This coming November will mark two years since the 2020 Presidential Election when a supermajority of San Bernardino County’s voters approved Measure K, a county government reform initiative that cut county supervisors’ pay and benefits to $60,000 per year and limited them to a single term in office. When the balloting is held this year for the 2022 California Gubernatorial Election, San Bernardino County’s supervisors will be asking the county’s voters to consider providing them with a total annual compensation approaching $300,000 annually, while allowing two of the board members to remain in office for six four-year terms equal to 24 years, permitting two board members to stay in office for four full four-year terms, equal to 16 years, and letting another remain in office up to four-and-a-half terms, or 18 years.
According to the supervisors, by ensuring that their $280,000 per year plus remuneration remains in place and that they are free to seek reelection over and over again, they will protect the county’s residents from the harm reformists known as the Red Brennan Group are seeking to inflict on them and their fellow and sister citizens.
Measure K was placed on the 2020 ballot after the Red Brennan Group and one of its members, Nadia Renner, sponsored the initiative and gathered 75,132 signatures of county voters to qualify the matter for a vote.
The Red Brennan Group is a grassroots affiliation of county residents inspired to pursue government reform by Kieran “Red” Brennan. A U.S. Navy submariner during World War II whose brushes with death as a young man in the service of his country while seeking to export democracy around the globe impressed on him the need to refine democracy at home. Brennan pushed efforts to ensure government transparency and accountability, ones he hoped elected officials could be convinced to impose on themselves and, if not, would ultimately be put in place through the citizen initiative process.
In 2012, at the age of 87 and in his last hurrah before his 2013 death, Brennan headed an effort by a group of like-minded county residents in sponsoring an initiative, designated in that year’s balloting as Measure R, which called for downscaling the five individual San Bernardino County supervisors’ then-yearly $151,971 salaries and $67,500 in benefits to $50,000 in salary and $10,000 in benefits annually, a drop in total compensation from $219,471 per year to $60,000.
Brennan and his cohorts figured that the supervisors’ total compensation, which was more than three-and-one-half times that made by the average county resident, put the county’s political leadership in a bracket that left the supervisors out of touch with the economic reality their constituents dealt with on a daily basis. Moreover, the inflated salaries and benefits the supervisors were provided left them, Brennan and his associates said, intent on being reelected so they could keep those positions and the financial advantage holding those offices represented, such that they had grown desperate for political donations. Those donations, provided by individuals and corporations with contracts and/or franchises with the county or projects up for approval by the board of supervisors, created a circumstance in which the supervisors were more sensitive to their donors and their needs than the needs of the constituents they represented, Brennan maintained.
The members of the board of supervisors, alarmed at the prospect that they would be subject to seeing their pay reduced by more than two-thirds, used their authority as public officials to place their own “reform” initiative on the ballot, designated Measure Q, to compete with Measure R. Measure Q called for leaving the supervisors yearly $151,971 salaries in place and reducing their annual benefits then valued at $67,500 by $5,000 to $62,500. During the 2012 campaign season, the supervisors touted Measure Q as a “sensible” and “moderate” approach toward political reform.
In the November 2012 election, Measure R passed by a convincing 64.25 percent to 35.75 percent, with 326,939 voters in favor of it and 181,907 opposed. Measure Q passed as well, by a 67.28 percent to 32.72 percent margin, 344,226 votes in support to 157,369 against it. Because it had garnered more votes than Measure R, Measure Q went into effect and Measure R did not.
The political reform movement in San Bernardino County was set back by Kieran Brennan’s death in 2013. Ultimately, however, many of those associated with him over the years created a nonprofit entity named in his honor. Members of the Red Brennan Group were convinced the substitute reform measure ploy the board of supervisors had used in 2012 which reduced the board members’ overall annual compensation at that point from $219,471 to $214,471 had not effectuated the change they felt was necessary to make the county’s top elected officials less beholden to their campaign contributors. Accordingly, they initiated another voter initiative. After aborting an effort to place a new measure on the ballot in 2018 when the county legally challenged the contents of that proposed initiative in 2017, the Red Brennan mobilized in 2019 and over a period of less than six months gathered 75,132 signatures of county voters to place another measure on the ballot, which was designated by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters as Measure K. Measure K covered the same ground as 2012’s Measure R but took a step further. It called for reducing the supervisors’ individual total compensation, which by that point had risen to $263,466.95 – consisting of $174,884.83 in salary, $20,461.61 in other pay and $68,120.51 in benefits – to the $60,000 originally proposed by Red Brennan in 2012 and proposed limiting each supervisor to a single one-year term.
