Valdivia Era Ends With A
Puerile Whimper

A little more than a decade after the initiation of John Valdivia’s political hold on the City of San Bernardino, the city’s voters have brought the curtain down on the career of one of the most brazenly corrupt public officials in county history.
Despite an overwhelming financial advantage by which he had virtually twice as much money in his campaign war chest than all six of his opponents combined, Valdivia found himself far behind the front runner and outdistanced by the second-place finisher with whom he was once politically aligned, relegated to third place and out of the competition to remain as the kingfish of a dilapidated paradise whose citizens are no longer willing to tolerate his outsized ego and depredations.
Early handicapping of the race projected that he would capture approaching or more than 30 percent in the seven-candidate primary contest, leaving him in first place with less than half of the vote but qualifying him for a November run-off against the second-place finisher. But more than two years of unremittingly negative publicity damaged his reputation beyond salvage as he was pummeled by revelation after revelation of abuse of his elected authority, from diversions of perquisites to misappropriation of funds to cronyism to the sexual abuse of his staff to outright bribery, ultimately eroding his re-electability.
Valdivia first showed political ambition in 2009, when as a 34-year-old he sought election to the city council. He was soundly rejected by the city’s voters in the Fourth Ward in that race, during which he captured 182 votes or 5.68 percent in a contest that featured four candidates including the winner and his career-long rival Fred Shorett. Within two years, Valdivia, made a calculated relocation to the city’s Third Ward, where he once again vied for the council. In that race, he first revealed his willingness to market his authority – or presumed authority – trading money provided to him for his future votes in a public capacity.
By 2011, then-Mayor Patrick Morris and then-City Manager Charles McNeely were struggling with financial challenges and nearly decade-long deficit spending which had depleted the city’s reserves, which left the municipality teetering over a financial abyss. Morris, a former Superior Court judge, had come to recognize that exorbitant personnel costs were driving the city toward an inevitable bankruptcy and he was desperately seeking to form a consensus on the city council to hold the line on further employee salary and benefit increases, as 92 percent of the city’s budget went to defray employee pay and benefits, with 69 percent of the budget devoted to the salaries and perks of the city’s public safety personnel, i.e., sworn police officers and the city’s firefighters.
A key Morris ally in this regard had been Third Ward Councilman Tobin Brinker, who represented a crucial city council vote in support of Morris’s strategy to reduce spending by not giving in to city employee union demands for continuing raises and benefit enhancements. Meanwhile, the city’s employee unions, including the city’s powerful public safety employees’ unions – the San Bernardino Police Officers Association and the San Bernardino Firefighters Association – were alarmed at the call to freeze the pay of firefighters and police officers. With the unions’ support, Valdivia in the November 2011 election trounced Brinker, 826 votes or 69.24 percent to 367 votes or 30.76 percent.
Both before and after the election, Valdivia confidently declared that the city was flush with money, and that no municipal financial crisis existed. A week after his March 2012 swearing in, Valdivia offered assurances that the city was shipshape financially. Four months later it was disclosed that the city’s ship of state was listing economically, and in August 2012, the city declared bankruptcy with a Chapter 9 filing. To this day, Valdivia refuses to talk about that early faux pas in his political tenure.
In February 2014, just a little less than two years after he had assumed municipal office, Valdivia announced he would seek the Republican nomination for Congress in the 31st Congressional District. Within a short period of time, however, Valdivia and his advisors thought better of that, since such a campaign would unequivocally identify him as a Republican, and in the City of San Bernardino, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 48 percent to 22 percent, and in the Third Ward that margin was 49 percent to 18 percent.
In 2015, Valdivia retained his position as Ward Three councilman when no one surfaced to run against him.
Valdivia sought to cultivate a reputation as both a fiscal and social conservative who was mindful of the cost of various city programs and as someone who was adamantly opposed to the proliferation of marijuana.
Nevertheless, in 2015, Valdivia’s financial profligacy was put on display when the city council, in its efforts to guide San Bernardino, the oldest of the county’s municipalities and the county seat, out of bankruptcy, was forced to close out its 148-year-old fire department in favor of a contract with the county fire department, and to shutter the municipal sanitation department. Loss of its fire department was a severe blow to the city’s prestige. Remarkably, Valdivia was able to keep hidden from most of his Republican constituents that he had sided with the unions in continuing to grant city employees raises and higher benefits and he, at least for a time, bypassed scrutiny of how his unwillingness in 2012 to stabilize city employee pay and benefits resulted in the bankruptcy that ultimately led to the loss of the city’s fire and sanitation departments.
