By Mark Gutglueck
Less than a month after San Bernardino Community Development Director Mark Persico offered a recommendation that was contrary to the city council’s ultimate decision granting the operators of a soon-to-be-built gas station along the I-215 Freeway permission to sell hard liquor, City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller in an unheralded move last week sacked Persico. This week she moved to give her political masters greater insulation in the future by replacing Persico with a journeyman planning official, whose reputation for accommodating development proposals favored by the elected leadership in the jurisdictions in which he works proceeds him.
On June 6, the San Bernardino City Council took up a proposal by ACAA LP/AHD LP to establish a gas station/convenience store at the confluence of Inland Center Drive and the I-215 Freeway. That proposal included a provision that the store be able to sell hard liquor above and beyond beer and wine that is sometimes sold out of such commercial venues. Persico, as the community development director, recommended against the city approving the project with the hard liquor sales licensing component. The council, with Councilman James Mulvihill dissenting, overrode Persico’s objection, 6-to-1, and allowed the project to proceed with the entitlement to sell hard liquor.
Councilman John Valdivia, in whose district the project is to be built, gave a glowing recommendation of the project on June 6, saying “This is a fine establishment,” and in doing so, essentially, encouraged his colleagues to support it as well. Valdivia did not disclose during that discussion that ACAA LP provided him during the current election cycle with $2,000 for his campaign for mayor. Also championing the project was Councilman Henry Nickel. ACAA LP’s counterpart, AHD LP, was likewise generous in funding Mr. Nickel’s current campaign for State Assembly, providing him with a $1,000 contribution toward his electoral effort.
While a case could be made that San Bernardino, which declared bankruptcy in 2012 and emerged from it last year, could not afford to bypass opportunities for economic development such as that represented by the ACAA/AHD project and the eventual sales tax revenue to the city it represents, others felt equally strongly that marketing liquor out of a venue a stone’s throw away from the freeway, given the considerable social problems besetting the city including its per capita murder rate that places it among the top two percent of America’s deadliest cities, was an abominable concept. Concerns have been expressed that Valdivia’s and Nickel’s willingness to embrace the project and its potentially negative accompanying social impacts in exchange for some ready campaign cash will further damage the city’s already poor reputation. On June 5, the day before the city council’s vote on the ACAA/AHD project, Valdivia and Nickel proved themselves in the primary election to be the top vote-getters at this stage of the political season in the yet-ongoing battle for the respective offices they are ultimately seeking. With their strong showings at the June balloting, the prospect had grown that between now and November their respective campaigns will be seeking political donations from proponents of other projects proposed within the city. Such proponents may now perceive it in their interest to clear the way for their projects to be approved by demonstrating generosity toward the city’s elected leadership in terms of political donations. With this pay-to-play ethos having clearly established itself in San Bernardino, and with Persico’s contrary adherence to objective land use and planning principles potentially gumming up the works, in the interest of pleasing the city council to whom she is ultimately answerable, Travis-Miller elected to send Persico packing.
Citing a justification for doing so was problematic, however. Persico had a solid reputation as a municipal land use professional, with virtually no derogatories upon which he was vulnerable. He had an impressive résumé featuring progressively responsible positions within the realm of land use, planning and urban development. He had been a member of and then the chairman of the Pasadena Planning Commission, the latter post being one of the most prestigious such volunteer/appointed posts in the State of California. Indeed, during the same selection process in which Travis-Miller was awarded the city manager’s post in San Bernardino last year, Persico had also been considered for the position, and was reportedly her strongest competitor, having been averred at one stage of the discussions by at least two of the council members as the best candidate for the job.
Toward the end of the month, serendipity delivered what Travis-Miller considered to be a godsend in the form of the pending 2017-18 San Bernardino County Grand Jury Report. One of the issues the grand jury had taken up was the performance of the City of San Bernardino’s code enforcement division, which until December 31 of last year fell under the purview of the community services department.
