With San Bernardino’s mayoral crisis nearing the end of its second month, the city council on Wednesday voted to attenuate Mayor John Valdivia’s power and his direct authority over all but a single member of the mayoral staff that had swelled to six positions and an intern with the consent of the same city council last year.
It was allegations of his mistreatment of a majority of his staff members that precipitated the contretemps now enveloping Valdivia, and Wednesday night’s action should effectively distance the mayor from all but one of those four employees who were still employed after the resignation of two of his assistants and the firing of another in January.
For at least two of the council members, the action did not go far enough, as they unequivocally wanted to fully strip the mayor of all staff answerable directly to him. Nevertheless, it is clear that Valdivia’s mostly successful year-long effort to enhance his power and extend his political and administerial reach has come to an end.
In November 2018, Valdivia captured the mayoralty by defeating incumbent Carey Davis. His victory had come two years after the city’s residents had voted to dispense with the 1905 Charter under which the city had functioned for 111 years. The 1905 Charter had infused in the mayor both political and administrative power by making him/her the presiding officer of the city council and giving the mayor and city manager co-responsiblity for the hiring of city staff. While the mayor did not have a vote as a member of the city council, the position was infused with veto power over any 4-to-3 or 3-to-2 votes of the city council, which in practical terms gave the mayor two votes on any matters passed by a bare majority of the council. He also was empowered to break a tie vote by the council. Taken with his/her ability as the council’s presiding officer to control the ebb and flow of the debate among the council, the mayor under the 1905 Charter was the preeminent political/administerial/managerial entity in the city. The 2016 Charter Redraft retained for the mayor his/her position as the presiding officer of the city council as well veto power, but did away with the administrative/managerial authority to initiate or approve the city’s hirings and firings. Thus, the 2016 charter strengthened the city manager’s administerial authority while weakening that of the mayor.
Traditionally, the mayor had been permitted to have within his or her office a chief of staff, an individual selected by the mayor, subject to the approval of the city council. In keeping with this tradition, Valdivia upon acceding to the mayor’s post, was permitted to hire a chief of staff, one answerable directly to him.
The 2016 Charter reforms had been widely touted as a move toward the more widely accepted and adapted city council/city manager form of government and away from the governmental approach that was long out of vogue, one which infused overriding authority in a single personage, that being a semi-autocratic mayor. The model of government embodied in San Bernardino’s 1905 Charter, which ran counter to the modern concept of a city council making decisions to set policy and then delegating to a city manager to implement that policy, was criticized as embodying a governing model whereby too many people were in charge such that, practically speaking, no one was in charge.
While most of San Bernardino’s elected leadership, including Davis despite the consideration that it was to lessen his own power, were in favor of the changes to governance embodied in the 2016 Charter change, Valdivia, who at that time was the city council representative for the city’s Third Ward, was opposed to the charter makeover, perhaps because his future ambition included becoming mayor himself.
Two political newcomers who ran for city council in 2018 during Valdivia’s mayoral campaign were Ted Sanchez in San Bernardino’s First Ward and Sandra Ibarra in the city’s Second Ward. All three – Valdivia, Sanchez and Ibarra – faced multiple competitors in the June 2018 primary, and each qualified for the November 2018 runoff as one the two top vote-getters in the primary. As all three headed toward the November 2018 election, Valdivia astutely backed both Sanchez and Ibarra, likewise garnering their support. Upon all three emerging victorious in their respective races, Valdivia found himself in the catbird seat, able to rely on their support while having already established a political alliance with incumbent Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard and a strong working relationship with Councilman Henry Nickel. Valdivia was at considerable odds with the council’s two other incumbents – Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill and Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett, who in 2018 had to stand for reelection himself and had barely eked out a victory in November after facing two challengers in June. After taking up the mayor’s gavel in December 2018, with the support of Richard, Nickel, Sanchez and Ibarra, Valdivia seized control of the city. His first priority was to undo, in as many ways as he could, the limitations imposed on the mayor by the 2016 Charter reforms and reassert himself as an autocratic mayor.
