By Mark Gutglueck
In an historic vote of potentially far-reaching consequence with regard to governance and governmental structure in San Bernardino County generally, voters countywide passed by an overwhelming margin Measure K, which going forward reduces the members of the county board of supervisors to part-time status and reduces their pay and benefits, which is at present approaching $300,000 per year, to roughly one quarter of what they are receiving.
The backdrop to the Measure K reform movement included a circumstance in which county elected officials found themselves mired in demonstrable instances of corruption brought on by their reception of massive campaign donations from individuals and business entities with an interest in county policy and decisions made by the board of supervisors. In this way, the supervisors, beholden to their campaign donors for providing them with the electioneering wherewithal to remain in an office that in most cases provided the individual supervisors with an income that dwarfed anything they could make while employed in the private sector, routinely voted to support the provision of contracts, franchises or project approvals sought by those donors.
In years past the supervisors had either been able to utilize their administrative authority and command over the county’s stable of attorneys to legally challenge such previous reform measures from being placed on the ballot or had had relied upon their donors and supporters to bankroll and carry out campaigns to convince the county’s voters to reject or water down any revision of how the government operates that would impact their authority or remuneration that managed to make it onto the ballot. This time, however, after using the county’s lawyers in 2017 to effectively block an initiative similar to Measure K that its sponsors, the Red Brennan Group, was attempting to put on the 2018 countywide ballot, the board of supervisors used the county’s lawyers, referred to as the office of county counsel, to strew further obstacles in the path of the reform advocates, the most formidable of which was insisting, contrary to state law, that they would need to gather over 70,000 valid signatures of the county’s voters on the petition requesting the measure to be put on the ballot, a daunting task. To the astonishment of the board, the Red Brennan Group did just that, collecting 75,132 signatures which were affixed to copies of the petition and contained on 10,121 pages, which were turned over to the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office on March 20, 2020. Upon examination of those documents, San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Bob Page deemed the signatures and the petition they endorsed sufficient to qualify the measure for the ballot.
The language of the Red Brennan Group’s initiative stated: “The total compensation of each member of the board of supervisors shall be five thousand dollars ($5,000.00) per month, which amount shall include the actual cost to the county of all benefits of whatever kind or nature including but not limited to salary, allowances, credit cards, health insurance, life insurance, leave, retirement, memberships, portable communications devices, and vehicle allowances. This compensation shall be in full compensation for all services by the respective member of the board of supervisors.”
Furthermore, the initiative calls for limiting board members from serving more than six years on the board altogether, allowing them one elected term of four years, while permitting them to also serve an additional half term of up to two years if the officeholder is appointed or elected to the unexpired term of another officeholder who left office.
Caught flat-footed, the board of supervisors for two months, throughout April and May, delayed certifying the measure. Its members at first sought to have then-County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride, then-County Chief Operating Officer Leonard Hernandez and County Counsel Michelle Blakemore and their staffs find some administrative flaw or legal fault in the process that the Red Brennan Group pursued in qualifying the measure for the November election to justify disqualifying the measure from appearing on the ballot. Similarly, county staff sought to summon up sufficient facts to support a determination that the measure might adversely impact the county’s operations or have a fiscal impact on the county which could be used as a pretext to prevent the voters from considering it.
After each of its members resigned themselves to the fact that the county’s administrators and lawyers could not find adequate grounds to keep the measure off the ballot, the board at last took the matter up at its June 9 meeting, reluctantly certifying the measure for inclusion on the November 3 ballot. Simultaneously, however, the board cast about for some further stratagem by which it might prevent the eventuality the Red Brennan Group was seeking – the reduction of the board from its imperial status – from being activated via the voters’ mandate. Harkening back to what had occurred eight years previously, when a similar reform measure had made it onto the ballot, the current board took a leaf out of the previous board’s book, attempting to reapply the means the previous board had used to sidestep that proposed reform.
