SB Council To Seek Bringing Valdivia To Heel By Cutting His Paycheck

The San Bernardino City Council, which has been on increasingly acrimonious terms with Mayor John Valdivia for some time, this week intensified the discordance, scheduling for upcoming discussion and potential action an examination of substantially reducing the salary provided to the mayor.
Valdivia, a resident of the city’s south end, successfully ran for the city council in 2011, and moved into the Third Ward councilman’s position in 2012. In 2018, he successfully vied for mayor against then-incumbent Carey Davis, prevailing with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
The Valdivia mayoralty started out auspiciously enough, as the newly-elected mayor had the backing of then-incumbent Sixth District Councilwoman Bessine Richard and Fifth District Councilman Henry Nickel, as well as that of the two newly elected members of the council, First District Councilman Ted Sanchez and Second District Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra. When Valdivia’s close political associate Juan Figueroa was elected in a special election held in May 2019 to fill the vacancy created by Valdivia’s December 208 resignation as the council representative in the Third District so he could move up into the mayoral post, Valdivia appeared to be in a position of absolute political dominance in San Bernardino, as he had only two foes on the council at that point, Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and then-Seventh District Councilman Jim Mulvihill.
In 2016, two years before Valdivia’s elevation to mayor, San Bernardino’s voters had voted to rewrite in its entirety the San Bernardino municipal charter that had been in place since 1905. Unrecognized or at least underappreciated by many was that the new charter greatly attenuated the mayor’s power. The 1905 Charter had limited the mayor’s political reach. Though the mayor the chief presiding officer at council meetings and able to control the ebb and flow of the council’s public debate, the 1905 charter granted the mayor no vote on the council when it was considering action items other than to break a tie and veto authority on 4-to-3 or 3-to-2 votes. The 1905 Charter nevertheless entrusted to the mayor tremendous administrative power, such that he shared with the city manager the authority to hire and fire department heads or other city employees. The revamping of the charter in 2016 converted the city into a council-city manager form of governance. It stripped the mayor of his or her administrative authority, taking from him or her the authority to hire city employees, personally monitor their performance and terminate them as he or she saw fit. The city manager, who was answerable to the city council, in the 2016 Charter was entrusted with the entirety of the city’s administrative responsibility. The new charter, while ending the mayor’s status as the co-regent of San Bernardino in conjunction with the city manager, did nothing to enhance his previously limited political authority. Under the 2016 Charter, the mayor remained as the presiding officer over city council meetings and he retained his figurehead status as the spokesman for the city and City Hall, yet was ineligible to vote on the matters considered by the city council unless a first vote ended in a tie. He did keep his veto power, which could be employed in those cases where the majority prevailed by a single vote.
Thus, upon his election as mayor, Valdivia’s actual power or authority consisted in large measure of the perception of him as the city’s leading citizen and as the leader of the city council. Indeed, as mayor Valdivia could rightfully claim to being the primary elected official in the city, since he had been put into office through the will of all of the city’s voters while the council members were limited to asserting a hold on their positions on the basis of the votes of just one-seventh of the city’s electorate. Still, Valdivia had virtually no say in the decisions of the city council unless their votes ended in a tie or a narrow one-vote difference. To have any influence on civic affairs, any mayor in San Bernardino after the passage of the 2016 charter needed, needs and will need to be able to assemble a coalition on the council and keep that coalition together.
As the spring of 2019 turned to summer, Valdivia appeared to be the master of San Bernardino. Early in June, he effectuated the removal of Andrea Travis-Miller, the city manager he had inherited from his mayoral predecessor Davis’s administration, and saw to it that Assistant City Manager Teri Ledoux was promoted to succeed her. It thus seemed that Valdivia had established an understanding with Ledoux by which she was given a professional boost she most likely otherwise never would have achieved in exchange for Valdivia’s agenda being facilitated at the staff level. He was also able, at that point, to count upon the votes of Sanchez, Ibarra, Figueroa, Nickel and Richard to overcome the committed opposition of Shorett and Mulvihill, and thus control the directives officially given to Ledoux.
San Bernardino was Valdivia’s oyster, Nevertheless, within the span of a relatively few months, Valdivia’s control over the city eluded his grasp.
Even before Valdivia was elected mayor, there were indications that he was involved in pay-to-play politics in which he was provided with donations to his political campaign fund in exchange for his vote as a council member supporting those donors’ applications for city franchises or project approval with the community development department or contracts to deliver services and/or goods to the city. After his election as mayor, there were further indications that Valdivia was heavily involved in trading his votes for campaign donations as well as evidence suggesting he was on the take, receiving bribes from entities dong business with the city or seeking project approvals, such as many of the applicants for permits and licenses to operate commercial marijuana/cannabis-related businesses in the city. Those revelations included accounts of Valdivia being provided with cash that never was reported as campaign donations and which he simply pocketed or payments made to him through his consulting business, AAdvantage Comm LLC, which served as a laundering mechanism for the payoffs he received.
