Kenneth Willis, who succeeded in serving three terms as an Upland City Councilman and rose to a position of prominence representing the construction profession, has died.
Born on November 26, 1946, Willis was a decorated Vietnam War veteran who had been recognized for his intrepid service when he was with the U.S. Army’s field artillery branch at the age of 19, 20 and 21, from 1966 to 1968. Willis returned to civilian life as a young man, obtained a college education and achieved success in the business world. After locating in Upland, where he raised a family and involved himself in community and civic issues, Willis gravitated toward a political role. Though he sustained himself in elected office for three terms, his political legacy will be forever tainted by the alliance he formed with disgraced Upland Mayor John Pomierski.
Willis helped inspire the city’s involvement in the Blue Star banner program, which celebrated the service of active members of the military raised in Upland. He said he felt showing support for servicemen and servicewomen was important, given the obloquy and disrespect he endured when he returned stateside from Vietnam in the late 1960s.
Blue Star banners were originally popularized during what is now referred to as World War I and which was then called the Great War. In 1917 and 1918, the banners featured a single blue star and the name of the doughboy being honored against a background of white trimmed in red. The banners went out of vogue during the Vietnam Conflict, but when Willis and others revived the practice in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the banners included a photo of the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman along with his or her name and the blue star against a red-trimmed white field.
“As Vietnam vets, when we got home, there were people who insulted us if they saw us in our uniforms,” Willis said at the time. “I think it is important that we support those who are fighting for our country. They are putting their lives on the line, and I hope the banners remind people of that.”
Another community betterment program Willis involved himself with was Upland’s after school program, one that was aimed at so-called latchkey kids, whose single parents or both parents were at work when school ended in the early afternoon, leaving them on the streets. The program offered tutoring, educational, mentoring and recreational opportunities.
Willis, a member of the Southern California Building Industry Association, ultimately rose to the position of that organization’s executive vice president.
Willis was first elected to the city council in 2000.
Initially, he was not a John Pomierski supporter. Rather, in the 2000 election, he had supported then-Councilwoman Sue Sundell in her mayoral bid. That race took place in the aftermath of then-Mayor Bob Nolan’s decision not to seek re-election. Sundell was vying against then-Councilman Tom Thomas and Pomierski, who at that time was the chairman of the city’s housing commission. Sundell had last been elected to the council in 1996, and as such she was risking her position on the council, as she was due to stand for reelection that year. Thus, Willis, one of Sundell’s key supporters who would not have considered running for city council if she was in the race, was vying to replace her on the council. Thomas, who had last been reelected to the city council in 1998, was not hazarding his position on the dais by running for mayor, as his term as councilman was not set to expire until 2002.
Ultimately, Pomierski prevailed, garnering 45.2 percent of the vote. Sundell finished in second, with 33.4 percent. Thomas garnered 21.3 percent.
In the council race, Willis proved to be the top vote-getter among five candidates. He claimed, like Sundell, 33.4 percent of the vote, ahead of his closest competitor, Don “Bert” Osberg, who polled 30.8 percent.
In short order, the beguiling and manipulative Pomierski, who had been backed by deep-pocketed developmental interests, came to dominate the city council, forging an alliance with all of the council’s members, including Thomas, whom he had bested in the race, and Willis, whose political ally Sundell had been consigned to political retirement by Pomierski. In his initial years in office, Pomierski also formed a bond with Ray Musser and Michael Libutti, both of whom had first been elected to the council in 1998.
Early on, Pomierski was shaking down those with interests in the decision-making process at City Hall, and pocketing bribes. Despite widespread whispering about what was going on, Pomierski held his unanimous political coalition together, which initiallyu consisted of himself, Thomas, Willis, Musser and Libutti. In May 2002, Libutti, a prosecutor with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, was elevated by Governor Gray Davis to the bench as a replacement for retiring Judge Lou Glazier. Thereafter, the support network around Pomierski promoted another attorney, Brendan Brandt, who was the son of Barry Brandt, another establishment attorney from Upland, to replace Libutti.
Developmental interests had united behind Pomierski because of his readiness and ability to force, cajole or simply invite the other members of the Upland City Council, who collectively held the city’s ultimate land use authority, to accommodate those developers’ designs with regard to obtaining building entitlements. Pomierski served as a conduit of political donations originating with those developmental interests to other politicians. This formed the basis of and strengthened the bonds of Pomierski’s coalition.
That Pomierski counted among the members of his coalition a deputy district attorney who would subsequently become a judge and another accomplished lawyer lent the political machine that Pomierski had constructed around himself an air of invincibility, enabling him in his ability to demand payments, payoffs, kickbacks, quid pro quos and bribes from those dependent upon arrangements being made at City Hall to get their contracts, franchises or projects approved.
