By Mark Gutglueck
After only a brief vacancy, the San Bernardino mayor’s chief-of-staff position has been filled by an experienced political operative whose long and storied track record offers a strong indication of the direction the city’s leadership will take over the next two years.
Mayor John Valdivia’s choice of Matt Brown to succeed Bill Essayli, who remained in place as chief of staff for less than seven months, taken together with other recent developments, presages Valdivia’s intention to leap to another political position next year, most likely either California state senator in the 23rd District or Fifth District San Bernardino County supervisor. Moreover, the move is an indicator of Valdivia’s recognition that the city’s re-immersion into bankruptcy within the next three years is virtually inevitable.
Valdivia’s decision to associate himself with Brown is a revealing one.
By the last few years of the last century and in the first years of the Third Millennium, Brown was looking for a way to monetize his interest in politics or perhaps make a career out it. Taking stock of San Bernardino County as one of the last bastions of Republicanism in the Golden State, the Grand Terrace resident made himself into a self-styled Republican Party activist. In Horatio Alger-like fashion he lifted himself by his bootstraps into a position whereby his political activism was transformed into something tangible.
In 2002, Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Paul Biane, a real estate professional and the scion of the Biane Family wine-making dynasty within the by-then fading Cucamonga Wine District, challenged and defeated longtime Second District San Bernardino County Supervisor Jon Mikels. Both Biane and Mikels were Republicans; Biane represented the up and coming generation of West End Republicans; Mikels, once an upstart himself, had aged into a member of the Old Guard. With Mikels’ vanquishing, Biane turned to a set of Young Turks, in this case Brown and Tim Johnson, another youthful GOP acolyte, to assist him in his role as supervisor, making them his chief-of-staff and senior field representative, respectively.
Shortly after taking his new position with the county, Biane formed a political alliance with another up and coming young Republican, Bill Postmus. Within two years of his election to the board, Biane would accede to the position of vice chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, second only in the county GOP hierarchy to Postmus, who was then chairman. Three years later, at the height of his political power, Biane would obtain the simultaneous positions of chairman, like Postmus before him, of both the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee.
The foundation of Biane’s advancement to that enviable position of power had been laid by Brown working on his behalf. For the next several years, the relationship between Brown and Biane would prove a synergistic one. In 2003, Brown, newly enabled and newly empowered by his status as Biane’s chief of staff, had embarked on an energetic project to upgrade Biane’s recent electoral victory in the Second District into a political machine – the Biane Political Machine in which he would be the vicar. As part of this effort, Brown worked to extend Biane’s reach – and that of his own – beyond the Second District. This involved the creation of political action committees that he would control at Biane’s behest and which would gather sizable contributions from Republican donors which the pair could then dole out to candidates of their choosing, including those vying for municipal, county, state and federal office. In this way, their efforts matched those of Postmus and his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, who likewise created political action committees of their own. This was in time augmented by a bold move by Postmus, Biane, Mitzelfelt and Brown who in 2005 asserted that the sheer expanse of 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County prevented many of the GOP’s representatives in the furthest-flung sections of the county from attending the county Republican Central Committee meetings. Postmus and Biane proposed, and the central committee accepted, creating an executive committee of the central committee that would be empowered to vote in the central committee’s stead on all issues related to the county Republican Party. Postmus then set about naming himself, Mitzelfelt, Biane and Brown as four of the executive committee members and recruiting the remainder of the executive committee members from the ranks of those loyal to him and Biane exclusively, all of whom with the exception of one who were employed by him or Biane as members of their supervisorial staffs. The four – Postmus, Biane, Mitzelfelt and Brown – had become virtual kingmakers in a county which at that time had more registered Republican voters than registered Democrat voters. In only the rarest of circumstances could a candidate for major public office achieve success without first paying homage to Postmus, and by extension, to Mitzelfelt, Biane and Brown.
This circular homage often took the form of tribute – monetary tribute – after a candidate was elected with money doled out by the Central Committee. Once in office, those endorsed by the Republican Central Committee were expected to show their gratitude and allegiance by firing up their own fundraising machinery which by virtue of incumbency allowed them to put the arm on potential donors, and then give back to the political action committees controlled by Postmus, Mitzelfelt, Biane and Brown, i.e., make fund transfers to those accounts for future king-making efforts.
