San Bernardino Council To Consider Censure Of Mayor Valdivia Next Week

By Mark Gutglueck
The San Bernardino City Council appears purposed to censure Mayor John Valdivia during a special meeting scheduled for December 1.
The official rebuke is based and drawn up along relatively narrow lines – allegations said to have been verified by an independent investigator that the mayor violated state mass mailing prohibitions and misused both staff time and city funds for personal and political purposes – and does not memorialize a finding or conclusions with regard to a host of other depredations that Valdivia has been accused of as a public official both during and prior to his mayoralty.
Still, if the council follows through with the censure as anticipated, Valdivia will by next week have suffered yet another blow that will not only tarnish but potentially undercut his once promising public career.
Valdivia’s reversal of political fortune has been a remarkable one.
In November 2018, he was elected San Bernardino mayor, more than eight years after he was initially entrusted with political office following his 2011 ouster of Third Ward San Bernardino City Councilman Tobin Brinker. At the time he was sworn in as mayor in December 2018, Valdivia appeared to have made a political leap to a vantage from which he was poised to vault yet higher up the political evolutionary ladder, first to Sacramento and ultimately, it seemed, to Washington, D.C. In the intervening time, however, a series of revelations have betrayed him as an intensely corrupt politician trading on his position of public trust to enrich himself while serving special interests with business dealings that are directly impacted by decisions made within the corridors of San Bernardino municipal government.
From the outset of his political run, Valdivia personified a remarkable political hybrid, as someone steeped in contradiction who has united in himself disparate and contradictory elements that overcome the paradox. A Hispanic Republican, this at once put him at seeming odds with the vast majority of Latinos not only in San Bernardino’s Third Ward but San Bernardino overall, San Bernardino County and within the State of California. In excess of 75 percent of Hispanic voters in California identity as Democrats or consistently vote for Democrats.
In his 2011 Third Ward council run, Valdivia played across type in another way, accepting hefty support from the city’s public employee’s union, the San Bernardino Firefighters Association foremost among them, followed by the unions representing the city’s police officers and its regular line employees. That support came Valdivia’s way as a consequence of the city’s perilous financial state, which some wanted to ignore. San Bernardino, after more than a decade of deficit spending, was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. At that point, then-Mayor Patrick Morris and a bare city council majority had formed the resolve to cut to the heart of the city’s deficit spending by holding the line on city employee salaries and benefits, which represented upwards of 90 percent of the city’s expenditures. Tobin Brinker, the incumbent Third Ward councilman, was a crucial city council vote in support of Morris’s strategy to reduce spending by not giving in to city employee union demands for continuing raises and benefit enhancements. With the unions’ support, Valdivia in the November 2011 election trounced Brinker. Both before and after the election, Valdivia confidently declared that the city was flush with money, and that no municipal financial crisis existed. A week after his March 2012 swearing in, Valdivia offered assurances that the city was shipshape financially. Four months later it was disclosed that the city’s ship of state was listing economically, and in August 2012, the city declared bankruptcy with a Chapter 9 filing. That early faux pas in his political tenure has been one Valdivia never talks about.
In February 2014, just a little less than two years after he had assumed municipal office, Valdivia announced he would seek the Republican nomination for Congress in the 31st Congressional District. Within a short period of time, however, Valdivia and his advisors thought better of that, since such a campaign would unequivocally identify him as a Republican, and in the City of San Bernardino, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 48 percent to 22 percent, and in the Third Ward that margin was 49 percent to 18 percent.
In 2015, Valdivia retained his position as Ward Three councilman when no one surfaced to run against him.
Valdivia sought to cultivate a reputation as a fiscal conservative who was mindful of the cost of various city programs, and he would make a point of questioning at least some of the city’s expenditures when votes on spending came before the city council. For many of his constituents, this masked that his election in 2011 had been a key factor in preventing the city employee salary reforms that then-Mayor Patrick Morris had hoped to institute, a failure which led to the city’s 2012 bankruptcy. In 2015, the city council, in its efforts to guide the city, the oldest of the county’s cities and the county seat, out of bankruptcy, was forced to close out its 148-year-old fire department in favor of a contract with the county fire department, and to shutter the municipal sanitation department. Loss of its fire department was a severe blow to the city’s prestige, and Valdivia squirms and then scurries away every time the subject surfaces. Remarkably, Valdivia has been able to keep hidden from most of his Republican constituents that he had sided with the unions in continuing to grant city employees raises and higher benefits. Similarly, he has had remarkable success in preventing his Democratic constituents from realizing that he is a Republican.