In 2016, a move by the city council and activists in the city was made to change the city charter, which had been in place since 1905, revamping city governance. The new charter presented to voters that year called for changing the city’s treasurer, city attorney and city clerk positions from elected to appointed ones, moving its elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, and reducing the power and administrative reach of the mayor from what it had been since 1905, such that the mayor no longer had co-regency with the city manager and control over direct hiring and firing of city employees. Valdivia, who coveted strong mayoral authority for himself, had opposed the charter change.
Likewise, the city’s voters in 2016 had given approval to Measure O, which allowed for the sale of marijuana within the city. Before the initiative passed and while the matter was in doubt, Valdivia hewed to the Republican line, maintaining he was fiercely opposed to marijuana availability in the city.
In 2018, despite the charter change that had significantly reduced the mayor’s authority, Valdivia challenged Carey Davis, who in 2013 had succeeded Morris as mayor with Morris’s endorsement.
Valdivia prevailed in that election, with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
Upon being sworn into office on December 18, 2018, Valdivia had barely let his hand down to his side when he began gunning to replace City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, whom he considered to be a vestige of the Davis Administration. His intention was to install a city manager of his own choosing, one who would be willing to broker a deal that would give him the de facto authority to hire and fire city employees and department heads, and thus provide him with the power as mayor that had been attenuated with the 2016 charter change. As of December 2018, Valdivia essentially controlled four votes on the city council and by the end of May 2019, when a special election held to fill the Third Ward council position he had vacated to move into the mayor’s post resulted in a victory by his ally Juan Figueroa, he effectively controlled five of the city council’s seven votes.
Valdivia seemingly went off in a dozen directions at once, effectuating Travis-Miller’s removal as city manager, replacing her with soon-to-retire Assistant City Manager Teri Ledoux and then cutting deals every which way intended to benefit his political benefactors.
He simultaneously began to enrich himself by utilizing his position and authority as mayor. Unsatisfied with his $106,793 mayoral salary, $8,768 in stipends for attending meetings of regional boards, joint powers authorities and other governmental entities and committees along with medical, dental and other benefits such as a car and travel allowance totaling $24,665 and retirement benefits of $29,322.40, for a total taxpayer-defrayed compensation of $169,548.40 annually paid to him by the city’s taxpayers, he went into simultaneous money-making mode. Using his consulting company AAdvantage Comm LLC, Valdivia convinced clients they would have something to gain by hiring the mayor of San Bernardino to intercede for them, as he could use his influence and ability to engage in backroom political horse-trading to ensure that their applications for project approval or government contracts or franchises would achieve for them desired results.
Of major significance was the way in which Valdivia in the aftermath of the 2016 passage of Measure O in San Bernardino and the statewide passage of Proposition 64, the adult use of marijuana act, made a 180-degree flip from a politician adamantly opposed to the sale of marijuana in his city to an advocate of multiple individuals and entities seeking permits and licenses to operate marijuana-related and cannabis-related businesses in San Bernardino. More than a dozen would-be commercial cannabis business applicants have related how Valdivia took money from them, either in the form of political contributions or under-the-table payments, in exchange for promises that he would ensure their applications for cannabis-related business permits would be approved. It soon became apparent that the stance he had taken as a staunch opponent of marijuana liberalization was a pose he assumed to draw votes from the city’s conservative and Republican voters. Once there was money in it for him, he began gladhanding with would-be commercial marijuana enterprise operators, hailing them as the new breed of entrepreneurs that were to lead San Bernardino into a prosperous future.
