By Mark Gutglueck
In a nod of obeisance to the deep-pocketed developer who in the three most recent election cycles has become their most prolific campaign donor, the members of the board of supervisors tenuously endorsed his improbable proposal to have San Bernardino County secede from California.
The move has left a wide cross section of the supervisors’ constituents befuddled, as threatening to create a new state separate from California is nearly universally recognized as a ploy that carries with it virtually no prospect of success, one which exists merely as a gesture of protest and is as likely to offend the state officials at whom it is aimed as it is to achieve the supervisors’ actual acknowledged goal of reprioritizing state funding in the county’s favor.
On July 26, Jeff Burum came before the board of supervisors, asking them to consider putting what was termed an “advisory” measure in the form of a question on the November 8 ballot, worded thusly:
“Do you support having the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and all federal and state elected officials representing citizens within San Bernardino County to seek the approval of Congress and the State Legislature to form a state separate from California?” In what he called a “bold initiative forward” Burum decried the State of California’s allocation of resources. “Our sheriff’s department, our judges are constantly tasked with too much with not enough resources,” Burum said. “The State of California continues to allocate resources to the high-cost areas to our detriment and other Inland Valley communities. It’s time to stop it. It’s time for our citizens to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ We need our board of supervisors to help us. We need you to put on this November ballot an initiative to tell California that we need to consider seceding from the state. We need as citizens at this point in the juncture to say we need alternatives. If we do not increase the measure of those who do have too little in our county it will be too late. Infrastructure needs in our state have continued to be underfunded.”
Burum continued, “We have unfunded mandates from the State of California in every human services that we provide. We are now being tasked with taking on Southern California’s population growth, and they do not give us the infrastructure dollars for either our roads or water or our sewers. It is time for us to get our fair share allocation. If we put on an advisory vote, for just San Bernardino County residents – a simple yes or no – do they support you looking into with our state legislatives that are voted in San Bernardino County, do they support you in looking at seceding from the State of California, I promise you, you will get an affirmative vote. The people of San Bernardino County have had enough. As a business leader and as a father, it is time for us to stand up for our rights, it’s time to push back as a county to the State of California and Sacramento and tell them, “It’s our fair share time. And through this process, the worst that’s going to happen is you get your citizens to support you, you get your citizens to encourage you to look into this. And we file lawsuits which are allowed under our constitutional rights for us to get our fair share mandates under the existing allocations of state law, which we are not obviously receiving. I’d like you to consider calling a special meeting so we can get on the same second reading of August 9.”
In a demonstration of Burum’s influence, the board did just what he requested, scheduling a special meeting for August 3.
At that meeting Board of Supervisors Chairman Curt Hagman pointed out that he and his board colleagues had made a special effort to accommodate Burum’s suggestion.
“We have one discussion item today and, first of all, I want to thank the staff for being here,” said Hagman. “It’s after hours. It’s not normal to have meetings at 6:15. There were reasons that are kind of outside our control to call it this late. So, thank you for being here. Thank you for being dedicated to San Bernardino County residents. We have one discussion and that is to consider a proposed ordinance relating to placing a measure on the ballot to pursue the county’s fair share of state [and] federal resources. The background of this is as we had the meeting last Tuesday. At our board meeting we had a lot of residents and people I respect and mayors I respect come up and say, ‘Hey, why aren’t you fighting for us and our fair share from the State of California, especially for the residents of San Bernardino County?’ That was on Tuesday [July 26]. We really don’t know if we’re missing out. We really don’t know what our fair share is because it’s not something we generally track per capita, so I engaged with our staff and said, ‘Let me find out. Find out are we missing out for our residents. Are we not fighting hard enough for our residents? Briefly, what would that take to go fight for our residents to get their fair share of their tax dollars back to them?'”
Hagman continued, “We got some preliminary numbers, and it was that maybe we are not getting our fair share. But it is going to take resources to go off and fight this. It’s going to take resources to get the information. It’s going to take data analytics to find out. And what do you do about it? What happens when you find out you’re in the bottom third of the counties in the State of California getting their tax dollars back for the residents? What do you do about that? And so a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns in a short period of time. The requests from the residents were, ‘Well, put something on the ballot to fight this.’