For his part, Brown, a resident of Grand Terrace, created several political action committees, some of which were used to fund political campaigns near his home turf, such as races for the Grand Terrace City Council or the Colton City Council. Those were peripheral efforts, however. Brown’s primary political action committee was the San Bernardino County Young Republicans, which he set up in 2005.
Two years later, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans entity would play a critical role in what Jerry Brown, who was in 2010 California Attorney General, said at that time was “the most appalling corruption case in decades, certainly in the history of San Bernardino County and maybe California itself.”
Then-Attorney General Brown’s reference was to the events and circumstances leading to a $102 million payout of taxpayer money in 2006 to settle a lawsuit brought against San Bernardino County and its flood control district in 2002 by the Colonies Partners over flood control issues at the Colonies at San Antonio residential and Colonies Crossroads commercial projects in northeast Upland. The Colonies Partners was a consortium of investors led by managing principals Jeff Burum and Dan Richards.
After Postmus and Biane together with then-supervisor Gary Ovitt voted, with then-supervisor Dennis Hansberger and supervisor Josie Gonzales dissenting, to confer upon the Colonies Partners a $102 million payment in November 2006 to end the lawsuit, Burum and Richards in the late winter, spring and early summer of 2007 made a $100,000 donation to the San Bernardino County Young Republicans; a $100,000 donation to a political action committee set up by Ovitt’s chief of staff, Mark Kirk, known as the Alliance For Ethical Government political action committee; and another $100,000 donation to the Committee for Effective Government political action committee, an entity controlled by former sheriff’s deputies’ union president Jim Erwin. Burum and Richards also made two $50,000 donations to the Inland Empire political action committee and the Conservatives for a Republican Majority political action committee, both of which were associated with or controlled by Postmus.
In May 2009, Hollis Randles and Maury Weiss, investigators with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, approached both Mark Kirk and Matt Brown, aggressively questioning them with regard to the $100,000 contributions to the Alliance For Ethical Government and the San Bernardino County Young Republicans, suggesting that they constituted quid pro quos, i.e., kickbacks, provided in exchange for the approval of the $102 million settlement. While Kirk and Brown initially cooperated with the investigators by agreeing to undergo questioning, Kirk ultimately lawyered up. Unbeknownst at that time to any of his associates, Brown, in exchange for an assurance that he would not be prosecuted, agreed to cooperate with the district attorney’s office. That cooperation included Brown wearing a wire – a hidden audio recording device – while he was at work in Biane’s supervisorial office in an attempt to capture utterances by Biane that would implicate him in bribe taking. That Brown would engage in such drastic action indicates the district attorney’s office actually had, as District Attorney’s Office Investigator Hollis Randles suggested during its interrogation of him in the spring of 2009, sufficient evidence against him to obtain a conviction. Brown’s understanding with prosecutors included his agreement to turn state’s evidence by testifying against those with whom he was formerly closely affiliated.
In 2009 Brown went before a criminal grand jury and testified that he believed there were quid pro quos in involved in the $102 million settlement and the political donations that Burum made following it, and it appeared that Burum delivered payoffs to the supervisors that supported the settlement.
In February 2010 prosecutors with the California Attorney General’s Office working in tandem with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office charged Postmus with receiving a $100,000 bribe, paid in the form of the two $50,000 installments to the Inland Empire and the Conservatives for a Republican Majority political action committees he controlled. Also charged was Erwin, who worked as a consultant to the Colonies Partners during their efforts to have the lawsuit settled and who was later hired by Postmus to serve as assistant assessor after Postmus was elected county assessor. Prosecutors alleged Erwin participated with Burum in an extortion scheme targeting Postmus and Biane that preceded the November 2006 vote and assisted in the delivery of bribes to them after the vote was made. Identified in that criminal complaint as unnamed and uncharged co-conspirators were Burum, Richards, Biane, public relations professional Patrick O’Reilly and Kirk. Conspicuous by his omission from the complaint as an uncharged co-conspirator was Brown. Both Postmus and Erwin, who were charged variously with a host of crimes including conspiracy, extortion, soliciting bribes, accepting bribes, perjury, filing falsified documents and other violations of the public trust, pleaded not guilty to those charges.
