By Mark Gutglueck
Often overlooked and similarly as often politically overwhelmed, Rialto is on the brink of reasserting itself, with a crucial stride in its reemergence to come in November.
At that time, one of its foremost native sons, Joe Baca, Jr., will vie in a runoff election for San Bernardino County Fifth District supervisor. Baca is now in his fourteenth year as a member of the Rialto City Council. Should he emerge, as most political observers believe he will, the victor against his rival, Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez, the Fifth District’s political center of gravity will shift to align with its geographical center, which is Rialto itself.
At present, Rialto is the sixth largest of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities population-wise. Only the county seat San Bernardino, Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, Ontario and Victorville claim more inhabitants than the 104,000 who call Rialto home.
Sandwiched between Fontana to the west and San Bernardino on the northeast and Colton on the southeast, historically Rialto has lost out to its larger neighbors when it has come to political representation. Most of the political leaders representing San Bernardino County’s Central Inland Valley on the board of supervisors at the county level and in the Assembly or California State Senate in Sacramento as well as in Congress have hailed from San Bernardino, with a few from elsewhere. Beginning in the 1980s and for roughly a quarter of a century, a succession of Rialto politicians – one-time Rialto Mayor Jerry Eaves, Eaves’ protégé John Longville, and Joe Baca Jr.’s father and Eaves’ rival Joe Baca, Sr. – achieved success and acceded to the state legislature, and in Joe Baca Sr.’s case, to the U.S. Congress. But those three were the exception rather than the rule.
For a host of reasons, it now appears that the November election for Fifth District supervisor is Joe Baca, Jr.’s to lose and that Rialto will see its political reach extended. Baca, as a Democrat, holds an advantage over the Republican Armendarez, as the registration numbers in the Fifth Supervisorial District strongly favor the Democrats. As of this week, 94,446 or 50.8 percent of the district’s 185,800 voters are registered Democrats. Registered Republicans in the district number 34,699 or 18.7, and are outnumbered by the 44,881 or 24.2 percent of the voters in the district who are not registered with any party. 6.4 percent of the district’s voters are registered with the Libertarian, Peace & Freedom, American Independent, Green and more obscure parties. Though in California local offices such as county supervisor or city council are officially considered non-partisan and the party of a local office candidate does not appear on the ballot when election for those posts is being conducted, in San Bernardino County party affiliation is nevertheless a de facto primary consideration in the election of officeholders at all levels. Thus, Baca has a substantial leg up going into the campaign. Another consideration is that all of Rialto lies within the Fifth District. Only the eastern portion of 214,000 population Fontana is enclosed within the Fifth District. Moreover, by virtue of his father’s wide-ranging political career, the younger Baca enjoys name recognition and positive name identification that Armendarez lacks.
In this year’s primary election held last month, Armendarez conducted a campaign in which he outraised all three of the others in the race – Baca, Colton Joint Unified School District Board Member Dan Flores and radio personality Nadia Renner – in terms of campaign cash. Baca captured first place, despite having less money – $116,443 in political donations – to spend than Flores with $312,966.39 in his campaign war chest or Armendarez’s electioneering account of $336,299.86. Armendarez clearly believed in himself, as $91,076.83 that went into his campaign fund was a loan to himself. Renner banked, overall, $19,100 to carry out her campaign. His greater spending power bought Armendarez a second place finish, with 13,330 votes or 26.88 percent, comfortably ahead of Flores, a Democrat and the chief of staff to the current Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales. Flores polled 8,998 votes for 18.14 percent. Renner managed 7,319 votes or 14.76 percent. Baca outdistanced all three with 19,948 votes, which equated to 40.22 percent.
Moreover, at present Josie Gonzales is the only Democrat on the five-member board of supervisors. Two Republicans vying in this year’s election in San Bernardino County’s First and Third districts, Paul Cook and Dawn Rowe, won outright with a majority of the vote in the March 3 Primary Election, such that they have bypassed the need to run in November. The Democrats are loathe to surrender all five seats on the board of supervisors and can therefore be counted upon to marshal their forces to ensure that as the party’s standard bearer in the Fifth District, Baca will succeed.
Baca was last elected to the city council in 2018. If he is elevated to the board of supervisors in November, he will be obliged to resign from the council to accede to the county post. Simultaneous with the November Fifth District board race, three of the positions on the Rialto City Council will also be up for contest – those held by Mayor Deborah Robertson and councilmen Rafael Trujillo and Andy Carrizales. It is thus possible, though perhaps not likely, that there could be a significant turnover with regard to Rialto’s leadership by the end of the year.
