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In what carries with it the potential for being a significant challenge to the political status quo in Fontana, civic reform activist Shannon O’Brien is running against Mayor Acquanetta Warren in this year’s municipal election.
A business owner, nonprofit chief executive officer and head of a political action committee, O’Brien, a former office-holder, has participated in Fontana politics at multiple levels in the past. Her decision to launch herself into the very heart of the city’s governance and the thicket of controversy in a city that has experienced social, financial and political adversity historically as deep or deeper than any other city in San Bernardino County comes after the incumbent mayor has involved herself in a series of scandals that leave her more vulnerable than she has ever been in her now two-decade-long political career.
O’Brien served on the Fontana Unified School District Board of Education in 2013 and 2014. She was also a member of the executive committee of the San Bernardino County School Boards Association and was a founding board member of the Inland Empire Association of Black School Educators. In 2016, she purposefully detailed herself out of the political limelight, opting to operate from the shadows while managing her husband’s successful campaign for the Fontana Unified School District Board of Education. Consequently, Jason O’Brien was elected in his first foray into elective politics, making him the first Black man elected to the Fontana School Board.
Shannon O’Brien said she has an innate feel for the political pulse of the Fontana community, such that she recognizes both the shortcomings and positive achievements of local government, the sense of frustration people are experiencing side-by-side with their aspirations, and she believes she can apply attainable solutions in a way that will benefit Fontana’s 217,000-plus residents.
“I have professional background, education and life experience that will make me an effective mayor,” she said. “I will be respectful of the voters, transparent with their tax dollars and hold myself accountable to them. Our current mayor does not operate this way.”
Nowadays, a conversation with O’Brien can only go on for a few minutes before she steers the topic back to Warren, who is the reason O’Brien is running for mayor. In the initial reckoning, there are two undeniable similarities between them: Both are Black women and both exude political ambition. Beyond that, O’Brien insists, the differences are stark.
For starters, Warren is a Republican who espouses what she maintains are conservative values while hewing to the values that define the modern GOP. O’Brien is a Democrat who embraces all of the progressive ideals her party affiliation implies.
Fontana has put a priority on development and economic growth during Warren’s tenure as mayor. In 1997, five years before Warren was appointed to the city council and 13 years before she was first elected mayor, Fontana was the county’s fourth largest city, with a population of 137,000. At that point, its political leadership had embarked on an effort to resurrect the city, which had seen its public treasury looted by a previous city manager who had been in place for the 14 years between 1973 and 1987, during which time in exchange for bribes he had engineered the use of taxpayer-defrayed loans and bond money to pay for the infrastructure built to support aggressive development on the city’s south end that left the city with more than $300 million in bonded indebtedness and loan installments paid at a rate of $3.14 million quarterly or $12.56 million yearly for 30 years. Moreover, the city was wrestling with the legacy of the contamination left behind after the 1987 shuttering of the Kaiser Steel Mill, not to mention the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the Hells Angels and the base of the California chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and the home of its West Coast grand wizard. Warren upon becoming mayor continued the strategy of having Fontana grow its way out of its disfigurement, and at present it has grown to be neck and neck with the county seat, San Bernardino, as the county’s largest city with a population now approaching 218,000.
While many, in particular the land speculators and development community who have achieved a considerable profit, celebrate Fontana’s growth, many question whether the price Fontana residents have had to pay in terms of surrendering their quality of life in accommodating that development represents a valid trade-off. In particular, Warren and the ruling Fontana City Council coalition she leads has been criticized for allowing an excess of both high-density residential development and warehouse construction into the city. Indeed, so intensive has the proliferation of warehouses and logistical/trucking facilities in Fontana been under Warren’s watch, her promoters and detractors alike have dubbed her with the sobriquet “Warehouse Warren.” For many, warehouses entail greater liabilities than benefits, as they believe whatever positive economic advancement such projects represent, the short-term infusion of capital those undertakings entail is ultimately offset when the relatively poor pay and benefits provided to those who work in distribution facilities and warehouses are considered, along with the proliferation of large diesel-powered semi-trucks that are part of those operations with their unhealthy exhaust emissions and the bane of traffic gridlock they create, not to mention the damage to local roads that comes about from the large trucks.
Among those displeased with the Warren regime’s embrasure of warehouse development is California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who in July filed a civil suit against the city over the city council’s approval the previous month of a 205,949-square foot warehouse to be located at the corner of Slover and Oleander avenues, directly adjacent to Jurupa Hills High School. The state attorney general’s lawsuit sought to have the approval of the project rescinded, and asserted Warren and the city council based their decision on an inadequate environmental review of the project, which failed to appropriately analyze, disclose, and mitigate the project’s environmental impacts.
“Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the City of Fontana is required to implement all feasible mitigation measures to reduce harmful air pollution and other significant environmental impacts of the Slover and Oleander Warehouse project,” Bonta said. “Plain and simple: Everyone has the right to breathe clean air where they live and where they work.”
Warren and the council majority that approved the project, Bonta said, took advantage of residents in Fontana “who live at the intersection of poverty and pollution. Fontana residents shouldn’t have to choose between economic development and clean air. They deserve both. Unfortunately, the City of Fontana cut corners when it approved the Slover and Oleander Warehouse Project. The Slover and Oleander Warehouse Project will be constructed in a low-income south Fontana neighborhood that suffers from some of the highest pollution levels in all of California. Over 20 warehouses have already been built within a mile of the project site, in an area that encompasses two public high schools and serves as home to hundreds of Californians. Collectively, these warehouses generate thousands of daily heavy-duty diesel truck trips. As a result, local residents and workers suffer from some of the highest exposures statewide to fine particulate matter, which are inhalable microscopic particles that travel deep into human lungs and are linked to increased risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and asthma attacks. They are also heavily exposed to ozone and toxic chemicals that can cause a wide array of other concerning health problems. We’re going to court to compel the city to go back and take a hard look at the environmental impacts of this project – and do all it can to mitigate the potential harms to local residents and workers – before moving forward.”
While Bonta may be Warren’s most vociferous and powerful opponent in Sacramento, O’Brien is on a full tilt to being the mayor’s most articulate and committed political rival in Fontana.
“Acquanetta Warren has served as the mayor of Fontana since 2010,” O’Brien said. “During her past twelve years in this role, it appears that the city’s strategy for economic development has been to construct tract homes and warehouses. I understand that people desire affordable housing, but it is lazy and shortsighted to just put houses all over the place, without offering opportunities for economic growth that will ensure that the residents and future home buyers can comfortably pay their mortgages.”
O’Brien decried the suspension of sensible land use policy that has occurred during Warren’s mayoralty, in particular the unbridled development of warehouses, which she said were imposing environmental havoc on the city’s neighborhoods populated by the city’s most impoverished residents who do not have the wherewithal to stand up against City Hall. “A disproportionate number of the residents where those warehouses are being built are brown and black,” O’Brien said. “The mayor knows that. She is not standing up for her own constituents. When it comes down to whether she is going to represent the people who elected her or the big money interests, she sides with the money every time.”
The justification Warren gives for allowing more and more warehouses to be built in the city – that they will provide employment to city residents – is downright false, O’Brien said. “The jobs available in warehouses do not provide a livable wage by which laborers there can support a family, and in any event will not last,” O’Brien said. “We also know that the warehouse industry is moving towards robots and automation that will replace human labor, so at the end of the day, Fontana will continue to be a bedroom community, where people commute outside of the city for their livelihood.”
O’Brien noted that in recent weeks, Warren has publicly called for social justice reform. That is mere window dressing the mayor has trotted out in an election year, O’Brien said. Warren’s base of support, she observed, adheres to the status quo in terms of how the courts provide a different and more favorable brand of justice to those who have wealth than to those who are impoverished as well as the unwritten codes by which law enforcement agencies are run.
“Acquanetta Warren is both Black and a woman,” O’Brien said. “So am I, but the similarity ends right there. Many people are not aware that she is a conservative Republican and a delegate for the Republican Party.”
O’Brien said it was difficult to know whether Warren’s questionable political associations were an outgrowth of a wrongheaded political philosophy, a lapse in judgment or a calculated decision to align herself with those of a certain ideology because it would advance her personally and politically.
“I have been trying to figure out why this woman does not respect American Democracy and the Constitution of the United States,” O’Brien said. “She cast her delegate votes for Donald Trump to be the president of the United States. She laughed, ate and took selfies with him, while knowing that he is a lunatic who prompted right wing extremists’ groups, such as the Proud Boys, to overthrow our government.”
O’Brien questioned Warren’s integrity and basic honesty, citing action she had taken two-and-a-half years ago in terminating then-City Manager Ken Hunt, who had at that point been serving in the capacity of city manager for just under 20 years. During virtually all of the time he was employed during Warren’s tenure as mayor, Hunt was well-thought of by Warren and the council, so much so that he had advanced to become the second highest paid city manager in the state. But in the weeks before Hunt was abruptly terminated in July 2019, something occurred to cause a radical breach in his relationship with Warren. One report held that Hunt had confronted Warren about an incident of bribetaking she had been involved in. The actual basis of the falling out between the mayor and city manager was not disclosed, per a confidentiality clause that Warren insisted be inserted into Hunt’s lucrative termination agreement with the city.
“Fontana seemingly violated the Brown Act, California’s open government law, when it approved a settlement agreement with former City Manager Ken Hunt in 2019 and it now refuses to release any records showing why elected officials paid him more than $1.1 million to leave his post three years early,” O’Brien said. “Mr. Hunt’s departure originally was framed by Mayor Warren as a retirement, but the city manager’s employment agreement is clear that Hunt would receive no severance if he left in that manner. Even if the city council had voted to terminate his contract without cause, his severance package required only 12 months of pay, yet Fontana paid him for 18 months through a settlement agreement.”
O’Brien said Warren is hiding something, and the way the mayor is using taxpayer money to buy the former city manager’s silence is a dead giveaway that Warren cannot be trusted. O’Brien said she was committed to being transparent with taxpayer dollars, should she become elected. That transparency should apply, she said, to the $1.1 million severance package provided to Hunt, including the reason the city manager was able to walk off with that kind of money for not working. “The City of Fontana does not have the right to spend our money, especially that amount of money, without explanation,” O’Brien said. “It’s a ridiculous amount, and if I become elected, I plan to get to the bottom of it.”
O’Brien said Warren has been in office too long, and even if she herself does not succeed in getting the incumbent out of office, Fontana’s citizens should take steps to end the mayor’s hold over the city.
“I support term limits for the mayor position and city council members because I believe that elected officials have a tendency to get comfortable in their positions of power and become more and more distanced from the interests of constituents over the years,” O’Brien said. “As a businesswoman, I understand that relationships are important for getting things done; however, I do not believe that accepting campaign or contributions or arrangements from warehouse manufacturers and housing developers to rubber-stamp projects that will result in unacceptable levels of air pollution means you are acting in the best interest of constituents. Warren has been mayor for twelve years and her legacy will be poisonous air and a bunch of homes stacked in small lots.”
A Southern California native, O’Brien grew up in Carson, the first-born child of Dennis and Jerrie Harris. She and her younger brother, Damon, attended local public schools and participated in youth sports programs. “Our father coached all of our teams growing up, and he was a great motivator,” says O’Brien. “From him I learned to be tenacious in pursuit of my goals and to create a path for myself that would allow me to honor my values and integrity.” Shannon credits her mother with her spiritual upbringing and academic skills. “She made sure I belonged to the Disney Book Club and attended Sunday school regularly,” O’Brien said.
After graduating from Banning High School in Wilmington, Shannon attended Howard University in Washington, DC, where she met her husband, Jason O’Brien. The two married during their junior year of college, after meeting in a political science class. “We were both political science majors,” says Jason. “It worked out great because we studied together, dated and got married within the span of a semester.” Despite initial skepticism from parents and friends, the two wed after just four months of dating. After graduation, they moved to California, where Jason joined the Los Angeles Police Department, and Shannon completed a master’s degree in public administration at California State University, Long Beach. “We have made sacrifices for each other during our thirty years of marriage, and it has paid off,” says Shannon. “Accomplishing goals is something we do well together.”
The O’Briens moved to Fontana in 2003 with their son, Jason, Jr., in tow, and started a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs for students and families. Jason, Jr., now aged twenty-five, was her inspiration for the organization. She explains, “I sought to help parents support their children socially as well as academically because we all need tools and encouragement during the parenthood journey. I am grateful that the organization has grown and become a staple of the Inland Empire over the past fifteen years.”
In addition to the nonprofit organization, she also serves as managing partner of a language interpreting company and actively fundraises through a political action committee she co-founded with twenty of her Fontana neighbors. “I feel fortunate to be able to do so many things that benefit my family, neighbors and the broader Fontana community,” said Shannon. “Through business ownership I have been able to create jobs and opportunities for others, as a nonprofit executive I have supported families, and through political involvement, I have advocated for impactful leadership that shall ultimately improve the conditions and circumstances for others.”
O’Brien officially began her campaign for mayor of Fontana on January 4, 2022, when she submitted her first required candidate document to Fontana City Hall. “I told a few friends and colleagues that I’d planned to run, but had not actually filed any paperwork until the first weekday of the new year,” O’Brien said. “I decided to start 2022 with a jolt that would propel me forward with intense focus and dogged determination.”
By Mark Gutglueck
The Ontario Planning Commission on Tuesday cleared the way for the Ontario City Council to approve the conversion of a large swathe of dairyland in what remains of the fast dwindling and now defunct Chino Agricultural Preserve to permit 5.333 million square feet of warehouses, factories, foundries and business parks to be constructed on property at the south end of the city.
The planning commission’s action was taken in the face of considerable resident opposition, which was at one point acknowledged by Commissioner Nancy DeDiemar.
Divulged in the staff report for the project was that the development that is to occur in the area, designated by the city as the South Ontario Logistics Center/Ontario Ranch Business Park, will require a significant suspension/negation of the city’s previous planning precepts for the area, reflected in the need to amend the city’s general plan, modify its land use plan and land use policy and change the land use designation – i.e., the zoning – on the more than 219 acres at issue in the action.
“In order to implement the specific plan… the project includes a general plan amendment to change the land use designations on 219.39 acres of land from 157.06 acres of low-medium density residential (5.1-11 dwelling units per acre) and 62.36 acres of business park with a floor area ratio of 0.55 to 184.22 acres of industrial and 35.17 acres of business park with a floor area ratio of 0.6, and modify the future buildout table to be consistent with the land use designation changes,” the report states.
The project falls within the Ontario Ranch area, the development standards for which were established after Ontario succeeded in annexing on November 30, 1999 8,200 acres of the 15,200 acres that remained in the Chino Valley Agricultural Preserve, which was previously unincorporated land functioning under the auspices of the Williamson Act in the late 1990s. Chino laid claim to the other 7,000 acres. The Williamson Act provided landowners with tax breaks as long as the property was used for agricultural purposes.
The commission in making its recommendation on Tuesday night essentially abrogated the land use ideals – calling for the property to be developed residentially – that had been put in place in accordance with the rationale for the annexation.
More tellingly, however, city staff’s report on the item stated that the project would result in no fewer than 16 negative impacts relating to the categories of traffic congestion, noise, global climate change, cultural resources, air quality and agricultural resources. None of those impacts, the staff report stated, could be fully mitigated to a level of “less than significant.” Thus, in making its recommendation that the city council proceed with the project, the commission was called upon by city staff to, and in fact did, make a finding of “overriding considerations” in making a recommendation that the project be allowed to proceed.
Of note was that there is no developer identified as the project proponent. Rather, the property’s owners are specified in relation to the project. It is the identity of those owners that best explicates why both city staff and the members of the planning commission had been given marching orders by the city council to make a recommendation to them in favor of the project proposal. The owners include Pocamo, LLC; the George Borba Family Trust; George Borba, Jr., the County of San Bernardino, the Rudy Haringa Trust and Gerben Hettinga. The Borba Family is one of the most prominent, wealthiest and socially/politically influential in San Bernardino County. Pete Borba was a Portuguese immigrant and dairyman who came to the Chino Valley in the 1920s and was the progenitor the Borba Dynasty. His son, George Borba, was fabulously successful.
