By Mark Gutglueck
Word emanating from San Bernardino City Hall is that Mayor John Valdivia has made an arrangement with City Manager Teri Ledoux to reestablish for the next 17 months the administrative authority the mayor possessed under the city’s previous charter but which was removed with the passage of Measure L in 2016.
Indications of the arrangement have already manifested, and sources among the city’s more than 700 employees say there is pending action that Ledoux and Valdivia are playing close to the vest that will become apparent shortly.
Among those steps now being taken is the resolution of the leadership question within the police department that is being settled in Valdivia’s favor and the conferring of benefits upon the city’s elected officials, including Valdivia.
Valdivia was first elected to the city council in San Bernardino’s Third Ward in 2011, and he took office in the spring of 2012. Valdivia ran on an anti-reform platform, as his opponent was incumbent Councilman Tobin Brinker. Brinker was a supporter of then-San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris, who was among a core of municipal leaders in California who were calling for substantial reductions in the pay and benefits provided to public employees based on projections that the financial commitments governmental entities had to make to satisfy future pension obligations were overrunning available and anticipated revenues to cities and counties such that in the best case scenario municipal and county governments would no longer be able to deliver fundamental services to their residents and in the worst case scenario their future viabilities as going concerns were threatened.
Valdivia received in particular heavy support from the city’s firefighters union, which was opposed to the economies on city operations, including holding the line on city employee salaries and benefits which Morris and Brinker were advocating as a plan to head off the city’s bankruptcy. Brinker was defeated and slightly more than four months after Valdvia took his place on the council dais, San Bernardino filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. The city remained in that state for nearly five years, during which time it stiffed some 209 city creditors for more than $350 million.
The year after the city’s bankruptcy filing, Morris opted out of running for reelection, instead supporting Carey Davis, a certified public accountant who, it was hoped, would infuse the city with the fiscal discipline required to overcome its severe financial challenges.
Davis achieved election and during his term in office, a movement to reform the city’s charter took hold.
Drafted and put in place in 1905, the San Bernardino City Charter conferred upon the mayor a fair amount of political power and an even more substantial degree of administrative authority. Under normal conditions, the mayor did not possess a vote on the city council; nevertheless, he or she had veto power on any 4-to-3 or 3-to-2 votes of the council, such that in actuality the mayor had two votes. Moreover, the mayor had a vote in the event of a tie among the council. As the political head of the city, the mayor could put any matter of his or her choosing onto the city council’s agenda for discussion and action. Wielding the gavel at council meetings, the mayor controlled the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. The mayor also served as the spokesman for and representative of the city.
On the administrative end of things, under the 1905 Charter, the mayor had the authority to unilaterally hire and fire city personnel. Thus, San Bernardino’s mayor was not only the most dominant political personage in the city but also in terms of management and administration, a co-regent of municipal affairs in conjunction with the city manager.
Ultimately, however, the movement to reform San Bernardino’s charter in the wake of bankruptcy took aim at the extraordinary power of the mayor. The prevailing philosophy among those driving the charter reform movement was that an arrangement by which there were two entities in control at City Hall – the mayor and city manager – created, under certain circumstances, a type of bureaucratic gridlock in which the overlapping lines of authority, whenever there was even the slightest degree of difference between the policies advocated by the mayor and city manager, left those functioning below them in a state of paralysis.
Ultimately the San Bernardino charter reform package presented to the city’s voters as Measure L in 2016 kept the mayor’s political reach intact but dispensed with the position’s administrative power. The voters passed Measure L, which also contained other changes in the city’s governmental structure, including switching the city clerk and city attorney positions from elected to appointed ones and changing city elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years.
In 2018, after qualifying for a runoff against Mayor Davis in the June primary election, Valdivia outdistanced the incumbent in the November general election.
Upon coming into office Valdivia was made fully aware of the degree to which the mayor’s power had been attenuated by the new charter. The administrative power which all of the mayors before him had possessed, even if some had only used it sparingly, was gone. This was inconsistent with the fashion by which Valdivia had intended to govern the city. Indeed, he chaffed at the restrictions, and in an effort to exercise at least some of the authority he had envisioned, he sought to expand the number of city council and mayoral staff liaisons from the four budgeted positions, three of which were filled, in the mayor’s and city council’s office to fourteen positions overall, with nine of those devoted to the mayor as his clerical staff, field representatives and chief of staff. That proposal met with resistance from both city staff and three of the council’s members.
At that time, the council was down to six-sevenths strength because Valdivia had resigned from his position as Third Ward councilman to assume the mayoralty, and that post remained vacant. Thus, Valdivia found himself hemmed in and unable to empower himself or his office. Indeed, Valdivia and his then-chief of staff, Bilal Essayli, struggled through most of the first six months of Valdivia’s tenure in office simply trying to consolidate power on the council. Ultimately, Valdivia established political primacy by backing one of his protégés, Juan Figueroa, in the May election to succeed him as Third Ward councilman. With the support of Valdivia’s political machine, which provided Figueroa with more than $70,000 in electioneering funds, Figueroa was handily elected. The day Figueroa was seated on the council, following Valdivia’s direction, the council terminated City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, whom Valdivia considered to be an obstructionist to his order of rule. Thereafter, Valdivia elevated Travis-Miller’s assistant, Teri Ledoux, to the position of city manager. Ledoux was given the city manager’s assignment despite her possession of a very thin résumé and a lack of senior managerial experience. Indeed, the 61-year-old Ledoux was nearing the end of her career and was merely looking to hang on for just another year or so before retiring, at which point she would have been eligible to pull from the California Public Employees Retirement system a $122,472 per year pension, based upon her 25 years employment with the cities of San Bernardino, Huntington Beach and La Verne.
