By Mark Gutglueck
Beset by a majority of the city council seeking to delve into questions relating to his efforts to promote the fortunes of business interests providing him and his political campaign fund with money and other gratuities and perquisites, San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia this week threatened to sue the city he leads in an effort to head off those inquiries.
Early this week, word was being bruited about the county seat that the council would move as early as this week to fire City Manager Robert Field and begin the process of removing Valdivia from office. Field has been alleged by some to be assisting the mayor in both directing city money into the pockets of Valdivia’s political, personal and business associates and assisting developers linked to Valdivia in getting entitlements to proceed with their projects within San Bernardino’s city limits.
While the council did in fact convene what turned out to be a raucous special meeting on Wednesday night, February 24 held by teleconference to consider taking action with regard to the effort to redevelop the downtown Carousel Mall and examine recurrent reports of favoritism, bias and conflicts of interest having tainted the competition to select a master developer for that project, the council pulled up short of cashiering Field and lost any resolve it might have had to seek the mayor’s removal under an obscure provision of the city charter. The kibosh was put on the mayoral impeachment process, at least temporarily, by multiple considerations, including Valdivia’s use of his mayoral authority to preside over the meeting and the intimidation factor of the mayor’s high-powered attorney threatening legal action against the city if a move to relieve Valdivia of his elected post was made. That legal threat stood off the two members of the council whose support in an effort to depose the mayor would be absolutely crucial, First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez and Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett.
Shorett is the dean of the city council, and both that panel’s longest serving current member and historically Valdivia’s bitterest and most abiding rival and detractor. Despite his enmity with the mayor, Shorett said pursuing Valdivia’s removal from office in the aftermath of his threat of legal action made it “inappropriate at this time” as it could expose the city to a potentially costly legal battle.
Sanchez in the 2018 election came into office during the same electoral cycle when Valdivia was elected mayor, having been supported in that contest by the electioneering support network that makes up the Valdivia political machine. Upon being sworn into office in December 2018, it was universally recognized that Sanchez was one of Valdivia’s firmest allies, as within hours of their swearing in the newly elected councilman signed onto the mayors effort, which did not immediately but eventually proved successful, to remove then-City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, a move which tightened Valdivia’s grip on City Hall. While Sanchez early on supported Valdivia in his consolidation of power during the first six months of his mayoralty, differences developed between the two over a series of issues, sundering their relationship by the end of their first year in public office together. Now, some two years and two months after the older man was sworn into office as mayor and the younger installed at the same time as councilman, Sanchez is, along with Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin, nipping at Shorett’s heals in the race for the title of being Valdivia’s fiercest political foe. In the aftermath of Valdivia’s threat of legal action, Sanchez like Shorett made a quick size-up of the situation, and decided discretion would be the better part of valor. The council seeking to politically neuter the mayor by wresting the mayoral gavel from his grip would be ill-advised, Sanchez said Wednesday night, potentially allowing Valdivia to extract “bags of money” from the city.
The background to what occurred this week stretches back nearly a decade to the outset of Valdivia’s political career during the 2011 election. According to Valdivia’s detractors and critics, even at that time what they say is his pattern of involving himself in the public process to the detriment of those he represents and to his own benefit was evident. Then-Mayor Patrick Morris was overseeing city operations that had been running at a considerable and consistent annual deficit for nearly a decade. Those financial challenges were severely challenging the city’s ability to continue as a going concern. Morris’s effort to right the city’s severely listing financial ship consisted in large measure of holding a coalition on the council together that would maintain the resolve to limit spending. That spending consisted primarily of salaries to city employee which Morris maintained were too generous. A key supporter in this regard was then-Third Ward Councilman Tobin Brinker. Valdivia challenged Brinker in the 2011 election, and was heavily funded in that contest by the union representing the city’s firefighters. Largely on the strength of the support provided by those firemen, who were resistant to the concept of discontinuing regular pay raises to city employees, and further buttressed by the support of unions representing the city’s police officers and municipal employees, Valdivia ran an extremely well funded campaign, ousting Brinker, and effectively ending Morris’s ability to enforce fiscal discipline on City Hall. Shortly after coming into office, Valdivia publicly declared that the city had a clean bill of financial health and that the salary and spending reductions that Morris had been pushing, with Brinker’s support, to implement were unnecessary. Five months later, the city filed for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection.
Throughout Valdivia’s six years on the council, there followed multiple examples of Valdivia trading his votes for campaign cash, circumstances in which one of Valdivia’s donors with a project or a contract that needed approval from the city council obtained the council support needed, including that from Valdivia. Word spread that after Valdivia’s campaign fund was endowed with money from a variety of donors, payments would be made out of that campaign fund to both actual and nonexistent companies or entities. The payment to those nonexistent or shell companies, it was alleged, was a way in which money originating with those donors who saw their companies or enterprises benefited by Valdivia’s votes made it directly to him rather than to his campaign.
In general, Valdivia enjoyed a reputation as the City of San Bernardino’s primary practitioner of pay-to-play politics, such that it was generally assumed that Valdivia’s votes were for sale. That reputation did not harm his political prospects or career but rather enhanced it, as deep-pocketed donors, knowing they could count on Valdivia’s support in exchange for their generosity to him, donated to him in substantial increments.
