Overtaken By Scandal, Mayor Warren Unable To Dominate Fontana As She Did Previously

Dashing the hopes of the development industry and movers and shakers in the private sector, the Acquanetta Warren-led Fontana City Council this week forsook what many had hoped would prove to be the ascendancy of Phil Burum into a key public sector administrative role in San Bernardino County’s second largest city.
On Tuesday, September 21, city officials closed a deal with Shannon Yauchzee, the longtime public works director of West Covina who more recently completed a nearly seven-year assignment as the city manager in Baldwin Park to serve in the capacity of interim city manager.
Yauchzee displaces Burum, who for two weeks has piloted the 217,237-population city in the aftermath of Mark Denny’s abrupt departure as city manager. Burum made a dynamic debut in the public sector in February, zooming to near the top of the management echelon in Fontana with his hiring as deputy city manager after spending the entirety of his professional life in the private sector. He is a highly thought-of talent, an unabashedly pro-development force in a decidedly pro-development jurisdiction. Many were disheartened that the reduction in Warren’s political reach and grasp prevented her from installing him into the city management position in Fontana on a permanent basis.
In 1997, Fontana was a wide-open city of more than 40 square miles, with a population of some 137,000. That year, Ken Hunt was promoted to the position of acting city manager, and two years later the qualifier “acting” or “interim” was dropped from his title, at which time he was given a contract to serve as the city’s full-fledged city manager. He remained in that position two decades. In the 22 years Hunt managed the city, Fontana experienced explosive development as one the fastest growing cities in not only California but the United States. In 2019, the city’s population eclipsed 210,000 at which point it had long before moved from being the fourth-largest to the second-largest city in San Bernardino County population-wise, having accelerated past both Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario nearly a decade previously.
During his tenure as city manager, Ken Hunt had been identified as associated with the mayoralties of Dave Eshleman, Mark Nuami, Frank Scialdone and then Acquanetta Warren, who had been on the council since 2002 and acceded to the mayor’s post with the 2010 election. Warren was passionately pro-development in her orientation as she embraced a strategy of intensive expansion aimed at bringing to the city’s newly built residential districts and neighborhoods young and upwardly mobile members of the middle class who were attracted to lower-priced housing than is available closer to Los Angeles. This filled the city with a good number of commuters generally employed elsewhere, such as in Los Angeles and Orange counties, a fair number of which were educated and skilled workers. One of Fontana’s yet unaddressed social issues was the future of a significant segment of Fontana’s homegrown population, those who had not moved into the city after reaching the age of majority, but rather the products of the Fontana Unified School District, where since the 1990s, upwards of 35 percent of the student population were first generation Americans, the children of immigrants. Many of those students’ parents were undocumented or illegal aliens, with poor English skills. The children of those immigrants often struggled in school, a byproduct of their parents’ lack of English-reading ability, lack of sophistication and shallow immersion in American culture, and those students often reached adulthood without having achieved highly academically or mastering the skills demanded in the modern workplace.
Fontana is located at the confluences of the Interstate 15 and Interstate 10 and the California 210 freeways, 68 miles from the Port of Los Angeles accessible by means of the 405, 605 and 10 freeways. Ontario International Airport is 11 miles distant from downtown Fontana via any of four major east-west arterials – Slover Avenue, Santa Ana Avenue, Jurupa Avenue and Valley Boulevard – and Fontana’s main north-south drag, Sierra Avenue. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad line runs through Fontana.
