By clicking on the blue portal below, you can download of PDF of the January 22 edition of the San Bernardino County Sentinel.
By clicking on the blue portal below, you can download of PDF of the January 22 edition of the San Bernardino County Sentinel.
Chancing potentially costly legal challenges, the City of Redlands more than seven months ago instituted, and this week signaled it intends to persist in, a policy of preventing its residents from directly participating in its city council meetings.
Awareness of City Hall’s exclusion of members of the public from taking an active part in the municipal decision-making process, formerly limited to city officials and a relatively small circle of civically active citizens, has now spread beyond the confines of the 36-square mile, 72,000 population city, raising the prospect that what legal authorities say is a clear violation of California’s open government laws will invite lawsuits relating not just to the policy itself but challenges of the actions the council took at various points since June 2020 when the current policy went into effect.
In March 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom, in an effort to prevent the coronavirus contagion from raging out of control, mandated throughout California the discontinuation of large-scale public gatherings, including traditional meetings of the governing boards of public agencies, such as city and town councils, county boards of supervisors and school district and water district boards. His order waived certain elements of the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law, specifically those which required that a legislative body meet at a given location, such as the council meeting chamber at City Hall, within the jurisdiction wherein that body has authority. This was intended to allow governing board members to attend meetings remotely, and participate by electronic means.
Most California cities, counties or incorporated townships responded to the order by orchestrating a meeting forum involving a video/audio hookup allowing an interchange between and among the governing board members and the senior managerial and administrative staff of that governmental entity, and providing for an accommodation of resident or citizen input by electronic means as well, most commonly telephonically.
Redlands, like most cities, responded to the COVID-19 crisis and the governor’s mandate by arranging for teleconferencing involving the council and key staff members, allowing them to use their shared video/audio feed to work their way through the agenda, interacting with one another, discussing the items and taking votes. The proceedings are broadcast or otherwise streamed, so they can be viewed in real time and thereafter by the public. Unlike the vast majority of other cities, however, Redlands has not allowed direct and immediate real time public participation to be incorporated into its council meetings. While most other cities arranged to take phone calls during the public comment/citizen input portion of the council meetings, Redlands initially, up until its May 19 meeting, accepted, up until 4 p.m. on the day of the city council meeting, written comments submitted by the public, primarily via email but also including letters written on paper. Regular council meetings commenced at 5 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. As of the June 2 meeting, however, the city council required that those written comments be submitted no later than 5 p.m. on the Monday before the city council meeting.
Thus, since June, the city has required that all communication from the public with regard to items on the agenda which are to be voted upon by the city council be submitted 24 hours in advance of the meeting. During the meeting, the comments are read aloud by a city official and the statements are attributed by name to the person making the submission. These statements thus are part of the discussion of the agenda items before they are voted upon. In this way, the in-writing public comments become a part of the public record relating to the consideration of the items discussed and voted upon. If someone wishing to comment on any item on or not on the agenda misses the 24-hours-prior-to-the-meeting deadline, the comments are not read aloud during the meeting, although city officials have indicated that the comments are put into an email that is sent to the council members prior to the meeting. The comments that miss the 24 hours-in-advance deadline, according to Redlands City Manager Charles Duggan, are not considered to be part of the record of proceedings related to each agenda item.
Over the more than seven months that the policy has been in place, disenchantment with the way in which it has abridged public input has festered and grown.
In response to questions posed by the Sentinel, Duggan said the city and city council desire to hear and consider input from the public and Redlands residents.
“We are trying to encourage citizen comment,” Duggan said. “The council wants to hear what our citizens think and have to say. That is why we have the means for them to make written comment in place. Those written comments will be read as part of the proceedings when the council holds its meetings.”
Duggan insisted that the policy the city has developed is a reasonable one that is intended to facilitate the council being able to obtain input with regard to local issues and the items it is voting upon from the city’s residents. He defended the city requiring that the public get comments to the city 24 hours in advance of a meeting by stating that the city had previously provided a much more generous deadline, but that on one occasion there was such an overwhelming number of comments relating to one specific issue that the council decision set to take place that evening had to be postponed because of the time consumed.
“The council’s decision had to be delayed because of that,” he said. “We were overwhelmed with comments. That is why we have gone to requiring the comments by 5 p.m. the day before the meeting.”
The Sentinel queried Duggan with regard to those elements of the Brown Act contained within California Government Code Section 54953 and California Government Code Section 54954.3, asking if he was certain that the policy the city had in place was in compliance with the Brown Act.
Government Code Section 54953(a) states, “All meetings of the legislative body of a local agency shall be open and public, and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the legislative body of a local agency.”
Government Code Section 54953(b) (1) holds “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the legislative body of a local agency may use teleconferencing for the benefit of the public and the legislative body of a local agency in connection with any meeting or proceeding authorized by law. The teleconferenced meeting or proceeding shall comply with all requirements of this chapter and all otherwise applicable provisions of law relating to a specific type of meeting or proceeding.”
Government Code Section 54953(b) (4) states “For the purposes of this section, ‘teleconference’ means a meeting of a legislative body, the members of which are in different locations, connected by electronic means, through either audio or video, or both. Nothing in this section shall prohibit a local agency from providing the public with additional teleconference locations.”
Government Code Section 54854.3(a) provides that “Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.”
Duggan rejected a suggestion that the city’s policy of requiring that the public’s comments be submitted in writing ran afoul of Government Code Section 54953(a) and Government Code Section 54854.3(a).
“We have reviewed the council meeting rules and we have complied with the rules the State of California has in place,” Duggan said.
With specific regard to the Brown Act provision requiring that members of the public be provided an opportunity “to directly address the legislative body,” Duggan said the opportunity the City of Redlands was extending to citizens to submit a comment in writing 24 hours in advance rather than during meetings met that requirement.
Of issue in the controversy is that when a citizen legally challenges a governmental decision after it is taken, the courts have established that the matter being legally contested must have been raised prior to or at the time of the government’s action. By instituting a set of requirements that are contrary to the open government principles in the Brown Act, the ability of residents to engage in a timely raising of those issues is hampered. There is a real question as to whether the City of Redlands would be able to engage in a defense against any future lawsuits brought by a citizen or resident challenging a specific city council action by asserting that no a priori challenge of the city’s action was made, given that the city is strewing obstacles in the way of members of the public who are trying to raise such issues in the forum of a city council meeting. Of crucial interest to a court or judge hearing a lawsuit brought against a governmental entity such as a city relating to action it took is whether the public record of the city’s proceedings reflects that anyone protested or in some fashion objected to the action at the heart of a legal action at the time the legislative body’s vote on the matter took place.
In this regard, the Sentinel asked Duggan whether the public record relating to an issue considered and voted upon by the city council would include the comments submitted prior to the meeting but after the 24-hours-in-advance-of-the-meeting deadline.
Duggan said it would not, even though such late comments “would be put into an email to the council members given to them prior to the meeting. Those comments would not be part of the public record for the meeting. It would be considered the same as when someone wanted to comment but missed the meeting and came in the next morning, after the decision was made and the vote taken. That would be a late statement and would not be part of the record of the meeting.”
Duggan said there is minimal discontent with the policy, as evinced by the consideration that only two Redlands residents have complained about it.
The City of Redlands’ policy with regard to public participation in the hearing process before the city council violates the Brown Act on multiple points, according to David Snyder, at attorney with the First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento.
The city’s imposition of the requirement that comments be made in writing in advance of the meeting is out of keeping with California law relating to open public meetings, Snyder said.
“One requirement of the Brown Act is the public has the right to directly address the legislative body, and that means talking to the legislative body at issue in real time,” Snyder said.
Snyder said it appears that what Redlands has done is taken Governor Newsom’s relatively narrow waiver of elements of the Brown Act to facilitate the holding of remote meetings and widened it to obviate parts of the Brown Act that remain intact.
“All legislative bodies, including the legislative body at issue here, have traditionally had to have a quorum in a physical location within their respective jurisdiction, so when the Redlands City Council’s members were meeting, the council or a quorum thereof had to actually be in Redlands or at City Hall,” Snyder said. “The governor’s executive order waived that requirement so all members could be at home and still conduct their meetings remotely. The governor’s order made it easier to hold meetings remotely, but it did not waive the requirement that the public has the right to address the body.”
Snyder continued, “The governor’s order allows for the holding of teleconference meetings and waived some of the Brown Act’s provisions relating to having a quorum present in a single location in order to hold a meeting. The waivers were very limited. That has nothing to do with the public directly addressing a city council or school board. The governor’s order does not change that right. The city cannot limit the public’s right to directly address the council by requiring the comments to be in writing 24 hours before the meeting takes place. Direct access to a legislative body was not one of the public’s rights that was waived by the governor.”