Over the last six months of 2019, Valdivia’s political fortunes took a decided turn for the worse. His chief of staff, Bilal Essayli, perhaps seeing the oncoming train wreck, resigned his position in July. Before the end of the summer, Valdivia alienated first Ibarra and Nickel. In October 2019, Valdivia was on the outs with Sanchez, such that by the end of 2019, he could no longer count on a majority of the council’s votes in supporting his initiatives. At that point, Valdivia had effectively lost control of the council. What was more, in his frustration, Valdivia began to lash out at city staff, ultimately alienating then-City Manager Ledoux and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, both of whom were once safely within his camp.
In January 2020, Mirna Cisneros, Valdivia’s constituent service representative, and Karen Cervantes, his special assistant, went public with accounts of how Valdivia had pressured them to have sex with him. Cisneros related how Valdivia had solicited and received bribes. She also laid out how he used city money to travel nationally and internationally on business unrelated to the city, which included raising money for himself or his future political campaigns. Thereafter, Jackie Aboud, Valdivia’s field representative, came forward to say that Valdivia had squeezed her to have sexual relations with him, and that Valdivia had used his influence as mayor to provide favorable city treatment to his donors and supporters, while working to prevent city services from being rendered to his constituents who were not supporters, in particular those in the city’s Fourth and Seventh Wards, represented by his two rivals on the council, Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill. Alissa Payne, whom Valdivia had appointed to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, publicly surfaced with accounts that were in some fashion similar to those of Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud with regard to sexual advances the mayor had made toward her. Don Smith, who had worked on Valdivia’s campaign for mayor and was subsequently hired by the city to serve as Valdivia’s part time field representative, offered specific accounts of bribetaking by the mayor, including one of a bribe that had originated from holders of the city’s tow truck franchises, consisting of a cash-stuffed envelope given to the mayor in his presence. Matt Brown, who was brought in to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, roughly a month after Bilal Essayli resigned, stated that he was being retaliated against by Valdivia for having sought to protect Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud in the face of Valdivia’s treatment of them, and he retained Tristan Pelayes, the lawyer who was representing Cervantes, Cisneros, Aboud, Payne, and Smith. Ultimately, Aboud, Brown, Cervantes, Cisneros and Smith sued the city over the ordeals they experienced with Valdivia.
In the March 2020 election, Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally, Juan Figueroa, was reelected, and Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally Bessine Richard was voted out of office, replaced by Kim Calvin. Both Henry Nickel, who had evolved into one of Valdivia’s political foes, and Jim Mulvihill, who had never been aligned with Valdivia, were obliged to engage in runoff elections in November 2020 when they did not get more than 50 percent of the vote in March. Ultimately, they were displaced, respectively, by Ben Reynoso and Damon Alexander. While it was initially thought that Alexander might emerge as Valdivia’s next ally on the council, that did not materialize. Calvin very early on clashed with Valdivia, and Reynoso has proven to be a more committed antagonist to the mayor than was Nickel. Thus, at present, the only vote of consistent support on the council that Valdivia can count on is that of Figueroa.
Earlier this year, Valdivia and Figueroa were dealt the blows of revelations pertaining to both receiving support and money, characterized as bribes, from entities with applications for commercial marijuana dealerships in the city as well as from SCG America, which was competing to obtain redevelopment rights at the Carousel Mall in downtown San Bernardino.
In April of this year, Councilman Fred Shorett floated a proposal to ask the voters to eliminate the mayor’s position altogether, such that the city council would exist as seven members among whom the mayoral duty would be shared through a rotating appointment decided by the council members themselves. Ultimately, Shorett’s proposal found support from Sanchez, Ibarra, Reynoso and Calvin, and city staff was directed to provide draft language for a ballot measure to be presented to the city’s voters in the June 2022 primary election to determine if they favor eliminating the mayor’s position effective upon the end of Valdivia’s term in December 2022. Dissenting on the vote were councilmen Figueroa and Alexander. It has been reported that Alexander is contemplating a run against Valdivia next year.
This summer, Valdivia courted further controversy by billing the city for $4,686 to cover the expenses – covering the cost of gilded invitations, flowers, balloons, meals and drinks – for a so-called VIP reception to be held at Hilltop Restaurant in San Bernardino in the immediate aftermath of the mayor’s State of the City address. That event, Valdivia insisted, was to accommodate his list of invitees, a group Valdivia characterized as San Bernardino’s “residents, stakeholders and movers and shakers.” It turned out, however, that attendance at the reception was to be limited to those who were invited, and the only council member invited was Figueroa, Valdivia’s lone remaining ally on the council. Nearly all of those invited were Valdivia’s campaign donors, whom he intended to hit up again for more electioneering funding.
