Nickel Offering His Vision In Reelection Bid To Pilot SB Out Of Its “Death Spiral”

Councilman Henry Nickel said he is seeking reelection in the March 3 election to get the voters’ consent to serve in what will be his third term as San Bernardino’s Fifth Ward councilman “because we have a lot of work to do.”
In enumerating his accomplishments in office, Nickel first said, “We have gotten through bankruptcy.”
The councilman’s reference was to the city’s 2012 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which came just about a year-and-a-half before his victory in a special election held on February 4, 2014 to replace Chas Kelley, who was forced to resign as a consequence of his having misused campaign funds.
“Our priority was to get the city back on sound financial footing,” Nickel said. “We now have reserves, we have balanced the budget, and implemented the plan of adjustment. We are moving ahead with our recovery plan.  We did what we promised to do four years ago and now the city needs to build on its tax base. Our main focus over the next four years will be on rebuilding the city.”
Nickel said he is able to function effectively as an elected official by campaigning hard as a politician, but is also able, after the election season is over, to cooperate with both his rivals and allies that head local government.
“My record shows I am working across party lines,” he said. “We received  $3 million from Assemblyman [James] Ramos [a Democrat against whom the Republican Nickel vied in the 2018 election to represent the 40th Assembly District]. I am able to work with the council and other officeholders so my constituents don’t fall victim to the petty factionalism that historically divides the city.  We need to get past the personal differences that prevent cooperation in key areas. Holding political grudges is not being responsible toward our residents. I meet with residents of my ward twice a month before council meetings and I take every opportunity to continue to work together with everyone in the city.”
According to Nickel, “Our major challenge immediately is our available revenue is 60 percent of what it is for comparable cities in our region. It is only in the last few decades that we have become an impoverished community. It was always a middle class city prior to that. We have experienced an economic disaster, so we have to work hard over the next four years to change our trajectory. I am paying attention to our businesses and residents. We need to streamline the delivery of public service in accordance with our plan of adjustment. We have brought down our pension obligation and we should start to realize a return on that over the next decade. We need to convince people that this is a safe and clean environment and a sustainable place they can call home that will attract middle and upper income families we have to this point lost from the city, families with $60,000 plus per year per household income. That is what we need. If you look at San Bernardino right now,  we are at $37,000 per year per household median income. You can’t sustain a city with that kind of income. With those limitations on our finances, we won’t have the tax base to keep the city operating at the level we need to. As our revenues are declining, our need for services goes up. So, as revenues are declining,  you are seeing more crime, more blight. Businesses leave and our income declines. We are in a death spiral. We cannot sustain a city in this situation. We need to implement our plan of adjustment to fix this.”
Nickel continued, “The other key component is we updated our charter in order to get past the dysfunctional politics of the past and adopt a model that is much more aligned with the cities surrounding us and that are in line with best practices of the other cities round us and across the nation. I have never fallen into the trap of of negativity. I think San Bernardino is the most well-placed city within the overall environment of the Inland Empire. It offers opportunities that are unique.  There is no reason for us to remain as the most impoverished city in the Inland Empire, given our position and resources.”
Nickel decried the city’s problems as being ones brought on by senseless rivalries and bickering. “A lot of that is the dysfunctional politics,” he said. “My goal is to rise to a level that is above this political dysfunction and work with my colleagues, and I feel I have done that.”
The city needs to work on the nuts and bolts of municipal function, including advanced urban planning befitting an entity that has been a metropolitan center for more than a century, Nickel said.
“We need to improve our general plan,” Nickel said. “Our development code is a shambles. Refining our codes and making improvements to our land use polices is a key component of or future if businesses are to be convinced to locate here. We need for them to have confidence that their customers are going to be safe. We are not going to be able to attract the type of businesses you need to improve the quality of life without that.”
He said, “Law enforcement is a key component, as is code enforcement. There is a need to address the blight and vacant properties throughout the city. Eliminating blight will contribute to the quality of life and create an opportunity for us to attract businesses. If you look around the 5th Ward, you can see it is doing quite well and is able to sustain itself. The 5th Ward has neighborhoods with higher home values than most other areas of the city. We have worked hard to protect those home values and the area in general. We have to do the same with other areas of the city, and I have a record of doing that, as well.”
Asked why the 5th Ward’s voters should support him rather than any of his five opponents in the March 3 election, Nickel said, “I think the voters have to do their homework and look at what all of the different candidates bring to the table in terms of experience, their records of accomplishment, life experience. Ultimately, it is up to the voters to decide. I cannot tell them I am the best candidate. I would tell them to look at experience and qualifications. Look at what I have done. I think most of the voters will find I have served them in a way that will give them confidence in me. Unfortunately, many people in office believe they are in charge. They are not in charge. I believe that once you are elected you need to maintain humility, to know you are not in charge and that you are there to represent your constituency. I have always listened to my constituency. There are, I know, members of my constituency that disagree with my ideas. I have always respected my constituency’s ideas and sense of direction, and I follow it on the dais.”