What Redlands is engaged in, Snyder said, is a carryover of what many of the state’s cities attempted to do in the immediate aftermath of Governor Newsom’s mandate last March, but ultimately failed in doing, which was to dispense with complying with the Brown Act wholesale by claiming hardship.
“City after city made the claim that transitioning to remote meetings meant they could not comply with the Brown Act’s provisions because in dealing with the limitations of the pandemic, compliance logistically could not be pulled off,” Snyder said. “That argument is not persuasive ten months in.”
Requiring Redlands residents or the public in general to submit input to the city council on action it is considering in writing in advance “does not meet the requirements of the Brown Act. The public has a right to directly address the legislative body. That is the opportunity the public has to tell the city council or school board in person what they think about what that body is doing. Direct interaction is critical, I think, to the operation of local government. When they disallow real time questions and comments and force the public to have to put its thoughts in writing, it makes it much easier for those elected leaders to disregard those comments. They don’t even have to pretend they are paying attention. The public’s input is much more powerful and clear when words are heard directly from those who have come forward to have their positions known. That is not just a technical requirement but foundational to the right to speak to the legislative body in real time. It is the responsibility of city councils and school boards to figure out how to conduct meetings where that direct interchange can take place despite the pandemic.”
Snyder said, “I don’t discount that there are logistical headaches with transparency. It is not always convenient. The Brown Act itself has requirements that have always been logistically difficult. There has always been a need for transparency, which is sometimes very challenging for elected officials to achieve, but it is something the law requires government to deal with.”
Adherence to the Brown Act is not an abstract principle, Snyder said.
The Brown Act, as embodied in the Government Code Sections from Section 54950 through Section 54963, carries with it the weight of law, Snyder said. Government Code Section 54959 states “Each member of a legislative body who attends a meeting of that legislative body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter, and where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled under this chapter, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Criminal prosecutions under the Brown Act, while not absolutely unheard of, are rare, as most district attorneys are reluctant to criminalize public officeholders for action or lack thereof taken in the course of public service. Generally, prosecutors will seek to cure any misdeeds by means of a notation of the offending action and a stern directive to cure the transgressions in the future. Still, the existence of the law gives those wishing to pursue civil action recourse against any officials or bodies which can be demonstrated to have violated the Brown Act.
“Every member of the public has a right to be heard on any matter to be considered that is the subject of a city council’s decision,” Snyder said. “The City of Redlands is definitely exposing itself to legal liability and the possibility of a lawsuit when it does not allow someone to comment. If such a suit were to be filed, the city could be found to be in violation of the Brown Act. That would form the basis of a judgment against the city.”
Snyder said the city’s assertion that it can dispense with public comments being taken during a meeting because at one meeting or another there was what some city officials deemed to be an excessive number of people seeking to participate in the process by offering comment to the city council would never hold up if it were legally challenged.
“Long lines of residents filing in to offer their comment to a legislative board happen all the time,” Snyder said. “City council meetings often run late. It is the city council’s obligation to figure out a way to both conduct meetings in as expeditious of a manner as possible and still honor the rights the public has under the Brown Act. These are challenges cities have had before the COVID pandemic. If city officials have 200 people who want to comment, they have to deal with that. The courts have upheld speaking limits of two or three minutes for a single person. If there are too many people to accommodate, a legislative body might have to hold a second session. A legislative body might not be bound to accommodate every person in allowing everyone unlimited comment, but a legislative body cannot take allowing people to comment or provide input off the table because it was a hassle in one instance. A city has to provide people with the ability to comment in real time. Those are obligations the city has to work out. This practice of requiring written comments be submitted before the meeting does not meet the letter of the law and it does not allow members of the public to address their concerns directly to the body.”
The Sentinel has received, but has not been able to verify, reports that Redlands city officials changed, altered, edited or redacted portions of the written submissions prior to their being read during the course of some of the council’s meetings. The justification for the alterations given, the Sentinel was told, was that some of the written statements contained inaccuracies and the city did not want to put city staff members reading those statements in the position of uttering falsehoods publicly.
If that occurred, Snyder said, “It highlights the problem with the city’s policy. There is no requirement that comments to a legislative body or governing board be 100 percent factually accurate or non-offensive to the legislative body. If they are editing and censoring what residents are telling them, that illustrates why this is an illegal process. It is not the place of the government to censor its citizens when they say something the government considers to be inaccurate. Requiring the public to submit its statements in advance of an open public meeting presents the opportunity for the city to censor and change comments, which city officials are not entitled to do.”
The cure Redlands should apply at once, Snyder said, is to “have people call in by phone. There are hundreds of legislative bodies that are doing that now. The burden is on them to figure out a way to handle the logistical issues. They are not entitled to wipe out the public’s ability to comment because allowing for that comment to take place is a hassle.”
The Sentinel this week sought to contact Redlands’ elected city clerk, Jeanne Donaldson, to determine if she was involved in the derivation of the city’s current policy relating to how citizen input on issues discussed an/or voted on by the city council is dealt with. She was not available at City Hall this morning.
The city council agenda, which is a product of Donaldson’s office, implies but does not explicitly state that the policy is Duggan’s brainchild.
“Following public health recommendations to limit public gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic, City Manager Charles M. Duggan Jr., acting as the City of Redlands’ emergency services director, has directed that city council/successor agency meetings be closed to the public until further notice or until the current local state of emergency has been lifted,” the agenda reads. “The council chamber will not be open to the public during the city council/successor agency meetings.”
Set off in the next paragraph, the agenda continues, “In order to have your public comment read into the public record at the meeting, members of the public are asked to submit comments up until 5 p.m. the day before the city council/successor agency meeting by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the public comment form on the city’s website at https://www.cityofredlands.org/public-speaker-form.”
The Sentinel phoned and then sent an email to Redlands City Attorney Dan McHugh, seeking to learn from him if he was the architect, or one of the architects, of the policy that requires that citizens, residents or anyone else seeking to have input with regard to matters the city council is considering and is to vote upon provide their comments and/or questions in writing 24 hours prior to the meeting.
The Sentinel asked McHugh if it was his position that the city can deny citizens who want to provide input verbally the ability to participate in the council meetings, and whether he considered the 24-hours-prior-to-the-meeting submission deadline for public comments to be a reasonable one that is in compliance with the Brown Act and all applicable law.
The Sentinel inquired of McHugh what his confidence level was as to the city’s ability to legally defend excluding that input from the public record if it is submitted to the city after the 24-hours-in-advance-of-a-council-meeting deadline. McHugh was further asked why the city does not allow for telephonic contact between members of the public and the council during meetings, and whether that policy had evolved out of an effort to prevent prolonging the meetings or because doing so would entail some order of logistical complication.
The Sentinel asked if the city maintains that Governor Newsom’s order restricting the parameters of public meetings justifies the policy of having the public submit its comments on city council items in writing 24 hours in advance and if he could cite anything in the governor’s order which waives that element of the Brown Act requiring governing boards/legislative bodies to provide for direct interaction with the public during their meetings.
McHugh was asked to respond to Snyder’s contention that the city is misinterpreting the spirit of the governor’s order to limit public participation in a way that the governor did not intend and which goes beyond the purpose of the mandate intended to protect the public from the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
McHugh did not respond.
Councilman Eddie Tejeda told the Sentinel that the city council had been guided in implementing the city council’s policy with regard to public participation in the city council meeting proceedings “by the city manager and city attorney. We have been following their advice.”
Asked if he was confident that the city’s policy would pass legal muster if a citizen or residents were to challenge the city in court, Tejeda said, “I’m not an attorney. I have no idea.”
Told that some city residents objected to the policy and that the First Amendment Coalition’s legal counsel maintained the practice was contrary to the Brown Act, Tejeda said, “I would like to talk to the city manager and city attorney about it. I have not heard anything to suggest the way we are doing this is a problem. I think the city council should look at this to consider whether we should change the policy.”
The San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee has changed its leadership, a move which signals internal political divisions that have manifested over the last several years as the county party, which is yet retaining its edge over its rival Democrats despite voter registration numbers trending against it, is looking toward substantial challenges to its local primacy in the years ahead.
Committee members have elevated Fontana businessman Phil Cothran to the chairmanship of the central committee, replacing Jan Leja. Leja’s tenure as the county party chairwoman came during a time when the fissures in the once-entirely dominant local Republican political machine began to show and have since deepened. Leja failed to bridge the growing gap in the county party, as personality, philosophical and strategic differences between the factions hardened in recent years. Cothran’s ascendancy, however, does not presage a rapprochement but instead seems a harbinger of equally strident contention over the direction of the party to come.
