Controversy & Contraction To Five Enlivens 2022 Colton City Council Race

The 2020 Colton Municipal Election holds promise as being one of the most contentious, hard fought and impactful elections in the Hub City over the last half century, one that will rank along with the 1994 election in which short-lived Mayor George Fulp managed to outmaneuver Frank Gonzales and the 2010 election in which Mayor David Zamora brought the curtain down on the Chastain Political Dynasty.
Accompanying the kick-off of this year’s electioneering were charges that the regime now in place – that of Mayor Frank Navarro, is using the political/governmental machinery at City Hall to preserve itself. This triggered a refutation of those charges from City Hall.
The backdrop to the current situation is Colton voters’ 2018 passage of Measure R, which called for reducing the seven-member Colton City Council from a mayor elected at large and six council members elected by the constituents in a half dozen districts to a council consisting of an at-large mayor and four council members from as many 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 Navarro, First District Councilman David Toro, Second District Councilman 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.
As it turned out, Cisneros opted out of running against Toro in District 1 and no others have emerged to challenge him, such that Toro is on a trajectory to remain on the council until 2026, at least.
In District 2, Kelly Chastain, who from 1996 until 2006 represented what is now District 3 and was mayor from 2006 until 2010, is challenging Koperski. In District 3, González and Suchil, who have developed the makings of a bitter rivalry, are vying against one another. In District 4, Gem M. Montes and Robert Wilson have emerged to challenge Echevarria.
Mayor Navarro faces a single challenger, Mark Garcia.
Just as those matchups were being confirmed by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters this week, rumblings in the city of 55,198 were heard. On Tuesday night, the Colton City Council provided City Manager Bill Smith with a $5,200 annual raise, increasing his base pay from a $202,052.56 salary annually to $207,252.56.
While it would be inaccurate to say that resident discontent with the city’s elected leadership and city staff is at a level at present that is higher than at several other points in the city’s 135-year history, there are a number of issues that have citizens riled up as this year’s election approaches.
Residents of South Colton contacted the Sentinel, vectoring its attention to a social media posting on the Colton All Facts Facebook page that read, “Who is running the City of Colton? City Manager Bill Smith, who is trying to leave the city and cares nothing about Colton? The same Bill Smith who does nothing about city issues or employee issues? Stacey Dabbs the finance director who costs the city over a million dollars in your ratepayer money in FSLA [Fair Labor Standards Act] mistakes? The same inexperienced finance director who did not include the shop maintenance in the fiscal year budget last year? Why did the council not question the fiscal year budget missing an entire department? Why is the council not questioning the leadership of the city? These are the type of people running your city.”
According to the posting, Smith was receiving $203,189 prior to July 1 and is now at a salary before benefits of $207,252. The latter figure comports with figures provided by the city. There was a discrepancy between the pre-July 1 salary figure for Smith given on the posting and that provided by the city.
Dabbs, the posting said, was at $172,580 on June 30 and $176,031 as of July 1.
Fire Chief Tim McHargue saw his pre-July 1 salary increase from $184,717 to $188,411, according to the social media posting.
Development Services Director Mark Tomich was at $172,580 prior to July 1 and $176,031 thereafter, according Colton All Facts posting.
Human Resources Director Thomas J. Cody’s annual salary of $172,580 moved up to $176,031 as of July 1, according to the information provided.
Police Chief Henry Dominguez saw his pay jump from $184,717 to $188,411.
Public Works and Public Utilities Services Director Brian Dickinson was given a raise to $188,411 from the $184,717 he was previously making, per Colton All Facts.
Community Services Director Deb Farrar saw her $172,580 yearly salary increased to $176,031, the social media posting said.
“This is ridiculous,” a La Loma Hills resident complained. “How can a city that is populated with middle-to-low-income residents provide these kind of salaries? To make matters worse, Bill Smith received a raise last night. In the last two years, the city manager has been given three raises. The city workers lost medical insurance and received only a one percent raise.”
Smith told the Sentinel, “I have received two salary increases within the past two years – one this past Tuesday, which was a 2 percent salary increase, and one in December 2021, which was a 2.3 percent salary increase. The salary increase this past Tuesday was triggered by my contract, which calls for my salary to remain at least 10 percent above that of any other city employee. Recent employee salary increases, effective July 1 of this year, triggered the need for this contract amendment. It had nothing to do with anything else.”
