Despite Employing His Veto Power, Valdivia Still Sees His Travel Allowance Trimmed

Following a nearly 24-hour interlude of misdirection, the San Bernardino City Council this week put itself on course to reducing the amount of money Mayor John Valdivia is provided with by the county seat’s taxpayers to engage in travel and other activities that take him afield from City Hall but which he maintains relate to his function as the city’s figurehead.
In doing so, through what started out as a 4-to-3 and ultimately became a 5-to-2 voting majority, the council had to overcome Valdivia’s veto attempt.
With the city facing what has been projected to be a $10.3 million budget deficit in the upcoming 2020-21 Fiscal Year, the city’s elected leadership last month tasked City Manager Teri Ledoux and the city’s department heads with slashing spending within municipal operations wherever and however they could to get city expenditures in line with the flow of income into city coffers, which in the last several months has been diminished considerably by the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It was reported that economies of roughly $7.3 million had been identified. On Tuesday of this week, the council carried out a virtual budget workshop meeting intended to determine if or how much of the remaining $3 million in projected overspending could be curtailed before the city approves the upcoming fiscal year budget, which will run from July 1 this year to June 30, 2021. That meeting did not involve the mayor, council members, involved city staff or the public convening in one place, but rather carrying out the session to formulate the city blueprint for spending over the next 12 months through teleconferencing, with the proceedings captured on video and broadcast so the city’s residents could monitor it.
In some measure encouraged by Councilman Ted Sanchez, who asserted that the city’s political leadership needed to set the tone for fiscal discipline amongst city staff by first imposing on itself the austerity that would be asked of others, succeeded in getting his colleagues to agree to collectively forego receiving $28,000 over the next 12 months to cover their travel expenses and/or reimbursements for attending meetings, seminars and conferences while serving in the capacity of the city’s representatives. Prior to the meeting, the city had set aside a total of $42,000 for all seven of the council members – $6,000 each – to cover costs associated with their sojourns related to serving in their municipal legislative capacities. Unanimously, they agreed to reduce that by two-thirds to $2,000 each. Thereafter, Sanchez set his sights on reducing the mayor’s expense account for his travel and extracurricular governmental activities from the $16,200 that had been set aside for Valdivia to $4,000.
It was at that point that what had been a relatively civil meeting descended into utter chaos.
Earlier, the proceedings had begun with a sober assessment of the city’s deteriorating financial picture by the city’s staff members, during which the discussion generally moved into specifics of how and where the city was going to make adjustments to the spending plan that had been formulated prior to the financial devastation of the COVID-19 crisis. The exchanges were for the most part somber but amicable ones, with the most animated elements relating to Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra’s probing with regard to hard and documentable numbers in what was being proposed, the actual depth of cuts to certain departments, those departments’ current performance and effectiveness overall and whether savings were to actually be derived by the economies outlined.
When Councilman Ted Sanchez was given the floor, he said, “I’d like to go over the line item budget for the council as well as the mayor’s office,” and he emphasized that the cost reductions that were being imposed throughout the city were to entail hardship on the city’s employees. Thus, he said, the council itself had to be willing to sustain the same cutbacks. “I hope the public will take note that we are asking people to cut salaries they have earned,” Sanchez said. “They don’t have to say thank you for this paycheck because they have fulfilled their responsibility to the city. We are a municipal corporation, and we exist solely to provide core services, that is: trash, streets, parks, libraries, the administration of our finances and public safety to our police department and our fire. That these individuals are now being asked to make cuts before we make any cuts to our office is a sign of poor leadership if we do not do this. So, I ask: Please, my colleagues, join with me to make the cuts we can make without making any interruptions to the quality of service we need to provide for our residents.”
Sanchez advocated that the council authorize utilizing the lion’s share of savings to be realized from cutting the city council’s travel allowance to sustaining the pay of the two remaining staff members working directly for the city council after that division, formerly consisting of four workers, had been halved, even while the work load for those serving the city was increasing.
“I see this as $25,000 that doesn’t need to be spent right here, right now,” Sanchez said with regard to the council’s travel money. “This $25,000 should be spent to offset the salaries for these two staffers because no employee that works full time for this city should live in poverty without expending every other option we have. There are right now employees who risk living in poverty while they work full-time for this city.”
Councilwoman Bessine Richard acknowledged that the two council staff employees Sanchez had alluded to “work twice as hard if not three times as hard as they did because we went down from a five-member staff to a two-member staff,” but she said the council could not micromanage how city employees were to be compensated, which was something to be left up to management and the city’s human resources department.
City Manager Teri Ledoux pointed out that the boost in salary to the two staffers could not be done because the two employees’ salaries and cuts thereto had been arrived at through the collective bargaining process and therefore could not be altered without further negotiation.
Sanchez then conceded the point and asked the savings to be had from curtailing the city council’s travel stipends be transferred into the general fund.
“We have allotted to every council member $6,000 for meetings and conferences,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience take this money knowing that individuals who provide vital services to our city are taking cuts to their paychecks. I would ask that we reduce the amount to $2,000 per council member, the remaining balance to go back into the general fund.”
Councilman Henry Nickel seconded that motion
After the council showed unanimous support for doing so, Sanchez said, “We are showing real leadership by taking cuts to our budgets first before we do anything else.”
Within a very few minutes, however, as Sanchez sought to instigate a next chapter in leadership among his colleagues, the very concept of leadership in San Bernardino would undergo a severe test.
“On the mayor’s office, the council has made cuts to their travel expenses,” Sanchez said. “The mayor’s current budget for travel is $16,200. I think it would be fair to cut that down to $4,000.”
“What do you base that on, Councilman?” Mayor John Valdivia challenged him.
“$4,000,” Sanchez said. “Divide that between 12 months. I think that should be sufficient.”
“When you become the mayor, you can argue that, but you haven’t had a conversation with me on this,” Valdivia retorted.
“Do you think it’s fair to the city?” Sanchez asked.
“Hold on, councilman,” said Valdivia. “This is a surprise to me. This is, frankly… We’ve never had a conversation…”
Chiming in to support Sanchez, Councilman Fred Shorett interjected, “No one had a conversation with me about changing our $6,000 to $2,000. No one has to have a conversation with you.”
“Well, it’s polite and courtesy,” Valdivia said. “I guess not, Fred, if what you want to continue to do is be uncivil.”
“We can afford you, Mayor, the opportunity to discuss this right now,” said Sanchez. “What do you think would be a fair allotment for your travel?”
“We can have a cup of coffer over that and you can discuss it with me,” Valdivia said.
“No, I think we should discuss it publicly,” said Sanchez.
“Well, I’m not prepared to make that assessment, right now,” Valdivia said.
“I would say $4,000 – Would that be fine, council members?” Sanchez pressed ahead.
“I’ll support you on that,” said Shorett.
“Okay, there’s no opposition to that?” Sanchez asked.
“No, frankly, the privileges of the mayor are afforded in the charter,” said Valdivia. “You guys can go ahead and try to do this, but I have charter authority… the charter affords…”
“Let’s call the question,” said Councilman Nickel, meaning the council should take a vote on the matter.
‘Hold on,” said Valdivia.
“Parliamentary maneuver. Let’s move on,” Nickel could be heard to say as he, Valdivia and Shorett began talking over one another at once, with some of their words growing unrecognizable and their sentences disjointed in the resulting cacophony.
“No, I’m not going to move on,” Valdivia could be heard asserting.
“Point of order,” Nickel said. “Call the question.”
“You are out of order, Mr. Nickel,” the mayor could be heard saying at one hour 53 minutes and 24 seconds into the meeting video.
‘No, you’re out of order,” said Nickel. “Let’s move on.”
“I’m not going to move on,” said Valdivia.
At that point Valdivia, Nickel and Shorett talked over each other some more, with only a portion of their words standing out in a mélange of sound in which their precise syntax could not be ascertained.
“You’re out of order,” Nickel could be heard saying amid the cacophony
“No, I’m not,” Valdivia said. “This is my budget item …”
“All in favor of appealing the decision of the chair say aye,” Nickel said.
There was a chorus of ayes that ensued.
“Mr. Teddy Sanchez, I will now defer to your chairmanship on this vote,” Nickel pronounced.
“No, you’re not,” said Valdivia as Sanchez, who is the mayor pro tem, sought to assume chair authority.
“If there is no dissension on this, Ms. city manager, I think you have direction,” said Sanchez.
“We’re going to take a break,” said Valdivia. “Ms. city manager, let’s take a five minute break…”
“I don’t want to break,” Shorett said.
“I don’t need a break,” said Nickel.
“I don’t need a break,” Sanchez echoed.
“Let’s get this done,” said Councilman Jim Mulvihill.
“Time to get business done,” Nickel said.
“Then you need to allow your elected mayor to respond to this,” Valdivia said, sounding as if he was conceding that he had lost control of the meeting.
There ensued further cacophony during which Valdivia came across as trying to reassert his control, but much of what he was saying was drowned out in the mix of Nickel’s, Shorett’s and Sanchez’s statements.
When Nickel asserted that the meeting was now Sanchez’s to conduct and called the question, the mayor could be heard to say, “Mr. Nickel, you’re out of order, sir. Mr. Nickel you’re out of order. The city charter provides privileges, reimbursements on all of that stuff…”
The cacophony mushroomed once more.
When there was a brief subsidence of the verbal roar, Valdivia said, “This is nonsense, guys. We ought to be focused on… not particular measurements of square footage of the mayor’s office. The city council needs to get to work on overall economic renaissance of this community. You guys are playing games and not doing your jobs as city council members.”
“We are doing our job,” Nickel shot back. “That’s what we’re doing right now.”
At that point, Valdivia redirected the discussion to an exchange with Ledoux about whether her presentation with regard to the upcoming year’s budget was complete. She said that staff had concluded its presentation for the evening. After some further less animated and more civil discussion, Ledoux requested that the council encapsulate its collective recommendations for further adjustments to the upcoming budget to be brought back for ultimate passage by the council. Nickel moved and Shorett seconded that Valdivia’s travel budget be reduced from $16,400 to $4,000, that the travel budget for the council be reduced by $28,000 to $14,000, that $25,000 in savings from the council’s travel allowances be put into the city’s general fund and that there no longer be an annual transfer of $20,000 from the city’s cultural development fund to pay for festivities relating to the mayor’s annual state of the city address. The council approved that motion on a 4-to-3 vote, with Valdivia’s sole remaining council allies, Juan Figueroa and Bessine Richard, voting against it along with Ibarra. Ibarra’s unwillingness to support Nickel’s motion was a consequence of her discomfiture over her colleagues’ unwillingness to institute even more drastic across-the-board economies than they have so far. Previously that evening, she had called for the council to “go department by department” to “discuss how we’re going to balance our budget for this next year, what’s needed and what’s not, our needs versus our wants. I’m not happy with the proposed budget because we’re not going detail by detail.”
Based on the 4-to-3 vote, Valdivia was able to temporarily resist having the amount of money vouchsafed to him to finance his junkets reduced over the upcoming 12 months. His authority as mayor allows him to veto any simple majority council vote, those being ones settled on either a 3-to-2 or 4-to-3 margin.
An issue overhanging the entire discussion were accusations made earlier this year by Mirna Cisneros, a citizen relations employee formerly working within Valdivia’s office, that Valdivia had made improper use of his travel allotments and taxpayer-defrayed expense accounts to take trips and pay for accommodations and other services that were unrelated to Valdivia’s function as mayor.
In documents filed with the court supported by affidavits, Cisneros said that Valdivia had requested her to process a reimbursement request for travel, hotel accommodations and meals, and that in making the request Valdivia had instructed her to be deliberately vague about the meeting for which the reimbursements were being sought, and that Cisneros should not name names in the paperwork filed in the reimbursement request. According to Cisneros, Valdivia told her that “he had raised a lot of money on that specific trip for his campaign.”
Over the last five months, Valdivia has been involved in a burgeoning scandal in which Cisneros and four other members of the mayor’s office, including Valdivia’s closest and most powerful aide, Chief of Staff Matt Brown, have alleged Valdivia has continually overstepped his authority, misused public funds and engaged in graft and bribetaking. Those staff members have been supported in those accusations by Alissa Payne, whom Valdivia arranged to have appointed to both the Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, and who was once considered one of his political allies. Payne now maintains that Valdivia was exploiting his position and authority as mayor for his own advancement.
On June 3, the night following the Tuesday evening budget workshop, a regular meeting of the city council was held, one which was again conducted in a virtual environment without there being an actual physical presence in one place of those involved nor where the public was allowed to attend. The public was, however, given the opportunity to participate telephonically in advance. During the meeting, Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra informed the council, “I want to reconsider my vote from last night to make the cuts to our offices, city council and the mayor.” Though that action to reverse the outcome of the direction to city staff was not taken, it is to be incorporated into a future action of the council before the 2020-21 budget is passed, meaning the council’s travel allowance will be reduced to $2,000 for each member and $4,000 for the mayor.
After the Wednesday night meeting, Ibarra told the Sentinel, “I’m not reconciling with the mayor, as many people may have thought. The reason I voted against those two proposed cuts was because there was much more our city council could have made cuts to in the other departments as well, not just the council and the mayor: city clerk, city attorney, city manager. The city manager did not have enough cuts on her end. For further example, the police department has a lot of top paid positions that they are funding. So, there’s a lot of expenses we could have additionally cut from the budget yesterday. That didn’t happen. My colleagues stayed quiet. They are always talking about the deficit, but they didn’t want to go line by line because they didn’t want to be in a long meeting. They made it perfectly clear they didn’t want to be there long hours, and city staff pretty much said to me that ‘No, we’re going to keep these positions in the way our departments asked for because they know what they are doing.’ They are disregarding the budget deficits. There were a lot of line items we could have cut some more. We could have cut more unnecessary and wasteful spending, but there was only one of me, and my colleagues and city staff did not want to. That is why I was not satisfied.”
Nevertheless, Ibarra said, “I changed my vote today, so we’re going to make those cuts to the mayor’s office and the city council as suggested by the mayor pro tem.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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