At least since 1966, the governmental structure at most levels of San Bernardino County has been in the hands of the Republicans. That year, Ronald Reagan was elected governor, and a shift away from the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County began in earnest. With only a few notable exceptions over the next 55 years, Republicans have held the majority of political offices at the local agency, municipal, county and state level in San Bernardino County. There have been sporadic exceptions to that pattern in the Central San Bernardino Valley area, stretching from Fontana through Rialto, Bloomington, Colton and into San Bernardino, a largely blue collar district with an historically significant enough concentration of Democratic Party and union-affiliated voters to elect Democrats off-and-on. In most other areas of the far-flung 20,105 square mile county, the political leadership has largely consisted of Republicans. Throughout the late 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and most of the first decade of the Third Millennium, there were more, and for much of that time far more, registered Republican than registered Democrats in San Bernardino County. In 2009, that statistical edge for the GOP ended, and for the first time in more than four decades, the number of Democrats in the county eclipsed the number of Republicans. That trend has continued, such that at this point, 459,422 or 40.8 percent of the county’s 1,126,096 total voters are registered as Democrats, while 334,876 voters or 29.7 percent affiliate with the Party of Lincoln.
Remarkably, however, the Republicans despite the registration disadvantage they face, have succeeded in holding onto most of the county’s elective offices they controlled in their heyday. This has largely occurred because Republicans turn up to vote in far higher percentages than do Democrats nationally, statewide and particularly locally. In San Bernardino County, as well, the party structure the Republicans have has proven far more energetic, efficient and engaged than the local Democratic Party. The Republicans have proven far more effective at raising money than the Democrats and have more experience and are therefore more accomplished in employing the money they have to run convincing and targeted campaigns to drive Republican voters to the polls and wage efforts against their Democratic opponents. At present, four of the five members of the county board of supervisors are Republicans and in 16 of the county’s 24 municipalities there are more Republican members of the city or town councils than Democratic members. Historically, the Republicans have done a far better job at hitching all of their horses up to one side of the wagon and pulling the load in a concerted direction than the Democrats, who have a pattern of working at cross purposes to one another. Until quite recently, the Republicans have lived by the 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”
Beginning in 2013, however, a minor rift in the county GOP opened when Curt Hagman, then a member of the California Assembly who was to be termed out of the statehouse after what was to be the end of his sixth year in state office in 2014, settled on perpetuating his political career by running for Fourth District county supervisor, representing Chino Hills, Chino, Ontario, Montclair and south Upland. The Fourth District supervisorial post he coveted was at that time occupied by another Republican, Gary Ovitt. Refusing to honor Ovitt’s incumbency, Hagman threatened to challenge him for the supervisor’s seat. To strengthen himself for that run, Hagman in late 2013 moved to depose Robert Rego as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and assume the position himself. Rego had done yeoman’s work for the county Republican Party, raising funds and creating a well-oiled and maintained political machine to promote the candidacies of Republican candidates throughout the county. By pushing Rego out, Hagman was able to seize command of local party operations and cut Ovitt off from party support, and instead direct that assistance to his own campaign. Ovitt opted out of seeking reelection. Hagman achieved victory in 2014, running successfully for Fourth District supervisor against Gloria Negrete-McLeod, then an incumbent Democratic congresswoman.
Despite his personal success, Hagman planted seeds of dissension within the local Republican Party. Whereas previously there had been an ethos of party loyalty among Republicans that essentially held individual personal ambition in check, Hagman’s willingness to cut Ovitt off at the pass became a model for other Republicans thereafter. Since that time there have been multiple examples of one Republican moving to challenge another incumbent Republican, efforts which have met with varying degrees of success and failure. One upshot of all of this is that it appears to be gradually weakening the local Republican Party. In 2016, four Republicans – Angela Valles, Rick Roelle, Paul Russ and Bill Holland – challenged incumbent Republican First District San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood. The four challengers lost. That same year, Republican stalwart Tim Donnelly angled at unseating incumbent Republican 8th Congressional District Congressman Paul Cook. Donnelly failed. In 2018, Donnelly again took an unsuccessful run at Cook. Then-incumbent Republican 40th District Assemblyman Marc Steinorth challenged incumbent Republican Second District San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford. Steinorth narrowly lost. John Valdivia, then an incumbent Republican San Bernardino City Councilman, challenged Carey Davis, the incumbent Republican mayor of San Bernardino. Valdivia defeated Davis in the November 2018 San Bernardino mayoral runoff election. In the summer of 2018, incumbent Republican Hesperia Mayor Bill Holland and incumbent Republican Hesperia Councilman Paul Russ were instrumental in appointing Republican Jeremiah Brosowske to fill a vacant position on the Hesperia City Council. Later that year, when all three had to stand for election/reelection, they endorsed one another. But after a falling out, Holland and Brosowske went to war against one another as the election approached and they retracted their endorsements of each other. Russ sought to remain neutral in the dispute, but Holland withdrew his endorsement of Russ as well. Holland and Brosowske won, while Russ lost. Brosowske then supported an effort to recall Holland from office. That failed. Holland in September 2019 voted with two of his Republican colleagues on the council, Larry Bird and Cameron Gregg, to remove Brosowske from office. In 2019, incumbent West Valley Water District Board Member Greg Young had to stand for reelection. Two of his Republican board colleagues, Michael Taylor and Kyle Crowther, militated against him by persuading a Fontana resident, Angel Ramirez, to rent a residence in Bloomington to be able to run against Young. Taylor and Crowther then supported Ramirez in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Young.
As 2020 approached, a head of steam was building within Republican circles toward an effort to elect a Republican in the overwhelmingly Democratic San Bernardino County Fifth Supervisorial District, where Democrat Josie Gonzales was to be termed out after holding that position since 2004. It was believed that a concerted Republican effort could potentially succeed in electing a Republican to the Fifth District supervisor’s slot, despite a substantial Democratic registration advantage. Some believed Clifford Young, who is also a West Valley Water District board member, might be the best standard bearer for the Republicans. Another faction of Republicans, however, instead promoted Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez as the GOP’s best shot at claiming the post long occupied by Gonzales. Those supporting Armendarez, who included many if not all of those who were opposing Greg Young in his reelection bid, moved simultaneously to undercut Clifford Young, who is no blood relation to Greg Young. The pro-Armendarez faction of the party in 2019 maneuvered to deny Greg Young the endorsement of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee in his water district board reelection effort, despite the consideration that Greg Young was an incumbent, was himself a member of the central committee and had for years demonstrated himself as a loyal and tireless campaigner for Republican candidates and Republican causes. Ultimately, despite the intrigue against him, Greg Young, who was Clifford Young’s ally, prevailed in his 2019 reelection bid.
Of note is that Armendarez was part of Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren’s ruling coalition on the Fontana City Council, which consisted of her, Armendarez and Republicans John Roberts and Phil Cothran, Jr. The 4-to-1 advantage the Republicans have on the Fontana City Council is remarkable because Fontana’s voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, with 51,264 or 49.4 percent of the city’s 103,822 total voters registered as Democrats and 20,635 or 19.9 percent identifying as Republicans.
Warren is allied with both Clifford Young and Greg Young. Warren was in favor of the Republican Party backing Clifford Young in the 2020 race for Fifth District supervisor. She did not look gladly upon the Republican faction which consisted of Armendarez, Taylor, Crowther, Ramirez and Phil Cothran, Sr., the father of Fontana Councilman Phil Cothran, Jr., moving to oppose Greg Young’s reelection and blocking Clifford Young’s effort to run for Fifth District supervisor by rigging the central committee’s endorsement of Armendarez in his run for supervisor. It did not sit well with her that the Armendarez/Taylor/Crowther/Ramirez/Phil Cothran faction finagled getting Ramirez the Republican Central Committee endorsement over Greg Young in the race for West Valley Water District board member in 2019.
In last year’s race for Fifth District supervisor, after the contest between four candidates in the March 2020 Primary boiled down to a runoff between Armendarez and then-Rialto Councilman Joe Baca, Jr., a Democrat, the Armendarez campaign found itself in trouble for multiple reasons. For one, it was in an uphill battle because of the overwhelming voter registration numbers that favored Baca, such that more than half of the district’s voters – 50.4 percent – were registered Democrats and 18.9 percent were Republicans. Every bit as problematic was that the tactics those supporting Armendarez had used in which they ruthlessly sought to wound both Greg Young and Clifford Young greatly offended a number of Republicans. Consequently, those Republicans failed to line up, or line up enthusiastically and effectively, with Armendarez.