While Valdivia was yet a member of the city council, the city as a whole moved to change certain elements of the way it was governed when a majority of its voters approved in 2016 a new charter which changed the the city’s treasurer, city attorney and city clerk positions from elected to appointed ones, changed its elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, and reduced the power and administrative reach of the mayor from what it had been under the municipal charter put in placed in 1905, such that the mayor no longer had co-regency with the city manager and control over direct hiring and firing of city employees. Valdivia, who coveted strong mayoral authority for himself, had opposed the charter change. Despite the charter’s passage, in 2018, Valdivia challenged then-Mayor Carey Davis in that year’s election. In his electoral effort against Davis, who was also a Republican, Valdivia, advised by his political consultant Chris Jones, did not hesitate in informing all of the city’s Democratic voters that Davis was a Republican, at the same time omitting from the mailers sent to the city’s Democrats that he was himself a Republican. Conversely, in his mailers to the city’s Republicans, Valdivia played up that he was a Republican.
While he was hobnobbing with hundreds of wealthy, white and Republican campaign donors to obtain money to run his campaign, Valdivia simultaneously made use of his credentials as the city’s leading Hispanic politician in making his pitch to the city’s Hispanic voters, who represented 67 percent of those registered to vote in the city, stressing the importance of the city having substantial Latino representation in elected office.
In this way, by omission with regard to some information, Valdivia made a masterful show of dissembling, hiding what he was from some, showing what he was to others, and misrepresenting what he was to others still to win the 2018 mayoral election. As a result of his political tour de force, Valdivia won, with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
Though in the 2018 primary election Valdivia had supported then-incumbent Second Ward Councilman Benito Barrios for reelection, he ultimately supported civic activist Sandra Ibarra in the November general election when Barrios gained fewer votes than Ibarra and Cecilia Miranda-Dolan in the Second Ward primary balloting. Valdivia had further supported Ted Sanchez in the city’s First Ward, where longtime Councilwoman Virginia Marquez had opted out of seeking reelection. Ultimately, Ibarra and Sanchez were victorious, and upon the trio being sworn into office on December 18, 2018, it became immediately clear that Valdivia was gunning to replace City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, whom he considered to be a vestige of the Davis Administration. Moreover, it was Valdivia’s hope that if he and his chief of staff, Bill Essayli, could orchestrate Travis-Miller’s termination, he could influence the council to replace her with a city manager of his choosing, with whom Valdivia could broker a deal that would give him the de facto authority to hire and fire city employees and department heads through the new city manager, and thus provide Valdivia with the power as mayor that had been attenuated with the 2016 charter change. As of December 2018, Valdivia essentially controlled four votes on the city council – those of Ibarra and Sanchez, as well as his pre-existing allies on the city council, Fifth District Councilman Henry Nickel and Sixth District Councilwoman Bessine Richard.
In April 2019, after a multitude of closed city council sessions in which Travis-Miller’s job performance had been discussed over the past three-and-a-half months, Ibarra, Sanchez and Richard voted to place Travis-Miller on paid administrative leave. That created a 3-to-3 tie, as Nickel and Valdivia’s two council rivals – Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh District Councilman Jim Mulvihill – were not willing to pull the plug on Travis Miller. Under normal circumstances in San Bernardino, according to both the 1905 charter and the 2016 charter, the mayor does not have a vote on issues before the council other than the hiring of the city manager and city attorney. The mayor is empowered, however, to veto 4-to-3 votes and 3-to-2 votes of the city council and to break ties. Based on the 3-to-3 tie to suspend Travis-Miller, Valdivia entered the fray, and tipped the scales to place her on paid leave. In her place, the city council temporarily chose Travis-Miller’s assistant city manager, Teri Ledoux, to serve as interim city manager.
The following month, May 2019, the city held a special election in the Third Ward to choose Valdivia’s replacement as city councilman, since he had been obliged to resign as the representative of the Third Ward with two years remaining on his term in December 2018 so he could move up into the mayor’s post. In that election, his ally, Juan Figueroa, emerged victorious.
At that point, it appeared that Valdivia had an absolute political lockhold on San Bernardino. He could count on the five votes of Figueroa, Sanchez, Ibarra, Nickel and Richard, giving him a 5-to-2 majority on the council with regard to votes on regular items and policy decisions.
He lost no time in making a demonstration of his political primacy.
At the first meeting in June 2019, Valdivia effectuated the removal of Travis-Miller as city manager, conferring upon her a severance package in which she agreed to go away without any further ado. He then used his influence with the city council to have interim City Manager Teri Ledoux promoted from her assistant city manager’s post to that of actual city manager, in so doing establishing what he thought was an understanding with Ledoux by which she was given a professional boost she most likely otherwise would never have achieved in exchange for Valdivia’s agenda being facilitated at the staff level.