In 2012, government reform advocate Kiernan “Red” Brennan and Eric Steinmann gathered the signatures of 73,672 county voters to qualify a countywide ballot initiative intended to bring the remuneration of the county government’s ultimate decision-makers into line with the residents they govern and discourage career politicians fixated on money and thereby influenced by political donations from monopolizing the positions on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.
Brennan’s and Steinman’s initiative, designated as Measure R on the November 2012 ballot, called for downscaling the five individual San Bernardino County supervisors’ then-yearly $151,971 salaries and $67,500 in benefits to $50,000 in salary and $10,000 in benefits annually, a drop in total compensation from $219,471 per year to $60,000.
The members of the board of supervisors, alarmed at the prospect that they would be subject to seeing their pay reduced by more than two-thirds but simultaneously recognizing that the public’s appetite for reform was intense, used their authority as government officials to place what they said was a “substitute reform” initiative onto the ballot. That initiative, Measure Q, called for instituting reform by reducing the supervisors’ individual salaries by $5,269 to $146,702 per year, while allowing their annual benefits then valued at $67,500 to remain in place. Because of their status as supervisors, they did not need to gather any signatures to put the Measure Q “reform” initiative reducing their total annual compensation to $214,202 on the ballot.
Adopting the Measure R advocates’ calls for reform, the supervisors and their supporters, as the proponents of Measure Q, did not in any overt fashion campaign against Measure R, but rather expounded in generic terms what they represented as Measure Q’s “sensible” and “moderate” approach for achieving salary reduction for the supervisors.
In the November 2012 election, Measure R passed by a convincing 64.25 percent to 35.75 percent, with 326,939 voters in favor of it and 181,907 opposed. Measure Q passed as well, by a 67.28 percent to 32.72 percent margin, 344,226 votes in support to 157,369 against it. Because Measure Q garnered more votes than Measure R, the former went into effect rather than the latter. Instead of the supervisors seeing their $219,471 per year total compensation packages reduced to $60,000, they were instead cut back to $214,202.
This summer, the board of supervisors, again on the basis of its own authority and without having to obtain signatures of the county’s voters as had been required of the Red Brennan Group, after coming to a determination that the county’s existing charter is antiquated and in need of a redraft, placed a measure aimed at what was called the reform of the county charter on the ballot, doing so at the last possible moment, at the July 14 board meeting, allowing the first board vote to schedule the county residents’ vote for the November election to be confirmed with a requisite second board vote at the July 28 board meeting, just before the county registrar of voters office’s August 7 deadline for the submission of items to be placed onto the ballot. Though there had been scant discussion of charter changes previously and no expression of a public consensus on what elements of the charter should be redressed, the office of county counsel virtually overnight delivered the language for the charter reform initiative for the board to approve on July 14.
Of tremendous importance, the board said, was modernizing the charter to eliminate what is now considered outdated and genderist language, such as the charter’s reference to the board’s designated leader as “chairman” and what “his” duties consist of. Further, since the current charter did not directly address the compensation the supervisors receive, their level of pay was deemed an important issue for the redraft. There was no public discussion of an appropriate remuneration level. Rather, the office of county counsel, working from the premise that the supervisors current salary of $163,000, further/add-on pay of roughly $17,000 and benefits of $77,000 for a total annual compensation of $257,000 is what the supervisors deserve, hit upon setting the supervisors’ salaries at 80 percent of the salary of a Superior Court judge and benefits equal to county department heads. In this way, if the charter reform measure is passed and put into effect, the supervisors would stand to make $260,000 to $290,000 per year in total annual compensation, depending upon the amount of further/add-on pay they are provided with.
The supervisors directed the county registrar of voters to put the charter reform measure on the ballot.