At some point in the spring of 2010, Biane became aware that his chief-of-staff was using a hidden electronic recording device and seeking to entrap him. There ensued strained relations between the two. Brown was put on paid leave after he filed a claim in which he alleged he was being harassed. Brown was then transferred to the county auditor-controller/recorder-county clerk’s office, then headed by Larry Walker. Walker installed Brown as his second-in-command, i.e. as the assistant auditor-controller. In so doing, Walker ousted his longtime assistant and close associate, Betsy Starbuck, who was ignominiously sacked after having served more than twenty years as Walker’s right hand woman, both when Walker was Fourth District supervisor, the position he held before he ran for county recorder/auditor-controller, and as county recorder/auditor controller.
Starbuck’s displacement, after she had served more than eight years in the position of assistant auditor-controller and practically ran the division, to accommodate the inexperienced Brown was imposed on Walker by County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux as part of District Attorney Mike Ramos’s effort to protect a witness seen as crucial to the prosecution of the criminal case that had grown out of the Colonies lawsuit settlement.
In March 2011, Postmus reversed his earlier not guilty pleas and pleaded guilty to all fourteen counts contained in the charges filed against him the previous year along with one other unrelated drug possession count, and agreed to turn state’s evidence. He was the star witness before a newly-impaneled grand jury that heard evidence and testimony from a total of 45 witnesses, including Brown, in April 2011. In May 2011, that grand jury handed down a superseding 29-count indictment that collectively charged Erwin, Burum, Biane and Kirk with conspiracy relating to the alleged bribery scheme. Erwin was hammered with multiple counts, including receiving a bribe, acting as Burum’s agent, perjury, filing falsified documents and tax evasion. Biane was charged with soliciting and receiving a bribe in exchange for his vote. Kirk was charged with receiving a bribe in exchange for influencing his boss, Ovitt, to vote to approve the settlement. Burum was not charged with bribery. Rather, prosecutors fashioned charges against him that alleged aiding and abetting Postmus, Biane and Kirk in receiving bribes, tortured language that was necessitated by the elapsing of the statute of limitations relating to the bribery at the heart of the case, which had occurred some four years previously. The defendants were also charged with conflict-of-interest and misappropriating public funds. No substantive counts of extortion were charged in the superseding indictment. The extortion counts against Erwin in the February 2010 criminal complaint were dispensed with, although extortion implications were wrapped into the broad conspiracy count contained in the May 2011 indictment.
Brown’s testimony before the grand jury in 2011 was a key element in broadening the criminal case to include the three additional defendants.
A paradox running through the indictment was that Brown, who like Kirk was the chief of staff to one of the three supervisors whose votes were crucial to supporting the $102 million settlement and who like Kirk was the founder of and had control over a political action committee that received, just as Kirk’s political action committee had, an identical $100,000 contribution that prosecutors alleged was a kickback provided in exchange for the vote supporting the settlement made by the supervisor each of them served as chief of staff, Brown was not indicted while Kirk was. The clear implication was that Brown, who had been caught up in the alleged criminal activity every bit as much as Kirk was, had avoided prosecution and was allowed to remain in a lucrative position with the county as a consequence of his willingness to assist the prosecution in making a criminal case against his former political associates.
For more than five-and-a-half years, Brown remained as Walker’s top assistant, which included working with him through a reorganization in which Walker handed responsibility for the recorder’s function over to the assessor’s office and took on the added assignment of treasurer and tax collector. In 2014 Walker was reelected to the treasurer-tax-collector-auditor-controller’s office. Less than two years later, in early 2016, he resigned from the post. When the board of supervisors complied with Walker’s recommendation that it appoint Oscar Valdez to serve out the remaining two years of his term as country treasurer-tax collector-auditor-controller, Valdez kept Brown in place as the assistant auditor-controller. Brown thus retained the status, stature and credibility of being an assistant county department head.
