Bilal Essayli’s tenure as San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia’s chief of staff has ended, after six months of a relatively successful but sometimes chaotic power transition.
What, precisely, led to Essayli’s departure was unclear, as both he and Valdivia resisted making any public utterances once it became public that Essayli was to leave.
The timing of Essayli’s exit added to the confusion, as it comes after a series of advances for Valdivia in terms of his consolidation of power but also shortly after the emergence of what may yet prove to be the most daunting challenge to Valdivia’s mayoralty, consisting of a recurrence of the financial crisis that felled San Bernardino’s last two mayors.
A child of Lebanese-American immigrants, Essayli was raised in Corona and graduated from Centennial High School there. He obtained his law degree from Chapman University School of Law and passed the California bar in 2010. He obtained a position as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Riverside Branch Office, where he garnered some minor notoriety in trying cases against drug traffickers, the prosecution effort against the associates of the perpetrators of the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack and led the prosecution of a Santa Barbara doctor unlawfully prescribing opiates. Restricted by the Hatch Act, Essayli left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to vie in 2018 for the Assembly in California’s 60th District, which encompasses the northwestern corner of Riverside County, including Corona, Coronita, Eastvale, El Cerrito, Home Gardens, Jurupa Valley, Norco and a portion of Riverside. Essayli, a Republican, used rhetoric that was sharply critical of Democrats to advance to the general election on November 6, 2018 with a second-place finish in the June primary, but was handily defeated by Democrat Sabrina Cervantes 67,950 votes or 54.1 percent to 57,710 votes or 45.9 percent in a district in which voter registration is 39.51 percent Democratic to 31.58 percent Republican.
Essayli took a position with the Irvine-based law firm Pacheco & Neach, where he was considered of counsel, a status usually reserved for attorneys with decades of experience who are in a near-retired or retired state.
While in that status, Essayli was free to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff.
Valdivia represents a noteworthy political paradox. Elected to the position of Third Ward councilman in 2011 largely on the strength of the support of the city’s firefighters union that was in opposition to then-incumbent Tobin Brinker because of Brinker’s assessment that overly generous salaries and pensions to the city’s employees were threatening the city’s financial viability, Valdivia was in office for only five months when the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. The city remained in bankruptcy for just short of five years, stiffing its creditors, vendors and those to whom it was in arrears for $350 million over that timeframe. In the meantime, Patrick Morris, who was the mayor in 2012, was replaced by a certified public accountant, Carey Davis, as mayor. While many had hopes that Davis would infuse the city with the fiscal discipline needed to right the city’s listing financial ship, that did not come about as the city continued its profligate spending, largely because of a failure to rein in high salaries and extravagant pension benefits to city employees. One reform Davis managed to push through, against Valdivia’s wishes, was a redrafting of the city’s original 1905 charter. The previous charter had instilled in the mayor relatively broad political control which did not feature an ability to routinely vote but did give him veto power on 4-to-3 and 3-to-2 votes of the council, which was tantamount to two actual votes on the seven-council member panel. In addition, the mayor under the 1905 charter had the ability to hire and fire personnel, which made the mayor along with the city manager a co-regent of the city. In 2016, Davis, in conjunction with a wide range of others, pushed for the charter redraft, which took from the mayor the administrative clout the position once possessed, in the main the ability to hire and fire employees. Valdivia, who at that point already had designs on the mayoralty for himself, opposed the change. The city’s voters, however, endorsed the charter rewrite.
The new charter also pushed the city’s municipal elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years. Valdivia was elected mayor in the city’s first even-numbered year election cycle last year in large measure based upon his identity as a Hispanic candidate in a city where 72 percent of the population and 57 percent of those voting are Latino. Some Valdivia campaign literature sent to Democratic voters dwelt on the consideration that Davis was a Republican, which proved effective, since 47.9 percent of the city’s voters are Democrats and 22.5 percent are Republicans. Conveniently sidestepped was that Valdivia was himself a Republican.
Valdivia came into office holding a grudge against then-City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, who had maneuvered behind the scenes during the 2018 election to support Davis. As early as the day the new members of the council were sworn into office, December 19, an effort was afoot to fire Travis-Miller. Valdivia had the support of the two newly elected members of the council in the 1st and 2nd wards, Ted Sanchez and Sandra Ibarra, both of whom were elected with the assistance Valdivia’s political machine. Valdivia had two other presumed allies on the council, Councilman Henry Nickel and councilwoman Bessine Richard. The move to jettison Travis-Miller that early, however, was complicated by a section of the city code and contractual requirements that mandated a 60-day lag between the election or seating in of a new council member and the firing of the city manager. Moreover, Nickel and Richard were reluctant to rush toward such an eventuality.
