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.”