With the assistance of his handpicked chief of staff, Bill Essayli, Valdivia went about doing just that. This required a two-pronged approach, which included boosting his diminished administrative and managerial reach as mayor and simultaneously paring back the authority of the city manager. He accomplished the latter by convincing the two newcomers – Sanchez and Ibarra – that the city manager who had been hired in 2017 during the Davis administration – Andrea Travis-Miller – was overextending her authority as city manager, infringing upon the province of the city council from which she was withholding information and that she was precluding the council from exercising its authority in its role as the body of the city’s elected decision-makers and policy setters. On the day that the new city council was sworn in on December 19, 2018, Ibarra moved, and a majority of her council colleagues sans Shorett and Mulivhill supported, initiating a revue of Travis-Miller’s performance as city manager. At virtually every one of its meetings thereafter over the next three months, the council during its executive sessions conducted outside the scrutiny of the public carried out a review of Travis-Miller’s performance. This had the effect of chastening Travis-Miller, as the threat of her termination based upon a 4-to-2 vote of Valdivia’s council allies ever loomed over her head like the sword of Damocles, hanging by a gossamer thread. Indeed, two of the votes to axe her were seemingly in place, those of Sanchez and Ibarra. Nickel and Richard were more cautious, not quite willing to cashier the city manager in the immediate aftermath of the election, a move that might very well be perceived at all levels as one that was hasty and politically driven. On April 3, however, Richard at last swung behind Sanchez and Ibarra, agreeing to take a first step in the direction Valdivia was advocating by placing Travis-Miller on paid administrative leave, a move that suggested she might be brought back if she in some fashion came to accept that Valdivia was the preeminent personage at City Hall calling the shots and that her role was to carry out his marching orders. The vote to suspend her, however, was not a majority one, but rather a 3-to-3 tie, with Sanchez, Richard and Ibarra on one side and Shorett, Mulvihill and Nickel on the other. Valdvia used his authority to cast a vote in the event of a tie, breaking the 3-to-3 deadlock, and voting to suspend Travis-Miller.
Over the same period, Valdivia and Essayli had been mounting proposals to beef up the mayoral staff, jumping it from the traditional strength of a single chief of staff accompanied by a secretary who served in the role of the clerical aid to the entire city council to one that would embody nine people. Those proposals initially, encountered some resistance, as the council, highly sensitive to the consideration that the city had filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012 and had not been able to emerge from that status until June of 2017, did not want to be seen as profligately indulging the mayor in beefing up his staff with employees receiving substantial salaries and benefits, entailing new and greater costs than it was already sustaining, and requiring outlays of money the city simply did not have. Valdivia and Essayl labored, however, to beguile the council, recognizing that they too could use assistance in their efforts to represent and respond to their constituents, thus including in the proposal that the mayor and council both see the creation of a support unit, one that would number 14 individuals – eight devoted to the mayor and five devoted to the council, with a mayoral/council secretary that would look after all of their clerical needs. While the council never bought into the 14 member staff proposal, over time Valdivia essentially prevailed on getting most of what he wanted, which included a mayoral staff of seven, including a full-time chief of staff, a full-time assistant to the mayor, a full-time executive assistant to the mayor, a full-time customer service representative assigned into the mayor’s office, a full-time mayoral legislative field representative, a part-time mayoral field representative and a part-time paid mayoral office intern, along with the mayor’s share of the secretary assigned to the mayor and city council.
In May 2019, the election to fill the Third Ward council position vacated when Valdivia had to resign that post to move into the mayor’s slot was held. In that contest, Juan Figueroa, the candidate Valdivia had endorsed and supported by making transference of funds from his own political war chest to Figueroa’s and for whom he had interceded on behalf of with his own political bakers to deliver to him further monetary assistance, emerged victorious. At that point, Valdivia reigned supreme, with the backing of Sanchez, Ibarra, Figueroa, Nickel and Richard. He orchestrated the firing of Travis-Miller, hiring in her place Travis-Miller’s assistant city manager, Teri LeDoux, who at the age of 61 was nearing the end of her municipal career. By elevating LeDoux from her $184,000 per-year assistant city manager’s post to that of city manager making an annual salary of $259,674 subject to a 3.5 percent raise in August 2019, Valdivia further guaranteed that by the time of her anticipated retirement in January 2021 LeDoux would zoom up from the annual $122,472 per year pension she would have received based upon her 25 years employment with the cities of San Bernardino, Huntington Beach and La Verne to an annual pension of $181,642.50 by managing to stay in position as San Bernardino city manager at least until June of this year. In this way, Valdivia purchased LeDoux’s loyalty, and her complicity in virtually anything he hoped to carry out as mayor.
