Figueroa’s 3rd Ward Council Victory Clinches Valdivia’s Hold On SB City Hall

It appears that John Valdivia has solidified his hold on the political machinery at San Bernardino City Hall with the election of Juan Figueroa to the position on the city council Valdivia was obliged to vacate in December to assume the mayoral post he captured in the November 2018 election.
Voters were provided with three choices in the vote-by-mail election the city council agreed to use to find Valdivia’s replacement: Anthony Aguirre, who initially signed up for the contest but then withdrew after it was too late to remove his name from the ballot; Juan Figueroa; and Treasure Ortiz.
That mail polling ended on Tuesday, May 7 when the city’s post offices closed at 5 pm. As of today, at 1:14 pm, Figueroa had a commanding lead, as 1,432 votes had been tallied and he had captured 948 votes or 68.65 percent to Ortiz’s 371 votes or 28.86 percent and Aguirre’s 62 votes or 4.49 percent. While some straggling mail-in ballots postmarked on Tuesday may conceivably arrive today, there is virtually no chance there will be enough of them to change the outcome when what is anticipated to be the final outcome of the race is revealed with the updating of the count on Monday, May 13 at 4 pm.
Figueroa’s ascendancy is virtually indistinguishable from that of Valdivia, to whom Figueroa is wholly indebted, as it was Valdivia’s political machine which conducted the campaign on his behalf. His donor list for this spring’s campaign reads like a virtual carbon copy of Valdivia’s 2018 mayoral campaign donor list, including $2,500 from Social Entertainment Group LLC of Encino; $3,000 from A&A Holdings Store of Riverside; $2,500 from Werm Investments LLC of Sherman Oaks; $1,954.40 from the San Bernardino Police Officers Association Political Action Committee; $2,000 from Orange Show Holdings of Ontario; and $1,000 from Clifford Cummings. Figueroa was provided $7,300 from Valdivia’s campaign fund. From all manner of donors, Figueroa received $80,231, which totally overwhelmed Ortiz, who collected $23,613.38 from all of her donors.
Valdivia is a paradoxical entity.
In 2011, he was elected to the Third Ward council position, defeating the incumbent, Tobin Brinker. Valdivia won with heavy support of the city’s firefighters union, which opposed Brinker, as he was a member of the council coalition that included then-Mayor Patrick Morris and other council members committed to heading off the city’s financial slide by holding the line against escalating personnel costs brought on by constant salary raises and benefit increases to city employees. Valdivia took office in March 2012. Five months later, the city was obliged to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, as its declining financial circumstance was no longer tenable.
Touting himself as a financial and social conservative, Valdivia nevertheless opposed all moves to deny city employees raises, and was particularly adamant that police officers and firefighters be provided with yearly salary and pension increases, despite the consideration that their salaries accounted for 71 percent of the city’s budget.
In 2015, the Carey Davis-led city council was struggling to map the city’s way out of bankruptcy, calculating that it would need to drastically reduce the city’s costs to do so. Since police and fire department salaries represented better than 70 percent of the city’s costs, the game plan being hatched called for getting the city’s public safety personnel to voluntarily reduce their salaries and benefits. The policemen and firemen were having nothing to do with that, however, and the city council and city management did not have the wherewithal to accomplish that on its own. A provision put into the San Bernardino Charter by means of a citywide vote in 1939 – known as Section 186 – required that the city’s firefighters and police officers be paid on a scale equal to the average pay of police officers and firefighters in ten similarly-sized California cities. Whenever the city council or city manager sought concessions from either of the unions representing those two groups, the employee representatives would invoke Section 186. In 2016, the city council found its way around a good deal of that dilemma, moving to shutter the city’s 137-year-old municipal fire department and have the county’s fire division take over the provision of fire safety service within San Bernardino’s city limits. Valdivia and Councilman Henry Nickel emerged as the lone opponents to that move.
The following year, the city council again moved to alter municipal reality in the city, putting a measure on the ballot to dispense with the city’s 111-year-old charter. The charter in place since 1905 called for an elected city clerk, an elected city attorney, an elected mayor and an elected council. While the 1905 charter did not give the mayor a vote on the council, it did provide him with the power to veto any vote that passed by a 4-to-3 or 3-to-2 margin, translating in actuality to the mayor possessing two votes. The mayor wielded the gavel at council meetings, conferring upon him the power to control the ebb and flow of debate, and the power to recognize both members of the council and of the public during public discussions leading up to council action. As significantly, the mayor under the previous charter had the power to hire and fire city personnel, which put him on a par with the city manager in terms of administrative reach.