On January 1, 2018, Valdivia had $77,046.15 in his political war chest. In calendar year 2018, during his successful run for mayor, Valdivia received $442,055.40. In that 12-month period ending on December 31, 2018, he spent $551,796, leaving him with a cash balance of $5,354.98 and an outstanding debt of $15,886.43 as of of January 1, 2019. During 2018, Valdivia had so much money flowing into his campaign fund that he was able to make loans and donations to other political candidates, those being his political allies.
Typical donations from single donors to Valdivia’s mayoral campaign in 2018 and since that time ran to $1,000; $1,250; $1,500; $2,000; $2,500; $3,000; and $5,000. He was provided with donations of those sorts on multiple occasions, in some cases in the scores. Occasionally or somewhat less frequently, he received donations from single donors of 7,500; $8,000; $10,000; $20,000; $25,000; and $42,000. Two months ago, he had accumulated more than $200,000 in donations during the two political off-years since his 2018 election. As of January 31, 2020, he had $216,953.59 in his John Valdivia for Mayor 2022 campaign fund.
In 2020, four positions on the San Bernardino City Council were up for election, those being ones representing the Third. Fifth, Sixth and Seventh wards. Juan Figueroa, representing the city’s Third Ward was reelected. The three incumbents running in the other wards – Henry Nickel in the Fifth, Bessine Richard in the Sixth and Jim Mulvihill in the Seventh – were defeated. This represented a net loss for Valdivia politically, as Richard was a solid ally and Nickel was an on-again off-again supporter. Mulvihill and Valdivia were at odds. Nickel, Richard and Mulvihill were replaced, respectively, by Benjamin Christmas-Reynoso, Kimberly Calvin and Damon Alexander. Valdivia provided Alexander with support in his campaign against Mulvihill.
While Christmas-Reynoso and Calvin did not qualify as political neophytes and to some degree had been involved in political activity and campaigns prior to their own successful 2020 efforts, neither was prepared for the cutthroat level of politicking and backroom maneuvering that was de rigueur in Valdivia’s world. Even before coming into office, and certainly thereafter, they were given a second-row seat to the political action at the center of Valdivia’s universe, and witnessed in person the absolute nonchalance with which Valdivia interacts and has involved himself financially among the entities doing business with the city, ones subject to the decision-making process of the city council.
Absolutely apparent was the degree to which Valdivia favored some entities seeking to do business with the city or seeking permits or approval from City Hall for one endeavor or another. Equally apparent to them, once both Christmas-Reynoso and Calvin fully oriented themselves, was that the principle driving Valdivia’s favoritism was the generosity those he favored were bestowing on him.
The most egregious display of that favoritism in recent months involved the city’s efforts to redevelop the 34-acre Carousel Mall, an $800 million project literally a stone’s throw from the westernmost extension of the San Bernardino City Hall parking lot. In response to a request for proposals from the city, eleven companies by the August 2020 deadline for those submissions had expressed an interest in serving as the master developer of the site to be redeveloped. Without disclosure of what criteria had been used in making the determination, eight of those competitors had been eliminated. Two of those, Renaissance Downtowns USA and ICO Real Estate Group, had combined their proposal to remain in the running against the other yet-standing hopeful, Shanghai Construction Group America.
The worst kept secret around San Bernardino City Hall was that Valdivia was militating on behalf of Shanghai Construction Group America, which is also known by its acronym SCG America. Moreover, Valdivia appeared to be pulling to effectuate the complete razing of the mall property at the earliest opportunity, despite the consideration that in October, when that matter was taken up by the city council as it was previously composed without Christmas-Reynoso’s, Calvin’s and Alexander’s presence on the panel, no commitment to demolish the mall’s structure’s had been given. When the council met on January 27 to hear from the Renaissance Downtowns USA and ICO Real Estate Group team and Shanghai Construction Group America their respective plans for the mall makeover, Valdivia slipped into the record his assertion that the previous council, in October, had signed off on the demolition. City Manager Robert Field did not take the opportunity he had to correct the mayor’s misstatement.
Valdivia’s misrepresentation had the appearance of benefiting some yet-unidentified demolition company as well as Shanghai Construction Group America, which is pursuing a redevelopment plan that will unequivocally require the dismantling of the existing mall buildings while the Renaissance Downtowns USA and ICO Real Estate Group team’s plan leaves open the possibility that those structures, either some part or all of them, might be incorporated into the transformation of the property.
For the majority of the council, which has long been inured of Valdivia’s machinations on behalf of those who are conveying money to him, what occurred on January 27 was par for the course. To Christmas-Reynoso and Calvin, however, who have not yet fully settled into the pay-for-play ethos that has permeated San Bernardino politics and which Valdivia has come to epitomize, the circumstance was just too much. Upon learning that Shanghai Construction Group America and its representatives and corporate officers were filtering money to Valdivia and doing so in ways that involved sleight of hand such that the provision of money or assistance to him was hidden or masked, at the city council’s regular meeting on February 17, Calvin made a motion to hold a special meeting to discuss the conflict of interest and other irregularities and improprieties she believed were inherent in the ongoing arrangements for the Carousel Mall redevelopment project. Christmas-Reynoso seconded the motion. The remaining council members, who were favorably disposed to the concept of holding the mayor to account or unwilling to risk the public reproval of opposing such an effort, fell into line. The call for the special meeting was approved unanimously.
City staff, upon determining when the full council would be available for such a meeting, scheduled it to be held remotely and by means of a video and audio teleconference on Wednesday, February 24 at 5:30 p.m. and agendized it. According to the agenda, the items to be discussed were “potential conflicts of interest and bias impacts regarding the request for proposal process for [the] redevelopment of the Carousel Mall property; consideration of [a] censure process related to conflicts and violations of the city charter, city municipal code, city code of conduct or state laws; and [a] determination of whether real or perceived improprieties warrant a rejection of [the] current bidding process involving the Carousel Mall.”
