By Mark Gutglueck
Recently installed San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia on Wednesday night came within a hair’s breadth of staking a dominant position over municipal operations in the county seat, failing to reestablish something on the order of the de facto strong mayor status that was eliminated with the 2016 revamping of the city’s 111-year old charter only by a deft parliamentary maneuver by one of the two council members who are clearly outside of his political camp. That move, at best, appears to have been a delaying tactic that will only postpone Valdivia’s determined climb to an unfettered pinnacle of power in what remains San Bernardino County’s most populous city.
The January 2 San Bernardino City Council meeting was the first of 2019 and the fourth conclave of the newly-composed council. The new council is headed by Valdivia, a then-incumbent councilman in the city’s Third District who in the November 6, 2018 election ousted one-term Mayor Carey Davis while two other council candidates who were aligned with him likewise achieved victory in their districts. Wednesday’s meeting offered the clearest demonstration yet of the new political order that has descended over City Hall. As the council members discussed how to flesh out a proposal that would have empowered the mayor with a nine-member staff to extend his communicative and directive reach in the 220,000-population city, it became clear that Valdivia can rely on four more-or-less solid votes among the council. The council currently stands at six members but will move up to its normal 7-member full strength a little later this year after a replacement to fill the Third Ward vacancy that came about when Valdivia departed from that post to move into the mayoralty is chosen in a special election. It thus appears that Valdivia possesses the requisite votes to move his agenda forward, at least for the next two years.
In the November balloting which corresponded with the statewide gubernatorial general election, Valdivia outpaced Davis, 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent. In the city’s Second Ward, Sandra Ibarra cruised to an easy 2,371 vote or 62.12 percent victory over Cecilia Miranda-Dolan with her 1,446 votes or 37.88 percent, after both had finished second and first, respectively, in the June Primary election, ahead of the Second Ward incumbent Benito Barrios, who finished third. In the First Ward, Theodore Sanchez, who is Valdvia’s cousin, emerged victorious in November over Gil Botello, after those two had finished second and first respectively in June among a field of four after the incumbent, Virginia Marquez, declined to seek reelection. Sanchez’s November margin over Botello was 1,633 votes or 56.76 percent to 1,244 votes or 43.24 percent.
The 2018 election marked the first election cycle carried out under the auspices and terms of the revamped San Bernardino municipal charter approved by voters in 2016. Valdivia, served as city councilman for nearly seven years, the first two of which Pat Morris was mayor and the last nearly five of which Davis led the council and the city. Davis was elected under the city’s 1905 charter, which gave the mayor a greater degree of authority than did the 2016 redraft. Thus, when Valdivia was sworn into office last month, he came into office in a slightly different capacity than had Davis, whose term was extended nearly a year because of the changes to the charter. The 1905 charter provided the mayor with a fair degree of political authority, as the mayor did not normally have a vote among the council, but was empowered to cast a vote in the case of a tie, and further possessed veto power on votes of 4-to-3. The mayor also wielded the council gavel and presided over the council meetings, setting the tenor of and controlling the ebb-and-flow of debate. The mayor had authority to place action and discussion items on the council agenda at will. The 1905 charter at the same time provided the mayor with substantial administrative and ministerial power, with the authority to both hire and fire city employees, as well as make decisions and give orders with regard to the operation and management of the city. In this way, under the previous charter, the mayor and city manager were essentially co-regents at City Hall.
The new charter leaves the mayor’s political assignment intact and virtually unchanged, with no power to vote except in rare circumstances such as the hiring of senior city staff and in the event of a tie. It leaves the position with veto power on 4-to-3 votes as well as control over meetings and placement of items onto the council agenda for action and discussion. The new charter, nonetheless, strips the mayor of the administrative and managerial authority formerly infused in the position.
