By Mark Gutglueck
Long ongoing attempts by San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia and a more recent effort by San Bernardino Deputy City Attorney Sonia Carvalho to muzzle City Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra fell short this week, with Ibarra descending from the council dais during this week’s city council meeting to utilize the public microphone to engage in open statements Valdivia has consistently endeavored to curtail.
This week was the second time Ibarra took recourse in utilizing the pulpit normally reserved for members of the public addressing the council during city council meetings. On a relatively consistent basis, Valdivia has slighted Ibarra in the past, refusing to recognize her to allow her to speak during council proceedings, and on two occasions adjourning the meetings and himself walking away from dais as she attempted to summon the council’s attention to an issue. This week, Ibarra’s move carried with it a certain poignancy and gravitas, as Valdivia is under heavy scrutiny and attack based upon legal claims lodged against him and the city by two of his former staff members who resigned last month. Those claims accuse Valdivia of subjecting the two women to sexual harassment and engaging in a wide manner of improprieties, and further allege that the city’s senior management and the city attorney’s office failed to act to curtail his behavior after the women made internal complaints while they were yet employed. Moreover, the claims his two former staffers, Mirna Cisneros and Karen Cervantes, filed on February 13 state that Valdivia sought to involve them in or otherwise disclosed to them that he has misused public funds or received donations of money or gifts he has not disclosed.
Ibarra was elected to represent the city’s Second Ward in 2018, the same year that Valdivia, who at that time was serving as Third Ward Councilman, was elected mayor. After then-incumbent Second Ward councilman and one-time Valdivia ally, Benito Barrios, had finished third in the June 2018 primary to set up a November runoff between Ibarra and Cecilia Miranda-Dolan, Valdivia and Ibarra supported each other once that year’s election season was on in earnest. Upon taking office, Ibarra settled in as a key member of Valdivia’s ruling coalition on the council, joining initially with her colleagues Henry Nickel, Bessine Richard and Ted Sanchez to provide the mayor with sway over the city. Two factors, however, matured over time to manifest in Ibarra’s eventual break with Valdivia.
The first of these was the roiling controversy that had developed over the city’s animal control division, housed in and functioning out of an aging and dilapidating animal shelter building under the management of the police department, which was chaffing at being saddled with that thankless and frustrating assignment. Valdivia’s strategy for dealing with the issue consisted of a plan, which had some degree of city council support, of outsourcing the animal control division to the County of Riverside. A sizable contingent of the city’s residents, however, were opposed to the city offloading the care of the city’s stray, unlicensed and lost domestic animals to a facility in the City of Riverside a good ways distant across the county line. When Ibarra took on the active role of advocating for those resisting Riverside’s takeover, this threatened to untrack what Valdivia considered to be a relatively easy solution to a problem he had hoped to sidestep while he dealt with other pressing challenges facing the city. The second element that fully sundered the Valdvia/Ibarra alliance came in May 2019, when the vacant Third Ward council position that Valdivia had resigned from to become mayor was filled with another Valdivia ally, Juan Figueroa, whom Valdivia had heavily backed and whose campaign was fueled in large measure by funds Valdivia had transferred to Figueroa out of his own political war chest. When Figueroa took his place on the council dais, Ibarra’s support, which was once needed to hold Valdivia’s coalition together, was no longer indispensable.
In a relatively short span, it was clear that Ibarra was migrating away from the Valdivia fold as her votes diverged from those of Richard, Sanchez, Nickel and Figueroa supporting Valdivia’s strategy of governance in the county seat. In time the rift intensified, and Valdivia, confident in his preeminence at City Hall, on occasion rubbed salt into Ibarra’s wounds, using his possession of the mayor’s gavel and his control over the ebb and flow of council discussion to ignore the councilwoman’s efforts to weigh in on numerous items and topics that the council was considering as action items, resolutions, ordinances, ordinance adjustments or during hearings, by failing to recognize her when she would attempt to speak. In a particularly pointed way, Valdivia on occasion would simply bypass her during that portion of the meeting devoted to council members asking their colleagues to consent to the discussion of or action on items or issues at future meetings. On those occasions when issues Ibarra championed made their way into the council’s deliberations, Valdivia often worked to give those matters short shrift.
By the end of Summer 2019, Valdivia was angling with some purpose to render Ibarra into a political irrelevancy and in no small measure succeeding. Casting about for some means of asserting herself, Ibarra at last hit upon going beyond her capacity as a council member, which Valdivia was managing to thwart, by exercising her First Amendment rights as a citizen by filling out a speaker card and then making a statement during that portion of the council meeting reserved for public comment.
