose owner has been lauded repeatedly for her contributions to the community, has never heard of it. Even worse, this same business had a break-in last year. Nine hours after the call went out to the police station, there had still been no response. The door to her store was open to Highland Avenue for nine hours overnight. She got there and her place had been scoured of food and of the safes. She finally got a response when she called the police chief at home to complain.”
Hanna said, “I am running to give people a voice in their government. I’m running on a campaign finance and ethics reform platform. I think it is wrong for elected officials making decisions to vote on contracts impacting their campaign contributors. Until outside investors and potential residents can trust that decisions are based on what is best for the city rather than on campaign contributions, we will not move forward. We need a sunshine ordinance. I am not sure what form that should take, perhaps limiting campaign donations across the board or not allowing our political leaders to vote for 12 months or 16 months or 18 months on anything impacting their donors. There are model ordinances in Riverside, Alameda, and many cities across the state that we can look to for guidance. This is a decision that should take place at the community level, and then be presented to the council.”
A basic shortcoming in the city’s current political leadership, Hanna said, is “I don’t see the mayor providing a meaningful vision for the city. The mayor does not run the city day to day. That falls to the city manager. The mayor should be concerned foremost with the visioning process, brainstorming. Right now the council and the mayor are proud of having agreed to act like adults, but that’s about all they’ve done. There is a general vision for the city to be vibrant and successful, but nothing has been done to implement that vision.”
The mayor and the rest of the city council are simply reacting to circumstances rather than actively structuring a livable and prosperous environment for the city’s residents, she said. The solutions to the city’s problems put forth by city government are inadequate, Hanna maintained.
“As to this quality of life team the mayor touts,” she said, “I ask, ‘Has your quality of life improved?’ Most say ‘No.’ We haven’t gotten rid of the homeless situation or curbed it. We are hassling people who have no resources in an effort to get them to move on. They aren’t, and it is sapping city resources. We need to find solutions, not just public relations stunts. I do not equate public safety with more cops. lf that were the case, we wouldn’t have been the homicide capital in the 1990s when we had 100 more cops on the streets than we do now. There are other factors involved in public safety, like having lighted streets and getting our young people jobs, being able to bring people to work for the city, making sure we have talent and promoting from within. Right now the mayor and council have asked the city manager to explore contracting out weed abatement, animal control, payroll and the city attorney’s office. Those are all jobs that city residents hold. You take those away, and you further decrease middle class jobs in the community. The effect is a further loss of people able to purchase homes and to support the local economy.”
Hanna continued, “Through outsourcing, we can save on pension costs, which is the way a lot of cities have responded to the fiscal crisis, but pretty soon we will be able to brand ourselves a contract city. We got ourselves in trouble with very generous pension benefits, like a lot of California cities did. I understand that, but if we contract everything out, it is a problem. There needs to be a better balance on what we contract out and take care of internally.”
Hanna said she believes she offers the voters a superior option to Davis and Valdivia, representing, in her words, “an alternative to a candidate controlled by special interests and somebody who is nakedly ambitious.”
Hanna said that she can better what Davis and Valdivia both celebrate as their strong suit – their respective experience in office. “I am the most knowledgeable candidate, and the first mayoral candidate in decades who has listened to conversations in open sessions and closed sessions and has read all the staff reports, and knows the issues.”
She said she has demonstrated her value to the city in her capacity as city clerk, which was a particularly challenging assignment given the city’s 2012 filing for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection and the accompanying fiscal austerity that required her and other department heads to operate on shoestring budgets.
“I kept my department together during the bankruptcy,” she said. “When I started as city clerk, we had 30 public records requests per month. It went to 300 during my time in office. My office also processed 350 claims last year, mostly concerning potholes.”
This has given her a front-row seat on a crucial element of the city’s function where she said the current policy is a demonstrable failure. She said she had greater compassion for city residents who have been damaged by the city’s actions or its negligence than do the mayor and members of the city council.
“Recently someone came to a council meeting to complain that the city rejected his claim outright, on the basis that he had not reported the pothole to the city before he hit it,” Hanna said. “That kind of ridiculous reaction hurts the city’s credibility. I understand the city has to save money, but that kind of insensitivity is jaw dropping, and in the bigger scheme it scares away residents and investors.”
The mayor and city council have been tone deaf with regard to other issues relating to how the power of government and regulation is applied and misapplied, Hanna said.
“I recently had a conversation about the cannabis ordinance,” she said. “It wasn’t about cannabis itself. We were discussing that during the council meeting one of the council members said, ‘I don’t particularly care about personal privacy.’ Not one person on the dais spoke up about the basic rights of the citizenry. If the council doesn’t care about privacy rights, where are we going with regard to the registration rules and regulations?”