Formulating her thoughts, Calvin put together a 63-page document essentially describing actions by Valdivia that had come to her attention and circumscribing evidence and documentation relating to it. She provided that document to City Manager Robert Field, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho and City Clerk Genoveva Rocha. Prior to the meeting another much shorter document was prepared, one relating to the possible censure of the mayor.
Between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on February 24, just before the meeting was to commence, an email from Valdivia’s attorney, Rod Pacheco, was sent to City Manager Robert Field and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho.
Though Carvalho said in the course of the meeting that Pacheco’s email was a public document, the city has refused to release it. Based on references to the email during the meeting, Pacheco called into question the propriety of the 63-page document that was prepared by Calvin, possibly referred to it as a “manifesto,” and he questioned the legality of the action contemplated against his client. The email also, city council members seemed to suggest during the meeting, threatened or at least intimated legal action against the city if the council acted in any fashion against Valdivia.
Shortly after the meeting was called to order, the council heard prerecorded telephone messages from members of the public.
Robert Porter in his phone message said that Valdivia’s promotion of Shanghai Construction Group America “looks shady”
Lynn Ware told the council, “Over the last year and a half I have had my eyes opened wide to the existence in our community of inappropriate and unacceptable influences by special interests upon decisions and practices that disregard residents and steer us away from the greater good. I believe there is a pay-to-play environment here that is pervasive. It is alive and well. It is actively practiced by some and allowed by others or just simply ignored.”
Harry Hatch said the city council should consider a resolution of censure relating to the mayor and that Section 308 of the city charter allows the council to remove the mayor from office.
Treasure Ortiz decried “perpetual pay-to-play corruption” Valdivia had engaged in, consisting of “taking political donations” and engaging in “backhanded cash deals in the middle of the night at strip bars in Irvine. You guys have to take bold and courageous action.”
Athena Tan said, “There are a lot of concerns about legal conflicts involving council members and the proposed Carousel Mall developers There are also questions about unethical practices that may or may not be illegal.”
Leticia Garcia said “There is plenty of conflict of interest, not just with the downtown development. The reality is the mayor is selling out to these developers, engineers, contractors and demolition companies. He’s selling this city off for a pittance. He’s a Judas. It’s 30 pieces of silver per developer. This is what he is doing over and over again. It is not just with the downtown project. This is a pattern. It is an ongoing thing.”
Prior to the council discussion, Valdivia read excerpts from the San Bernardino Municipal Code pertaining to the conduct of city officials and the city council and how its members were to comport themselves during the meeting, extending to avoiding personal attacks on one another. In relatively short order, members of the council, including most notably Valdivia himself, were violating that protocol.
Early in the going, Councilman Fred Shorett, indicating he had been spooked by Pacheco’s email, which he described as a letter, sought to adjourn into closed session, apparently to discuss the email from Pacheco and its import before proceeding if the meeting was to continue at all.
“Based on some late breaking information, information I received via email that is legal in nature, I think we’re looking at potential litigation with regard to this meeting and what we’re trying to discuss tonight,” Shorett said.
Shorett said he had misgivings about conducting the meeting with “no back up material. I’m concerned about potential litigation with regard to this meeting and what we’re trying to discuss tonight. If we’re going to discuss any of what’s the subject matter tonight, at the very least we have to go into closed session to discuss this letter that came in late this afternoon.”
Shorett added that if the council then pushed ahead with the meeting after the closed session concluded, “I am not sure how far I would participate in the meeting because I think this in an illegal meeting.” Saying the meeting and its subject matter were “inappropriate at this time,” he made a motion to go into closed session.
Councilman Ted Sanchez seconded that motion.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, however, noting that they were convened in a specially-called meeting that per the agenda was noticed only as an open session, said that per Government Code Section 54954.2, “The council may not discuss or take any action that is not explicitly appearing on your agenda.” The council therefore could not adjourn into a closed session, she said.
With the open session at that point apparently back on track, Calvin sought to have Valdivia excluded from the meeting.
“The mayor should recuse himself from this this meeting,” she said. “The meeting is about him. We’re going to try to show there is a conflict between the mayor and one of the developers…”
Valdivia, as the presiding officer chairing the meeting, used his authority in that capacity to control, or attempt to control, the ebb and flow of the discussion, resisting at that point and at several others during the course of the meeting the direction members of the council, most particularly Calvin, were moving in.
“You are interrupting this meeting,” Valdivia said. “Ms. Calvin, you are out of order.”
“I am not out of order,” Calvin retorted.
“You are out of order,” Mayor Valdivia said. “The chair has that prerogative to call you out of order.”
“I am requesting that the mayor be removed from this meeting,” Calvin said.
“Ms. Calvin, your theatrics, your pageantry and your politics are interfering with the good governance of the structure of this city,” Valdivia said.
“The mayor should be removed from this meeting,” Calvin repeated.
“You’re interrupting, ma’am, and I don’t recognize that,” Valdivia said. “Cool down. You’ll get your political red [sic] light in just a moment.”
