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More than a decade after he was convicted on 14 felony political corruption charges, Bill Postmus has made his way back into the thick of San Bernardino County politics by constructing political money laundering operations which he has put at the disposal of a number of current elected officials, including Supervisors Curt Hagman, Dawn Rowe and Paul Cook.
By delivering bribes and political donations to a wide cross section of both county and city officials, Postmus has already engineered diversions and springbacks of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to the individuals and companies who are making the illicit payments to those politicians. As it stands, a collection of business interests willing to funnel money to the county’s political elite are on a trajectory to reap hundreds of millions of more dollars in mostly no-bid public contracts or as proceeds from businesses which must be given selectively granted franchises and licensing or operating permits.
In 1980, when he was nine years old, Bill Postmus’s imagination was captured by the triumph of Ronald Reagan in that year’s presidential election, and the advancement of the conservative cause.
In the 1990s, while he was yet a student studying business administration at Redlands University, he volunteered on the campaigns of local Republican candidates. After college he found work in the offices of Republican Assemblyman and later State Senator Jim Brulte, Republican Assemblywoman Kathleen Honeycutt and Republican Assemblyman Keith Olberg. A resident of Phelan, at the age of 25, he co-founded the High Desert Young Republicans.
In 2000, Postmus was elected to the board of supervisors at the age of 29, making him, after Minor Cobb Tuttle in 1862, Norman Taylor in 1855, Robert McCoy in 1861, John C. Turner in 1893 and Gus Skropos in 1985, the sixth youngest county supervisor in San Bernardino County history. Four years later, in 2004, he became the second youngest chairman of the county board of supervisors after John C. Turner in 1895. That year he also became the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, a perch from which he had control over the purse strings of the local GOP’s campaign war chest and held tremendous sway in determining who was elected to an overwhelming number of political offices in the county. In 2006 he expended more than $2 million in what yet remains the most expensive political campaign in county history when he successfully challenged the incumbent county assessor, Don Williamson, thereby acceding to the most powerful taxing position in San Bernardino County.
He had been the single most powerful political entity in San Bernardino County during his heyday, a virtual kingmaker. It was by his discretion, in the middle of the first decade of the Third Millennium, that over two dozen state senators, assembly members, mayors and council members had been provided with the clearance to run for the offices they held and the monetary and electioneering support they needed to win the contests that put them there. While Postmus was San Bernardino County’s Republican Party Chairman, four of the county’s five congressman were Republicans, four of the county’s five state senators were Republicans, seven of the county’s nine assembly members were Republicans, four of the county’s five supervisors were Republicans and 19 of the county’s 24 mayors were Republicans.
Upon coming into the position of assessor, Postmus created two assistant assessor posts where there had previously been one, and then filled both with his political associates, neither of whom had previous experience in real estate or assessing property. Less than two years later, in 2008, even more serious questions had begun to emerge about Postmus’s judgment and basic honesty when it was revealed that he had installed into 13 of the assessor’s office’s 15 highest-paying positions his political associates who had no real estate or property valuation experience, most of whom were engaged not in carrying out the legitimate function of the assessor’s office but were running political campaigns. Within short order, one of his appointees as assistant assessor, Adam Aleman, was criminally charged and convicted of one count of felony theft, one count of felony destruction, alteration, or falsification of a public document, one felony count of presenting a false claim to a public board or officer, and one felony count of vandalism. His other assistant assessor, Jim Erwin, was charged with eight felony counts of perjury and two felony counts of filing forged or falsified documents, one count of bribing a public official, one count of extortion, one count of embezzlement, one count of misappropriation of public funds and one count of forgery. Two other Postmus political associates who were hired into lucrative positions in the assessor’s office but were performing no work relating to assessing property or factories or assets for taxation purposes were charged, prosecuted and convicted of bilking the county’s taxpayers.
In January 2009, when investigators with the district attorney’s office arrived at his Rancho Cucamonga residence with a search warrant to seek evidence of misuse of his authority as assessor, a cache of methamphetamine and the paraphernalia for smoking and injecting it was found. The following month, Postmus resigned as assessor.
In July 2009, Postmus was charged with four counts of embezzlement by a public officer, two counts of grand theft and one count of perjury pertaining to activities he had engaged in while he was assessor. Those charges pertained to accusations he had used the office’s assets and facilities for purposes unrelated to the assessor’s function, and that he had taken money or reimbursements he was not entitled to.
In February 2010, Postmus was charged with five felonies – criminal conspiracy (Penal Code Section 182), soliciting a bribe (Penal Code Section 86), accepting a bribe as a public official (Penal Code Section 165), engaging in a conflict of interest as a public official (Government Code Section 1090), and misappropriation of public funds (Penal Code Section 424). Those charges related to one of the last votes Postmus cast while he was supervisor and his acceptance of money in the aftermath of that vote from the entity most directly impacted by his vote. The vote in question, made on November 28, 2006, conferred a $102 million settlement on the Colonies Partners development consortium relating to a lawsuit that company had brought against the county in 2002 over flood control issues at its residential and commercial subdivisions in the northeast quadrant of Upland. Postmus pleaded not guilty to the charges. Over the next 13 months, the original five charges relating to soliciting and receiving a bribe in his official capacity, embezzlement by a public official, conflict of interest by a public official and conspiracy would be augmented by three further charges, including fraud and perjury.
In March 2011, Postmus entered guilty pleas to 14 felony political corruption charges – eight stemming from his time as supervisor and six from his stint as assessor. He further pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor drug charge relating to the methamphetamine found in his home during the January 2009 search of those premises.
Acknowledged with Postmus’s guilty pleas was that, in return for his vote to approve the $102 million settlement with the Colonies Partners in 2006, he had sought and then accepted two separate political donations totaling $100,000 from the principals with the Colonies Partners, one of those being a $50,000 check dated June 28, 2007 to the Conservatives for a Republican Majority political action committee he had co-founded and a $50,000 check dated July 5, 2007 to the Inland Empire political action committee, another entity he had co-founded. The Inland Empire PAC and the Conservatives for a Republican Majority PAC were controlled by Postmus, his business and political associate, John “Dino” DeFazio, and Postmus’s political and personal associate, Adam Aleman.
The month after his guilty plea, Postmus became the star witness before a grand jury, which in May 2011 returned an indictment against four of Postmus’s alleged co-conspirators with regard to the $102 million payout to the Colonies Partners, those being Erwin, who had been one of Postmus’s political associates and a Colonies Partners consultant before Postmus appointed him as one of his two assistant assessors; Colonies Partners Managing Principal Jeff Burum, who had been instrumental in making donations to the three supervisors, including Postmus, who had approved the $102 million settlement; Postmus’s one-time board colleague and political associate Paul Biane, who as supervisor had provided one of the three crucial votes to approve the $102 million settlement and likewise received a $100,000 donation from the Colonies partners in the aftermath of that settlement; and Mark Kirk, the chief of staff to the third member of the board of supervisors, Gary Ovitt, who had ratified the $102 million settlement with his vote. A few months after his boss, Ovitt, made that vote, the Colonies Partners cut a $100,000 check to a political action committee Kirk controlled.
Postmus’s sentencing on his convictions was held in abeyance as the trials for seven others caught up in the dual scandals involving the board of supervisors and assessor’s office played out, given that he was required, as part of his plea deal, to cooperate with the prosecution in testifying against those various defendants, whom he had acknowledged as his co-conspirators.
Pretrial legal sparring and appeals motions relating to several of those charged resulted in the trial for Erwin, Burum, Biane and Kirk being delayed by more than six-and-a-half years. Aleman, like Postmus, had already been convicted, along with two of Postmus’s associates to whom, in acts of flagrant political patronage, he had given generously-remunerated phantom positions in the assessor’s office, ones where they did not need to show up – and often did not – and yet still collected paychecks provided by the county’s taxpayers.
During the interim from the indictment to the trial, Postmus found himself languishing. His conviction on the public official conflict of interest charge meant that he was banned for life from holding elected public office in California. Still, he longed to get back into the political game.
On April 8, 2013, Postmus sojourned to Cheyenne, Wyoming and registered Mountain States Consulting Group LLC, based in Cheyenne, as a Wyoming domestic limited liability company with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s corporate division.
Having been involved in bribetaking and other forms of graft and corruption, Postmus is acutely conscious of the potential pitfalls in such activity and precisely how it was that he was caught. Through his time in office, his arrests and ensuing prosecution and conviction, Postmus gained an implicit and explicit understanding of how the political and justice systems work and mesh, as well as both the reach and limitations of the prosecutorial arm of the government in making politicians adhere to the law. He has attained a flawless feel for the circular pay-to-play element of control and governance where politicians take in money from those with an interest in the governmental decision-making process, use that money to get into office or stay in office and vote to approve the development projects or the contracts or the franchises of those who have donated that money. He was caught boldly and baldly doing just that.
With Mountain States Consulting Group, Postmus created a political money laundering operation, a device by which politicians can engage in pay-to-play trade-offs without getting caught and being stigmatized with criminal convictions as he had been. Mountain States Consulting Group takes money originating with individuals or companies with a stake in governmental decisions, launders that money through his company and then provides that cash, either as political donations or payments in some other form to the politicians making those decisions. Postmus employs Mountain States Consulting Group as a cutout, insulating the recipients of the money – the politicians – from those who are providing the money. When Postmus properly executes on this mission, it protects the politicians from the perception that their votes are being purchased, which has political benefits, while serving to lessen to a considerable extent the possibility that the politicians he is funneling money to will be subject to law enforcement action for engaging in what in the final analysis are quid pro quos, out-and-out bribes or kickbacks. Postmus also utilizes Mountain States Consulting Group to employ politicians or those considered to be up-and-coming in politics with phantom assignments, providing them with a way to hold body and soul together without actually having to work, freeing them up to engage in campaigning or other electioneering activity to advance their political prospects, standing or careers.
In this way, Postmus managed to remain as a power broker in San Bernardino County political circles.
The trial for Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk took place over the course of nine months in 2017, during which Postmus was called as a prosecution witness. Burum, Biane and Kirk were acquitted. Erwin’s jury deadlocked and was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the charges against him. The failure of prosecutors to gain convictions against any of the defendants was in some measure considered to be a reflection of Postmus’s lack of credibility brought on by the scandal he had immersed himself in. Following the trial, prosecutors, highly conscious of Postmus’s credibility issue, forsook seeking a conviction against DeFazio on charges of assisting Postmus in laundering the bribe money he had admitted to taking from the Colonies Partners.
While Postmus was yet awaiting sentencing, he moved toward fully re-immersing himself into San Bernardino County politics. He started in Hesperia, a community with which he was intimately familiar. In 2014, he succeeded in getting his longtime political associate, Paul Russ, elected to the city council. In 2016, he strengthened his hold on Hesperia by successfully working, through Mountain States Consulting, in getting another political affiliate, Rebekah Swanson, elected to the city council.
After Hesperia Mayor Russ Blewett died in May 2018, Postmus acted rapidly to promote Jeremiah Brosowske, an ambitious 27-year-old Republican Party activist he had taken under his wing as a Mountain States Consulting Group employee, as the appointee to fill the gap on the council Blewett’s passing had created. Indeed, Brosowske gained that appointment and then in November 2018, with the advantage of running as a council incumbent, Brosowske was elected to the council in his own right.
Prior to Postmus’s sentencing by Judge Michael A. Smith, the same judge who had presided over the trial of Burum, Biane, Erwin and Kirk, Postmus and his attorney, Jeffrey Lawrence, sought to withdraw Postmus’s 14 guilty pleas on political corruption charges entered in 2011. Judge Smith denied that motion and ultimately sentenced Postmus to three years in state prison.
