San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia both used and sought to use his taxpayer-funded staff members at City Hall to assist him in promoting his own and his allies’ political fortunes, his former chief of staff asserted in a claim filed against Valdivia and the city last month.
Valdivia’s tactics in pressing city employees to engage in political work and a host of other improper assignments included browbeating and otherwise verbally abusing those workers, including actions that crossed the line into sexual harassment with the female underlings assigned specifically to the mayor’s office, according to Matt Brown.
Brown was hired in August 2019 to succeed Valdivia’s first chief of staff, Bill Essayli, who guided Valdivia’s efforts during the first six months of his tenure as mayor in seeking to establish a ruling coalition on the city council and beef up the mayor’s office to restore the administrative authority that had been taken away from the mayor following the institution of the city’s revamped charter in 2016.
Control of the city’s administrative function was an important consideration for Valdivia. In 2016, the city’s voters had adopted a new municipal charter, replacing the 111-year-old one that had been in place since 1905. That 1905 charter created what in municipal parlance is referred to as a strong mayor form of governance. While the mayor had no voting power as the presiding member of the city council under normal circumstances, he or she as the presiding officer wielded the gavel and officiated over the council’s meetings, controlling the ebb and flow of debate, with unfettered freedom to place items for action or discussion before the council. He or she had the power to break a tie-vote, and veto power on any votes that ended either 4-to-3 or 3-to-2, which in practical terms meant that on any issues where the vote had the potential of going against the position the mayor held, he or she in fact had two votes. More significantly still under the 1905 charter, the mayor had administrative power equal or greater to his or her political power. The 1905 charter endowed the mayor with the authority to hire and fire city employees. This made the mayor, in a sense, a co-regent of the city with the city manager. And if the mayor had differences with the city manager, the mayor could fire him or her.
Upon acceding to the mayor’s position in December 2018, Valdivia, with Essayli’s assistance, sought to line up council support that would allow him to reassert himself administratively. Valdivia had already established alliances with both Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard and Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel, with whom he had previously served when he was Third Ward Councilman. As mayor, he and Essayli courted First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez and Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, who had been newly elected in November 2018 when Valdivia defeated then-incumbent Mayor Carey Davis, and Councilman Juan Figueroa, who had been elected in a special election in May 2019 to replace Valdivia as Third Ward Councilman, to form a ruling coalition that for the time being had rendered irrelevant the opposition Valdivia had from his two rivals on the council, Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill.
Thus empowered, Valdivia and Essayli were able to get the city council to enlarge the mayor’s staff from a single employee devoted to the mayor – the chief of staff – and a secretary shared with the remainder of the council to a chief of staff, an administrative assistant, a resident service representative, two legislative assistants/field representatives, a paid intern and the secretary who also served the remainder of the council.
In approving those five additions to the mayor’s staff, the council had indicated that the employees were to devote themselves to assisting the mayor in carrying out his duties as the city’s primary and highest profiled elected representative of the residents, involving themselves in constituent services.
Valdivia had different intentions, according to Brown, who said Valdivia pressed his staff into carrying out work relating to getting his allies on the council reelected and which was further intended to enhance Valdivia’s 2022 reelection effort.
“Valdivia pressed Mirna Cisneros, his customer service representative and Renee Brizuela, his secretary, to work on political campaigns for the councilmembers he considered part of his team that were up for reelection while Cisneros and Brizuela were serving in the capacity as city employees,” Brown’s claim states. “He requested they use their accrued vacation time to work on the campaigns of the candidates that Valdivia was endorsing, namely Juan Figueroa and Bessine Richard.”
According to Brown’s claim, “It was Valdivia’s policy not to serve residents above the 210 Freeway and when staff responded to constituent inquiries from residents above the 210 Freeway, he would routinely reprimand them verbally during staff meetings and threatened all staff, including claimant with their jobs.”
Councilman Shorett’s Fourth Ward and Councilman Mulvihill’s Seventh Ward lie primarily north of the 210 Freeway.
According to Brown, “Valdivia‘s legislative field representatives, Jackie Aboud and Donald Smith, were routinely reprimanded by Valdivia in front of our entire staff during weekly meetings about crew resource management goals, and were required to explain any use of their time to respond to constituent inquiries above the 210 Freeway or outside of wards of council members he considered part of his team that were up for reelection.”
Brown’s claim states, “On or about January 27, 2020, during a staff meeting Valdivia announced to everyone in attendance that they were, in his words, in ‘reelection mode’ and they needed to ‘get on board the train.’ Valdivia went on to outline a list of priority projects staff were assigned to complete to ensure Valdivia’s reelection. On the same day, during a staff meeting Valdivia yelled at Alexander Cousins, a paid intern serving in the capacity of policy analyst, saying ‘Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! I want results, not excuses!’ This outburst was in response to an update Cousins provided on his efforts to raise funds from the Chinese government to pay for San Bernardino symphony travel to China. Later, during the late afternoon following a staff meeting, Valdivia informed claimant during a conversation in Valdivia’s office that he was going to have a ‘mandatory office closure’ for a Dodgers event to support his campaign sometime in mid-February or March. Valdivia indicated he was going to require all of his staff to use vacation leave to attend the event and that each employee would be given two tickets. Claimant told Valdivia this was illegal and he could not require employees to use their accrued leave to attend a mandatory event to support his reelection campaign. In retaliation, Valdivia would harass and create a hostile work environment for claimant.”
According to Brown, Valdivia was highly dismissive with regard to the quality of education provided by a major San Bernardino institution, California State University San Bernardino, from which a number of his staff members had graduated. In mistreating and domineering his employees, Brown said, Valdivia made scathing references to the college. “Valdivia seemed to take joy in mistreating his employees,” Brown stated. “He would belittle his staff in meetings and make fun of them by insulting their intelligence, calling them low functioning, and making derogatory comments about staff that were Cal State San Bernardino alumni.”
Brown paints a picture of dysfunction on the mayoral staff which primarily came about because of Valdivia’s insistence on giving his employees improper assignments that they proved unwilling, after a time, to carry out. The earliest manifestation of the crisis in the mayor’s office was a result, Brown indicated, of Valdivia’s caddish behavior crossing the line into sexual harassment of Cisneros and Cervantes. In late January, both Cisneros and Cervantes resigned and retained attorney Tristan Pelayes, who subsequently assisted them in filing claims against Valdivia and the city. Subsequently, Aboud, who had been fired by Valdivia, and Smith also retained Pelayes. Smith later lodged a claim of his own against Valdivia. As the atmosphere in the mayor’s office was deteriorating, Brown related in his claim, an increasingly desperate Valdivia sought to preemptively destroy the credibility of his own staff members to head off the legal trouble his treatment of them had created. Brown, who characterized the manner in which the mayor had previously dealt with his staff as highly inappropriate, said the efforts Valdivia engaged in against his staff members who had transitioned into becoming his detractors entailed seeking to get him, as chief of staff, and his remaining staff to falsify charges against them.
Following Cisneros’s and Cervantes’ departure, the city had undertaken an investigation into the accusations they made against Valdivia, hiring Los Angeles-based attorney Carla Barboza to carry out that assignment.
“On or about February 4, 2020 during an early morning telephone call, Valdivia told claimant about his intent to go on the offensive with Cisneros and Cervantes and refute their allegations against him,” the claim relates. “Valdivia indicated he had spoken with Chris Jones, his spokesman and political consultant, and that Jones had convinced Valdivia he needed to be aggressive in dealing with Cisneros and Cervantes. Valdivia requested that Cousins, Brizuela and claimant provide him with false written statements refuting the allegations from Cisneros and Cervantes. Claimant was stunned because he knew the allegations to be true since he witnessed them. Additionally, Valdivia requested that claimant write fake work performance evaluations for both employees emphasizing their poor work habits. Claimant refused to participate in the falsification of the said records, [as] he would be required to testify under oath and perjure himself in a deposition, given that Cisneros and Cervantes had already filed their tort claim, which was a precursor of filing a lawsuit against the City of San Bernardino. Claimant, by refusing to engage in the falsification of records, documents, and performance evaluations, had reasonable cause to believe that if he had agreed to engage in these acts, it would result in violations of federal, state, and/or local laws, rules or regulations.”
Brown’s claim states that Brown “told Valdivia that Jones was giving him bad advice and recommended Valdivia discuss these requests with City Attorney Sonia Carvalho. This enraged him. Because claimant refused to provide Valdivia with the fake statements and fake work performance evaluations he had requested, Valdivia began to doubt claimant’s loyalty towards him. On or about February 10, 2020, claimant had a meeting with Valdivia for approximately one hour and 45 minutes. Valdivia attempted to ask a lot of questions about the status of the personnel investigation and claimant declined to provide any details. Valdivia requested claimant speak with Smith and Cousins and ‘coach them’ prior to their interviews with the human resources investigator because he wanted their interviews to reflect positively on him. Claimant refused.”
When Brown told Valdivia he should not be interfering in the investigation, according to the claim, Valdivia retaliated against him and created a hostile work environment.
In March, Brown retained Pelayes, which resulted in City Manager Teri Ledoux, who according to Brown’s claim had also been accorded shabby and unprofessional treatment by the mayor, ultimately siding with Valdivia. Brown was frozen out of his once-meaningful and powerful role as the mayor’s right-hand man.
Councilman Ted Sanchez informed Brown on March 4 of this year, according to Brown’s claim, “that Chris Jones asked Sanchez to make a motion during the March 4 council meeting to eliminate claimant’s position as the mayor’s chief of staff, effectively firing him from city employment.”
Sanchez did not make such a motion, but according to Brown’s claim, “Valdivia was permitted to influence the development of staff reports in closed-door meetings with Ledoux while being advised by the city attorney.”
On March 16, 2020, Brown was interviewed for five hours by Barboza, and Brown’s claim states he “disclosed to the outside investigator all of the non-compliances, unlawful conduct, and violations of federal, state, local laws, rules, and/or regulations.” On March 25, 2020, according to Brown, he was presented with a “work assignment project list” for the mayor’s office by Assistant City Manager Rebekah Cramer, which Brown said augmented “previous retaliatory verbal direction from Ledoux and Cramer not to review council agendas, nor attend council meetings, communicate with council members, provide support services to council members, or respond to constituent inquiries. These changes eliminated claimant’s ability to do his job and completely changed the nature of his job to nothing.”
Brown’s claim states that on May 18, 2020 “in retaliation of claimant’s reporting of the illegal activities by Valdivia,” which included his refusal to fabricate allegations against Valdivia’s staff, “claimant was informed by Ledoux that his position would be eliminated at a special meeting of the city council on May 21, 2020, purportedly due to COVID-19 budget impacts. The reason given to claimant was pretextual and was designed to conceal the real reason, which was to retaliate against claimant. On June 1, 2020, in retaliation of claimant’s whistleblowing activities, claimant’s employment with the City of San Bernardino was terminated.”
The Sentinel was unable to get Valdivia to go on the record with regard to Brown’s claim.
Brown’s claim does not explicitly call for his being returned to his role as Valdivia’s chief of staff, but cites “compensatory and other damages exceed[ing] $10,000. Claimant also claims and seeks to recover herein, the statutory and other penalties, damages, attorney’s fees, expert fees, costs as provided by law, to include exemplary damages against John Valdivia.”
If the city rejects the claim or does not accede to it and come to some terms with Brown on satisfying his claim of damages within 45 days, Brown will then be at liberty to sue the city.