Valdivia, who was clearly disconcerted over being in the position of having to preside over a meeting in which the subject matter related to an examination of his action and which contained an item involving his own censure, nevertheless fought bitterly to remain in control of the proceedings, attempting, oftentimes unsuccessfully, to maintain a posture of composure and dignity. His authority as the council’s presiding officer did not extend to shutting the meeting down, though being able to do just that before the issues agendized were fully gone into was a consummation he wished to achieve. In this regard, he was provided with assistance from the otherwise highly unlikely source of Shorett, who once more sought to persuade the entire council that the meeting should be adjourned.
Shorett resisted Calvin’s call for continuing with the meeting and discussing the issues on the agenda with Valdivia excluded form the discussion, presumably with Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, who is the city’s mayor pro tem, overseeing the proceedings.
Shorett referenced Pacheco’s email once more.
“I received an email that had a letter attached that is legal in nature and it is very concerning,” Shorett said.
Calvin insisted that the meeting was a legitimate forum intended to bring the mayor to account for his actions. She obliquely suggested that Shorett was seeking to assist Valdivia get off the hook.
“This is exactly the moves people are talking about right now that keep these types of issues from being redressed,” she said.
Shorett insisted, “I am protecting the city from litigation. I’m simply saying we’re in a pickle here tonight. We’re on very unstable ground and I would think calmer heads should prevail.” He then made his last best appeal to Calvin.
“I’m not sure I disagree with what you are trying to achieve,” Shorett said. “You’re going about it the wrong way. It is not legal the way you are going about it.”
Carvalho jumped in.
“It sounds like it is going to be a challenging night, to keep you all within the parameters of the Brown Act,” she said.
The Brown Act is California’s open meeting law, which requires that elected public officials carry out in public all of their decision-making with regard to everything other than negotiations for land purchases, discussing employee discipline, hiring and firing employees, pending and ongoing litigation, discussing threats to the security of public buildings, to discuss the licensing of individuals with criminal records, considering the investment of pension funds and discussing the governmental entity’s final response to a state audit. The Brown Act also requires that the subject matter of those discussions that are held in public be announced 72 hours in advance.
Carvalho said, “We received a letter after 5 p.m. this evening from an attorney who represents the mayor – Mayor Valdivia. It is a public document. I distributed it in the best way I could, via email. The letter pertains to issues which were not agendized tonight, so we can’t discuss those issues. We have an agenda tonight. If the council desires to have a discussion based on the agenda tonight, we can do that, and we can’t go into closed session.”
Valdivia, resigned at that point that the meeting was going to go ahead, again used his position of authority to conduct the meeting to neutralize Calvin, who, at least for the duration of that meeting, had emerged as his primary antagonist. He suggested that the letter Calvin had written to the city manager, city attorney and city clerk was improperly represented and submitted.
“I’ll remind council members that illegal use of city logos, misrepresentation of staff members, and that this is a city manager/council form of government, that all staff reports shall be written by city staff. No legal help, no legal aid, no legal clerks or volunteers shall submit in writing to the city anything that misrepresents the city functions. That’s clearly a violation,” he said.
Valdivia then allowed the council discussion to proceed, recognizing the members based upon their ward numeration.
Sanchez, as the First Ward councilman, advocated against taking any action directly against the mayor, but rather calling for the imposition of rules to be put into place as early as possible that will prohibit elected officials from either taking more than a token amount of money from donors or otherwise prohibit those officials from voting on or doing anything in their official capacity impacting their donors.
“In March,” Sanchez said, “we have campaign reform legislation coming before us.
All these problems stem form the fact that it is perfectly legal five minutes before the council is going to decide on whether a special interest gets a license, an entitlement, whatever the case may be in the city, that individual can make a contribution of thousands of dollars to members of the council that are going to decide on behalf of the city whether this project moves forward or not. Mind you, that is not a conflict of interest. So, I know there’s the accusation – and they’re true – there are 460s that show that the mayor received plenty of money from special interests for years. He has, but the rules permit it. So, in March, we have the opportunity to change that.”
460s are campaign disclosure documents that all elected officials or candidates are required to fill out, which list who their donors are and how much money those donors provided to them.
Sanchez said the law and the rules allow money to influence the political process in a way that outrages those who are not involved in the political system. Experienced politicians are far too blasé about it, Sanchez said.
“We have new council members who come on board and say, ‘Wait a second. Is this really how we’re conducting business in the city?’ And guess what? This is how we’ve conducted business in the city since before I was born. It’s just as disdainful as it is for me as it is for the new council members. Council Member Reynoso, I know, finds disdain for this. Council Member Calvin finds disdain for this. So, I applaud them. Let’s go ahead and use that energy to get this legislation passed, so that this never happens again, because this gem of a project we have – the Carousel Mall and the downtown redevelopment – we are so lucky to be able to do this right now, and it’s all been spoiled by some zealous fundraisers who saw an opportunity to raise tens of thousands of dollars from special interests while these developers are trying to come in through the door.”
Sanchez said political reform rather than embarking on a crusade to throw Valdivia out of office is the solution. He said Valdivia’s 2018 victory entitles him to be mayor, no matter how much he has offended his council colleagues and some of his constituents with his profiteering in office.
“So, please, let’s try to redirect our energy to somewhere that’s legal, because honestly, this isn’t a coup, but it looks like it. The people have spoken and I think they were dead wrong when they elected the mayor we have right now. But with that said, they made their decision. And they said…”
That was too much for Valdivia, who interrupted, intoning, “Mr. Sanchez, direct your comments at the council members. You’re out of order, Mr. Sanchez.”