The board of supervisors attempted to repeat what had occurred in 2012 by placing an alternative initiative on the ballot, one designated as Measure J.
Measure J perpetuated the existing cap of three four-year terms for supervisors and set their salaries at 80 percent of a Superior Court judge’s salary, which when taken together with the supervisors’ add-on pay and their benefits would bring their total annual compensation to somewhere between $270,000 to $290,000. Measure J also dispensed with genderist language that had been part of the county charter for more than a century which used pronouns such as he and him in reference to county officials, which, it was pointed out, no longer fit the current times when many of those serving in public office are women. It was the supervisors’ collective hope that just as had occurred eight years previously, their alternate reform measure would outperform the one sponsored by the Red Brennan Group and thus keep Measure K’s pay reductions from going into effect.
As it turned out, however, Measure K did much better at the polls than did Measure J. Measure K passed with 516,184 or 66.84 percent of the 772,282 voters participating supporting it, and 256,098 voters or 33.16 percent opposed.
According to the final certified election results released by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters, Measure J, the one sponsored by the supervisors, passed, with 378,964 votes or 50.72 percent of the 747,188 votes cast supporting it and 368,224 or 49.28 percent opposed.
Once the election results were certified, the board of supervisors, using taxpayer funds, contracted with three Los Angeles-based attorneys – Bradley Hertz, James Sutton and Nicholas Sanders – to prevent its members’ pay from being reduced. Hertz, Sutton and Sanders filed a petition for a writ of mandate aimed not at the Red Brennan Group or Renner, but rather the supervisors’ own employee, San Bernardino County Clerk of the Board Lynna Monell. The petition on behalf of the board of supervisors sought to prevent Monell from implementing Measure K, arguing that it violated the supervisors’ right under the California Constitution to set their own salary, infringed on San Bernardino County citizens’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights in the U.S. Constitution through the imposition of term limits that prevented voters from reelecting incumbent supervisors and that Measure K violated “the single subject rule” pertaining to voter initiatives.
The county was granted an injunction preventing Measure K from going into effect while the legal action was pending, such that the supervisors have continued to be provided with their $270,000-to-$280,000 annual compensations.
Though it was not named in the petition for a writ of mandate, the Red Brennan Group, through its attorney, Aaron Burden, submitted a motion that was granted to intervene as a defendant in the case. After considering the arguments put forth by Hertz, Sutton and Sanders as well as Burden, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez in October 2021 concluded that Measure K should not be implemented.
While holding that the salary/benefits/total compensation limitation contained in Measure K was permissible under the California Constitution, Judge Alvarez ruled that the measure’s one-term limit is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Because Measure K is not severable, meaning that it could not be applied in part but had to be enforced in all of its aspects or not at all, Judge Alvarez said the measure in its entirety must be struck down.
Burden appealed that ruling to the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Riverside. On July 12, the Fourth District Court of Appeal released a tentative decision stating that Judge Alvarez erred in striking down Measure K. While the appellate panel said it would provide both sides an opportunity to present oral arguments before the decision is finalized, the justices stated unless they were dissuaded by the county’s reasoning, “We will hold that the one-term limit is constitutional. We will further hold that supervisors’ compensation can be set by initiative. The board of supervisors has not shown that the compensation limit violates minimum wage laws. The trial court’s ruling granting the petition is reversed. Monell and all other county officials may carry out their duties to certify, authenticate, record and file Measure K. It must also provide that Measure K is deemed to have been certified, authenticated, recorded and filed on the same date as Measure J.”
Faced again with the prospect of seeing their pay reduced, the supervisors on Tuesday, July 26 voted 5-0 to put another measure on the November 2022 ballot that will, if passed, undo all of the provisions of Measure K.
As presented, the measure would adjust the county charter so that the supervisors would receive a base annual salary equal to 80 percent of the annual salary of the judges serving on the San Bernardino Superior Court along with benefits provided to the county’s department heads. As the judges in San Bernardino County currently receive $225,074 in base salary, this would translate into the supervisors being provided with an annual salary of $180,059.20. The county’s department heads are provided with benefits ranging from $51,381.92 at the bottom and $82,380.25 at the top with an average of $66,560.02. The supervisors are provided with add-ons and perquisites ranging from $17,000.10 to $25,340.12 on a yearly basis with an average of $19,644.10. Thus, the measure the supervisors are proposing would, if passed, provide them with an average annual compensation of $266,263.32 as of this year, which would be subject to a 3 percent cost of living increase yearly with regard to their benefits and add-on pay and any raises provided to the county’s judges.