The proposed 2016 charter reform measure, in addition to transforming the positions of city attorney and city clerk from elected ones to appointed positions, dispensed with the mayor’s administrative role, such that he was no longer empowered to hire or fire city personnel and no longer had the status of being with the city manager the co-regent of the city.
Davis was an advocate of the reform, though it would have the effect of curtailing his personal power. Valdivia, who had at that point emerged as Davis’ primary political rival, opposed weakening Davis or any subsequent mayor, primarily because he coveted the mayor’s post for himself.
The city’s voters in November 2016 passed the charter reform as proposed.
Valdivia enunciated an anti-medical marijuana availability line the first five years of his tenure in office, maintaining that the drug was a bane on society and destructive to San Bernardino in particular. Upon the statewide move toward the liberalization of legal and social standards with regard to cannabis, including allowing it to be cultivated, sold and used for its intoxicative effect, he virtually overnight became the city’s leading champion of the marijuanafication cause and now counts deep-pocketed cannabis entrepreneurs among his major political donors to the point that the FBI has electronic taps on all of his forms of communication.
Similarly, Valdivia has decried the social ills that have beset San Bernardino, including its ranking as the 14th most violence prone city of its size in the country, in which one is three times as likely to be assaulted and four-and-a-half times as likely to be murdered, on average, than anywhere else. In 2018, after the proponent of a fast mart/gas station development within Valdivia’s Third Ward provided him with $2,000 in his run for mayor, he supported allowing that facility, which was to be located next to the 215 Freeway, a permit to sell hard liquor. The city’s community development director, Mark Persico, while supporting the development of the gas station and accompanying convenience market at that location, had recommended against the hard liquor sales component of the operation. Shortly after that gas station/liquor store was given approval by Valdivia and a prevailing number of his council colleagues, and after Valdivia qualified for the November run-off for mayor against incumbent Mayor Carey Davis in the June Primary election which involved seven candidates, Valdivia went along with City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller’s move to fire Persico.
Valdivia, a Republican who fought assiduously and failed to obtain the county GOP’s endorsement over fellow Republican Carey Davis in last year’s mayoral election by asserting he had impeccable conservative credentials and was more in keeping with his party’s ideals than Davis, during the November election carried out a campaign that utilized his Hispanic extraction and name to convey the impression that he is a Democrat, a shrewd calculation given that San Bernardino is a Democratic town, with over 44,000 or 48 percent of its more than 93,000 voters registered as Democrats while the city’s Republican voters number just over 21,000 or 22.5 percent, even fewer than the more than 22,500 voters or 24 percent who have no party affiliation.
Upon his defeat of Davis in the November 2018 election, Valdivia at once began casting about for a way to reinfuse the mayoralty with some or all of the power that had been taken away by the 2016 charter change. This included beefing up the support staff the council then had – consisting of four city employees who were as answerable to the city manager as they were to the elected leadership – into 13 positions, including the mayor’s chief of staff who would oversee eight staffers serving at the mayor’s pleasure.
Also elected to the council in November 2018 were Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra and First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez. Both were ready Valdivia allies. When Valdivia assumed office, it thus appeared Valdivia had the backing of a sure majority of the council – consisting of Nickel, Ibarra and Sanchez and Councilwoman Bessine Richard.
As it would turn out, however, Valdivia’s effort to consolidate power too soon ran into some temporarily rough sledding. The day that Valdvia, Ibarra and Sanchez were sworn into their mayoral and council positions, Ibarra at once called for an evaluation of City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller. During the 2018 election, Travis-Miller had lent support quietly, though apparently not quietly enough, to Davis. That had proven unwise, and as Valdivia assumed the mayor’s gavel from Davis, Travis-Miller was on Valdivia’s radar screen. Nevertheless, that early after the election neither Richard nor Nickel were ready to pull the trigger on Travis-Miller.
Valdivia put sacking Travis-Miller on temporary hold. Concentrating on more than tripling the depth of the mayoral/council staff, Valdivia next encountered resistance from Nickel, as well as councilmembers Jim Mulvihill and Fred Shorett when they saw what they thought amounted to Valdivia attempting to empower himself beyond the parameters of the newly-adopted charter. Nickel’s reaction was significant, because over the previous four years he had evolved to become Valdivia’s strongest and most reliable ally on the council. Nickel balked at going along with the mayoral staff increases. Valdivia’s maneuverings to overcome Nickel’s defection from the Valdivia reservation created more tension still. This included an episode in which Nickel, Shorett and Mulvihill simply walked off the dais in the middle of a meeting to prevent the council, which was functioning at six-sevenths strength because of the vacancy in the Third District, from maintaining the requisite four participating member quorum for the council to make a vote. That matter, relating to hiring the staff Valdivia wanted, appeared to be headed toward a 3-to-3 deadlock with Nickel, Shorett and Mulvihill opposed and Richard, Sanchez and Ibarra in favor. Valdivia would then have been eligible to vote, as in addition to veto power the mayor also carries tie-breaking authority. Without that four-council-member quorum, no vote could take place.