“Those individuals voted for the mayor to be the mayor for four years commencing December of 2018,” Sanchez continued. “There’s only one remedy to get rid of him before that four-year term is over, and that is through a recall. That is the only legal way that we can do that. We cannot as a body, a seven-member body, say we’re going to discount the tens of thousands of votes the mayor received. We just can’t do that. That is illegal. The city will lose millions of dollars. We’ll be humiliated as a governing body. The mayor will walk off with bags of money, of city money that was supposed to be used for repaving streets and trimming trees. If you really want him gone, we have to start putting in that footwork to do a recall. Otherwise, let’s move the city forward. This is not the way to do that.”
Valdivia took a shot at the First Ward councilman, his one-time ally.
“Mr. Sanchez, you ought to get back involved in your city council ward,” Valdivia said. “It’s disgusting. It’s a shame.”
A cacophony broke out, with at least five of the council members upbraiding the mayor for assailing Sanchez.
When that brouhaha subsided, Second District Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra was provided an opportunity to provide input, but was ultimately cut off before she could explore the issues she set out to focus upon. Ibarra sought to explore with Carvalho whether the council could discuss Pacheco’s email or at least its substance.
“The email we received… does touch on the conflicts and violations of the city charter and our municipal code,” Ibarra said. “So there is some connection between the email we received after 5 p.m. and what is before us.”
Carvalho asked if Ibarra was inquiring about whether the discussion she was advocating related to the conflicts of interest and violations of the city charter or whether she was seeking to take the council into closed session.
Taking that as an indication that there might be sentiment among a majority of the council that the discussion was heading onto thin legal ice, Shorett took the opportunity to test whether there was support for shutting the meeting down. He moved to adjourn the meeting, and Sanchez seconded the motion. Valdivia, heartened by that development, sought to indulge it.
Calvin, however, made a substitute motion to continue with the meeting, seconded by Christmas-Reynoso. Since substitute motions under Robert’s Rules of Order take precedence over an original motion, Calvin’s motion was to be voted on first. She sought to amend her motion to include that Valdivia leave the meeting. Valdivia resisted that, and was backed by Carvalho, who said the vote had to proceed on the substitute motion as Calvin had made it relating to simply allowing the proceedings to continue. The vote was taken. Calvin’s motion passed 6-to-1, with Shorett dissenting.
That interruption deflected the momentum Ibarra’s initial statement and question had created toward a discussion of the substance of the accusations that were swirling about Valdivia, as Ibarra had suggested that Pacheco’s email had opened just such a pathway for doing so. Valdivia deftly moved to divert the discussion elsewhere, and opened the floor to Third Ward Councilman Juan Figueroa.
Figueroa, Valdivia’s one last reliable ally on the council, said, “Nothing has really been provided as a report, so there is really nothing to comment on, yet.”
Valdivia used Figueroa’s statement as an opportunity to propound his assertion that Calvin’s letter laying out the substance of the case she was trying to make against him bore no imprimatur.
“There was no staff report provided to the public, although a 63-page manifesto was provided, but it was illegal and a misrepresentation of city logos and staff,” Valdivia said.
This prompted Carvalho to declare, “There was no 63-page manifesto ever prepared by the city staff or distributed by staff, nor is it the subject of today’s meeting.”
Referencing the “threat of litigation we received,” Carvalho said, “I’m stating to the city council and to every member of the public that I had absolutely nothing to do with the preparation of any materials that you are talking about.”
Carvalho then asked City Manager Robert Field to make a similar declaration.
“We had no role in the preparation of any documents associated with tonight’s meeting,” Field said.
Valdivia’s, Carvalho’s and Field’s statements, which seemed to allude to Calvin’s letter but did not explicitly state so, while distancing city staff from its generation, notably did not contest the accuracy of its contents.
While Valdivia, Carvalho and Field appeared intent on remaining as removed from the so-called manifesto as possible, Shorett, in his remarks as Fourth Ward councilman, made a curious allusion to it, which seemed to suggest that there was some substance within it that was being disregarded. First Shorett lamented that the staff report relating to the issues before the council that evening was thin or nonexistent. “The subject matter is very, very vague,” he said. “Indeed, we have not received any back up. There is no back up or staff report.”
Nevertheless, Shorett said, “There’s some documentation that’s been sent out. It was posted on the website for review, but it’s all a bunch of stuff that didn’t go through proper channels, didn’t go through proper procedures.” Shorett did not clarify what website he was referencing.
Pointedly, like Valdivia, Carvalho and Field, Shorett did not dispute the accuracy of the material supporting the accusations against Valdivia. If his reference to the “documentation” was in fact to Calvin’s letter or the “manifesto” referred to by Valdivia, his objection to it seemed to run along the lines that it had not been fully examined by city staff.
“I’m not making a judgment on whether the mayor should stay in office or not,” Shorett said.
Curiously, while there were multiple references to the consideration that there was no staff report, there was no explanation as to why no staff report was prepared for the meeting and why Field and Carvalho consented to the holding of the meeting without one.
Shorett returned to his contention that the city did not have sufficient grounds to force Valdivia’s removal.
“I’ve seen people go out in handcuffs, and that’s one way of getting rid of them,” he said. “I’ve seen people being recalled. That’s another way to get rid of them. And I’ve seen people resign. That’s basically the three ways that we have…”
“Or they get voted out of office, Valdivia interjected.
“Well, of course that’s another way,” Shorett said, “but I’m talking about somebody that’s currently sitting in office.”