Valdivia was thereupon in the catbird seat in San Bernardino. He was not only mayor and thus the presiding officer over the city council who was able to set the agenda for what was to be discussed during council meetings and able to control the ebb and flow of discussion and debate when decisions on official city action took place, but exercised control over how five-sevenths of the city’s decision-makers, the city council – would vote in arriving at those decisions. Beyond that, he had put into place a city manager who was beholden to him for her progression to the top of the professional heap such that she was going to eventually be able to retire comfortably on a nearly $200,000 per year pension, and who was thus inclined to restore to Valdivia the administrative authority he did not officially possess but which was now his because of his established position of dominance in the city.
By the summer of 2019, Valdivia had reached the apex of his political power. Within a very short period of time, however, the control over the city he had so masterfully achieved slipped from 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 doing 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 was not 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 had 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 – extending to the cost of gilded invitations, flowers, balloons, meals and drinks – for a so-called VIP reception to be held at the 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.
Valdivia’s boldness in utilizing public funds for political purposes further estranged Valdivia from the members of the council, and they called upon City Manager Robert Field to have the matter investigated.
Field arranged to have the Costa Mesa-based law firm of Garcia Rainey Blank & Bowerbank delve into the particulars of what Valdivia had done. An attorney with Garcia Rainey Blank & Bowerbank, Kendra L. Carney Mehr, probed the matter and generated a report. That report, which has been reviewed by the city council, has become the basis of a proposal for the city council to officially censure Valdivia.
Mehr’s report, while thoroughly going into Valdivia’s action with regard to the misdirection of public money relating to the reception/fundraising event following the state of the city address earlier this year, did not confine itself to that alone. Rather, it cataloged a pattern of Valdivia’s use of his mayoral authority to effectuate questionable and/or illegal diversions of funds benefiting himself.
According to Mehr’s eight page report, “The Mayor’s office caused 2,075 postcards featuring Mayor Valdivia to be mailed at the city’s expense on or about June 4, 2021, in violation of Government Code section 89002. Elected officials are prohibited from sending mass mailings at public expense as described in Government Code sections 89001-89003.”
The postcards did not invite those to whom they were sent to the state of the city speech but rather served as invitations to the mayor’s reception/fundraiser held after the speech, Mehr noted and “did not notify the recipients of a public meeting or event, but instead promoted a private event and the mayor individually. The city spent more than $2,500 of public funds to design, produce, print, and mail post cards at the direction of the mayor. The design and printing costs were $2,134.08 and the bulk rate mailing cost was $546.33. The mayor violated the mass mailing prohibitions set forth in Government Code section 89002.”
Furthermore, according to Mehr’s report, “In June 2021, the mayor solicited a contribution of $5,000 from the Inland Empire Health Plan to be paid to the City of San Bernardino. Inland Empire Health Plan paid the contribution. The mayor did not report the behest payment as required by Government Code section 84224. An elected official who fundraises or otherwise solicits payments from one individual or organization to be given to another individual or organization is required to report the payment over $4,999. In an email dated June 7, 2021, city staff confirmed that a donation was made by Inland Empire Health Plan at the request of the mayor. The request for the donation was made for the purpose of off-setting the costs of a private VIP reception for the mayor. In a further email, Inland Empire Health Plan made a donation of $5,000 to the city and asked the mayor how many tickets to the VIP reception could be had for the donation. City staff responded by saying the mayor indicated six tickets were provided but could possibly provide more if needed. The mayor did not report the behest payment as required by the Fair Political Practices Commission rules. A copy of any such reports are maintained by the city clerk’s office. The city clerk’s office confirmed there is no such report on file.”
Mehr’s third finding was that “Valdivia used public funds to plan and pay for an exclusive VIP reception to promote Valdivia, which took place after the annual state of the city address on June 15, 2021. The event provided a giveaway item, a ‘hot drink travel set’ that promoted the mayor, not the city, demonstrating the focus of the event was to promote the mayor personally and not the city. In fact, the mayor requested that the city logo be removed from the travel set and replaced with a logo used by the mayor. Significant city staff time was spent coordinating the design and issuance of the post cards for the VIP reception. The reception was held in a private location, not open to the public. The private location was owned by a donor to Valdivia’s campaign. These factors deviated from reception locations in previous years, which were a public community college (planned for 2020), and a local public high school (2019). Invitations were restricted to a list of individuals selected by [the] mayor. Valdivia did not include most city staff or other city elected officials. City staff and other city elected officials were kept in the dark about the event and only learned about it after a constituent brought it to the attention of certain city staff. The catering for the VIP reception contemplated only 150 attendees. The mayor’s personal Christmas card address list was used for the invitees to the reception. The mayor directly invited some guests via email, and purposefully did not invite other city officials in the same manner. The invitations stated ‘non-transferable’ and therefore were not intended for the general public. The mayor misused city funds by applying for reimbursement of expenses for the VIP reception following the state of the city address for personal or campaign purposes.”