After more than five years of legal sparring between defense attorneys for Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk and prosecutors, including demurrers filed on behalf of the defendants, several of which were granted by the Superior Court, sustained upon appeal by the prosecution at the appellate court level and ultimately overturned by the California Supreme Court, the long-delayed case against the four defendants went to trial in January 2017.
At that trial, in February 2017, Brown was called as a prosecution witness.
The two prosecutors handling the case, San Bernardino County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Lewis Cope and Supervising Deputy California Attorney General Melissa Mandel, were counting upon Brown to blow a hole below Biane’s waterline and wreak similar damage to Burum, by responding to selectively tailored questions which would essentially replicate his testimony before two grand juries almost eight years and nearly six years before. The expectation was that Brown would lay out for the two juries hearing the case – one impaneled to consider the case against Burum, Biane and Kirk and the other deciding the fate of Erwin – that at Biane’s direction he had used the San Bernardino County Young Republicans political action committee to launder the bribe his boss had received from Burum in exchange for his vote to approve the $102 million lawsuit settlement, and that he, Brown, was himself caught up in the corrupt political machinations of Biane, his one-time boss and best friend and closest political associate.
Upon coming into the courthouse and coming face-to-face with Biane, whom he had not seen or spoken with for nearly seven years, Brown lost his nerve. On the stand, just three months shy of eight years after Brown made a decision to cooperate with investigators and betray Biane, who had elevated him to the position of chief of staff in his office and whom Brown in his testimony described as his best friend and the best man at his wedding, Brown came across as reluctant to fulfill the role the district attorney’s office had taken as an article of faith he would live up to. To dozens of questions put to him by Supervising Deputy California Attorney General Melissa Mandel, Brown responded that he did not know or that he could not remember. Generally, the questions being asked of him were ones he had fielded before, during his appearances before two grand juries, one in 2009 and the other in 2011. Indeed, it was in some measure on the strength of those previous statements that the indictment had been handed down. Prosecutors had expected that Brown would essentially recapitulate his earlier testimony, this time in front of the two juries that were hearing the case.
Brown’s comportment in the witness box under direct examination discomfitted the prosecution. Unable to get Brown to freely and fluidly provide the jury the testimony she had been anticipating, Mandel sought to salvage the prosecution’s case as best she could, trying to revive the case narrative by having Brown read portions of the transcripts of his grand jury testimony or statements to investigators to refresh his recollection before she would then direct questions to him. By quoting passages of that testimony or those statements, she was able to prod him into grudging answers that paralleled his previous testimony that was in some measure damaging to the defendants. But that process was both tedious and awkward, and in some of his responses and remarks Brown was able to express or cast doubt with regard to the complete accuracy of his previous statements. Moreover, by his demeanor, Brown was outwardly conveying that he was being forced to testify contrary to his own volition. This, combined with his assertions he vouchsafed in his testimony that he been bullied and intimidated by the district attorney’s investigators, conveyed the impression that he might have previously been telling investigators what they wanted to hear rather than what he knew or believed to be the truth. Mandel was so frustrated by Brown’s intransigence that at the close of his first day of testimony after he and the jury had exited the courtroom, she told Judge Michael Smith, the judge presiding over the trial, that “This is a very different Mr. Brown than we expected to see. Obviously, something has gotten to him.” Judge Smith concurred, stating, “I’m making a finding he [Brown] is being intentionally evasive.”
After Brown endured two-and-a-half days on the witness stand under direct examination by Mandel, he was thereafter subject to cross examination by defense attorneys, who for months had been preparing an aggressive line of questioning for the witness meant to severely damage his credibility. Yet, that strategy was suddenly deemed inoperative in light of Brown’s bearing and the apparent hostility he had evinced on the stand toward Mandel.
Indeed, Brown’s tenure as a witness at the trial would evolve to feature what can be described as surreal overtones, as the prosecution on occasion found itself seeking to impeach its own witness while the defense filled the role of seeking to uphold the credibility of an individual who had been instrumental in assisting investigators and prosecutors in assembling the case against the accused.
