Fallout In West Valley Water District Proves Swift Following Tuesday’s Vote

Two days after a crucial member of the ruling coalition on the board of the West Valley Water District was defeated at the polls, the board at its first meeting after the election terminated one of its assistant general managers.
Assistant General Manager Ricardo Pacheco earlier this year found himself at the center of a roiling contretemps between board members who had previously been closely aligned. As a consequence, he was placed on administrative leave in May.  His firing on Thursday followed the Tuesday reelection of board members Kyle Crowther and Greg Young and the defeat of Don Olinger in the race for West Valley Water District board of directors positions held in November of odd-numbered years.
The West Valley Water District is based in Rialto and provides roughly 21,500 water service hook-ups to customers within the communities of Rialto, Fontana, west Colton, Bloomington and a sliver of north Riverside County.
Olinger, who is among the longest serving board members in the history of the West Valley Water District, lost to Channing Hawkins in the polling carried out and concluded on Tuesday.  Hawkins is to be sworn in next month to replace Olinger. It is unclear but certainly possible that Pacheco’s departure from the district will soon be accompanied by the forced departures of other senior staff members at the district, all as a consequence of the ending of Olinger’s tenure on the board.
Olinger and Crowther over the last 16 months had settled into a firm and dependable alliance with the board’s current president, Dr. Michael Taylor. The Taylor, Crowther and Olinger coalition had evolved out of what would have earlier seemed to be an unlikely shift of allegiances that had consisted of a close affiliation between Taylor, Crowther and two of the other board members, Dr. Clifford Young and Greg Young.
In 2013, Dr. Clifford Young, a professor of public administration at Cal State San Bernardino who for a brief time was a member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in 2004, had returned to politics after a hiatus of nearly a decade, running successfully for a position on the West Valley Water District Board of Directors. A Republican, Young defeated Olinger, a Democrat, in that election for what is officially considered a non-partisan office, but which in the highly-partisan atmosphere of San Bernardino County is heavily influenced by the party affiliation of those competing. Two years later, Olinger successfully staged a political comeback of his own, gaining electoral return onto the board during balloting which also saw Greg Young, another Republican who is of no blood relation to Dr. Young, elected to the board. Both Youngs formed something of a political affinity. In 2017, Clifford Young ran for reelection, at the same time supporting Taylor, who previously had served as the police chief of Baldwin Park and was one of Young’s neighbors in Rialto, in his run for a position on the board. Dr. Young also supported Kyle Crowther, a resident of Fontana who was an officer on the Fontana School District’s police department, in the specially-held race for a two-year position on the board that came about as a consequence of the 2017 resignation of Board Member Alan Dyer, who had most recently been reelected in 2015. Clifford Young’s support of Taylor included making transfers and loans of money from his own political war chest to Taylor’s campaign fund. He assisted Crowther by helping him network with political consultants and donors.
Clifford Young, Taylor and Crowther all emerged victorious in the November 2017 balloting. Upon their swearing in on December 7, 2017, they along with Greg Young, a longtime member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, represented a 4-to-1 Republican majority on the board. It is noteworthy that in in the aftermath of the ascendancy of the Young/Young/Taylor/Crowther ruling coalition, Olinger, as the lone Democrat on the board, found himself isolated and, for some time thereafter until the downturn in the relationship between Dr. Young and Dr. Taylor, a virtual political irrelevancy.
Almost immediately, the board elevated Clifford Young to the position of board president and set about a housecleaning in the district, terminating or suspending then-Chief Financial Officer Marie Ricci,  then-Human Resources Manager Karen Logue, the board’s secretary, Shanae Smith, then-General Manager Matthew Litchfield and Assistant General Manager Greg Gage. Simultaneously, based upon Taylor’s recommendation, the Republican majority brought in Robert Tafoya, who was Baldwin Park’s city attorney and in whom Taylor had confidence, to serve as the West Valley Water District’s general counsel. For the time being, the board majority put former Loma Linda Mayor Robert Christman, who was at one time the chief financial officer at West Valley and a close associate of Dr. Young, into the position of the district’s interim general manager. Subsequently, in March 2018, the board would also assent to hiring, effective the following month,  Ricardo Pacheco, a Baldwin Park city councilman, as West Valley’s assistant general manager overseeing external affairs. Pacheco had an engineering degree, having formerly been the director of public works for the city of South Gate, an associate engineer for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a project manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and was then working as a project manager for the California Department of Transportation and ITT Corp.