Hanna pressed further on that issue. “City officials used the city’s aging housing stock as a reason to demand that people have their houses inspected to see if the electrical wiring is adequate,” she said. “Then they say to be compliant with the new regulations, people growing their own marijuana must self-identify on a public data base, which will make it a public record so virtually anyone – their employers, their neighbors or anyone else – can learn they are growing and presumably using marijuana. This, in turn, gives the police and code enforcement the ability to show up without warrants or warning to search your home to see the six plants and inspect your wiring. That just puts our law enforcement in danger. And, who in their right mind would sign up to be on that data base? Even more outrageous, creating this data base will cost $250,000. It will be a database that no one will have anything to do with, but costs precious funds. It’s these kind of policies that are destroying the city, and, I fear, will lead us right back to bankruptcy.”
Continuing, Hanna said, “The council is going to give people who want to grow their own recreational marijuana this choice: They can simply not grow any plants; they can refuse to comply with the policy and not report; or they can put themselves into a data base. It is muddled thinking to consider spending what limited funding we have after we have just come out of bankruptcy and use funds for something no one is going to use. We are worried about regulating six plants grown under lights when someone with the proper medical permit can grow 99 plants. How will they reconcile that? It means more time spent in court, and more legal fees.”
Hanna was critical of city officials bringing their own religious or political views to bear on an issue already decided at the ballot box, which was demonstrated in their thwarting voters’ will with regard to the marijuana initiative, Measure O, which was approved by the voters in 2016 to allow marijuana dispensaries to operate in the city. “The people spoke regarding their desire for cannabis businesses,” she said. “So, the city reluctantly formed a citizens’ cannabis commission, which came back with regulations about how we should do it. Then the mayor and council immediately put a moratorium on dispensaries. It gave people who were participating in the initiative process a bad feeling, that they were not being appreciated, and those who volunteered for the commission an indication that their time and effort were not valued. That’s the wrong message to send when what we really need in this city is citizen engagement.”
The mayor and council make a show of providing the citizenry with the opportunity to participate publicly, Hanna said, but in actuality have neither the patience nor the desire to incorporate resident input into their decision-making process.
“Watch them at council meetings,” she said. “They aren’t listening to people; they are shuffling through papers, looking at their phones. Some appear to be snoozing. The message is clear that they do not care what the people have to say. That’s become particularly true since public comment has been cut to three minutes total, and placed at the beginning of the meeting so people are expected to comment when they have not had a chance to hear the staff report or discussion on an item. But I am listening, and I think what this city needs is more citizen participation, and we need to make it as easy as possible for them.”
In this vein, Hanna said, “There are technological ways to enhance public participation, with devices such as electronic clickers distributed to those attending meetings, or an app that allows people at home to chime in on how they feel about an item. I don’t think the council should have to vote based on what the public says, but the council should know what its constituents are thinking at the moment. It doesn’t have to be the electronic clicker or any specific device, but there are ways we can provide members of the public who want to participate with access to their government, and at the same time give the elected officials access to know what those who elected them want or what they are thinking.”
In Davis’s case, Hanna said, it is more than impatience or reluctance to make the effort to indulge the public in making its views known. He actively wants to dissuade residents from weighing on issues or prevent them from speaking, she asserted.
“Just after he was sworn in as mayor, Carey asked me about public participation at the council meetings, and said he thought that some members of the public were abusing the public speaking process,” Hanna said. “He asked me how to quell that. I said, ‘If that’s what you want, I’m not your girl. Democracy is messy. It can lead to long meetings. But I’m not going to fall on the side of silencing the public.’”
Both Davis and Valdivia are far more accommodating of their supporters, particularly ones providing them with monetary donations to fatten their political war chests, than they are to residents seeking to be heard on the bread and butter issues that matter to them, Hanna observed. This is because city officials are beholden to political insiders. “I don’t believe a few people who are large campaign contributors have more of a right to be heard than people who are living in an apartment, or who don’t have time to come to meetings. They still have kids in schools here,” she said. “They are impacted by local decisions. What’s lacking in this city is the inclusion of the residents. I watch at every council meeting as people get up and voice their concerns, and plead for someone to listen, sometimes repeatedly. I’ve been listening and, rather than continuing to limit public input, or worse, ignore it, we need to make the citizens our partners in making this city better, because they are footing the bill. We need to strengthen boards and commissions, perhaps add a few more, like a youth commission, demand that those who are appointed to them meet and work toward solutions, then incorporate their suggestions when we can, and acknowledge them for their efforts. We may not always agree, but I guarantee that we will have a robust discussion when we don’t.”
An example of the council’s indulgence of campaign donors consists of the favorable treatment the city’s franchised trash hauler, Burrtec, has been provided. Burrtec made a commitment to provide street sweeping services to the city as part of its pitch to get that franchise in 2015. It then welshed on the deal, failing to deliver on the service it had promised.
“I have not had my street swept in I don’t know how long, if ever,” Hanna said. “Burrtec only gets around to it when it is time for its contract to be renewed.”
Hanna said the closure of City Hall and the dispersal of city offices to several different locations exacerbated the already-poor interaction between city officials and residents.
“Our government is spread out among several buildings and that further disenfranchises the public,” she said. “Vanir Tower is inadequate for hosting city offices. Residents or others who want to do business with the city can get nowhere near their government. They are stopped by the guards and the elevators. You cannot interact with your government there, and this thwarts our ability to grow. This has not worked and it has been too expensive. The residents should not have to work that hard to interact with the city or its elected representatives.”
Hanna offered some of the elements of her vision for the city.
“There needs to be an emphasis on values and improvements,” she said. “We need to give the kids who attend the university here a reason to stay here so they buy homes, raise their families, build businesses and so we can build strong neighborhoods. The university bears the San Bernardino name. We should market that better. There needs to be a lot more development of our university district, something besides fast food establishments and phone stores. We could bring things that are suitable to the area, and provide incentives for businesses to locate there and other parts of the city. For example, I think the brewery would do better there instead of the airport. We need retail stores and businesses that cater to students, professors and the thousands of middle class homeowners in that area. Some cities are waiving fees, such as conditional use permits, which give businesses $8,000 to $10,000 more to put into the start up and operation of their business.”
Hanna said, “I would like to see more development on Route 66. We are nine years from the Route 66 Centennial. There are thousands of people from Asia, Europe or the East Coast who tour Route 66 as a vacation, and that will only increase as the centennial nears. On average they are spending $1,800 while they are on the route. When they hit San Bernardino, there is nothing for them to spend their money on. We should look at the federal funding available specifically for revitalizing the route. The National Park System has taken the jurisdiction over Route 66 from the federal Department of Transportation. The National Park Service will provide revitalization funding for improvements up to a quarter mile on each side of the route. We could use that type of funding to make our history part of our future, and it would go a long way toward revitalizing a significant portion of San Bernardino. I would like to see a tourist map showing everything from the Wigwam [motel] all the way to Tony’s Diner showing all of the historical buildings, or places of note, in this town. People could pick it up at the McDonald’s Museum, or the Route 66 museum, or Mitla Café, which is already getting six or seven tourists every week interested in the historic nature of the business, which is almost as old as the route itself.
“We need to incentivize the revitalization of the Mt. Vernon corridor,” she said. “We need to fix those roads, including Route 66. Someone said that if we put up signs they will immediately get vandalized, so I think what we should do is stencil the Route 66 logo all the way through town, so people know they are on the route and can just follow the signs. I was traveling, and I saw in Williams, Arizona they have taken the motels and cleaned them up and are marketing them as historical. They don’t have prostitutes and drug dealers staying there. They are there for tourist families reliving part of Americana. We should do that here. This should be a source of pride and a way of investing in and celebrating what we have, what put us on the map.”
The city should rediscover its historic role as the cultural and commercial centerpiece in a region that is the envy of a billion people on the planet who see California as paradise, she said.
“John Valdivia talks about the development along the 10 Freeway, as if he can take credit for it,” she said. “Hospitality Lane was already vibrant, long before he even thought of moving to the Third Ward to run for office. We should look at intensifying development along the 215 Corridor. We need to give the millions of cars going north to the High Desert and beyond reason to get off the freeway and spend money in San Bernardino. There is none right now.
“I think that area is prime for outlet stores, like what you see in Murrieta or Ontario, or Rancho Cucamonga or Cabezon,” she said. “And we are closer than they are. These stores bring in outside shoppers, and their sales tax.”
City government should use the tools at its disposable to make prudent changes for the better, she suggested.
“We should have a walkable downtown, where so many empty buildings contribute to the blight,” she said. “I think we should judiciously use eminent domain. I’m not talking about kicking little old ladies out of their houses, but I am in favor of using it against absentee landlords who are adding to blight and thwarting our ability to prosper. We need uses downtown that will make people linger there. We need our central iconic City Hall and surrounding area that people will relate not only to local government but to shopping or leisure or having lunch.”
Invited to take aim at her opponents, Hanna demurred, saying with regard to Valdivia and Davis, “Their records speak for themselves. I do not need to attack them. But I do believe that if people want any change whatsoever in how this city looks or is viewed by investors, residents and the media, they cannot vote for any person on that dais right now. I will say the mayor and council cannot seem to make a decision without hiring a consultant to tell them what to do.”
She said, “I suspect there will be a tax measure on the November ballot. I’m not sure people will vote for it. We need the funds, and our plan to stay out of bankruptcy is dependent on one passing. But look at it from the residents’ point of view: We have slow response times. People don’t feel safe. The potholes in our roads are legion. It won’t pass unless a majority feel they are getting something for their dollar. People must have confidence that the funds will be spent reasonably. I don’t think a majority of the people feel their tax money is being well spent. How can they? When they try to get information or have input, they cannot get their calls returned.”
Hanna has lived in San Bernardino since 1994. Prior to her election as city clerk, she was a newspaper reporter for 16 years, a senior public affairs representative for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and was associate director of the Water Resources Institute at Cal State San Bernardino, where she was involved in conservation programs and oversaw campus internship programs. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Humboldt State University and is now working on her master’s degree in public administration at Cal State San Bernardino.
She was formerly the co-chair of the Boys and Girls Club of San Bernardino, was president of San Bernardino Sunset Rotary and is currently the board president for Habitat for Humanity, San Bernardino Area. She is a member of the San Bernardino Symphony’s conductor search committee.