Those in support of the charter change asserted that the strong mayor form of government that had been in existence in San Bernardino for more than a century was out of step with the modern standards of municipal governance and that its mixed responsibilities and lines of authority created a malaise and confusion of direction that burdened the city with crippling ambiguities with respect to the authority of the city manager, mayor and council. The overlapping of the authority of the city manager and mayor and the city council had led to a situation in which the reformers maintained everyone was in charge so no one was in charge. The revamped charter was placed before the voters in 2016 and was supported by Davis and his predecessor Patrick Morris, despite the attenuation of the mayor’s power that it represented. Both Davis and Morris said the manner in which the 1905 charter hampered the efficiency of governance in San Bernardino was a factor in the city’s decades-long financial decline that ultimately resulted in a Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection filing in 2012. They, with a significant contingent of others, lobbied heavily in favor of the charter redraft, which they insisted created a clear, concise, and transparent council-manager form of government in which the council’s powers are limited to legislative and policy making, and gives them no administrative or managerial capacity, allowing for city staff to operate with a degree of flexibility so that the machinery of government would function efficiently and effectively. Valdivia did not support the charter change. The city’s voters passed the charter change by a substantial margin in the November 2016 election, with 27,478 or 60.57 percent in support and 17,890 or 39.43 percent in opposition.
Thus, upon coming into office, Valdivia was without the independent administrative, appointment and removal powers that Davis and all of his predecessors as San Bernardino mayor going back more than a century possessed. Moreover, City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, who had been hired into the city’s top staff position in August 2017 on a five-year contract, was empowered at that point as the city’s undisputed chief executive officer, with a free rein over day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month municipal operations, unfettered from having to share that authority with the mayor.
For Valdivia, whose ambition and political drive ran toward seizing more control rather than surrendering it, it was just a tad discomfiting that the position which he had just captured carried less clout than it did when Davis, whom he had just defeated, held the mayor’s gavel. It is not altogether surprising that almost immediately after Valdivia was in office a move to attenuate Travis-Miller’s power ensued. On December 19, the very day that the newly elected city council was installed, the ruling coalition that Valdivia was striving to assemble took a run at Travis-Miller. Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, in her first major act as an elected official, on that night asked her colleagues to consider evaluating Travis-Miller’s performance. The council acceded to the request and a special meeting of the council was scheduled for Friday morning, December 21 at 10 a.m., at which the council was to hear public input before going into a closed session to carry out, according to the agenda a “conference with labor negotiators” with the Valdivia representing the city regarding what the agenda said was an “unrepresented employee: city manager.” A second special meeting of the council was scheduled for the same day, commencing at 6 p.m. On that agenda was another session of public input to be followed by the council adjourning once again into a closed session to, “Discuss and take action on termination of employment agreement with the City Manager Andrea M. Miller without cause.”
At both of the morning and evening public input sessions, residents weighed in with regard to the advisability of terminating Travis-Miller, with some lauding her talent and performance while advocating that the council keep her and others voicing criticism of her comportment as city manager so far and recommending her firing. The council adjourned into the evening closed session, with Travis-Miller’s fate hanging in the balance. They emerged some two hours later, having taken no reportable action, a signal that there was not, at that point, sufficient will among the six council members to cashier the city manager. Nevertheless, a message had been sent to Travis-Miller that she was skating on some pretty thin ice. Like an aggressive batter who crowds the plate only to have a 102 mile-per-hour fastball thrown at his head by a pitcher intent on reminding his opponent of who is in control of the ball and the situation, Travis-Miller found herself sprawled out on the dirt over the weekend leading into the Christmas Holiday. She has since gotten back onto her feet and dusted herself off, but much of her swagger is gone.
This week, on January 2, round two in the battle for political/managerial primacy in San Bernardino played out. On the agenda was a staff report/request for council action authored by Travis-Miller “on behalf of Mayor John Valdivia” carrying the subject line “Proposed Staffing Level for the Office of the Mayor.”
The language of the report demonstrated the degree to which Travis-Miller, following the threat to have her fired, has now signed on to assist Valdivia in assembling a team at City Hall that will actuate his agenda. Travis-Miller in the report asked the city council to “Review, discuss and consider proposed increases in the staffing level within the
mayor’s office to support the operational needs as identified by the mayor; and authorize the director of finance or designee to amend the FY 2018/19 Adopted Budget by appropriating up to $242,000 from the general fund reserve into the various affected salary accounts to establish 6 new positions in the office of the mayor. In future years the costs, which are projected to be up to $483,000, would be recommended as part of the annual budget.”
