To Scotch Bribery Reports Warren Poaches Chino City Manager

In an effort to contain or at least downplay a cacophony of reports about graft and corruption at Fontana City Hall as the 2022 election season approaches, Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren this week moved to poach Chino’s city manager.
Fontana lured Matt Ballantyne, who has been at the helm of relatively sedate and well-run 91,403-population Chino for a decade, to head up the municipal operations at the 217,237-population scandal-plagued former steel town by offering him what looks to be a nearly $100,000 escalation in his total annual compensation that will but him beyond the half of a million dollar range annually.
In taking on the assignment, Ballantyne is playing for far higher stakes than he has heretofore while assuming a substantial degree of risk he would not have encountered if he had remained in Chino.
Over the years, Fontana city managers have courted an uncommon degree of controversy. While some prospered, others involved themselves in circumstances that so poisoned their reputations that even the comfortable retirements they were eventually were able to slip into were no solace for having been publicly vilified or delivered to the confines of an asylum.
Jack Ratelle, who was Fontana’s city manager from 1973 to 1987, looted the city seven ways from Sunday, orchestrating arrangements by which the city and its taxpayers paid out approaching half of a billion dollars to cover the cost of infrastructure and both on-and-off-site improvements to allow development to proceed. Ratelle laundered the kickbacks he received – estimated at no more than $2 million – through a credit line set up for him at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. He was fired after 14 years on the job but escaped being prosecuted based on the amount of compromising information he had accumulated on the city’s then current and former political leaders and high ranking members of the police department. There followed an effort at reform by Ratelle’s successor, the dynamic John O’Sullivan, who was ultimately undone by the overwhelming financial burden that Ratelle had saddled the city with and the lingering conflicting interests the city and some of its political leadership had become involved in under Ratelle. O’Sullivan left Fontana a broken man after less than four years. There followed relatively short tenures of city managers Russ Carlson and Jay Corey, who like O’Sullivan, were unable to map the city out of its deepening fiscal crisis brought on by massive debt. It was Greg Devereaux, Fontana city manager from 1994 to 1997, who structured a financial recovery plan that hinged itself on substantial growth by intense development of properties in the city’s redevelopment areas that were previously encumbered by the corruption-encrusted arrangements of Ratelle and the development/redevelopment director, Neil Stone, Ratelle had employed. Devereaux went on to an even more illustrious governmental management career with the City of Ontario and thereafter the County of San Bernardino. Still, before he left Fontana, Devereaux had put in place a municipal operations strategy so comprehensive and well-devised that Ken Hunt, who followed in Devereaux’s wake in Fontana, needed to merely execute upon that game plan for the next two decades to have a spectacular run as city manager as the city grew exponentially, until today it is neck and neck, population-wise, with the county seat, the City of San Bernardino, as the county’s largest municipality. Hunt became by 2019, the third-highest paid city manager in California
Fontana, nevertheless, remained steeped in governmental and political corruption, and part of what had made Hunt the envy of others in the city management game was the way in which he had enabled Acquanetta Warren, the city’s mayor since 2010, to carry out her depredations. Warren has thrived in the pay-to-play ethos of Fontana politics, in which developers, just as in the Ratelle era, have traded political donations to the city’s elected leadership along with under-the-table or otherwise hidden payments to city officials for project approval and occasional waivers of expectations or requirements that they bear the cost of the infrastructure accompanying their subdivisions, shopping centers, complexes or buildings.
It is reported that in the late spring of 2019, Hunt told Warren he would no longer abide or ignore the bribetaking he had come to recognize she was engaged in. Warren just prior to that ultimatum had roundly and widely praised the management job Hunt was doing and, after having secured his services the previous year with a three-year contract, was angling to lock Hunt in as city manager through 2026 by inducing him into signing an even more lucrative 5-year contract in 2021. Upon Hunt confronting Warren over the payoffs she was accepting for approving projects and city contracts, however, Warren made a 180-degree U-turn, and quickly arranged for Hunt’s departure as city manager. In doing so, she conferred upon him a $1,127,378.45 severance package that paid him $978,000 in 2020 to keep him on the city payroll, despite the consideration that he was doing no work and was actually banned from City Hall. Warren carried this off while maintaining that Hunt was leaving of his own volition. Under Hunt’s contract, he was not due any severance if he was fired with cause or if he quit. A provision of the severance package was a confidentiality clause. In this way Warren purchased, using taxpayer money, Hunt’s silence with regard to the bribes she had been receiving.
The originators of money Hunt characterized as bribes paid to the mayor included Intex Properties, David Wiener and Brad Chapman, the Sentinel has been informed.
In the immediate aftermath of Hunt’s leaving, Warren brought Michael Milhiser, who had previously served as the city manager in Montclair, Ontario, Upland, and Adelanto, in as interim city manager. Thereafter, Warren and the city council in February 2020 hired Dana Point City Manager Mark Denny to begin as Fontana city manager in April 2020. Denny, a sophisticated political operator who in 1996, while working for then-California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, was charged by the Orange County District Attorney and subsequently convicted of engaging in election fraud, hit the ground running in Fontana. He lasted 18 months, living in an atmosphere rife with political skulduggery and quid pro quos. In September 2021, however, something so unnerved him that he abruptly resigned to take a position in the private sector in Orange County. Shannon Yauchzee, a civil engineer who formerly was the city manager of Baldwin Park and who had been with Willdan Engineering and was the public works director with the City of West Covina from 1996 to 2014, came in to replace Denny on an interim basis. At this point, Yauchzee’s course with Fontana has run.
Ballantyne comes into Fontana with open eyes, knowing he will have to co-exist with a mayor who is on the take. Prior to going to work in Chino, he was the city manager of San Marino from 2006 to 2012. A UCLA graduate, Ballantyne is sophisticated enough to know what is expected of him in Fontana, where the city council is dominated by Warren. Warren’s ruling coalition consists of Councilman John Robert, Councilman Pete Garcia and Councilman Phil Cothran Jr. The dissident on the council is Jesse Sandoval, who does not have sufficient political muscle to counteract the direction Warren has set for the city. Both Garcia and Roberts are dependent upon Warren, who has $170,127.05 in her political war chest at present after handing around $56,412.87 to her various allies from her campaign fund last year. Phil Cothran Jr, the scion of Phil Cothran Sr, a wealthy insurance dealer, landowner and current chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, is closely aligned with Warren through his father. Young Cothran was groomed by Warren as a successful city council candidate in 2018.
Warren is confident that she has nothing to fear from San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson, who is knowledgeable about her bribetaking but disinclined to prosecute her on those grounds because of mutual political affiliations and shared campaign donors.
Warren is not insulated, however, from prosecution by the California Attorney General’s Office. Last year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a civil action against the City of Fontana over its approval of a warehouse in Southern Fontana. Bonta took issue with the lax environmental safeguards the city adhered to in giving Duke Realty go-ahead to build the warehouse at the confluence of Slover and Oleander avenues. The city allowed the planning commission to utilize one of the least exacting forms of environmental certification there is, a mitigated negative declaration, in granting the project approval. In the lawsuit, Bonta argued that the city’s limited environmental review of the project and its failure to appropriately analyze, disclose, and mitigate the project’s environmental impacts violates the California Environmental Quality Act. Bonta’s investigators have yet to make a close examination of the influence political donations made to Warren have purchased in Fontana. Nor have they yet focused on reports of money other than political donations that have been funneled to Warren, who has been consistently able to get warehouse projects approved, to the point that she has become known, both derisively by her political opponents and admiringly by her supporters, as “Warehouse Warren.” If Bonta’s scrutiny of Fontana’s penchant for warehouse development moves from civil complaints to a concern about criminal influence, Ballantyne may come to regret his decision to leave Chino for Fontana, particularly if he abets Warren in her efforts to facilitate the wholesale conversion of properties to warehousing, while the landowners and developers profiting from those conversions continue their pattern of conveying tens of thousands of dollars to Warren. If even one of those donations can be demonstrated to have been made conditional upon Warren voting to approve a donor’s project, the crucial element to establish in a court of law that bribery took place will exist. Being the city manager to a mayor convicted of bribery would not represent the most impressive credential on Ballantyne’s résumé.
Nevertheless, looking at the numbers involved, it is understandable why Ballantyne agreed to leave Chino for Fontana. In Chino, he was making $294,879.73 in salary, $48,759 in other pay and $68,160 in benefits yearly, for a total annual compensation of $411,798.73.
In Fontana he is to receive a salary of $315,000, benefits of $91,254 and other pay and bonuses of $110,000, giving him an annual compensation of $516,254.
-Mark Gutglueck

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