“Here’s where we [are] at on the timing: We have to, by our rules, put stuff on the ballot [by] the second reading next Tuesday,” Hagman said. “That has to be five days prior to [in actuality, after] the first reading, which means [action must be initiated by] tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock. And, we also have to notice this meeting 24 hours in advance. So that gave us a window between 6 p.m. or 6:15 tonight and probably 9 o’clock tomorrow morning for us to even consider doing something like that. So, that’s why we have the 6:15 meeting tonight. It’s not normal. Again, hats off to the full team of San Bernardino County to make this hearing at least a possibility at this point.”
Ultimately, the board voted 4-to-0, with Supervisor Paul Cook not in attendance, to begin the process of putting the measure on the ballot.
Across the county, residents of differing levels of political sophistication and orientation reacted to the board’s action. Most who contacted the Sentinel or were contacted by the Sentinel were skeptical of the motives for the measure’s placement on the ballot. Those involved in government broke into two camps: Officials who have received money from Burum or want to stay on his good side and those who dismissed the move as a publicity stunt and bluff that will ultimately resolve to the county’s detriment.
Those among the latter group pointed out the U.S. Constitution seems, by one interpretation, to prohibit precisely what Burum is seeking to have San Bernardino County do. The only other logical interpretation of what the Constitution’s language lays is that there is an extremely high bar that would need to be cleared to attain what Burum was calling for, and the improbability of meeting all of the requirements to actually do so is abundantly apparent.
Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution addresses the issue:
“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
The last time any part of a state successfully seceded from an existing state was in 1863 when West Virginia left Virginia in the midst of the Civil War, some two years after Virginia had seceded from the United States or had attempted to secede from the United States. Thus, what Burum was requesting was that San Bernardino County’s political leaders engage in an extraordinary act that took place in its only precedent under circumstances which in no way match the current situation in California.
To the extent that the U.S. Constitution forbids such a secession, California law does not provide a process or protocol for secession. To the extent that the California Constitution and state laws relate to a secession of a portion of a county from a county or defection of a portion of a county to another or a merging of counties, the process is far more complicated than a majority of those residing in one jurisdiction simply coming to a determination that they wish to depart from the political connections that have bound them to another and making the separation on that basis alone. Setting aside superseding federal law which would prevent such an outcome, state policy would indicate that either both houses of the state legislature – the California Senate and the California Assembly – would need to make a majority vote to allow the separation to occur in a vote subject to a potential gubernatorial veto or, in the alternative, a statewide vote on a proposition consisting of a question as to whether the people of the state support the departure of the county or counties in question if such a secession were to be allowed to take place.
In this way, Burum’s suggestion and the board’s support of it carried with it the ring of absurdity. That the board supported Burum’s call and that several other incumbent San Bernardino County officeholders are endorsing it is widely seen as an indication of Burum’s generosity as a campaign donor rather than a sincere and earnest support of what he was proposing.
Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren at the July 26 meeting immediately followed Burum to the public podium.
“We need one San Bernardino [County] to stand up and think about how we can we do things better,” Warren said. “My great friend just talked about our fair share. There is more at stake. Our future is at stake. We cannot continue to beg and crawl and squirrel count. That’s what I call it when they’re getting their little nuts out of the tree to get resources for our county. We have millions of citizens that have needs, and the county is a lifeline. And that lifeline continues to be choked. I know people will say, ‘You all done went crazy.’ Yes we have. We have went crazy to serve others. We have went crazy to make sure that things get done. It’s time, supervisors. Let’s step out and be bold about it and let’s let the people decide about what they want to do. And then the research begins. But I guarantee this public will be happy that you stood for them.”
Warren has held public office since 2002 and was first elected mayor in Fontana in 2010 and was reelected in 2014 and 2018. At present, she has one of the best endowed campaign war chests among all of San Bernardino County’s politicians. Available documentation shows she had $252,584.53 in her political activity account as of December 31, 2021. She was required to file a later statement as of June 30, 2022, but as of this week, Fontana City Clerk Germaine McClellan Key has not posted that information on the city’s website. It is believed that Warren’s available electioneering funding at present stands at over $300,000. Examination of available campaign finance documentation shows that since 2018, Burum has been one of Warren’s primary campaign donors.
In the first decade of the Third Millennium, Burum was among the most prolific of political donors in San Bernardino County. In the aftermath of his indictment on charges of bribing and extorting elected officials in 2011 and until his exoneration on those charges after a lengthy trial in 2017, Burum discontinued his monetary support of the region’s politicians. Over the last four years, however, Burum has reasserted himself as the premier figure in bankrolling elected officials in San Bernardino County. Almost as significant as Burum’s own contributions to local politicians is his encouragement of other individuals involved in the San Bernardino County development and business community to exhibit generosity toward those officeholders.