As the 2020 Fifth District supervisor race wound toward a conclusion, polling the Armendarez camp did indicated that the numbers were running against the Fontana councilman and in favor of the Rialto councilman. In a desperate ploy, those affiliated with the Armendarez campaign attempted to use hit pieces, mailers sent from what was ostensibly represented as an independent expenditure committee, the California Taxpayers Alliance, to move Democratic voters away from Baca. The mailers, which were sent exclusively to high propensity Democratic voters, attempted to link Baca with then-President Donald Trump. “Right-Wing Super PACs Spent Millions For Trump And Have Supported Career Conservative Joe Baca, Jr.,” read one mailer’s all capital letter headline. The mailer’s summary stated, “Keep the Trump Team Off Our Board of Supervisors. We need to defeat conservative Joe Baca, Jr.”
The tactic failed, as an insufficient number of the district’s Democratic voters found it credible that Baca was affiliated with the Republican president while he was engaged in an electoral contest against the Republican Armendarez.
The attack on Baca by way of President Trump had further complications. Mayor Warren is a close Trump ally. Depicting the now-former president in negative terms perturbed her.
Armendarez, who opted not to run for reelection to the Fontana City Council to instead run for supervisor, is now out of office. Warren has privately said she does not regret no longer having him as a member of her coalition.
Phil Cothran, Sr., a successful insurance agent in Fontana, has over the last 30 years become a major behind-the-scenes political player. He has donated substantial amounts of money to local candidates for elected office, primarily Republicans. He is a major donor to politicians in Fontana, and one of Warren’s primary political sponsors. One of the rewards he has reaped from that is the advancement of his son’s political career.
Nevertheless, his identification with a faction of the local Republican Party that has militated against other Republicans, including Armendarez against Clifford Young and Ramirez against Greg Young, represents a schism in the Republican Party that was unthinkable in years past. Cothran’s status as the head of the county party raises the prospect that elements of the Republican Party which were so cohesive in recent decades have now been fractured to the point that the Democrats, if they can overcome their own disarray, might end the GOP’s domination of San Bernardino County.
By Mark Gutglueck
Paul Russ, the one-time mayor of Hesperia whose career in public office involved a firm embrasure of the pay-to-play politics that brought the city he represented and the county he lived in into considerable disrepute during his brief but intense term in office, has died.
Russ’s actions while he was both a city councilman and mayor of Hesperia, taken together with his close association with those in the private sector and other politicians renowned for existing at the confluence of money, public policy and land use decisions, shaped the City of Hesperia’s future while simultaneously leading to the demise of his political viability.
Russ, who had health challenges for much of his life, was ultimately felled after he contracted COVID-19. He tested positive for the virus on January 8, and was under frequent medical care thereafter. On January 16, he posted on Facebook that he had made four trips to the emergency room in the previous week. Russ checked into the Victor Valley Global Medical Center on January 18, where the end of his life came on Thursday, January 21. He was 61.
In 1971, at the age of 12, Russ experienced a viral infection, which ravaged his kidneys. He gradually recovered, but not fully. In 1986, at the age of 26, he began kidney dialysis. The following year, as his renal failure escalated, he was in need of a kidney transplant. His brother, Raymond, donated one of his kidneys to him. His brother’s kidney did Paul yeoman’s service for thirty years, twice the 15-year span typical kidney transplants remain viable.
Along the way, Russ contracted hepatitis, but treatment had rendered it dormant.
For the 17 years after the transplant, Russ led a relatively normal life, one which was productive and successful. With a college degree in economics, he earned a comfortable living while working within the banking and finance industries.
In 2004, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, which through treatment went into remission. Thirteen years after that, in March 2017, Russ pulled a muscle and took a muscle relaxant. A metabolic reaction to the muscle relaxant activated the hepatitis C. Dazed and disoriented, he was taken to the emergency room at Desert Valley Hospital. There it was determined that the drug he was taking was not passing beyond his kidneys, to the point that he had gone into stage 4 renal failure. He was given prednisone and he recovered, relatively, to stage 3. Follow-up tests showed his kidney was failing and that he had liver cancer.
That summer, he was set to begin chemotherapy to combat the liver cancer, which would have precluded any possibility that he could get another kidney transplant, consigning him to a lifetime of dialysis.
Before actually beginning chemotherapy, he applied for a double organ transplant. He was thereafter informed by Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans that he had been accepted. He sojourned there in October 2017, where he awaited the availability of both a liver and kidney. He participated in the city council meetings via Skype. When compatible organs became available, the transplants took place on December 26, and he returned to Hesperia in March 2018.
A physician told the Sentinel that Russ’s underlying medical challenges very likely left him with a compromised immune system and therefore particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Russ’s physical vulnerability was belied by the aggressiveness of his politics, extending back at least to the early 1990s, when he was involved in promoting Republican candidates and causes.
Among those he was involved with in those efforts were then-Assemblyman and later State Senator Jim Brulte, who was the Republican legislative leader at that time; then-Assemblywoman Kathleen Honeycutt; her husband, one-time Hesperia Councilman and Mayor Theron Honeycutt; their son, Tad Honeycutt, who was subsequently a councilman and mayor in Hesperia; Kathleen Honeycutt’s successor in the Assembly, Keith Olberg; Brad Mitzelfelt, who would become more than a decade later First District San Bernardino County supervisor; and Bill Postmus, a future First District county supervisor and county assessor.
Russ formed a lasting political bond with the latter, one which withstood the scandal that would envelop Postmus and bring his once-promising political career to an abject close. Russ’s loyalty to Postmus found a degree of reward in that Postmus in 2014 came across with the formula, including a winning campaign strategy and a conduit to major political donors, that made Russ’s election to the city council possible.
Their shared affinity for Republicanism formed the basis of the relationship between Russ and Postmus, who was more than a decade younger than Russ. In the mid- and late-1990s, they worked together on political campaigns in conjunction with the High Desert Young Republicans, a group that had been formed by Postmus and Mitzelfelt after those two had made their acquaintance while attending the University of Redlands, where both were majoring in business administration. In 1990, in a move that would elevate him into the Boy Wonder of San Bernardino County politics, Postmus at the age of 29 vied successfully against then-incumbent First District Supervisor Kathy Davis, which made Postmus, after Minor Cobb Tuttle in 1862, Norman Taylor in 1855, Robert McCoy in 1861, John C. Turner in 1893 and Gus Skropos in 1985, the sixth youngest youngest supervisor in San Bernardino County history. Postmus went on to become the chairman of the board of supervisors in 2004, the same year Russ was diagnosed as suffering from lymphatic cancer. Russ would later say that while he dealt with his several health challenges, Postmus, had been caring and supportive throughout his ordeals.
In 2006, Postmus was elected county assessor, but by 2008, he had descended into into an intractable political scandal, beset by controversy over his drug addiction and abuse of his elected office. In 2009, methamphetamine and syringes used to inject it were found within Postmus’s premises when investigators served a search warrant for his residence. That warrant had been obtained by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, which was looking into reports of Postmus and his assessor’s office staff engaging in partisan political activity involving the use of county personnel, facilities, equipment and assets during working hours. A month later, Postmus resigned from office. In 2010 he was charged with a variety of political corruption charges. He initially pleaded not guilty, but in 2011, he pleaded guilty to 14 felonies pertaining to bribery, conspiracy, conflict of interest, misappropriation of public funds and perjury, acknowledging he asked for and received bribes and that he had set up in the assessor’s office while it was under his watch a political operation, and hired friends and cronies with little to no experience in assessor-related work to help bolster his political career, including using the county’s email server to blast an electronic Republican newsletter to county voters.
Postmus’s conviction on the public conflict of interest charge prohibited him from seeking elective public office ever again in California.
Nevertheless, Postmus sought to remain in the political game vicariously through other Republican politicians. A crucial element of Postmus’s approach to politics when he was in office was the fluency with which he would make arrangements with those in the private sector engaged in providing goods or services to government or who had development or land use proposals over which the county government had decision-making authority. Those arrangements brought him political donations or money, tantamount to bribes or kickbacks, for which he would trade votes in his elected capacity approving either the governmental contracts those private sector companies had with the government or their applications for clearance to proceed with their development or land use proposals. After he was out of office, Postmus acted as a choreographer for politicians who, like he had once done, were willing to exchange electioneering funding for their votes in their official capacities.
Postmus sought to install as many of his associates as he could into elected office, primarily in San Bernardino County. Postmus, who had been while he was chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors also the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, continued to cultivate relationships with the central committee’s members.
When the California Legislature passed legislation doing away with all redevelopment agencies throughout the state in 2011, Postmus urged Russ to seek appointment to the Hesperia Redevelopment Agency Oversight Committee formed in the aftermath of the creation of a successor agency to the redevelopment agency mandated by that legislation. Shortly thereafter, Russ was elected to serve as chairman of the oversight committee. From that position, again under Postmus’s advisal, Russ ran for the Hesperia City Council in 2014. Postmus arranged for Jeremiah Brosowske, a young and up-and-coming Republican who would subsequently become executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, to serve as Russ’s campaign manager. Russ’s election bid was successful.