The report indicated that the code enforcement division’s response to citizen complaints had been ineffective, entailing a substantial backlog of unaddressed complaints accumulating prior to January 2018, when the code enforcement division was entirely reorganized to be run out of the police department. This could be construed as laying the blame at the feet of Persico, since it was the department he oversaw, that of Community Development, which until January 2018 was responsible for code enforcement.
Nevertheless, the report also made clear that the difficulties in the division predated Persico’s 2014 hiring by San Bernardino and that in 2012, when Travis-Miller was then the second highest ranking city staff member in the capacity of assistant to the city manager, a city-authorized study by the Matrix Consulting Group found deficiencies with the division and that there had been significant personnel attrition in the division since that time, when the city had filed for bankruptcy protection and began shedding personnel. Reports are that Travis-Miller, armed either with an advance copy of the grand jury report or information about its contents prior to its official release, used that as a leverage point and/or a pretext to cashier Persico, who at that point was not in a position to fully understand, appreciate or know that the report was somewhat ambiguous in faulting him, by extension, for the city’s code enforcement shortcomings. Persico’s exit came less than a day prior to the official release of the grand jury report. He was escorted from the building in which the community development department’s office is located on the afternoon of Thursday, June 28 in what was intended as a humiliating close to his four-year tenure as a San Bernardino city official, an object demonstration to community development staff that in the future they might want to provide favorable recommendations to the council with regard to development proposals brought forth by proponents who have made substantial donations to the city’s political leaders.
To emphasize that point, Travis-Miller rapidly moved to fill the gap Persico’s leaving entailed with an individual with an unrivaled reputation for bending the functions of land use and planning divisions to the will of the elected class at the top of the municipal governmental chain of authority. Her choice was Jeff Bloom, who was most recently Rancho Cucamonga’s economic and community development director/deputy city manager prior to his recent retirement. Before that five-year stint in Rancho Cucamonga, Bloom had been Upland’s community development director, a position from which he was terminated in 2011. Much of Bloom’s tenure in Upland corresponded with the mayoralty of John Pomierski. Mayor Pomierski was a licensed contractor with his own company, JP Construction, and also had a “consulting” business. Pomierski’s partners in the consulting operation were Jason Crebs and Anthony Orlando Sanchez, the co-owners of Rancho Cucamonga-based Venture West Capital. Pomierski would routinely find out what applications had been made for permits or what approvals were pending on projects submitted to the city’s planning division, which was overseen by Bloom, and then Crebs or Sanchez would approach the applicants and tell them their projects would stand a far better prospect of approval, or expedited approval, if the applicant were to hire the consultancy to assist in chaperoning the project through the planning process and any hearings before the planning commission and the city council or, in the alternative, if the applicant were to hire JP Construction as a subcontractor. In 2011, after a series of FBI raids at Upland City Hall and the homes and offices of Pomierski, Crebs and Sanchez in 2010, Pomierski, Krebs and Sanchez were indicted by a federal grand jury, arrested by the FBI and convicted, Pomierski for taking bribes and Krebs and Sanchez for aiding and abetting bribery. Jeff Bloom was not criminally charged in that governmental corruption scandal, though from his position as community development director, he had an overview of all that was transpiring with regard to development issues in the City of Gracious Living. John Pomierski’s depredations reached their zenith between 2005 and 2010, after he had forced Upland’s previous city manager, Mike Milhiser, out of that position, convincing his council colleagues to replace Milhiser with Robb Quincey, whom Mayor Pomierski had hand-picked to lead the city’s staff. City Manager Quincey would himself later be charged with and convicted of corruption while serving in his capacity as Upland’s top administrator. Bloom was a key member of the management team working under Quincey which either facilitated Pomierski in his efforts to shake down those attempting to transact business at City Hall, failed to perceive it, or turned a blind eye to it. The community development department, which oversaw the city’s planning and land use divisions, was the one city department most crucial to Pomierski being able to convince those he victimized that he possessed the authority and ability to grant or deny their projects, filings and both permit and licensing applications.