Unbeknownst to the public, during most of last year, a scandal was brewing at City Hall relating to the mayor’s comportment. Relatively early in Valdivia’s tenure as mayor, Mirna Cisneros, then 29, had been transferred from her at large position as a resident service representative to the mayor’s staff. Perhaps feeling his political oats, Valdivia was forward with her, engaging in a sexually-tinged innuendo, as when he offered her his credit card and kept telling her to buy whatever she wanted, specifically requesting that she add more high heels to her wardrobe, while telling her that his wife did not need to know about the purchases. He continuously commented on Cisneros’s appearance, made lewd comments about other women, and hinted that he would promote Cisneros to the position of his chief of staff so they could replicate a sexual relationship like that between a member of the California legislature and his chief of staff. Valdivia further insisted that Cisneros accompany him on junkets that were not a part of her job duties, on one occasion telling her as they were boarding a plane that nothing was off limits. In September, Valdivia hired onto his staff 24-year-old Karen Cervantes as constituent representative. Valdivia, as he had done with Cisneros, inveigled Cervantes into accompanying him to after-hours events that were not a required element of her work assignment. At one of these, Valdivia attempted to ply her with gin and tonics, at one point whispering in her ear that “This is not like at work and we can have fun,” that at such events he is “not so strict,” and that he is “cool.” Valdivia further pressured Cervantes to carpool with him, and at one point told Cervantes it was her fault that “we don’t have a friendship.” Valdivia told her she should ‘‘try to have a relationship” with him and that Cervantes “should stay in the office after hours to have friendly conversations” with him, so that they could get to know one another better. Valdivia delved into her personal finances and asked about Cervantes’ mortgage and bills, implying that keeping her job was important, which she took as his effort to get her to “consent to his degrading and unwelcome sexual advances and harassment.”
Cisneros and Cervantes reported Valdivia’s behavior to the city administration but, according to their attorney, Tristan Pelayes, this had no salutary effect. Neither the city manager, the city attorney’s office, nor the city’s personnel department were willing to clash with Valdivia over the issue Cisneros and Cervantes were raising, and the city was not amenable to transferring either of the women to other assignments where they would not need to interact with Valdivia. On January 29, both resigned from the city. Thereafter, with Pelayes representing them, they went public with their stories and on February 13 filed claims with the city, considered to be precursors to lawsuits, in which they laid out a multitude of the lurid details in their experiences with Valdivia.
In Cisneros’s claim, she said, “Each time claimant refused Valdivia’s advances or rejected his behavior, he would put her on the ‘misery program,’ which involved, among other things, humiliating her, forcing her to engage in activities outside of her job description and requirements, and threatening her job.” According to Cervantes, “Because claimant refused Valdivia’s advances and despicable behavior, Valdivia began to belittle, bully, degrade, and embarrass claimant in front of her coworkers during staff meetings and other gatherings. This retaliatory behavior continued and escalated throughout the next few months.”
In the aftermath of the claims being filed, more than a dozen news and media outlets throughout Southern California picked up on the scandal, including the San Bernardino Sun, CBS, NBC, ABC, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, and the Press-Enterprise, as well as elements of the national media.
Cisneros and Cervantes along with Ibarra were forced to endure not only Valdivia’s genderist behavior but dismissive treatment by top city officials and the city’s contract city attorney firm, Best Best & Krieger.
Before and even after Cisneros and Cervantes reached out to Pelayes, they had been told by senior city officials that nothing could be done about Valdivia because he was an elected official. When Valdivia had used his authority as mayor to preempt Ibarra’s participation in the governance of the city, no one was willing to intervene, as Valdivia’s status as mayor and political power exceeded that of Ibarra, whose authority as Second Ward councilman made her the direct representative of a constituency one-seventh the size of Valdivia’s. In the case of City Manager Teri Ledoux, Valdivia’s position as mayor put her at the mercy of his decision to sway the four votes he was presumed to control on the council that could fire her. Ledoux had never spoken up to assist Ibarra in gaining her footing in the face of Valdivia cutting her off. Best Best & Krieger is an establishment law firm, one that militates on behalf of city officials who have, by virtue of their elected status, become part of the establishment Best Best & Krieger has for generations successfully aspired to represent. Whenever rivalries among those elected officials break out, Best Best & Krieger hews to the side which the firm and its attorney’s calculate holds the political upper hand. Until quite recently in San Bernardino that was the side of the political divide John Valdvia was on. Though Deputy City Attorney and Best Best & Krieger Partner Sonia Carvalho had been witness to John Valdivia’s shabby treatment of Sandra Ibarra no fewer than a dozen times over the last six to eight months, times when the mayor precluded the councilwoman from fully participating as a member of the city council to which she was duly elected, Carvalho had not once stepped in to challenge the fashion in which Valdivia was marginalizing Ibarra.