As the owner/partner of George Borba & Son Dairy, he was both a director and president of the California Milk Producers Cooperative and the Los Angeles Mutual Dairymen Association, as well as a member of the Challenge Creamery Association. He was president of the California Milk Marketing Agency and an influential member of the Alliance of Western Milk Producers. For 22 years George Borba was a director of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency. He was a founder of Chino Valley Bank, later known as Citizens Business Bank, and he was chairman of the board for both Chino Valley Bank and Citizens Business Bank as well as CVB Financial Corp. for 38 years.
The extended Borba Family included Joan Borba, who was both a San Bernardino County Municipal Court judge and later a Superior Court judge. The George Borba Family Trust numbers as its beneficiaries George Borba’s widow, Dolores; George Borba, Jr. and his wife Jennifer; George Borba’s daughters Kim Borba, Linda Gourdikian, Cynthia Podmajersky and Victoria Rynsburger, whose husband, Andrew Rynsburger, is the scion of a long-established Chino Valley dairy dynasty.
Because of the multiple issues relating to the South Ontario Logistics Center/Ontario Ranch Business Park, the Ontario City Council, which must ultimately make the binding and definitive decision on the development of the property, sought political cover such that it would be able to avoid being held to account for suspending the city’s land use, zoning and development code in order to give go-ahead to a project with 16 unmitigated environmental impacts. Having the planning commission provide it with a recommendation of the project, the council members believe, will provide them with a fig leaf behind which they can hide, and maintain that they were simply confirming the judgment of a blue-ribbon panel, the members of which had considered the matter closely. The commission is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the council. At several junctures during Tuesday night’s meeting, several of the commissioners deferred to city staff on technical questions relating to zoning and environmental considerations pertaining to the project, justifying approval of the project based not on their own authority but the presumed expertise of the staff and the city’s consultant, Kimley-Horn and Associates, Inc.
The unanimous vote of the commission to recommend that the city council allow the conversion of the property to industrial and business park use was roundly opposed by the overriding number of city residents and others who participated in Tuesday night’s meeting by phoning in their comments.
Of note was that labor unions, which have an established pattern of supporting development projects in Southern California, went on record against the project. Among those labor organizations expressing opposition were Local Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 398, the District Council of Ironworkers and Teamsters Local 1932.
There was one exception. Juan Olmedo, a representative of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said he wanted to “speak in support of the South Ontario Logistics Center Specific Plan. The developer has made a solid commitment to ensure that this project will support our local community residents. This construction job pays a good, livable wage, benefits and a retirement to our construction workforce.”
Anthony Noriega, the director of District 5, League of United Latin American Citizens of the Inland Empire, said, “As planning commissioners you need to recognize the Ontario community is opposed to this project.”
Noriega blasted the city and the commission for not only its support of the South Ontario Logistics Center but other distribution center, industrial and warehouse projects in the recent past.
“As is evident in this project and other warehouse projects, you support the expansion of warehouses without considering the negative impact on quality of life of the entire community, including our existing neighborhoods,” Noriega said. “Your past and current decisions have failed to protect the quality of life in existing neighborhoods at the detriment of its residents and citizen and of the individual communities. The increased pollution, noise, truck traffic that will be caused by this warehouse project and other projects has already caused and will continue to cause great harm to the health, quality of life to Ontario communities.”
Ontario city officials did not cooperate with the Sentinel in providing the correct spellings of the names of those who participated in Tuesday night’s meeting. The names given below are phonetic approximations based on what was heard during the course of the teleconferenced hearing.
Evan Marshall, representing Californians United for a Responsible Economy, said, “I’m here before you today to request the planning commission not take any action on the project at this hearing. Evidence… shows the project has significant environmental impacts that the draft environmental impact report did not adequately disclose, analyze and mitigate. These are violations of the California Environmental Quality Act that the city has not yet corrected. The planning commission cannot make a recommendation to certify the draft environmental impact report or approve the project until our comments and the comments of other members of the public have been fully addressed in a legally adequate final environmental impact report. Regarding health risks, the draft environmental impact report failed to evaluate the cumulative lifetime cancer risk as a result of project construction and operational emissions. Californians United for a Responsible Economy experts provided evidence demonstrating that the project’s cumulative emissions exceed the air district’s significant threshold of ten-to-one million. This is a significant impact that requires mitigation. Regarding air quality, the draft environmental impact report concluded the project criteria air pollution emissions would result in a significant and unavoidable air quality impact, but the draft environmental impact report fails to consider all feasible mitigation measures for these air quality impacts which is required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Our experts proposed additional air quality mitigation which the city must consider. The draft environmental impact report thus must be revised to ensure that the proposed project emissions are mitigated to the fullest extent feasible. The draft environmental impact report and the project have many unresolved issues. The city has not yet responded to our comments or other public comments and has not revised or recirculated the revised draft environmental impact report in response to comments. It is therefore premature for the planning commission to recommend certification of the final environmental impact report for approval of the project to the city council.”
Irene Chisholm said, “I’m calling with objections to putting more industrial buildings and rezoning in that area from residential to industrial, especially since we have a shortage in housing. I ask that you reconsider that and be responsible in the development of Ontario. Ontario is supposed to be a balanced community. I think it’s off balance because more attention is paid to the industrial areas than to the residential areas and the residents who have spoken up against more industrial areas, industrial buildings and the pollution of the air and the traffic it brings when you put more industrial buildings in the area. You cannot put a wall up to keep the air in one area. The air goes all over. The pollution that’s brought in by bringing in more large industrial, bringing in more trucks, affects the area that we live in in Ontario [and] other areas that surround us. Look at what you are doing to the city of Ontario. Plan strategically and make it a balanced plan.”
Sean Silva, who identified himself as a member of Californians United for a Responsible Economy, said the project “failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act in accurate assessments of environmental impacts on air quality, public health, greenhouse gas emissions, energy and transportation and traffic concerns. A statement of overriding concerns seems inappropriate, to say the least. We believe a project like this, with potential for five million-plus square feet of industrial park and warehouse buildings must stand for more rigorous environmental study, which was not done. We believe. in a project like this, developers must prove that their proposed project does to the upmost the least damage to the environment it can do. That is a hallmark of the California Environmental Quality Act. None of that has been achieved. The city has decided to accept an inadequate report on this project and the developer has not made any commitments on its own to address the gap between their project and the safest alternatives.”
Raymond Smith said, “What is the overriding benefit to we who live here? We don’t want to live like this. You don’t want to live like this. I ask you to deny this project.”
Lois Sicking Dieter, an engineer employed in the analysis of air pollution by the California Air Resources Board, said, “The proposed project for the South Ontario Logistics Center is before you to allow nine warehouse/logistics center buildings of a total 5.3 million square feet on 219 acres of currently agricultural land to be rezoned to industrial and business park use.”
Sicking Dieter said her opposition was “based on several aspects to include unavoidable significant environmental impacts identified in the environmental impact report as agricultural resources, air quality, historic resources, greenhouse gas emissions, and vehicle miles traveled. The mitigation monitoring and reporting program proposed to mitigate these environmental impacts is inadequate and falls short of true mitigation. Staff provides a statement of overriding considerations as a remedy for those aspects that have ‘unavoidable’ significant environmental impacts.”
Sicking Dieter referenced “concerns regarding the evaluations for agricultural resources, land use and planning, air quality, noise, biological resources, population/housing, where 157 acres were zoned for low to medium residential units of the 219 acres now proposed for an industrial warehousing and logistics center, and hydrology/water quality. Several appear to warrant designation as having a ‘significant environmental impact.’ In the big picture, I ask you, are these environmental impact report elements and staff recommendations defensible if challenged?”
Though Chino Airport was built previous to World War II and was in existence as a civilian aviation facility when Ontario annexed the 8,200 acres in the agricultural preserve in 1999 and zoned the property residentially shortly thereafter in anticipation of the demise of the agricultural preserve, Ontario officials now maintain that the property has been rendered unsuitable for residential development because of the airport’s presence.
According to the staff report, “In response to current industrial market demands, the general plan amendment proposes industrial development along the project’s Merrill Avenue frontage. Additionally, the general plan amendment proposes business park development along the project’s Eucalyptus Avenue frontage, which will serve to buffer future medium density residential land uses [consisting of] 11.1 to 25.0 dwelling units per acre allowed to the north, across Eucalyptus Avenue, from the heavier industrial uses that would be allowed by the proposed general plan amendment. The project site is located within the Chino Airport Influence Area and is impacted by safety zones 1, 3 and 6. The safety zone policies and criteria provide restrictions that limit the height and placement of buildings, lot coverage, concentration of people, the storage of hazardous materials, and excludes or limits sensitive land uses (residential, schools, day care centers, hospitals, etc.). The project site is also impacted by existing aircraft traffic patterns from Runway 3-21, where aircraft fly directly over the project site while making touch-and-go landings, a maneuver where aircraft land on a runway and take off again without coming to a full stop; the pilot then circles the airport in a defined pattern to allow many landings to be practiced in a short time. State law requires that local jurisdictions ‘rely upon’ the compatibility guidance provided by the California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook (published by the Caltrans, Division of Aeronautics) for establishing compatible land uses. The existing general plan low-medium density residential land designation is considered an incompatible land use within the safety zones and prohibits residential land uses within Safety Zone 1, limits residential density to one dwelling unit per 2-acre lot in Safety Zone 3 and limits 300 people per acre within Safety Zone 6. The proposed general plan amendment from business park and low-medium density residential to industrial and business park would create land use consistency with Chino Airport and satisfy the criteria set forth in the California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook.”
This week there was an unexpected pivot in the oftentimes cutthroat competitive balance between trash haulers in the largest geographical county in the lower 48 states, as Waste Management Inc., a dark horse in the sweepstakes for the refuse handling franchise in Chino Hills, prevailed against three other finalists for the seven-year contract.
While Waste Management is the largest and by some accounts the most politically connected of all trash companies in the United States, over the last three decades it has lost position and influence in San Bernardino County, while three other companies were either maintaining leverage, expanding or breaking into the garbage-handling fold locally. Nevertheless, while all of the currently better-established companies throughout the 20,105 square mile county jurisdiction have striven for and in some measure obtained dominance within certain circumscribed areas, none has succeeded in achieving a much-desired monopoly. Waste Management capturing the Chino Hills franchise reverses its decades-long contraction in the county, and gives it a renewed opportunity to be a serious player in the region.
Waste Management once had a far larger presence in San Bernardino County than it does currently. It has been the City of Chino’s franchised hauler for more than four decades. Until 2001 it had the trash handling franchise in Upland, but lost that in a bidding competition with Burrtec Waste Industries. In the early to mid-1990s, Waste Management was on a trajectory to land an exclusive right to excavate what was touted as being on the verge of becoming the world’s largest landfill at a location in the Mojave Desert between Amboy and Cadiz in San Bernardino County’s vast outback, to which trash from Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura and western San Bernardino County would be hauled. That plan foundered however, and Waste Management failed in other endeavors in San Bernardino County, such as capturing the contract to manage the county’s multiple landfills and obtaining the trash hauling franchises in the cities of Colton and San Bernardino when those municipalities dissolved their sanitation divisions in 1996 and 2015. Waste Management yet has the trash disposal franchise in Chino and one unincorporated community in San Bernardino County. With the addition of the Chino Hills contract, Waste Management has now reestablished a firm toehold in San Bernardino County, concentrated at its extreme southeast corner.
The primary loser in the Chino Hills City Council’s decision is Republic Industries, the nation’s third largest trash hauler, which until Tuesday’s decision had franchises with three of the county’s cities – Chino Hills, Colton and Loma Linda, in the last of which it functions under the name of CR & R Incorporated. As the now-immediate past franchised trash hauler in Chino Hills, what Republic Industries had at stake in the competition was remaining as a major player in the garbage industry in San Bernardino County, that is, as a company that held the contract for trash hauling in San Bernardino County’s ninth largest city, Chino Hills; its fourteenth largest city, Colton; and its twentieth largest city, Loma Linda. The loss of the Chino Hills contract erodes Republic’s standing and influence in San Bernardino County, perhaps compromising its ability to expand its presence therein. Also losing out were Athens Industries and Burrtec.
For Athens, failing to gain the Chino Hills contract was a serious disappointment, but a less serious blow than the one that Republic sustained in losing the franchise. Nevertheless, Athens had a bit more riding on the competition than did Burrtec. Indeed, going into Tuesday’s meeting, Athens was the odds-on favorite to walk off with the prize, the franchise to serve Chino Hill’s 85,081 population, its roughly 22,000 households and its businesses.
The city staff report on the item considered by the city council recommended that the city enter into a seven-year contract with Athens based upon what was essentially a dollars and cents analysis of the proposals put forth by Athens, Waste Management, Burrtec and Republic Services. According to the report, Athens came out on top when the final proposals for the rate revenue each company projected it would collect annually in the first year of the franchise contract were considered. Athens Services said it was prepared to offer the city’s residents and businesses trash hauling services in the first year for a total rate revenue of $10,508,000. Waste Management projected a total rate revenue of $10,676,000. Burrtec’s and Republic Services’ costs were well off that mark at $12,452,000 and $12,725,000 respectively. Athens Services also proposed the lowest basic per household rate for the city’s residents, at $25.80 per month. Waste Management came in at $26.25. Republic Services, which is currently charging Chino Hills residents $25.02 per month for the service being provided, proposed increasing the monthly rate to $26.45. Burrtec’s proposed monthly charge to residents was nearly off the chart, at $31.44 per month.
An issue that tripped up Republic Services was unrest among its employees, which not only required the company to increase its employees’ wages in a way that caused the company to escalate its rates but within the last two months interrupted trash service to the city that undercut the faith city officials had in the company.
“Recently, the city was impacted by a work stoppage related to labor negotiations involving the city’s current franchise hauler, Republic Services,” the staff report states. “The work stoppage lasted 8 days and caused significant issues for both residents and businesses throughout the city.”
Accordingly, Republic Services was not considered a serious contender and was essentially out of the running since shortly after the second round of the franchise competition began.
City staff gave Athens the nod.
“Staff is recommending city council award the franchise agreement for integrated solid waste management services to Athens Services, subject to completion of outstanding items and minor revisions approved by the city manager and the city attorney, because [it] returned the most cost-effective proposal for the city’s residents and commercial customers,” the staff report states. “Additionally, HF&H [i.e., the city’s consultant assigned to evaluate the competing proposals] and city staff conducted reference checks on the final companies and Athens Services received the highest score overall.”
City officials also said that the city’s ratepayers would save $1.5 million over the life of the franchise by the city granting the contract to Athens rather than the second-place competitor, Waste Management.
After all that, however, three of the four members who voted on the franchise contract bypassed Athens. That decision was based, in the main, on the same reason why only four of the city’s five council members voted on the matter.
Councilman Brian Johsz is employed with Athens Services as a director of government affairs. He did not participate in the selection process based on a legal conflict of interest his participation would embroil him in were he to vote on the matter.
During the first round of competition on the project late last year, while Johsz was yet serving in the capacity of mayor before the council’s December internal reorganization of its leadership posts, seven waste haulers had offered proposals to the city.
Vying with Republic, Athens Services, Waste Management and Burrtec Waste Industries were Valley Vista Services, Ware Disposal, and a joint venture involving Urbaser and American Reclamation.
As it turned out, Valley Vista Services, Ware Disposal, and Urbaser/American Reclamation all underbid Republic, Athens, Waste Management and Burrtec. In a decision that Johsz did not take part in and in which Councilman Ray Marquez dissented, Councilman Peter Rogers, Councilwoman Cynthia Moran and then-Councilman Art Bennett followed a recommendation by the city’s consultant, HF&H, to spurn the three lowest bidders, and instead consider only the four highest bidders.
For many, this was a departure from logic and the standard normally applied in awarding governmental contracts.
Urbaser/American Reclamation had been what could essentially be categorized as the “low bidder” for the franchise contract, having agreed to deliver comprehensive trash service to the city’s customer base for $8.075 million annually. Further, according to HF &H, Ware was the second lowest bidder at $10.084 million, and Valley Vista had the third lowest bid at $10.257 million. Nevertheless HF&H told the council it should only consider the bids from Waste Management at $10.582 million, Athens at $11.242 million, Republic at $12.885 million and Burrtec at $13.483 million. This was because, according to HF&H Senior Vice President Laith Ezzet and Chino Hills City Manager Benjamin Montgomery, Waste Management’s, Athens’, Republic’s and Burrtec’s extensive collection experience in Southern California along with their company sizes and financial resources made them better suited to serve as Chino Hills’ trash hauler.
Somewhat paradoxically, according to HF&H, the consideration that Urbaser/American Reclamation, Valley Vista and Ware were going to charge less than the other four companies indicated they were less suited and less qualified for the franchise. Another factor that favored Waste Management, Athens, Republic and Burrtec, HF&H calculated, was that the Chino Hills trash hauling franchise represented a much smaller portion of Waste Management’s, Athens’, Republic’s and Burrtec’s overall operations, at least in the United States, than it represented to Urbaser/American Reclamation, Valley Vista and Ware.
According to a staff report presented to the city council prior to the November 9 meeting, the amount of money Republic and Waste Management stood to make off of the Chino Hills contract stood at less than one percent of those companies’ total revenue and less than 3 percent of Athens’ total annual revenue. Burrtec did not provide data to make any comparison, but it appears that Chino Hills would represent under 5 percent of that company’s operations if it were to obtain the contract. In the cases of Valley Vista and Ware, the amount of money those companies stand to make off of the Chino Hills franchise is far greater in terms of their overall annual revenue, at 16 percent and 22 percent, respectively. In the case of Ubaser, which has partnered with American Reclamation in California, the Chino Hills franchise revenue would be less than one percent of its earnings worldwide, but would be far greater than that in terms of its revenue from local operations, as the company is just now seeking to establish a foothold in the United States. HF&F and city staff interpret dependence upon Chino Hills for that much of a company’s revenue to be a show of potential weakness, instability and questionable corporate and financial resiliency.
“While the proposal from Urbaser/American Reclamation has the lowest overall cost as measured by total annual rate revenues at approximately $8.1 million, HF&H believes the proposed rates may not be sustainable over the term, particularly since Urbaser/American Reclamation [chose] to offer street sweeping services at no additional charge,” the staff report for the November 9 meeting stated, implying the Urbaser/American Reclamation bid was an unrealistic one. Staff suggested the case was the same with Valley Vista’s and Ware’s bids.
While Councilman Marquez did not buy that reasoning in November, Councilors Bennett, Moran and Rogers did, and Urbasser/American Reclamation, Valley Vista and Ware were eliminated from the running.
There was widespread skepticism about what had occurred. Not just the lowest but the three lowest bidders in the competition had been eliminated in one fell swoop, leaving the company that employed the mayor, which had tendered the third highest of seven bids, in the running. That begat suspicion that the entire bidding process was rigged, such that the council had already dispensed with the lowest bid standard so that in making its final decision the council would not be bound by any objective constraints and would be free to confer the franchise upon the company that put a roof over the head and food on the table of their mayoral colleague.
Ultimately, questions would emerge over the bidding in the second round. Waste Management, which in the initial stages of the competition entered a $10.582 million total annual rate revenue bid, adjusted it slightly upward, in keeping with a recent surge in inflation, to $10,676,000. Athens, however, made no such allowance for inflation, instead moving in the opposite direction by dropping its $11.242 million bid to $10,508,000, more than $160,000 lower than what Waste Management offered to accept per year. Republic, which had been buffeted by the labor strike the week before Christmas, was squeezed to the point that it could only make a modest reduction of the $12.885 million per year bid it made last year to $12,452,000. Burrtec reduced its $13.483 million 2021 bid to $12,725,000. When members of the public considered everything that was at play, particularly the fashion in which Athens was able to tender a bid that was, comparatively speaking, just enough below Waste Management’s to be convincing, the conclusion was that Athens had to be functioning on inside information. Johsz, whose status on the council had been reduced to councilman from mayor when Art Bennett in December was elevated to the mayoralty, might not be participating in the vote that was to financially benefit the company that employed him, people figured, but that did not keep him from signaling to those who needed to know what numbers the competition was coming in at.
According to Assistant City Manager Rod Hill, the second-round bids were due by December 16, 2021. He said that all of the bids were received by that date, but he did not indicate whether the bids were sealed, who at City Hall had access to those bids and whether the Republic, the Burrtec or, in particular, the Waste Management bids had come in before the Athens bid.
If, indeed, the fix had once been in such that Bennett, Moran and Rogers were headed toward ensuring Athens was to get the contract, the heat had grown too great for that eventuality to take place.
Ultimately, the council voted 3-to-1, with Rogers dissenting, to award the franchise contract to Waste Management. Rogers, who favored jettisoning the three lowest bids in November, Tuesday night advocated on behalf of Athens based on it having tendered the lowest bid.
The intimations of impropriety and influence peddling such as those that attended the competition for the Chino Hills trash hauling franchise that was settled this week are a commonality in San Bernardino County with regard to the refuse industry.
In the early 1990s Norcal Waste Systems, Inc. had a contract with San Bernardino County relating to trash and refuse handling at the county’s landfills. Kenneth James Walsh, a vice-president of Norcal, in 1994 began negotiations with the county relating to Norcal assuming control over the county’s landfills, representing an up-rating of the company’s contract from roughly $18 million to more than $40 million. In 1994, Norcal hired San Bernardino County’s former chief executive officer, Harry Mays, under whom the county had entered into the original contract with Norcal, as a consultant. Mays thereafter arranged for the provision of bribes to his successor at the county, James Hlawek, and then pressured him to induce the county to provide Norcal with a more comprehensive landfill management contract. Thereafter, Mays and Hlawek arranged for themselves further personal financial gain from the new Norcal contract. Mays negotiated a more lucrative consulting agreement with Norcal in January 1995. The revised contract provided that Mays and his company, Bio-Reclamation Technologies, Inc., were to receive a $1 million fee when the county approved the Norcal contract, plus additional payments if Norcal’s revenue increased through the issuance of bonds to finance landfill closures. Mays agreed to split Bio-Reclamation Technologies’ fees 60 percent to 40 percent with Walsh. Hlawek’s share of the payoffs was quantified by prosecutors as $227,000.
During 1995, Hlawek used his authority and influence as county administrative officer and chairperson of the county’s negotiating committee to obtain county approval of the Norcal contract. Among other things, Hlawek convinced the county board of supervisors to award the contract without competitive bidding. The county board of supervisors, led by then Supervisor Jerry Eaves, approved the Norcal contract on September 12, 1995.
From 1995 to 2000, the County paid Norcal more than $200 million. During the same period, Norcal paid $4.2 million to Mays and Bio-Reclamation Technologies under their consulting agreement and Bio-Reclamation Technologies, in turn, paid more than $1.1 million to companies owned by Walsh. Hlawek, in statement to the FBI, intimated that bribes had been paid to Eaves, but was not able to quantify those.
Rail-Cycle, a proposed joint venture between Waste Management Inc. and the Santa Fe Railway to haul 21,000-tons of garbage per day produced in Southern California to a 4,900 acre landfill to be established at a location just off the Santa Fe line at Bolo Station east of Amboy in the Mojave Desert was abandoned after reports of bribes being conveyed to Eaves and another member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, Marsha Turoci, and the simultaneous release of the so-called Miller Report compiled by former San Diego County District Attorney Ed Miller, The Miller Report cataloged Waste Management’s history of unlawful activity in expanding its operations, including intimidation, extortion and bribery of public officials. The Rail-Cycle debacle and the Miller Report precipitated a contraction of Waste Management’s presence in San Bernardino County in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 1997, the so-called McDonald Report, written by former Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Mark McDonald, detailed the manner in which Burrtec had offered a superior franchise proposal to take on the trash hauling assignment in Colton when that city closed out its municipal sanitation department in 1996, only to be outmaneuvered by Toarmina Industries, which was subsequently absorbed by Republic. According to McDonald, through “gifts” donations and other gratuities “tantamount to bribery” Toarmina induced then-Colton Mayor George Fulp and councilmen Don Sanders and Abe Beltran to award the contract to Taormina, despite an evaluation done by city consultant R.W. Beck and its principal, Richard Tagore-Erwin, which delineated how the Burrtec service proposal in the franchise bid was superior in all particulars to that provided by Taormina.
In 2015, when San Bernardino shuttered its sanitation division, Waste Management dropped out of the competition to obtain the county seat’s trash hauling franchise early in the process, leaving the field to Burrtec and Athens. Both companies made comprehensive proposals, which were subject to vetting and evaluation by then-City Manager Allen Parker, then-community development director Bill Manis, and then-Public Works Division Supervisor Chris Alaniz. Before that evaluation was completed, evidence of Burrtec’s violation of the competition protocol emerged, as the company came into contact with a number of city officials and employees other than the three – Parker, Manis and Alaniz – and the city consultants – Andy Belknap and Richard Tagore-Erwin – designated as those with whom the competitors were permitted to communicate. In particular, then-City Councilman John Valdivia, who is now the city’s mayor, made pointed requests of both competitors for campaign money, going so far as to specify that he wanted $10,000 from each. Athens, adhering to the competition protocol and believing such a donation could be construed as a bribe, did not comply with Valdivia’s request. An evaluation of the franchise proposals carried out by Belknap and his company, Management Partners, using ten-year cost and revenue projections, demonstrated that in terms of revenues coming into the city, Athens offered the superior proposal, and that based upon Athens’ salary and employee benefits and profit-sharing arrangement, the city’s sanitation division employees who were to be absorbed by the franchise holder would fare better as Athens employees than as Burrtec employees. The council, however, prompted in large measure by Valdivia and relying on a report attributed to then-Public Works Director Bill Manis which was in actuality written by Alaniz, defied the advice of then-City Manager Allen Parker, who recommended granting the franchise to Athens, and awarded the contract to Burrtec. Subsequently, Alaniz was hired by Burrtec into a senior management position.
At present, Burrtec has plum franchises in the six largest of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities – San Bernardino, Fontana, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville and Rialto. The company also has franchises in ten of the county’s other municipalities – Apple Valley, Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, Yucaipa, Adelanto, Upland, Grand Terrace, Highland, Montclair and Barstow. Additionally, it is the franchised garbage handler in the unincorporated San Bernardino County communities of Amboy, Angeles Oaks, Yermo, Victorville, Valley of Enchantment, Twin Peaks, Arrowbear, Baker, Barton Flats, Bloomington, Blue Jay, Skyforest, Silver Lakes, Cedar Glen, Cedarpines Park, Cima, Crestline, Daggett, Del Rosa, Devore, Dumont Dunes, El Rancho Verde, Forest Falls, Fort Irwin, San Antonio Heights, Running Springs, Nipton, Oak Glen, Newberry Springs, Mount Baldy, Mountain Pass, Haloran, Helendale, Hinkley, Kelso, Lake Arrowhead, Lenwood, Landers, Lucerne Valley, Ludlow and Mentone.
Nevertheless, Burrtec suffered a strategic corporate setback in 2013. In the aftermath of the Norcal scandal, the county ended its contract with that company for the management of the county’s landfills. In the 2001 bidding to replace Norcal, Burrtec prevailed. One of the reasons Burrtec had obtained that contract was because the county assumed that Burrtec, as the county’s most prolific garbage hauler, would divert much or all of that trash into the county’s landfills, generating money for the county in the form of tipping fees. By 2010, however, the county was concerned that Burrtec, which owns and operates two landfills in Riverside County, was diverting the lion’s share of the trash it picked up to Riverside County, thereby depriving San Bernardino County of revenue.
The county, after seeking to cajole and wheedle Burrtec into channeling significantly more of the trash picked up in the county into the county’s dumps and failing, opted against extending Burrtec’s contract to run its landfills and put the contract out to bid.
Three companies – Athens, Burrtec and Waste Management – made bids on the contract. At issue in those bids was more than the cost those companies would charge to operate, manage and maintain the county’s waste disposal system, consisting of five active landfills and nine transfer stations. Also considered under the county’s analysis was the amount of revenue each of those companies could generate into the county in the form of tipping fees at the landfills. Athens is the largest trash hauler in Los Angeles County and has trash hauling franchises in Riverside and Orange counties as well.
Burrtec provided the lowest bid – $15.8 million – for the task of operating the landfills. Athens and Waste Management bid $16.687 million and $17.2 million, respectively. The county gave the nod to Athens because that company was able to guarantee that it would import into the county’s landfills 800,000 tons of municipal solid waste and processed green material per year during the 10-year term of the contract, which will bring gross revenue to the county in the amount of approximately $22 million per year. Burrtec was able to guarantee solid waste importation that would provide the county with annual tipping fees at its landfills that were substantially less than that offered by Athens, at $6.3 million.
Despite its primacy as a trash hauler in Los Angeles County, Athens has no municipal franchise in San Bernardino County. For that reason, its corporate executives coveted the Chino Hills franchise, which in this case, because of its employment of a member of the city council, eluded it.
Mark Ban’s blue collar-to-white collar success story that came across as something of a Horatio Alger novel about a young man from a humble background devoting himself to honest hard work and public service to achieve a comfortable and respectable middle-class status was shattered when he was fired from his position as the general manager of the Joshua Basin Water District for embezzlement last week.
The members of the Joshua Basin Water District Board of Directors voted unanimously to dismiss Ban from his position overseeing the district and its operations on January 19. In an official statement, the water district informed the public that an internal investigation determined Ban had engaged in action that was in violation of the terms in his employment agreement, such that his dismissal from the water agency was effective immediately.
Ban’s departure did not leave the district rudderless, as he had been placed on leave last month, and the board on December 15 had elevated Sarah Johnson, the district’s director of administration, to the position of interim district general manager.
At the district’s December 15 meeting, which was conducted by teleconference, Ban participated remotely and electronically as did other district officials, including Board President Rebecca Unger, Vice President Tom Floen, and directors Stacy Doolittle, Jane Jarlsberg and Mike Reynolds. At that meeting Reynolds tendered his resignation due to his then-anticipated relocation to Arkansas, and discussion ensued about the process of selecting his replacement.
The minutes of the meeting which were subsequently submitted to the board for approval on January 19, were signed by Johnson over the title “acting general manager.
The meeting minutes for the board’s specially called December 23 meeting, which was also held by teleconference, show the meeting was initiated at 1 p.m. and that Ban’s fate was discussed for 46 minutes that day without him participating, with a “closed session public employee performance review” that began at 1:03 p.m., with Unger, Floen, Doolittle and Jarlsberg participating, along with Johnson and Anne Roman, the district’s finance director; Jeff Hoskinson, the district’s legal counsel; Nate Kowalski, the district’s labor counsel; and auditors Jeff Palmer, Andy Beck and Christopher Brown. The board of directors adjourned back into open session at 1:49 p.m., and it was stated that no reportable action was taken.
There are only a limited number of minutes of the Joshua Basin Water District’s meetings from 2021 available. Those for the November 17 meeting show that Autumn Rich, an accounting supervisor, was present at that meeting, at which Ban acted in his capacity as the district’s general manager.