There ensued an awkward four-month duration during which Valdivia and those in his camp were pressing ever harder to undo those elements of the new city charter which reduced the mayor’s authority. This entailed beefing up the division of staff employees assigned to serve as liaisons to the city council and mayor. Valdivia, at one point was seeking to have his staff expanded to as many as 14. There was inevitable pushback on this from the two members of the council most at odds with Valdivia, Councilman James Mulvihill and Councilman Fred Shorett. On a number of occasions, Shorett had raucous public run-ins and Essayli and Valdvia with regard to fleshing out the mayor’s staff.
When Nickel expressed reluctance to endow the mayor with the substantial staff Valdivia was seeking, Valdivia’s effort to consolidate his control over the council was temporarily suspended, as it appeared the alliance between Valdivia and Nickel might end.
With Essayli playing a key role behind the scenes, three votes to suspend Travis Miller materialized – those of Richard, Ibarra and Sanchez. When Shorett, Mulvihill and Nickel opposed that, Valdivia used his tie-breaking authority to put Travis-Miller on paid administrative leave. In May, the vacant Ward 3 council position was filled with a candidate backed by the Valdivia political machine, Juan Figueroa. At that point the council featured four candidates it was believed to be solidly behind Valdivia – Ibarra, Richard, Sanchez and Figueroa – giving the mayor a virtual lock on policy decisions going forward. Nickel, faced with political irrelevancy by remaining in opposition to Valdivia, returned to the fold, giving Valdivia unquestioned dominion over the city.
The most immediate manifestation of Valdivia’s newfound grip on the political situation in San Bernardino was a vote by the council majority – Ibarra, Sanchez, Richard, Nickel and Figueroa – to cashier Travis-Miller. The ostensible reason for unloading Travis-Miller was her ineffectual handling of the city’s finances. She had been hired into the city manager’s position in 2017, just two months after the city had emerged from bankruptcy. A year-and-a-half later, the city was in a circumstance in which expenditures on an annual basis were outrunning revenue by more than $11 million. While that figure was significantly less than the $49 million operating deficit the city was faced with in 2012 just prior to its Chapter 9 filing, Travis-Miller had been less than forthcoming in presenting the dreary financial picture to the council, partially in hope of a turnaround manifesting prior to the close of fiscal year 2018-19.
Yet, in relieving Travis-Miller of her command over city staff, the city council had not taken any action toward confronting in a practical way the financial wolves baying at the city’s door. Prognostications, based on the best figures available, indicated that the city was again on a slippery slope moving headlong toward, in the best scenario, a second bankruptcy, and in a more dire reading of the circumstance, toward disincorporation of the city altogether if the bankruptcy court should come to a determination that the city has demonstrated, after skipping out on more than $350 million in debt once, an inability to make the necessary financial reforms to maintain itself as a going concern. Without a drastic shift in the city’s focus and approach, the best Valdivia might hope to achieve is staving off a second bankruptcy until after his term ends in 2023. In any case, he recognized, bankruptcy would not only ruin his mayoralty as had happened to Morris and Davis before him, but dash any hope of his political future. The reality facing Valdivia, however, was that personnel costs in the city entailed in excess of 91 percent of the city’s budget. Moreover, the prospect for a significant enough enhancement in revenue coming into the city to fill the void between money available to pay the city’s bills and the city’s actual expenditures was, based on all past performance, so dim as to be nonexistent. The only hope Valdivia has for political survival at this point is to absolutely reverse the wave he first rode into office on in 2011 when he pledged to the city’s firefighters that he would ensure that their high salaries and benefits would not be touched, and either convince the city’s current workforce to voluntarily take pay cuts in the 20 percent to 30 percent range or show the requisite mettle to have the city impose those salary and benefit reductions unilaterally or otherwise effectuate cost savings by massive layoffs.