Taking stock of the way in which Valdivia had used taxpayer money to conduct personal fundraising, the city council on Tuesday, June 15 of this year unanimously directed City Manager Robert Field to cancel the VIP reception, ordered the city attorney’s office to look into the misuse of public funds Valdivia has engaged in, recover the money billed to the city for the reception and asked for an independent review of expenditures from the mayor’s office since January 2019.
Councilman Shorett, who had previously telegraphed that he intended to float a proposal that the the city council contemplate a substantial reduction in the mayor’s pay, came to the October 20 city council meeting prepared to raise that issue during that portion of the proceedings reserved for city council members to suggest items for future action.
In 2019, the last year for which figures are available, Valdivia was provided, in his role as mayor, with $159,180.90 in total annual compensation, consisting of a $103,273.93 salary, another $8,763.80 stipend for attending other meetings of joint power agencies or governmental committees he is a board member of, $22,854.90 in benefits and a $24,288.10 contribution toward his retirement fund.
By contrast, members of the city council receive $13,441.71 for their normal council duties which consist primarily of preparing for and attending council meetings, along with a rough average of $3,900 contributed toward their retirement funds, an average stipend of about $7,300 for attending other meetings of joint power agencies or governmental committees each is a board member of and an average of $13,669 in benefits and perquisites annually for an average total yearly compensation of roughly $34,785.
Valdivia, who was forewarned of Shorett’s move, prepared a response for the October 20 meeting intended to preempt Shorett’s suggestion, and if that did not work, lay the groundwork for a campaign to prevent the takeaway or reduction of his pay.
One of the defenses in the face of the criticisms that have been vectored his way which Valdivia has gravitated to since he has become mayor involves, when the criticism emanates from Caucasians, asserting that he is the victim of a racist attack. It was no different last week.
Before Shorett had an opportunity to unveil publicly his proposal to reduce the mayor’s pay, Valdivia used his position as mayor to hold forth, saying, “A few months ago, Councilman Fred Shorett supported a charter change to take away the people’s right to elect your mayor. Under Mr. Shorett’s plan, the politicians, not the voters, would choose San Bernardino’s future mayors. Now, Mr Shorett is proposing to slash the salary of the mayor so that only rich people can afford to serve. Mr. Shorett doesn’t like the demographic changes occurring in our community. He doesn’t like the fact San Bernardino elected a working-class resident and a person of color to the office of mayor. He wants to go back to the bad, old-guy system of wealthy country club mayors. Mr. Shorett has repeatedly complained that he is the last of the old white guys…”
At that point, Councilwoman Calvin, an African-American, interrupted Valdivia.
“How did this get on the agenda?” Calvin asked. “This sounds like a personal statement.”
A cacophony of like protests over what Valdivia had said erupted from council members Ibarra and Sanchez, who are Hispanic, from Councilman Reynoso, who is of African-American and Hispanic parentage, and from Councilman Alexander, who is African-American. They endorsed Calvin’s call for the mayor to discontinue his remarks.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho at that point weighed in, stating that under the tradition set by previous practice, the mayor was entitled to continue, insofar as his statement qualified as a form of discussion.
Thanking Carvalho, Valdivia resumed.
“Mr. Shorett has repeatedly complained that he is the last of the old white guys on the city council,” the mayor said. “His prejudices have no place on this dais. And as your mayor, I will stand 100 percent behind the people’s right to vote for mayor. And I will fight to ensure that every resident of our city, not just the wealthy and politically connected, has the financial ability to serve in the office of mayor. It’s time for us to move forward, folks.”
Shorett reacted, saying, “Nothing that has just been said could be any further from the truth. This is just an item that I think is good fiscal responsibility. We have four votes to put on the charter to go before the people to revise, eliminate, revisit the position of the mayor. The voters voted overwhelmingly to change the charter to a council-city manager form of government. The role of the mayor has been reduced very, very significantly. I don’t know where the initiative for getting it on the charter will go or whether the voters will vote for it. If it does get on the ballot or not, that [preventing anyone other than wealthy white and aging men from acceding to the mayor’s post] is not my intention at all. This is to be fiscally responsible and pay somebody for the amount of work that they are doing or required to do under the charter. I’m just suggesting we take a look at it. The mayor’s office costs this city almost $400,000 a year, and the salary of the mayor is upwards of $143,000 a year fully burdened, including all stipends and car allowances and what have you, and he has no real authority and responsibility anymore under the new charter. I’m just asking my colleagues that we look into it and look into the value of it, whether he’s reelected or not, whether anyone is elected to be mayor. I believe the salary of the mayor should be reviewed and should be reduced.”
Shorett’s motion to have the city council consider action to that effect at a future council meeting was then passed unanimously by the council.
-Mark Gutglueck

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