Shorett continued, “I know they’ve been quoting Section 308 of our charter. I think it’s been misinterpreted.” He said his interpretation of Section 308 was that a council member or the mayor could only be removed by the council for not meeting the residency or voter registration requirements. “Those are not the cases here so I have a real problem with this meeting here tonight,” Shorett said. “This meeting is not legal. I think we’re really on shaky ground. I think we’re looking very bad to the public. He was voted in and whether you like it or not, he’s in office. The only way to get him out is to vote him out, recall him, have him be convicted of a crime. This train is being driven by some outside sources that have some other issues and concerns about this, the future of this city.”
Valdivia opened the floor for Christmas-Reynoso.
“We look bad when we argue in public,” Christmas-Reynoso said. “I am a newly elected council member. The reality is… I don’t like to air out dirty laundry.”
Nevertheless, Christmas-Reynoso said there was a case to be made against Valdivia.
“There was one meeting I ever had with our current city mayor,” Christmas-Reynoso said. “It was before I was technically sworn in. It was about a week before. I was shown immediately upon entering this meeting an eight minute video that I came to find out was shown to pretty much everybody on the third floor of City Hall. It’s an eight minute video of Shanghai Conglomerate Group America.”
Christmas-Reynoso continued, “So, I became aware… what was coming down the pipeline clearly was a much needed redevelopment of our downtown. I agree with everybody in our community: We’ve got to redevelop this, but I’m not going to do it at the cost of some conflicted interest or maybe an implicit bias. I’m not saying that is fact, but I’m going to give you the facts. I had this meeting. I was told that… these people build bridges overnight and that he [Valdivia] was trying to court for the downtown the redevelopment of the Radisson [Hotel]. We needed to build hotels.”
Christmas-Reynoso recounted irregularities with regard to the city’s process for trying to select a developer of the Carousel Mall property.
“We had the joint teams who came together – Downtown Renaissance USA and ICO Realty and then you have Shanghai Conglomerate Group America,” he said. “The two that came together tried to reach out. I couldn’t get access to the Shanghai Conglomerate anything related to the project proposal, but I became aware that some people on the council dais had actually seen it. That was an issue. I never pressed it. I’m learning. Bear with me as I learn. Learning that that was the reality, I was contacted by Downtown Renaissance and ICO Realty.” Saying, “I can’t point you the finger,” Christmas-Reynoso said, “City staff was directing them not to participate in a scheduled January 13 IE Chamber of Commerce meeting in order to simply go over their process of development. They eventually backed up.”
Christmas-Reynoso’s narrative jumped two weeks ahead.
“The meeting happened on the 27th [January 27],” Christmas-Reynoso said. “Everyone saw it. I at that time messed up in not making a motion to continue until every council member’s questions were satisfied. I know that I have that ability now.”
Christmas-Reynoso said, “After that, I was contacted after the 27th meeting by a member of the Shanghai Conglomerate Group of America, Mr. Jimmy Feng. Mr. Jimmy Feng messaged me on my personal cell phone number. I became aware he also messaged Councilwoman Calvin on her personal phone number. I don’t engage in any city business on my personal phone. That’s not how we’re supposed to conduct business. I said, ‘Never contact me on this channel.’ What I did ask afterwards, when he responded, I said, ‘How did you get it [Christmas-Reynoso’s personal phone number]?’ He said council staff gave it to him.”
Reynoso said he did not believe what Feng said was true.
“No one I’ve come across, and especially the person I trust the most, my city staff, they didn’t pass that number along,” he said.
Christmas-Reynoso then undertook to explain why the provision of his personal phone number to Feng represents a serious issue.
“I have to cite some city code,” he said. “I’ll give you bullets here that make me feel as though this process must be reopened in order to just provide fairness to everyone. There were eleven participants, I understand, who bid for this project. If one of the three was being advertised to me potentially in a meeting before being sworn in, I can’t separate that from a conflicted interest on the dais. So, under the section of the municipal code 2.58.050, letter F states, ‘In order to ensure their independence and impartiality on behalf of the common good, the mayor and city council shall not use their official positions to influence government decisions in which they have a material financial interest or where they have an organizational responsibility or personal relationship which may give the appearance of a conflict of interest.’ Letter H: ‘The mayor and city council shall respect the confidentiality of information considering the property, personnel or affairs of the city. They shall neither disclose confidential information’ – such as my cell phone number – ‘without proper or legal authorization, nor use such information to advance their personal financial or other private interests.’”
Continuing, Christmas-Reynoso said, “My last point is I became aware from – I won’t mention the city staffer because I’ve become aware that our city staff inside City Hall do not feel comfortable operating there freely as representatives of our offices and in communication through transparent channels – I was notified that the mayor was reaching out to city staff for personal numbers of sitting commissioners. That is illegal. I know that clear as day. I’m not going to make the stretch and the statement of saying he was trying to do this or that, but the fact of the matter is he did in fact reach out for commissioner contact information, and my guess is as good as yours as to why. With that, I guess I rest my case, but I feel as though I cannot – it doesn’t matter how beautiful the proposals are, how much I may have liked one over the other. You can speak to developers. I haven’t engaged either team because I feel conflicted. I stopped meeting with the mayor one-on-one because I felt as though I may become complicit in something I’m not aware of right now. So, I’m here before you, as a reassurance to the community. This is why the special meeting was called. That’s why there’s not a staff report. We needed to talk about this. We didn’t want to air this out. But there’s only a certain amount of time that someone who represents people can go hearing constant pressure and constantly being asked to be transparent. So, I’m being transparent with you. And that’s a series of events that factually has happened. That is the municipal code, and I’m your representative.”