As Mayor, Valdivia soon developed a further reputation for taking money from anyone who needed the city to take action that would benefit them or their company business-wise. Through AAdvantage Comm LLC, he accepted consulting fees, assuring his clients he could deliver for them the approvals they needed. As mayor, he wielded the gavel at city council meetings, controlled the ebb and flow of discussion and debate, had sway over what matters would be discussed and what actions contemplated, but he did not possess a vote, although he could do so to break a tie, and he had mayoral veto power. Thus, he rationalized, he could take money from those with business before the city council, since he would not himself be voting. Nevertheless, once his ally Figueroa was on the council, he controlled, essentially, five of the seven votes and was the head of a ruling coalition that essentially ran the city. He let all of AAdvantage Comm’s clients and prospective clients know that he had command over the council, and the money poured in. To sidestep any conflict-of-interest issues, he duly reported as personal income on his official California Form 700 statements of economic interest the money he was making as the owner of AAdvantage Comm, cleverly omitting exactly who AAdvantage Comm’s clients were.
With Ledoux in place as his handpicked city manager who was to see her pension upon retirement zoom from the $125,000-per year range to near $180,000 as a consequence of the promotion Valdivia had provided her accompanied by his control over five-sevenths of the city council, Valdivia in the summer of 2019 was at the apex of his power, bestriding San Bernardino as a political colossus.
There were cracks, however, in the magnificent monument he had constructed for himself.
First, his chief of staff, Bill Essayli, left to take a position with an Orange County law firm. Then, one by one, as Valdivia pursued objectives that they saw as averse to their own or that he was using their votes and support to construct quid pro quos with his clients in which he was given money for their votes, three of the members of his coalition – Sandra Ibarra, Henry Nickel and Ted Sanchez – parted political company from him, rendering it so that he no longer had five reliable votes on the council but only two to support whatever he was attempting to achieve.
There followed a series of revelations: cannabis entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork, regaling newspaper reporters and the public with how he had promised marijuana operation licenses and permits to those who had applied for them in exchange for cash; an employee in his office, Mirna Cisneros. told of how he had made sexual advances to her and how he misused city funds to engage in travel and activity that had nothing to do with city business and was taking money from those with business before the city; another employee of the mayor’s office, Karen Cervantes, related how the mayor had made sexual advances toward her; his field representative, Jackie Aboud, likewise said Valdivia had pressured her to accommodate his sexual needs; Alissa Payne, a single mother whom Valdivia appointed to two city commissions, said Valdivia had made similar indecent overtures to her; Valdivia’s field representative Don Smith related how he had been present while Valdivia made a late night rendezvous with a city tow service franchise holder who handed Valdivia an envelope stuffed with cash; Matt Brown, who had succeeded Essayli as Valdvia’s chief of staff, came forward to say that Valdivia attempted to have him make fraudulent unfavorable work reviews of Cisneros, Cervantes, Aboud and Smith to justify their firings and discredit them with regard to the allegations they had made.
Based on a host of Valdivia’s actions, the city found itself facing nearly a dozen lawsuits.
With untoward accusations mounting, Valdivia continued to engage in questionable, bold and risky behaviors, utilizing city resources, funding and personnel to provide or defray the cost of providing materials and services relating to political promotions of himself and his associates while using city money to cover the cost of travel, meals and lodging while he was engaged in matters unrelated to his duty or function as mayor.
Looking toward his 2022 election campaign, Valdivia created a political war chest titled John Valdivia For Mayor 2022. In 2021, he received donations of $380,987.21 into that account. In the first five months of 2022, he received another $106,500 into that account for a total over 18 months of $487,487.21.
Valdivia  also created another fund, the Mayor John Valdivia Legal Defense Fund. With legal challenges against him mounting, he began transferring money out of the John Valdivia For Mayor 2022 account into the Mayor John Valdivia Legal Defense Fund, in the amount of $165,400 in 2021 and $57,295.24 in 2022. In 2021, the Mayor John Valdivia Legal Defense Fund paid Pacheco & Neach, the law firm of his lawyer, Rod Pacheco, $199,885.40. This year, through the first five months of 2022, the Mayor John Valdivia Legal Defense Fund paid Pacheco & Neach $51,933.25.
A one-time Valdivia associate/political supporter this week observed that if Valdivia had used the money provided to him by his donors as they intended it for electioneering purposes rather than diverting it to defray his legal bills, he would have been reelected. 
The Sentinel sought to engage with Valdivia this week but could not reach him. He was said to have embarked on a trip to Europe via the East Coast as of today, Friday, June 10.
-Mark Gutglueck

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