Postmus created an entity, Mountain States Consulting Group LLC, which he registered as a limited liability company with the State of Wyoming though the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office in Cheyenne on January 29, 2016. Postmus hired Broswoske to serve as Mountain States Consulting Group’s primary political operative. Postmus used Mountain States Consulting Group as a political fund laundering mechanism, one that took money from private sector entities seeking government contracts or land use or development application approvals from local governments with land use authority pertaining to those applications, and then vectored that money to the politicians in office heading those jurisdictional governments considering those goods or service provision bids or project or land use applications. Among the candidacies that Mountain States Consulting Group involved themselves with immediately upon its formation in early 2016 were those of Russ and two other Postmus allies, Eric Swanson and his wife, Rebekah Swanson. Through Mountain States Consulting Group, Postmus encouraged and promoted Russ’s and the Swansons’ successful efforts to be elected to the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee that year. Postmus and Mountains States Consulting Group further promoted Russ’s candidacy for First District San Bernardino County supervisor and Rebekah Swanson’s run for the Hesperia City Council. Ultimately, Russ, who at that time had been selected by his colleagues to serve as Hesperia mayor, fell short in his race for supervisor. Rebekah Swanson, however, proved victorious in the November 2016 election, and she joined Russ as a member of the city council the following month.
Meanwhile, as mayor and a member of the city council, Russ was proving himself to be unabashedly pro-development. In virtually every case where a developer requested go-ahead for a development proposal, Russ, generally in concert with the majority of his council colleagues, went along with the request, consistently holding that developer to a minimal standard with regard to providing accompanying infrastructure to offset the impact of that development. While this would have been a less-than-defensible approach to governance virtually anywhere, it was particularly irresponsible in the case of Hesperia, which was and remains under the onus of an historical infrastructure deficit which has existed since the founder of modern Hesperia, Penn Phillips, arrived on the Hesperia scene in the 1950s.
Phillips, who was then the proprietor of the Omart Investment Company and the vice-president and director of Standard Federal Savings and Loan Association of Los Angeles, in conjunction with several co-investors including former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey; Charles Allen, vice-president of E.F. Hutton and Company of New York City; Fresno-based attorney Milo E. Rowell; Nat Mendelsohn of Riverside; Philip J. Farrar of Fresno; and Los Angeles investment brokers Dan Christy and Henry Paul Willis, on April 22, 1954 consummated what was billed as the largest private land sale in Southern California in 35 years with the purchase of a 36-square mile tract seven miles south of Victorville, representing roughly 90 percent of the entire township of Hesperia, for $1.25 million from the Appleton Land and Water Company and the Lacey Estate, which had owned the land jointly since 1888. Phillips simultaneously announced his intention to spend $8.25 million through the Hesperia Land Company, a subsidiary of Omart Investment Company, to prepare the property for development, indicating 1,000 acres of the property was to be allocated to industrial development, 8,000 acres for agriculture and that 5,000 homes would be built along with a two-and-one-half mile-long-and-one-quarter-mile-wide artificial lake, and a resort.
Phillips created the Hesperia Land Development and Hesperia Sales Corporation, which worked to promote his concept of the U-Finish Home, by which he intended to mass-produce housing units that were completely finished on the outside, leaving the buyer to complete the interior. He secured water rights to support this community through the newly created Mojave Water Agency, of which he was a founding member.
The formula Phillips applied in Hesperia was much like the one he used with his developments elsewhere: secure land, build homes on it, put in the minimal amount of infrastructure to make the homes habitable, bring in a population that creates the basis for a community that includes momentum for establishing some form of a jurisdictional governmental agency, sell all of the parcels acquired, take a profit and move on to the next development elsewhere.
Phillips built roads for Hesperia that were of a decidedly low standard, consisting of a mixture of desert sand used as aggregate and bitumen to create a road that was no more than one-and-a-half inches thick. The roads, when new, looked good, but under the withering sun and use, began to deteriorate within three to four years. The flash floods the desert is prone to further washed out these roads over the following decades, leaving many of Hesperia’s streets in poor condition, including some that eventually returned to being nothing more than dirt roads.
Phillips was equally irresponsible in the creation of the town’s water system. Though he started with the tremendous advantage of Hesperia being blessed with a world-class water supply, he squandered that asset in his head-long pursuit of a profit. Hesperia lies near the headwaters of the Mojave River, the watershed area north of the San Bernardino Mountains, a pristine and perpetually recharged water supply created by melting snow and overflowing rainwater from the heights southeast of Hesperia. The water system Phillips created for Hesperia consisted in large part of pipes cannibalized from a petroleum conveyance operation from depleted oil fields. Thus, the Hesperia Water Company, capturing water at the foot of the mountain before it rushed forward to become the Mojave River and wend out into the desert, used substandard pipes, which compromised the quality of the product provided to Hesperia for domestic use.
Thus, from its outset, modern Hesperia was beset with an infrastructure deficit it is still struggling, nearly 67 years later, to overcome. In the interim, developer after developer has come into Hesperia, both before the city’s 1988 incorporation and after, constructing homes as well as structures to host commercial and industrial operations, to one extent or another seeking to replicate the financial success Phillips achieved. A key element all along has been to prevail upon those with the city’s ultimate land use authority – which since incorporation has consisted of the city council – that they be permitted to proceed without having to provide the infrastructure needed to offset the impacts of their undertakings. Rather than require that the infrastructure deficit the city is functioning under be redressed before the next round of ongoing development occurs, past and current city officials have consistently permitted residential, commercial and industrial expansion to proceed without defraying the cost of providing public improvements and off-site augmentations to those developments consisting of roads, utilities and basic municipal facilities. Generations of political leaders in Hesperia have acceded to the argument that requiring the proponents of incoming projects to bear the burden of providing that infrastructure would impose a prohibitive expense on those developers, would be historically unfair given that past developers were not similarly constrained and that such requirements will prevent economic development. Simultaneously, the developers benefiting by the project approvals have proven themselves to be, over nearly three-and-a-half decades, extremely generous in supporting the city’s politicians, those being the members of the city council elected over 17 election cycles. Russ was as much or more of a beneficiary of the largesse provided by the development community as any of Hesperia’s politicians.
The most telling example of this pay-to-play corruption was that relating to what was originally referred to as the Rancho Las Flores project, which later became the Tapestry project.
Very shortly after the City of Hesperia’s incorporation on July 1, 1988, the maiden city council, consisting of Bruce Kitchen, George Beardsley, Percy Bakker, Mike Lampignano and Val Shearer, persuaded then-Rancho Cucamonga Deputy City Manager Robert Rizzo to become Hesperia’s first city manager. Rizzo, in turn, convinced the council to hire Rancho Cucamonga’s city attorney, Jim Markman, as Hesperia city attorney.
Deluded into thinking that cityhood would instantly transform Hesperia into an economically dynamic hotbed of upscale development similar to Rancho Cucamonga, the city council empowered Rizzo to cut deals with developers to convince them to begin building aggressively and soon. Rizzo took the council’s somewhat naïve instructions too literally, pushing his planning staff to approve projects as proposed by developers, entailing projects with sketchy or inadequate infrastructure, both in the immediate vicinity of the neighborhoods which were springing up as well as throughout the city in general. In some cases, Rizzo, to meet payroll, diverted bond money intended for the provision of infrastructure into the general fund, where it was eaten up by the day-to-day expenses of running the city. In time, many of the landowners inveigled into the assessment districts created to debt service those bonds lost those properties in tax foreclosures as the promised increases in the value of their properties failed to materialize because the infrastructure those bonds were supposed to pay for was never built. Correspondingly, the sales tax producing development that was to accompany the improvements to those properties in question never came about, depriving the city of revenue that could have been converted into infrastructure improvements.
Shortly after the city of Hesperia’s 1988 incorporation, the Dana Point-based ARC Las Flores Corporation sought city approval of the 10,000-acre property at the city’s extreme south end that consisted of the 490-acre Las Flores Ranch in Summit Valley and several adjacent parcels, including Bureau of Land Management property obtained through a series of land swaps. The project was originally projected to result in the construction of 9,100 residential units.
Rizzo, who had questionable links to the ARC Las Flores Corporation, convinced members of the city’s maiden city council that the project would generate economic development and create neighborhoods to rival those in upscale Rancho Cucamonga or Orange County. Within two years, under Rizzo’s guidance as well as that of Hesperia Planning Director Rob Zuel, the scope of the project grew, and in 1990 the city approved the Rancho Las Flores Specific Plan, which called for the development of 15,540 housing units in eight phases.
