By Mark Gutglueck
Dysfunction, division and personality conflicts at the highest level of San Bernardino municipal government were thrown into stark relief near the close of the most recent meeting of the city council.
Having filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012, the municipal government in the county seat has been buffeted by financial, political, social, procedural and legal difficulties for some time. In 2017 the city made an exit from bankruptcy, having stiffed a long list of its creditors for $350 million during the previous five years, building up reserves of over $30 million and reframing its city charter to allow for greater efficiencies in administration and management in the process.
In addition to that reform and initial steps toward recovery, the city experienced a substantial political transformation as a consequence of the 2018 election in which then-Third Ward Councilman John Valdivia unseated the incumbent mayor, Carey Davis, and two newcomers, Ted Sanchez and Sandra Ibarra, were elected in the First and Second wards. Both Sanchez and Ibarra were aligned with Valdivia, joining with council member Henry Nickel and Bessine Richard to form a coalition that generally throughout Valdivia’s first five months as mayor sided with Valdivia in regard to issues facing the city. Subsequently, in May, the vacancy created by Valdivia’s resignation from his council post in the Third Ward was filled by a candidate he supported and who remains aligned with him, Juan Figueroa.
During the initial months of 2019, as the newly composed council settled in, Valdivia worked toward consolidating his newfound power with uneven success, making strides in certain respects but suffering setbacks in others. One challenge facing the city was the alarming rate at which the city was again engaged in deficit spending, burning through the reserves it had built up during the five year period it was functioning under the protection of the bankruptcy court such that it is on a trajectory to again be completely out of money by late 2020, with no ability to make up for the greater amount of money being utilized to run the city than income coming into the city from all of its revenue sources
Valdivia ultimately succeeded in ousting the city manager, Andrea Travis-Miller, who had been hired by the city under Davis. But Valdivia was unable to keep in place Bill Essayli, his chief of staff who had worked aggressively toward establishing Valdivia as the dominant political and administrative force in the city, as there were repeated clashes with Valdivia’s two strongest opponents on the council, Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill, that persuaded Essayli to leave. Moreover, Valdivia, who at the beginning of the year was able to count on the solid backing of Sanchez, Ibarra, Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard, saw his hold on Ibarra and Nickel slip from time to time as issues emerged in which either personal differences between them and the mayor manifested or the interests of their constituents clashed with the overall direction Valdivia was seeking to move the city in.
In recent months, Valdivia’s hold on the city has proven to be far more tenuous than he had hoped, as he and his new chief of staff, Matt Brown, are attempting to herd the council toward a consensus on a program consistent with the mayor’s goals.
One of the provinces of San Bernardino municipal governance in which it at least appeared that Valdivia was in decent shape was that pertaining to the city manager he had installed following the removal of Travis-Miller, Teri Ledoux. Ledoux had previously worked in the capacities of an administrative analyst and assistant to the city manager in San Bernardino from 1995 until 2013. Travis-Miller in 2011 was brought in to San Bernardino to serve in the capacity of deputy city manager under then-city manager Charles McNeely. The city’s worsening financial situation overwhelmed McNeely, who departed San Bernardino in 2012, leaving Travis-Miller in the capacity of acting city manager. With the city facing insolvency, it was Travis-Miller and the city’s then-finance director, Jason Simpson, who fashioned the city’s bankruptcy filing. In the trenches with Travis-Miller at that time was Ledoux, who was working in the capacity of assistant to the city manager. In 2013, both departed San Bernardino, Travis-Miller to become the executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments and Ledoux to the City of Huntington Beach as assistant to the city manager there, Fred Wilson, who had previously been San Bernardino city manager.
In 2016, Travis-Miller was serving as city manager in Covina when she departed that Los Angeles County city to again take on the assignment of assistant city manager in San Bernardino. After the departure of then-San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott in 2017, the Davis-led council hired Travis-Miller as city manager. Two months later, Travis-Miller tapped Ledoux, who by that point was employed with the City of La Verne as assistant to the city manager, to return to San Bernardino to serve as her assistant city manager.