The report states, “Mayor Valdivia has identified changes in the organizational structure within the mayor’s office to provide the personnel needed to support the objectives that have been set forth by the mayor. As such, he requested that I prepare the analysis and necessary adjustments to the annual operating budget to make this change.”
First, Travis-Miller spelled out the funding to facilitate the function of the mayor that already exists.
“The FY 2018/19 adopted budget for the mayor’s office includes funding in the amount of $305,692 for three full-time positions. These positions include one chief of staff; one assistant to the mayor II; and one assistant to the mayor III. In order for Mayor Valdivia to achieve his objectives, he is proposing to fill the three existing positions and add six new positions which would result [in] the following for the mayor’s office: One chief of staff; one executive assistant to the mayor; one assistant to the mayor III; one assistant to the mayor II; four assistant[s] to the Mayor I; and one senior customer service representative to serve as front office receptionist.”
According to Travis-Miller, “The executive assistant to the mayor position will replace the existing budgeted assistant to the mayor III position. The proposed position is less than the current budgeted position. The difference between the two positions is approximately $19,300 per year. The proposed six (6) additional positions would be assigned the duties as follows: assistant to the mayor (4 positions). This position will serve as liaison between the mayor and constituents, district organizations, local governments, and state and federal agencies. This classification will monitor pertinent local issues, especially those involving local agencies, and keep the mayor and staff up to date on pending matters. Assistant to the mayor II (1 position). This position will serve as the communications director for the mayor to assist in his role as the chief spokesman for the city. Senior customer service representative (1 position). This position will serve to greet visitors to the office; answer, screen and transfer telephone calls; refer calls or requests for services to the appropriate departments and agencies; and assist in preparing correspondence and other duties as needed in support of the mayor’s office.”
Under the subheading “Budgetary Considerations,” Travis-Miller wrote, “At the December 19, 2018 City Council Meeting, members of the city council identified the need for investment in a general plan update along with additional planning staff, trained code enforcement officers, street repair and improvements, and city property maintenance improvements. As the city manager, it is my obligation to ensure the mayor and city council have the information needed to fully evaluate and contemplate the potential impacts of policy decisions. Approval of the proposed increase in staffing in the mayor’s office will have an impact on the city’s current budget, as well as its long term financial planning. As we look towards the next fiscal year, the preliminary estimate indicates that there is a projected deficit of over $2 million. There are needs throughout the organization that have been identified that cannot be met as this time due to budgetary constraints. Those that have the most impact at this time include the estimated $2-to-$3 million cost related to the update of the general plan. Additionally, the community development [department] is operating in an increasingly complex and litigious regulatory environment. The current staffing level is inadequate to assure basic compliance. As the city builds up, the infill development process will be considerably more complex as every new project directly affects existing businesses and the conditions in existing residential neighborhoods. In order to be in a position to move the city in a positive direction there needs to be adequate staff in each division including additional planners, plan check positions, and staff to support in land development and economic development; and in addition to the city prosecutor position, additional code enforcement field personnel are needed. Animal control is operating with limited resources, and as the city continues to invest in its infrastructure, increased public works staffing is needed to address the maintenance and facility issues. These needs do not include the significant investment that is needed in the police department nor the more than $100 million in deferred maintenance costs identified in last year’s budget process.”
Under the subheading “Financial Impact,” Travis-Miller wrote, “The annualized additional cost of the six new positions in the mayor’s office would be between $365,100 and $483,129 annually (depending on starting salary placement) up to $483,129 (at top step salaries) greater than what is currently budgeted. Assuming the new positions will be filled as early as January 2019, the additional cost in FY 2018/19 is nearly $242,000 (6 months of top step salary and benefits). The proposed additional cost of the new positions in the mayor’s office over the next 10 years is estimated to be more than $3.7 million.”