Until quite recently, Mayor Robertson appeared to be in firm control of the city, having built her power into a formidable political machine over the course of 17 years. First elected to the Rialto City Council in her maiden foray into politics in 2002, Robertson was reelected in 2006. In 2008, she suffered the lone defeat in her political career when she challenged then-Rialto Mayor Grace Vargas. Vargas’s power of incumbency tided her to victory with 12,355 votes or 54.55 percent to Robertson’s 10,296 votes or 45.45 percent. Two years later, in the 2010 election cycle, neither Robertson nor Baca, who had first been elected to the council in 2006, had to stand for reelection, as no one deigned to run against them. In 2012, with Robertson again intent on challenging Vargas, and Robertson’s popularity surging among the Rialto electorate, Vargas chose to not seek reelection. Instead, Robertson found herself in a contest against longtime Rialto political figure Councilman Ed Scott. When the dust cleared after the election, Robertson had cruised to victory by a comfortable margin, 12,013 votes or 57.21 percent to Scott’s 8,985 votes or 42.79 percent. In her 2016 mayoral re-elective effort, Robertson faced a single challenger, Councilman Ed Palmer. She handily won that contest, 14,784 votes or 59.79 percent to Palmer’s 9,950 votes or 40.23 percent.
As a member of the council and as mayor, Robertson parlayed her professional expertise with the California Department of Transportation, having worked in that agency’s administrative division for two decades, to take up leadership positions on regional governmental joint powers authorities relating to urban planning and transportation, such as Southern California Associated Governments and San Bernardino County’s transportation agency, formerly known as San Bernardino Associated Governments and now known simply as the San Bernardino Transportation Agency.
As mayor, Robertson has become a virtual kingmaker in blue collar and heavily Democratic Rialto, and her endorsement carries substantial weight among the electorate. Her most notable recent achievement in this regard was her sponsorship, support and successful coaching last year of political newcomer Channing Hawkins, who was elected to the board of the West Valley Water District in November in his first attempt at public office.
Hawkins is the most electrifying figure to come onto the Rialto political stage in decades. A graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., from which he has both a bachelor of arts and a law degree, Hawkins did not take up a career as a lawyer. He worked for a time as a field representative for Congressman Joe Baca, Sr., then did a stint as a lead representative with the Service Employees International Union, then went to work for the Barack Obama Administration in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Civil Rights. After more than two years as a federal employee, he returned to the Service Employees International Union to work within its governmental relations division, leaving that position in 2016 for his current post with the Laborers’ International Union of America as a labor relations representative.
Well spoken, indeed eloquent, Hawkins is capable of fielding questions he may or may not have anticipated and formulating an answer on the spot indistinguishable from a response reflecting many hours worth of work by a team of public relations specialists.
Considered in multiple circles to be the most likely political prospect to come out of Rialto or San Bernardino Valley for some time, it is widely assumed that he will seek a position on the Rialto City Council in November. Such speculation was fueled by the circumstances surrounding his transition into the West Valley Water Agency.
In the race for the board, he found himself in a head-to-head duel with the only Democrat on the board, long-time member Don Olinger. At 92 years of age, Olinger was then the oldest serving elected official in San Bernardino County. Beginning in 2018, Olinger had empowered himself by forging an alliance with two of this fellow board members, Dr. Michael Taylor and Kyle Crowther, two Republicans whose once cordial relationship with the two other Republicans on the board, Dr. Clifford Young and Greg Young (no blood relation to Clifford Young), had devolved into a bitter rivalry and struggle for the control of the district.
The West Valley Water District holds its elections in odd-numbered years. As the 2019 campaign began to heat up, the degree to which Taylor and Crowther were committed to keeping Olinger in place on the board became clear. Crowther transferred $3,000 from his own electioneering fund into Taylor’s political war chest, and $2,500 to the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association. Taylor then provided Olinger $22,620.48 worth of contributions, in-kind support or other financing in his campaign against Hawkins. The Inland Empire Taxpayers Association was likewise active in supporting Olinger. Despite those efforts by Taylor and Crowther in backing Olinger, ultimately Hawkins prevailed in the race, defeating Olinger convincingly with 623 votes or 64.83 percent in the district’s Division 4 race to Olinger’s 338 votes of 35.17 percent cast on November 5. On the other side of the contest, Clifford Young and Greg Young had lent Hawkins assistance, though more discretely because they did not want it to be known that they were supporting a Democrat even though both competitors in the race were Democrats.
Exactly one month after the November 5, 2019 contest, at its December 5 meeting, the West Valley Water District swore in the victors in that year’s election – Crowther, Greg Young and Hawkins.
Unbeknownst to the public, intense jockeying and no little degree of intrigue had followed the election. Those in the know, or what was taken as being the know, anticipated that as soon as Hawkins acceded to the board and displaced Olinger, the ruling coalition of Taylor, Crowther and Olinger would dissolve, and that a new regime composed of Young, Young and Hawkins would assert itself. And indeed, in the 30-day gap between the end of the election and the swearing in ceremony, the trio conferred with one another serially, being at liberty to do so since Hawkins was not yet a member of the board, so that their discussions could not officially be considered a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law which prohibits a quorum on an elected panel from discussing in private business related to the offices they hold. In their separate discussions with Hawkins, both Young and Young indicated they would be willing to see him appointed to the position of the district board’s vice chairman, or vice president, shortly after he took his place on the panel. Hawkins countered to both that his expectation was that he be elevated to president of the board. Neither Clifford Young nor Greg Young was prepared to accommodate Hawkins’ request, and thereafter Hawkins consulted with Taylor, who saw in the younger man’s approach the possibility that he would not need surrender control over the district to Young and Young.
Immediately after the swearing in ceremony on December 5, the board, still chaired by President Taylor, took up the issue of the board’s reorganization. Without opening the matter for discussion, Taylor instead used his possession of the gavel and therefore the floor to immediately promote Hawkins, against whose election he had only recently worked assiduously to prevent. “Tonight, I see a unique opportunity that I think could go a long way to doing a lot of good for the community and the board itself,” Taylor said. “So, with that I’m going to make the motion to nominate a new president. I’m going to nominate Mr. Channing Hawkins as president of the board. I’m looking for a second, please.”
Without waiting for Crowther to make the second, Hawkins did so himself. The board then voted 4-to-0 with Greg Young abstaining to confirm Hawkins as board president.
A little later in the meeting, Taylor said, “I’ve had conversations with Mr. Hawkins. I find him to be a very bright, gifted person, who has a level of maturity not often seen in people his age. So, I’m looking forward to his leadership, and I’m looking forward to working very closely with him. I know, just by the nature of his personality, that I’ve had the privilege of meeting with, that I truly believe he’s going to do a very good job for the district, for the community and for the employees who work here at the district itself.”
Hawkins’ ability to play the warring factions within the water district off against one another for his own advancement was perceived at once as an indication of his political skill. Further, his unwillingness to accept anything less than the presidency of the board was widely seen as an aggressive move toward positioning himself to make his next political jump, which is assumed to be to the Rialto City Council in the upcoming November election.
Hawkins, however, denies that his ambition, at present, extends to taking up a place on the Rialto dais.
“Right now, I’m completely focused on reforms at the district, and especially while we are in the middle of the coronavirus crisis,” he told the Sentinel. “Over the last two to three weeks, we have had our staff working at full throttle to protect our residents and ratepayers and most logically utilize our resources, to make sure we have the equipment and manpower so we can adhere to the mandates for social distancing in the workplace so we don’t have service interruptions. That is what I am 100 percent focused on.”
Virtually no one believes that Hawkins is not purposed to run for city council. Indeed, some believe he is being prepped to replace Robertson for mayor.
At the time of Hawkins’ election and elevation to the water board presidency, there had been talk of Robertson having cleared the way to make her own advancement, potentially to a state legislative position, in that she could at last move on, confident that her legacy would be filled out by her protégé Hawkins following her. Thus, Hawkins was perceived to be on a trajectory that would see him elected to the city council in November 2020, running as a team with Robertson in her second reelection bid for mayor. In 2022, if her bid for Assembly or State Senate succeeded, Hawkins would then be the logical heir to the mayoralty.
In the intervening time, however, the wolves of scandal have been heard howling near Robertson’s door, necessitating, perhaps, that the timetable for Hawkins’ next move up the political evolutionary chain be steeper than was anticipated, such that he will be vying not for the council but mayor six months from now.
In December, the Riverside-based auditing/accounting firm of Teaman, Ramirez and Smith, Inc, which had been tasked in September to examine Rialto’s books with regard to the city’s provision of pensions to former employees and the impact those are having on the city’s financial situation, budgetary comparison schedules, the city’s financial statements and how its federal grants had been spent, alerted city officials to a potential instance of fraud or noncompliance. Specifically, Teaman, Ramirez and Smith, Inc.’s bean counters had found that there was some order of irregularity with $38,475 in federal Community Development Block Grants that were doled out at the discretion of the Rialto City Council in the 2018-19 fiscal year to the Bethune Center-National Council of Negro Women. Milele Robertson, Mayor Robertson’s daughter, is the president of the Bethune Center-National Council of Negro Women, which offers what is described as job training services. Though the Bethune Center-National Council of Negro Women was formerly identified as being headquartered at 649 E. Foothill Boulevard in Rialto, it has been operating out of a city-owned building at 141 S. Riverside Avenue in Rialto for at least four years, having done so free of charge for that entire time.
Teaman, Ramirez and Smith, Inc.’s accountants delineated the federal grant funding received by the Bethune Center-National Council of Negro Women, and traced out the blood relationship between Deborah Robertson and Milele Robertson.
It has been publicized that since 2012, the year that Robertson became mayor, the Bethune Center-National Council of Negro Women, as a nonprofit corporation, had received over $200,000 in Community Development Block Grants distributed by the Rialto City Council.
Robertson did not recuse herself from approving, as a voting member of the city council, that arrangement, nor had she made made adequate disclosure that the recipient of the federal funds and what has been tantamount to free rental space was her blood relative.
The finalized version of that audit is to be presented to the city council for public review and acceptance on April 28.
Under California law pertaining to public officeholder conflict of interest, assisting or promoting a family member by participating in a vote on a contract involving that family member, providing that family member with employment with the public agency the politician heads or approving a project the politician’s family member has an interest in is not illegal unless it can be demonstrated that the politician and the family member have financial interests in common. While it is generally considered illegal for a politician to vote with regard to any issue benefiting a spouse since it is assumed their financial interests are one and the same, a similar vote impacting a grown child, parent or sibling is not necessarily illegal under state law. Federal law, however, is far more strict with regard to nepotistic situations. That the Bethune Center-National Council of Negro Women received federal funding in the form of Community Development Block Grants puts Robertson, at least potentially, within the crosshairs of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Theft or bribery involving programs receiving federal funds, commonly known as program fraud or program bribery, is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. § 666. A conviction for fraud or embezzlement under 18 U.S.C. § 666 can net the perpetrator up to a 10-year prison sentence and fines equal to the value of the embezzlement or amount gained through the defraudment.
A first major determinant in the matter involving Robertson will be the conclusion of the Teaman, Ramirez and Smith report anticipated for delivery on April 28.
According to Joshua Calhoun, a certified public accountants with Teaman, Ramirez and Smith, the independent auditing services his firm was called upon to perform in September “is not designed to detect instances of fraud or noncompliance with laws or regulations; however, we will communicate to you any known and suspected fraud and noncompliance with laws or regulations affecting the city’s appropriations limit documents that come to our attention.”
Were the city council to act to withhold from the Department of Housing and Urban Development the outcome of the Teaman, Ramirez and Smith audit, the City of Rialto would risk the availability of future Community Development Block Grants, which over the next decade would be worth $8 million-to-$10 million to the Rialto community. Upon notification of fraud or possible fraud in the Community Development Block Grant program, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, through which the grants are administered, will in turn most likely make a referral of the matter to the United States Attorney General, which will prompt scrutiny by the U.S. Attorney’s Office either in Riverside or Los Angeles and, by extension, local or regional offices of the FBI. How rapidly and with what intensity the federal investigation proceeds will greatly impact Robertson’s political future.
It would not be unthinkable that Robertson’s political machine would simply transfer the lion’s share of its focus in the upcoming fall election from Robertson to Hawkins, or that, indeed, the political machine itself might be transferred outright to the young up-and-comer.
Meanwhile, Hawkins faces challenges of his own, having to overcome entrenched problems at the water district. The difficulties are myriad, indeed so deep and in some respects convoluted, that if Hawkins proves equal to the task of resolving them, his advancement is virtually assured. Conversely, his having attached himself to the district carries with it the potential that the district’s tangle of predicaments will envelope him, dulling whatever luster he can be said to currently possess, and at worst end his political viability outright.
One problem that dogs the district is that it has far too many colonels and generals and not enough privates and corporals. Additionally, the general staff is not getting along with the district’s single four star general.
Just a few days after Hawkins was installed as district president, a letter from sixteen of the district’s eighteen department managers was delivered to Hawkins and the remainder of the board, pressing them to relieve General Manager Clarence Mansell of his position as lead staff member, alleging he had been dishonest and conspiratorial in hiring individuals unsuitable and untrained for the tasks they were to perform and promoting others who lacked qualifications, adequate experience and demonstrable competence to perform the assignments given to them. Many of those reading the letter were uncertain about whether to be shocked more by the accusations that touched on Mansell’s cronyism, dishonesty and lack of transparency, poor communication, disrespect for employees and questionable professionalism than they were at learning that the district had 18 department heads in addition to three assistant general manager positions.
A pattern that had been established and had grown entrench in the district prior to Mansell’s arrival as general manager in 2018 was the provision of sinecures – high paying and mostly do-nothing positions – to the friends, political associates, supporters and family members of the board members.
The West Valley Water District operates five treatment plants, 385 miles of pipeline, 25 reservoirs and 17 wells in the Chino, Bunker Hill, Lytle Creek, North Riverside and Rialto-Colton water basins to serve more than 80,000 residents in Rialto, Fontana, Bloomington and north Riverside County through more than 24,000 service connections. Yet it is not the only purveyor of water to Fontana, Rialto and Colton. The 80,000 residents it serves are fewer than those residents in either Fontana, at 214,000 or Rialto, with 104,000. Nor is the water district responsible for anywhere near the range of services provided by the cities of Fontana, Rialto or Colton, and is limited directly to the provision of potable water to households and businesses within its jurisdiction. Fontana employs a city manager, an assistant to the city manager and 17 department heads overseeing 19 departments. Rialto employs a city manager, an assistant city manager and nine department heads overseeing nine departments. Colton, with a population of 55,500, and which contains its own utility division providing its residents and businesses electricity, water and sewer service, has a city manager and 13 department heads.
The top-heaviness in the West Valley Water District is evident in the consideration that at least 17 employees are receiving salaries alone in excess of $100,000 per year, 25 employees are receiving salary and benefits in excess of $150,000 per year, at least eight are receiving salary and benefits exceeding $200,000 per year and four employees are receiving salaries and benefits of $250,000 per year or more.
One of those in the quarter-of-a-million-dollar-per-year bracket is Jeremiah Brosowske, a political operative upon whom the position of assistant general manager was conferred last May.
Brosowske, who possessed no experience, no training, held no certificates or licenses, and had no expertise in water operations, was given two areas of responsibility upon hiring, those being public information dissemination and customer relations.
Already in place at the district was another assistant general manager, Richard Pacheco, whose title, general manager for external affairs, implied that he too was responsible for overseeing public relations. He was moved into an assignment overseeing operations to make way for Brosowske. In addition, working for the district at that time was one of Brosowske’s acquaintances from electioneering efforts at the level of the San Bernardino County Republican Party, Naseem Farooqi, the district’s public affairs manager.
In October, just as the campaigns for the three positions on the West Valley Water Board were hitting fever pitch, evidence surfaced, consisting of some form of electronic media, showing that Brosowske was engaged in work on the premises of the West Valley Water District Headquarters at 855 West Baseline Road in Rialto on behalf of one of the district’s board candidates. Within days, there were follow-up reports that Brosowske was actively working on behalf of Olinger against Hawkins as well as for Angel Ramirez, who was challenging incumbent Greg Young. In the wake of the accusation that he was engaged in partisan electioneering activity during work hours performed at the district’s premises, there were calls for Brosowske’s suspension. After the November electoral victories by Hawkins and Young, there was widespread anticipation that Brosowske’s firing would follow.
There was been even more pointed scrutiny of Brosowske’s circumstance after the district board, in December at Hawkins’ instigation, retained the services of ChamberlaynePR, a public relations firm headed by Charles Chamberlayne. Recently, when the need for employing a public relations firm was brought into question given that the district already had what many considered to be a redundancy in public information capability in the persons of Brosowske and Farooqi at a combined cost to the district exceeding $400,000, word emanated from the district that the retention of ChamberlaynePR represented the first move in the direction of dispensing with both Brosowske and Farooqi. At present, ChamberlaynePR has been detailed to handling the district’s communications with regard to the response to the coronavirus challenge, an assignment that logically would lie with Brosowske and Farooqi.
Of note, is that Charles Chamberlayne has devoted some time, in addition to his communications with regard to the virus, to defending the district and Hawkins in particular, in a recently-created webpage on the district’s website devoted to news articles, primarily or exclusively ones that have appeared in the county’s largest daily newspaper, the San Bernardino Sun. The Sun’s reportage has extended to the district’s retention of Chamberlayne, who attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. with Hawkins, as well as the district’s retention of Rodney Diggs, an attorney with the Los Angeles law firm Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, to do legal work on behalf of the district. Diggs also attended Howard University with Hawkins in the early 2000s. The webpage put together by Chamberlayne does not deal explicitly with the precise, and what many consider to be the actual, reason for Chamberlayne’s work with the district, what is taken by some as an indication that Brosowske and Farooqi are to soon be handed pink slips.
Hawkins skillfully sashayed around the issue when questioned about the circumstance by the Sentinel.
“What I think I can safely say to you is that we have brought ChamberlaynePR in to make sure we have very clear communications with our ratepayers and customers with regard to the COVID-19 situation, so they have confidence we are making wise use of our resources,” Hawkins said last week. “I will allow you to judge how well they are doing that. ChamberlaynePR – Charles – is also working on an evaluation and analysis of our external affairs department. I believe they should have something the board can review at this next meeting.”
At the West Valley board meeting held last night, April 16, the Chamberlayne firm provided the board in closed session the assessment report for external affairs. The report, while not yet public, used devastating language in its assessment of Brosowske’s performance and leadership. Brosowske, knowledgeable of the findings and sensing what was to soon come his way, offered a separation agreement effective Friday. The board considered Brosowske’s proposal in a closed, executive session that evening and afterwards it was reported out that the board voted 4-to-0, with Greg Young abstaining, to accept Brosowske’s offer.
Every bit as thorny for Hawkins is what the district is going to do with Mansell. Prior to Hawkins’ election, Mansell had become a pivot point for the sharply divided board. Under the ground rules for political survival at that point, there were two choices for district employees. One option was siding with the Taylor-led faction, consisting of Taylor, Crowther and Olinger, which was in control; or one could side with the Clifford Young-led faction; consisting of Young and Young, which did not have sufficient political muscle to control the district at that juncture; or one could endeavor to remain neutral. Before the election at which Olinger was displaced by Hawkins, the latter two choices carried some risk. The complexion changed somewhat once the November election was held in which Hawkins defeated Olinger and Greg Young and Crowther retained their positions.
Two days after the election, while Hawkins was not yet sworn in and Olinger remained as a lame duck, the board during a regularly scheduled meeting, ratified a separation agreement with Assistant General Manager Richard Pacheco, who had been placed on paid administrative leave in the spring of 2019 for reasons that have not been publicly disclosed. Pacheco is a member of the Baldwin Park City Council, in which capacity he had voted to rehire Dr. Taylor to serve as that city’s police chief. After the once-close political relationship between Clifford Young and Taylor soured in 2018, Clifford Young had joined with former West Valley Water District Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis and one-time Assistant West Valley Water District Board Secretary Patricia Romero, who has now been moved into the district’s customer service division, in filing a qui tam lawsuit against the district, alleging a host of depredations, including elaborate quid pro quos variously described as kickbacks or bribes in which Taylor was rehired as police chief in Baldwin Park in exchange for Pacheco getting the assistant general manager’s post at West Valley, and Robert Tafoya, the city attorney in Baldwin Park, being hired as general counsel at the West Valley Water District. According to the qui tam suit, there were various other “false claims” for payment made to and paid out from the water district involving a cast of individuals or firms tied in one way or another to Taylor, Pacheco and Tafoya, including the law firm of Albright, Yee & Schmit; the Kaufman Law Firm; and consultant Robert Katherman, all of whom were given contracts with the water district. All, or much, of this was alleged to have been orchestrated by Mansell in his capacity as district general manager.
It was suggested though never publicly confirmed that Pacheco’s suspension had come about because of information that had surfaced as a result of the qui tam suit. In November 2019, with Olinger’s days on the board numbered, a quiet exit for Pacheco was arranged in the backroom and, after he had drawn some $135,000 in salary and benefits in the previous six months while he was on administrative leave, the board in a closed session ratified a separation agreement with him on a 4-to-0 vote without Clifford Young participating that conferred upon him nine more 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 that agreement were worked out by Tafoya.
At that point, given the manner in which Taylor had politically militated against Hawkins in the just-concluded election and the greater and lesser amounts of money he and Crowther had put behind Olinger in the campaign, it was taken as an article of faith that within a relatively short period of time Hawkins would hew to the side of the political divide wherein Greg Young and Clifford Young were situated, such that it was probable that Tafoya and his firm would soon no longer be associated with the district and that Mansell would make his departure as general manager as well.
Taylor’s adroit maneuvering in agreeing to advancing Hawkins directly into the president’s position has succeeded, for more than four months now, in keeping both Mansell and Tafoya in place.
Another factor has been militating in Mansell’s favor as well. Mansell was once employed by Veolia Water North America. In 2013, in what was perhaps the first major undertaking by the City of Rialto during Deborah Robertson’s tenure as mayor, the city awarded Veolia Water North America a 30-year contract to take over operations of Rialto’s aging and dilapidating water and wastewater systems. The 30-year contract, which is projected to provide Veolia Water approximately $300 million in revenue over that time, allowed the city to slip out from underneath the very expensive burden of reconstructing and maintaining its water and sewer system infrastructure and managing its operations, while diverting any ire local residents may have had over the increases in water and sewer rates that have been imposed since from being vectored at the city and rather toward the company. Robertson developed a positive working relationship with Mansell as a result, and she has served as an influential voice in encouraging Hawkins to not give into Young and Young in their relentless advocacy of Mansell’s firing.
Hawkins deflected the Sentinel’s pointed inquiry with regard to Mansell’s prospects for survival at West Valley.
“Every person is entitled to due process,” he said. “That is a fundamental element of what our founding fathers envisioned. I don’t think our decisions should be based on spectacular reports of wrongdoing that have appeared in the latest editions of the newspapers. That is no way to run a public agency. I don’t know anything about the hiring of cronies. I think it is very important that we convert these unsubstantiated reports of impropriety into something that can be proven before we take action. Yes, there are a range of concerns with regard to how our district is being operated and managed. We have a process in place to evaluate that. There are questions about the directions that have been given and the lines of authority. One of the things being worked on is a new employee handbook. This should lay out what the objectives are, clearly. We are making strides in that direction. Our main priority is being responsive to the ratepayers in the district. Right now, Clarence Mansell is the general manager of the West Valley Water District.”
While Taylor from time to time finds himself frustrated at the direction the board has taken under Hawkins’ stewardship of the district, those are relatively minor issues he is willing to reconcile himself to, as the two issues most important to him – keeping Mansell as general manager and Tafoya as general counsel – have been served by the fragile alliance he has been able to maintain with Hawkins.
Still the same, how long Mansell will remain is yet an open question.
A letter signed in December by Farooqi, General Services Manager Jon Stephenson, Acting Human Resources Manager Paul Becker, Operations Manager Joanne Chan, Engineering Services Manager Linda Jadeski, Business Systems Manager Albert Clinger, Accounting Manager Jose Velasquez, Geographic Information Systems Manager Telat Yalcin, Purchasing Supervisor Al Robles, Production Supervisor Joe Schaak, Water Quality Supervisor Anthony Budicin, Customer Service Supervisor Alberto Yulo, Chief Treatment Plant Operator Ernie Montelongo and Chief Treatment Plant Operator Sergio Granda stated, “General Manager Mansell has alienated employees by removing responsibilities from specific individuals to those who will do his bidding” and that “it is our fundamental belief that without a change in leadership, our once proud West Valley Water District will continue to decline and water services will be at risk to our customers.”
The letter cautioned the board’s members that Mansell had been less than straightforward in his dealing with them, asserting that “Mr. Mansell has justified all of his actions by stating that the board is aware of and in support. We believe this to be an untrue statement as his actions are oftentimes in direct contradiction to your statements on the dais.” The letter somewhat melodramatically intoned that “we have come to the firm conclusion that the only way to save our water district is to change the leadership of the West Valley Water District.”
Well recognized is that both Young and Young are gunning to be rid of Mansell, but that both Taylor and Crowther were adamant about having him stay as general manger, such that Hawkins’ vote would be indispensable if Mansell is to be cashiered. That, however, might not be fully accurate, as there have been recurrent indications that Crowther has become displeased with several developments at the district, and has not accepted Mansell’s explanation of what has occurred nor the general manager’s assertion that he had no hand in them. Whether Crowther would prove willing to break ranks with Taylor on the issue of Mansell’s cashiering and enter into a hitherto uncharacteristic alliance with Young and Young to do so against Taylor’s wishes remains to be seen.
Ed Scott is the longest serving member currently on the Rialto City Council, which gives him both an historical perspective, a keen sense of the city’s politics and tenor of governance, and a general feel for the pulse of the community. His status as a municipal insider is tempered by his being a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic town together with his loss to Robertson in the 2012 mayoral election. Having nevertheless managed to be reelected twice since unsuccessfully reaching for that brass ring while forming a working relationship with his four Democratic colleagues on the council, Scott offered his perspective on where the city stands, and its prospect, based on Baca’s inside track position for moving onto the board of supervisors later this year, of achieving the political prominence it has not had for some time.
Jesse Armendarez will have a hard time beating Baca in November, Scott opined. “It is clearly an uphill climb for him,” Scott said. “He is going to have a very difficult turn out on the hustings as a Republican in an area that is this heavily Democratic.” That is not to mention, Scott said, that he is himself supporting Baca. “I agree; This is Joe’s race to lose,” Scott said. “I can’t see, unless I am really missing something, Jesse coming in ahead of him. It is my personal opinion that it comes down to how hard you work and how engaged you become with the job at hand. Joe has that kind of work ethic, that level of commitment.”
With Baca seemingly destined to move his office out of Rialto City Hall to the fifth floor of the county administrative building in downtown San Bernardino along with the election/reelection of two members of the city council and the election/reelection of the mayor scheduled for November, Scott said, “There could be a significant change on the council by this time next year.”
Scott said that the matter relating to the allegations of nepotism against the mayor was serious, but that Robertson would likely “weather this storm. I don’t know what the special auditor is considering or what the audit will say. The auditing firm came to us with something they were concerned about. That’s what is being looked at now.”
Scott continued, “I think she’ll come through this. Deborah’s very popular in the community. She’s been here a long time, as I have. No matter the outcome, I would think she would still have some degree of influence.”
Scott said he is relatively “happy with the council as it is. I think together we have done a pretty nice job. As far as the mayor and I go, I see her as someone with a similar vision to mine on a majority of the things that come before us. We both want to move the city forward, in a positive direction, or at least not move it backward. For the most part, we have a pretty consistently unanimous council. I tend to be more conservative than the rest. I question things brought to us by staff more. In some cases, I have been able to persuade the council to rethink, sometimes, what our position is going to be. On some of the most important things I have succeeded. I don’t always bring things up. When I do, I think they listen.”