It was yet while Dr. Young was the president of the West Valley Water Board that the district brought in Clarence Mansell, who had extensive experience and well-established credentials in managing large scale public water and wastewater systems, as the district’s general manager. Mansell had previously been employee with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District and the cities of Los Angeles, Corona and Rialto.
Though it was less than fully apparent to the public, at some point in the fall of 2018, relations between Clifford Young and Dr. Taylor soured. The grounds for the falling out are not clear. Taylor and his associates maintain that Dr. Young’s domineering personality and dictatorial approach, including his tendency to interpret the expression of legitimate differences of opinion or perspective on routine issues of governance or district operations as disloyalty and insubordination, accounted for strain in the relationship that led to a sundering. Young and those in his camp counter that Taylor’s decision-making approach is driven by venality and conflicts of interest.
In the power struggle that ensued, Taylor, at least for a time prevailed. Olinger, whose relationship with Clifford Young was poisoned from the outset by the consideration that Young had displaced Olinger from the district board for two years when he defeated him in the 2013 election, gravitated toward Taylor’s side of the evolving political divide, as did Crowther, who was like Taylor a law enforcement professional. Greg Young, more or less, remained aligned with Clifford Young. Taylor, who acceded to the position of board president in 2018, became the dominant player in the district by virtue of the 3-to-2 divide on the board in his favor.
Quietly in the winter of 2018-19, Dr. Young, in league with West Valley’s former chief financial officer, Naisha Davis, and the district’s administrative services analyst, Patricia Romero, began conferring with lawyers from the law firm of Zweibach, Fiset & Coleman, working toward preparing what is known as a qui tam lawsuit. That legal action was quietly filed under seal in February 2019, with Rachel Fiset and Erin Coleman representing Clifford Young, Naisha Davis and Patricia Romero.
That suit alleged that Taylor, who was chief of the Baldwin Park Police Department from 2013 to 2016 and was subsequently re-hired to a one-year contract to again serve as Baldwin Park police chief on December 1, 2017, utilized his position as a West Valley Water District board member to hire Tafoya as a reward to him for arranging his rehiring as Baldwin Park police chief. Taylor was brought back to serve as police chief by the Baldwin Park City Council, which counted among its members Pacheco, some 25 days after being elected to the water board and six days before he was sworn in. Taylor’s contract to resume his duties as police chief was drafted by Tafoya, who was also Baldwin Park’s city attorney, according to the lawsuit. Upon being sworn in as a water board member and assuming his duties in that capacity on December 7, 2018, according to the suit, Taylor effectuated the hiring Tafoya as the West Valley Water District’s general counsel on a contract with no end date. In the ensuing 18 months, according to the lawsuit, Tafoya’s firm billed the West Valley Water District approximately $395,000.
Further, according to the suit, less than four months later, after Taylor assumed his position on the West Valley Water Board dais, Pacheco, a Baldwin Park City Councilman who had voted for Taylor’s reinstatement as police chief, was hired by the West Valley Water District as assistant general manager of external affairs. He was later moved without board approval to the newly created position of “assistant general manager,” earning a salary of $192,000 per year, the suit alleges. Since his hiring, Pacheco and the California Education Coalition PAC he controls donated a total of $8,000 to Taylor’s campaign and $1,000 to West Valley Water District Board Vice President Kyle Crowther’s campaign, according to the lawsuit.
According to the suit, in 2018, Taylor spearheaded the effort to hire his associate, Mansell, as the West Valley Water District’s interim general manager and subsequently as the permanent general manager, at an annual salary of $225,000.  The lawsuit alleges Mansell was hired by a 3-to-2 board vote without a recruitment effort.
The lawsuit alleges that in 2017 and 2018, Tafoya provided Taylor with travel and accommodations in Mexico and Las Vegas, paid for Taylor, Crowther and Cliff Young to travel to Arizona, twice paid for Crowther’s airfare to Florida and made contributions to Crowther’s and Taylor’s campaign war chests or otherwise assisted them in their campaigns. Tafoya further militated or lobbied on behalf of Albright, Yee & Schmit, the Kaufman Law Firm and Robert Katherman in getting the two former entities legal work for the water district and a consulting contract for the latter while those firms and/or their principals were providing gifts, travel accommodations, entertainment and political contributions to members of the water board, in particular Taylor and Crowther, the suit alleges.  According to the suit, Taylor, Tafoya, Pacheco, Crowther, Mansell,  West Valley Water District Human Resources and Risk Manager Deborah Martinez and other law firms and consultants connected to Taylor and Tafoya  “have engaged in illegal kickbacks and bribes to ensure contracts with the district and subsequent approval of invoices for payment.”
District records, nonetheless, indicate that Cliff Young supported the hiring of Tafoya by the water district in 2017. They further reflect that the district’s initial hiring of Mansell in 2018 was undertaken with Clifford Young’s support.
A writ of qui tam is a private individual’s or individuals’ petition, who is or are claiming to be of assistance in a possible prosecution, for a court order against those the petitioner or petitioners alleges or allege have engaged in prohibited acts. Qui tam is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur, meaning “[he] who sues in this matter for the king as well as for himself.” The qui tam suit in this case in and of itself embodies a paradox that presents a further dilemma and conundrum for the district and its board members. The suit names the district as a plaintiff despite the consideration that the district board never voted to file the suit and, in fact, three of the board’s members – Taylor, Crowther and Olinger – were adamantly opposed to the prosecution of the suit, disagreed with the upshot of the suit, and did not empowered the law firm of Zweibach, Fiset & Coleman, nor Rachel Fiset nor Erin Coleman to act on the district’s behalf. According to Coleman, however, Young’s, Davis’s and Romero’s assertions of whistleblower status taken together with the nature of the false claim allegations they are making against the defendants endow the complainants with the legal entitlement to sue on behalf of the district and its constituents.
The board majority did consent to hiring Maribel S. Medina to represent the West Valley Water District as a real party in interest in the lawsuit. Medina on July 9, 2019 filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. Medina’s overarching suggestion was that Dr. Cliff Young was subject to complaints by district staff members Matthew Litchfield, Marie Ricci, Karen Logue, and Shanae Smith and ultimately Mansell of improperly seeking to extend his authority beyond the limitations of his statutory power as a single vote on the water district’s five-member board of directors by making direct orders to staff and had grown discomfited by his inability to quash the internal district investigations those complaints triggered. The investigations into those accusations were carried out, in large measure, by the Kaufman Law Firm, Medina asserted, implying the qui tam action was a reprisal by Dr. Young and those he is affiliated with against Mansell and Taylor for allowing Litchfield’s, Ricci’s, Logue’s and Smith’s accusations to persist without being controverted by official district action.
The suit, Medina maintains, failed to meet the legal requirements of of the California False Claims Act, and exists as a politically-angled hit piece that lodges spurious allegations of corruption against the members of the board who, over the roughly one year period after the 2017 election, had evolved toward resisting Clifford Young’s improper overreach in dominating and micromanaging the district utilizing his status by asserting authority outside his legitimate role and capacity as an elected member of the board. The qui tam lawsuit failed to establish that the defendants and their named co-conspirators acted in collusion or in secret or had participated in undetected fraud, according to Medina, and consisted merely of sensationalized facts taken directly from negative news media articles. Nor did the lawsuit concern itself with exposing fraud and corruption as Young, Davis and Romero and their attorneys asserted, according to Medina, who maintained that “This lawsuit was brought in an attempt to interfere with ongoing investigations of harassment, bullying and misappropriation of public monies by Dr. Young, who has been represented by legal counsel Rachel Fiset in the ongoing investigations. This lawsuit is frivolous, vexatious and brought solely for the purpose of harassment.”
According to Medina, Cliff Young’s animus toward Taylor, Crowther, Tafoya, the Kaufman Law Firm and others grew out of the district board’s move on January 29, 2018 to retain the Kaufman Law Firm to investigate allegations made against Dr. Young in a 2017 memo that was sent to then-District General Manager Matthew Litchfield by Ricci, Logue, Smith and former Board Member Linda Gonzalez, which laid laid out “in significant detail examples of Dr. Young’s ‘grossly abusing his power and misappropriating public funds for his own personal benefit.’”
According to Medina, the billings that Tafoya and his firm; Albright, Yee & Schmit; the Kaufman Law Firm; and Robert Katherman made to the district were legitimate invoices for services that were actually rendered.