Stephen Larson, the lead defense attorney for Jeff Burum, was able to elicit from Brown that he was essentially unconvinced, despite his earlier testimony before two grand juries and the suggestions of district attorney’s office investigators to the contrary, that there had been anything improper or illegal about the $100,000 contribution his San Bernardino County Young Republicans political action committee received in June 2007 from the Colonies Partners. Larson doubled down, getting Brown to say as well that he did not believe there was anything illegal about the county’s $102 million settlement with the Colonies Partners, which again ran contrary to Brown’s grand jury testimony.
Brown’s testimony under cross examination revealed that he was interviewed/interrogated by district attorney’s office investigators, who were in the main led by Hollis Randles, nine times in person and 12 times over the phone from April 2009 through April 2010, totaling 20 hours of recorded conversations. Many of those contacts with the investigators related to efforts by Brown to audio-record Biane, and on at least two occasions, Postmus. All told, between September 2009 through April 2010, Brown surreptitiously recorded 87 conversations totaling about 26 hours, most of those with Biane.
Larson, in his cross examination of Brown, also focused on the fashion in which the investigators, in particular lead investigator Hollis Randles, browbeat and sought to intimidate him while seeking to extract from him statements to further the case the district attorney’s office was attempting to build, despite Brown’s repeated assertions that the words they were laboring to place in his mouth were not true.
“They were trying to get you to change your answers, correct?” Larson asked Brown.
“Correct,” Brown said.
Larson questioned Brown about the prosecution’s contention that Biane had secretly controlled the San Bernardino County Young Republicans political action committee, one of the recipients of the $100,000 contributions made by the Colonies Partners in 2007 which prosecutors characterized as disguised bribes.
Brown acknowledged that Biane had control over the political action committee along with him and another Biane staff member, Tim Johnson, but indicated there was nothing secret about it and that Biane had openly and actively raised the majority of the money brought into the committee.
Larson elicited from Brown that it was his idea to create the San Bernardino County Young Republicans club and its accompanying political action committee.
“It wasn’t created to receive bribe money, was it?” Larson asked.
“No,” Brown said.
Larson pressed Brown to state that his statements to investigators and before the grand jury were based in large measure on rumors, his opinion rather than his direct knowledge or his efforts to placate his interrogators to get them off his back. With regard to Brown’s statements before the grand jury to the effect that the Colonies settlement was tainted by graft or bribery, Larson asked, “You speculated before the grand jury?”
“Yes,” said Brown. “I think it was my opinion and I trusted my gut feeling.”
Brown’s retreat during the trial from his testimony before the two grand juries he went before in 2009 and 2011 proved disastrous for the prosecution. Ultimately, after an eight month trial, Burum, Biane and Kirk were acquitted of all of the charges against them. The jury deadlocked on all of the charges against Erwin, after which the prosecution moved to dismiss the case against him.
Mandel, Cope and then-District Attorney Mike Ramos considered bringing perjury charges against Brown, but put that on hold while the trial was yet ongoing. When Burum, Biane and Kirk were acquitted and his jury failed to convict Erwin, the district attorney’s office and the California Attorney General’s Office forsook bringing criminal charges against Brown.
By 2017, most of the high ranking county officials who had been in on the deal with Brown by which he was spared prosecution and rewarded beforehand with a lucrative and prestigious sinecure in what turned out to be the county treasurer-tax collector-auditor-controller’s office were no longer in place. County officials in 2010 were willing to make the trade for Brown’s anticipated testimony because a convincing performance by him during the trial held out the promise that the $102 million that was paid to the Colonies Partners in 2006 and 2007 in the lawsuit settlement might be recovered. After Brown’s testimony during the actual trial, at the county’s command echelon, among the county’s top administrators in county’s chief executive office suite, there was a sense that Brown had put one over on everyone. Nevertheless, cashiering him in the immediate aftermath of the failed prosecution of Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk would have been unseemly, and Oscar Valdez, the county treasurer-tax collector-auditor-controller, kept him in place as the assistant auditor-controller.
In the 2018 election, Valdez’s effort to hang onto the post he had been appointed to following Walker’s exit proved unsuccessful, when Ensen Mason, who had vied against Walker in 2010 and 2014, outpolled Valdez in the November 2018 race.
Upon coming into the office in January, Mason made clear that he intended to fill the assistant auditor-controller position with a licensed certified public accountant. He agreed to keep Brown in place during his transition into the office while he searched for a suitable long term assistant auditor-controller, giving Brown an opportunity to find another position.