Valdivia laid into Christmas-Reynoso. “You bring up a lot of water cooler hearsay but no evidence.”
Christmas-Reynoso responded, “This is also why Council Member Calvin didn’t want you to be in the meeting. I understand that now. And I figured this would happen this way. So I have respect for the city. You, Mr. Mayor, I won’t be engaging in answering any of your questions on this meeting.”
Lashing out once more at the Fifth Ward councilman, Valdivia said, “You’ve just disenfranchised several thousand residents in the ward you represent, but I understand your position, Mr. Reynoso.”
The mayor was obliged to recognize Calvin, as the Sixth Ward councilwoman.
She suggested that Valdivia had assisted Shanghai Construction Group in lobbying her.
“I do have a text message from Jim Feng, who states he got my personal cell phone number from the city council office, and that he then turned and listed the city council’s number in the text message,” she said.
Calvin said, “What we called this meeting for was to lay out clearly that there were some issues, that there were some areas of concern. The manifesto that you quote unquote call it, I don’t even know how all of you got it. That was sent to the city attorney, city manager and city clerk’s office. So, who sent it to who? I did receive something that the mayor was requesting it and wanted it. So, here again, this is why we cannot handle business in the City of San Bernardino, because our higher staff are in positions to where they are either being manipulated or bullied into giving you information that you aren’t supposed to have. That was not sent to you.”
Valdivia broke in. “Ms. Calvin, stay on point,” Valdivia said, telling her to make her presentation.
She said he was making her presentation for her.
“You are putting on display that you are privy to information that was only sent to the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk.”
That prompted Carvalho to state, “Mrs. Calvin, may I please just say, unequivocally, I did not forward those materials to anyone.”
Calvin responded to Carvalho, “And the city clerk did also send me a message that she did not, either. So I guess that leaves one person: the city manager’s office.”
Calvin then directly addressed Valdivia, saying she intended “to lay out the case for conflict of interest through you, because I also saw that video advertising SCGA three times. The conflict of interest comes when you are not showing everybody’s video. You only showed one. So, if you really wanted me to have an impartial view of the two developers that we had narrowed ourselves down to, then you would have showed me both. But that is not what you did. That’s not what you did to my constituent who was there for another reason. She was there for city business, and you thrust her into that video. She didn’t ask you for that. Again, conflict of interest or showing where you were siding with one developer over the other. What I also understand is other city staff members have seen that video as well, the whole entire third floor.”
“There is nothing illegal about that, Ms. Calvin,” Valdivia said.
Calvin then referenced a website. “There were exhibits that were shown that have now been taken off,” she said. She said there were photos showing both Councilman Figueroa and Mayor Valdivia meeting with Shanghai Construction Group America corporate officers in 2019.
Calvin continued, “The other information out there that we need to take a hold of is SCGA subsidiary companies, LLCs, that are attached to [indicted Los Angeles City] Councilman Jose Huizar [who] was involved in some bribery. What we are here to state is that we need to further investigate developers or anyone else when information is brought to us that shows we are dealing with pay to play. This company…”
“Ms. Calvin, Do you have any evidence of that?”
These companies…” Calvin attempted to continue.
“You constantly refer to that,” Valdivia said, continuing to talk over Calvin.
“Well, what we can do…” Calvin began to respond.
Valdivia interrupted her once more. “Ms. Calvin, this is all hearsay and speculation on your part. You have no evidence.”
“It is not against the law…” Calvin started, but was interrupted by Valdivia.
“It is not against the law…” Calvin tried again, but was once more drowned out by Valdivia’s interruption.
Collecting herself after Valdivia paused, Calvin said, “It is not against the law for council members and mayors to take donations from possible developers obtaining contracts in this city. We understand that. Do we need to change that? Yes, we do. But does that mean we need to ignore what is before us at this particular moment?”
Calvin said the city council had to demonstrate to “our constituents that we are absolutely choosing the right developer for San Bernardino for various reasons, not just for pay to play but for various reasons.”
Valdivia once again broke into Calvin’s presentation.
“Ms. Calvin, I’ll call you out of order. There is no pay to play here.”
“Don’t interrupt me,” Calvin said.
“You don’t have any direct primary source for what you say. Ms. Calvin,” Valdivia said. “You will not continue your speculation and hearsay and projection of illegal behavior.”
“You see how your mayor is behaving tonight because of what we are putting out here,” Calvin said. “We are not the law. I’m not trying to say we are the law. What we are saying is, ‘The City of San Bernardino has already made mention tonight in public comments alone. They are tired of it. To give the mere implication that your donations are tied to a pay-for-play act is unethical.”
“That’s speculation, Ms. Calvin,” Valdivia asserted. “You have no evidence of that. You’re constantly going with speculation.”
“That’s not speculation,” Calvin said. “That’s from a 460. We can look at the information.”
“I went and pulled your 460, too,” said Valdivia, displaying it on the video.
Calvin was unfazed.
“Just the mere appearance of pay to play does go against our charter and our city code,” she said. “We should be more concerned. Yes, it comes to an individual decision, and we have to to remain ethical on our own integrity. What we are saying here: City of San Bernardino, there has been a pattern, and we need to further investigate these patterns because we don’t ever know. New council members such as myself, I’m not sure. I need to be able to stand strong and firm with my colleagues on the dais. I want to be able to make sure that my vote is ethical as well. What we are saying here tonight is please take a look, people, everybody, and take a look and evaluate yourself, so we are ethical and transparent with the decisions we make.”