Scott contrasted the circumstance at Rialto City Hall with what is going on in the water district.
“My opinion is there is a huge lack of transparency in West Valley,” he said. “I think they are an embarrassment to our community. I am concerned about the favoritism and misuse of funding, the hiring practices, promotions. They haven’t done a good job in that regard. They have hired people, frankly, that we got rid of. I don’t think that district is representative of what Rialto is or what Rialto should be. When you read about these things in the papers, it is an embarrassment.”
Scott said, “I really don’t know Mr. Hawkins. I don’t see that there has been a lot of change in the district since he got there. I know he campaigned on a platform that he would try to clean out what is going on there, and he did have a relationship with the mayor, who was promoting him.”
As for Hawkins moving into the presidency of the board immediately, Scott said, “I don’t think that’s a good practice. I frankly don’t think he had the experience. I don’t believe that when a person first gets elected he knows everything there is to know. It’s hard to be the leader of an organization to begin with, and to just overnight be the president of a district like that where you have significant challenges and you really don’t know the ins and outs, it’s going to take some time to get on your feet and know what you’re doing so you can keep moving. I don’t think it would be a good idea to make someone who was just elected to the council mayor pro tem. We just wouldn’t do that. So, yeah, I think this is part of his being promoted to run for higher office. I think he will be running for council later this year.”
As to the spectacle of Taylor working so hard to assist Olinger in getting reelected and keep Hawkins out of office only to make a 180 degree reversal to support Hawkins’ installation as board president, Scott said, “The only thing I can say is that in politics, sometimes things aren’t what they seem. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors. I’m not sure what the deal is there.”
There is, Scott said, “a real issue in the West Valley Water District with the way they hire consultants and contractors. We have a policy in the city where you don’t vote on someone getting work you have a relationship with. You shouldn’t get elected to hire friends and family members. You should hire the best qualified people to do the job. Some of the relationships I have heard about in the water district seem very strange to me.”
Political ambition is not in and of itself bad, Scott said, but vaulting ambition is not good, he suggested. Baca’s move toward the board of supervisors is coming nearly 14 years after he was first elected as a councilman, Scott pointed out. Hawkins running for the water board was reasonable, he said. His assuming the presidency within 15 minutes of being sworn in was not, Scott insisted. There is no law against Hawkins running for the city council, he said, but he should remember that the voters of his district division just elected him to serve them in that capacity for four years. People are moving the timetable beyond itself by suggesting Hawkins should run for mayor in November, Scott said.
“It is strange how people end up in different relationships after they get into office,” Scott said. “Sometimes people are nothing like what you think they are after they get elected.”
Of Hawkins, Scott said, “I don’t think this time is the right time for him to be looking at running for the city council, if that is what he is going to do.”
Scott observed that in comparison to neighboring San Bernardino or Colton, Rialto has lagged behind in placing its native sons and daughters into the statehouse or onto the board of supervisors. But keeping its politicians local isn’t all bad, he said.
“Historically, Rialto has been one of the more politically stable cities in the region,” he said. “That is at least partially because our council people and mayors haven’t looked at moving up.”
Baca’s recent good fortune and the likelihood of advancing represents a change, he said. “I think it’s a positive development for Rialto,” he said. “I think it’s positive because I know Joe really well. I can’t say I have always agreed with him, but he has always listened to me. I have to say that he has always given me that courtesy. He has a lot of experience, and I think he will be good for the entire district. He will be an improvement. I don’t think the county has done a good job addressing the homeless situation across the county or in our district. The county should be way more aggressive in trying to deal with it. I don’t think our county leaders have done a good job at all. I don’t see great leadership in the county. You need someone to step up to the plate and lead on these issues. We have had enough of people with authority ignoring very obvious situations. I don’t think that is what Joe will do. I think he will pay attention, not just to Rialto, but the whole district, the whole county. I have nothing against Jesse [Armendarez]. He’s a good guy. I don’t think he has the experience we need on the board of supervisors.”
If Baca is victorious in November, Scott said, the council will not call for a special election on the heels of what will then be the just-concluded election. A special election would cost the city upwards of $70,000 to hold, and Scott said the council instead of throwing that money away will make an appointment to fill the void that will be created by Baca’s resignation.
Hawkins, who in his exchange with the Sentinel consistently downplayed suggestions he is looking to move into higher office later this year, indicated that he was in strong agreement with Scott over one issue regarding the November election.
“I will be working to ensure that Joe Baca is elected Fifth District supervisor,” he said. ++
By Mark Gutglueck