Nickel said, “I am working hard to stay in touch with the residents of the 5th Ward and I appreciate the feedback I am getting from from the city’s residents. I look forward to working with the other candidates in the 5th Ward after the election, no matter the outcome, to pull together and do what is right for the 5th Ward and the city. For anyone to take on being a candidate and offer their services, you have to admire and respect that.”
Nickel responded to criticism leveled at him from several quarters within the city and in particular by one of his challengers, Brian Davison, with regard to the city council’s move in June to reduce the compensation of the city’s outgoing city attorney and city clerk.
In 2016, San Bernardino’s voters passed a municipal charter makeover plan which, among other reforms, eliminated the city’s elected city attorney and city clerk posts, designating them as appointed positions, simultaneously moving the city’s elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years. Despite that, both Gary Saenz and Georgeann Hanna, were entitled to remain, respectively, in the elected city attorney and elected city clerk posts they had been reelected to in 2015, with their terms running concurrently until March 3, 2020. Last May, Mayor John Valdvia formed a subcommittee of the city council to consider cost-saving measures, to which he appointed Nickel, Councilman Ted Sanchez and Councilman Juan Figueroa. After just two such meetings, on May 30 and June 5, the Nickel, Sanchez and Figueroa troika called for reducing by 45.8 percent the compensation Saenz was to receive during the nine months of 2019-2020 that he had remaining in office, and reducing the compensation Hanna was to receive during the remaining duration of her tenure by 59.2 percent. Prior to the charter change, the city had set Saenz’ total annual compensation at $246,266, including salary, benefits and add-ons. Hanna had been provided with $171,466 in total annual compensation as city clerk, including salary, benefits and add-ons. The subcommittee passed on to the full city council a proposal to reduce the compensation Saenz was to receive from July 1, 2019 until March 3, 2020 from $184,700 to $100,000 and the compensation Hanna was to receive over the same nine-month span from $128,600 to $52,500. Thus, Saenz was being called upon to see his compensation reduced by $84,700. Hanna was to sustain a reduction of $76,100.
When the council took up the compensation reduction issue on June 10, 2019, Nickel, Sanchez and Figueroa were joined by Councilwoman Bessine Richard in a 4-to-2 vote, with Councilman Jim Mulvihill absent and councilmembers Sandra Ibarra and Fred Shorett dissenting, to make the reductions. Subsequently, however, both Saenz and Hanna sued, contesting the pay cuts. In August 2019, a ruling by Judge David Cohn disallowed the pay reductions, and he ordered that the duo’s pay be restored, with back pay. The council dug in its heels and appealed that ruling, in the course of which it expended more than $75,000 in legal fees. Ultimately, this week, the council decided to drop the appeal.  Thus, the ploy suggested by Nickel, Sanchez and Figueroa to save the city $160,800 instead ended up costing the city’s taxpayers more than $75,000.
Nickel was unapologetic over the issue, explaining that it was in response to his constituents’ demands that the city discontinue the inflated pay for the two elected posts that motivated him to seek the pay reform.
“Ever since the new charter was approved more than three years ago, I have been receiving comments asking me why after those posts were eliminated we are continuing to pay Gigi [Hanna] and Gary what amounted to more than a million dollars,” Nickel said. “The positions were eliminated as elected posts. I looked into it and asked that question on behalf of the voters, the residents, the city’s taxpayers. I never got a good answer. There have been few cases in California where there is a change in the elected status of an official and that official continues to receive pay at what is, after all, a significant level above what is paid for similar work in the private sector. This was nothing personal against Gigi or Gary, but they were being paid very handsomely after the voters of the city voted to eliminate the positions they held. We merely attempted to scale down their pay in accordance with the work they were yet in place, and assigned, to do. The input I was receiving from my constituents was that we had to reduce their pay, since we could not justify in any way paying them the more than a million dollars we were paying them and providing them in benefits. That question was especially appropriate, since just a few years before that vote to change the charter this city had filed for bankruptcy and was still in bankruptcy at the time of that vote to redo the charter. Obviously, we lost at the trial court level, and my decision, after that decision, was to not support moving this into the appellate court after that.”
Nickel studied at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, latter transferring to American University in Washington, DC where he received his undergraduate degree in communication, legal institutions, economics and government in 1999. He also has a graduate degree from California State University San Bernardino in national security studies.
In 2012 he was elected to the San Bernardino County Republican Party Central Committee and was chosen by his colleagues in that body to serve as the secretary of the county party shortly thereafter. Nickel is the chairman of the city’s ways and means committee and a member of the legislative review committee. He is a board member of the League of California Cities’ Transportation, Communication and Public Works Committee and its Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Caucus.

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