In the late winter/early spring of this year, as Valdivia and Essayli began militating toward the removal of Travis-Miller as city manager, LeDoux made a show of loyalty to Travis-Miller, telling a cadre of the city’s top staff members that if Travis-Miller were to be fired, everyone in unison should walk out of the city in support of her. During backroom discussions, however, Ledoux was offered the position of city manager. It was at that point, in April, when the equally divided city council split 3-to-3 on the question of putting Travis-Miller on administrative leave and Valdvia used his tie-breaking authority to suspend her, that Ledoux turned on her former friend. Without protest, Ledoux accepted the council’s appointment of her as interim city manager. In May, after the election of Valdvia ally Juan Figueroa to fill the mayor’s former position representing the Third Ward, sufficient votes were available to terminate Travis-Miller, and the council did so.
Valdivia’s calculation at that point was that he could count upon Ledoux to carry out his agenda. Indeed, at the age of 61, Ledoux was intent on retiring upon logging 26 years as a municipal employee participating in the California Public Employees Retirement System when she reached the age of 63 in early 2021. By working for at least a year at the pay level provided to a city manager, she would see her pension substantially increased. Were she to serve out the remainder of her career as assistant city manager and retire in 2021, Ledoux would qualify for an annual pension of $123,500 based on her $190,000 per year assistant city manager’s salary X 26 years X the pension-per-year multiplicand of 2.5 percent. By moving into the city manager’s post entailing her highest one-year salary of $268,762.59, Ledoux would make herself eligible for an annual pension of $174,695.68, based upon her $268,762.59 per year city manager’s salary X 26 years X the pension-per-year multiplicand of 2.5 percent.
Indeed, in July, the city council majority in Valdivia’s camp conferred upon Ledoux a contract retroactive until June 1, 2019 and running through December 31, 2020 for her to serve in the capacity of city manager at a salary of $259,674 and benefits running to roughly $46,000 per year. On August 1, 2019, she was given a 3.5 percent remuneration increase she was due, zooming her annual salary to $268,762.59.
With Ledoux on board as city manager, Valdivia and his team moved ahead with their agenda, which included Ledoux cooperating, over the roughly 17 months she was to remain in place, with an effort to reestablish the administrative authority the mayor possessed under the city’s previous charter but which was removed with the city’s voters’ approval of a new charter in 2016.
Over the last several months, at least with regard to what has been taking place publicly, Ledoux appeared to be in lockstep with the Valdivia political machine. Well hidden, however, are the developments, machinations and intrigue within city offices carried out behind closed doors. Unbeknownst to the general public was the degree to which Ledoux was chaffing at Valdivia’s overbearing manner and the way in which he has presumed that Ledoux will simply allow him to dictate the items to be considered for action by the city council.
An illustration of Valdivia’s discomfiture with Ledoux’s failure to accommodate his demands together with Ledoux’s resentment of the mayor’s reduction of her to his servant played out in the last ten minutes of the 5-hour-and-3 minute-long November 6 council meeting.
The council had come to the final item on the meeting agenda, consisting of the individual council members making suggestions as to what items should be referred to the council’s various committees and which issues should be considered at upcoming council meetings.
Councilman Jim Mulvihill referenced his perception that the city should press forward with the refurbishing and reclamation of the Raddison Hotel, which has been vacant for over a decade. “We’ve got a couple of white elephants downtown,” Mulvihill said. “I’m looking particularly at the hotel. The council has got to make a policy decision to have the city attorney start investigating all the contracts.”
Mulvihill suggested that there might be a clause in the contract relating to the sale of the hotel, located on a campus between E Street and D Street that includes the San Bernardino Convention Center adjacent to the now-dormant San Bernardino City Hall, which the city could use to trigger the city assuming ownership or possession of the hotel. “Is there a callback policy, for example, regarding the hotel?” Mulvihill asked. “So, I’d like to ask the council to begin the movement to understand what’s the basis for the hotel. The point is, we really need to begin the process of getting a use for the hotel, whether it becomes the city’s property or whoever the owner happens to be, if they start operating. But right now, it’s just a big white elephant, so I’d like the council to approve the beginning of the investigation of the contracts…”
Ledoux broke in at that point, saying “Actually, the mayor had brought this too my attention earlier this week and we were going to have a session in closed session next time. We have already done some research.”
Ledoux’s response to Mulvihill seemed to provoke the mayor, who noted that emails had been sent to her requesting action be taken with regard to the hotel property. “You have had the opportunity,” Valdivia said. “I don’t think there is a need for you to come to policy decisions on that. It’s a matter of municipal code enforcement, building and safety inspections. Those are normal standard operating procedures that somebody on the north end or south end can employ.”