The manipulative and dishonest Rizzo, a University of California at Berkeley graduate who adroitly exploited the far less sophisticated members of the council who hired him, grew overconfident to the point that he engaged in activity that would eventually trip him up. Recognizing that he needed to keep in place the members of the city council who had directed him to develop the city at any cost and ensure that attitude prevailed at City Hall, he arranged through various contacts with developmental interests to get scores of residents in Orange County to write $99 checks in blank and entrust them to him. He then distributed those checks to the candidates up for election in the 1990 city council race that he deemed to be most accommodating of a pro-development agenda, including Bakker, Shearer and Planning Commissioner Donna Roland. In this way, Rizzo was seeking to obtain leverage over those to whom he was answerable. No one on the council objected until press accounts in early 1992 revealed what had occurred. Even then, the council sought to minimize the transgression. But public outrage over the exploitation of the electoral and governmental process forced the council’s hand and in April 1992, Rizzo left the city.
Some 18 years later, Rizzo’s corrupt manipulations of the elected city officials who hired him came home to roost when a series of legal, financial, managerial and governmental transgressions he had engaged in as city manager with the City of Bell came to light and he was arrested, criminally charged, and convicted in state court on 69 political corruption charges and in federal court on income tax evasion. In April 2014 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison on the state charges and 33 months in prison on the federal charges.
The Las Flores Ranch proposal remained active, or marginally so, under succeeding city managers and the guidance of community development director Tom Harp and principal planner Dave Reno, but encountered significant challenges that retarded its progression, such as the economic downturn of 1991 and 1992, and the listing of three species that inhabited the property – the arroyo toad, the Least Bell’s Vireo and the willow flycatcher – as endangered.
In 1993, the Las Flores project encountered a significant roadblock when the city of Barstow filed a lawsuit against upstream water users along the Mojave River, resulting in protracted litigation over water rights. The lawsuit led to a stipulated settlement in 2000 among the municipal and other water rights holders within the Mojave River Basin and a water allotment to Hesperia that brought into question whether Hesperia would have access to enough water to allow the project to proceed. The city subsequently sought to secure the project’s viability through the purchase of $30 million in water rights, deemed sufficient for ARC Las Flores’ purposes. The developers also obtained from the federal government clearance to proceed with the project subject to certain habitat protections for the endangered species living upon the property.
The original Las Flores Ranch project never got off the drawing boards, however, as Zuel’s departure from the city in 1991 followed by Rizzo’s demise as city manager in 1992 following the revelations about his illicit efforts to filter money from Orange County development interests into the campaign coffers of council members and council candidates amenable to the aggressive development proposals proved to be setbacks the project could not overcome. In the year 2000, the ten year delay resulted in the expiration of the project’s specific plan and its environmental impact report, requiring ARC Las Flores to reformulate those documents, which were not finalized until 2008. By that point, the economic downturn of 2007 inhibited progress on the project, and in 2012 ARC Las Flores declared bankruptcy.
Texas-based Terra Verde Group in 2013 purchased the 10,000 acres for roughly $45 million, and rechristened the Rancho Las Flores project as the Tapestry project, declaring its intention to maintain the eight-phase nature of the undertaking.
Led by Terra Verde’s director of development, John Ohanian, the company reformulated the specific plan for the project, which envisioned 19,300 dwelling units, and gave indication to the Hesperia City Council his company was purposed to proceed. Without defining the terms he was using, Ohanian said the density of the residential units would fall in the “low-to-medium” range.
In January 2016, after a number of workshops and public hearings relating to the project at which scores of Hesperia residents went on record as being opposed to the undertaking, the city council, then composed of Russ, Eric Schmidt, Mike Leonard, Bill Holland and Russ Blewett, gave approval to the project, which had been downscaled from 19,300 units to 16,196. The council took the action in the face of overwhelming resident opposition, which consisted of objections to the project’s density, the intensification of traffic it would entail on the city’s already overburdened streets and the 15 Freeway, what were said to be inadequacies in the project’s environmental impact report and concerns that the planning for the project had disregarded that the project was to be built in the floodplain beneath the Cedar Dam, which has seismic vulnerabilities which could lead to the deaths of hundreds or thousands who might be drowned or swept to perdition in the aftermath of a major earthquake.
Russ had received substantial money laundered to him through Mountain States Consulting Group, which was suspected of conveying money to him that originated with the Terra Verde Group. By that point, Russ had also been inundated with money coming directly from developers and individuals or entities representing developmental or real estate interests, such as Hesperia Venture I LLC; California Park West Investment, Mike Gallagher, Brookpine Equity, Tyler Girtman, Pacific Communities Builders, Joseph Nguyen, Archimetrics, the Building Industry Association of Southern California Political Action Committee, Cal-Equity, Oak Valley Management Company, California Arroyo Fund, TMSM Investment Corporation, California Coast Fund, Sam Akbarpour; California Highland Enterprise, Carl Coleman, California Land Enterprise, California Pams Enterprise, California Richland Enterprise, Canyon Vista Apartments, Sam Merhi, Cedar Creek Apartments, the California Next Generation Political Action Committee; Concord Square Apartments, Lewis Investment Company, DHR Verma, Mark Enderle, Michael Arias Jr., Falcon Equity, BCA Engineering Incorporated, FH II LLC, David Mlynarski, Gallery Equity, Bruno Mancinelli, I-15 Limited Partnership, Inland Development Strategies, Andre Jaeckel, Western States Development and Construction Inc., Craig Martin, Medico Investments LLC, Weiya Noble, Isaak Moradi, Pacific Housing, Darrell Peterson, Redlands Tower Square Apartments, Rich Macaluso, Sunrise Equity, Rebecca Otwell, VIP #3 Commercial Properties, Vista Equity, Lynn Henning, Vulture 1 Homes, Tsung Chi Wu, Mirposa Incorporated, Screenland Development Group, I & J Moradi and Realty Options Inc./Showcase Realty II.
In 2016, when Russ was vying for San Bernardino County First District Supervisor, developer Wyn Holmes arranged for $19,000 in donations to be made to Russ’s campaign fund. Holmes accomplished that by providing $4,000 in donations in his own name directly traceable to him and another $15,000 from entities controlled or directed jointly by Holmes and his business partner, Randall Friend. This was a violation of the County of San Bernardino Campaign Finance Ordinance, which prohibits an individual from contributing to a candidate more than $4,200 per election.
During the same time frame, Holmes, using similar tactics involving Friend, contributed $16,000 to Russ’s council colleague, Bill Holland, who also ran for supervisor in 2016.
For a time, it appeared as if Russ and Holland might be prosecuted for their shady involvement with Holmes. Ultimately, the California Fair Political Practices Commission took action not against Russ or Holland, but Holmes over the combined $35,000 contributions made to the Russ and Holland supervisorial campaigns, fining him $10,500.
Of note is that in 2016, Russ and Holland voted to approve The Villas 55+ Senior Community gated apartment project that was being proposed by Wyn Holmes’ Eagle Real Estate Group. In addition to approving the project, the city council provided Eagle Real Estate Group with a $3.8 million loan to be used toward completing the $13 million project.
It was no secret that for monetary contributions from developers, Russ would return those favors and vote to approve those developers’ projects when those proposals came before him as a city councilman or mayor.
Russ did not deny that he was friendly toward the development industry.
“Yeah, I do stuff for developers,” Russ said. “So, what? Those projects are good for the community. They bring in economic development and jobs. What’s wrong with that?”
It was not only on development projects that Russ showed himself capable of being influenced by money.
As a Republican, Russ insisted he was pro-law enforcement. He defined being opposed to drugs and drug use as supporting law enforcement. In April 2016, Russ posted on his supervisorial campaign Facebook page, “I was honored to attend the NO Drugs America event in Hesperia with my grandson this week. It is imperative that we continue to warn our youth about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. As a parent and grandparent, I believe awareness about the perils of drug use must be taught to discourage use and trafficking in our communities. I thank all those who joined in participating in this very worthwhile endeavor.”
The following year, after Russ was diagnosed with cancer and needed to undergo a liver and kidney transplant, then-Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, a proponent of the marijuana industry who was intent on permitting substantial numbers of marijuana-related businesses to operate in his city, induced Optimal Growers Incorporated, a company involved in the cultivation of marijuana, to provide a $30,000 contribution to a fund set up to assist Russ in defraying the cost of finding the organs he needed and getting the transplants.
Other marijuana purveyors provided money to Russ’s political campaigns, including Mountain High Greenhouse Construction, which donated $4,000 to his electioneering fund; and Heal Concept Incorporated, which donated $4,000 to his electioneering fund.
