Contraction Of Colton’s Elective Districts Brings Back Council Contention

Three decades after Colton’s residents voted to expand their city council from four council members elected at-large along with a mayor to six council members representing six districts and a mayor elected at-large in an effort to provide better representation to its residents, the city this year is returning to a council composed of four members representing four districts overseen by a mayor.
The previous change to enlarge the panel, which was effectuated in 1994 pursuant to the passage of Measure W in 1992, brought with it a paradigm shift that went beyond the numerical expansion, resulting in political convulsions in what was then San Bernardino County’s 12th largest city that reverberated around the then-roughly 14-square mile city for more than a decade-and-a-half. It now appears that the contraction that is to take place is on the brink of creating, or has already resulted in, political enmities that will once again roil the community, which now ranks as the county’s 14th largest city.
Colton, originally a railroad town, was the second incorporated city in the county after San Bernardino, officially taking form as a municipal entity on July 11, 1887, which was more than a year before the December 3, 1888 official creation of Redlands, four years ahead of the December 10, 1891 incorporation of Ontario, nearly 19 years ahead of the 1906 apparition of Upland, a little shy of 23 years before the advent of Chino as a city and 26 years ahead of Needles.
The 1893 secession of Riverside County from San Bernardino County limited, to some degree, Colton’s ability to expand, as the Riverside County border was created just to its south. Nevertheless, Colton developed as a dynamic transportation adjunct to the adjacent county seat of San Bernardino, such that all roads and rail lines to virtually everywhere else ran through Colton, for which it was dubbed “The Hub City.”
Colton was a harbinger of the future in more ways than one, perhaps the foremost of which was that it was the one place in San Bernardino County as well as Southern California where the long somnolent Hispanic political giant first awakened. Early Hispanic members of the city council included John Perez, Pasqual Oliva and Pete Luque.
By the 1970s, the council included Abe Beltran and Frank Gonzales, who as kids in the 1940s had run the streets of South Colton together, despite their three-and-a-half-year age difference. In the 1970s, as previously, five members of the council were elected at-large, and the council selected from among its ranks who would serve one-year or two-year terms as mayor. Beltran, who was first elected to the council in 1970, was selected to serve as mayor in 1976. Gonzales was first elected to the council in 1972. In the 1980s, direct mayoral elections began, initially with two-year terms, by which point Beltran and Frank Gonzales were political rivals, with Gonzales besting Beltran in the contesting for the mayoral post. Beltran left the council in 1984, but returned in 1990.
By 1994, Colton had made the transition from two-year to four-year mayoral terms as well as from four at-large to six district council seats, which had initially included both two-year and four-year races to set the sequencing of the respective district offices. This shifted the Hub City’s political dynamics. George Fulp, who had three times previously sought unsuccessfully to run for the Colton Joint Unified School Board, ran for mayor. Frank Gonzales by that point had a well-developed political machine, one strengthened by his skillful use of political patronage, and no one but George Fulp fully anticipated what would come next. Knowing that Beltran would again be seeking to unseat Gonzales, Fulp persuaded Jesse Valdivia, who was otherwise nonpolitical, to run for mayor as well, promising to buy him a pick-up truck if he did so. With three Latino candidates in the race, the Hispanic vote was diluted and split three ways. This allowed Fulp, the only Caucasian in the race, to eke out a narrow victory over Gonzales.
Unrecognized by a large segment of those in Colton at that time was that the bombastic Fulp was an unrepentant, indeed raging, alcoholic. Empowered by his election as mayor, he took to drinking himself into a state of incandescence, liberally spraying himself with cologne to mask the tell-tale alcohol vaporific that oozed from his pores and engulfed him, and then gallivanting about the city in his bright-red late-model Cadillac, confident that the police would not stop, cite, ticket nor arrest him for being under the influence, given his new-found political preeminence. Throwing his authority around, engaging in confrontations with residents as well as city staff members from the lowest levels right up to the city manager and verbally sparring with members of the council during the course of meetings, Fulp amassed enemies at a prolific pace. This triggered an unprecedented, for Colton, effort to recall him from office, which succeeded with a special measure placed on the November 1996 ballot. Ultimately, 53.52 percent of those who went to the polls voted in favor of his removal from office and 46.48 percent  were opposed. In the contest between Gonzales and Karl Gaytan to replace Fulp, Gaytan prevailed.
That same year, San Bernardino County District Attorney Dennis Stout and Assistant District Attorney Dan Lough had devoted considerable prosecutorial office resources in targeting Beltran, whose re-electoral prospects were damaged by the investigations and leaks relating to them. He was voted out of office and replaced by Kelly Chastain.
By late 1999 and early 2000, both the FBI and investigators with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office were focusing on entrenched political corruption in San Bernardino County, including within Colton. In August 2001, Beltran, Gaytan, former City Councilman James Grimsby and then-Councilman Don Sanders were indicted by a federal grand jury for accepting bribes from businessmen doing business in and around Colton.
In the summer of 2006, Colton First District Councilman Ramon Hernandez was arrested and charged with 24 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds. While that case was pending against him, he was defeated in the November 2006 race by David Toro.
Also in the November 2006 election, Mayor Deidre Bennett was running for reelection against Third District Councilwoman Kelly Chastain. Bennett, who had been the city’s Fifth District Councilwoman from 1992 until 2001, was selected to serve as mayor in 2001, after Betty Cook, another longtime councilwoman, who had been promoted to mayor to succeed Gaytan after his indictment and resignation from office, suffered a stroke within days of being chosen for the mayoral honorific and died shortly thereafter. Bennett and Chastain had been allies since Chastain’s election in 1996, and Chastain had supported Bennett when she successfully ran for mayor as the incumbent in 2002. A widespread report in 2006 was that Chastain’s challenge of Bennett was not a serious one, and that she was in the contest against her friend merely to ward off anyone else who might run a hard-hitting campaign against Bennett. That report had some degree of credibility, because Chastain had most recently been reelected as Third District Councilwoman in 2004, and thus she would remain on the council at least until 2008 if her mayoral bid was not successful that year. No other opponent declared against Bennett and Chastain did not run an aggressive campaign. As it turned out, the race came right down to the wire, and neither Bennett nor Chastain received a majority of the vote. Rather, Chastain, with 3,235 votes or 49.93 percent, was declared the winner and Bennett, with just nine fewer votes than Chastain, 3,226 votes or 49.79 percent, came in second. The real difference in the race was that 18 voters, or 0.28 percent, voted for neither Bennett nor Chastain, casting votes for write-in candidates.
The result of that race embittered Bennett toward Chastain, her erstwhile ally and close political associate. Two years later, in 2008, Bennett, who was itching to get back into the Colton political game, ran once more for her former position on the city council, to again represent the Fifth District. In doing so, she had to compete against another of her allies, John Mitchell, her longtime advisor whom she had succeeded in having appointed to replace her when she moved into the mayor’s post in 2001 and whom she supported when he ran, unopposed, to remain as Fifth District councilman in 2004. Bennett won that contest and returned to the council. The wicked vicissitudes of politics in Colton, however, left Bennett estranged from both Mitchell and Chastain, both of whom had been key to her early political success.
In 2010, David Zamora defeated Chastain in her effort to remain as mayor. Bennett sustained herself in office in 2012, gaining reelection as Fifth District Councilwoman. Chastain has not been able to reignite her political career in Colton. In 2016, she failed in her effort to defeat Frank Navarro for council in the Third District.
In 2017, Councilman Luis González, saying he had done considerable research into the matter, floated the idea of reducing the city council to four councilors and a mayor. He said most of the county’s cities with a larger population than Colton had fewer council members. He said the move would reduce costs. He said the city’s voters should be extended the opportunity, in a ballot measure, to decide whether they wanted to reduce the size of the council.
Councilmen David Toro and Isaaac Suchil said they did not think it a good idea, and Toro said that if the residents wanted to make the reduction, they should seek that out by qualifying the measure for the ballot without the assistance of the city council
The concept died at that time.
The following year, however, the issue was explored once more. The council, again with Toro and Suchil opposed, voted to put what that November was designated as Measure R on the ballot. In the November 2018 election, Colton voters considered Measure R, which asked if “Starting with the November 8, 2022 election, shall the Colton City Council be reduced in number from 6 members with an at-large mayor to 4 members with an at-large mayor, and shall members of the Colton City Council be elected by 4 districts?”
Measure R passed with 5,321 votes in favor and 4,469 opposed, a margin of 54.35 percent to 45.65 percent.
At present, the Colton City Council consists of Mayor Frank Navaro, First District Councilman David Toro, Second District Ernest Cisneros, Third District Councilman Kenneth Koperski, Fourth District Councilman Luis González, Fifth District Councilman John Echevarria and Sixth District Councilman Isaac Suchil.
In accordance with the terms of Measure R, in the November 2020 election, districts 3, 5 and 6 were up for election, but only for 2-year terms. Districts 1, 2, and 4 were not up for election in 2020. In the upcoming November 2022 election, all districts in Colton will be contested, with the new districts 3 and 4 being conducted with 4-years at stake and districts 1 and 2 involving 2-year terms. Thus, by 2024 the elections for the districts will be staggered, with district 1 and 4 candidates competing in elections corresponding with U.S. Presidential elections and districts 3 and 4 being held in connection with the California gubernatorial elections.
As a consequence of the district conflations, councilmen Toro and Cisneros now live within the new District 1. Councilman Koperski lives in District 2. Councilmen González and Suchil reside in the new district 3. Councilman Echevarria resides in District 4,
It is assumed that Koperski is running this year. No challenger against him has surfaced. It is known that Echevarria intends to run. No opponent for him has yet materialized.
There are indications that both Toro and Cisneros will run, but there is no official word on that. There is no past history of bad blood or rivalry between Toro and Cisneros. Over the last several months, the two men have appeared to be, during council meetings, eyeing one another warily.
That González and Suchil will cross political swords is at this point a foregone conclusion. Both are political animals. Suchil was first elected to the council representing District 6 in 2004. He failed to gain reelection in 2008, having lost to Alex Perez in that contest. He avenged that loss to Perez in 2012, however, and also beat González in that race, when González was then a District 6 resident. Suchil gained reelection in 2016 and again in 2020. González was first elected to the council in 2014, after he relocated from District 6 to District 4.
Like all politicians, both González and Suchil have devoted plenty of time and effort doing their damnedest to signal to the world what great guys they are.
Suchil is a 30-year law enforcement veteran, now retired. He was a deputy with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department from 1987 until 2017, having patrolled the streets early on and then serving as a bailiff in the court system during his more mature years. He has an associate’s degree in public administration from San Bernardino Valley College. Prior to becoming a councilman, he served as a member of the Colton Planning Commission and the Colton Parks & Recreation Commission. He was a member of the Colton Joint Unified School District Citizens’ Oversight Committee on Measure G, monitoring the expenditure of bond money on educational purposes. As a councilman during what is approaching four terms in office, he has served on multiple committees within the city, including those formed to retain businesses in Colton, recruit a city manager and suggest political reform measures. Additionally, he has served as a member of several boards for governmental adjuncts and regional joint powers authorities, including the Agua Mansa Industrial Growth Association and the Colton/San Bernardino Regional Tertiary Treatment & Water Reclamation Authority. He has been the secretary/treasurer of the Inland Empire division of the California League of Cities and a member of the league’s legislative task force. He was the co-chairman of the Inland Valley Development Authority.
Suchil touts his success in bringing Richardson’s Recreational Vehicle Center and the sales tax revenue from the sales of big-ticket items sold there to what had been the vacant K-Mart location in south Colton, the progress he has made in conjunction with the Union Pacific Railroad toward removing an obsolete and dangerous bridge on Barton Road and the relocation of a trucking company formerly located on Barton Road to Agua Mansa Road.
González has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and has 40 years experience as a music and history teacher. He is effective in drawing attention to himself, and other members and elements of the community. He writes the “City Talk” column for the Colton Courier, which features information about the individuals he chooses to honor with variously “Employee Spotlight” recognition or “Community Impact” awards, given, respectively, to Colton city workers and/or city volunteers or entrepreneurs he feels merit that recognition. This “feel good” approach has generated a fair amount of good will. He is also the founder/sponsor of the Colton Area Museum Day and the Colton Youth Leadership Program.
González is also the president for Historical Society of Colton and is often involved conducting workshops for young people involved in various undertakings.
As a councilman, has now served more than seven years, and has striven to be answerable to residents who find themselves at odds with City Hall, while simultaneously seeking to bridge build in a way that will allow those residents distrustful of city workers and city officials, and city officials who have gotten off on the wrong foot with citizens, to come to some mutually beneficial solutions.
Both Suchil and González have channeled through alliances they have each had over their time on the council, and each has now established support from residents or business interests that previously opposed each. Suchil once had supporters who now indicate they will stand with González in this year’s election. There are Colton residents who once praised González as forthright and understanding, someone who best exemplified the most service-oriented and sincere of the council’s members who now, nonetheless, say they will vote for Suchil. Similarly, some of those who once opposed Suchil now side with him over González in the upcoming election.
Both González and Suchil have been criticized by Colton residents who say they have experienced shoddy service or treatment from city employees, and that one or the other or both councilmen have been and remain more interested in kowtowing to the city’s employees than making certain that municipal services are provided to the city’s residents and taxpayers.
The Sentinel was approached by someone who said González had misused his authority as an elected official with influence at City Hall to have the city’s code enforcement division seize property he owned, and he alleged González intended to swoop in and obtain the property for himself at a sharply discounted rate. Others have told the Sentinel that Suchil has become vindictive about criticism leveled at him and his performance as a city councilman, and he has used the city’s code enforcement division as a cudgel against them to silence them.
Word is that both Suchil and González are loading up to go negative in this year’s District 3 council race.
González is prepared to call into question Suchil’s strongest suit, that being his credentials as a law enforcement officer. González is arming himself with information to demonstrate that Suchil’s performance as a sheriff’s deputy was lackluster and filled with questionable acts and misjudgments, the Sentinel is informed. Suchil is confident that a side-by-side comparison of his accomplishments and performance on the council compared to that of González will redound to his reelection, those supporting him say.
-Mark Gutglueck

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