According to Mehr, Valdivia also sought reimbursements for travel and meals to which he was not entitled at various times during his tenure as mayor.
“Mayor Valdivia’s expense receipts show frequent trips within Southern California, and to Orange County specifically,” according to Mehr. “The connection to city business for these trips is vague, unexplained, or even overlaps with campaign disclosure forms demonstrating the trips coincided with large campaign donations. Mayor Valdivia’s 460 forms show a significant uptick in his campaign fundraising in the first half of 2021 that coincides with an increase in vaguely explained travel within Southern California.”
460 forms are campaign funding disclosure documents that elected officials in California are required to file every six months during nonelection years and more frequently during election years.
“Mayor Valdivia submitted requests for reimbursements for some meals and certain travel from 2019 through June 2021 but failed to identify a city purpose for the expense and/or improperly commingled reimbursements for meals and travel which combined city business and campaign events,” Mehr wrote in her report. “Mayor Valdivia submitted receipts for the following meals and/or hotel stays without disclosing the person/people he dined with and/or the reason for the travel:
• Hotel stay and meal in San Diego, September 20-22, 2019
• Overnight parking charges from June 29-30, 2020
• Hotel stay in Irvine, September 10-11, 2020
• Parking at Mission Inn, Riverside, October 27, 2020
• Parking at West Beverly Hills Hotel, January 17, 2021
• Hotel stay and meal in Irvine, March 8-9, 2021
• Hotel stay in Irvine, March 18-19, 2021
• Meals in Nevada on March 22-23, 2021
• Meal in Newport Beach on March 23, 2021
• Meal and hotel stay in Irvine on April 13-14, 2021.”
Mehr’s report continues, “Additionally, Mayor Valdivia’s reimbursement requests commingled campaign fundraising events with possible city business. For instance, on April 13, 2021, Mayor Valdivia submitted reimbursement for meals in Newport Beach and a hotel stay for a member of Valdivia’s campaign staff in Irvine. A review of Councilmember Juan Figueroa’s personal calendar identified that as the same date Councilmember Figueroa traveled to Orange County with Mayor Valdivia for a fundraiser. Councilmember Figueroa did not identify any related city business for that trip with Mayor Valdivia. Similarly, Mayor Valdivia’s trip to Irvine on March 18, 2021 appears to commingle campaign purposes with city business. Mayor Valdivia’s calendar entry shows a block of time for the evening of March 18, 2021 for ‘city business.’ However, Mayor Valdivia’s 460 form shows he traveled with someone in support of his campaign on the same date. When combined with the ambiguous block of time on his calendar, the 460 form demonstrates that his stay in Irvine was not primarily for city purposes.”
Mehr concluded, “The Mayor misused city funds by applying for reimbursement of expenses for meals and hotel stays for which he did not declare a purpose related to city business and which overlapped with campaign and fundraising events.”
The San Bernardino City Council meets on the first and third Wednesday of each month. This coming Wednesday, ahead of the December 1 city council meeting which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., the city council is scheduled to hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. The only item up for consideration at the 5 p.m. meeting is a consideration of whether Valdivia should be censured.
A censure is a declaration of disapproval, but it does not impact a city official’s continuing tenure in office.
Questions abound about Valdivia’s political future. Up in the air is whether the position of elected San Bernardino mayor will remain in the aftermath of the measure that the San Bernardino City Council is purposed to place on the June 2022 California Primary ballot, asking the city’s voters whether they want to eliminate the elected mayoral post. If that measure passes, Valdivia will find himself a casualty to political cancel culture, as the office he holds will have been out and out done away with.
During the same balloting however, an election for San Bernardino mayor will be held to determine who will fill the position from December 2022 until December 2026. Already a number of challengers are lining up to potentially compete with Valdivia.
Assuming the city’s voters decide against breaking with more than a century-long tradition and turn thumbs down on the measure to discontinue the mayor’s post as one elected directly by San Bernardino’s citizens, Valdivia appears to stand in good stead to remain as mayor, despite the enormous negative publicity he has sustained over the past two-and-a-half years, from the reports of his bribetaking, to his pressuring women working for the city for sex, to his use of public funds to travel on personal business and lodge himself in luxury hotels, to his use of taxpayer money to illegally solicit campaign donations, to the black eye of being, as will most likely happen next week, censured by the city council over which he presides. Despite all of those negatives, Valdivia has a tremendous advantage against any potential rivals in 2022, that being the sheer amount of money he has reposited into his political war chest. As of June 31, 2021, Valdivia had $394,622.54 in his campaign fund. With that money, he can afford to purchase mailers, ensure he is featured on slate mailers sent out by various entities who provide bulk electioneering services to candidates, buy television and radio ads, rent billboard space, purchase ads in newspapers, pay for phone banks, and continue to secure the services of his political consultant, Chris Jones. Moreover, he is yet at liberty to continue to collect donations from both new donors as well as ones who have contributed to his campaigns in the past. The funding Valdivia is accumulating makes it possible for him to conduct a campaign promoting himself in such a way that he can likely overcome the derogatories that have been heaped upon him, and, assuming he can run in either first or second place in the June primary election, conduct an attack campaign targeting the candidate against whom he will be in a run-off in the November 2022 general election.