Thereafter, Russ changed his attitude about marijuana, concluding that marijuana-related businesses represented something good, and he supported Hesperia permitting marijuana distribution businesses operating in the city.
The degree to which Russ’s actions as a public official were influenced by money provided to him was demonstrated by his votes to raise water and sewer utility rates on the city’s residents, accompanied by votes to reduce by 50 percent the fees imposed on developers. Russ also pressured Hesperia’s public works and planning staff to complete engineering work and make project approval recommendations for developers who had provided him with money.
In May 2018, then-Hesperia Mayor Russ Blewett died. Shortly thereafter, Jeremiah Brosowske, the one-time executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee who had served as Russ’s campaign chairman and was instrumental in getting Russ elected to the city council in 2014 and was the primary political operative assisting Postmus in the political fund laundering activity of Mountain States Consulting Group which had assisted Russ in his 2016 supervisorial election attempt, moved to Hesperia and sought appointment to the city council as Blewett’s replacement. Russ’s vote was a critical one in the 3-to-1 decision of the city council in which he joined with Holland and Postmus protégé Rebekah Swanson to appoint Brosowske to fill out the remainder of Blewett’s term, which was set to elapse in December of that year. Thereafter, in what was the first by-district election in the history of Hesperia, which from 1988 until that point selected its council members in at-large contests, Holland sought to remain on the council by seeking election in the city’s District 2, Russ endeavored to remain in office by running in District 3 and Brosowske sought election to remain on the council representing Hesperia’s District 4. All three went into the campaign endorsing one another as part of a pro-development ticket. As the campaign season progressed, however, a falling out between Holland and Brosowske occurred. Russ remained loyal to Brosowske, at which point Holland withdrew his endorsement of both of his colleagues.
Holland and Brosowske managed to lodge victories in the 2018 race. For Russ it was a different story. His demonstrated willingness to support anyone or any entity offering him money had become readily apparent even to the unsophisticated voters of Hesperia who had traditionally been remarkably tolerant of the giveaways the city’s council members had made to the development industry over the years. Russ’s embrace of the pay-to-play ethos of those who had promoted his political career proved too much for the voters of Hesperia’s Third District to stand, and he was turned out of office by his lone challenger, Cameron Gregg, who garnered 2,288 votes or 51.92 percent to Russ’s 2,119 votes or 48.08 percent.
That same month, despite his loss, Russ gave a demonstration of one of his positive attributes, that being his loyalty. Postmus’s sentencing on his 2011 guilty pleas had been held in abeyance for more than seven years as the prosecution of others accused by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and the California Attorney General’s Office of participating in many of the same depredations he had admitted to while in office were delayed by defense motions, pretrial appeals to the appellate court and to the California Supreme Court. At last, in 2017, the trial of those defendants took place. Postmus was brought in to testify as a witness in that prosecution. After that trial ended, following a further delay as Postmus explored vacating his guilty pleas, the court at last took up the issue of Postmus’s sentencing in November 2018. Some two weeks after his defeat at the polls, Russ came in to the courtroom of Judge Michael A. Smith to testify about Postmus’s character and humanity.
Russ testified about how he had waged several tough medical battles throughout his life, including getting a kidney transplant as a young man; learning in 2004 that he had lymphatic cancer, which through treatment went into remission; and discovering the previous year that he had liver cancer and that his kidney was failing before he ventured to New Orleans to undergo a dual liver and kidney transplant. Postmus, whom Russ said he had first gotten to know in the 1990s when both were involved in supporting Republican candidates, had been caring and supportive throughout both of his bouts with cancer, Russ said. During his latest health challenge, Russ testified that Postmus offered him encouragement and called him daily while he was in New Orleans.
Russ told Judge Smith that Postmus had intimated to him in 2017, just before Postmus had testified in the criminal case against others involved in the crimes Postmus had pleaded guilty to in 2011, that he was genuinely torn up about having to testify against his former associates and political donors.
“He talked to me about how he was in a dilemma, between a rock and a hard spot,” Russ said. “He said if he told the truth, he would be in trouble with the prosecution but if he kept with his testimony, he’d be able to go home free.”
Ultimately, Judge Smith Sentenced Postmus to three years in state prison.
Last year, Russ attempted to make a political comeback, running unsuccessfully for a position on the Hesperia Unified School District Board of Trustees. Hesperia’s voters, it seemed, had gotten their fill of Russ. Six years before that, however, before his remarkable four-year run on the Hesperia City Council during which he had engaged in mutually satisfying backscratching with the development community, Russ had made his way to the top of Hesperia’s political heap.
Russ possessed a keen intelligence and situational awareness developed over the years through his involvement in politics by which he recognized that a vast majority of San Bernardino County’s voters, and most certainly those in Hesperia, either were not sufficiently focused, did not have the collective intelligence or simply lacked the sophistication to understand the quality of life issues at stake in the selection of their political leadership, and they would elect virtually anyone who could skillfully use in his electioneering efforts the money provided to him by the interests who had the most to gain or lose from the governmental decision-making process. Russ thus acceded, for a brief four years, to political office, in that short time achieving the mayoralty in the city in which he lived, and constructed a record of action and votes that was a nearly perfect model of how elected authority can be wielded contrary to the interests of the vast majority of those a politician represents.
Burrtec Waste Industries, the largest trash hauler in San Bernardino County, is making some downward adjustments to its service levels.
Company officials say the adjustments are necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis, which has resulted in what the company said were “staffing impacts.”
Burrtec is a major campaign donor to politicians in those areas and jurisdictions in the county where it has franchises for refuse handling. Those donations are made in the name of the company, as well as by Cole Burr, the company’s owner; his wife, Tracy; and Burrtec Vice President Mike Arreguin.
Burrtec has plum franchises in the six largest of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities – San Bernardino, Fontana, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville and Rialto. The company also has franchises in ten of the county’s other municipalities – Apple Valley, Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, Yucaipa, Adelanto, Upland, Grand Terrace, Redlands, Montclair and Barstow. Additionally, it is the franchised garbage handler in the unincorporated San Bernardino County communities of Amboy, Angeles Oaks, Yermo, Victorville, Valley of Enchantment, Twin Peaks, Arrowbear, Baker, Barton Flats, Bloomington, Blue Jay, Skyforest, Silver Lakes, Cedar Glen, Cedarpines Park, Cima, Crestline, Daggett, Del Rosa, Devore, Dumont Dunes, El Rancho Verde, Forest Falls, Fort Irwin, San Antonio Heights, Running Springs, Nipton, Oak Glen, Newberry Springs, Mount Baldy, Mountain Pass, Haloran, Helendale, Hinkley, Kelso, Lake Arrowhead, Lenwood, Landers, Lucerne Valley, Ludlow and Mentone.
Impacted by the sputtering economy which has resulted in as many as twenty percent of its customers being several months delinquent in their payments to the company, Burrtec is continuing to carry out trash pickup, but service times have changed slightly, and some special requests from residents have been suspended until February. County and city officials, who approved the franchise arrangements with Burtec, are acceding to the service diminutions with an understanding refuse pick up will continue.
According to the company “Burrtec is currently experiencing COVID-19 staffing impacts and appreciates your understanding and assistance with the following: Set out barrels only when they are full or near full. Service times may change, so please leave barrels out for service until the next day. Bulky pickup requests are temporarily suspended until after February 1. Barrel exchanges for dirty and broken, but still usable, barrels are temporarily suspended until after February 1.”
Dillon Lesovsky, the political dirty trickster who worked with Matt Knox to assist Paul Cook fend off a serious political challenge by Tim Donnelly in 2018 and thereby remain in Congress until last month, is to be elevated to a position on the San Bernardino County Airports Commission based on Cook’s recommendation.
Last year, Cook did not seek reelection to his position as Congressman in California’s 8th Congressional District, opting instead to run for San Bernardino County Supervisor in the First District, representing a significant portion of the Mojave Desert that lies within San Bernardino County.
Cook in running for supervisor had seized upon the opportunity presented to him after then-incumbent First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, a fellow Republican, in 2019 announced he was opting out of seeking reelection last year.
In 2018, however, Cook, who was first elected to Congress in 2012 and had been a California Assemblyman before that and the mayor of Yucca Valley previously, was intent on remaining in the House of Representatives. As a former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who considered himself to be a rock-ribbed conservative Republican, Cook would normally have had little concern over his re-electoral prospects, given that the 8th Congressional District, located in Southern California’s sparsely-populated but expansive desert outback, was generally filled with residents who fell far to the right on the political spectrum. In 2018, however, Tim Donnelly, taking advantage of California’s open primaries, qualified as Cook’s opponent in the November race by running in a strong second place in the June Primary election, setting up a Republican vs. Republican contest.
