By Mark Gutglueck
Mayor John Valdivia this week narrowly escaped being consigned to political oblivion through the intervention of his one remaining ally on the city council.
Two weeks after Third Ward Councilman Juan Figueroa on February 2 endorsed placing a measure on the June ballot to determine if San Bernardino residents would prefer to eliminate the city’s mayoral post as an independently elected one in favor of rotating the mayor’s gavel amongst the city council’s members, on February 16 he withdrew that support, allowing Valdivia to veto a city council request of the county registrar of voters to give the city’s voters just such a choice.
Valdivia took a gripping command of the governmental machinery in the county seat more than three years ago after he was elected mayor in the November 2018 election. He appeared at that time to be preparing himself a solid niche from which he could launch his next step up the electoral ladder, perhaps into a state legislative or federal congressional post. Over the last two years, however, Valdivia has plummeted from his seemingly inviolable position of political authority. He has struggled to level his flight and has for the time abandoned any thoughts of making his way to Sacramento or Washington, D.C., and is seeking to merely hang onto the mayoralty for another term. He remains in a holding pattern, with his political rivals and opponents aiming one fusillade after another his way.
On Wednesday night, the council appeared poised to dash his hope of remaining as mayor. At the last minute, Figueroa, with whom Valdivia’s political career now seems inextricably bound, swooped in to save him.
Few people can claim to have moved as far forward as John Valdivia and as few can be said to have fallen as far back.
In 2009, Valdivia made an inauspicious start to his political career, running for the San Bernardino City Council in the Fourth Ward. He was trounced, finishing third among four candidates with 182 votes for 5.68 percent. The second-place finisher, Joe Arnett, polled more than three times the number of votes Valdivia received. The winner, Fred Shorett, who would later become Valdivia’s most steadfast antagonist, garnered more than 12 times as many votes as did Valdivia, with 2,330 or 72.77 percent.
Valdivia did not quit, however. Two years later, he relocated into the city’s Third Ward, and ran for office by promising to ensure that denying salary increases to the city’s firemen would not be used as a strategy to stave off municipal bankruptcy. With the firefighters’ union’s support, he won, and took office in 2012. Valdivia managed to preserve for the firefighters their raises, but later that year, the city filed for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection.
In 2014, Valdivia initiated a run for Congress in the 31st Congressional District but then aborted the candidacy.
A year later, against Valdivia’s wishes, the city council in seeking to map San Bernardino out of bankruptcy, closed out its 148-year-old fire department in favor of an arrangement with the county to provide fire protection and emergency medical service to the city and its residents. The high cost of firefighter salaries and benefits was cited as the driving factor in that move. Valdivia survived that debacle when no one emerged to run against him in the Third Ward in 2015.
In 2018, Valdivia ran for mayor, challenging the incumbent, Carey Davis. Valdivia emerged victorious in that November’s contest with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
At that point, Valdivia enjoyed the support of both of the council’s two newly-elected members, whom he had supported in the just concluded election, Ted Sanchez in the city’s First Ward and Sandra Ibarra in the Second Ward. He also had the support of incumbent Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel and incumbent Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard. His opposition on the council at that time consisted of Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh District Councilman Jim Mulvihill, who collectively lacked the political muscle to effectively oppose him. In May 2019, a special election was held to select Valdivia’s replacement as Third Ward councilor, as he had been obliged to resign that post to move into the mayor’s slot. Prevailing in that contest was Juan Figueroa, whom Valdivia had heavily supported by transferences of money from his own campaign account.
Immediately upon Figueroa coming into office, Valdivia effectuated the removal of City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, whom he considered to be a vestige of the Davis Administration. He thereafter installed Travis-Miller’s assistant city manager, Teri Ledoux, into the position of city manager, in doing so boosting the salary of the soon-to-retire Ledoux so that she would be able to draw an annual pension approaching $190,000, which was roughly $70,000 more than she would have otherwise received. Through Ledoux’s promotion, Valdivia effectuated a virtual takeover of the city by which he had political as well as administrative/managerial control.
Valdivia’s time in the catbird seat would be short-lived.
In 2015, a citizen-sponsored initiative calling for the legalization of medical marijuana sales in the city passed. In 2016, the passage of Proposition 64 legalized the sale of marijuana for its intoxicative effect in California. A frenzy among would-be marijuana entrepreneurs seeking licensing and permits to open dispensaries, pot shops and operate cultivation facilities ensued. Many of those began providing money to Valdivia in what those marijuana business applicants later acknowledged were either or both implicit and explicit quid pro quos, with the understanding, or what they thought was an understanding, that their businesses would obtain permits to operate in the city.
What was going on did not remain under wraps for long, particularly when Valdivia failed to deliver on the promises he made to some of those who had paid him, and they began to talk openly about how the mayor had crossed them up. Moreover, word surfaced that other individuals and companies with proposals before the city unrelated to cannabis enterprises had either made political donations to Valdivia or payments to his consulting company with the expectation that their contracts, franchises or projects would be approved by the city council and city administration he controlled.
Before the end of Summer 2019, Valdivia alienated first Ibarra and then Nickel. In October 2019, Valdivia was on the outs with Sanchez. At that point, the only reliable votes on the council he could count on were those of Figueroa and Richard, while he found himself unable to muster the support of Mulvihill, Shorett, Ibarra, Sanchez and Nickel for any of his initiatives. Having effectively lost control of the council, Valdivia, growing increasingly frustrated, began to lash out at city staff, ultimately alienating then-City Manager Ledoux and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, both of whom were once safely within his camp.
In January 2020, Mirna Cisneros, Valdivia’s constituent service representative, and Karen Cervantes, his special assistant, went public with accounts of how Valdivia had pressured them to have sex with him. Cisneros related how Valdivia had solicited and received bribes. She also laid out how he used city money to travel nationally and internationally on business unrelated to the city, which included raising money for himself or his future political campaigns. Thereafter, Jackie Aboud, Valdivia’s field representative, came forward to say that Valdivia had squeezed her to have sexual relations with him, and that Valdivia had used his influence as mayor to provide favorable city treatment to his donors and supporters, while working to prevent city services from being rendered to his constituents who were not supporters, in particular those in the city’s Fourth and Seventh Wards, represented by his two longstanding rivals on the council, Shorett and Mulvihill. Alissa Payne, whom Valdivia had appointed to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, publicly surfaced with accounts that were in some fashion similar to those of Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud with regard to sexual advances the mayor had made toward her. Don Smith, who had worked on Valdivia’s campaign for mayor and was subsequently hired by the city to serve as Valdivia’s part time field representative, offered specific accounts of bribetaking by the mayor, including one of a kickback that had originated from holders of the city’s tow truck franchises, consisting of a cash-stuffed envelope given to the mayor in Smith’s presence. Matt Brown, who was brought in to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, roughly a month after his original chief of staff, Bilal Essayli, resigned, stated that he was being retaliated against by Valdivia for having sought to protect Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud in the face of Valdivia’s treatment of them, and he retained Tristan Pelayes, the lawyer who was representing Cervantes, Cisneros, Aboud, Payne, and Smith. Ultimately, Aboud, Brown, Cervantes, Cisneros and Smith sued the city over the ordeals they had with Valdivia.
In the 2020 election cycle, Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally, Juan Figueroa, was reelected, and Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally Bessine Richard was voted out of office, replaced by Kimberly Calvin. Both Henry Nickel, who had evolved into one of Valdivia’s political foes, and Jim Mulvihill, who had never been aligned with Valdivia, were likewise chased from office by the city’s voters, replaced, respectively, by Ben Reynoso and Damon Alexander. Valdivia’s expectation was that Alexander would become his ally. Alexander, however, has hopes of eventually becoming mayor himself, and has steered clear of any consistent connection with Valdivia. Calvin very early on clashed with Valdivia, and Reynoso has proven to be a more committed antagonist to the mayor than was Nickel. After the new council was seated in December 2020, Figueroa’s was the only vote of consistent support on the council that Valdivia could count upon.
Calls have been made for the San Bernardino Police Department, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, the California Attorney General’s Office, the FBI or the U.S. Attorney’s Office to dig into Valdivia’s financial relationships with those doing business with the city, indict him, convict him, remove him from office and imprison him. In response, Valdivia, his supporters and his legal representatives disparage those calls as delusional.
There have been recurrent reports that a multitude of challengers are lining up to run against Valdivia later this year, including former City Attorney Jim Penman, who was once one of Valdivia’s primary supporters; Alexander; former San Bernardino Human Services Director Helen Tran; Treasure Ortiz, who ran against Figueroa in 2019; and potentially Sanchez.
Valdivia, meanwhile, appears prepared to take on any political challenger in this year’s mayoral election. As of December 31, 2021, according to the California 460 campaign funding documents he filed with the San Bernardino City Clerk’s Office on January 31, Valdivia has $317,426.56 in his political war chest. Donors, many of whom have little or no conception of the degree to which Valdivia’s control over the city council has eroded and believe that as mayor he yet has the reach and power to order city staff to make recommendations in accordance with his dictates and influence the city council or a majority thereof to vote as he directs, continue to write $1,000, $1,500, $2,000, $2,500, $3,000, and $4,000 checks to his campaign fund, indeed ones for as much as $4,900, which is the maximum amount allowable for a single person to donate under the city’s campaign funding limitation law.
Valdivia can use that money to conduct polling, run radio ads, buy billboard space, secure local television ads, purchase endorsements on slate mailers sent to voters in the weeks prior to an election, print and send mailers touting himself and the job he has done as mayor along with his accomplishments, print and send attack mailers dwelling on the shortcomings of his opponents, pay for handbills that can be distributed door-to-door or defray the cost of phone banks to call voters and importune them to cast their votes for him.
Recognizing this, Shorett, Calvin, Reynoso, Sanchez, Ibarra and Alexander have cast about for a way to undercut Valdivia. On December 1, 2021, the city council voted to censure Valdivia for utilizing $2,134.08 in public funds to design and print invitations to a reception following his state of the city address last June that served as a campaign rally and then spending another $546.33 for bulk mailing the invitations. In that same censure vote, the council also castigated Valdivia for charging the city for a hotel stay and meal in San Diego on September 20-22, 2019; a hotel stay in Irvine on September 10-11, 2020; parking at the Mission Inn in Riverside on October 27, 2020; parking at West Beverly Hills Hotel on January 17, 2021; a hotel stay and meal in Irvine on March 8-9, 2021; a hotel stay in Irvine on March 18-19, 2021; meals in Nevada on March 22-23, 2021; a meal in Newport Beach on March 23, 2021; and a meal and hotel stay in Irvine on April 13-14, 2021, all of which were related to his efforts to raise campaign donations.
The censure had no practical impact upon Valdivia, other than to express across the board disapproval of his behavior, as the council does not have the authority to remove him from office. The censure does, nonetheless, provide a potential political opponent with an issue to campaign against him on.
Last month, on January 19, in an effort to disincentivize Valdivia from running for reelection, the council voted 5-to-2, with Ibarra and Figueroa dissenting, to reduce the $106,793 annual salary paid to the person holding the mayor’s position to $50,000, effective next December following this year’s mayoral election. Ibarra opposed the reduction to $50,000, indicating she wanted City Manager Robert Field to carry out a wider survey of cities that function under the council-manager form of government and use that as the basis for reducing the mayor’s stipend, such that the reduction could have been more substantial, dropping the mayor’s compensation to as low as $500-to-$1,500 per month, or approximately $6,000 to $18,000 per year.
That vote left in place the roughly $9,000 in other governmental entity stipends, $25,000 in benefits and the annual $30,000 retirement contribution the mayor receives, such that the San Bernardino Mayor serving after the November election will receive a total annual compensation of about $114,000.
The future mayoral salary reduction has not dissuaded Valdivia from seeking reelection this year.
More recently, on February 2, the city council considered placing on the June 7 ballot a referendum on whether the mayor in San Bernardino should remain as one independently elected at-large or whether the independent mayoral position should be eliminated. The alternative the council was proposing was that the council would select from its own ranks someone to assume the mayoral honorific on a yearly basis, rotating the office among themselves. If the council succeeded in placing the measure on the ballot, and if the city’s voters approved eliminating the directly-elected mayoral position, Valdivia’s monetary advantage vis-à-vis his electioneering fund would be rendered moot, and his tenure as mayor would come to an end.
When the matter came up for a vote on February 2, Shorett, Sanchez, Calvin and Figueroa supported putting the measure on the ballot. Ibarra and Alexander voted against doing so. For a reason that Reynoso did not explain, he said he believed he had a conflict of interest with regard to such a measure and he abstained. The vote in favor of placing the measure on the ballot passed 4-to-2-to-1.
The following week, Valdivia, who was not in attendance at the February 2 meeting, used his veto authority applicable to any vote involving seven councilors that does not pass with five votes in assent to prevent the measure from being placed on the ballot.
This week, the council brought the matter back for a second consideration.
Reynoso, indicating he had determined he did not have a conflict with regard to the matter, voted, joining with Shorett, Sanchez and Calvin in supporting it. Figueroa, however, defected from his previous support. Rather than voting with Alexander and Ibarra against putting the measure on the ballot, however, Figueroa abstained. Thus, the vote to give the city’s voters the opportunity to eliminate the mayoral position with a measure to be voted upon in June passed once more 4-to-2-to-1. Valdivia again utilized his veto authority, nixing the referendum.
Ibarra, whose vote was critical in keeping the measure from proceeding, explained ahead of the vote that she thought it a mistake to get rid of the directly-elected mayoral position because of the ongoing discontent with Valdivia. Ibarra, who has been at odds with the mayor, essentially warned against tossing the baby out with the bathwater.
“This is strictly political,” said Ibarra. “This is just a way to get rid of our current mayor. However, the voters have that opportunity come June. That is up to the voters. If the voters decide to not have a mayor at-large, just know this is the last time you’ll be voting for a mayor, and you will no longer have a mayor to vote for. After this, it will be up to us, up here, the council members, to select a different mayor every year without the vote of the residents of the city. If that is what the voters want, then you will have that opportunity. You will no longer be able to vote for a mayor at-large after this. And some of the people who are running for mayor know this perfectly well, and it is specific to the current mayor. It is not for the well-being of this city. I went to three out of six community meetings. The residents were specifically asked, ‘Would you like to keep a mayor at-large?’ It was said, ‘Yes.’ That’s why it was kept when the amendment was done for the charter. Do not say that is not what the community wanted. However, if that’s what you guys want to vote for in June, to get rid of your mayor at-large and your power to vote for a mayor, then go ahead. Because I am in the minority if you want to do that. Go ahead, and just know that I am telling you it is. This is a political maneuver to just get rid of the current mayor. What are they [those advocating the removal of the mayor’s position] saying? ‘Out of eight candidates for mayor, none of them are good enough to take him out.’ That’s what they’re saying.”
By Mark Gutglueck