Postmus reported to begin his sentence on November 30, 2018.
He was initially incarcerated within the state prison system, but because of so-called prison realignment codified in Assembly Bill 109 and passed by the California Legislature in 2011, he was returned to the custody of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Because of the non-violent nature of Postmus’s crimes, a positive evaluation of Postmus’s behavior in custody and his expressed attitude, as well as his assertion of having undergone a religious conversion, Sheriff John McMahon released him in August 2019.
Postmus immediately picked up where he had left off. Having established himself as a successful political operative in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 election cycles, he was even more active during the 2020 election.
Most notably, Postmus moved to become a central player in the effort to assist those seeking permits and licensing to engage in the sale of marijuana in San Bernardino County and who were accordingly willing to generously reward the elected officials whose votes are needed to ratify the granting of those commercial cannabis licenses and permits.
In 1996, four years before Postmus was elected to the board of supervisors, California’s voter had passed Proposition 215, the compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, which made marijuana use legal for medicinal purposes by those who obtained a prescription for the drug from a licensed physician. San Bernardino County officials as well as those in political and administrative leadership positions in all 24 of the county’s municipalities refused to allow marijuana dispensaries to be licensed or permitted for the next 16 years. Throughout his time on the board of supervisors, Postmus was at the forefront of those holding the line against cannabis legalization. He derisively dismissed advocates of the availability of marijuana for medical use as “potheads” who were seeking to use the medical applicability of the drug as a ruse to obtain and use it for its intoxicative effect. Legalized availability of marijuana would never happen as long as he was in office, Postmus vowed, because the use of the drug was “immoral.”
In 2012, Needles became the first San Bernardino County city to allow dispensaries to operate within its city limits, followed by Adelanto in 2015. Well after the end of Postmus’s time in public office, in 2016, California’s voters passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Needles and Adelanto, having previously established commercial marijuana-based enterprises, including both dispensaries and cultivation facilities, made a smooth transition to allowing such businesses within their confines to cater to a far larger customer base, cutting their municipal operations in on a substantial flow of revenue based on the taxes and fees to be imposed on marijuana sales, or so they hoped. Meanwhile, San Bernardino’s voters in 2016 had passed a citizen-proposed measure calling for the legalized sale of marijuana within that city’s confines. Barstow sought to get in on the marijuana bonanza as well. In Hesperia, the city council did not buy into the marijuana frenzy whole hog, but its council did agree to allow distributors of the drug to operate there, provided there was adequate security at the businesses, there was no onsite sale of the drug, no signs advertising the drug or product at the delivery warehouses, and the vehicles used no logos or markings and did not display any advertisements for marijuana or cannabis products.
Upon the legalization of the substance, Postmus turned on a dime and began representing what is now known as the “Postmus cartel,” a group of cannabis entrepreneurs who have achieved licenses and permits to run cannabis-related businesses in Adelanto by bribing the likes of former Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, current Adelanto Mayor Gabriel Reyes, former Adelanto Councilman John Woodard, former Adelanto Councilman Jermaine Wright, current San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia and current San Bernardino Councilman Juan Figueroa.
Key to this program was stirring up law enforcement to carry out operations crippling the competition of the cannabis-related businesses that Postmus represents. Behind the scenes, through his connection with former San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, Assemblyman Thurston “Smitty” Smith, San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Cook, San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman and San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe, Postmus has prompted the sheriff’s department to carry out more than a yearlong effort at eradicating “illicit” marijuana growing operations, meaning those cannabis-related operations that are not run by owners, investors and entrepreneurs who are delivering through Postmus money to the politicians in control of the marijuana business permitting processes.
In January 2021, a stepped-up marijuana eradication effort was initiated, the brainchild, or so it was credited, of former Sheriff McMahon. It was perpetuated by McMahon’s designated successor, Shannon Dicus, and was dubbed Operation Hammer Strike on August 30, 2021 after having been granted by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors a $4 million augmentation in the 2021-22 San Bernardino County Budget. Over the course of the six months since August 30 and the first of this month, the sheriff’s Hammer Strike task force served 588 search warrants, seized 668,299 marijuana plants, 111,268.8 pounds of processed marijuana, 203 guns, 30.7 pounds of concentrated marijuana, 92.8 pounds of psilocybin mushrooms, 144 grams of methamphetamine and cocaine, and $2,399,595.00 in illegal narcotic sales proceeds. In the process, the department dismantled 15 cannabinol extraction laboratories and 28 electrical bypasses along with 4,124 greenhouses. Unmolested by the sheriff’s department throughout that time and the eight previous months have been the cultivation operations for the various thriving commercial marijuana enterprises set up by those individuals and entities which retained Postmus to deliver political grease to the county’s elected decision-makers, including members of the board of supervisors, District Attorney Jason Anderson and Dicus, who is now involved in an election campaign to maintain himself in the sheriff’s post that was handed off to him by McMahon and confirmed by a vote of the board of supervisors on July 7, 2022.
The thriving marijuana cultivation and sales operations in San Bernardino County include one in which Postmus is himself involved through his business partnership with John “Dino” DeFazio. Operation Hammer Strike’s activity consists of raids on, in virtually all cases, marijuana cultivation facilities, whether they are in the open, within greenhouses and nurseries, commercial or industrial buildings and residences. The sheriff’s department has, as a part of Operation Hammer Strike, committed no resources to tracking the financial activity accompanying the uptick in cannabis-related marijuana commercial activity in San Bernardino County, which involves the illicit payments made to politicians to grease the way for the marijuana businesses that are thriving to maintain their advantageous position, including payoffs to the members of the board of supervisors.
San Bernardino County has sponsored new state legislation AB 2728 and SB 1426 that will increase fines for illegal cannabis farming and target the illegal pollution of groundwater by illicit cannabis cultivators. The county is also seeking $10 million in state funding to clean up environmental damage at hundreds of illegal cannabis sites and is strongly backing several related “illegal cannabis” bills in Sacramento.
“Illegal cannabis farming is devastating the desert communities of San Bernardino County,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Curt Hagman. “The county is determined to stop this terrible damage to the environment and to protect the lives and property of our residents from lawless criminals.”
Postmus’s involvement in establishing licensed, permitted and protected marijuana-related enterprises is perhaps the most remarkable element of his political comeback, given his past opposition to marijuana in any form and the extent to which he has succeeded in compromising the sheriff’s department as a law enforcement institution in doing so. Still, the majority of his clients that Postmus’s political activity is advancing are ones seeking to obtain governmental approval of their property development applications, to obtain government contracts or to be awarded franchises that are controlled by various governmental entities.
For many, government is a cash cow. For those who are government employees, their paychecks come from the government. For those who are involved in the development and building industry, the permits, permission and entitlements to build are granted by the government. Those who sell goods or provide services to the government are dependent upon the decision-makers in government to look kindly upon them, to contract with them rather than their competitors to provide those goods or services. There is a special class of businesses, ones given franchises by the government who are dependent upon government officials to make decisions that will allow them to prosper. Franchises are select businesses that are given special licenses to operate, such that not just anyone can engage in what they do. Franchises are given to some and denied to others. Falling within the franchise category are ambulance operators, taxi companies, tow trucks that are on police and fire department rotations and trash haulers.
Ultimately it is elected officials, usually based upon the guidance and recommendation of the administration or management of the government structures they head, who make decisions to determine which development projects will be allowed and which ones will not, which company will get contracts to deliver goods and provide services and which ones won’t be able to market their wares or talents to the government, which applicants for franchises will be selected and which ones will be rejected.
The six years Postmus spent in office at the head of county government and the two years he headed a primary division of the county government gave him a close-up window on how government operates and its vulnerabilities. At this stage he is using his intimate knowledge of those vulnerabilities to assist those who want to exploit government for their own purposes.
A safeguard built into government in California meant to protect the state and its taxpayers consists of the competitive bidding requirements that apply to most public contracts. Generally, when a municipal or county government or an agency or district in California seeks goods or needs work performed or services provided, it engages in a bid process by making what is referred to as a request for proposals or request for qualifications relating to a certain task, inviting vendors to submit a bid for a specified item, set of items or product or, in the case of services, a bid on a specifically outlined job or undertaking. In most cases, those bids are confidential ones, literally sealed in an envelope that would betray itself as having been opened if the seal is breached prior to the official unsealing of the bids. Only bids deemed responsive to or in keeping with the requested service or project description are considered. The individual, entity or company providing the lowest responsive bid is awarded the contract.
There is a subset of governmental contracts, however, which are exempt from competitive bid requirements. Among the services Postmus now provides is to “politically wire” things so that those companies intent on gaining these governmental contracts that are exempt from competitive bids can land those contracts. Postmus does this by delivering money provided by his client seeking such a no-bid contract to the politicians who must ultimately approve the contract.
A case in point is that of Alliance Building Solutions, a company owned by Brad Chapman. Alliance Business Solutions has grown over the past 58 years from a relatively small mechanical contractor to a mid-size electrical, mechanical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning company with a specialized sideline in efficientizing buildings and facilities in terms of energy use, including augmenting them with insulation, reducing electricity consumption, installing solar panels on roofs and south-facing walls and the like.
In recent years, Alliance Building Solutions succeeded in obtaining from the cities of Fontana, Rialto and Upland no-bid contracts for such energy efficiency makeovers. An exception to the competitive bid requirement for public agencies and governments in California relates to energy efficiency projects. As long as a public agency or government can demonstrate that the work or service to be provided will result in improved energy efficiency or a reduction in fuel or energy use as well as show that some savings in cost will accrue to the entity contracting for the service, it need not conduct a bidding process but can simply award a contract to a provider of that service, even if another contractor is available to do the work at lower cost.
By hiring Postmus to lobby on his behalf, Chapman made sure that the no-bid contracts that Fontana, Rialto and Upland engaged in to make their facilities more energy efficient went to Alliance Building Solutions rather than any of a multitude of other companies that provide the same service, including ones that would do the work at a lesser cost, in some cases significantly lesser cost.
At present, Postmus is awork seeking to get Fontana to enter into further contracts with Alliance Building Solutions, and he is similarly engaged in lining up no-bid contract work for Allied Building Solutions with the County of San Bernardino.
Key to that effort in Fontana is Postmus coordinating with Mayor Acquanetta Warren, to whose electioneering fund he has already served as a conduit to vector tens of thousands of dollars in donations from a variety of donors, as well as with Phil Cothran Sr, the father of Fontana City Councilman Phil Cothran Jr. Since early 2021, Phil Cothran Sr has been the chairman of the San Bernardino Country Republican Central Committee, the position Postmus once held. Phil Cothran Sr is no stranger to political fundraising, having been involved in Fontana politics for some time, historically as one of the top four or five campaign donors active in Fontana. In particular, Phil Cothran Sr has been a major patron of Warren, who was appointed to the council in 2002, was elected and then reelected as councilwoman in 2004 and 2008, and elected mayor in 2010. It was with Phil Cothran Sr’s backing that Warren was able to solidify her political grip on the city. As his involvement with the Republican Party has intensified in recent years, Phil Cothran Sr has become more and more involved in touching others for donations to the causes and the candidates he believes in. Upon becoming chairman of the central committee, he did not hesitate to turn to Postmus for assistance in raising money for the party and the party’s candidates, based in large measure on the historic success Postmus achieved in his fundraising efforts. According to one source with a window on behind-the-scenes developments within the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Phil Cothran Sr has delegated to Postmus and to Dakota Higgins, an elected member of the Republican Central Committee who is also the assistant chief of staff to San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Paul Cook, management of the county central committee’s fundraising efforts.
An element of Postmus’s fundraising success has always been and continues to be his understanding that donors, if they are going to be truly generous, need to be confident they are getting something in return for their donations. Postmus has long recognized donors must have confidence that they are receiving something real in return rather than something insubstantial and intangible beyond simply “access.” In practical terms, that means conveying to the donors that they are buying favorable treatment in the future from the politicians they are donating to, whether that will be approval of their project proposals, approval of their contracts to provide goods or services to the city, county or agency the politician heads or the granting or continuation of a franchise to that donor or his/her company. In this way, donations are considered investments, ones by which pennies can be transubstantiated into veritable fortunes. Postmus is able to easily convince those transacting business locally that it is in their interest to provide $1,000 or $2,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 up front to an officeholder with an assurance that when the time comes, the politician who received that money will vote to approve action that allows an enterprise by which that donor will see a profit in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
A problem is that such exchanges of money for votes are illegal. While under California law a politician can receive a political donation from an individual or entity who has business before an elected board or panel of which that politician is a member and then vote on matters relating to that donor and/or his/her company or undertaking, those donations and the receiving of the donations cannot be conditional. That is, a politician cannot commit or promise to take any official action or vote as an official in exchange for a donation. Such an arrangement is a quid pro quo, which in Latin means “this for that.” Engaging in a quid pro quo is tantamount to bribery.
What Postmus has done is to construct for his clients and many of San Bernardino County’s politicians – the bribers and the bribe-takers – what is simultaneously a simple and complex fiction that can be maintained, one that holds that bribery is not occurring. Postmus instructs his client to either make a donation directly to a politician or in the alternative to entrust the money to him so he can filter the money to that politician. Postmus or someone working with him in the same timeframe approaches the politician to explain what it is that the donor wants to achieve and how that goal at some point is dependent upon a vote by the politician and his or her colleagues in the future. An understanding is achieved all the way around as to what is to occur. In this way, the donor and the politician may likely never meet or exchange so much as pleasantries and both the donor and the politician can truthfully say, if either or both is ever queried about the relationship between the donation and the vote, that they never met, never spoke and as such could not have concluded between themselves a corrupt and illegal deal.
In Fontana, both Mayor Warren and Phil Cothran Jr are vying for reelection this year. Warren and Phil Cothran Sr have been the co-architects of the younger Cothran’s political career. Postmus has through the conveyance of Chapman’s money to various campaign funds – those of Warren, Cothran Jr and the GOP fund controlled by Cothran Sr as the head of the San Bernardino County Republican Party – secured Warren’s and Cothran Jr’s future votes for granting Allied Building Solutions no-bid contracts on further energy efficiency conversions of city facilities which will exclude the consideration of granting those contracts to Allied Building Solutions’ competitors in the industry. This has extended itself to ensuring that Warren’s other two allies on the council – John Roberts and Pete Garcia – will approve the Allied Building Solutions contracts when they are considered by the city council.
Simultaneously, Postmus is seeking to work his magic on behalf of Alliance Building Solutions with the governmental structure in San Bernardino County, where given the sheer size of San Bernardino County – a land area larger than the states of Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Hampshire, combined – the number of county buildings and facilities represent potential contracts worth well in excess of $100 million to the company or companies that can gain contracts to uprate their energy efficiency.
Accordingly, Postmus has already effectively moved to purchase influence with three of the county’s five supervisors – having essentially slipped them into his hip pocket – and is gunning mightily to take ownership of a fourth.
Three of the current members of the board of supervisors – Curt Hagman, Paul Cook and Dawn Rowe – have what is perhaps best described as a schizophrenic relationship with Bill Postmus. Within the political and top-level governmental bubble in which they function that includes their board colleagues, other politicians they consider to be their political allies, their own staffs, the senior administrative/management of the county and their political supporters and the electioneering networks they coordinate with, Hagman, Cook and Rowe make no secret of, indeed seem to be proud of and will even brag about, their closeness to Postmus and the degree to which they seek his advice and adhere to his counsel. Outside that circle, however, they are loathe to acknowledge the interaction they have had and continue to have with him. They are aware of Postmus’s history, his convictions and his reputation for dirty and underhanded politics. Though the scandals he involved himself in occurred more than a decade in the past and much or even all of what they entailed has faded from the collective public consciousness, the three understand that open association with him could prove exceedingly difficult, particularly if a committed political opponent comes into possession of too many of the details of that association.
As a consequence, the working out of the intricacies of the arrangements of what Postmus wants accomplished has been entrusted to the support networks around the supervisors and within the senior levels of the county bureaucracy. There are two immediate benefits to the supervisors from this approach. Firstly, it insulates the supervisors from Postmus, perpetuating their ostensible separation from him. Secondly, it makes for a situation in which the action eventually taken to benefit Postmus’s clients is the final outcome of a process during which the supervisors can claim they are merely voting in accordance with a recommendation provided to them by county staff.
Postmus has already engaged in extensive fundraising on behalf of Hagman, Cook and Rowe. And Hagman, Rowe and Cook have tolerated – indeed more than tolerated and in fact in some cases encouraged or required – that the employees of their supervisorial offices participate in their political campaigns. This was the case of both Supervisor Hagman’s former chief of staff, the late Mike Spence, and his current chief of staff, Yekaterina Kolcheva. It is equally true of Supervisor Cook’s chief of staff, Tim Itnyre, and his deputy chief of staff, Dakota Higgins, both of whom were heavily involved in the campaigns that got Cook reelected to Congress in 2016 and 2018, when they were members of his Congressional staff, as well as elected supervisor in 2020. Supervisor Rowe’s chief of staff, Matt Knox, who was formerly a member of Cook’s Congressional staff along with Rowe, Itnyre and Higgins, worked on Cook’s Congressional races as well, playing a particularly important part in thwarting Cook’s most aggressive opponent, Tim Donnelly, in 2018. Following Rowe’s appointment to the board of supervisors in 2018, Knox was hired by Rowe to serve as her chief of staff. He then played a major role in running her successful election campaign in 2020 to retain her position as Third District county supervisor.
While the practice of allowing employees working within the governmental offices of elected officials to become heavily involved in those officials’ electoral campaigns is not limited solely to San Bernardino County, it is as widespread here, or more, than anywhere else. In this way, the distinction between government and politics has become utterly blurred, and those who have decried the situation have been marginalized as unrealistic idealists or dismissed entirely as cranks. The seeming ubiquity of political operatives on the staffs of the county’s top tier decision-makers has created a situation in which policy is shaped to benefit those willing to sustain a particular supervisor in office through the provision of substantial political donations and thus perpetuate the employment of that supervisor’s staff members in high-paying positions they would be unlikely to achieve in the private sector.
Kolcheva is provided with a salary and pay add-ons of $145,892.46 yearly plus benefits of $52,996.35 for a total annual compensation of $198,888.81. Itnyre earns $133,807.27 in salary and pay add-ons plus $49,313.94 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $183,121.21. Matt Knox’s salary and add-ons are $164,013.89, which together with his benefits of $57,602.95 gives him a total annual compensation of $221,616.84. Higgins is provided with a salary and pay add-ons of $113,061.20 per year plus $41,922.09, for a total annual compensation of $154,983.29. The salaries and benefits provided to the senior staff members of the supervisors creates for them an incentive to keep the supervisors in office, such that they often find it expedient to assist those who are contributing to the political campaigns of their employers to assist those donors in achieving the goals they are pursuing.
Thus, Postmus has found ready allies in Kolcheva, Itnyre and Knox, as well as Higgins, with whom he has a secondary relationship as co-coordinator of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee’s fundraising efforts.
Every bit if not more important to Postmus’s political operations targeting county government in San Bernardino County are the two senior staff members for the county overall, County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez and County Chief Operating Officer Luther Snoke.
Though both Hernandez and Snoke ostensibly are devoted to running the county and are supposed to be immune from political influences, both are highly attuned to political nuance. Word throughout the county governmental structure, particularly in county departments such as real estate and land use services, is that both Hernandez and Snoke know that Postmus has delivered and is continuing to deliver political grease to supervisors Hagman, Rowe and Cook to get their acquiescence with regard to a whole host of projects and contracts that the board has already considered and voted upon as well as upcoming items that will be brought before the supervisors.
Hernandez and Snoke are cognizant of the political money laundering operation Postmus has set up and that the board majority expects of them both that they facilitate the approval of the projects and the awarding of the contracts that Postmus’s clients are pursuing. According to sources within the county, neither Hernandez nor Snoke are recipients of the payoffs being provided to Hagman, Cook and Rowe. Rather, Hernandez and Snoke are playing their parts in the tangle of bribery, money laundering, no-bid contracts, foreordained project approvals, the waiving of requirements, the suspension of codes and regulations and the corruption of the basic functions of county government in order to maintain themselves in their lucrative county positions.
At present, Snoke is provided with a total annual compensation of $383,129.46, consisting of a $225,812.94 salary, additional pay of $29,030.71 and benefits of $128,285.81.
Hernandez’s salary of $378,294.27 when added to his other pay of $40,088.80 plus benefits of $190,542.89 gives him a total annual compensation of $608,925.96.
County employees have told the Sentinel that Hernandez and Snoke risk being fired or demoted if they do not facilitate the advancement of Postmus’s clients in their application for project and contract approvals.
Both Hernandez and Snoke declined to respond to a series of questions posed to them by the Sentinel, including whether they were being pressured by the members of the board of supervisors or by Postmus directly to provide recommendations to the board of supervisors that they vote to approve projects by proponents represented by Postmus or award contracts to companies that are employing Postmus as a lobbyist.
County employees have told the Sentinel that both Hernandez and Snoke know that supervisors Hagman, Rowe and Cook are on the take and are going along with the arrangements to keep a hold on their respective high-compensation positions. Hernandez is aware, the Sentinel was told, that Postmus made an arrangement for Supervisor Rowe to get a $1.2 million house in Redlands as a means of securing her cooperation and that a deal has been cut with Supervisor Cook to engineer the election of Itnyre as his successor with Cook’s retirement in 2024.
Reports were that Hernandez and Snoke have met with Postmus directly, at which meetings Postmus instructed them on how to structure future county action to meet with his clients’ expectations.
Among the questions both Hernandez and Snoke declined to answer were ones on whether each of them have had recent interaction with Postmus. The Sentinel on February 3 made requests of the county under the California Public Records Act, seeking Hernandez’s and Snoke’s calendars going back to September 2020, when each moved into their respective positions as county chief executive officer and county chief operating officer, to ascertain if they have been meeting with Postmus. On February 28, the county responded to those requests stating that Hernandez’s and Snoke’s calendars would not be provided as they are “exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act.”
Snoke is front-ending for Allied Building Solutions, and is preparing to present a series of proposals that the county modernize more than a dozen of its facilities and buildings with energy efficiency conversions, the Sentinel was informed. Even though the county could carry out a competitive bidding process to enlist a contractor to do that work, county employees told the Sentinel, when that proposal is presented, Snoke will utilize the exemption in state law allowing energy efficiency projects to be undertaken without engaging in a competitive bid process, and will deliver a recommendation that the contracts be conferred upon Allied Building Solutions.
One giveaway that both Hernandez and Snoke are coordinating county programs in a way that is favorable toward Postmus and Postmus’s clients consists of the virtual carte blanche that has been provided to Tri-Land at the county’s land use services department. Tri-Land is a company co-owned by Postmus and his longtime business partner and political associate, John Dino DeFazio.
DeFazio was so emboldened by his association with Postmus and the confidence that Postmus can pull strings improperly at the county that he was attempting to negotiate the fees and charges, which are uniformly set, for obtaining permits to proceed with his projects in the county’s unincorporated areas, according to one statement provided to the Sentinel.
In his effort to profiteer by the newfound societal tolerance of marijuana in California, Postmus did not limit himself to merely representing would-be cannabis entrepreneurs. He also engaged as a silent partner in a marijuana cultivation and marketing enterprise headed by DeFazio. The Postmus/DeFazio marijuana-based company is among those the sheriff’s department has assumed a hands-off approach toward while pursuing the closure of over 800 cultivation operations elsewhere in the county.
Postmus, as the former First District Supervisor, has especial contact and entrée with the current First District supervisor, Paul Cook, and his supervisorial office staff.
Last year Postmus was able to replicate a coup he had pulled off several years ago as he was working his way into political shape.
In 2014, Postmus had assisted his longtime political associate Paul Russ in his successful effort to get elected to the Hesperia City Council. Two years later, while Postmus was aiding Rebekah Swanson, another political associate from his past, in her ultimately successful run for the city council, Russ, at Postmus’s instigation, ran for First District county supervisor. Joining Russ in the race was another member of the Hesperia City Council, Bill Holland. Perhaps at Postmus’s suggestion, neither Russ nor Holland assailed one another, almost as if they were running in tandem against the incumbent, Robert Lovingood, and two other challengers. During the course of the campaign, Russ and Holland were provided with $19,000 and $16,000, respectively, by Wyn Holmes and Randall Friend, the principals in a Newport Beach-based company known as Eagle 55. Eagle 55 at that time was pursuing approval of the first phase of “The Villas,” a senior citizens apartment complex. A specified number of the units were reserved for low-to-moderate-income, low-income and very low-income residents. Holmes and Friend sought clearance to proceed with the project without having to engage in a bidding competition against other builders. Moreover, they applied for a virtually interest-free $3.8 million loan to be used toward completing the $13 million project. The Hesperia City Council, including Russ and Holland, that year voted to give the project go-ahead and Holmes and Friend the $3.8 million loan.
Subsequently, the California Fair Political Practices Commission looked into the matter, initially on the basis that the $19,000 and $16,000 donations were violations of the county’s then-$4,200 per donor campaign contribution cap. Ultimately, the California Fair Political Practices Commission took action against Holmes and Friend, imposing fines on them, which both deemed to be part of the price of doing business in San Bernardino County. The Fair Political Practices Commission action did not overturn the approval of the first phase of The Villas project, and it was completed.
Hesperia, at this point wary of further damage to its reputation if state agencies such as the Fair Political Practices Commission continue to exercise an interest in the action of its city council, is no longer willing to associate itself with Holmes, Friend or Eagle 55 in connection to taxpayer-subsidized construction efforts at The Villas complex. Last year, Postmus approached Supervisor Cook as well as Itnyre and Higgins, importuning them to work with Holmes and Friend in undertaking and completing phase 2 of The Villas 55+ Senior Community project. Cook, Itnyre and Higgins prevailed upon Hernandez to explore the possibility of the project being carried out under the auspices of county government, despite the consideration that it is located not within the county’s unincorporated area but within the City of Hesperia. Hernandez handed the assignment of dealing with the project off to Snoke.
Based upon Postmus’s relationship with him as a fundraiser, confident, advisor, predecessor in the office of First District supervisor and “friend,” Supervisor Cook assented to use money from the county’s special discretionary fund for specific priorities in the First District to initiate the second phase of Eagle 55’s The Villas project. On December 14, 2021, Hernandez and Snoke, utilizing a staff report authored by Snoke which was presented by Hernandez to the board of supervisors, facilitated the board of supervisors’ consideration and passage of action approving a $5.5 million affordable housing loan to Eagle Hesperia 55 II, L.P. for the construction of the second phase of The Villas. Both Hernandez and Snoke recommended that the loan be made. The action taken in accordance with their recommendation made it so that no bidding on the project took place and the requirement that Eagle 55 pay prevailing wage or union scale wages to the construction workers on the project was waived.
The Sentinel has learned that Bill Postmus and DeFazio are minority owners in Eagle 55. Bill Postmus’s activity in providing money to Supervisor Hagman, Supervisor Rowe and Supervisor Cook suggests a quid pro quo arrangement.
The Sentinel is informed that both Hernandez and Snoke were aware during the county’s dealings with Eagle 55 with regard to the $5.5 million affordable housing loan for The Villas project that Postmus and DeFazio had a financial interest in the Eagle 55 ventures.
San Bernardino County Chief Deputy Controller Vanessa Doyle signed off on the county providing the loan to Eagle 55. The Sentinel initiated several inquiries with Doyle, both in the form of an electronically carbon copied email exploring the subject sent to other high-ranking county officials and phone messages for her left directly at her office. Among the questions Doyle did not respond to was whether it was made clear to her that Postmus and DeFazio had a financial stake in the Eagle 55 project and whether she independently had developed precise knowledge as to the fundraising and political money laundering activity Postmus had engaged in on behalf of Hagman, Cook and Rowe before she affixed her imprimatur and that of the county auditor-controller’s office on the $5.5 million affordable housing loan for The Villas project. Doyle did not respond to the Sentinel.
The Sentinel did succeed in reaching Doyle’s ultimate boss, Auditor-Controller/Treasurer/Tax Collector Ensen Mason.
Mason did not explicitly say whether Doyle knew about the tangle of relationships involving Hagman, Cook, Rowe, Postmus, DeFazio, Holmes and Friend prior to her certification of the loan, though he suggested that information would not have been provided to her.
“Our role is very limited,” Mason said with regard to the auditor-controller’s participation in the consideration of the county’s issuance of the loan. “It is merely an accounting function.”
He said of Doyle, “All she did was review the financing numbers to say they were correct. I don’t believe determining whether or not that particular company should have been eligible for a loan has anything to do with what our function is. The supervisors are an independently elected body. What they are doing is completely out of my wheelhouse by design because they answer to the public, not to me. I don’t know if providing that company with the loan violated any of the county’s policies or not. If the issue is how they voted, that is something you need to ask them about.”
The Sentinel, having already sought to obtain from Hagman, Cook, Rowe, Hernandez, and Snoke their version of why they have allowed Postmus, more than a decade after his political career imploded in scandal, to advance to a position in which he has reasserted in a very real sense control over the county’s governmental structure, at Mason’s suggestion redoubled those efforts. None was willing to go on the record.
Last year, the Sentinel did manage to flag down Cook at a fundraiser being put on by Postmus at the Tartan in Redlands, asking him if he thought it wise, given Postmus’s history, for the county’s leadership to be associating itself with him and allowing him to raise political funds on the supervisors’ behalf.
“That’s politics,” Cook said, shrugging. He said that Postmus had been processed by the justice system, paid his debt to society and should be allowed to participate in an arena – politics – in which he had shown true talent.
According to county employees, Principal Assistant County Counsel Julie Surber and Deputy County Counsel Suzanne Bryant are knowledgeable about illegitimate goings-on behind the scenes at the county and issues involving Postmus and his distribution of political grease to county officials. Surber and Bryant have been brought face-to-face with the circumstance, the county employees say, because the manipulations of county officials Postmus is engaged in on behalf of his clients come into conflict with county Policy 11-01, which specifies that all procurements are to be solicited on a competitive basis.
The Sentinel has been unsuccessful in getting Surber or Bryant to open up with regard to what they know, which is not unsurprising given that they are technically Hagman’s, Cook’s, Rowe’s, Hernandez’s and Snoke’s legal representatives, and are bound by the principle of attorney-client confidentiality.
In 2020, then-Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales was prevented from seeking reelection as a consequence of the county’s term limits. Four competitors to replace her emerged that electoral season, including then-Fontana Councilman Jesse Armendarez, who was then a member of Mayor Acquanetta Warren’s ruling coalition.
Postmus was active in the effort to support Armendarez’s candidacy for Fifth District supervisor. Armendarez raised $991,766.52 for that campaign, including $214,523.03 in 2019, $578,993.79 during 2020 and $55,871.79 in 2021 after the race was concluded. Armendarez expended $721,371.70 in calendar 2020 on both the March primary and November general elections and managed to poll 26.88 percent in the March primary, which was good enough to overcome third-place and fourth-place finishers Dan Flores and Nadia Renner, who, respectively collected $237,919.42 and $19,164.35 in donations, spent $251,463.11 and $21,240.09 on electioneering efforts and polled 18.14 percent and 14.76 percent in the primary. Second place was good enough to get Armendarez into the November final against Baca, who received 40.22 percent for first place in the March race. Baca collected $484,262.80, for his entire campaign, including $88,213 in 2019 and $396,049 in 2020 and spent $474,370.80 overall. In the November 2020 final, Baca triumphed solidly over Armendarez, 58.49 percent to 41.51 percent.
Last year, in accordance with the 2020 Census, San Bernardino County reset its district maps. In the previous map, roughly two-thirds of Fontana, that portion on its westernmost side, was in the Second Supervisorial District, with approximately one third of the city on the east side in the Fifth District. With the redrawing of the county district map in 2021, all of Fontana was placed in the Second District.
Both Armendarez and Renner, who live on the east side of Fontana, have now qualified their candidacies for Second District supervisor in this year’s race. Also in the contest are Cucamonga Valley Water District Board Member Luis Cetina; Eric Eugene Coker, the previous president of Me Management Solutions and the current owner of PC Pricebusters; and DeJonaé Shaw, a licensed vocational nurse.
Postmus, Hagman, Cook and Rowe have endorsed Armendarez, along with Warren and councilmen Cothran, Garcia and Roberts.
At the highest level of the county there is concern about a group of county employees who are knowledgeable about what corners have been cut and what deals have been made involving quid pro quos and the suspension of policy and the law. That concern extends to the possibility that those employees will initiate action that could prove highly problematic for multiple members of the county’s political and governmental establishment. Efforts have begun to trace out who those “disloyalists” are, the Sentinel is told.
A department head considered disloyal is Real Estate Services Director Terry Thompson. Assuming Hagman, whose second term as supervisor is coming to a close this year, is reelected and Armendarez gains election, Thompson will be sacked, the Sentinel is informed, shortly after Armendarez is sworn in.
San Bernardino’s first candidate forum of the 2022 electoral season, to the disappointment of many residents, did not feature all of the candidates running for mayor. As such, it did not allow for a clear side-by-side comparison of the man who is now mayor and the six others who would replace him.
The unwillingness of the incumbent, John Valdivia, to go toe-to-toe with his challengers, nevertheless, provided an illustration of the contentiousness and intensity of the contest, as well as the poignancy and keen sensitivity around the issues that are at play in the race for political leadership in the county seat.
All seven candidates in this year’s San Bernardino mayoral race, including Valdivia, had been invited to the two-hour-long mostly question-and-answer event put on by the Verdemont Neighborhood Association on Tuesday night, March 22. Valdivia and another candidate in the race many voters in the city suspect is actually Valdivia’s ally did not show up.
Still, mayoral candidates Mohammad Khan, Henry Nickel, Treasure Ortiz, Jim Penman, and Helen Tran gave brief opening and closing overviews of themselves and their goals/vision for the city and fielded questions about current challenges facing the city.
One of those questions pertaining to close to fifty thousand tons of concrete dumped in the same neck of the woods where the candidate forum was taking place went right to the heart of why, most likely, Valdivia, was not present.
The event was held at the Little League Western Region Headquarters in the Verdemont district on the east side of the 215 Freeway near the northernmost extreme of the 59.65 square mile city.