By 2004, Ray Musser, who had been reelected in 2002 with support from Pomierski’s fundraising team, had come to fully understand the ethos that Pomierski embodied, and he broke with the mayor, challenging him for reelection that year. Musser put on a spirited contest, making issue of the depredations Pomierski was engaged in, the pay-for-play nature of his politics and his bribetaking in exchange for votes. Musser’s campaign appealed to a significant cross section of the Upland electorate, and he had the solid support of members of the community who recognized what Pomierski was doing. Musser came relatively close to unseating Pomierski, capturing 46.08 percent of the vote. But Pomierski’s substantial fundraising superiority allowed him to run an energetic campaign, which gave him 53.72 percent of the votes cast, with 0.2 percent going to write-in candidates.
Willis, on the strength of his incumbency and aided by the campaign funding and other assistance provided by Pomierski and those with an interest in keeping the mayor’s machine intact, was reelected in 2004 as well, defeating his single opponent, Wendy Gladney Brooks. Willis’s margin of victory – 58.28 percent to 41.58 percent with 0.14 percent going to write-in candidates – while enough to win was less than convincing for an incumbent. A sizable percentage of the city’s electorate had taken stock of Willis’s affiliation with Pomierski, and had voted against him largely on that basis.
It registered loudly with the Pomierski political machine how close of a shave the mayor and his council ally had that year. Four years later, it was not taken for granted that Pomierski and Willis would be shoo-ins, and in 2008, more concerted and aggressive electioneering on their behalf was carried out.
In the aftermath of Musser emerging as the sole opposition on the council to the direction Pomierski was taking the city in, Willis became Pomierski’s pit bull, snapping at Musser whenever he took a position contrary to the mayor’s.
Pomierski after the 2004 election moved to consolidate his position of power, forcing then-City Manager Mike Milhiser, on whom he conferred a $200,000 severance package, and then-Police Chief Marty Thouvenell out in the late winter and early spring of 2005. He hired into their places, respectively, Robin Quincey and Steve Adams, whom he could absolutely control. Because he had concerns that knowledge about his bribetaking and other illegal activities, already recognized for what they were by key players at City Hall and in the police department, would grow beyond containment, Pomierski engaged in a bit of bribery himself. He induced the council to confer upon Quincey a contract which provided him with a guarantee that he would receive the same percentage increase in his salary and benefits that were provided to the members of the police department. Thereafter, he arranged to have Quincey designated to represent the city in its negotiations with the police officers’ union. During the slightly more than five years that he served as city manager, Quincey was provided with eight raises that boosted his combined salary and benefits from less than $260,000 per year to $425,000 per year, making him the second-highest paid city manager in California. Meanwhile, the members of the police department saw their salaries and benefits escalate significantly, such that their silence and investigative inactivity with regard to Pomierski’s activities was secured. Willis was passively and actively involved in these arrangements.
A major development that occurred in Upland during Pomierski’s and Willis’s tenure on the council was the advancement of the Colonies at San Antonio residential subdivision in northeastern Upland, which took place on property formerly owned by the San Antonio Water Company, which served as a recharge field for the water table, and which had been categorized previously as open space. The Upland City Council, led by Pomierski, whose political career had been bankrolled in large measure by the Colonies Partners and many of its investors, allowed that project to proceed without a clear indication of which entity would be responsible for the provision of infrastructure, in particular flood control facilities. When a dispute developed between the Colonies Partners on one side and San Bernardino County and its flood control district on the other, that contretemps descended into litigation. Thereafter, the county filed an indemnification lawsuit against Upland, contending that Upland should reimburse the county for any money it would have to pay out to the Colonies Partners it any potential settlement or judgment granted against it as a consequence of the litigation. In 2006, San Bernardino County settled that lawsuit with a $102 million payout to the Colonies Partners. Willis, whose votes were critical to allowing the Colonies at San Antonio project to proceed without any firm understanding between the involved parties as to which one would defray the cost of a massive flood control basin and its appurtenances which were needed for the project to proceed, publicly stated that he was “outraged” at the city being hauled into court over the matter.
While he was on the city council, Willis’s one means of visible financial support was the position he held with the League of California Homeowners, an entity he had created and which was based in Upland, in an office little more than a stone’s throw from City Hall. Willis was the president of the League of California Homeowners, the primary function of which was to provide its members, who paid $100 membership dues to belong to the organization, a list of various professional service providers – plumbers, painters, electricians, roofers, dry wall installers, masons, glaziers, concrete pourers, construction laborers, heating ventilation and air conditioning system serviceman and the like – whose quality of work could be relied upon. Southern California Edison and the Southern California Gas Company provided a modicum of the League of California Homeowners’ operational funding. There was some degree of conjecture that the League of California Homeowners was a mechanism by which bribes and kickbacks were being delivered to Willis. Despite suggestions to that effect, no official action or prosecution was ever initiated against Willis.