The Sentinel asked if it was accurate that city employees were given a one percent raise and if some or all of their medical benefits were being taken away.
Smith said, “Every employee in the city has received a salary increase over the past year. These increases range from 7 percent over 3-4 years for miscellaneous employees, to 12.5 percent for safety employees. Medical insurance has not been reduced for any city employees. In fact, the city’s contribution to the cafeteria plan for all employees increased with the latest contracts. The only impact to medical benefits to employees was in the form of a cap to the medical benefit for retirees. This was an attempt to control increasing city expenses related to retirees, and is a common strategy with municipalities. The “cap” was agreed-to by every employee group during the same negotiations that netted the aforementioned salary increases. Additionally, every city employee received bonuses, ranging from $7,000 to $13,000 for their great work during the recent pandemic.”
As to the insinuation that he does not care about the City of Colton, its employees and its residents, Smith said, “I’ve been a Colton employee for over 21 years, and a municipal employee for over 35 years. I have had multiple opportunities to leave Colton, but have not, because I genuinely care for this community. And while not everyone will always be happy with decisions that are made, I get to work with a staff in Colton that is second-to-none. They are a great group of people, who likewise care a great deal about this community.”
The Sentinel asked Smith about the accusations leveled at Dabbs.
“The FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act] matter being referenced is presumably the city’s obligation to make FLSA back-payments to employees, pursuant to the Flores v. San Gabriel case, which affected many cities across the nation,” Smith said. “There were no ‘mistakes’ made by anyone. In fact, eligible employees received back-pay as a result of the ruling, and as finance director, Ms. Dabbs oversaw the legal process to make our employees ‘whole.’ Additionally, the ‘Shop Maintenance’ budget for Fiscal Year 2023 is $794,550. Not including capital replacement of vehicles and equipment, there is only a $21,235 difference in this budget from Fiscal Year 2022, so I have no idea what is the basis for this assertion.”
The Sentinel asked Smith about the accusation that through his function as city manager, he is militating in support of the reelection of the city council, notwithstanding that two of the current councilmembers are running against one another.
“My International City/County Management Association ethics preclude my involvement in election issues, and I take these ethics very seriously!” Smith said. “If you have factual questions about this year’s election, I will do my best to answer them. It is a noteworthy election for Colton, because the city council is decreasing in size from seven members to five members. The city council voted to put this action on the 2018 ballot, in the form of Measure R, and the measure was passed by voters. The slate of candidates for this year’s election is still being finalized, but once it is, I’m happy to provide details if you wish.”
Because of the transition back to five council members and the consideration that all five members of the council are up for election this year, this year’s race carries with it the potential for a dynamic makeover of the council. Such a change came about in 1994 and in 2010.
Colton was one of the cities in California where the long dormant Hispanic political giant first awakened. First, in the 1940s and then in the 1950s, Latinos in Colton were elected to the city council. By the late 1970s, two distinct Latino political factions in the city had formed, one led by Frank Gonzales and the other led by Abe Beltran. Gonzales had acceded to the position of mayor, while Beltran occupied the Third District Council post, the election for which was staggered two years before and after the mayoral elections in Colton. Thus, Beltran would find himself reliably able to be reelected in the Third District and then run, two years later, for mayor without risking losing his position on the council. Gonzales by that point had a well-developed political machine, one strengthened by his skillful use of political patronage, and he consistently bested Beltran in the mayoral contests.
In 1994, George Fulp, who had consistently failed in his previous efforts to be elected to the Colton Joint Unified School District Board, set his sights on the mayoral honorific. 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, correctly calculating 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 2010, Kelly Chastain, who as Colton mayor the previous year tolerated elevating then-Assistant City Manager Mark Nuami, who was also the mayor of Fontana, into the position of acting city manager when Darryl Parrish had departed as city manager to take a job with the City of Covina, was challenged by former Colton Community Development Director David Zamora in that year’s election. Zamora defeated Chastain, who had been a fixture on the city council for ten years, from 1996 until 2006, when she was elected mayor. The 2010 election, which also saw Frank Gonzales make something of a political comeback when he was elected to the council to represent the city’s Second District, precipitated a sea-change in Colton politics.
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply