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.
By Mark Gutglueck