Valdivia, Essayli and the rest of his political team then hatched a bold move which was intended to set the stage for across-the-board 25 percent pay cuts within the San Bernardino municipal workforce. The charter revision passed in 2016 had transformed the city attorney and city clerk positions from elected to appointed ones. Last year, the bulk of City Attorney Gary Saenz’s staff, including four assistant or deputy city attorneys, had been displaced in favor of a contractual arrangement with the law firm of Best Best & Krieger for the provision of legal services. Ultimately, upon the expiration of Saenz’s elected term as city attorney at the end of March 2020, Best Best & Krieger will move into the role of city attorney. Similarly, City Clerk Georgeann Hanna’s tenure in her elected post is to end at the close of March 2020, at which point it is anticipated an appointed city clerk will take command of that office. As an object demonstration of the current regime’s intent to bring municipal personnel costs into line with the city’s revenues, Valdivia and Essayli last month placed before the city council a proposal to reduce by 45.8 percent the compensation Saenz is to receive during the nine months of 2019-2020 that he will remain in office and to further reduce the compensation Hanna is to receive during the remaining duration of her tenure by 59.2 percent. Ultimately, at a specially-called city council meeting on June 11, the council voted 4-to-2, with Councilman Jim Mulvihill absent, to ratify the compensation reductions as proposed. Thus, Saenz, who was being provided with $246,266 in total annual compensation as city attorney, including salary, benefits and add-ons, has seen the amount of pay he is to receive between July 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020 reduced from $184,700 to $100,000. Hanna, who was receiving $171,466 in total annual compensation as city clerk, including salary, benefits and add-ons, is now seeing her compensation over the same nine-month span reduced from $128,600 to $52,500,
Downsizing Saenz’ and Hanna’s pay was intended as a prelude to an effort that will call upon city employees to voluntarily reduce their paychecks by 25 percent. The gameplan is to start with San Bernardino municipal employees whose functions are not deemed critical who refuse to voluntarily accept reductions in pay and either lay them off or eliminate their positions entirely. Those employees who hold positions that are indispensable to the city’s operations will be kept in place if they willingly take the pay reductions asked of them. Those who do not will remain in place only long enough for contract employees to be substituted into their places. A critical element of the plan is to get Teri Ledoux, who had been the assistant city manager under Travis-Miller and who was elevated to the post of acting city manager when Travis-Miller was suspended, to agree to accept a salary and benefit package that is roughly two-thirds of what Travis-Miller was provided.
Miller pulled down $307,941.56 in total compensation on a yearly basis, consisting of her $262,542.50 annual salary and $45,399.06 in annual benefits. Thus, it is surmised, the council will offer Ledoux $175,028.34 in annual salary, coupled with $30,770.61 in benefits. If Ledoux, who is currently being paid $172,000 per year in total compensation, were to accept this arrangement, it would leave her with the situational and moral authority to ask the rest of the city’s workforce to voluntarily take 25 percent pay cuts. On July 17, a closed-door negotiating session between the council and Ledoux is scheduled to take place. If during that exchange she expresses a willingness to accept a total annual compensation package in the $205,000 range and take on the assignment of reducing city employee salaries by 25 percent, the city manager’s job is hers. If she balks at those terms, Valdivia will seek to have the council undertake a search for a city manager willing to accept that assignment at the reduced paygrade.
A perhaps inadvertent and certainly unanticipated offshoot of the June 11 specially-called meeting to kickoff the salary reduction effort with the clipping of Saenz’s and Hanna’s pay was that Ibarra, who was widely seen as a steadfastly reliable member of the Valdivia team, parted company from Valdivia over the pay reduction issue. During the debate on the matter, Ibarra offered a contrary motion which called for keeping Saenz’s and Hanna’s remuneration intact and instead eliminating Essayli’s chief-of-staff position. Ibarra’s defection is of larger significance than her single vote on the seven-member council. Should her move toward the positions held by Shorett and Mulvihill persist, the dynamics would return to the circumstance that existed before Figueroa’s election to the council in May, when Nickel sided with Shorett and Mulvihill to block several of Valdivia’s and Essayli’s initiatives. With Richard, Sanchez and Figueroa on one side and Shorett, Mulvihill and Ibarra on the other, Nickel’s vote becomes a potential deciding factor in how many items to be considered by the council will play out. In numerous such circumstances in the past, Nickel has defied expectations to exercise power that under normal conditions his role of casting one vote among seven does not afford him.
Whether Ibarra’s show of independence and her move to essentially fire Essayli had an impact on Essayli’s decision to move on is unknown, as neither he nor Valdvia have deigned to address that specifically or Essayli’s departure in general.
Of Essayli’s leaving, Councilman Shorett said, “My belief is he was not the right fit for San Bernardino from the beginning. I wish him well in whatever he is going to do now. My understanding was the relationship between him and John [Valdivia] was something that grew out of their both vying for election at the same time last year, and the Republican money that was involved in both of their campaigns. He lost in the 60th [Assembly District] and they were introduced through a common fundraiser who worked on both of their campaigns. I don’t know the details, but their connection had a lot to do with the Republican Party.”