Within easy visual range of the Little League Headquarters is the so-called Oxbow site, where the completion of a 40-unit medium-to-low density single-family home subdivision has been stalled for approaching a decade-and-a-half. Some 12.5 miles east-southeast as the crow flies or variously 15.6 miles or 18.3 miles distant via differing routes using the local freeway system is the 2200 block of West Lugonia Avenue in Redlands, where the Kuehne & Nagel warehouse, a 600,000 square foot structure which had served as a holding/distribution/dispatch facility for large items sold by on-line retail behemoth Amazon, once stood. On June 5, 2020, a fire broke out in the warehouse and that fire gutted the building, which was a total loss.
Eric Cernich is the principal of Newport Beach-based Oxbow Communities, Inc., a development company that for 15 years had a plan to construct 40 single-family residential units on property he had tied up at the far extension of Palm Avenue in the Verdemont district. One of the hold-ups in the development of the 40-home Oxbow project was that the land upon which the project was to be built was uneven and would require either intensive grading and then hillside reinforcement or the introduction of fill into the low-lying side of the property or its crevices to render it level. The emerging availability of the concrete from the Kuehne & Nagel warehouse represented what appeared to be an ideal solution to Cernich. With the approval of Redlands city officials, Cernich arranged to have the warehouse’s concrete walls partially broken up at the Lugonia Avenue property. He then had Huntington Beach-based Greenleaf Engineering truck the concrete to Verdemont. Cernich’s intention was to crush the concrete and mix it into the earth at the subdivision site and compact it to render the property suitable to be built upon.
In August 2020, Verdemont district residents noted that dump trucks were transiting up Palm Avenue and depositing massive loads of large shards and chunks of shattered concrete onto vacant land near the Oxbow project site. When they queried of San Bernardino city officials what was happening, they were told that Oxbow Communities had clearance from the city to utilize the concrete as fill. If they would just be patient, those residents were told, the eyesore would disappear as the concrete was pulverized and ground into manageable-sized pieces and mixed with dirt to be thereafter compacted so it might disappear under the foundations of the homes that were to be built and the yards and lawns that would eventually surround those homes.
Verdemont residents were skeptical, but most were prevailed upon to hang onto their hats and let the situation evolve and play out, assured that Cernich would be making progress soon.
Days became weeks. Weeks turned into a month. Then two months.
Henry Nickel at that time was the councilman in Ward 5, which included the Verdemont area. In the March 2020 primary election, before the onset of the Oxbow site concrete debris issue, he had captured 1,802 votes or 35.45 percent of the 5,083 votes cast in the ward’s 2020 election that featured five other candidates. Because he had failed to capture a majority of the vote – meaning at least one more than 50 percent of the votes cast – Nickel was forced into a run-off against the second leading vote-getter, in this case Ben Reynoso, who polled 1,295 votes or 25.48 percent in that March primary. Nickel, as the incumbent who had been in office for seven years, seemed to be on a trajectory to cruise to a relatively convincing victory over the lesser-known Reynoso, who was at a nearly ten percent disadvantage going into the final race.
To the residents of the Fifth Ward, however, it looked to them as if they were getting a raw deal from City Hall. When the wind kicked up, the people in the neighborhood found themselves, their houses, cars and pets peppered and pelted with dust and concrete fragments anywhere from the consistency of dust to the size of sand to pebbles. There was concern that the concrete itself was not stable physically or chemically and that it represented a safety and health hazard. When City Hall was met with complaints, it downplayed the problem, offering an assurance that the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards contained in its Land Development and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System guidelines rated the concrete as a low-level or nonexistent health threat.
Residents countered that the dozens of heavily-laden diesel trucks carrying the concrete to its destination were spewing exhaust into the air and tearing up the surface of Palm Avenue.
Nearby residents had been given assurances that Cernich would act with alacrity and do the grading incorporating the concrete fill into the ground, so to undertake and complete the project. Cernich and Oxbow Communities, Inc. were, however, beset with a number of other financial, practical and administrative considerations that were preventing the project from moving forward. The rubble remained. Despite the consideration that Nickel was as vociferous as anyone else in advocating that the concrete issue be resolved, the Fifth District’s voters saw him as a representative of the city establishment. In the November 2020 election, he was the one held accountable. The Fifth Ward’s voters tossed him out of office, giving Reynoso a mandate with 5,772 votes or 52.74 percent to Nickel’s 5,172 votes or 47.26 percent.
Ultimately, Reynoso was no more effective than Nickel had been in alleviating his constituents’ concerns about the presence of the concrete. Despite the willingness of three other members of the council – Sixth Ward Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin, Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra and Seventh Ward Councilman Damon Alexander – to have the concrete removed, that fix has not been applied. Reynoso, Calvin, Ibarra and Alexander in April 2021 voted to authorize the expenditure of $2 million to have Cemex, a Mexican multinational building materials company with its California corporate headquarters in Ontario, remove the concrete. To pay for the abatement, the four council members intended to place a lien on the property, such that the city would be able to recover the $2 million from Oxbow Communities and Greenleaf Engineering, the parties that placed the broken-up concrete there, before the construction on the Oxbow subdivision could proceed. The four prevailed in that vote, in which Councilmen Fred Shorett, Ted Sanchez and Juan Figueroa dissented. Though Valdivia does not have voting power as mayor, he does possess veto authority on votes that end in a 4-to-3 or 3-to-2 outcome. Valdivia vetoed the approval of the abatement plan.
Sanchez, Shorett and Figueroa believe that subjecting the developer to the cost of removing the concrete from the site and carrying out the processing of the material elsewhere before relocating it back to the site where it will be used to form the base beneath the subdivision would be prohibitively expensive and that once the material is removed it will never come back and the project will be abandoned, with the land lying fallow for another 15 years or more.
Shorett prides himself as being pro-development and does not want to see the city surrender the prospect of having upscale homes built at the site.
Sanchez told the Sentinel that the fears expressed by some residents that the concrete represents a health hazard do not comport with actuality. He cited a report from Envirochem Laboratory in Pomona which found that the concrete is not infused with asbestos and as such does not represent an environmental hazard.
Figueroa is a Valdivia ally who can be counted upon to support Valdivia in virtually everything he does.
By last year, it was publicly revealed that Cernich had provided Valdivia’s electioneering fund with $1,500 in two $750 installments, one on July 14, 2020 and another on September 8, 2020. Greenleaf Engineering, owned by Tim Greenleaf, who had the contract for the demolition of the Kuehne & Nagel warehouse and relocating its concrete walls to San Bernardino, had provided Valdivia’s election fund with $2,000 in two $1,000 installments on October 2, 2020 and on October 7, 2020.
The San Bernardino City Council has reached an impasse on the Oxbow concrete issue as Sanchez is determined that what needs to be done is that it should be crushed and mixed with the soil to create a base so the project can start, while Reynoso is adamant that the concrete be removed. Reynoso has made repeated efforts to have the council revote the issue, never achieving more than a 4-to-3 passage of the plan to enter into the arrangement with Cemex, which Valdivia vetoes. In the meantime, Cernich no longer has ownership or control of the property, meaning that the plan to develop the 40 homes on the property has been abandoned.
Valdivia, sensing that a large number of those who would be at the Little League Headquarters would prove hostile to him, simply did not show up. Also a no-show was Gabriel Jaramillo.
Thus, five of the seven candidates attended the forum. After a two-minute opening statement by each candidate present, the event moderator, Ray Blom, peppered the candidates with two sets of questions, the first set provided by the Verdemont Neighborhood Association board and the second set ones that were written out by members of those in attendance.
Blom asked what could be done to cure the city’s malaise, what each candidate’s priorities were, how accountability could be ensured in government, what the city could do to redress its image, how each candidate intended to lessen divisiveness and inspire cooperation on the city council, what should be done about the city’s high murder rate and the candidates’ attitudes toward affordable housing initiatives.
Khan emphasized his youth and experience as a business owner. He called for teamwork and creating an atmosphere where the city’s up-and-coming generations would be able follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps.
“We need to train younger generations because they will take over,” he said. “Our priorities are misplaced. A lot of youth does not believe in San Bernardino.”
Mohammad Khan said the city needed to obtain adequate money to enable itself to pay for the solutions the city needs to apply in redressing its problems, such as hiring more employees and police officers. “Generating funds is the first step,” he said.
Khan said that by having the police department engage in “community policing” it could “create a little better trust” among the city’s residents.
Khan said the city had to do a better job marketing itself to the world.
He said other cities were reacting to challenges more quickly than San Bernardino.
Without saying precisely how he would do so, Khan said he would “get rid of the homeless.”
Henry Nickel said the city had much going for itself, but he decried its “dysfunctional government” and the enmity that has developed between the council and the mayor. He alluded to Valdivia’s overuse of his veto power.
“We have to build trust,” he said. He said that as a member of the council, he had been hamstrung by the division on the council and Valdivia’s opposition to his initiatives. He lamented that getting an item passed on a simple majority vote did not suffice in the effort to accomplish things, since Valdivia would utilize his veto power to thwart many things if they did not pass by an overwhelming margin.
“If I didn’t get five votes, I couldn’t get things done,” Nickel said.
Nickel pointed out that members of the council are too often warring with one another. “What we are lacking is the ability to reach across the aisle and forget grudges,” he said.
Nickel said talk was cheap. He said the council and mayor needed to “shut up and listen” to what their constituents were saying.
Without explaining how he would find the financing to do so, Nickel said the city should restore the police officer-to-population ratio recommended by the FBI, which he said was “18-to-19 per 10,000 people.”
Helen Tran is the City of San Bernardino’s former human resources director who left in the aftermath of a scandal brought on by five city employees who claimed they were mistreated by Valdivia and were unable to get the city’s administration to get Valdivia to desist. Those five, now former employees, are suing the city. Tran is currently the human resources director with the City of West Covina.
Likening San Bernardino to a “sleeping giant,” Tran said she was capable of assisting San Bernardino in achieving its potential. She said the tools are in place to do that. “We have an airport, major rails, freeways, land, mountains,” she said. “Everything is here. We have to make sure our government is set up to have the resources and staffing levels to clean the city, to make it safe.”
Tran said that the city securing those “adequate resources” and funding was key to getting the city back on track.
She said that prior to the city’s 2012 bankruptcy, San Bernardino employed 350 police officers, but had reduced that number to 200. She said the city should restore the police department to its pre-bankruptcy level.
Tran said the mayor should work with the city manager and the administrative team at City Hall to run the city properly.
Jim Penman, who had been San Bernardino’s city attorney from 1987 until he was recalled from office in 2013, ran unsuccessfully for San Bernardino County District Attorney in 1994 and San Bernardino Mayor in 2005 and 2009. He was one of Valdivia’s key backers, and was instrumental in launching the younger man’s political career in 2011, when Valdivia was first elected to the city council in the Third Ward. Penman remained a Valdivia supporter, helping him defeat then-incumbent Mayor Carey Davis in 2018. Since that time, however, Penman acknowledges having “misjudged” Valdivia, and is pursuing his own revived mayoral ambitions to blast Valdivia out of office.
While crediting the other candidates with being sincere and well-intentioned, Penman said they did not have his experience or understanding of how a city is run, and that the residents of San Bernardino could not afford to have them learning on the job. For that reason, he said, he was the superior candidate for mayor.
According to Penman, beefing up the police department is a panacea to most of what ails the city. The way to undo the social havoc in San Bernardino, Penman said, consists of “hiring more police officers. We have to stop the nonsense of not getting a policeman to your house for hours or days or weeks.” Penman said the City of San Bernardino had places for 289 police officers in its budget but was currently employing only 270. He contrasted that with the City of Riverside, which has over 400 police officers. He said the city should employ “area detectives,” meaning ones devoted to specific neighborhoods as part of a community policing formula.
With regard to the Oxbow concrete dilemma, he said the problem was exacerbated by the city having “a city manager who does not know what to do.” Penman did not mention City Manager Robert Field by name, but came across as harshly critical of him, nonetheless. He intimated that there was a revolving door at City Hall by which the current city manager is making deals and hiring nonproductive consultants in exchange for those consultants in the future hiring the city manager as a consultant when he is no longer city manager. Part of the city’s problem, Penman said, was that the current city council is not sophisticated enough to know how to find and employ a decent city manager. He said the city had gone through a series of failed city managers. “The council did not know who[m] to hire,” he said.
He, more than any of his rivals, Penman insisted, “know[s] what to do. I know how to handle it. Tell them to clean it up or you go to trial. It’s very simple. It’s a violation. It’s a nuisance. Take them to court. Tell them to move it [the concrete] or go to jail.”
Penman said that developers doing business in the city “have to pay their fair share.”
Penman sounded a harsh note with regard to the challenge the city faces in dealing with its burgeoning homeless population. He said the city needed to “get the homeless out of the parks,” and seemed to suggest the city could just force the people living on the streets to leave the city.
Penman, Nickel and Ortiz were the three participants Tuesday night who were most sharply critical of Valdivia. They repeatedly and directly called for seeing him out of office, stating directly and indirectly that his holding of the mayoral gavel represents the city’s foremost problem.
Treasure Ortiz has been Valdivia’s most vocal critic, having denounced him while questioning his commitment to his constituents and basic honesty practically from the time he was sworn in as mayor. She said she would with the support of the city’s voters reclaim the mayoralty for the residents Valdivia has betrayed.
She called upon the city’s residents to stop being “placated.” She characterized the Valdivia regime as one during which the mayor and his council allies “have been paid not to care about our city by people outside our city.” She said she was on a “mission” to restore integrity to the city’s political leadership. “We must get John Valdivia out of the way of this city,” she said.
The city’s past and current leaders are not aggressive enough in going to the heart of the issues that are challenging the city, she said. She would end that complacency, she said.
“You need a fighter,” she said. “You don’t need people who just show up.”
Ortiz appealed to the city’s voters to elect “someone to the dais you trust,” as opposed to Valdivia, who sells his votes and decisions to the highest bidder. She said that with her as mayor, the city’s residents would know that “I don’t get paid to make them [decisions and determinations as a city leader].”
She said she would prove compassionate in dealing with homelessness.
Obliquely, Ortiz disputed Penman’s philosophy calling for hiring more police officers.
She acknowledged the city had social problems and was beset with crime but said it would be a “mistake to think we are going to keep throwing money, money, money” at problems and fix them that way. She likened the city’s response to the serious issues facing it to “putting band-aids on bullet holes.” She said the city was failing its children, who are confronted with “prostitutes, drug dealers and dead bodies” as they walk to and from school.
She said that the city’s murder rate could at least partially be redressed by trying to “work on ceasefires” and sponsoring or encouraging “mentorships to keep kids from getting into gangs.”
She said the city can reclaim its parks at less expense than by utilizing police officers to patrol there, instead hiring “park rangers” to assist in managing the influx of homeless people into the city’s parks.
Valdivia was not present to defend himself from the slings and arrows that were sent his way during the forum.
Neither was another candidate in the race, Gabriel Jaramillo, present.
Jaramillo is widely seen as a stalking horse for Valdivia, as he has assiduously avoided any criticism of the mayor while attacking the other candidates. Indications are that Valdivia is bankrolling Jaramillo’s electoral effort. Jaramillo’s addition to the field of mayoral candidates, by the calculation of at least some political prognosticators and San Bernardino mayoral race handicappers, is a benefit to Valdivia, who has substantial name recognition, the power of incumbency and $318,426.56 in his campaign war chest, which at present is far ahead of the $132,859.53 Tran has committed toward her electoral challenge of the mayor and the $47,146.72 Penman has in his electioneering fund. The other candidates are well under those totals. Most election analysts concur that the more opponents who run against Valdivia in the June primary race, the better it is for him. They believe that based on his current name recognition and incumbent status, he will need to spend only about one-fifth to one fourth of the amount of money he has in his campaign fund to ensure first or second place in the June race, and thus a berth in the November run-off. Some believe Jaramillo’s purpose is to engage in a running battle with Ortiz, who has distinguished herself as Valdivia’s most committed antagonist, as a strategy to divert Ortiz’s firepower away from the mayor.
Two dozen communities in San Bernardino County continue to struggle with problems relating to the proliferation of short-term rentals.
In recent years, local and county authorities have made an effort to regulate those making homes, cabins, rooms, units and even trailers available for people to live in for relatively short and in some cases longer periods in those places in the county that city slickers deem exotic, such as in the mountains or deserts and on the shores of lakes or the Colorado River. At such venues on getaways of that sort, most people are simply after a relaxing and good time, and few problems ensue. Still, with others, especially when alcohol or recreational drugs are involved, the behavior of some is not as civil as their temporary neighbors would prefer them to be. In some cases, quarters that are intended for a few people or a family or two is called upon to accommodate several dozen. That brings with it issues such as noise, overburdened parking space and compliance with rudimentary laws. On rare occasions, with no warning a rave-like event manifests in a place ill-suited for it, and things can quickly rage out of hand.
Most of these issues exist in unincorporated areas of the county, such as Mt. Baldy, Joshua Tree, Wrightwood, Crestline, Cedarpines Park, Lake Gregory, Lake Arrowhead, Blue Jay, Valley of Enchantment, Cedar Glen, Sky Forest, Twin Peaks, Arrow Bear, Big Bear City, Angeles Oaks, Running Springs, Green Valley Lake, Cienega Creek, Sugarloaf, Seven Oaks, Barton Flats, Zzyzx, Amboy or Trona. Three incorporated municipalities, however – Big Bear Lake, Yucca Valley, and Twentynine Palms – deal with transitory influxes of visitors on a regular basis.
In 2017, the county government made a concerted effort to deal with the matter in the mountain communities. In 2019, the county moved to take up the issue directly and generally, not just in the mountains, but in desert communities, in particular ones along the Colorado River as well as those near, in and around Joshua Tree National Park, which includes Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms. By November of that year, the county had approved a set of rules that were to apply to residential units rented for 30 or fewer days. Those included a permitting process for homes to be used as short-term rentals, ones that had to be renewed every two years. Owners were further required to provide onsite parking to accommodate all visitors to the rentals, maintain the rental units’ exteriors and interiors, document who the renters were and post evacuation maps on all doors within each unit.
The regulations imposed a fine of $100 on the rental unit’s owner for a first offense, a $200 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for a third.
Recurrent complaints by residents living near short term rental units persisted even in the aftermath of the county ordinance. With the COVID-19 crisis, which resulted in stay-at-home mandates, a trend by which people decided to head out into remote areas where they could cut lose took hold. There was a rash of unpleasant and unfortunate incidents in traditional getaway locations. Last year, the county considered making punishment for not keeping within the regulations in resort locations more draconian.
At the board of supervisors’ June 22, 2021 meeting, County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez and the county’s director of land use services, Terri Rahhal, delivered a report and recommendation that the supervisors pass an urgency ordinance and companion regular ordinance that increased the penalties for short-term rental code violations.
Noting the $100, $200 and $500 maximum fines that were then in place, Hernandez and Rahhal said those were insufficient to deter the proliferation of nuisances and dangerous activity at the short-term rental sites. They called for the passage of an urgency ordinance they had prepared and then the passage of a permanent ordinance they had in the works which would drastically increase the county’s ability to fine violators.
“Operating short-term residential rental units is a lucrative business that can absorb the current fines with no impetus to change,” according to the Hernandez/Rahhal report. “The proposed urgency ordinance would increase these penalties.” They laid out criminal and administrative penalties of $1,000 for the first offense, $2,000 for the second offense and $5,000 for the third offense falling within a 12-month period. The report added, “Subsequent offenses would be subject to suspension or revocation of the short-term residential rental unit permit.”
Operating a short-term rental unit without a permit, Hernandez and Rahhall proposed, would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor and would be subject to the same $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000 fines per violation per day.
Nine months hence, the intensification of fines has had some impact, though county officials have not claimed the ten-fold increase in fines has resolved the short term rental nuisance issue.
In the county’s incorporated resort cities and towns, where tourism is a significant element in the economy, imposing regulations on short term rentals is a problematic one, and it is filled with tension between residents who are not involved in the tourism industry and have no or little financial stake in it, and those whose bread is buttered by it.
Yucca Valley is more blue collar than white collar, and while some locals do make money by renting their property, most do not. After years of Yucca Valley residents enduring problems brought on by insensitive short term visitors, the town government in 2017 approved an ordinance that imposes on the owners of residences rented out as vacation homes a requirement that they apply for a $270 permit every two years and pay the same taxes imposed on hotels.
The fee, town officials said, was intended to defray the cost of the town hiring a private company to monitor the properties, enforce codes and deal with complaints relating to the properties emanating from neighbors.
Simultaneously, the city entered into a contract with San Francisco-based Host Compliance LLC to monitor vacation rentals.
Host Compliance LLC carries out that assignment remotely from San Francisco, using computer software and Internet data to keep tabs on all known vacation rentals in the town, monitoring them for compliance with the town’s codes, and informing rental unit owners of any noted violations with a notice to bring the properties into compliance.
Of all the cites in San Bernardino County, Big Bear Lake is the one where the controversy over short term rental regulation is most intense and, like unincorporated Lake Arrowhead, it is a place where the divide and disagreement over the proliferation of tourism is sharp. As a recreational and vacation mecca, Big Bear Lake attracts thousands of short term occupants annually, with arrivals coming in during all four seasons of the year. Consequently, a substantial number of property owners in Big Bear Lake derive considerable income from catering to these short term residents. They are less in favor of the city government imposing regulations on the transient population than are the homeowners in the city who must live with a constant influx of highly unpredictable temporary neighbors of variable levels of gentility. The Big Bear Lake City Council has thus found itself caught between on one side the full-time residents who want tough restrictions imposed on rental units, those who own them and those who occupy them on a temporary basis and on the side the often-absentee landlords who are making a substantial amount of money by renting their properties on a temporary basis and want nothing in place that will discourage renters from coming to Big Bear Lake.
The council has responded by initiating a regulatory regime that involves licensing and fines on cabin owners on whose properties problems manifest. If nuisances persist on a given property, the city will revoke the owner’s license. For a contingent of the city’s residents, City Hall has not gone far enough. They have called for a cap on vacation rentals and they are pushing the city to increase the transitory occupancy tax – i.e. the city’s bed tax or hotel tax – to be upped from 8 percent to 12 percent, based on their argument that 35 percent of the calls for service from the fire department or sheriff’s department involve short term rental properties and/or visitors to the city.
Alan Lee, who was elected to the Big Bear Lake City Council in 2020, has championed the cause of the city’s full-time residents, and he has emphasized cases where locals have been victimized by visitors, including incidents of vandalism, theft and violence. This has antagonized many of those absentee landlords, who see in such talk a danger that it will ward off customers who will avoid Big Bear Lake if it develops a reputation of allowing those who are there to be roughed up or hurt or victimized. Since the absentee landlords are generally wealthier than the permanent residents and can apply money in the form of political grease more readily than the permanent residents, the city and the majority of the city council have not been willing to put in place nor enforce regulations that go beyond the city’s current ordinances, and they have resisted the call to put a cap on the number of short-term rental licenses they issue. The controlling council majority members have said they want to allow the regulations that exist an opportunity to work. If those do not achieve the desired results, they say they might then put more restrictive measures into place. In the meantime, an enmity between Lee and the other members of the council has evolved, one which reflects the tension between Big Bear Lake’s full-time residents and its absentee landlords.
In the meantime, a contingent of full-time residents is flirting with the concept of a ballot measure to bring about a cap on the number of short-term rental units together with an increase in the transitory occupancy tax. Into the bargain, they want that ballot measure to limit the number of rental units an absentee landlord can have to one, the goal being to prevent or substantially limit ownership of short-term rental units by investors and encouraging local ownership of such rentals.
Remarkably, within the last month, in the City of Twentynine Palms, discussion and debate with regard to the regulation of short term rental units has mirrored much of what is going on in Big Bear Lake.
The planning commission there has been tasked with evolving a policy for regulating vacation rental units. There is a seeming consensus that capping the number of units used for that purpose is a workable solution, or at least part of the formula for alleviating some of the social ills that come with having a large transitory population at any given time. Tentatively, the commissioners collectively came up with limiting the number of vacation rentals to 12 percent of the single-family homes in the city, although commissioners Greg Mendoza and Jim Krushat opposed the 12 percent limitation. With a population of 28,065 in the 2020 Census and 5,797 single family homes, that would mean the city could host 695 short term rentals. Krushat said he believed a cap in the 19 percent to 20 percent range, or around 1,101 to 1,159 was preferable. At the opposite end of the debate, Chairwoman Leslie Paahana said she could live with a cap of 10 percent, which meant roughly 580 vacation rental units.
The Twentynine Palms Planning Commission also took up the idea floated in Big Bear Lake of limiting the number of vacation rentals that one person could own, though that discussion did not delineate a cap of one per resident. Ultimately, the commission rejected imposing a limit in that fashion. Krushat was out of step with his colleagues on that issue. He decried the trend of developers building homes that were not being sold to buyers but were built to be rented to short-term occupants. He said such homes were being used as motels and that the proponents of those projects should have represented them as hotels during the application, planning and approval process.
In Twentynine Palms, the issue of regulating short term rentals is complicated by the consideration that the city is proximate to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base. Military personnel stationed there and their families who live off-base compose a significant portion of the city’s “transitory” residents, in some cases staying a few weeks, a few months or several years. Rules that would restrict rentals available to military members could have unintended consequences. In drawing up the regulations, city officials are seeking to avoid blurring the distinction between vacationers and Marines.
The planning commission discussed but did not finalize its position on multiple issues, including what regulations should be imposed on sound levels or noise emanating from rental units.
A controversy erupted in Fontana this week with the mayor’s and city council’s consideration and selection of what has become universally recognized as a gerrymandered electoral map to be used in the 208,393-population city for the next decade.
After considering a number of potential voting district configurations based upon the city’s population numbers in the 2020 Census, the city council came to Tuesday night’s meeting with its options limited to three potential maps, all of which had been manipulated to protect Mayor Acquanetta Warren’s primary ally on the city council from being challenged by a former local office holder considered by political handicappers to be his strongest competitor.
Acquanetta Warren has been an officeholder in Fontana since 2002, when she was appointed to fill out the last two years of Mark Nuami’s council term after he was elected mayor that year. Two years later, Warren ran for election to the council in her own right and won. That was followed by her council reelection in 2008 and her election as mayor in 2010. From that time forward, Mayor Warren has been the dominant political personage in the former steel town, which has grown to the point that at present it is in a not-too-distant second place position behind the county seat of San Bernardino for the title of the county’s most populous city.
Warren, a Republican, has assembled around herself a ruling coalition consisting of three other Republicans – Phil Cothran Jr, Pete Garcia and John Roberts.
The Republican primacy in Fontana is a remarkable phenomenon. Though in California municipal, county and local agency races are considered nonpartisan ones, in far-flung San Bernardino County, party politics plays a substantial role in every contest for public office. That the Republicans hold any elective offices in Fontana at all is remarkable from a statistical standpoint. Looking at the party registration numbers in Fontana shows that Democrats have not just a lead but a commanding one in that regard. As of this week, of the 107,806 voters in the city, 53,606 of them or 49.7 percent are registered Democrats, while 21,681 or 20.1 percent are registered as Republicans. Not only are there just shy of two-and-a-half Democrats for every Republican in the city, the number of voters in Fontana who have chosen to align themselves with no party is 25,021 or 23.2 percent, outrunning the number of Republicans in the city. The remaining 8 percent identify as Libertarians, Greens, American Independents or as members of the Peace & Freedom or other obscure parties. In the last thirty years, the Republicans in Fontana have maintained their edge by spirited and cohesive campaigning, coordinating, communicating and achieving high voter turnout percentages and simply outhustling their Democratic rivals, all of which have hinged on aggressive fundraising.
Over the last generation, Phil Cothran Sr, a successful insurance salesman and landowner in the city, has been active in those fundraising drives for Republican causes and candidates in Fontana, including for Warren, and he has been a major contributor himself. The father of Phil Cothran Jr, he and Warren have mentored and groomed his son to take on a political role in the city.
In 2018, Cothran Jr ran successfully in the first by-district election held in Fontana history, competing against three others, including former Fontana Unified School District Board Member Shannon O’Brien, in the city’s newly formed District 1. Young Cothran, like his father a Republican, defeated O’Brien, a Democrat.
Slowly, indeed at a glacial pace, the Democrats in Fontana are developing the sophistication and tools to seize a political position more in keeping with their numerical superiority, including waking up to the need to engage in both fundraising and then learning and mastering the mechanics of political campaigning to drive voters to the polls or cast mail ballots, actions which in tandem with the local Democratic Party registration advantage raise the significant possibility that Warren and her Republican cohorts could lose their hold on City Hall.
Shannon O’Brien and her husband, Jason, are at the forefront of the Democratic vanguard seeking to flip Red Fontana Blue. Jason, a Los Angeles Police Department detective, succeeded his wife on the Fontana Unified School District Board of Education from 2016 until 2020. During each of the times when the O’Briens were on the school board, they served as a bulwark against the bloc of officeholders on that panel who had been placed into office with Warren’s assistance, as the mayor’s political machine had and continues to spread itself to all elements of the community.
This year, Shannon has thrown her hat in the ring as a candidate for mayor. Also this year, in January, Jason filed a form 501 candidate intention document with the City of Fontana through the city clerk’s office, signaling he was going to run for councilman in the First District. The O’Briens live on the north side of Fontana, well within the city’s original First District, basically located within Fontana’s northwest quadrant. Their home was safely within the First District boundaries and it was a logical assumption that with the completion of the voting district map for the City of Fontana, the O’Brien household would remain within the First District.
For reasons that have not been publicly specified, however, Fontana’s effort to establish the electoral map that is to apply in the 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 election cycles has been drawn out, making Fontana one of the last jurisdictions in San Bernardino County to set its district map. The boundaries for the council districts were not set until this week, at a point well after candidates, potential candidates and contemplated candidates have begun their analyses of the political winds to ascertain if they are going to seek office and what offices – agency or municipal, local, state or federal – they would vie for. Indeed, Fontana did not set its council district boundaries until after the filing period had opened and then closed for county, state and federal offices in this year’s primary election.
When the Fontana City Council at last this week got around to making its final call as to how the city’s electoral map is to shape up, it considered only three of the nine maps and map variations that had been drawn up during the reapportionment process carried out this year in Fontana. The city’s consultant, the National Demographics Corporation, had drafted four primary maps, those being 101, 102, 103 and 104. Additionally, the public submitted least four maps for consideration. Three of those – 401, 402 and 403 – like the National Demographics Corporation maps, called for the city to remain being divided into four districts, each represented by one council member, with all residents voting to elect an at-large mayor. A fourth map submitted by the public, Map 604, would have created six council positions, entailing six council districts, in addition to the at-large mayoral position. Prior to this week, the National Demographics Corporation had tweaked some of the basic maps, giving them nomenclature which retained the original number from which the map deviated augmented with a letter. Ultimately as of Tuesday night, the maps submitted overall had been reduced to three finalists, two of which originated with the National Demographics Corporation and one which had been submitted by the public. The council’s final options were the map designated 103, another designated 402 and a third designated 104B.
Remarkably, all three removed the O’Briens from District 1. Both maps 402 and 104B displayed a radical use of gerrymandering. Map 402 featured a jetty that jutted out westward from the main body of District 3 to include the neighborhood in which the O’Brien residence is located. In the case of Map 104B, a similar jetty or peninsula extended west from District 2. Map 103 was less obviously gerrymandered, with district lines that were more uniform and linear. Nevertheless, it too, moved the immediate neighborhood in which the O’Briens live out of District 1 and into District 3. Meanwhile, all three maps left Phil Cothran Jr. in District 1. Those maps which left O’Brien and Cothran in District 1, thus creating a scenario in which they would run against one another this year, were eliminated from consideration before the council met on Tuesday.
A not unreasonable interpretation of what had occurred was that the council majority – that being the four-member ruling coalition headed by Warren – had given itself options that were designed to lock in its existing electoral/political advantages and which compromised the ability of the political opposition to mount any sort of effective challenge.
Ultimately, on Tuesday evening, the council, by a vote of 4-to-1 with the council’s lone Democrat and nonmember of the Warren coalition, Jesse Sandoval, dissenting, Map 104B was selected.
During a significant amount of the discussion and public debate leading up to the vote, the focus was not so much on the north end of the city where the O’Briens live but on the south end of Fontana.
All three maps the city council seriously considered Tuesday night – 103, 402 and 104B – divided the southernmost area of Fontana into two districts, representing a change from the map that was put in place in 2017 and has been in effect until now. A roiling issue in Fontana is what many consider to be the overbuilding of warehouses, in particular at the city’s south end, and activists intent on limiting or ending further warehouse development in the city wanted the city to maintain a single district in south Fontana to prevent the anti-warehouse popular vote that exists there from being diluted. The city council Tuesday night was confronted by members of both the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalitions and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, who pushed for the council to resurrect a map that had been previously rejected and was not being considered Tuesday night, Map 401. They touted Map 401 as one which would, in the words of several, “keep communities of interest together.”
Members of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice questioned why the city seemed so committed to maps 103, 402 and 104B, all of which created not only the possibility but the likelihood that a city resident living in central Fontana perhaps as far north as Arrow Boulevard will represent those at the south end of the city who are confronted by far different living and quality of life issues.
Some of those opposed to the city’s limitation of its districting options to maps 103, 402 and 104B suggested that what was ongoing was the council majority’s effort to “gain a political advantage.”
Jason O’Brien brought that charge full circle when, in a remark to the Sentinel this week he connected the observations of what was happening at the south end of the city with regard to the city’s political mapping there with what was happening toward the north end of the city.
“Acquanetta has always tried to stop me from running,” Jason O’Brien said.
In her action this time around, he suggested, Warren is looking to keep him from loosening the vice grip she has on the city’s governmental machinery by challenging, and potentially defeating, Cothran Jr, who is up for reelection in the city’s First District this year.
“She was able to remove me from District 1,” O’Brien said. “You will notice District 1 and District 4 are up for election in November 2022, forcing me to wait until 2024 to run.”
This is not the first time Warren used underhanded tactics to try and undercut him politically, Jason O’Brien said.
“In my 2020 school board race, Acquanetta financed and endorsed black candidates to unseat me by dividing up the black votes,” he said. “One of those candidates was Shelly Bradford. I also suspect Oliver Christian, but we have no paperwork linking him to the mayor. Christian didn’t campaign. We suspect he was placed in the race to further split my vote.”
Warren dismissed assertions that the city’s electoral map was being drawn with immediate political considerations in mind.