Divided Federal Appeals Court Panel Jettisons Environmental Challenge To Perot/Amazon Distribution Facility

The legal challenge filed by former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a bevy of environmental concern advocates to the two-thirds of a million square foot merchandise processing facility at San Bernardino International Airport approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2019 met a significant roadblock on November 18.
A 2-to-1 decision by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a consolidated petition for review filed by Becerra, the Sierra Club, Earth Justice and other ecological/environmental advocacy groups that maintained the environmental impact study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration for the project was woefully inadequate. The petition sought a ruling by the court that would set aside the operating permit for the Eastgate Air Cargo Facility, which despite the legal challenge, is already up and operating. At that sorting facility, located west of Victoria Avenue and south of Third Street on the far eastern side of San Bernardino, Amazon employees load and unload aircraft and sort packages for delivery.
San Bernardino International Airport, built on the grounds of the former Norton Air Force Base, caters to cargo-carrying aircraft in large measure, and features no commercial passenger flights, though it does have some minor passenger activity involving corporate jets and a few charter flights.
U.S. Circuit Judge Patrick Bumatay joined with U.S. District Judge Eugene Siler, who wrote in his prevailing opinion that the petitioners did not make a convincing showing that the Federal Aviation Administration failed to meet its obligation to give adequate consideration to the environmental impacts of the freight-handling and distribution operation through what was alleged to have been inadequate weighing of the overall and cumulative effect of emissions from vehicles and machinery located near residences, schools and other places where individuals sensitive to that pollution live or frequent.
Ultimately, the operations at the facility will be ongoing on a 24-hour-per-day, seven-days-a-week basis.
According to Siler, the Federal Aviation Administration in examining the facets of the project made an adequate evaluation of air quality impacts on the facility’s environs and mapped out in detail the method by which it carried out the evaluation, and accounted for the amount, degree and physical characteristics of the emissions that would come from the operation and their effect on nearby properties.
Siler said the plaintiffs did not prove that the Federal Aviation Administration had skipped out on its duty as required by the National Environmental Policy Act when it made a finding by means of an environmental impact analysis that the facility would have “no significant impacts.”
Judge Bumatay concurred.
The third member of the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Johnnie Rawlinson, however, strongly dissented, writing that the Federal Aviation Administration had trod all over the competing interests of impoverished minorities living proximate to the facility who are being put upon to bear the brunt of the health-threatening impacts of the pollution-generating operations at the facility. The Federal Aviation Administration giving short shrift to those living in the shadow of the facility who will be subject to the air pollution generated there “reeks of environmental racism,” Rawlinson stated in her dissent, and she stridently asked, making reference to Jeff Bezos, if the project would have been given approval if it had been “sited anywhere near the wealthy enclave where the multibillionaire owner of Amazon, resides? Certainly not. The same standard should apply to the residents of San Bernardino Valley, who have already borne for many years the heavy cost of pollution resulting in a quantifiable detriment to their health.”
Rawlinson took issue with the stated conclusion in the environmental impact report carried out by the Federal Aviation Administration asserting no damage to the health of nearby residents will result from the project. Rawlinson said the finding that the facility “will have no significant environmental impact on the already overly polluted San Bernardino Valley does not pass muster,” given the standards of the yardstick being applied, that being the National Environmental Policy Act.
Weighing in with his concurrence with Judge Siler’s conclusion, Judge Bumatay said that Judge Rawlinson had read into the situation a “racial animus” that did not exist, as racial or ethnic discrimination was not an element of the challenge to the project.
Judge Bumatay said that Judge Rawlinson’s interjection or imputation of a racist motivation into the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of the project was “unfair to the employees of the Federal Aviation Administration.” Judge Bumatay said Judge Rawlinson had “accused [Federal Aviation Administration officials] of condoning racist actions without [giving them] a chance to defend themselves.”
Amazon began operation at its regional air hub near San Bernardino International Airport in April.
Becerra spearheaded the legal challenge in early 2020, while he was still California attorney general, prior to his selection to serve as secretary of health and human services in the Joseph Biden Administration earlier this year.