On April 3, nearly five months after the November election, Councilwoman Richard came around and showed herself willing to support Valdivia in getting rid of Travis-Miller. During a closed session for the council’s regular meeting on that day, she joined with Ibarra and Sanchez in voting to place the city manager on paid administrative leave, resulting in a 3-to-3 deadlock, with Shorett, Mulvihill and Nickel on the other side of the question. Valdivia, using his tie-breaking authority, tipped the scales to suspend Travis-Miller.
At its May 1 meeting, the council went into a closed session to again deliberate Travis-Miller’s fate. Presumably, the votes of Richard, Ibarra and Sanchez were available to force the matter to a crisis, whereupon Valdivia stood ready to again break the tie and hand Travis-Miller a pink slip. Doing so on a bare majority, however, was considered gauche and perhaps even politically risky. A decision on the matter was put off, meaning the council would not return to it until after the Third Ward election had concluded.
With Figueroa now on track to take his place on the council dais as well as representing the Third Ward in the private discussions the entire council is entrusted to engage in behind closed doors in hashing out some of the most pressing issues facing the city, Travis-Miller will soon be a permanent part of San Bernardino history.
Nickel sized up the implication of the special Third Ward election that concluded May 7.
“There is certainly going to be a majority on the council that is very much aligned with the mayor,” Nickel said. “The voters have spoken. That’s the way the system works. John did a good job of putting his team and his agenda together. In actuality, there is not too much, if anything, of what that agenda is that I’m not in favor of. I too am pro-business, pro-public safety, pro-growth. John is putting an economic development ad hoc committee together as we speak that has the potential for tremendous benefit to the San Bernardino community. We need growth and revenue. A whole new approach behooves us. He and I are perhaps different in our approach as to how to achieve some of those things and what we might implement to achieve certain goals, but overall there is not much we differ on in terms of the substance of what we should be trying to achieve. We need to renovate the mall site. We need to give our police department the resources its officers need to enforce the law. We should leverage the opportunities we have at our airport. I am in tune with just about every aspect of what John is doing or trying to do.  If there are differences of opinion between us, it’s on how we move forward.”
Nickel continued, “We are making a series of what amount to major staff changes that are a natural and inevitable shift following an election. I am hoping to see some stability in terms of our staff when this settles down. When you are elected you have to work with other people who are elected. It is necessary to put personality issues aside and devote yourselves to accomplishing the job at hand.”
To the Sentinel’s direct and pointed inquiry, Nickel said, “I don’t foresee Andrea [Travis-Miller] coming back.”
Nickel said the reservations that his three colleagues had about the way the city was being managed, particularly within the last  year, were legitimate.
“I am at present very concerned about our budget deficit,” Nickel said. “We had to fill in $7 million during a recent council meeting. When we look at our leadership over the last year, I think it is very clear we have had a lack of financial controls.  When we came out of bankruptcy, we more or less committed ourselves to imposing spending controls. We have overspent our revenues considerably, particularly in our public works department. Now our public works director [Trish Rhay] has decided to go elsewhere. Our finance director [Brent Mason] left just as this $7 million shortfall was becoming evident. We need to look at that. It cost us $7 million-plus to correct major errors in the budget approved last year. We were functioning through most of this year on significantly overestimated revenues. I’m not going to say why that occurred at this point, but there needs to be [accountability] on the part of the city manager, who is responsible for presenting the budget to the council. If what is presented to the council turns out to be out of line with fiscal reality, that individual has to be held accountable. I’m not saying we should expect to hit a perfect balance with every last line item, but when we see we were presented with a budget that is off by $7 million, that is a pretty significant error.”
Figueroa’s election carries with it a significant impact on two of his soon-to-be council colleagues, Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill. Both are out of step with Valdivia on multiple score, and neither has made a secret that they consider Valdivia to be both dishonest and a political opportunist. The degree to which they are at odds with the mayor, compounded by the consideration that he now has the clear backing of a majority of the council, leaves them with inadequate political muscle and has transformed them into virtual irrelevancies on the council for the next two years.
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply