In the span of less than two months, a dynamic reshuffling of the lines of authority at the West Valley Water District has taken place.
From the outside, the district appears to exist as a conventional and somewhat obscure governmental entity dedicated to the routine provision of water to a 32 square mile expanse that includes some but not all of three incorporated cities in San Bernardino County – Fontana, Rialto and Colton – and all of unincorporated Bloomington and a very slender slice of unincorporated Riverside County. Nevertheless, in recent years the West Valley Water District has generated enough political intrigue to more than match any other jurisdiction in far-flung 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County.
In November, Kyle Crowther, a board member with district since 2017, announced he had been provided with an employment opportunity out of state starting in December and was accordingly resigning his post. More recently Clifford Young joined in the exodus from the West Valley Water Board. Once a dynamic political force, Young had been atypically sedate over the last year, a circumstance brought on by the death of his wife, Jacqualynne, which came after a three-year battle with cancer. Word comes now that Young himself is facing a health challenge, and his resignation was necessitated by his need to move from Rialto to live with family members who are to look after him during his upcoming treatment and presumed recovery.
For more than four years, both Crowther and Young were in the thick of a series of political struggles set within personal and combined power matches. That either would resign or even consider resigning was until recently virtually unthinkable.
Young’s tenure on the water district board began four years before Crowther was elected. Indeed, Young’s political status was established well prior to his election to the West Valley Water position in 2013.
Nine years earlier, in 2004, then-Fifth District San Bernardino County Supervisor Jerry Eaves, the sole Democrat on that panel, was ignominiously forced to resign as both state and federal prosecutors were dueling over which would prosecute him for a long list of violations of the public trust, including fixing government contracts, bribetaking, conflicts of interest on county relationships with vendors, developers, franchise holders and the like. While state charges against Eaves were pending, federal prosecutors filed, repeatedly, political corruption charges against Eaves, only to have them tossed out by Federal Judge Manuel Real, who ruled that the two-tracked state and federal prosecutions of Eaves constituted subjecting Eaves to double jeopardy. The federal prosecutors thereafter would recraft the charges in an effort to avoid cloning the state prosecutorial effort, only to see Real dismiss them once again. Eaves’ lawyer timed it so he entered into a plea arrangement with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office immediately after Judge Real had made one of his dismissal rulings and before the federal prosecutors had time to react. In that deal, Eaves was to receive no jail time in exchange for resigning from office. Faced with the vacancy on the board, Eaves’ erstwhile colleagues voted to appoint the Republican Young to replace him, giving the GOP a five-vote lock on setting county policy. Young became the first African-American to serve on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.
After serving out his appointed term, Young, a PhD, went back to his post in academia, as the chairman of the School of Public Administration at California State University, San Bernardino.
While Young in his youth had been a Democrat, by the late 1970s he had become a Republican. His devotion to the GOP was such that he did his part, prior to 2009 when registered Republicans in San Bernardino County outnumbered Democrats and from 2009 onward at which point the number of registered Democrats in San Bernardino County eclipsed the number of registered Republicans, to ensure Republican primacy in San Bernardino County. An element of this consisted of his determination to serve as a model for African-Americans locally to demonstrate that they are welcome in the Republican Party and their interests are better served through the Republican approach to governance than that of the Democratic Party. The West Valley Water District fell within the Fifth Supervisorial District, which had and continues to have the heaviest concentration of Democrats in the county. Nevertheless, the Republicans in San Bernardino County have a far more energetic and efficient political machine than their Democratic rivals. Young personally participated in keeping the Republicans on top.
While local races in California are considered to be nonpartisan, in San Bernardino County all of politics is steeped in partisanship. In the West Valley Water District, Democrats have for more than five decades held a commanding advantage numerically over Republicans. At present, of the district’s 48,317 voters, 23,903 or 49.5 percent are Democrats. In this way, they outnumber by a margin of more than two-to-one the district’s 10,107 Republicans, who compose 20.9 percent of the district’s voters. The 10,859 voters in the West Valley Water District who have no party affiliation outnumber Republicans. Nevertheless, the powerful San Bernardino County Republican political machine has over the last decade worked toward establishing a Republican majority on the board of the West Valley Water District.
In 2013, at which point the Democrats had asserted themselves to capture control of the West Valley Board, Young inserted himself back into electoral politics, capturing a position on the water board.
Two years later, he supported another Republican, Greg Young, to whom he was not blood related, in getting him elected to the board.
Two years thereafter, in 2017, Clifford Young ran for reelection and supported two other Republicans, Michael Taylor and Kyle Crowther, in their bids for board positions. Taylor was the former police chief of Baldwin Park and, like Young, has a PhD. The younger Crowther likewise was employed in law enforcement, as a Fontana School District police officer. Young was reelected, Taylor was elected to a full four-year term and Crowther succeeded in getting elected to the two-year term for the position he sought, that being to fill out the remainder of the term to which Alan Dyer had been elected in 2015. Dyer resigned from the district post in 2016.
Almost immediately after Taylor and Crowther were sworn in, they joined with Young and Young to suspend or place on administrative leave district general manager Matthew Litchfield; Assistant General Manager Greg Gage; the district’s human resources manager, Karen Logue; and the board’s secretary, Shanae Smith. They terminated chief financial officer Marie Ricci. That bold action was opposed by the lone Democrat on the board, Don Olinger.
By the end of 2018, however, a rivalry developed between Dr. Clifford Young and Dr. Michael Taylor, who, true to their respective alpha male personalities, sought control of the water district. Greg Young sided with Clifford Young, and Crowther followed Taylor. This put the Democrat Olinger into possession of the board’s swing vote. Ultimately, Olinger aligned himself with Taylor and Crowther.
In 2019, at Taylor’s behest, the district’s general manager, Clarence Mansell, hired Republican political operative and then-Hesperia City Councilman Jeremiah Brosowske into a $250,000 total annual compensation position as the district’s assistant general manager. Brosowske, who had a considerable track record running political campaigns but no experience, expertise, training or licensing relating to water operations, at once went to work on assisting candidates favored by Taylor in the upcoming election.
Also in 2019, with the enmity between Clifford Young and Taylor deepening, Clifford Young joined with West Valley Water District Chief Financial Officer Naisha Davis and West Valley Water District Assistant Board Secretary Patricia Romero in filing a whistleblower lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court naming as defendants Taylor; Crowther; West Valley Water District General Manager Clarence Mansell; West Valley Water District General Counsel Robert Tafoya and his law firm, Tafoya & Garcia; West Valley Water District Special Counsel Clifton Albright and his law firm, Albright Yee & Schmit; West Valley Water District Special Counsel Martin Kaufman and his law firm, the Kaufman Law Firm; and West Valley Water District consultant Robert Katherman. The suit further specified Ricardo Pacheco, who was at that time one of the West Valley Water District’s assistant general managers and was also a Baldwin Park city councilman, as a co-conspirator.
The lawsuit alleged that Albright, Kaufman and Katherman and/or their firms were given lucrative contracts with the district in exchange for bribes or hefty political contributions. The suit further propounded that Tafoya, who was Baldwin Park’s city attorney, had arranged for Taylor, who had previously retired as police chief in Baldwin Park, to be rehired as Baldwin Park police chief on a contractual basis in exchange for Tafoya being hired by the West Valley Water District. In tandem with this arrangement, according to the lawsuit, Pacheco as a member of the Baldwin Park City Council had approved his city’s contract with Taylor to serve as interim police chief and was rewarded with a $397,319.60 total annual compensation position as assistant general manager position at West Valley Water District, which was some $115,000 more than was being paid to the district’s general manager.
As the November 2019 election approached, the Taylor and Crowther political team, assisted by Brosowske, put together a strategy intended to neuter Clifford Young politically. They arranged for a young man, Angel Ramirez, who had involved himself in Republican circles and was active in supporting campaigns in his native Fontana, to move into a rental unit in east Bloomington, making him eligible to run against Clifford Young’s council ally, Greg Young, in that year’s West Valley Division 5 contest. Ramirez jumped into the race and Taylor then utilized $19,128.04 from his own campaign fund to help Ramirez, by both transferring money directly to Ramirez’s campaign or using it to pay for pro-Ramirez materials provided by a third party or independent expenditure committee.
Simultaneously, Taylor endeavored to assist the then-90-year-old Olinger in his reelection campaign against his challenger, another Democrat, Channing Hawkins, in West Valley’s Division 4. In support of the effort to keep Hawkins from replacing Olinger, Taylor utilized $22,620.48 from his own campaign war chest to help the incumbent by either transferring money from his electioneering fund to Olinger’s political account or purchasing electioneering materials in the form of ads or mailers for Olinger.
Also running in that year’s race was Crowther in the district’s Division 1.
Once the dust settled after the November 5, 2019 voting at the polls and the counting of mail-in ballots, Crowther had prevailed with 282 votes or 53.41 percent; Greg Young had held off Ramirez and another challenger by capturing 340 votes or 52.63 percent; and Hawkins had trounced Olinger by capturing 623 votes or 64.83 percent.
In the Division 4 and Division 5 races, Taylor had bet on the wrong horses. In the four weeks and two days between the election and the swearing-in of the three victors, it appeared that a new coalition involving both Youngs and Hawkins was certain to form, resulting in Clifford Young moving into a position of ascendancy over Taylor.
On the evening of December 5, 2019 as the board meeting during which the newly composed board was to be seated commenced, Clifford Young had hopes of being returned to the position of board president before the evening was over. In the early stages of the meeting, however, the chairman’s gavel was yet in Dr. Taylor’s right hand, and while he held it he made extremely skillful use of it. Following the swearing-in ceremony for the recently elected or re-elected members, the first order of business on the agenda was the reorganization of the board’s officers. As soon as the item was taken up, Taylor used his control over the proceedings to avoid the recognition of anyone else and gave expression to his newly informed opinion, based, he said, on his interaction with Hawkins since the election. Praising Hawkins as “a very bright and gifted person who has an amazing degree of maturity for a person of his age,” Taylor nominated Hawkins to the position of board president. In making the nomination, Taylor ignored the district’s long tradition of conferring the board presidency upon a member who has accumulated at least two years and more often four years or more tenure on the board.
Without hesitation and not waiting for Crowther to second the nomination, Hawkins himself voiced the second. The vote was then taken. It passed 4-to-0, with Greg Young abstaining.
On December 12, 2019, a week after Hawkins had replaced Olinger on the board, a letter from all but two of the district’s eighteen department managers was delivered to Hawkins and the remainder of the board, pressing them to relieve Clarence Mansell of his position as general manager. Complaining of low morale within the district staff, the letter stated, “General Manager Mansell has alienated employees by removing responsibilities from specific individuals to those who will do his bidding.” The letter spoke of “extreme concerns with regards to the executive management and overall unsatisfactory performance of General Manager Clarence Mansell, Jr.” and a continuing “lack of transparency, communication, honesty, professionalism and respect for employees of the West Valley Water District” that had led them “to the firm conclusion that the only way to save our water district is to change the leadership of the West Valley Water District.”
The board did not comply with the letter’s demand or request.
At issue was that the board could not allow itself to be seen as allowing district staff to be setting district policy and making personnel decisions that were the province of the board. Moreover, there was no one on staff in whom the entirety of the board had confidence sufficient to reach a consensus on as a replacement for Mansell. Brosowske, who was receiving a quarter-of-a-million dollars in total annual compensation to serve as assistant general manager, did not have the requisite knowledge or skill to run the district.
2019 had not fully run its course when a threat to the alliance between Taylor and Crowther emerged, growing out of Crowther discovering that month that Taylor had failed to disclose to him three months earlier that West Valley Water District Human Resources and Risk Manager Deborah Martinez was under investigation for tax evasion.
During the 2019 campaign, Hawkins had been made aware of how Brosowske was being deployed to politic on behalf of Olinger against him. Hawkins at that time indicated that if he were elected over Olinger, Brosowske would become a “dead man walking.”
Despite the consideration that from the time he was sworn into office sufficient votes to order Mansell to cashier Brosowske existed – those of Hawkins, Greg Young and Clifford Young – no action to terminate Brosowske was taken for four months.
In April 2020, in a face-saving arrangement for Brosowske, he tendered his resignation, and the district in accepting it conferred upon him a $154,884.80. severance package.
Mansell, the highest ranking staff member at the West Valley Water District, became a prisoner in his own office, as virtually all of the district’s department heads were at some level hostile toward him.
Despite the damage Taylor’s withholding of information relating to Martinez and the eventual criminal tax evasion charges that were leveled against her, Crowther remained for the most part closer to Taylor than to either Young or Young. While Taylor had to make some adjustments and accept certain aspects of Hawkins’s leadership and decision-making he was less than fully comfortable with, he managed to stay in step with Hawkins, more so than Young or Young. This gave Taylor one up on Clifford Young. With his wife’s death, Clifford Young became more and more distracted over the last year, and the rivalry between himself and Taylor less pronounced.
With Mansell still collecting his $282,014 per year total employment compensation package but having become virtually non-functional because of the disdain the district’s employees had toward him, the district board turned to Shamindra “Rickey” Manbahal, who had been hired as the district’s chief financial officer in 2019, to serve as the district’s de facto general manager. Manbahal was moved into the full-fledged general manager’s post last summer, after Mansell’s departure.
The board voted on January 13 to fill the vacancy in its ranks created by Crowther’s departure with Angela Garcia. Garcia is employed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Environmental Justice Inter-Agency Task Force and as an engineering geologist for the State of California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) Department of Toxic Substances Control. She has a bachelor’s degree in geology from Cal State Fullerton and a master’s degree in geology with an emphasis on environmental hydrogeology from Cal State Los Angeles. She is married to Fontana City Councilman Peter Garcia.
“Director Garcia is a highly qualified individual with years of technical, government, and outreach experience,” Hawkins said. “We’re excited to work with Director Garcia to provide more communities of the Inland Empire with safe, sustainable, affordable and reliable water for decades to come.”
Board Member Greg Young said that the district sought applicants to replace Crowther and that upon Garcia’s submission of her request to be considered the competition was essentially over.
“She is eminently qualified,” Young said. “As someone who is steeped in the technical aspects of water operations myself, I appreciate the opportunity to have someone with her knowledge and understanding on the board.”
No others applied for the post.
Greg Young told the Sentinel that with the departures of Crowther, who was for the most part aligned with Taylor, and Clifford Young, taken together with Mansell leaving last year, he sees an opportunity for the district to put aside the hard line personality differences that had bifurcated the board and roiled district staff for so long, such that “We can commit ourselves to doing what is in the best interests of the ratepayers and put political ambition aside.”
Asked if he anticipated that the departure of Clifford Young might lead to the substitution, or revival, of a rivalry between Taylor and Hawkins as the two remaining alpha types on the board, Young said, “I hope not.”
He said it was in both Hawkins’ and Taylor’s interest for the district to concentrate on relevant issues. He said there is no evidence of any lingering hostility between the two over Taylor’s $22,620.48 effort in 2019 to torpedo Hawkins’ electoral effort.
“They work well together when it comes to the supervision of the district,” he said. “By and large, our decisions on the board have been straightforward 5-to-0 votes about 95 percent of the time, with occasional disagreements that are more about governing philosophy. I am trying to work well with all three of my colleagues, and from what I see so far, they are getting along, but sometimes there is disagreement which is more over style and process than what we’re trying to accomplish. You will only rarely see issues of substance instead of style when those differences do manifest. Over the last six months, things have been very quiet, particularly as Board Member [Clifton] Young has been struggling in the aftermath of his wife’s death. I think we all, Board Member Taylor included, have compassion for what he has experienced and the pain he is going through. If there are going to be differences in the near term, they will probably come down to a fight over the upcoming budget process. I believe we are all on the same page with President Hawkins, who wants us to develop a five-year strategic plan to lay out what we want to accomplish in the district in the foreseeable future. For the most part, the disagreements you are likely to see at this point are not black and white but more over shades of gray.”
Young said that in the upcoming board effort to find a replacement for Clifford Young, he anticipates there will be “more discussion, spirited discussion and even debate” about competing applicants than there was about naming Garcia as Crowther’s replacement, which he said was a readily apparent “no-brainer.”
In the span of less than two months, a dynamic reshuffling of the lines of authority at the West Valley Water District has taken place.