Seventh Ward Councilman Damon Alexander sounded an ambiguous tone in reaction to the interactions among his colleagues during the meeting, and he appeared unable to reconcile the marshaling of evidence against Valdivia and his own political ties to the mayor, which included sharing the same political consultant, Chris Jones, and a commonality in the donors to their respective political campaigns.
Alexander expressed disappointment at what was going on, but his statements were so equivocal, it was difficult, indeed impossible, to tell if he was siding with Valdivia or Calvin with regard to the very obvious divide between the mayor and the newly elected councilwoman.
“I find myself disheartened by what I see,” Alexander said, without giving a clue as to whether he was decrying Valdivia for his conduct or angry with Calvin for belaboring it. “I want to see us move forward. I’m all about the policy and procedures by which this council should act.”
With one sentence Alexander indicated that he was open to what Calvin was suggesting. “If there’s an investigation, by all means, let’s conduct one.” Seconds later, however, he seemed to recede from that position, sounding as if he did not want to subject the mayor to any public reproach. “I was always trained praise in public, criticize in private. We all are losing here. This is not a winning situation for any of us.”
Ultimately, Alexander came across as utterly confounded by the contretemps that had grown out of Valdivia’s actions and the efforts by the city council, in particular Christmas-Reynoso and Calvin, to take issue with it. He appeared genuinely conflicted as to whether he should side with his two council colleagues, both of whom came into office with him as a result of the 2020 election cycle, or Mayor Valdivia. “All of us have valid points,” Alexander said. “Everyone of us sitting here have valid points, but how we conduct these valid points, and how the public perceives us is just as important as how we do things.”
Indirectly, Alexander circumscribed the manner in which the evening’s proceedings had been shifted off topic because of the way in which the council had been prevented – by Pacheco’s email, Valdivia’s conducting of the meeting, staff’s failure to prepare a staff report into which the so-called manifesto and its substance was incorporated and both Shorett’s and Sanchez’s trepidation with regard to possible legal action by Valdivia – from getting to the heart of the topics that were supposed to be discussed that night.
“I have not seen any quote unquote manifesto,” he said. “[Political] finance reform must come. All the things that everyone has said – from Councilman Reynoso, Councilman Sanchez, to Councilwoman Calvin, everyone, Shorett – is all vital. Who is receiving this information? Because everybody is talking, but is anybody listening?”
Thereafter, Christmas-Reynoso, realizing that there would be no action taken with regard to the mayor, sought to salvage a portion of what the meeting had been called for.
“I cannot comfortably move forward with the process as it is, so I’d like to reopen the bidding process for the redevelopment of the Carousel Mall,” Christmas-Reynoso moved.
That was seconded by Figueroa.
Shorett, however, sought to block that.
“I’m very concerned about going though a whole new process and opening everything up,” he said. “I don’t want to take another 13 years going through this process.”
Valdivia then indulged an inquiry with City Manager Field as to whether city staff’s recommendation would be available next week.
Field said city staff was finalizing its recommendation of which entity should serve as the master developer of the Carousel Mall makeover.
“The staff report will be on the agenda for March 3,” Field said. “It’s almost in final shape.”
Shorett then offered a “substitute motion that we wait for the March 3 meeting and hear what staff has to say about this. We don’t have to vote about it that night. Let’s let the process play out. Staff has already done the work. I make a substitute motion that we not vote on anything tonight with all due respect to my colleagues, I understand where you are coming from, but that we wait for two weeks to hear what the staff has to say, and vote at that time.”
Shorett’s substitute motion was seconded by Sanchez.
That motion passed with Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Alexander and, surprisingly, Calvin prevailing and Christmas-Reynoso and, surprisingly, Figueroa dissenting.
Relishing the unexpected reprieve, Valdivia said, “Mr. Field, you have direction from the majority of the council to proceed on.”
Valdivia then said, “I want to address some of the concerns that were brought forward, allegations against me.”
That brought an objection from Shorett. When Valdivia attempted to continue, Calvin made a motion to adjourn, seconded by Ibarra and then by Shorett.
Ignoring them, Valdivia pushed on to make his presentation. The volume of his colleagues escalated to a near roar.
Carvalho broke in to say that the motion to adjourn that had been seconded needed to be voted on.
“If there is a matter on the floor you have to address the motion,” Carvalho said. “We have a motion to adjourn and there is a second.”
“My rights… are being trampled on,” Valdivia protested.
There followed a general cacophony in which Shorett could be heard telling Valdivia that he was out of order and Ibarra informing the mayor that a presentation from him had not been agendized
Valdivia, in a parting shot said, “The allegations are inaccurate and they are false,” as Calvin again made a motion to adjourn.
An audibly and visibly miffed Valdivia said, “I will adjourn the meeting, Ms. Calvin. You are out of order,” Valdivia said.
“You need to take a vote on that motion,” Carvalho said.
“No, we won’t,” said Valdivia. “We’ll just adjourn.”
Against a cacophony of protest, Valdivia could be heard saying, “Prerogative of the chair. Meeting adjourned.”
With Valdivia at that point having signed off, Carvalho then called upon Ibarra, as the mayor pro tem, to conduct the council in a vote on the adjournment motion. In an action rife with metaphorical significance, under Ibarra’s guidance, the council unanimously voted to adjourn.
By Mark Gutglueck