Valdivia Ducks First Mayoral Forum Of The 2022 Electoral Season

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.
-Mark Gutglueck

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