Cook and his political advisers had reason to consider Donnelly a formidable opponent. Donnelly’s political persona was anchored to his identification as the most conservative politician in California and one who is unrelentingly faithful to bedrock ultra-right principles, which matched perfectly with a solid plurality if not an outright majority of the voters in the overwhelmingly right-wing 8th Congressional District.
Donnelly, who was an assemblyman for two terms before he made a failed attempt at capturing the Republican nomination for California governor in 2014, had taken a diamond-hard stance against illegal immigration, and was a die-hard Second Amendment advocate, living up to the principle he espoused by routinely carrying a concealed gun onto the floor of the statehouse while the legislature was in session. He took an aggressive stand against a 2011 bill restricting the open carrying of handguns in California by labeling the measure “a form of tyranny.” He topped that when, on the way back to Sacramento after the Christmas and New Year holidays for the first state legislative session in 2012, he was stopped by Transportation Security Administration officers at Ontario Airport for having a Colt .45 handgun loaded with four rounds of ammunition and five additional rounds in his carry on baggage. Donnelly thereafter wore the misdemeanor charges of carrying a loaded firearm in public without a concealed weapons permit and possessing a gun in an airport as a badge of honor. His conviction did not hamper him politically, as he was seen by gun owners as having stood up to unreasonable liberal efforts to restrict gun ownership, and he was handily reelected to the Assembly in the November 2012 General Election.
Of particular concern to the Cook political machine was Donnelly’s popularity with the large numbers of gun-toting constituents in the 8th District, which covers a large swath of the Mojave Desert and the San Bernardino Mountains, where gun ownership is a way of life for a majority of those living in isolated rural areas.
Lesovsky and Matt Knox had been members of Cook’s congressional staff. They were also tried and true members of Cook’s electioneering team. Faced with the Donnelly challenge, they committed themselves to keeping Cook in office.
The duo set about undoing Donnelly’s candidacy by constructing a website, dirtydonnelly.com, attacking Donnelly and augmenting it with signs to promote the website. Dirtydonnelly.com utilized doctored photos to paint Donnelly in the most negative of light, and dwelt at length on a number of derogatories relating to the former assemblyman, including that he had a criminal record, which was an unspecified reference to his gun-carrying conviction; accusations that he was scamming senior citizens; allegations that he had deserted his family; assertions that he had engaged in “political fraud,” which was again unspecified; and insinuations that he stole from his own wife. All that was punctuated by the contention that Donnelly was unemployed. In violation of state law, the website had no identifying California Fair Political Practices registration number nor any indicia required under California law for campaign literature and materials to show what entity, organization, committee or campaign paid for the website. The campaign on behalf of Cook, which was directed by Knox as Cook’s campaign manager, and the hit perpetrated by Knox and Lesovsky proved highly effective, as Cook trounced Donnelly in the November 6, 2018 election, 108,414 votes or 61.33 percent to 68,370 votes or 38.67 percent.
Paralleling Cook’s victory in the 2018 election year was that of James Ramos, then San Bernardino County’s Third District supervisor, who successfully vied for the California Assembly representing the 40th Assembly District. Ramos yet had two years on his term as supervisor, and he was obliged to resign from the county post to take his place in the California Legislature in Sacramento. After his resignation, the board of supervisors appointed former Yucca Valley Councilwoman Dawn Rowe, who was also a member of Cook’s congressional staff, to serve out the final two years of Ramos’s term as supervisor. Upon becoming Third District supervisor, Rowe hired Knox as her chief of staff and Lesovsky as her office’s policy advisor.
While working in Rowe’s office, both Knox and Lesovsky continued to function as political operatives, with Knox working on Rowe’s 2020 election campaign to remain as Third District supervisor and Lesovsky working on Cook’s campaign for First District supervisor.
On Tuesday, January 26, the board of supervisors is scheduled to make 45 separate appointments to various boards, committees, commissions and joint powers authorities, including two to the San Bernardino County Airports Commission. Cook has nominated Lesovsky to a 4-year term, commencing February 1, 2021 and expiring January 31, 2025 filling Seat 3 on that commission. It is anticipated that the entire board of supervisors will routinely and unanimously confirm that appointment.
There has been a rash of arrests in San Bernardino County of individuals charged with sex crimes in recent days and weeks.
On January 14, Aaron Cardenas, 24 of Fontana, was arrested on a charge of lewd acts with a minor. His arrest came one month after he was charged, on December 14, 2020, with rape by force, sodomy by force, and sexual penetration with force. Those charges were leveled against him after he was identified the previous day, December 13, as a suspect in a reported rape in Fontana, police said. During the investigation, it was determined that Cardenas sexually assaulted an adult female with developmental disabilities.
Cardenas was released, but earlier this month, Fontana police learned that he was being investigated by the Torrance Police Department for the suspected sexual abuse of a minor. Torrance investigators reportedly turned up multiple incidents of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl.
Cardenas used social media, investigators said, including Instagram under the name “air_enn” to communicate with the alleged victim and falsely represent his age and appearance as a minor.
Cardenas has also been charged with possessing and distributing child pornography he is believed to have generated himself.
Detectives are seeking any information related to potential additional victims.
Cardenas is in custody, subject to a bail enhancement that will make it very difficult for him to be freed before he stands trial.
The day before Cardenas’ most recent arrest, January 13, 57-year-old Francisco Monterrey of Fontana was arrested on child pornography charges, according to the Fontana Police Department.
Detectives with the Fontana Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force discovered that Monterrey was downloading and distributing child pornography over the Internet. It was not disclosed whether Monterrey’s arrest was related to that of Cardenas.
Detectives served a search warrant at Monterrey’s residence in the 8200 block of Cherry Avenue, seizing several electronic devices. Monterrey was booked at West Valley Detention Center. It has been determined that Monterrey used the Facebook screen name of “Kiko2718,” the Kik screen name “Choix9” and the WhatsApp screen name “Franny” to make contact with either victims or provide or obtain illicit images.
On January 13, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, who since the previous day had been looking into allegations of a girl being sexually molested, served a search warrant at the Apple Valley home of 68-year-old George Mantooth
Evidence collected during the January 13 search confirmed that Mantooth had sexual contact with at least two underage girls. Deputies from the Apple Valley Sheriff’s Station returned to Mantooth’s home and arrested him on January 14.
Mantooth was booked into the High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto on suspicion of sexual abuse of a child, incest, oral copulation and lewd and lascivious act with a child under 14.
An older victim has been identified, whom, investigators say, Mantooth raped continuously from the age of 13 to adulthood.
Mantooth likely has victimized others, according to the sheriff’s department.
“Manthooth is believed to be a sexual predator,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement. “Investigators believe there may be additional juvenile victims.”
Mantooth is being held in lieu of $350,000 bail.
On January 15, 28-year-old Mario Renteria of Lenwood was charged with 14 counts of sexual abuse.
Renteria’s arraignment by video took place a week ago Friday. He pleaded not guilty to the 14 felony counts, ten of which are listed as ones involving an aggravated circumstance. The charges against him consist of five counts of lewd or lascivious acts, three counts of sexual penetration/oral copulation, two counts of sexual intercourse/sodomy, two counts of rape by force or fear, sodomy and sexual abuse of a child.
Documentation relating to the case indicates the acts alleged took place on at least ten different occasions over a seven-year period. It is not clear how the earliest crimes were brought in under the statute of limitations. The earliest charge pertains to a sexual assault that took place in 2013. There were two further incidents in 2014, four in 2016 and 2017, and three in 2020.
Left unaddressed is whether the charges pertain to one, two or three victims, at least two of whom were under the age of majority at the time of Renteria’s alleged sexual depredations.
“The sexual abuse consisted of inappropriate touching, oral copulation, rape, and digital penetration, which occurred over several years,” Sheriff’s officials said in a statement. “Detectives also learned of two additional female victims.”
He is being held on $7 million bail at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.
Renteria is also known as Mario Renteria Junior Gallegos. He was taken into custody by sheriff’s deputes from the Barstow station at his home in the 34200 block of Birch Road on January 13.
On January 17, the Chino Police Department arrested Edgar Uriel Estrada, 27 of Moreno Valley, on charges of sexual penetration with force.
Estrada, a massage therapist, is charged with assaulting a woman during a massage at a spa in the 3900 block of Grand Avenue in Chino on Sunday.
The female victim came to the Chino Police Department headquarters at 1:49 p.m. to report she had been sexually assaulted by her massage therapist at the massage clinic. Efforts were made to identify Estrada, who was summoned to the police station by a detective. When he arrived at the headquarters around 9 p.m., a further investigation including questioning of Estrada took place. He was arrested at 9:29 p.m. and booked at 1:08 a.m. Monday on $200,000 bail at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.