All this made Fontana attractive to the logistics industry, which Warren as mayor and Hunt as city manager accommodated. After the first spate of warehouse construction under the Warren regime, some began to second guess the wisdom of allotting so much property, which could be used for other purposes, for the building of warehouses. Local residents and futurists, not to mention some local officials who lacked the political muscle to stop Warren, questioned whether warehouses constitute the highest and best use of the property available for development in the region. They pointed to the consideration that upon their being completed, many warehouses stood empty. Warren’s detractors cited the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in distribution facilities, the large diesel-powered semi-trucks that are part of those operations with their unhealthy exhaust emissions, together with the bane of traffic gridlock they created. Nevertheless, Warren, who has continuously ruled Fontana with an iron fist based upon her alliances with the council members who have served with her over the years including John Roberts, Jesse Armendarez, Phil Cothran, Jr. and Peter Garcia, has been consistently able to get warehouse projects approved, to the point that she has become known, both derisively by her political opponents and admiringly by her supporters, as “Warehouse Warren.”
Hunt and Warren rode the crest of the development frenzy in Fontana to ever greater heights. In 2011, after Warren had settled in as Fontana mayor, a salary and benefit package was conferred upon Hunt, consisting of $264,596.80 in salary, $58,909.52 in other perks and pay and $36,184.72 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $359,691.04, making him the highest paid city manager in San Bernardino County. In 2018, when his salary escalated to $327,136.35, his other pay reached $25,000, his benefits equaled 59,057.88 and taxpayers contributed another $34,458.79 for a total annual compensation of $445,653.02, Hunt was the second highest paid city manager in the State of California.
Warren had so pleased the development industry by her successful efforts in arranging to have virtually any development proposal on property within Fontana City Limits approved that builder upon builder, contractor upon contractor, investor upon investor, developer upon developer, landowner upon landowner had endowed her political war chest with over $350,000 by last year, making it virtually impossible for anyone to challenge her for reelection.
Hunt’s contract was set to expire in 2021, but as early as 2018 just after he had signed his most recent contract, Warren and her three allies on the council were publicly discussing extending Hunt’s contract three years beyond 2021 to 2024 or perhaps even four years to 2025. Abruptly in 2019, however, Hunt left Fontana with just under two years left on his contract. Warren remained tight-lipped about the reason for his departure. When pressed about why the city manager about whom she had been so laudatory for so long had departed, Warren dissembled, implying he had left of his own volition. Hunt, however, did not immediately move into another position. It appeared that he had been fired. Moreover, the claim that Hunt had voluntarily moved on did not jibe with the disclosure made at that time that Hunt was being kept on the city’s payroll until the end of January 2020 and was collecting a severance on top of that, as Hunt’s contract did not provide for any continuation of pay or a severance if he chose to leave the city of his own accord. Warren continued to stonewall when asked again and again what had really occurred.
Earlier this year it was disclosed that Hunt had not only been kept on the payroll until January 2020 after his July 2019 departure, for which he was paid $153,558.25 in salary over those six months plus benefits of $31,104.23, but that he had been kept on the payroll until January 2021, such that he was provided another $307,116.51 plus benefits of $62,208.46 for those 12 months of not working. On top of that, Hunt was provide with “settlement pay” and a “leave payoff” that together came to $511,182.54.
In this way, Hunt was provided with $1,127,378.45 after he left in July 2019, none of which he was due if he had in fact quit. Tacitly acknowledged was that Hunt had been asked to leave, by Warren no less, and that the $1,127,378.45 was intended to buy his silence over what had precipitated his leaving.
In compliance with the confidentiality clause put into the separation agreement with the city he agreed to and signed in July 2019, Hunt has publicly refused to say why he left. Sources close to him have told the Sentinel that Hunt’s departure was necessitated by a series of events that began in May 2019 when Hunt conveyed to Warren that he had come to recognize that she was on the take, having accepted bribes from developers as well as Alliance Building Solutions, which was given, at Warren’s insistence, a no-bid contract to render several Fontana municipal buildings more energy efficient. Hunt gave Warren an ultimatum, telling her she would need to cease and desist in her corrupt ways. Warren, however, was able to bring her political might to bear, and used her position to arrange an exit for Hunt that bought his silence.
Upon Hunt’s departure, the city arranged with G. Michael Milhiser, who had previously worked as city manager in Montclair, Ontario, Upland and Adelanto, to serve as interim city manager in Fontana, overseeing its roughly 1,200 municipal employees.