Even as Valdivia was, in ways that were largely unrecognized to his constituents, militating to extend his political and administrative reach, he was, also unbeknownst to the public, engaging in a series of depredations, ones that were in some cases reflective merely of relatively mild personality flaws, others that betrayed deeper character failures and still more which crossed the line into full-blown violations of the public trust and breaches of the government code and criminal statutes.
On January 6, Valdivia fired Jackie Aboud, who since April 2019 had been serving as his field representative. On January 29, Mirna Cisneros, who was a senior customer service representative assigned to Valdivia’s mayoral office since early 2019, and Karen Cervantes, an assistant to the mayor, resigned. Word came that Cisneros and Cervantes were represented by attorney Tristan Pelayes, and thereafter, on on February 13, Cisneros and Cervantes filed claims against Valdivia and the city. Those claims alleged they were both subjected to Valdivia’s sexual harassment and advances, and endured a hostile work environment along with a string of humiliations after rejecting those advances. Cisneros further maintained that in his interactions with her, Valdivia either let slip or openly acknowledged that he was misusing public funds for personal use, taking governmental reimbursements for travel and accommodations that were unrelated to his duties as an elected official, and the mayor was, in the most benign reading of the circumstances, failing to report as he was required as a public official gifts provided to him by donors, or in a more serious interpretation of what was occurring, receiving bribes. Cisneros said Valdivia pressured her to work, while she was on the clock in her capacity as a city employee, on the reelection efforts on the electoral campaigns for his council allies Richard and Figueroa in the election concluded earlier this month.
It was subsequently revealed that Pelayes is also representing Matt Brown, who succeeded Essayli in the role of Valdivia’s chief of staff in August; Aboud; Don Smith, who was hired as a part-time mayoral field representative last year after he worked on Valdivia’s 2018 campaign; and Alissa Payne, whom Valdivia had nominated for and successfully saw appointed to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission last year.
According to Payne, Valdivia engaged in unwanted sexually-tinged overtures with her, including inappropriate physical contact. “He went as far as offering to provide me an apartment, would tell me how to vote and what to say or do at the commission meetings, asked me to meet him alone in the evening after hours, and promised – guaranteed – me a seat on the city dais as the Second Ward council member,” Payne said. She recounted that Valdivia “invited me to attend a dinner event as his personal guest where he was persistently trying to get me intoxicated, which I declined. The mayor was preying on me.”
According to Aboud, there is evidence to suggest that Valdivia was engaged in overt political patronage and using the power of his office to steer favorable treatment to those who had supported him in his successful run for mayor, and that he was similarly using that authority to punish those who did not support him. She said that Valdivia told her “that my job was not to serve the community but to serve him and meet his personal needs.” Aboud said, “The mayor doesn’t care about the community, only certain areas that supported him during his election. I was ordered to not help, support, or partner with parts of the community that didn’t support him in the election, like the Fourth and Seventh Ward.”
Smith echoed Aboud, saying that while he was working in the capacity of Valdivia’s field representative, the mayor sent him messages ordering him to not assist a resident that didn’t support him in the election. In addition, Smith said, Valdivia bullied him by threatening to fire him if he did not carry out the assignments Valdivia ordered him to undertake, which included chauffeuring Valdivia about town while the mayor was having sex in the backseat with a female companion. According to Smith, he was present in October or November 2018 for a 1 a.m. rendezvous Valdivia had with Danny Alcarez, the owner of Danny’s 24 Hour Towing, Inc., when Alcarez provided Valdivia with “a thick white envelope that appeared to contain a large amount of money,” which Smith said he believed was a kickback provided to Valdivia for his support of city tow franchises being awarded to several of the cities towing operations.
Brown has retained Pelayes to head off retaliation he believes he is likely to experience from a vituperative Valdivia in the aftermath of his having relayed to the city manager’s office and the city’s personnel department what he had been told by Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud about Valdivia’s comportment toward them. Upon learning of Brown’s action, Valdivia interpreted that as an act of disloyalty on his chief of staff’s part.
Since June, Valdivia has seen his support on the city council steadily erode, as first Ibarra, then Nickel and finally Sanchez have defected from his camp.
This week, the city council took up an item at Wednesday night’s council meeting that had originated as a request by Sanchez to consider options associated with the staffing in the mayor’s office.