Contained in measure is a selling point the supervisors hope they can use to convince the voters they should support it. The measure, if passed, will require that if the board of supervisors is to put on any future ballot a proposal to increase taxes, it must do so by a four-fifths vote. As it now stands, the board of supervisors can call for a tax approval vote of the county’s residents with a vote by three of its members.
Also contained in the measure is language that will move the start or end of the supervisors’ terms from the date of the board of supervisors’ first meeting in December of even-numbered years following an election to noon on the first Monday after the first day of January next following their election, such that their four-year terms will end at noon on the first Monday after the first day of January four years thereafter.
Contained in the language is an ambiguity that would, based upon how it is interpreted, seemingly allow the currently serving board members to serve another three terms beyond what they have already served. This has come about because language that cleared up that ambiguity which was in an earlier draft of the language revision for the ordinance the measure would put in place was removed from the text. That language, which existed within Section 204 of the ordinance pertaining to the board of supervisors under the heading “Term Limits” stated: “This section shall only apply to those supervisors who are first elected to the board of supervisors after the effective date of this section, and who have not previously served on the board of supervisors. Members of the board of supervisors who were elected before the effective date of this section may serve only the number of terms allowed at the time of the last election before the effective date of this section.” Both sentences, however, were struck from the redrafted ordinance, which is to be the subject of what is voted upon in November. As it now stands, irrespective of whether the Fourth District Court of Appeal tentative ruling released on July 12 is finalized and the one-term limit put in place, under Measure P passed by the county’s voters in 2006, supervisors are limited to three terms. If the measure the supervisors are proposing in November passes, it will reset the term limit clock such that the limiting any of the supervisors to three terms will go into effect going forward after this coming November. That would mean that current Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who under the rules put in place by Measure P is to be termed out of office in December after she was elected in 2010 and reelected in 2014 and 2018 and did not seek reelection this year, will become eligible to run for office once again in 2026, such that she conceivably could, with the approval of voters, serve three further terms, which would give her a total of six terms or 24 years in office. Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman, who was elected in 2014 and reelected in 2018 and in June of this year, would be eligible to run again in 2026, 2030 and 2034, such that he, too, might possibly serve six terms or 24 years total as supervisor, if the measure to be on the ballot in November passes. Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, who was appointed to the board in 2018 to finish the final two years of a term to which former Supervisor James Ramos was elected in 2016, was reelected in 2020. If the measure going before the voters in November passes, under the language of the county charter to be revamped by that measure, she would be able to run again in 2024, 2028 and 2032, so that pursuant to the decision of the voters in future elections, she could potentially serve four-and-one-half four-year terms, or 18 years as supervisor. Both First District Supervisor Paul Cook and Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca were elected in 2020. Under the change in terms to the county charter as pertains to the term limits of supervisors contained in the measure that will be on the ballot in November, they would be able to finish their current term and run again in 2024, 2028 and 2032, conceivably serving four terms in total or 16 years, if, indeed, the voters consistently retain them in office.
In their comments on the measure, the members of the board dwelt exclusively on the term limit issue and the provision relating to the four-fifths vote of the board to place a taxing proposal before the county’s voters. None of them mentioned the provision pertaining to the board members’ remuneration.
“I want to protect San Bernardino County,” said Board Chairman Curt Hagman. “We’re the only county now not protected with at least the minimum of two terms. It doesn’t mean that as an elected official you actually get two terms because you still have to get reelected each time. And that is the trust we put in voters to elect your representatives every time there’s an election. To artificially say you must change because we want to make a statement, it’s a bad statement. And you think about San Bernardino County – and it’s been said several times – it’s larger than many states. It’s larger than nine states geographically. It’s larger than – How many is it? – 13 states population-wise, something like that, 12, 13. We have a lot going on here in San Bernardino County. We want to go in our private lives to people with experience and know-how to do it. You don’t go to a rookie doctor to get a brain surgery. You don’t go to someone strictly out of mechanics school to get your car worked on or in any other profession we want someone with experience we can trust to represent us in the private sector. I don’t understand necessarily why you want someone without experience to run a multi-billion-dollar government entity with your tax dollars. So, this initiative, whether it be two terms or three terms, is not for the five of us, but for the future of San Bernardino County to keep us competitive, to keep our residents with experienced legislators or representatives to hopefully keep this county going in the right direction, and I believe were in that right direction. We have a great team of county employees that give it their all every day for the public residents.”