In April 2020, the city council, led by Warren, settled upon Mark Denny to serve as city manager. Denny was a one-time aide to California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, the director of marketing and strategic planning for Allergan, Inc., the chief of staff for Orange County Supervisor William J. Campbell and the city manager of Dana Point. Warren was acutely aware that Denny was pro-development in his orientation and not terribly fastidious about adhering to ethical or legal constraints.
In 1996, when he was 27, Denny was working for Pringle and had been charged by the Orange County District Attorney and subsequently convicted of engaging in political skullduggery along with five of Pringle’s other political associates. Denny’s convictions on campaign documentation falsification charges before Judge Marjorie Laird Carter came at around the same time that the other five involved in the scheme to prevent Pringle from losing his tenuous hold on the leadership of California’s lower legislative house were also convicted. In accepting guilt, Denny resisted efforts by the prosecution to have him implicate Pringle and two other officeholders who were Pringle’s allies, Assemblyman Scott Baugh and Congressman Dana Rohrbacher. Denny remained a good soldier, fell on his sword and did not turn state’s evidence on the elected officeholders further up the political chain. Impressed by Denny’s demonstrated loyalty to his boss, Warren chose Denny as her man to run things at Fontana City Hall, and used the three votes on the city council she controlled at that time – those of Councilmen John Roberts, Phil Cothran, Jr. and Jesse Armendarez – to bring Denny into the Fontana fold.
Denny initially seemed to mesh well with Warren. He was willing to not only allow aggressive development to take place hand-in-hand with speculative investment, but had no qualms about augmenting projects with taxpayer-assisted subsidizations that defray the cost of infrastructure to jumpstart the development process and increase investor and developer profit. Up close, however, Denny saw that Warren’s attitude toward land speculators and project proponents had crossed the line from accommodation into outright affiliation, ones in which her own interest had become indistinguishable from the undertakings of those applying with the city for permits and project approval. The baldly pay-to-play ethos was most strikingly apparent in the accelerated pace of warehouse development Warren was pursuing.
On April 20, 2021 the Fontana Planning Commission approved Duke Realty’s proposal to build a 205,949-square foot warehouse on an 8.61-acre seven-parcel piece of ground at the southwest corner of Slover Avenue and Oleander Avenue. The project, which was designed to feature 22 truck docks, 40 truck parking spaces, and 95 standard parking spaces, was slated for a site immediately adjacent to Jurupa Hills High School.
Elizabeth Sena, a Fontana resident, appealed that project approval to the Fontana City Council.
On June 22, 2021, the Fontana City Council denied Sena’s appeal and upheld the planning commission on its decision to allow the warehouse to be built.
In July of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued the City of Fontana over the approval of the Slover and Oleander warehouse project. Bonta took issue with the lax environmental safeguards the city adhered to in giving Duke Realty go-ahead. The city allowed the planning commission to utilize one of the least exacting forms of environmental certification for the project, a mitigated negative declaration. In the lawsuit, Bonta argued that the city’s limited environmental review of the project and its failure to appropriately analyze, disclose, and mitigate the project’s environmental impacts violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the City of Fontana is required to implement all feasible mitigation measures to reduce harmful air pollution and other significant environmental impacts of the Slover and Oleander Warehouse project,” Bonta said.
The civil action by the California Attorney General’s Office initially stood as a procedural challenge to the project’s approval. The city and its attorney, Ruben Duran, were thrown for a loop by Bonta’s action. Duran was previously the city attorney in Adelanto from July 2017 to August of 2018, during which time he found himself in the position of providing legal cover for then-Adelanto City Councilman Jermaine Wright and then-Adelanto Mayor Richard Kerr. Wright was arrested by the FBI and charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with bribetaking in November 2017, and was removed from the city council in January 2018, after consistently missing all of the council’s regularly-scheduled meetings for two months because he was in federal custody. Kerr, who was voted out of office in November 2018, three months after Duran’s departure from Adelanto, was indicted by a federal grand jury last month over bribery charges stemming from the time he was in office in Adelanto.