Becerra together with local environmental activists and justice advocates and both California-based and national environmental groups filed the lawsuit in federal court last year, roughly a month after the Federal Aviation Administration signed on to allowing Amazon to have an operating license for the logistics center at the airport. Collectively, the plaintiffs put forth arguments that in considering the project and giving it approval, the Federal Aviation Administration, together with the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and the master developer they were working with, Hillwood Enterprises, ignored or paid insufficient attention to the health risks the movement of massive amounts of cargo into and out of the facility would impose on the San Bernardino community.
According to the consolidated lawsuits, the Federal Aviation Administration should have more thoroughly and comprehensively considered the air quality impacts the facility would generate from constant plane flights and truck trips, which would “add to the burden” of pollutants flowing into nearby neighborhoods in which residents “already breathe some of the most polluted air in the nation.”
The San Bernardino International Airport Authority is a joint powers authority consisting of the County of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Highland, Colton and Loma Linda committed to operating San Bernardino International Airport. Hillwood Enterprises is a Texas-based, global real estate development company of which Ross Perot, Jr. is chairman.
The lawsuit sought from the court an injunction against the operation of the facility until such time as a comprehensive environmental review of the project was undertaken, and for the approval of the $200 million project to be set aside, as the vote to approve it involved “an abuse of discretion,” and was “arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law.”
-Mark Gutglueck

Developer Disputes Accusations His Company Is Neglecting Historic Grove’s Upkeep

With the Redlands City Council’s decision on Diversified Pacific’s proposal to develop most of the grove portion of the historic T.Y. England Estate into a new residential neighborhood, 352 current city residents have gone on record as signatories to a letter charging the development company with willfully allowing the trees in the grove to perish.
Jeff Burum, one of Diversified Pacific’s principals, rebuffed the accusation, and pointed out that the company is adhering to the preservationists’ insistence that the entire assets of the estate be maintained intact so the city’s options with the property are not limited. He said city water department records would verify that the grove is being irrigated.
Diversified Pacific, which is headed by Burum and Matt Jordan, in June 2019 acquired the entirety of the 8.8-acre England Grove Estate.
Thomas Y. England began cultivation of naval oranges on a lot at the corner of Palm and Alvarado avenues in Redlands in 1891, constructing on the property a Victorian Style home facing Palm Avenue, behind which he erected a barn, or carriage house, as well as a Queen Anne cottage facing Alvarado Street. The property was acquired by Guy Hunter, who converted the house on Palm Avenue into a prairie style home. The entire estate was sold to James and Annie Atwood in 1922. The Attwoods in turn passed it along to their daughter, Mary Attwood Heeney, and her husband Thomas J. Heeney, who continued to operate it as a citrus-producing grove. It was the Heeneys’ grandson and his wife who sold the estate to Diversified Pacific after they rejected, at various times over the past twenty years, offers by preservationists such as the Redlands Conservancy to purchase the property who had expressed the intent of restoring the estate’s structures and preserving the grove and its original gravity-fed irrigation system, one of the last three remaining such water conveyances in the state.
Burum, Jordan and Diversified Pacific have applied with the city to convert six of the England Grove Estate’s 8.8 acres into 28 2,000-to 2,600 square foot homes on what are mostly 6,200-square-foot lots.
The Redlands Planning Commission after considering the project at its May 11, 2021 and June 8, 2021 meetings, on June 22, 2021, voted 5-to-2, with Dr. Angela Keller and Matt Endsley dissenting, to recommend that the city council provide the project with a mitigated negative declaration allowing it to proceed, with a proviso that roughly 56 of the trees would be retained and a kiosk erected that recites the history of the England Estate and its significance to Redlands.
The project was scheduled to come before the Redlands City Council for consideration and approval at its July 20, 2021, September 7, 2021 and November 16, 2021 meetings. The property slated for development lies within one of the city’s ten sometimes overlapping historic zones, designated as the West Highland Avenue Historic and Scenic District. The council held hearings relating to the project at its July 20 and September 7 meetings, during which it heard from elements within the city who are opposed to the project’s destruction of the grove, which produced navel oranges marketed for decades under the Pure Gold label. At the conclusion of those meetings, the council held off on making a decision. The council canceled and postponed the hearing slated for November 16.
On November 15, the mayor and city council were provided with a letter signed by 352 Redlands residents which stated that the orange trees on the England Estate were suffering “death by neglect,” defined in the letter as “a refusal to adequately water the trees.” The letter stated that “neighbors bordering the grove have recorded that the last time the entire grove was watered by the owner was August 2020. Over the past months, the trees have begun to show distress at the lack of water provided. More trees than ever are losing leaves after drying up, more branches are falling, and the leaves are curling.”