Despite those financial considerations, Travis-Miller indicated that Valdivia’s request was in keeping with the city’s already pronounced “2018-2019 goals and objectives” in that “The proposed changes to the mayor’s office align with Goal No.3: Create, maintain and grow jobs and economic value in the city, as the perceptions of the city are directly related to our ability to encourage and attract economic development to the city and Goal No.7: Pursue city goals and objectives by working with other agencies such as federal, state, and regional governments to ensure San Bernardino receives its fair share of resources by maintaining close working relationships with other governmental agencies.”
In the report’s conclusion, Travis Miller wrote, “It is recommended the city council review, discuss and consider the requested staffing changes to the mayor’s office and amend the FY 2018/19 adopted budget accordingly.”
At Wednesday night’s meeting, Valdivia stated his rationale for asking for the six new aides.
“This is in concert and keeping with the new administration that voters have elected me to, to provide a new vision, a new vision for our community, a new vision and new passion for rebuilding and rebooting the computer here at City Hall,” Valdivia said. “My vision is to engage our community. It is to establish the responsive metrics necessary to have that engagement with our community. This community is desperately in need of leadership and is yearning for it. They are craving leadership from the mayor’s office that is attuned to the needs of their interest and their community needs. Community members across the 65 square miles of this city – Believe me, I know it, I’ve walked it, I understand it – individuals in this community have constantly called me about calls that go unanswered, that emails are seldom responded to, that phone calls are not returned. So, there is a desperate need for our community to remain at the forefront of the mayor’s office. I do have an open door office that will serve the needs of this community. As I traverse this city and the last several weeks I have committed to the community that you will have an open door in the mayor’s office. Make an appointment. We will accommodate your interests, your requests, and we are there to hear the needs of our community.”
Valdivia continued, “Part and parcel of this community engagement process is to also build a bridge between residents and our city government. This has been long absent in prior administrations and I have made it a goal of mine to make sure that the mayor’s office leads this community with an attentive ear, listening to the community. Listening to their needs is paramount to building and rebooting city government. The city charter section 303 subsection E clearly identifies and recognizes the mayor as the head of the city government for all ceremonial purposes. Further, in section 303 F, it states and recognizes that the mayor is the chief spokesperson for the city. Furthermore, in section 303 subsection G, the new charter passed in November 2016 clearly requires the mayor to represent the city in intergovernmental relationships and establish and maintain these partnerships and regional leadership opportunities to advance the city’s interest. In chapter two of the municipal code, the municipal code expands the leadership role of the mayor. The municipal code also recognizes the need for the mayor’s office to be the chief spokesperson for this community. So, where the charter is not explicit, the municipal code then provides additional details. In order to accomplish the mission of my office and fulfill the duties delegated by the charter, the new charter, the mayor must have appropriate staffing. In tonight’s item, there is an emphasis on community engagement, with an emphasis on field service for taxpayers, an opportunity for our nearly 250,000 constituents. The opportunities are vast and the community is desirous of a mayor who is in contact and in keeping with their wishes on their priorities.”
To hire the six employees into his office, Valdivia said, “the cost is $242,000. That is the real cost if we were to approve that this fiscal year.”
Gary Saenz, a holdover from the previous charter’s governing arrangement as the elected city attorney whose elected position has now been eliminated under the new charter but who will remain in his post until next year, offered his legal opinion that creating positions within the city’s ranks directly answerable to the mayor is in conflict with the new city charter.
Saenz said an evaluation of the previous charter by the former mayor, the city manager, a management consultant and himself led to the conclusion that the previous charter lacked clear lines of authority which gummed up the city’s machinery of government.
“Our observation was that was significantly responsible for leading the city into bankruptcy,” Saenz said. “So we made the charter change. The charter change significantly reduced the role of the mayor in the City of San Bernardino and as such… the council manager form of government had clarity and that was a form of government that was utilizing best practices, and the clarity resulted in a removal of the dysfunction that the City of San Bernardino had previously experienced for decades. The voters adopted the new charter and the charter became the constitution of this city upon its adoption.”
Saenz said the city had retained San Bernardino County’s former chief executive officer, Greg Devereaux, as a management consultant and that Devereaux emphasized the importance of everyone doing his or her part to execute the game plan as devised.