Both Pomierski and Willis endorsed District Attorney Mike Ramos in his reelection effort in 2006, when he ran unopposed, and 2010, when he faced two opponents. In return, Ramos endorsed Pomierski in 2004 and 2008 and Willis in 2008. The Pomierski team’s political affiliation with the district attorney further solidified the aura of invulnerability that attended Pomierski throughout the majority of his tenure as mayor.
Additionally, Pomierski sought and obtained, during both of his candidacies for reelection, the endorsement of more than two dozen other local politicians in San Bernardino County. Willis rode on Pomierski’s coattails in both the 2004 and 2008 elections. In 2008, Musser once again challenged Pomierski in the mayor’s race, and Mark Creighton ran against Willis. Unlike in 2004, when both had been caught flatfooted by the Musser and Gladney Brooks candidacies, Musser and Willis were prepared, and both spent a significant amount of money on well-planned and well-executed electioneering efforts. Musser failed to come as close to Pomierski as he had four years previously, polling 42.6 percent to the incumbent mayor’s 57.4 percent of the vote. With Pomierski and his supporters determined to keep Willis in office to ensure that Pomierski would have adequate support on the council to take care of those who were bankrolling his political machine, Willis was extremely well-funded in his 2008 reelection bid, and he trounced Creighton 74.95 percent to 25.05 percent.
Over the next 19 months, Pomierski continued to ride high, maintaining his Svengali-like hold on Willis, Thomas and Brandt. On June 11, 2010, the FBI served a series of search warrants at Upland City Hall, Pomierski’s home and the business office for his company, JP Construction, as well as at the homes and business offices of three of Pomierski’s associates, John Hennes, Jason Crebs and Anthony Orlando Sanchez. In addition to his business ties to Pomierski, Hennes was a member of the Upland Building Appeals Board, having been appointed to that post by Pomierski and confirmed by a majority of the city council, including Willis. On February 26, 2011, Pomierski quietly resigned as mayor and on March 3, 2011, an indictment naming him and Hennes that had been handed down by a federal grand jury was unsealed. Pomierski was charged with taking bribes from and extorting businesses and business owners with projects or contracts under consideration at City Hall. Hennes was charged with acting as a go-between in the schemes.
Ultimately, in April 2012, Pomierski pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
At that point, the writing was on the wall, and Willis opted out of seeking reelection later that year. That was probably a wise move, as in October 2012, just before the November election, Robb Quincey, who had departed as Upland city manager as Pomierski was losing his grip on the city, was arrested and charged by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office with three felonies consisting of unlawful misappropriation of public money, gaining personal benefit from an official contract, and giving false testimony under oath. He would later work out a plea deal with prosecutors.
Ray Musser, who replaced Pomierski as Upland mayor and remained in that position until 2016, was charitable in his assessment of Willis. Musser spoke positively of Willis, despite his role as a major player in the Pomierski political machine who had fought Musser at virtually every turn during most of the dozen years the two were in public office together.
“He was quite a man,” Musser said. “Ken was given some hefty responsibilities. Mayor Pomerski asked him to head up the city water program, and in that capacity he was the city’s watermaster. In addition to its own water assets, which includes wells and reservoirs, the city has a 93 percent shareholder interest in the West End Consolidated Water Company and a 68 percent shareholder interest in San Antonio Water Company. Ken did an excellent job in that position, overseeing the water resources and delivery systems the people of Upland rely on.”
Musser said that “He was a firm believer in the after school program. Ken supported that very strongly, He took the lead on that, along with [Upland Unified School District Board Member] Linda Angona. He was very serious about helping children.”
Willis was, Musser pointed out, “respected by the residents of the city, who elected him three times. He was the executive vice president of the BIA [Building Industry Association].”
Musser did acknowledge, “He was the one person on the council who probably gave me the most difficult time. He would always say, ‘You never stop campaigning. You are always running. Every time the phone rings, you are out their looking for votes.’ And I would say back to him, ‘That’s true. I am always looking to help my constituents, doing whatever I can for them. Their problems give me an opportunity to campaign. That’s the way you stay in office.’”
Musser went on, “After Ken went off the council, one day I was up at the Hallmark Store, looking for a card. He was there, like I was, looking for a card. Ken came over and said to me, ‘I am so sorry. I had no idea what the mayor [Pomierski] was doing, everything he was into. I just didn’t know.’
“I said,” Musser continued, “‘Ken, you’re forgiven. That’s all in the past.’ That was the character of Ken Willis. He admitted he was wrong and accepted responsibility. He was a great guy.”
Sue Sundell said of Willis, “He was all about good government. He was a professional. He was the nicest man I’ve ever known. He was very respectful to everyone. He did not get upset. He never flew off the handle.”
In a January 23 posting, the Southern California Building Industry Association stated, “Ken Willis was devoted to his family, community and served with distinction on the city council.”
Kenneth Willis, who succeeded in serving three terms as an Upland City Councilman and rose to a position of prominence representing the construction profession, has died.