Duran’s experience in Adelanto, where he was acting as the consigliere to dual political bosses who were profiting off official actions they were taking in allowing development, in that case pertaining to marijuana and cannabis-related businesses, and what subsequently befell those he was advising instilled in him a degree of caution vis-à-vis the current situation in Fontana, where the California Attorney General’s Office and its investigators have taken an interest in the action of Warren and her three political team members – Peter Garcia, John Roberts and Phil Cothran, Jr. – in allowing what some perceive as ill-considered development, in this case pertaining to warehouse proliferation. Of note is that Garcia is the Southern California regional executive manager for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control’s site mitigation program. Garcia’s professional capacity would have made him intimately familiar with the environmental issues that were glossed over by first the planning commission and then the city council in approving the Slover and Oleander warehouse project.
As the California Attorney General’s Office was taking a deeper dive into the situation in Fontana, the members of the city council had expected Duran to go to the mat to protect them just as he had three and four years ago in Adelanto in attempting to shield Kerr and Wright from the long arm of the federal law. An older and wiser Duran, however, proved far less aggressive in the face of the California Attorney General’s Office’s inquiry in Fontana than he had been when he was city attorney in Adelanto.
Denny likewise saw what was occurring, and he had also had 19 months to watch Warren in action, and see first-hand the favoritism that has been shown to developers, particularly ones willing to be generous toward Warren. Indeed, Bonta’s lawsuit threw what had occurred with regard to the Slover and Oleander Warehouse project into stark relief, offering a glimpse of highly questionable land use decision-making that was virtually indistinguishable, to those in the know, from what was occurring elsewhere in the city involving other warehouse projects. Already convicted once for having gone along with the criminal activity of a political personage above him in the governmental chain of command, Denny was less than confident that Bonta would keep the efforts he was taking with regard to the Slover and Oleander warehouse project restricted to civil action. Indeed, Denny was concerned that If the state’s top prosecutor assigned investigators who routinely ferret out evidence relating to criminal activity to look much more closely at the corners he and the city cut to assist Warren in accomplishing a highly questionable favor for one of her campaign donors, things might not go well for him. At the very least, Denny knew, he would be called upon to answer some very uncomfortable questions about what he knew of monetary inducements provided to Warren in the form of political contributions and through other means, and how explicit the mayor and her donors were in arranging what might be demonstrated to a jury as quid pro quos.
The reason the city gave for Denny’s exit did not differ much from the initial false narrative put out with regard to Hunt’s departure.
Warren claimed that just like Hunt, Denny wanted to leave. The city has refused to say whether a severance package is being conferred on Denny, and if so, what it consists of.
In an effort to sidestep the intense scrutiny and criticism vectored the city’s way because of the lenient environmental standards its officials had applied in approving the plethora of warehouses now sprouting up all over the city and for the shortcuts responsible officials had engaged in when approving the Slover and Oleander warehouse project, Denny hired the Denmark-based international consulting firm Ramboll, which has its American headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, to see if it could come in and do some damage control.
A spokeswoman for Morten Peick, Ramboll’s senior group director for communication and marketing, indicated the company was going to remain clear of any questions relating to how graft and payoffs to Fontana city officials might have contributed to the city’s ongoing issues with regard to overaggressive warehouse development.
According to the company, Fontana can give itself a clean bill of air quality health, since ozone and nitrogen dioxide concentrations and the presence of particulate matter in the city do not exceed federal standards, and the risk of contamination-induced cancer has diminished by 76 percent from 1998 to 2018 and is expected to decrease by an additional 20 percent by 2023.
Furthermore, the city can breathe a sigh of relief since the California Air Resources Board’s standards put into place in 2005 under which the city has performed so poorly is now considered to be an obsolescent air pollution yardstick.