Indications are that there was some recognition among district officials as early as October that something was amiss with the district’s finances, which brought an auditing team into play. The district has not disclosed how much in the way of its funds were missing. Johnson said that as the matter involved a personnel issue, the district would not go beyond its statement that Ban had been terminated on grounds relating to his being out of compliance with his employment contract.
Ban had been with the Joshua Basin Water District nearly four years, first as the assistant general manager for operations from February 2018 until June 2019, then as the interim general manager from June 2019 until February 2020 and as the general manager from February 2020 until he was terminated.
Ban’s story was, or seemed to be, an inspiring one of a working-class lad who had spurned book learning in favor of hard work and had made his way in the world to a place of distinction on the basis of that working-class ethos.
After graduating from high school in 1997, Mark Christopher Ban signaled to the world that he wanted to join the workforce immediately, rather than wasting time in college. He applied for dozens of positions, taking whatever work was available. In 1998, at the age of 19, he was hired by the Hi-Desert Water District as a laborer in its water operations division, doing water main replacements, installing new, and doing repair work on old, primary pipelines used to move water from the district’s purification and treatment plant to the district’s customers. After his probationary period as an employee elapsed in 1999, he continued doing water main replacements as a certified pipelayer for three years. In 2002 he became a heavy equipment operator for the district. In 2004, having accumulated enough capital to buy or lease his own equipment and the experience to operate it competently and dexterously, he braved a foray into the private sector as a heavy equipment operator. A little more than a year later, however, he returned to the Hi-Desert Water District.
He remained with the Hi-Desert Water District for 13 years, initially as a construction and maintenance operator from 2005 to 2007, a cross-connection specialist and then a water quality technician from 2007 to 2008.
By that point, Ban had come to understand that there was value to education, particularly if it was directed toward cultivating a specific marketable skill set. In 2008 and 2009, he attended San Bernardino Valley College, where he studied water supply technology, taking classes in water backflow, backflow assembly and backflow testing. He later supplemented his education with seminars and classes offered by the American Water Works Association in cross connections and backflow assembly testing, and then from the California Department of Public Health in water distribution and water treatment. With the expertise he gained in this manner, in 2008 he moved into the position of production superintendent, in which capacity he remained until 2010. In March 2010, he was promoted to director of operations for the district. In March 2013, he was elevated to the position of assistant general manager.
At that point, Ban had seemingly arrived at the threshold of the American Dream, having achieved a position of responsibility, authority and respect many college graduates never attain. As the Hi-Desert Water District’s second-in-command, he was provided with a salary of $165,190.90 a year along with $14,101.10 in other pay, and $34,423.40 in benefits for a total annual compensation package of $213,715.40
It grew better from there. In February 2018, he was hired by Joshua Basin, which provides water to the Joshua Tree community, including Downtown Joshua Tree, Monument Manor, the Joshua Highlands, Panorama Heights, Friendly Hills, Copper Mountain Mesa and Sunfair. He initially took a slight pay cut when he moved into the assistant general manager for operations post with Joshua Basin, with his annual salary dropping from the $165,000 range he had earned at the Hi-Desert Water District to around $130,000, but upon being propelled into the acting district manager role in June 2019, his salary was boosted to $164,000 annually, at a near par to what he had been making with HI-Desert. When he was given the full-fledged district manager’s post, he could boast an annual salary of $176,322, additional pay of $30,128 and benefits of $44,313, such that he was receiving a total annual compensation of $250,763.
Ban’s Achilles’ heel as district general manager was in business operations, as he had no actual training or experience in accounting or budgeting other than what he had picked up on the job, and his very slim academic exposure did not consist of any business, management, financial management or accounting courses.
Moreover, the Sentinel has learned, Ban’s haphazard handling of finances apparently extended to his own personal financial affairs. One report, unconfirmed by the Sentinel at press time, was that while he was employed with the Hi-Desert Water District, Ban was borrowing money from some of the employees he supervised there.
On Friday, January 21, detectives with the sheriff’s department, having been alerted to what was termed “an embezzlement” at the Joshua Basin Water District, sent deputies to make contact with Ban, who was in the process of retrieving his personal effects from the Joshua Basin Water District office at 61750 Cholita Road in Joshua Tree. He declined to make a statement to those deputies.
At press time, Ban had not been arrested.
Unwilling to run against an incumbent officeholder in her own party to stay in the political game, State Senator Connie Leyva has declared her intention of taking on arguably the most powerful Republican incumbent in the county in this year’s upcoming election.
Leyva, a former labor leader celebrated as a progressive Democrat who has represented California Senate District 20 since 2014, is moving to unseat San Bernardino County Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman and end his control of the county’s governmental structure, which he has in large measure dominated since 2017.
The match-up is an intriguing one, as it pits two hitherto successful politicians against one another, each of whom has certain advantages and corresponding disadvantages going into the contest.
In Hagman’s case, one of his advantages consists of his more extensive experience as a politician, and wider depth and breadth in office. He has continually held elected office since 2004, first as an elected councilman in Chino Hills, in which position he was elevated to mayor, followed by six years in the California Assembly from 2008 to 2014, at which point he was termed out of office and jumped to the county board of supervisors. Leyva, by contrast, held no elective office until she ran successfully for State Senate on her first attempt in 2014. Since 2004, Hagman has run in six elections, in 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2018, winning every race. Leyva has endured only two contests, in 2014 and 2018.
Hagman is far more ruthless than Leyva.
An A-type personality, Hagman is possessed by an ambition that knows few limits. As 2014 approached and he was about to be termed out of the Assembly with the expiration of his third two-year term in California’s lower legislative house, Hagman surveyed the political landscape for where he could next land. The Fourth District supervisor’s post was held by another Republican, one-time Ontario Mayor Gary Ovitt. Ovitt had demonstrated that a moderately well-funded Republican could win in the Fourth District, despite voter registration numbers that favored Democrats. Calculating he could use his connections and the political chits he had accumulated while he was in the Assembly to his advantage and raise far more campaign money than the unsuspecting Ovitt, Hagman blindsided his fellow Republican, announcing he was going to run for supervisor while he had another year to serve as assemblyman.
Hagman simultaneously moved to depose Robert Rego, who was at that point the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. Rego, an accountant by profession, had been particularly successful in raising funds for Republican candidates and causes as chairman. Hagman callously shunted Rego to the side, and took over the reins of the local party structure. As the county party chairman, Hagman had control of local party money, and it was immediately clear to Ovitt that he could no longer rely on GOP support to run his reelection campaign for supervisor. Ovitt opted out of running for reelection in 2014, clearing the way for Hagman to claim the Fourth District supervisorial post for himself.
While in Sacramento as assemblyman, Hagman had hired Mike Spence as his chief of staff. Spence had a natural feel and command of all things political. Like Hagman a Republican, Spence, after attaining a degree in political science from UCLA, had become active in promoting the GOP and gravitated to become then-Republican Assemblyman Joel Anderson’s chief of staff before he went to work for Hagman. An absolute demon of efficiency, Spence went on to a political career of his own, as both a councilman and mayor of West Covina. He virtually singlehandedly ran Hagman’s campaigns, dictating to those election workers acting on Hagman’s behalf what they needed to do to keep Hagman in office. Spence was the man behind Hagman’s throne. In addition to running Hagman’s campaigns, he worked on his boss’s behalf in softening up the other politicians Hagman had to work with, engaging in political horsetrading in the backroom, cutting deals, lining up votes so Hagman could accomplish his goals, advising the assemblyman and then the supervisor on how to proceed, what to do, what to say, what not to do, what not to say and coordinating the timing on what needed to be done or said. Spence was a whirlwind of energy and action, stringing together a host of accomplishments in two or three days that most others could not achieve in a month. In 2016, however, when a series of events revealed that Spence was struggling with a substance abuse problem, Hagman cashiered him before he could fully undergo rehab.
Upon coming into the Fourth District supervisor’s post, Hagman encountered a county administration headed by Greg Devereaux, the county’s chief executive officer. Devereaux had been Fontana city manager and then Ontario city manager prior to being hired by the county in 2010. Devereaux’s recognized talent was his ability to run a large organization with a multitude of moving parts efficiently, and he was credited with having rescued Fontana, which was teetering over the abyss of bankruptcy when he became city manager there in 1994. Within three years Devereaux turned the former steel town around financially. Subsequently in Ontario, under Devereaux’s watch, that city had grown to become the most stable and financially secure of all 24 of San Bernardino County’s municipalities, with two-thirds of a billion dollars channeling through all of the city’s funds annually. At the time Devereaux was brought in to manage the county, three years of a nationwide economic depression had led to diminishing tax and operating revenue that was resulting in a contraction of governmental services and authority. Upon arrival, Devereaux had imposed a litany of fiscal disciplines upon the county’s governmental structure that required concessions from county employees and their unions on previously signed and supposedly binding contracts, which he seemingly miraculously obtained and effectuated, thereby avoiding massive layoffs and firings. Devereaux had been entrusted with a vice-hold on county governmental operations from the top down, authority which Hagman himself yearned for. Unable to abide a rival with reach exceeding his own, Hagman worked to ease Devereaux out of his position, orchestrating his retirement in 2017, three years before Devereaux’s contract with the county was scheduled to elapse.
Hagman espouses a conservative and Republican-oriented political philosophy, including decrying unionism with its persistent pressure to up wages irrespective of employee performance, and the demands of public unions in particular to increase government employees’ paychecks and benefits, thereby escalating the cost of government and the burden on taxpayers. Upon being faced with demands from public employee unions, knowing those unions are willing to expend substantial amounts of money to convince the electorate to vote out of office any politician who will not support giving government workers regular salary increases, Hagman has voted as a supervisor over and over again to up taxes and fees to keep those county employees’ raises coming.
In Hagman’s circle, all is devoted to furthering his political objectives, which consist first and foremost of perpetuating Hagman’s tenure in office. While Leyva has built a successful political career so far, she has not demonstrated the same level of determination to climb over others to maintain herself as an elected official. With the decennial redistricting that took place in California late last year in accordance with the 2020 Census, Leyva had her 20th Senatorial District reapportioned out from underneath her. The entirety of the city of Chino, where she and her husband, Al, live, was moved into the newly-drafted Senate District 22, which also includes Ontario, Pomona and West Covina, as well as Baldwin Park, the home of incumbent District 22 Senator Susan Rubio, also a Democrat. Unlike Hagman, who did not flinch at having to curtail the roles being played by Rego or Ovitt or Spence or Devereaux when they got in his way, Leyva does not have the stomach to go toe-to-toe with Rubio.
Leyva’s strength consists of her bona fides as a union leader. It was her union affiliation that served as the platform for her successful run for State Senate in 2014. She was president of the California Labor Federation prior to running for office. Once in office, where she joined other pro-union Democrats who were so numerous they constitute supermajorities in the upper legislative house of the State Senate in Sacramento as well as the lower house Assembly, Leyva was in her element, one in which she did not have to be confrontational, but could achieve things by rolling consensus, willing to go along with whatever her fellow and sister Democrats have wanted to do, while they are in equal lockstep with what she has wanted to accomplish.
In one respect, at least, Hagman is not too much unlike Leyva. He is personable and non-confrontational in his regular interaction with people, mild-mannered, indeed jovial, and always agreeable in public. It is in the backroom, in the run-up to and preparation for what is to come when official votes are taken that he shows his mettle, oftentimes by proxy, where those he has already conformed to his will put the final touches on the action he has worked out in advance.
Hagman’s strength lies in his being a Republican and, paradoxically, his main vulnerability, should Leyva have the skill to exploit it, consists of his being a Republican.
Likewise, Leyva’s potential strength in going up against Hagman is that she is a Democrat. At the same time, her Achilles’ heel is that she is a Democrat.
Voter registration in the Fourth Supervisorial District stands strongly in favor of the Democrats. As of this week, 101,876 or 44.1 percent of the Fourth District’s 230,908 registered voters are affiliated with the Democratic Party. Republicans in the district number 61,233 or 26.5 percent, while 52,198 voters or 22.6 percent have aligned themselves with no party. The remaining 6.9 percent are registered as members of the Libertarian, Green, Peace & Freedom, American Independent or other more obscure political parties.
Voter registration numbers in San Bernardino County in general and in the Fourth District have been trending in favor of the Democrats for some time. In 2014, when Hagman, as an incumbent Republican assemblyman, vied against Gloria Negrete-McLeon, then an incumbent Democratic congresswoman, the numbers in the Fourth District were not quite as lopsidedly in favor of the Democrats, yet still significant at around 11 percentage points. In 2018, when Negrete McLeod, no longer in Congress but having been elected to the Chaffey College Board of Trustees, again vied for supervisor against Hagman, the voter registration numbers had shifted further in favor of the Democrats, by more than 14 percent. Despite that seeming advantage, Negrete-McLeod lost, albeit relatively narrowly, both times.
In 2014, in the final November run-off election, Hagman prevailed 24,480 votes or 52.11 percent to 22,502 or 47.89 percent. In 2018, in a straight head-on contest in the June Primary, Hagman again overcame Negrete-McLeod, 25,468 votes or 53.41 percent to 22,213, or 46.59 percent.
Generally, Republicans turn out to vote in percentages of their overall numbers that are higher than the percentage of Democrats who vote. Thus, in those cases where the Democrats have only a marginal lead over Republicans in registration numbers, the Republicans usually offset the Democratic registration advantage. Additionally, in San Bernardino County the Republican Central Committee has generally demonstrated itself to be more coordinated, efficient, skilled and committed than the Democratic Central Committee. Moreover, Republicans are more willing to donate and expend money in an effort to get members of their party into office. By bringing sound electioneering tactics to bear, the Republicans have on a consistent basis been able to outhustle their Democratic counterparts. This has included being more effective in tailoring electioneering material intended to promote Republican candidates to appeal to the large body of independent or unaffiliated voters, i.e., registered voters who are neither Republicans nor Democrats. In San Bernardino County, this applies equally in state and federal elections which are officially partisan as well as to local races which are officially nonpartisan.
Hagman was clever enough to refrain from letting the Democratic voters in the Fourth District know that he is a Republican, and thus picked up some stray votes from Democrats.
In both 2014 and 2018, Negrete-McLeod proved to be a lackluster candidate. She did not campaign aggressively, and squandered what should have been an advantage by failing to drive Democrats to the polls in sufficient numbers to match the Republicans who turned out to vote. In the November 2014 election, Negrete-McLeod was 73 years old. In the June 2018 election, she had not quite eclipsed her 77th birthday. Hagman in those elections was 48 and 52, and proved far more energetic and flexible than his rival. Leyva is 26 years younger than Negrete-McLeod.
One comparison that could favor Leyva this year is that she has won convincingly in every race she has been in. She trounced her opposition with 62.4 percent of the vote in 2014 and 69.5 percent in 2018. While Hagman cruised to comfortable victories when he was running for the Assembly in Republican-friendly districts in 2008, 2010 and 2012, he won far less convincingly when he ran for the city council and for supervisor. To beat Leyva, he will need to replicate what he achieved against Negrete-McLeod, something which might not be doable if Leyva can activate her supporters as she did in her senatorial races.
Hagman earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at UCLA. Leyva holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in communicative disorders from the University of Redlands.
It remains to be seen whether Leyva is capable of converting her status as a state senator into a fundraising mechanism and simultaneously inspiring the Democratic Party and the unions with which she is affiliated to provide her with sufficient capital to match the electioneering capability that Hagman has demonstrated in the past and will most assuredly again display in this year’s campaign, such that she can prompt enough of the far more numerous Democrats in the Fourth Supervisorial District to vote, either at the polls or by mail, to more than match the high percentage of Republicans who will, as always, participate in the elective process. If she can do that, and if she, unlike Negrete-McLeod, is willing to get out on the hustings and take the campaign to her rival, there is a fair prospect that she can oust Hagman, whose board colleagues more than a year ago reappointed him to an unprecedented second two-year term as the board’s chairman, a clear indication that he is considered San Bernardino County government’s undisputed leader.