At the time of Red Brennan’s and Eric Steinmann’s initial reform proposal in 2012, there were four members of the board – Fifth District Josie Gonzales, Fourth District Supervisor Gary Ovitt, Third District Supervisor Neil Derry and Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford – who had an immediate, direct and personal interest in preventing the reduction in the supervisors’ pay to $60,000 going into effect. Gonzales was not scheduled to be termed out of office until 2020, Ovitt and Rutherford were not scheduled to be termed out of office until 2022, and Derry was not scheduled to be termed out of office until 2020. The remaining incumbent on the board at that time, Brad Mitzelfelt, was vying for Congress that year and, accordingly, was not seeking reelection in 2012. Rather than acquiesce in the reform package that Brennan and Steinmann were pushing the voters to adopt, Gonzales, Ovitt, Derry and Rutherford instead sought to prevent the adoption of a measure that would reduce their total compensation to between one-third and one-fourth of what they were then receiving.
Brennan died in 2013, a year after his and Steinmann’s measure came up short. Those involved with him in his government reform efforts founded the Red Brennan Group shortly thereafter, dedicating it to reducing the depth, breadth and cost of county government while aiming at improving its efficiency.
For many in the Red Brennan Group, there was lingering resentment over the manner in which the board of supervisors in 2012 had diverted what they considered to be a legitimate reform effort that was aimed at breaking the hold that money has on politics and elected officials. The were stymied in an effort to re-present what was very similar to the 2012 reform initiative to the voters in 2018, but succeeded in getting it on the ballot this year.
Upon Measure K being qualified for being considered by the county’s voters this year, only two current members of the board – Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman, who had succeeded in intimidating Ovitt from seeking reelection in 2014 and had thereby succeeded him that year upon facing weak/ineffective opposition in the election, and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, who had been appointed to the board in 2018 and was elected to the board in her own right during this year’s March 3 race – had an immediate, direct and personal interest in preventing the resurrected Red Brennan Group-sponsored reduction in the supervisors’ pay to $60,000 from going into effect. Gonzales is termed out this year. Rutherford is termed out in 2022, and Measure K will not go into effect until the last term she was elected to in 2018 ends. First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, who succeeded Mitzelfelt in 2012, would have been beyond Measure K’s reach, as he was due for reelection this year, and as such would not have been subject to the conditions of the measure if he had run and was reelected to his final term in office before its conditions went into effect. As it turned out, Lovingood opted not to seek reelection this year.
While all of the current members of the board, especially Gonzales and Rowe, expressed openly their beliefs that Measure K’s reduction in salary and one term restriction on the time a member of the board can serve is contrary to the principles of good governance and the interests of San Bernardino County’s residents, the board beyond offering the voters the alternative “charter reform” Measure J, did not make a well-coordinated and concerted effort to campaign on behalf of Measure J nor against Measure K, and no energetic or effective outside support for Measure J nor against Measure K manifested, in part because the COVID pandemic discouraged heavy public participation in election activity pertaining to measures or initiatives.
Ultimately, the county’s voters on Tuesday sided with the Red Brennan Group and against the board of supervisors’ unbridled power as represented by their total taxpayer-defrayed compensation climbing toward $300,000 per year.
As of this afternoon, with 530,787 votes having been tallied countywide, Measure K was on an easy course to prevailing with 357,126 votes or 67.28 percent in favor and 173,661 votes or 32.72 percent against it.
Meanwhile, Measure J, the ersatz reform measure put on the ballot by the board of supervisors as a ploy to sidetrack the voters and allow the board members to keep their lucrative salaries and benefits was not receiving the same level of support. On election night, in the first count of ballots coming in, with 1,343 of the county’s 2,327 precincts reporting, Measure J was passing with 178,442 votes or 50.4 percent in favor and 175,638 or 49.6 percent against it. At 4 a.m. the morning of November 4, with all 2,327 of the county’s 2,327 precincts reporting, Measure J had slipped behind, with 211,453 votes or 49.89 percent in favor of it and 212,373 or 50.11 percent against it. That afternoon, the votes for and against it were in a dead heat, as 216,914 votes or 49.99 percent were counted in favor of it and 216,976 votes or 50.01 were tallied against it.
By Mark Gutglueck