This week came word that Valdivia had settled on hiring Brown to replace Bill Essayli, who voluntarily departed as the mayor’s chief of staff last month.
The reviews of Essayli’s performance in San Bernardino were mixed. An attorney who had been a member of the bar since 2010, Essayli was employed for a time as an assistant U.S. Attorney. 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. Meanwhile, he went to work with the Irvine-based law firm of Pacheco & Neach. After his defeat in the 2018 election, having been introduced by others within Republican Party circles to Valdivia, Essayli accepted employment as Valdivia’s chief of staff. Pacheco & Neach indulged him in filling that assignment, yet keeping him of counsel with the firm.
Essayli is credited with assisting Valdivia in making his transition into office in replacing immediate past Mayor Carey Davis, whom Valdivia defeated in the November 2018 election.
Valdivia’s mayoralty was hampered in some measure by the city’s voters’ 2016 passage of a revamped San Bernardino Municipal Charter, which superseded the city’s 1905 Charter. Whereas the 1905 Charter had endowed the mayor with not only political power but administrative power that nearly equaled that of the city manager, the 2016 charter redraft perpetuated the mayor’s political power while it virtually eliminated the position’s administrative reach.
Valdivia’s intent in seeking the mayor’s post was to be able to orchestrate the city’s official action in a way that was more consistent with the power the mayor had formerly exercised. Upon coming into office, by beefing up his personal staff from four existing positions answerable to the mayor and city council to 14 positions working under the council with nine of those directly answerable to the mayor, Valdivia appeared to be seeking to undo the strictures that had been imposed on the mayor with the charter change.
Though Valdivia started off as mayor in December with what looked to be majority support on the council, he and Essayli encountered rough sledding as they moved to increase the mayor’s influence at City Hall. From late February and throughout March and into April, it appeared that defections from Valdivia’s political team on the council had left him unable to control the city. Ultimately, it appears, Valdivia was able to overcome that with the May election of one of his political protégés, Juan Figueroa, who moved into the position on the council, Third Ward councilman, that Valdivia had to resign from to move up to the mayor’s post in December.
Ultimately, Essayli was able to assist Valdivia in consolidating power and ultimately taking political control of the council, while asserting himself administratively by terminating former City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller and replacing her with Miller’s assistant, Teri Ledoux, who is widely considered to be Valdivia’s puppet, based upon a number of backroom arrangements between the two which were intended to remain outside of public scrutiny but which have since seen exposure.
Essayli’s efforts on Valdivia’s behalf also included delving into matters which were previously played close to the vest by city staff, such that much of the information formerly intimately guarded by the city’s senior administrators and department heads has been provided to the city council up front, allowing the council to formulate policy as opposed to being presented with prepackaged action items by staff. Along the way, however, Essayli came into conflict with Councilman Fred Shorett, Valdivia’s most vocal opposition on the council, as well as Councilman Jim Mulvihill, who is equally at odds with Valdivia but less openly expressive of his disapproval of the direction the mayor is seeking to usher the city toward. For a time, Councilman Henry Nickel, who had been Valdivia’s primary ally during the last several years of Mayor Davis’s tenure, had fallen out of synchronization with Valdivia and Essayli as well. That rough patch appears to be over.
The most formidable challenge to Essayli and Valdivia existed, and in Valdivia’s case continues to exist, in the form of the financial abyss the city finds itself precipitously teetering over. In 2012, the city was forced to take refuge in Chapter Nine bankruptcy, remaining in that state for nearly five years, during which it stiffed some 209 city creditors for more than $350 million. Upon emergence from bankruptcy in 2017, it was believed the city could remain on an even financial keel going forward. But the city’s expenses continue to outrun its incoming revenue, and if the current trend continues, by October or November of 2020, it will have blown through all of the reserves the city was able to cultivate while it was being artificially propped up by the protection of the bankruptcy court. At that point the city will need to contemplate yet another bankruptcy petition filing.
When Essayli, with Valdivia’s support, this spring sought a raise over the $96,000 salary he was being paid, the move gained no traction.