Wednesday night, during the February 19 San Bernardino City Council meeting held in the Bing Wong Auditorium at the Norman F. Feldheym Library, there was heavy turnout that included dozens of residents bearing placards calling for Valdivia to resign as mayor. Pelayes was there, looking on and sizing up how the mayor was going to carry on in what had to be the most challenging night he has spent functioning as the city council’s presiding officer. No fewer than three television film crews were present to capture the contretemps. Not far from the forefronts of the minds of many of those in attendance was the failure of Ledoux and Carvalho, two women who had risen to or very near the apex of municipal governance and function in San Bernardino, to uphold the city’s standards of decency, fair play and propriety in the face of the caddish and domineering behavior of a man who was abusing his power as mayor. Indeed, for many, a central element of what had befallen Cisneros, Cervantes and Ibarra was the cowardice Ledoux and Carvalho had evinced by their unwillingness to stand up in the face of the bullying their sister employees/officials had been subject to.
Anticipating that things might get ugly during the course of the meeting, Carvalho had arranged that her colleague at Best Best & Krieger, Thomas A. Rice, who is also San Bernardino’s assistant city attorney, be on hand. As the deputy city attorney, Carvalho is the workhorse who reports to the mayor, city council and city manager on a constant basis, and since Best Best & Krieger was brought in as the city’s contract law firm in 2018 she has attended virtually all of the city’s council meetings.
Rice, who speaks in a clipped British accent, is the city’s legal showhorse. He is rarely present at city offices or functions, but is trotted out when city officials are seeking to put an urbane foot forward to make a superficial impression on those it is dealing with. Such was the case Wednesday night, when Carvalho, Ledoux and Valdivia were hoping that Rice might finesse the crowd and take some of the fire out of those who were present to give Valdivia a piece of their collective mind. Carvalho had Rice address the issue of what the city council had addressed in closed session, which not surprisingly related to Cisneros’s and Cervantes’ progress toward suing the city.
Rice said, “In the closed session, we discussed two claims the city has received from members of staff in the mayor’s office relating to sexual harassment allegations. The city has strictly complied with its harassment policies, has engaged a special independent investigator who will conduct an investigation. The investigator has asked to be expeditious. Following the investigation, a neutral report will be provided to the city to review, and information will be shared with the public.”
That report is due within 45 days. Notably, Rice’s statement did not disclose which of the council members had voted to disclose the investigator’s findings and which members had voted against doing so.
Any hopes Carvalho, Ledoux and Valdivia harbored that Rice’s statement would quell the crowd were dashed when public comments were heard.
Esmeralda Negrete accused the city council and the city of “looking out for the interest of one person and one person only.”
Sandra Salazar said, “The lawsuits are going to cost the city a lot of money. It is mind boggling. We can’t afford this litigation. It’s ridiculous. Do the city a favor and please resign, John, please. We cannot afford all of your mistakes.”
Barbara Babcock said, “Mr. Valdivia, I think you love this city. And the best thing you could do for this city is step down and resign.”
Tim Prince said, “Mayor, you are an embarrassment.”
Bill Rainbolt told Valdivia, “I want you to think when you look at your little daughter, when your daughter grows up, you wouldn’t want anyone to do that to your daughter. Do the right thing as a man and resign.”
Thomas Fleming said, “Mr. Mayor, I understand. You know, sometimes we go out and drink. I’m guessing you had a little too much to drink.”
Hilda Wendtland said, “Mr. Mayor, I’m speaking to you now because I love San Bernardino. I have 500 people who I’ve asked to put their signatures on mortgages. And I told you this, every time I sell a house in San Bernardino, somebody signs their mortgage to $300,000. I cannot sell a house in a city that is going bankrupt. I love this city. I really do. I am going to speak to you now in a manner you understand, since I understand you were a theologian. When the women argued in front of Solomon in First Kings 3:23, it says ‘The woman said, ‘Please, don’t kill the baby. Let her have it.”’ Are you listening, because this is for you: ‘Solomon said, “That’s the real mother.”’ When you love something, you let it go. Please resign.”