“This is for ten years,” she said, “So we have to look at not just today, but what’s happening down in those areas,” meaning the city’s southlying districts.
Chino Hills, which a little less than five years ago earned distinction and praise for not creating electoral districts that across the board benefited the city’s incumbent council members, this week erased its reputation as one of the few cities in San Bernardino County not headed by a slew of politicians whose first priority extends to ensuring their political primacy.
In setting the boundaries for the city council districts that will be in place in the county’s southwesternmost municipality during the 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 election cycles, the council’s five members locked in for themselves advantages in the next several races they will need to run in to remain on the council.
Historically in San Bernardino County, only the cities of San Bernardino and Colton had city councils in which the members were elected by ward or district. Beginning in 2014, a group of lawyers based outside of San Bernardino County – Lancaster-based R. Rex Parris, Milton C. Grimes of Los Angeles, Malibu-based Kevin Shenkman and Matthew Barragan of Los Angeles – began assailing the lion’s share of San Bernardino County’s other cities and incorporated towns with demands that they move to by-district or by-ward voting. Parris, Grimes, Shenkman and Barragan based those demands on allegations that there was a pattern of racially-polarized or ethnically-polarized voting in those cities and towns which had resulted in fewer members of certain ethnic or racial minorities – essentially Hispanics – being elected to those municipalities’ councils percentagewise than the percentage of Hispanics within their various and respective populations.
Since the terms of the California Voting Rights Act made it both expensive and difficult for cities to contest such claims of ethnically-polarized or racially-polarized voting even in circumstances in which the claims were invalid, most cities simply chose to convert their electoral processes to ones in which members of their councils were elected to represent the district in which they lived through elections in which voters were restricted to voting only with regard to the district in which they reside. The California Voting Rights Act contained a provision by which an attorney making such a by-district voting demand of a city would then be eligible to receive a $30,000 to $45,000 fee from the city for having written such a demand letter that was complied with. Consequently, in virtually every case where a city made a transition to by-district or by-ward voting, the attorney would collect that fee, and discontinue any further involvement in or monitoring of the election system transition.
This left the cities making those transitions free to carry out the election process conversions in any way in which they saw fit. Often this meant that the conversion of a given city’s elections into ones in which minority members were more likely to be elected in the past did not take place. Even more often – indeed in well in excess of 90 percent of the cases – what happened was the cities set up districts in which the incumbents serving at the time the transitions were made were provided with an advantage against any of their emerging competitors for office.
One of the ways in which this manifested was the gerrymandering of the districts such that the district maps that were created put district boundaries between those who were in office, making it so incumbents did not need to run against incumbents. Moreover, the cities would engage in sequencing of the elections such that the terms for those seeking to be elected to represent the newly created districts were timed to begin just as the terms of the at-large council positions the council members who were eligible to run in the new districts ended. This was a baldly political and self-serving manipulation of the electoral process, and in city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city after city in San Bernardino County where the transition to district elections had occurred, those in office took advantage of the power and authority that had been entrusted to them to further advance their political careers.
Incumbents already possess an advantage over non-incumbents in terms of name recognition with the general public, which makes voters more likely to vote for them. In addition, incumbency makes it easier to convince political donors to provide those running for office with contributions to their political war chests. That money can be used 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 the incumbent and the job he or she has done while in office along with his or her accomplishments, print and send attack mailers dwelling on the shortcomings of opponents, pay for handbills that can be distributed door-to-door or defray the cost of phone banks to call voters and importune them for their votes. Placing themselves into districts where they need not run against other incumbents with the same advantages they possess confers on those incumbents an even further leg up, as is demonstrated by the substantially superior win-loss percentage incumbents have over non-incumbents nationally, throughout California, regionally, at the county level and locally.
Just like the towns of Apple Valley and Yucca Valley and the cities of Chino, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Redlands, Twentynine Palms, Big Bear, Hesperia, Barstow, Fontana, Highland and later Ontario, Chino Hills in 2018 was forced to embrace district elections. Unlike virtually all of those cities and towns, however, Chino Hills had resisted the temptation to put into place a map in which the districts had been drawn to benefit those who were then in office. While the city did hire outside consultants and demographers to assist in the electoral map drawing effort, the map ultimately selected for Chino Hills in June 2017 for use beginning with the 2018 election was one that was drawn up by two citizens, those being Brian Johsz and Richard Austin. The city’s consultant, the National Demographics Corporation, provided the city with four maps which divided the city into five districts, one of which included districts that kept all five council members in separated districts. That map was presented in keeping with National Demographics Corporation principal Douglas Johnson’s recognition that most politicians want to remain in office and they have both the power and reach to provide themselves with an advantage in terms of how electoral districts get drawn. Accordingly the National Demographics Corporation gave the Chino Hills City Council the option of conferring just such an advantage on itself.
Worth noting is that the council as it was then composed, consisting of Ray Marquez, Art Bennett, Cynthia Moran, Peter Rogers and Ed Graham, rejected the option of adopting the map that put all five of them in different districts. Instead, they adopted the Johsz/Austin map. That map created districts in which three of the council members were placed in a district by themselves, two of the incumbents resided in the same district and one district had no incumbent. Specifically, the map put Ray Marquez in District 1, Peter Rogers in District 2, Art Bennett in District 3 and Ed Graham and Cynthia Moran in District 5.
As it turned out, not too long after the map was adopted, Graham, one of the original members of the city council when Chino Hills incorporated in 1991, resigned. He was replaced, notefully, by Johsz, a resident of District 4, who was appointed to fill in for Graham until his term expired in 2018.
Marquez and Rogers were elected without opposition in 2018; Johsz was retained in office in 2018 with three opponents running against him; Bennett and Moran were elected in 2020, with Bennett defeating three challengers and Moran unopposed.
In accordance with the 2020 Census, all jurisdictions throughout the country and California were due last year to redraw their electoral maps and the boundaries therein, a process known as reapportionment, to ensure numerical uniformity, or uniformity within a range of 10 percent presumptively considered to be in accordance with U.S. and California constitutional provisions. Because of delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there were delays which postponed many cities’ adoptions of the new maps. Chino Hills was among the last of the county’s cities to conclude the process. It did so this week at its March 22 meeting.
In at least some respects, Chino Hills complied, or ostensibly complied, with the intent spelled out in the California Voting Rights Act in terms of enabling minority groups to express themselves through the electoral process. The city made some relatively minor shifts of boundaries to accommodate some slightly uneven geographical population growth within the 44.7-square mile city over the last decade. With a city population in the 2020 Census of 85,695, each district was supposed to have, ideally, 17,139 residents within its confines. The map the council ultimately chose was drafted by Chino Hills resident Jeff Vaka, with some minor tweaking here and small adjustments there.
While in most of the rest of San Bernardino County, it is Latinos considered to be historically unrepresented on the various town and city councils, Chino Hills is heavily populated with those of Asian extraction, and there are no Asians on the council.
According to the city, the districts that were put into place Tuesday match the goal of providing the city’s residents with a fair shot at electing Asian-American representatives.
According to the National Demographics Corporation, which remains as the city’s consultant in determining how its districts are to be drawn, District 1 has a 53 percent concentration of Asian-Americans and District 2 boasts a 52 percent concentration of Asian-Americans.
The highest concentration in the number of Latinos in any one district is in District 4, where 41 percent of the population is Hispanic.
The white population in Chino Hills is uniformly a minority throughout Chino Hills, as District 1 is 21 percent Caucasian, District 2 is 20 percent white; District 3 stands at 36 percent of primarily European ancestry, District 4 is 17 percent Caucasoid and 23 percent in District 5 register as predominantly Aryan.
Similarly, the black population is static throughout the city at 4 percent in all districts except District 5, which is 6 percent African-American.
The map managed to confer advantages on all five current officeholders in the city. Marquez remains in District 1 at the north and western end of the city, abutting Los Angeles County. Rogers is within the Second District on the eastern side of the city primarily to the north, the densely populated section that is contiguous with the City of Chino to the east. Bennett’s resident falls within the even more densely populated Third District just south of the Second District, and it is also snuggled up against the city limits with Chino. Johsz’s Fourth District stretches all the way across the city from the Orange County line on the middle southwest side to Fairfield Ranch along the eastern border with Chino. Moran’s District 5 is the southernmost, largest and most sparsely populated portion of Chino Hills, contiguous with Chino to the east, Riverside County to the southeast and south, and Orange County and Chino Hills State Park on the southwest.
Marquez, Rogers and Johsz are due to stand for election this year if they are to remain in office after December. Bennett and Moran must stand for election in November 2024 or leave office the following month.
On Tuesday, the steady generational makeover of the downtown area of Redlands advanced, with the planning commission giving approval to two new buildings.
A limited liability company known as Redlands Railway District, LLC formed with the specific goal of developing property in close proximity to the Santa Fe Depot. Redlands Railway District proposed the Packing House East project to be located at 333 Orange Street, at the southwest corner of Orange Street and Al Harris Lane. The site falls within Redlands’ Town Center-Historic District, which is delineated in the city’s Downtown Specific Plan.
The surrounding land uses consist of the Santa Fe Depot, which the city has designated as Historic Landmark 38, and the Redlands Chamber of Commerce Building, designated as Redlands Historic Landmark 40, both to the north; Denny’s restaurant and a law office which was previously Home Savings and Loan to the south; the Romano’s Pizzeria, Aroi Mak Mak and the Flamingo restaurants to the east; and the historic MOD Packinghouse, which is currently under renovation to become a multi-tenant food hall, to the west
The general plan designation on the property is commercial.
The northeast portion of the 1.67-acre property has one existing retail building, a FedEx/Kinko’s shop, which is to remain along with a parking lot. The westerly side of the subject properties is vacant and unimproved, and that is the portion of the site proposed for new development, which is to consist of one 7,973-square foot restaurant building and one 3,839-square foot retail building. In addition, the applicant will complete an associated new parking lot and further site improvements. Those site improvements include upgrading to the exterior façade as well as improving the ADA-access ramps and other accessibility features at the FedEx/Kinkos retail operation.
The 7,973-square foot restaurant/food service building will feature an approximate 1,598-square foot outdoor dining patio, which will be located between the existing FedEx/Kinkos operation to the east and the existing historic MOD Packinghouse to the west. The 3,839-square foot retail building will be located on the south side of the FedEx/Kinko’s building.
The total combined proposed new floor area for the buildings to be constructed is 11,812 square feet.
Redlands Railway District does not have tenants under contract for the new buildings at this time, but anticipates the restaurant building would be occupied by a single tenant.
Redlands Railway District requested and was granted a lot line adjustment to modify the interior lot lines of four parcels for development purposes, such that there will be one building on each lot after the development is complete.
Previous construction at the project site occurred in 1987 when the site was developed with an approximately 8,000 square-foot bank building, with office uses located upstairs. Currently that building is occupied by FedEx/Kinko’s as the sole tenant. Much of the project site was developed with an existing parking lot, while the remainder on the west side was left vacant and unimproved.
In 2018, an application was made by a previous owner and applicant for the planning commission to review and approve the construction of a 10,000 square-foot building adjacent to Al Harris Lane and a 5,200 square foot building adjacent to Orange Street. The entitlement granted to that application has since expired and the property changed ownership. Redlands Railway District, as the new owner and current applicant, filed the new application for a similar, but revised, proposal for two new retail buildings.
Glen Feron represented the developer before the commission on Tuesday.
Feron and city staff said the building design theme will match that of earlier additions to the Packing House District, utilizing brick veneer, shed-style roofs and metal awnings.
With commissioners Steven Frasher and Matt Endsley absent, the commission voted 5-to-0 to approve the project.