“His [Devereaux’s] words to the council and all the officers and the department heads were ‘Do your job,’” Saenz said. “That was the direction he gave us, that the council manager form of government was not going to work for the city even though it had been adopted and we all had at that time bought into the city council/city manager form of government, that it is not going to function properly unless everybody does their job. He analogized it to a football team where everyone is running around haphazardly and not doing their respective job that they have to do on the field; then they are not going to have success. The charter provides that the council is legislative and the council defers to the discretion of management to choose the proper means to achieve the council’s goals.”
Saenz then emphasized that the charter defined the mayor’s and city council’s roles as being legislative and the city manager’s intended function as being “the implementation of that legislative policy.” The charter, Saenz said, goes on to further prohibit the council from interfering with the city manager’s administration of the city. He quoted directly from the charter that “Neither the council nor the mayor shall interfere with the city manager in the exercise or performance of his or her power or duty.”
Saenz continued, “So, my concern when I first saw this come before council was that our success is going to depend upon everyone staying within their lanes. When I saw the numbers of those [employees proposed] within the mayor’s office, my concern was that the intention here was, or if not the specific intention the likelihood, that lines would be crossed, that authorities would be confused and we would not stay within our respective lanes. That is a problem I wanted to avoid. As the city attorney for the City of San Bernardino, it is my job to do what I need to do to make sure there is compliance and adherence with the charter. That is the law of the land, like it or not. When the mayor and all of the respective officers were elected, they are elected under the terms of the charter. In other words, the mayor is the mayor within the confines of the charter.”
The mayor having large numbers of city employees answerable directly to him rather than to the city manager, Saenz said, was a violation of both the spirit and the letter of the current charter.
Valdivia, who was in control of the meeting, was yet intent on achieving his goal of filling out his staff to the requested strength of nine, and he was not inclined to accept Saenz’s interpretation as binding. He threw the matter into a full discussion by the council, sensing that the majority sentiment aligned more closely with him than with Saenz.
The first two council members to weigh in were Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill. During the last half of Davis’s mayoralty, a schism had developed on the council, with one faction headed by Davis and the other following Valdivia’s lead. Both Shorett and Mulvihill, along with former councilwoman Virginia Marquez, were unqualifiedly within Davis’s camp. With Marquez and Davis no longer in office, Shorett and Mulvihill now find themselves cast in the role of the council dissidents, as the rest of the panel appears to be under the sway of Valdivia at this point. Both Shorett and Mulvihill are Vietnam War veterans and are not only the oldest but longest-serving members of the current council. Indeed, they find themselves on a different side of both a generational and philosophical divide than the balance of the council, all of whom are two, three and even four decades their junior. Shorett and Mulvihill hold Valdivia, about whose honesty and integrity they harbor doubts, in disdain, though Mulvihill for the most part does a far better job of masking his attitude than does Shorett. Both, together with Saenz, represent the sole remaining obstacle to Valdivia’s ambition.
Shorett said he was concerned with the financial aspect of loading the mayor’s staff with a half dozen more employees.
“The community is not supportive of this,” said Shorett. “We have three [support staff members] for the mayor’s office and four for council support, plus six more in the mayor’s office to make a total of nine. Fiscally, we can’t afford the six and certainly not 13.”
Referencing the three-person mayoral staffs in Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga, Shorett said, “That far exceeds any of these other comparisons.”
Shorett said, “I can’t support this item. I would caution my colleagues that we are going against the will of the voters that voted a charter change that has been aptly defined here by our city attorney. Our mayor has interpreted it his way. Our legal [adviser] has [interpreted it] that way. I think it is fair to say that in the law there are many times you can interpret the same thing differently. The judge then makes a decision.”
While Shorett said he accepted that Valdivia as mayor was the city’s de facto “chief spokesman,” he said Valdivia should fulfill that role himself and that he does not have license to hire someone else to speak for him using taxpayer money.
“Being the chief spokesman doesn’t imply you have your own communication director,” Shorett said.