Some of those hearing that, however, believed Ramboll and the city were engaging in semantical sleight-of-hand, since the poor air quality marks Fontana has been given in the past grow out of the California Air Resources Board’s 2005 standards. In actuality, the statistics for the 2005 standards were based upon a survey of air quality from 1995 through 2005, when air quality was poorer than in more recent years. That Fontana fared poorly against the 2005 standard actually means, critics said, that the city would be rated even worse against more up-to-date metrics.
Ramboll suggested during a September 14 presentation that the city could engage in a bit of window-dressing to assuage those who take a dim view of its unbridled approval of warehousing within its confines. One of those ploys would be to adhere to the California Air Resources Board’s recommendation that diesel-powered semi-trucks reduce their idling time from five to three minutes. The city could also make some inroads against air pollution by becoming more electric-vehicle friendly, by, for example, encouraging the proliferation of electric-powered vehicle charging stations, Ramboll maintained. It was also suggested that the city should encourage rooftop solar panels on all buildings of over 400,000 square feet.
The city should consider mandating improvements to future warehouses though an ordinance targeting warehouses specifically, according to Ramboll.
“One of the city council’s most important goals is to preserve the local environment for generations to come,” Mayor Warren said. The city had given itself credibility by seeking, Warren noted, “to not only preserve, but strengthen the local environment. Staff brought in a world-renowned consultancy to assess our air. The study shows that air quality in the last 20 years has improved drastically.”
For nearly two weeks after Denny’s September 8 announcement that he will be taking advantage of an opportunity to move into a position in the private sector closer to his home in San Clemente, many saw a golden opportunity for Phil Burum, who was given the temporary assignment of interim city manager, to remain in that position, perhaps for as long as two years, as was the case with Hunt between 1997 and 1999. Among many in the business community, Burum was seen as the perfect answer to Fontana’s dilemma. A member of the Baldy View Chapter of the Building Industry Association board beginning in 2013 who subsequently served as the president of that board from 2017 to 2019, Burum is perceived to be ideally suited to lead Fontana, which has been mandated by the California Department of Housing and Community Development to construct 22,101 dwelling units over the next eight years to meet what has been adjudged by the Southern California Association of Governments to be its share of  regional housing needs. Burum’s know-how as a builder and his can-do attitude is considered to be conducive to Fontana maintaining its progress toward the future.
With the California Attorney General’s Office breathing down her neck, however, Warren was forced to abandon the plan to allow Burum to accumulate enough experience in the role of acting/interim city manager to justify moving him into the actual city manager role, perhaps as early as mid-2022.
Lots of people were disappointed that a man as talented as Burum, who in the view of many is not hampered by being an institutional government employee but rather represents the best the private sector has to offer, is being stepped over.
Running Fontana for the next several months will be Shannon Yauchzee.
Yauchzee “is dedicated to providing excellent customer service, streamlining the development processes, and making local agencies more efficient and fiscally responsible,” according to a news release put out by Mayor Warren.
Of note is that Yauchzee, who had resided in San Dimas for thirty years from the time he began work with Willdan Engineering out of its City of Industry office in 1989, while he was the director of public works with the City of West Covina from 1996 to 2014 and all but the last two years he was city manager in Baldwin Park from 2014 until May of this year, moved to Fontana in 2019.
“As a Fontana resident I look forward to working alongside council and staff as we enhance the quality of life here in Fontana,” Yauchzee said in the release put out by Warren.
Yauchzee was born in Whittier and worked in various aspects of the construction industry in a business owned by his father while he attended Cal Poly University in Pomona, where he obtained his bachelor of science degree in civil engineering and subsequently obtained his state registration as a California professional engineer. With his wife Lisa, he has two daughters, Emily and Sarah.
Yauchzee has no intention of remaining with the City of Fontana as interim city manager for more than a year. The city is actively at present conducting a recruitment for city manager candidates.
Mark Gutglueck

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