Valdivia bristled at the way in which Ledoux had indicated readiness to meet Muvlihill’s request, while implying that she had essentially ignored his own previous requests with regard to a reclamation of the hotel and convention center. “Now, when we have council members who actually opine and chime in, like my good friend Jim Mulvihill, now you take note. But it doesn’t seem to get your attention when other council members have requested that you take action on safety inspections at Raddison.”
Somewhat testily, Ledoux responded, “I told you I would put this on the next closed session, and that’s what I intended to do.”
Her response provoked Valdivia yet further.
“Well it seems convenient that now that we’ve got Councilman Mulvihill to make that recommendation that you are taking this seriously,” the mayor said. “When council members ask you to put something on the agenda…”
“I take my direction at a duly notice meeting from a majority [of the council], period, Mayor,” Ledoux intoned, interrupting Valdivia.
“Well, you and I can have that conversation, Miss Ledoux, but the bottom line is the conversation via email was a request,” Valdivia asserted. “It was a request, within the provisions of the Brown Act, to create a safety action plan at Raddison Hotel.”
The Brown Act is California’s open public meeting law, which requires that the discussion of public issues by a governmental board must be advertised by means of an agenda some 72 hours ahead of city council meetings.
“I got that email this week,” Ledoux shot back.
“This is an immediate eyesore in our community and council members are asking our city manager to get to work and do it,” Valdivia said. “But for you to somehow obfuscate and push back on council members, I think that’s really unacceptable.”`
Mulvihill emphasized at that point that he had gone to the city attorney to check on the legal clearance needed to proceed, seeming to suggest that Ledoux was merely being prudent in seeking legal clearance before taking any action with regard to the hotel.
Valdivia grew angrier still at Mulvihill’s intercession on behalf of Ledoux, and he persisted in seeking to pick a very public fight with her, who rather than responding with further argument displayed what is instead her nervous tic of laughing, which she on past occasions has exhibited as a consequence of her anxiety or impatience over dealing in public with the demands or requests from the city council, in particular Ibarra.
“This is an eyesore,” said Valdivia. “I’m not going to back down, Teri. This needs to be handled. Raddison Hotel is an eyesore. It’s a public nuisance. You’re laughing, but it’s a public nuisance, And you need to do something about it.”
When Valdivia made an additional demand that Ledoux provide at the upcoming December 4 city council meeting an item to increase the service rates for trash pickup paid by the city’s residents to Burrtec Industries, the city’s franchised trash hauler and one of Valdvia’s major political backers, there ensued from Councilman Fred Shorett a remark that “The city manager takes direction from all of us, not the mayor” and a request from Ibarra that the mayor ask that Ledoux on the next regular city council meeting agenda “include all of the times we mentioned, not just yours.”
When Ledoux began to ask for the council to provide specific direction on what she was to prepare for the next meeting, she was met with consternation from Valdivia, an indication that he felt the council had already been clear enough in its requests.
At that point, Deputy City Attorney Sonia Carvalho deemed it necessary to leap to Ledoux’s defense, as it were, even at the risk of inviting the increasingly incensed Valdivia’s wrath.
“What we have asked in the past is for respect and decorum and fairness to staff, and the way we get that is that the city council employs the city manager, and it’s not easy for the city manager to balance all of the demands of the city,” Carvalho said. “I think she’s just asking for clear direction,” Carvalho added, noting it was easy for the city’s elected leadership to make demands but more difficult for city staff to satisfy them. “It is just a point of clarification for her. What do you want her to bring back on the fourth [the December 4 council meeting]?
After a general cacophony from the council dais during which Valdivia ignored efforts by Ibarra, Sanchez and Shorett to acknowledge previous requests that had been brought up, including Ibarra’s previous call for the city to begin a recruitment effort for a replacement city clerk because of the scheduled expiration, under the city’s new charter, of the city clerk’s position as an elected post in March, Deputy City Attorney Carvalho again asserted herself into the proceedings, once more usurping Valdivia’s role, insisting that a majority of the council sign off on putting items onto future agendas.
Shortly thereafter, Valdivia adjourned the meeting. As the council was taking its leave from the meeting hall, the Bing Wong Lecture Room at the Feldheym Library, the level of the mayor’s dissatisfaction with the circumstance manifested once more in a sharp exchange he had with Shorett in which he leveled a threat to “take out” the councilman in March, in a seeming allusion to political action Valdivia intended to vector against Shorett in the March 2020 primary, despite Shorett not being up for reelection until 2022.