The letter maintained, “We have been told by code enforcement [ i.e., a city employee or employees in the city’s code enforcement division] and a representative from Diversified Pacific that the irrigation system is broken and thus they are unable to water the grove. However, that is preposterous given the extraordinary monetary ability the developer has to fix the alleged break. This is death by neglect, and it breaks the agreement the developer made with neighbors that they ‘would make sure to keep the grove in the condition it was in when purchased.’ Further, it is code enforcement’s job to make sure that properties are adequately taken care of, especially if there is any potential risk or danger to properties not being maintained.”
According to the letter, “As it stands, after an extraordinarily hot and dry summer with temperatures often soaring past 100 degrees and almost no water afforded the trees, the grove is sitting tinder in our dry ‘Santa Anas’ climate. This poses a risk to all surrounding neighbors and their homes. It is the responsibility of code enforcement to actually respond to the requests for action received from residents. We have repeatedly been given excuses and ignored in what appears to be an appeasement to the developer.”
The letter goes on to intone, “The city is already named in a lawsuit about the loss of citrus, and if the suit is decided in the petitioner’s favor, it could impact the future liability of the city to ensure the developer maintains the groves until a final determination has been made about the future of the England property. It is therefore vital that the property owners be required to give the grove the best care possible. That includes watering, fertilizing, and keeping the weeds down in the furrows so that the water can reach all of the trees.”
Jeff Burum said the accusation that Diversified Pacific was not watering the trees was not true.
“If you check with the city, you will know that is not accurate,” he said. “We are using the existing antiquated and broken irrigation system to water the trees. The existing historical watering system is made up of concrete flumes which gravity flows water to the trees. We use it, but it is broken, inefficient and extremely wasteful in a drought challenged state. We use city water from our water shares. Our [water] usage can be verified by the city. People will say things that they know nothing about, especially if it leads to a selfish benefit, and that’s just sad.”
Burum said, “That grove has been dying for some time. It makes no sense to save an ancient water system that is no longer functioning and never functioned efficiently, especially in light of the drought and challenge to our state’s water availability.”
He, his partner and his company were being maligned, Burum said, by elements of the Redlands community which want the historical England Grove Estate fully restored at no cost to them or anyone who is advocating that outcome, which he said is financially unfeasible.
Burum remarked on the irony he perceived in that Diversified Pacific alone has stepped up with a strategy to keep those traces of Thomas Y. England’s legacy to Redlands intact.
In actuality, Burum said, prior to his company’s acquisition of the property there had been a protracted period while the Heeney Family, the owners of the land, had sought to make a sale of the estate to an entity or entities committed to its preservation, but could not come to terms with anyone.
“I would be willing to take no profit and sell the property at my cost to anyone willing to buy the property who wants to maintain it as an historical property and is capable of doing that,” Burum said. “The reality is that no one can do that. The only way for anyone to save the historical nature of the estate is to buy the property and use the surplus land to build something that can be marketed and sold so you can use the money to save the historical structures, the two houses and the barn. There is no one in the community that can do that.”
Burum said he and Diversified Pacific had “done the best that can be done with that property.” He expressed dismay at the vitriol he and his company are being subjected to by some in Redlands for having made that attempt. “We have spent millions of dollars because we believed in Redlands and making something worthwhile for the community,” he said, “We are not being treated nicely.”
Mark Gutglueck

Fontana Market Loses $60,000 As Seven-Woman Blitz Robbery Team Overwhelms Clerk

A team of seven burglars acting in a coordinated fashion and using a crying baby as a diversion tactic succeeded in pulling off a creative blitz robbery of a market in the western unincorporated county area of Fontana on November 15, netting some $57,000 to $60,000.
There are reliable reports that the team has used the tactic elsewhere.
Seven women, all wearing masks in apparent compliance with COVID-19 precautions, filed two by two out of a white Dodge van without license plates that had pulled into the parking lot of the Village Ranch Market located at 15091 Merrill Avenue in the Fontana area on Monday, November 15 around 8.45 p.m., fifteen minutes before the market’s closing. One of the women carried a crying baby.
The Village Ranch Market is a store selling all order of edibles, including meat, vegetables, dairy products, other perishables, as well as canned, boxed and packaged goods. Located within a district heavily populated by Hispanic residents, the enterprise serves as a type of local de facto bank, cashing checks for known neighborhood residents, including payroll checks, stimulus checks and federal credit checks.
The market’s proprietor, Harvinder Sandhu, at that point had begun to tally the store’s proceeds for the day. With the crowd of people coming into her establishment, Sandhu quickly gathered up the checks, consisting of between $39,000 and $42,000, and $18,800 in cash, and hastily set it onto her desk and into drawers in the store’s office. She returned to deal with the influx of customers.
The woman who was carrying a baby made a point of explaining that she and those she was with were Armenian and new to the area. She expressed to Sandhu a degree of urgency relating to her baby, who was crying.