In providing Ledoux with the promotion to city manager, Valdivia upped her annual salary to $259,674, subject to a 3.5 percent raise as of yesterday, August 1. Thus, Ledoux will be eligible to receive an annual pension of $181,642.50 if she manages to stay in position as San Bernardino city manager for at least 12 months of her 18-month-long contract.
While the terms of Ledoux’s official contract were made publicly available at the time the contract, retroactive to July 1, 2019 and running through December 31, 2020, was ratified last month, hidden from public view are the conditions that Ledoux must meet to ensure that she is not terminated in much the same fashion her predecessor, Travis-Miller, was. Her contract allows the council to terminate here at any point without providing cause. If she does not stay in place as city manager making her current salary, $268,762.59, until July 1 of next year, she will not be eligible to receive the $181,642.50 pension, and will revert to getting $122,472 annually once she retires. Thus, Valdivia has a ready-made inducement for her to have her do exactly as she is told.
In this way, Valdivia has essentially undone, while Ledoux remains as city manager, the limitations placed upon the mayor by the 2016 Charter. Whereas the 2016 Charter stripped the mayor of his or her previous administrative authority, Valdivia is in the position of being able to dictate administrative policy to Ledoux, who is now obliged to carry out that policy or otherwise risk losing her enhanced pension. Hence, through Ledoux, Valdivia exercises what is in essence unchecked administrative authority.
One dictate that Valdivia has made and which Ledoux is in the process of carrying out, City Hall sources maintain, is the promotion of the current acting chief of police, Eric McBride, to police chief. A number of city employees say it has become apparent that Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, who underwent knee surgery last year and was due to return to his post overseeing the department in late February but has remained on leave, will not come back to the post. Internal jockeying for the police chief’s position has been ongoing for several months, the Sentinel is informed. Valdivia favors having McBride, who is roughly two to three years off from retirement himself, to move into the chief’s position. Upon promoting to police chief, which provides for a $250,000 annual salary, McBride will max out his retirement pay. Doing that for McBride is in Valdivia’s interest, the city employees say, as part of the mayor’s effort to ensure a number of investigations involving Valdivia are resolved without any further complication. Placating McBride is a follow-through to an earlier ploy by Valdivia, those employees maintain, to silence the police department about an ongoing investigation into Valdivia’s association with a number of business interests, including his cavorting with unlicensed cannabis purveyors who are believed to have provided him with substantial sums of unreported money.
On March 20, the city council, at Valdivia’s behest, voted to reclassify seven sworn personnel in the police department, consisting of five patrolmen or detectives becoming sergeants and two sergeants becoming lieutenants. That action was taken in anticipation of the city at some future point opening police department substations at key locations throughout the city to engage in community-oriented policing and make the department’s personnel more accessible to the public and more sensitive to neighborhood needs. Curiously, however, in making those promotions the council drew short of actually committing to the establishment of the substations, which have yet to be identified as to location. Rather, the council made a vague declaration of a “future” opening of the facilities, which have not yet been purchased or leased.
“There will be no recruitment process for police chief and it won’t go to the council for approval because in this situation, where it is convenient for John Valdivia, he will argue it is the city manager’s decision under the new charter,” one well-placed city employee said.
Another administrative action Ledoux is undertaking without question to accommodate Valdivia is ensuring that the mayor and his family and city council members and their families are provided with the same taxpayer-funded health and medical care coverage as is given to the city’s management employees and their families as part of their employment contracts with the city.
LeDoux is also committed, the Sentinel is reliably informed, to reviving and facilitating Valdivia’s efforts to beef up the mayor’s staff which met with rejection earlier this year.
Valdivia has instructed Ledoux to be circumspect and discreet in carrying out her assignments on his behalf, and to keep controversial or potentially controversial issues and information under wraps for as long as possible to prevent opposition forming ahead of time which could derail the action Valdivia and Ledoux are undertaking. The idea is to spring these developments upon the public after they have already taken place or are so far toward completion that they cannot be stopped, the Sentinel was told.
“Just as she is doing the mayor’s bidding with the appointment of Eric McBride as police chief, Teri also kept the mayor’s appointment of Matt Brown as the mayor’s new chief of staff a closely guarded secret,” the employee said. “She has known about that for weeks.”
At least three of the members of the council had the expectation that Ledoux would carry out a serious recruitment effort for a longer term city manager, the city employee indicated. That is not going to take place until Ledoux is assured she will fulfill the requirement relating to her pension increase that she stay in the city manager’s position at least a year, the city staff member said.
“Even though at the last council meeting council members Nickel, Ibarra, Mulvihill and Shorett all indicated they wanted a plan at the next council meeting, August 7, for hiring a permanent, experienced and committed city manager, there won’t be any item on the agenda,” the employee said. “They will quietly continue to keep her in her position.”
Ledoux has held herself off limits to the press.
By Mark Gutglueck