Shorett said that Valdivia indicated he and Essayli had “parted on good terms, but I don’t accept that. He left because he wanted to. I believe, and it’s just my belief, that Essayli may have been seeing things about John he didn’t like. He’s a lawyer with maybe a political future and he’s being cautious by disengaging from Valdivia while he can.”
Shorett said, “John has put out he is in the course of interviewing four people to replace him [Essayli]. It was John’s initiative to create this chief-of-staff position under the new charter. Well, I’m going to take it as my initiative to eliminate that position. We don’t need a chief of staff. I can tell you I will be working hard to eliminate that out of our budget and not support it financially.”
Continuing, Shorett said, “As a group, the council and the mayor, we are a legislative body. John talked about and Essayli talked about being an executive. Well, the mayor is not an executive, not under the new charter. The new charter does not require the mayor to have a lot of impact on or responsibility for day-to-day operations. He is, and I accept that he is, the spokesman for the city council. But he is not the spokesman for the city. He should be part of the legislative body working together to set policy for the city. He doesn’t need an entourage to do that. In addition to the chief of staff he has these three bogus field reps. I don’t need any field reps. That’s why I’m elected. I’m the field rep for the Fourth Ward. I don’t need a field rep to go to meetings for me. I’ll go to the meetings myself. If somehow I can’t make it, I’ll have one of my council colleagues go for me.”
Nickel said of Essayli’s departure, “It wasn’t a surprise. He has been talking about moving on for a while, over the last couple of weeks. I know it has just become public now. People move on, obviously. He was a prosecutor who ran for office. He left his post as a government employee when he ran for office. I have been there and done that. Running for office is disruptive to your life in general and your career. Immediately after going through the process it takes a while to get recalibrated. At this point he may have opportunities in terms of offers from a law firm.”
Asked if Essayli’s leaving would disrupt the function at City Hall, Nickel said “I don’t think so. He was part of our building process. He is a former prosecutor who knows how to ask tough questions. He was investigating things that quite honestly needed to be investigated and he did a decent job. There were a lot of things brought to light I suspect we never would have known about that we learned of because of his work. The council recently has made decisions based by and large on the work he did, bringing to light things we weren’t aware of.”
Councilman Ted Sanchez said of Essayli, “He left on good terms. When he started we did not expect he would stay very long. He came here just after the new council was in place. We and the mayor understood what he was being asked to do was make sure the mayor could do what he was trying to do, which was to get the train on the right track. Once the heavy lifting was done, he was going to be gone. We knew after the election we would have some serious opposition. We finally had a mayor from the south side. We had two people on the council who would not appreciate the new mayor or the people in the mayor’s circle. We knew his [Essayli’s] time would be limited. He managed to get us through the first budget.”
Moreover, Essayli “found a way to make city staff accountable for the decisions they are making,” Sanchez said. “He was able to get a budget passed. Staff was well aware there was an $11 million deficit. We ran into that much later than we should have basically because the staff was actively hiding it. They had made policy decisions that pertain to our budget and fiscal integrity, and lots of things were kept from us. This was my first time on the council, my first term in office, and when I came in, I was stunned. The atmosphere was ‘Okay, you just sit back and approve everything put in front of you.’ When the council started to assert itself, we were accused of micromanaging. That was because all of the authority had been taken away from the council. The staff had taken over. Bilal Essayli came in and asked some very tough questions. He then asked us if we knew about this $11 million deficit. He brought it to our attention. Staff would have continued to move numbers around in such a way that without him, this would not have come to light.”
Sanchez said, “With this new mayor we now know what staff is doing. We have a new city manager in place. I think we are seeing a new trend. We have to remain aware of everything that is going on in the city. The previous city manager was selectively providing information and large elements of the budget were actively hidden from us. Keeping us, the council, in the dark no longer works in our city. Before, too many decisions were made by staff and the council was expected to just rubberstamp everything put in front of us. The new mayor and the new council did not believe that was how things were supposed to work. We have in place staff members who are willing to work with the council in executing its vision of what is best for the city. Those that don’t believe that is how the city should be run are no longer with us. The city council is again in charge. In the past the role of the mayor and the city council was abdicated to the staff. The policy of the city was being dictated by staff. There has been a giant reset in the first six months that we have been here. You can credit much of that to Bilal Essayli.”
Bilal Essayli’s tenure as San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia’s chief of staff has ended, after six months of a relatively successful but sometimes chaotic power transition.