In the aftermath of Pomierski’s indictment, those through whom his power over the city’s land use and enforcement authority radiated saw their tenures with the city terminated. Quincey was fired in May 2011, four months after he was placed on administrative leave. At the end of June 2011, Bloom was shown the door as part of a reorganization that saw three city department head positions consolidated with other management posts, four city department heads pushed out and another 22 staff positions eliminated, though Bloom remained on the payroll for a short time after his termination as a consultant while the transition of duties among top staff finalized.
Shortly after he left Upland, Bloom was called in for questioning by a Yorba Linda-based investigation and legal services firm retained by the city to look into the actions of various city officials during the Pomierski era. Bloom refused to submit to questioning by investigators looking into allegations of illegal or inappropriate activity at City Hall and/or in the police department, insisting on having a lawyer present before talking to investigators.
Bloom’s refusal to submit to the questioning unaccompanied sent shock waves through the echelon of Upland city officials who learned of it. While not an admission of guilt in itself, what Bloom’s refusal to respond without legal representation signaled was that there was some substance to long circulating suggestions that Pomierski’s shakedowns of business people in town was an institutionalized phenomenon with a much wider implication than a single corrupt politician and a few cronies.
Steven Dunn, the Upland city manager who succeeded Quincey in 2011 and was the architect of the purging of 26 city staff members in June 2011 including Bloom, indicated the specter of the Pomierski scandal hung over that action as it did all of the city’s operations at that time, but he said the decision with regard to Bloom was not officially tied to any of the issues relating to Pomierski.
“I wasn’t worried about that,” Dunn told the Sentinel. “It was more about what I needed to get done. Jeff’s approach was different than mine. Development is an area that becomes a significant economic engine and we needed to facilitate economic development. Jeff was set in his ways and was not in synch with what I was trying to get done. I believe he still lives in the city and had been living there for a long time. I’m sure he knew the people and the players involved. As far as him being involved, he was easily swayed, but everyone in that atmosphere was easily swayed. You had to be loyal to John Pomierski, or you wouldn’t be there very long.”
Last night, at this week’s city council meeting held on Thursday because the July 4 holiday fell on the council’s normal Wednesday meeting date, the city council unanimously voted to approve the consent calendar, which is reserved for items deemed to be noncontroversial and among which was Bloom’s hiring. Bloom, whose attendance at the council meeting was anticipated, was not present and therefore unavailable for comment or to field questions.
Most members of the city council declined to comment with regard to Persico’s leaving or Bloom’s hiring. Councilwoman Virginia Marquez told the Sentinel, “We don’t get into personnel issues,” and referred questions to Travis-Miller.
Travis-Miller ducked addressing any substantive questions, begging off because both the firing of Persico and the hiring of Bloom were personnel issues. She did assert, however, that Persico had not been fired but rather, she said, he “resigned.” She momentarily denied that Persico had been escorted off the city premises, but then said that the city’s human resources director had accompanied him at his departure for the purpose of making sure that the community resources staff maintained continuity in their assignments.
Councilman John Valdivia was unwilling to offer any statement beyond one indicating he was not familiar with Bloom. “I am working with staff to understand his resume and figure out who he is,” Valdivia said.
Councilman Henry Nickel told the Sentinel, “The city manager let him go. I don’t get involved in personnel matters. That is a personnel decision under the purview of the city manager. I am not at liberty to discuss personnel matters. This is the sole responsibility of the city manager. I learned of Mr. Persico’s departure after the fact. We don’t get involved in who the city manager hires and who the city manager fires, whatsoever. I will defer to her all decisions relating to the hiring or letting go of staff.”
As to the Travis-Miller’s use of the grand jury report to justify jettisoning Persico, Nickel said, “I can’t speak to her motivation. I learned of the grand jury report after Mr. Persico had been dismissed. I did receive complaints as well from businesses and residents. Code enforcement has not been satisfactory. I am not for raising taxes and I would like to see if we can generate more revenue without raising taxes and by other means. Quality of life in the city is important. We need to have conditions in our city so we can attract businesses, so we have the services and taxes we need.”
Nickel acknowledged that Persico and Travis-Miller had competed for the city manager assignment. “I was hugely supportive of his candidacy,” Nickel said. “I was in favor of hiring him. I was in favor of the professionalism he offered. I disagreed with him from time to time. That is perfectly understandable and acceptable. I think actually you wouldn’t want someone you agree with all the time.”
Nickel said he had no preconceptions nor expectations with regard to what sort of recommendations Bloom would make on development proposals within the city. “I don’t know anything about Mr. Bloom,” he said. “Again, that is a personnel matter. I will again defer to the city manager in that she has done her due diligence. I don’t know him. Never met him. My view of the role of the city manager is it is her job to hire the best staff available. Then, if she does not do that, the council is to hold her accountable. The only hiring it is perfectly acceptable for the council to engage in is that of the city manager. We leave to her making decisions to hire and fire, the recruiting and hiring of staff. I think that if she has made poor decisions in hiring staff, we should hold her responsible, up to letting her go.”
With regard to the ACAA/AHD project, Nickel said, “I am not aware of a contribution from ACAA LP or AHD LP. If I received one, I will certainly disclose it, as I believe the project will be brought back. I believe it is a good project at a site that has been blighted for many years, and will bring much needed sales tax revenue into the city by largely non-residents. It is a very good project.”
Nickel cited the council’s 2015 decision to close out the city’s municipal fire department and reroute a percentage of its property tax to the county to pay for the county fire department delivering fire safety service throughout the city as a rationale for his support of the ACAA/AHD project.
“The city had to be forward looking on its new tax course, since we have shifted our property tax over to the county,” he said. “Any project that will generate net tax revenue to the city is worthy of consideration. We have to be focused on every opportunity to grow net sales tax revenues. “
As to Persico’s opposition to the liquor availability element of the project, and its proximity to the freeway, Nickel said, “He made a recommendation. Those are made all the time. Regardless of those recommendations, the council has the discretion to approve them or deny them or come up with an alternative. There were plenty of times we agreed with or didn’t agree with a recommendation. We as the council have the right to differ with staff, and we are not bound by what staff recommends. As for Mr. Persico, he struck me as being nothing other than a consummate professional. We have plenty of liquor stores, plenty of establishments near our freeways. Am I proponent of selling liquor? No. I would prefer something different. But this was more of a net benefit than detriment. We don’t do central planning and determine what is the best use to go in where there are vacant properties. That is a function of the open market. If a business has obtained licensing and permits, it is not my place to judge the desirability of that business and where it should go. You don’t want politicians deciding what businesses are to go where. If and when a business has met all the prerequisites, it is not our place to dictate what type of business they are going to conduct.”
Nickel said, “Contributions have no bearing on our decisions. All are gauged on relative merit and net benefit to the city insofar as I am concerned.”
Councilman Fred Shorett likewise said that the council was not going to second guess Travis-Miller’s personnel decisions, which he said she has absolute autonomy to make in her capacity as city manager.
He said he was not familiar enough with Bloom or his track record to say whether by hiring him Travis-Miller was ushering the city even further along into a pay-for-play environment.
Money is already a significant element of politics and the purchasing of influence is par for the course, Shorett said.
“As far as John Valdivia getting $2,000 and Henry Nickel getting $1,000 from the project proponent and voting on the proponent’s project, that is perfectly legal under state law and our city charter,” Shorett said. “Maybe they should have disclosed that at the time of the vote, but even that is not required as long as they listed that on their campaign reporting documents. Anyone who wants to can go look to see where politicians are getting their campaign money.”
By Mark Gutglueck