Shorett suggested that a degree of political patronage was at play in the effort by Valdivia to stack his staff with associates who are loyal to him by providing them with sinecures. He referenced the circumstance involving one-time San Bernardino County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors/later County Assessor Bill Postmus, who similarly hired 13 of his political cronies to work within the assessor’s office, virtually all of whom had no experience, expertise or even rudimentary knowledge with regard to evaluating the worth or real estate or assessing properties, and who in many cases engaged in political activity under Postmus’s employ. Postmus is now in state prison on political corruption and misappropriation of public funds charges relating to his misuse of the assessor’s office. Several of those he hired were convicted on charges relating to their misuse of the assessor’s office’s facilities to engage in the partisan activity they carried out in those positions. By extension, Shorett suggested that Valdivia was likewise intent on utilizing taxpayer money to provide members of his political machine with jobs and the opportunity to engage in partisan activity to further advance himself politically.
Mulvihill expressed an equal degree of skepticism that Valdivia intended to employ the proposed nine-person contingent that was to be at his disposal in the service of the city, suggesting that he would utilize them as a political cat’s paw for his own personal benefit.
“I have to say I’m not going to vote in favor of this for a number of reasons,” said Mulvihill. “I think the city charter does say the mayor is the chief spokesperson, not the representative [of the entirety of the council].”
Mulvihill said the contemplated hirings are too costly.
“Finances are my concern,” said Mulvihill.
He then suggested that Valdivia is slated to engage in some globetrotting that will ostensibly be represented as an effort to serve as an ambassador for San Bernardino to bring back foreign investment, but those junkets will actually be efforts by the mayor to advance himself, feather his nest and benefit himself both politically and financially.
“The mayor plans on being out of town a lot, in Shanghai or Singapore, wherever, and presumably that’s why he needs special people here to do that,” said Mulvihill. “But the point is it’s your job to be listening to the people yourself as well as the council. That’s why there’s seven wards here. We listen to the people. And a private receptionist? We had one receptionist that took care of the mayor and the council and still had time to take care of administrative functions. I’m concerned about finances there.”
Mulvihill said the money to be spent on increasing the mayor’s staff could be better used to hire staff in the city’s planning department or the police department. Of planning personnel he said, “We could have those in-house.” Of policemen he said, “We’re still about 60 officers short. There’s all sort of shortages we have in the city to fill before we have a private receptionist. Why do you have a communications director in the mayor’s office? It sounds as if the mayor is the only person to have information communicated back and forth. The communications officer should work for the entire council and the city manager.”
Mulvihill said, “My personal intuition is this is wasteful. I don’t know why it’s being concentrated in the mayor’s office. Is it hubris that you need to have an entourage? I don’t see it. I’m not going to vote for it. I think it’s wasteful. I think you’ve got three very good people now,” Mulvihill said, referencing the staff the mayor already possesses.
Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra asked Valdivia if the mayoral staff would be able to act in the capacity of field representatives for her district. Valdivia said, “My immediate thought is yes, we would like to be responsive to all constituents in every ward. We will do our best to handle those problematic areas for council members. We anticipate having a very collaborative relationship with council members.”
Said Ibarra, “I would like to have a field rep helping me. I would like to have somebody I can fall back on from time to time to assist me. Right now we only have three staff members.” She said she would appreciate “having the back-up staff who can help us.” She said, “I have to open the lines of communication with every one in the Second Ward and it is not easy. I am trying to answer all the concerns they have.”
A minor flap ensued when Ibarra, without mentioning them by name, made a criticism of Shorett and Mulvihill for their opposition to hiring the mayoral support staff, suggesting they were slighting their own constituents. “There are several people on the council here who of course are not supporting this but at the same time there are constituents in their wards who are saying they don’t hear from their council people,” Ibarra said. “If there is an issue going on in a part of town and a constituent tries to reach out to their council person, if they don’t respond to them, they are going to try to come to us, adding on to our workload. It would be helpful for there to be someone to help those wards that don’t get responses. We need to represent the people of the city. Right now, the way it is, for us to leave it to each individual council person to be accountable to our constituents in our wards is something that is not happening currently. I’m doing the best I can on my own end and coincidentally the two that are not approving this are the ones whose constituents say they are either blocked or not responded to.”