Essayli’s replacement by Brown, an old political hand who was instrumental in engineering Biane’s rise to a position on the board of supervisors as well as the successful candidacies of dozens of others in the 2000 to 2010 timeframe, may be an indication that Valdivia is contemplating jumping from the mayor’s post to another elected position, perhaps that of Fifth District County Supervisor or 23rd District California Senator, both of which are up for election in 2020. With a second bankruptcy about to descend upon San Bernardino and with Valdivia and his team reportedly despairing of any way to stave it off, Valdivia may feel it necessary to detach himself from San Bernardino before he becomes permanently identified with the city’s second sojourn into bankruptcy. It is a historical fact that San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy just six months after Valdivia was sworn into his council office in San Bernardino’s Third Ward in 2012. That bankruptcy destroyed the political careers of Pat Morris and Carey Davis, Valdivia’s two predecessors as San Bernardino mayor. Were Valdivia to be at the helm of the city when it makes another bankruptcy filing within a decade of its last, his viability as a politician would plummet.
As assistant auditor-controller, Brown was being paid $157,943 in salary together with some $78,000 in benefits, bringing his total annual compensation to roughly $236,000. The San Bernardino mayor’s chief-of-staff position pays from $96,120 to $116,832 per year with benefits valued at roughly $40,000 annually. Reports are that Valdivia pulled strings to have Brown hired above the $96,120 starting step, a move which had already prejudiced some city employees against him, with charges that he was being given compensation that was improper or illegal. Whatever pay grade Brown will begin with in San Bernardino, it represents a substantial pay cut over what he was earning with the county.
Brown is vested in the county’s retirement system, known as SBCERA. The city participates in a separate retirement program through the California Public Employees System. Government pensions are calculated by a multiplier of 2 percent, 2.25 percent, 2.5 percent, 2.75 percent or 3 percent, depending on the age of the retiree and his or her number of years in place, times the number of years employed times the highest salary earned by the retiree over a one-year period. Because they are separate systems, Brown will not be eligible to use the $157,943 salary multiplier he now has with SBCERA in his calculation for his California Public Employees Retirement System pension until he has been employed for five years with the city or another governmental entity functioning under an arrangement with the California Public Employees Retirement System. If Valdivia departs as mayor next year by getting elected to another office. Brown will be obliged to leave the city’s employ as well, such that he will not be able to convert his city retirement into the same formula he is eligible for under his vesture with SBCERA. If, however, Valdivia succeeds in winning next year’s race for supervisor, and Brown follows him there to become his chief of staff, he can re-immerse himself into the SBCERA system. If Valdivia vies for and succeeds in winning the 23rd District California Senate position, Brown can perpetuate his participation in the California Public Employees Retirement System and potentially achieve the five years within that program to make him eligible to marry his SBCERA pension benefits to his California Public Employee System pension benefits.
Brown previously applied, and was considered by Valdivia, for the chief of staff position last year. Ultimately at that time, Valdivia elected to hire Essayli.
Some observers were perplexed by Valdivia’s choice of Brown to serve as his chief of staff, given Brown’s history of having cooperated with law enforcement in seeking to arrest, prosecute and imprison his former boss, Biane. This consideration is especially addling, given that Valdivia is under scrutiny by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies over allegations of bribe-taking and accepting campaign money in exchange for political favors.
Despite the naysayers, some individuals familiar with both Brown and Valdivia believe that Brown will make a perfect fit as the chief of staff to the San Bernardino mayor.
One of those is Neil Derry, a former county supervisor as well as a former San Bernardino city councilman.
Brown’s bona fides, credentials and experience in government, particularly his role as Biane’s chief of staff in the county’s Second District, qualifies him to hold the chief of staff post in San Bernardino, Derry said.
“I worked with Matt personally while I was at the county,” Derry said. “I believe he will do a good job for John, who is smart enough to listen to him and use him in ways that would be most effective. Matt has organizational skills, people skills, political skills, project skills and a strong policy background. He is very familiar with San Bernardino. He is dialed in on what it will take to manage the city, which is facing a host of challenges. My sense of it is he is the perfect choice for the job.”
By Mark Gutglueck