“She said, ‘The baby’s hungry and I need formula,’” Sandhu said, quoting the woman. When Sandhu showed her where the formula was, the young mother continued to engage with her, insisting that she wanted formula that was sold in small single use quantities. This struck Sandhu as odd, since she recognized that formula packaged in that fashion is not sold but made available to new mothers by hospitals upon being discharged from a maternity ward, intended as an immediate postpartum convenience to mothers so they can feed their newborns during the first week or so after they return home.
While the mother and child were monopolizing Sandhu’s attention, one of the other women used the opportunity this diversion created to military crawl into the store’s office, where she then allowed one of her accomplices inside, and the duo stole what was reportedly $50,000 in cash and checks.
While this was ongoing, two of the other women positioned themselves in the aisle next to the office as if to stand guard or give warning to the two women in the office if Sandhu should give indication she heard anything amiss or made a move toward going into the office. Meanwhile, the woman with the child said she would seek the formula she was looking for at a department store where she believed that product was available. At that point, two of the other women came to the sales counter to make purchases of less than ten dollars worth of merchandise, primarily candy.
The two women inside the office, who had found the cash and checks on the desk and in the drawers, also ransacked Sandhu’s purse, which was in the office, leaving it open, and then exited the office while Sandhu was engaged in making the candy sales.
At that point, the women, with the baby and the loot, exited the store and fled in the unmarked white Dodge van they had arrived in.
Shortly thereafter, Sandhu said, she went into the office, and discovered the cash and checks missing. In her words, she made a “panicked call to the sheriff’s department.”
She was able to piece together what had occurred later by reviewing the store’s security video system.
Sandhu made an immediate effort to contact the customers whose checks she had cashed but not yet processed though her bank to have them arrange to have payment on them canceled, a precaution she took even though those who have possession of the checks will need identification to cash them again.
An extensive report of the incident was made to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which secured medium resolution security camera video footage depicting the perpetrators, from which stills have been obtained. Because the women were wearing face coverings extending over their mouths and noses, no specific identifications have yet been made.
Sandhu made an effort to draw as much attention to what had occurred, posting an account of what had befallen her on the Village Ranch Market’s Facebook page, including photos of the team of thieves. Sandhu subsequently received phone calls and contact from other merchants who were victimized by the team. One of those was a store in Burbank, which was hit in October. Another call came in last night, Thanksgiving, from another merchant in Thousand Oaks. In the Thanksgiving heist, the women were accompanied by a man.
Sandhu made what is probably a futile plea to those who had victimized her for them to return the checks they had taken, since they cannot be converted to cash, so she can use them to make at least some recovery of the $57,000 to $62,000 she lost on November 15. “Just drop them off somewhere where they can be be returned to me,” she asked, in the hope that one of those who robbed her might read this account in the Sentinel.
An investigation is ongoing and detectives are yet attempting to determine if the application of face recognition technology to the videos can produce anything fruitful.
-Mark Gutglueck

Authorities Have Yet To Identify Pilot Killed In San Bernardino Peak Plane Crash

Neither the National Transportation Safety Board nor the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has identified the victim of a plane crash that occurred in the San Gorgonio Wilderness on November 20.
Initial reports were that plane wreckage involving a two-seat Glasair III that went missing Saturday was found roughly 40 miles east of Big Bear City.
While that report said the plane, carrying a single pilot, was in “mountainous terrain,” a point 40 miles east of Big Bear City is in the desert roughly five miles north of Twentynine Palms. More recently, the Sentinel was informed, the plane came down roughly 1.23 miles west of San Bernardino Peak in the San Gorgonio Wilderness area about 5 miles east southeast of Angeles Oaks.
The pilot was killed in the impact.
The plane left Camarillo Airport in California on November 20, with a destination of Phoenix-Deer Valley Airport in Arizona. It was reported as having gone missing on Saturday, November 20.
The Glassair III, a single-engine craft, was described as an “experimental” model.
It is unclear how it was known that the airplane crashed where it did, though based on available information, a report of the crash was relayed to the both the San Bernardino County Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department early Sunday morning. It took personnel with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s search and rescue team six hours of hiking in difficult terrain to reach the crash, after which a sheriff ’s helicopter was vectored to the location. While that aviation unit hovered above the crash location, a National Transportation Safety Board official was lowered to the ground with San Bernardino County Fire Department personnel and a sheriff’s investigation team.
The fire department personnel assisted in the effort by finding, securing and safely establishing landing zones for other aircraft involved in the operation.
The pilot’s remains were in the custody of the coroner’s office in San Bernardino on Tuesday, at which time work to positively identify the corpse was under way.
The pilot was the sole occupant of the plane.
The preliminary indication from the Federal Aviation Administration was that the crash was an “accident,” with pilot error the likely cause.
-Mark Gutglueck