The elections held for positions on the West Valley Water District board this year were the first in the district’s history to be conducted by-district as opposed to at-large throughout the overall confines of the district. As the 2019 West Valley Water District election approached, with Crowther seeking reelection in that portion of the district – Division 1 – covering Fontana and a part of Bloomington, Olinger in that section of the district – Division 4 – covering a portion of Rialto,  and Greg Young seeking reelection in that expanse within the district – Division 5 – covering much of Bloomington, Taylor threw his support behind getting both Olinger and Crowther reelected and in seeking to unseat Greg Young. Taylor transferred or spent some $1,392.50 from his own campaign fund to support Crowther in his run against challengers Betty Gosney and Linda Gonzalez;  $25,050.25 in support of Olinger in his contest against Channing Hawkins; and another $16,128.04‬ to support Angel Ramirez, a Fontana resident who relocated into a rented room in Bloomington just before the election filing period so he could run against Greg Young.
Ultimately, things went Taylor’s way in only one of those three elections. Crowther outdistanced his two challengers, Betty Gosney and Linda Gonzalez, claiming 278 votes or 53.05 percent to Gosney’s 32 votes of 6.11 percent and Gonzalez’s 211 votes or 40.27 percent. Channing Hawkins beat Don Olinger in a head-to-head contest, 618 votes or 65.05 percent to 332 votes or 34.95 percent. Greg Young with 338 votes or 52.73 percent leapt passed Angel Ramirez, who pulled in 228 votes or 35.57 percent. A third candidate in District 5, Jackie Cox, collected 75 votes or 11.7 percent.
The longstanding affiliation between Clifford Young and Greg Young remains intact, and the degree to which Taylor militated against Greg Young during the just-concluded election portends that in any future contention between Taylor and Clifford Young, Greg Young is likely to side with the latter.
Given the heavy support that Taylor provided to Olinger, it would appear to be a longshot that Dr. Taylor will be able to count on Hawkins’ support in any confrontation that manifests between Taylor and Dr. Young.
While most issues that are dealt with by the West Valley Water Board are relatively straightforward ones that relate to the operation of the water district, the delivery of water to its customers and future planning toward infrastructure and utility improvements, there is little room for disagreement among the board members and there is generally consonance among them on most votes. It is rather with regard to personnel issues, in particular the employment of several individuals at the district in what are considered high paying positions that the personal differences between Clifford Young and Taylor have come into sharp relief and which are likely to be an issue in the future. As the qui tam lawsuit brought up, Clifford Young is contending that such favoritism has been showered upon Pacheco, Mansell and Tafoya, as well as the law firm of Albright, Yee & Schmit, the Kaufman Law Firm and Robert Katherman.
Even before Olinger is to depart next month, Pacheco became the first casualty in the ascendancy of Cliff Young over Michael Taylor. Pacheco was put on paid administrative leave last spring, for reasons that have not been publicly disclosed. Since that time he has drawn some $135,000 in salary and benefits. Seeing the writing on the wall, the board this week in a closed session ratified a separation agreement with Pacheco on a 4-to-0 vote without Clifford Young participating that conferred upon Pacheco nine months of salary, equal to $142,194, and included Pacheco’s pledge to forever relinquish any claims against the district based upon his employment there and his forced departure therefrom. The terms of the agreement were worked out by Tafoya.
Depending upon the degree to which Hawkins and Greg Young hew to the guidance of Clifford Young, it is at least possible and perhaps probable that Tafoya and his firm will soon no longer be associated with the district and that Mansell will depart as general manager as well. Indeed, a burning question at present is whether a severance agreement for Mansell will be prepared and considered at the November 21 meeting of the board, which will be perhaps the last opportunity for the board as it is now composed and over which Taylor has certain control to provide Mansell with a departure arrangement to be drafted by Tafoya that will not be subject to the purview of a council majority over which Cliff Young will likely exert control.
Thereafter, there is a similar likelihood that the district will end its contractual or consultancy relationships with the law firm of Albright, Yee & Schmit, the Kaufman Law Firm and Robert Katherman. Also in jeopardy is Jeremiah Brosowske, who was hired in May as an assistant general manager with the district at a total annual compensation level, including salary and benefits, exceeding $250,000. Brosowske, 28, was recently an appointed and then elected councilman in Hesperia, but was removed from that post after a majority of his colleagues came to a determination that he did not meet the residency requirements to hold office in Hesperia. Brosowske is legally contesting that removal from office. Brosowske’s hiring by the district is considered in some quarters to have been a political one, as he has no previous experience, expertise, training, licensing or certification in public or municipal water district operations. Moreover, there were indications during the just concluded political season that he was working on both Olinger’s and Ramirez’s election campaigns, a consideration that will not likely sit well with Channing Hawkins and Greg Young.

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