Whereas previously, there had appeared to be two camps among city officials – those supporting Valdivia and those siding with his council opposition consisting in the main of Shorett and Mulvihill with the occasional participation of Ibarra and Nickel in that dissent – the November 4 council meeting exposed a previously publicly unrecognized rift between Valdivia and Ledoux and the existence of a third camp, consisting of staff members galled at the presumption of the mayor and the recurrent overreaching of his authority in ordering staff to take action without the accompanying or prior approval of the city council.
Moreover, among city staff Ledoux has both supporters and detractors. Even staff members who are less than favorably disposed toward Ledoux, the Sentinel has learned, perceived Valdivia’s public chastisement of the city manager on November 4 as both unnecessarily exaggerated and poor form.
While Valdivia did not say anything on November 6 that is too far out of character with pointedly critical comments he sometimes makes at meetings, it was noteworthy from the consideration that his invective was aimed at Ledoux, who was to have played a key role in carrying out his objectives over the coming year. The Sentinel was told by a city employee that “It is being portrayed by City Manager Ledoux and anti-Valdivia people that John’s outburst was an outrage. Even though most or us are not Valdivia supporters, and we agree it wasn’t the outrage it is being portrayed as, the mayor should not talk to anyone the way he did at the council meeting, and especially not in public. It was embarrassing and repulsive behavior.”
Ledoux has been granted, city employees told the Sentinel, a front row seat to Valdivia’s egocentricity and is now paying the price of admission to the city manager’s office as well as doing an ironic penance for her betrayal of Travis-Miller.
“She figuratively stabbed the prior city manager, her friend Andrea, in the back by openly telling anyone who would listen that Andrea, not Valdivia, was the problem,” a city insider said. “After blaming Andrea, she was able to get her 18-month contract, $270,000 pay, city phone and $700 per month car allowance. She has been heard mocking Andrea’s lawsuit. Ask the council members. But now that she got a tiny taste of John’s temper, and nothing like what went on between the mayor and Andrea, she is gathering sympathizers for herself. She can be heard complaining in City Hall about late meetings and weekend phone calls from council members. It was extremely disappointing to see her turn on Andrea. She bragged that she could get along with Valdivia, unlike Andrea. But, she is now learning the hard way that she made a deal with the devil with the mayor, [Councilman Juan] Figueroa, [Councilwoman Bessine] Richard and [Councilman Henry] Nickel, all for a retirement that is almost double what she would have received, for staying just 12 months in the city manager’s role. It is hoped that she will be forced to answer questions about how Andrea was treated, now that she feels harassed. Prior to Andrea leaving, she told people that if Andrea gets fired everyone has to walk out to support Andrea, but then the promise of a lucrative contract changed that. This disturbing incident at the council meeting could make her see the light, and see how her coworkers view what she did to Andrea. If I were the mayor and his toadies, I’d be worried. If Teri is finally seeing the light, they will have challenges, and staff will support her. Now she is acting like Valdivia’s victim, so we’ll see how she squares this with her lack of support for Andrea.”
Yet to play out is whether Ledoux will remain in place long enough to qualify for the $174,695.68 annual pension she has set her sights on rather than the $118,750 annual pension she is currently qualified to receive were she to be fired before the end of the year or the $123,500 annual pension she would receive if she is demoted to assistant city manager before reaching her one year anniversary as city manager in June of next year.
The Sentinel is informed that for political purposes Valdivia wants Ledoux to remain as city manager through March and the elections in which his council allies Bessine Richard and Juan Figueroa, his on-again, off-again ally Henry Nickel and his political rival Jim Mulvihill must stand for reelection to remain in office. After that, however, Valdivia wants to replace Ledoux with a more experienced city manager, one with a far more extensive résumé than Ledoux possesses. If he can effectuate her firing between the election on March 3 and May 31, the city will avoid the higher level pension commitment to Ledoux, which will remain in place for the remainder of her life. Whether Valdivia’s current level of animus against Ledoux will continue until March, and whether the council will support him in an effort to terminate her at that time is an open question. One assignment Ledoux was tasked with which she has yet to fulfill is to provide the council with a list of candidates for her replacement as city manager. There is a suspicion among some members of the council that Ledoux has been dragging her feet on compiling that list to prevent the council from making that replacement before June.
By Mark Gutglueck