According to a report from LeDoux accompanying that agenda item, “Article V, Section 502 of the city charter assigns responsibility to the city manager for the administration of each city department excluding the office of the city council, mayor, city attorney and city clerk. This section of the charter further states that with the consent of the council, the city manager may serve as the executive of one or more of such offices. On May 1, 2019, the city council adopted Ordinance No. MC-1516 amending Chapter 2.02 of the city’s municipal code related to the duties of the city manager, removing responsibility for providing staff support to the mayor and city council. The staffing levels allocated to support both the office of the mayor and the city council are established in the city’s annual operating budget approved by the city council.”
LeDoux’s report continued, “On March 4, 2020, the city council directed staff to provide an update regarding the current status of staff assigned to the office of the mayor and options available for council consideration. Following the receipt of complaints from two employees in the mayor’s office alleging various forms of harassment occurring at City Hall and offsite, the city manager took steps to conduct a thorough investigation and ensure compliance with the city’s policies and state and federal laws. These steps were undertaken with guidance from an outside law firm with significant experience in labor and employment law. On February 5, 2020, the support staff assigned to the office of the mayor was temporarily relocated to the office of the city manager while the investigation is conducted. At this time all communications from the mayor to staff are being communicated through the city manager with staff assignments delegated as needed to meet the operational needs of the mayor’s office using existing personnel. This temporary relocation of personnel has been made to limit the potential for additional allegations and to protect the integrity of the investigation. All staff in the office of the mayor continue to serve within the scope of their assigned job classifications. The adopted Fiscal Year 2019/20 operating budget for the mayor’s office includes four full-time support positions in addition to funding for part-time personnel. Of the four budgeted full-time positions there are currently two vacant positions. All open positions are being held vacant until the city’s investigation is completed.”
Valdivia, sensing that the council was on the verge of radically reducing his power and reach at City Hall, maneuvered as best he could to move the focus away from dwelling on his behavior.
“These are very shaky waters for council to be opining publicly,” he said.
While Deputy City Attorney Sonia Carvalho cautioned the city council not to “personalize” the positions being discussed, meaning, apparently, mentioning by name the holders of the positions or dwelling on their various claims or complaints against Valdivia and the city, she did not advocate against the discussion proceeding.
Sanchez made a motion to create a budget amendment moving all of the positions currently assigned to the mayor’s office with the exclusion of the assistant to the mayor to the city manager’s office. Sanchez said the mayor should be permitted to keep one staff member to allow the “mayor to fulfill his duties.” That motion was seconded by Figueroa.
Without any discussion intervening, Councilman Fred Shorett made a substitute motion which was seconded by Councilman Henry Nickel. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, a substitute motion that is seconded must be considered prior to an original motion.
“I think right now we’re all concerned about staff and for the time being we’ve kind of dealt with that issue,” Shorett said. “Some are vacant. Some are leaving. Some are staying. We’ve made changes to ordinances in the past and the charter’s pretty clear. My motion would be we direct staff return the first meeting in April to reintroduce an ordinance to establish the council consent that the city manager serve as executive to the offices of the city council and mayor in accordance with Charter Section 502, and I further motion that in preparation for the budget hearings coming up for budget year 2020 and 2021, we direct staff that we propose a reduction in staffing in the mayor’s office to a single position with the title nature and scope of that position … determined collaboratively by the mayor and city manager, and should be informed by the limited duties of the mayor pursuant to Charter Section 303.”
In discussing Shorett’s substitute motion, Sanchez objected that an ordinance discussing the city manager’s powers was beyond the scope of what the council had asked for on March 4 and what was advertised in the agenda.
Carvalho, however, indicated that the information and description contained in the agenda was sufficient for the council to direct staff to undertake the action Shorett’s motion called for at the next meeting
Ibarra began to express the concern that with the claims pending, any action taken which might impact the existence of the positions the claimants held might be deemed hostile action that would create liability for the city if those claims mature into lawsuits, which could allege wrongful or vindictive termination. Carvalho, however, abridged any discussion along those lines, suggesting such references were “personalizing” the deliberation.
When the vote on Shorett’s motion was taken, it was supported by Shorett, Nickel and Mulvihill, thus failing with the prevailing opposition by Sanchez, Ibarra, Figueroa and Richard.
When the council considered Sanchez’s proposal, the vote went 4-to-3 in favor, with Sanchez, Figueroa, Nickel and Richard prevailing and Ibarra, Shorett and Mulvihill dissenting. Valdivia did not exercise his veto, as some believed he would.