This provoked both Shorett and Mulvihill, who each said they resented her remarks.
“I take exception with the comments that the two people – myself obviously and Jim – that we’re being criticized by one of our colleagues that we’re not being responsive to our constituents,” said Shorett. “I’ve been elected four times and I’ve been pretty responsive. I take exception with you, as a new council member, criticizing me and my experience and the relationship I do have with my constituency. I think that is wholly inappropriate.”
Mulvihill shot back even more sharply. “I take exception, too,” he said. “You are a new council person. You just showed up. I answer all of my phone calls. I go to all of my neighborhood meetings. I hope you do as good a job as you’re talking. You just got on the council and already you’re overwhelmed. I think you are really going beyond your abilities, right now.”
Councilman Theodore Sanchez, speaking first with regard to the four budgeted council representative positions, of which three are currently filled, said, “I think the roles these people will fill would fit more clearly with the more senior customer service representatives. I’m not sure we need four. I think we could cut some of the fat and I think we could work with a different category for some of these individuals and less of them. I think we need three.”
Sanchez, however, indicated that his cousin, Mayor Valdivia, could make good use of a fair number of field representatives. “I don’t think a mayor who lives in a 60-square mile mile city with a quarter of a million residents is going to be able to get through to even half of them,” said Sanchez. “We need these people.”
Saying he had already interacted with over a thousand of his own constituents, Sanchez said he had heard about the difficulty the city residents were having in communicating with their civic leaders. “There is no way they can reach anyone in City Hall,” he said. “I think there is a real benefit [to the proposal to beef up the mayor’s staff by six] and it is worth the cost.”
Councilman Henry Nickel picked up on what Saenz had said about the city’s elected leadership staying in the lanes laid out for them in the city charter, but turned it to voice support for Valdivia’s proposal. “Essentially, the city council and the mayor act as one unit, albeit the mayor has certain responsibilities,” said Nickel. “There is a certain authority the council doesn’t have, but by and large the mayor is the head of government as the charter spells out. The mayor and council must function as one. In my thinking there is a way to get to a resolution on a number of the issues that have been expressed here. I don’t think we want to devolve back into a strong mayor form of government. I would argue that in fact what we can do tonight is ensure that we achieve the objective of new charter which is to create a truly collaborative mayor and council form of government by aligning the support staff of both the council and mayor under the mayor’s office, accountable to the council, a shared role and responsibility, shared authority, as it should rightly be.”
Nickel said, “I do have an issue with the bifurcation of the reporting structure of the mayor and council, with certain staff reporting to the mayor and certain staff reporting to the city manager. To stay in our lane, I think it is important that the support staff of the mayor and the council are separate and apart from the city manager, accountable to the city council.”
As perhaps Valdivia’s strongest ally on the council, Nickel then signaled his willingness to entrust the primary responsibility for overseeing the council/mayoral staff to the mayor. “Because we are a part-time council, I don’t think it would be appropriate to have a reporting structure to us individually,” Nickel said. “I think that would be confusing. I don’t think that would be fair to the field staff that have to operate under a consolidated management structure. But I do think we can come to a system that ensures we do stay in our lanes.”
Nickel shrugged off Shorett’s and Muvihill’s suggestions that devoting 13 staff members to the mayor and the council was excessive. “We just approved in this budget, if I am not mistaken, six additional staff in the city manager’s budget,” said Nickel. “We went from 17 to 23 in the city manager’s office. We went down from four to three in the mayor’s office. And we’re currently at three in the council, four if you count the vacancy. So we have seven positions supporting the mayor and council and we have 23 support positions in the current budget under the city manager. Those numbers look a little off. I think we as the legislative policy-making body of the city directly accountable to the voters and constituents, the residents of the city, we have an obligation to make sure we can adequately respond to them and serve their purposes and needs. We need to have competent management. We should not be going into the lane of the city manager’s day-to-day operational responsibilities. But equally important, we must make sure that the city manager is not getting into the lane of the policy-making and legislative body of the city, which is the mayor and council. We’re probably going to have to make some overall adjustments to the personnel structure, as well. So what I would recommend tonight is… we not dip into our reserves to fill these positions. What I would like to see is looking at some existing vacancies that we have in the city for the balance of this fiscal year, we allocate from those vacancies to fill these positions and in the next fiscal year we recalibrate the overall personnel structure of the city. I’m not saying that this structure is 100 percent of what I would agree with. I think we do need field reps.”