Treasure Ortiz said “How about these two ladies, Karen and Mirna, who have been sexually harassed? All the receipts are out there. And we have to wait 45 days for what? To do what? To figure it out? To cost the taxpayers more money? To be bigger puppets to the mayor than you have been for the last year? When do you start thinking for yourselves? When do you start representing the City of San Bernardino? When do you protect the employees that work so hard to cover your mistakes? Why is it that you are so easily swayed and bought and sold by a nobody mayor? That’s the guy that you guys listen to? That’s the guy that you guys do things for? Why? Do you love San Bernardino? Do you want us to be better? Do you have any idea what an amazing city you have been chosen to represent? And yet, you fail us. You may not be responsible for the past. But damn it! You own the present and you will live this legacy in your future. When they Google your names, you will be just like John: front page, sexual harassment in San Bernardino. San Bernardino Council retaliates. San Bernardino mayor calls former city manager corrupt. That’s what you guys want to attach your names to? Doing the right thing doesn’t require an elected official’s job. It doesn’t require you to make a lot of money. It doesn’t even require you to get out of bed. You’ve just got to make a phone call, and say, ‘You know what guys? We watched it happen, right in front of us. The employees begged for our help, and nothing happened. We did it to the city manager’s office. We’ve done it to other employees.’ That’s all you have to do, is stand up and be people, individuals. What is happening cannot happen anymore. Karen and Mirna lost their jobs because they couldn’t take the mayor’s sexual harassment. If that was your family member, what would you be doing? Sitting there supporting him, or doing the right thing?”
Robert Porter said “Mr. Valdivia, please, you made us look real bad in the newspapers. You made me look real bad for supporting you, a paid supporter of you. I can’t take that. I can’t feel that way. I love San Bernardino more than I love you. The way you made us look, it hurt me. The people in the city are scared of you. We don’t need a bully in there. We need one to check their ego. Maybe alcohol messed you up a little bit. Well, get some help with that. Stop drinking alcohol. I now you’re not going to resign, even though a lot of people would like you to. I think you should do what’s best for San Bernardino and do that, but if you can keep San Bernardino moving forward in good way while you’re still there – but I don’t think it’s going to happen with another election, man. That wasn’t cool what you did, and these girls don’t deserve sexual harassment. They don’t want to be dragged through the mud like that. They’re Republicans, man. You helped pick ’em. How could it be political? I’m just super-disappointed in you, dude.”
When Councilwoman Ibarra left the dais to go toward the public speaking podium, with Valdivia’s leave, Deputy City Attorney Carvalho took a stab at trying to dissuade her by suggesting that what she was doing was unnecessary and lacked professionalism.
“Each of you as council members have a right to speak under the First Amendment and speak and share your opinions,” Carvalho started, then continued, “I find it highly unusual that you would have an elected member of the council come down to the speaker area. All comments can be made from where you sit, at the appropriate time. It is of course up to you as a council. But I do need to bring it to your attention that we do try to run a professional meeting, and that it is highly unusual.”
Carvalho’s verbal sally at Ibarra did not have the desired effect, as the councilwoman did not turn away from the lectern. From somewhere in the crowd, someone could be heard half-yelling at Carvalho, “Then tell the mayor to quit shutting her down and let her speak.”
As it would turn out, Ibarra was seeking to use the public forum to address an element of the issue – the operation of the city’s animal shelter – which had originally poisoned her relationship with Valdivia. When she got to that subject, she dealt in some detail about the city’s euthanizing of dogs without a hearing, which she said was a violation of the city’s code and was occurring with frequency. She cited the recent putting down of a dog name Bader in illustrating her point. Prior to that, however, she took up the subject of the scandal permeating the city.
In reference to Carvalho’s attempt to shame her into silence, Ibarra said, “I came up here because I believe last time we were told we couldn’t speak from the dais.”
Looking straight at Valdivia, Ibarra said, “As a constituent who in November 2018 voted for change in our city, positive change for our city, I was really looking forward to that positive change, Mayor. I’m here to ask you – if those allegations are true and only you know whether or not they are true, but if they are true, please [for] the taxpayers and the 19,000-plus voters who put their faith in your hands to move our city forward – step down.”
By Mark Gutglueck