Nickel suggested a 12-month probationary period for those hired as mayoral/council representative, “so that these staff understand that they have an obligation to the council, that they serve more or less at will, that subject to a vote of the council, if we’ve got four council members that reach a decision that one of these council support staff really aren’t serving the needs of council as a whole, we have the ability to vote under an at-will type contract,” Nickel said.
Councilwoman Bessine Richard signaled her willingness to support a robust mayoral/council support staff by saying, “The city’s not happy.” Continuing, she said, “Every time Andrea [Travis-Miller] comes and she needs to add more staff, I don’t hear nobody complaining. We’re talking about staff who are making $200,000-plus a year. We’re talking about $200,000 for six people, and I’ve always expressed that we need boots on the ground, we need workers on the ground, we need people out there doing work and not just people representing downtown. We need people that can get work done, and I think asking for this is really, really what the people want. I’m in agreement with Henry. Don’t go to the reserves. Have clear job descriptions about what these staff members are going to do, so therefore we won’t duplicate services. We make clear objectives and define it as to who they report to. We need this help. If we can’t operate as one unit, how can we expect to be a world class city?”
Nickel made a motion seconded by Richard to authorize the city’s finance division to amend the 2018-19 budget by appropriating $242,000 from personnel vacancies citywide into the various accounts to establish the requested six new positions in the office of the mayor, which appeared to have sufficient votes – those of Ibarra, Sanchez, Nickel and Richard – to pass.
At that point, Saenz vectored the city’s contract deputy assistant city attorney, Sonia Carvalho, to take a stab at dissuading the council from proceeding along the lines Nickel was suggesting.
Carvalho said that the council might not have the authority to directly employ or supervise city staff members under the charter or in the city’s municipal code, though, she acknowledged, there was no explicit ban on doing so, either.
Valdivia, still determined to flesh out his proposal to arm himself with nine support staff, thanked both Saenz and Carvalho for their input and pressed to move ahead with Nickel’s motion. Before that vote could be taken, Mulvihill offered a substitute motion, which under Roberts Rules of Order takes precedence over a preceding, original motion. Mulvihill’s motion called for giving direction to the city manager to look into the creation of staff positions intended to give “more attention to the city council in terms of filling out their duties, as well as the mayor, in conjunction, not in the mayor’s office per se, but shared” as a legislative body and report back at the next council meeting with structures that could be implemented for the creation of a council/mayoral staff including field reps, a receptionist and a communications director within the parameters of the city charter and the law. That motion was seconded by Shorett. The council then voted 5-to-1 in favor of the motion, with Sanchez voting no.
In a telling sign which some of the meeting’s attendees took as an indication that Valdivia’s staffing request was a political move rather than one intended to enlist staff truly interested in and dedicated to municipal issues, three of candidates handpicked by Valdivia to fill the field representative assignments, two young men and a young woman who had remained seated together in the council chambers throughout the hearing, immediately left after the vote when it became clear that their hiring was not to be approved that night, walking out as Councilman Mulvihill was beginning a report relating to the Southern California Association of Governments’ most recent regional housing needs assessment.
Near the close of the meeting, Valdivia became short-tempered with Shorett, who was attempting to verbally interact with him with regard to some of the remaining items on the agenda that were ultimately, given the lateness of the hour, postponed until the next council meeting.
“Mr. Shorett, would you allow me please to chair this meeting, sir,” Valdivia irately intoned. “I don’t need outbursts from you. I can handle this meeting just fine, Mr. Shorett. I want to encourage you to read the code of conduct on the wall, Mr. Shorett. You will not interrupt the chair in my proceedings.”
By Mark Gutglueck