One such politician who has been a recipient of money put up by Burum is Ontario Mayor Paul Leon.
In the aftermath of Burum’s call for San Bernardino County to leave California and the board of supervisors’ endorsement of that concept, Leon said, “I think it is a great idea.”
Expanding on the topic, Leon said. “Look at what is going on in Sacramento with the state government. The state’s values are not our values, and I don’t know why we have to tolerate them. We are not San Francisco. We are not Los Angeles. The Inland Empire and particularly San Bernardino County is a conservative community. You can see that by the way the people vote here. When I go into Los Angeles, I hear other elected officials say, ‘Oh, you’re from way out there in San Bernardino County? What’s going on out there?’ We are not the inner city. In Ontario, we are a city, but this is not an inner-city environment and we just have different values than the politicians who are in control in Sacramento, and they all misunderstand who we are.”
Confronted with references to the constitutional, legal, political and practical roadblocks to secession, Leon did not give up on supporting Burum’s suggestion.
“You never know until you try,” said Leon. “If we make the effort, I think that anything could happen. I have had personal experiences where I tried against the odds, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I was in the military and after so much time, I thought that the best MOS [military occupational specialty] for me was chaplain. Remember, this was after I was already enlisted and had been in for awhile, through basic training and beyond that. I went to my lieutenant and told him what I wanted to do. He said, ‘Okay, but you will need to talk to the captain, and he’ll never sign this.’ I went to the captain, and he said, ‘I’ll sign this, but you will never get past the major.’ The major signed my transfer request, but he told me, ‘Forget it, the colonel will never go for this.’ The colonel signed it, but he told me the general would shoot me down. When I got to the general, he told me, ‘Being a chaplain is the best possible assignment for you.’ I was told it was impossible every step of the way until I succeeded. I have been through situations where everyone says, ‘That’s impossible,’ but the impossible happened. So, I believe this can happen. This is not the first time that something like this has gone to the state legislature and governor.”
Leon’s reference was to overtures in 2013 and in 2014 by Siskiyou County, Modoc County, Tehama County and Del Norte County in Northern California to interest Lake and Klamath counties in Oregon in combining with them to form the State of Jefferson. The boards of supervisors for Modoc County and Siskiyou County passed identical resolutions calling for secession, citing the “increasing tendency by the State of California to exercise legislative and fiscal malfeasance” and “assaults upon Second Amendment rights.” That move failed when, despite a secession vote passing in Tehama County, voters in Siskiyou County and Del Norte County thought better of the new state concept and rejected secession ballot measures.
Leon, who was formerly a Republican and has since re-registered as unaffiliated with any party, demonized the Democrats who are in control of the state.
“The legislature [which is composed of a supermajority of Democrats in both the upper house State Senate and lower house Assembly] are unconcerned with us down here, handing us the leftovers or what they do not want. They are always reaching to try to control local government when they cannot even manage themselves. They [the Democrats] have control of everything – the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, the attorney general’s office, state schools, the offices of the insurance commission, the controller’s office, the treasury. We have to stand up and say, ‘Pay attention to us.’ The worst that can happen is this fails to get their attention, but really my goal is not to get their attention but get away from California and its government, which has taken its wrath out on our communities. The state has taken away our redevelopment agencies but left the ability to do redevelopment in communities like Los Angeles. These are people who do not have the wherewithal to manage. The state has an $8 billion budget surplus now, but we are not getting any of that. I, for one, as the mayor of Ontario, am fed up. We tell the governor over and over what he is doing wrong, and every once in a while he wises up and changes, but not enough. Sometimes he doesn’t wise up. I think we have to put the rush on up there, get their attention. They are not concerned about us. We are the ones concerned about us. We should get them out of the way. I’d just rather we do it ourselves. At the very least, this attempt at secession, I hope, would work to take a lot of pressure off of us that the state levies on us.”
Opposing Leon in this year’s race for mayor is Ontario City Councilman Ruben Valencia.
Valencia, while sensitized to the perception that Sacramento has given San Bernardino County short shrift in terms of passing through to it an amount not equal to all of the tax money collected within it, indicated he thought the concept of the county making an exodus from California somewhat presumptuous.
“The person who brought this up even stated, if the quote I heard was accurate, that it is a proposal that would never pass,” Valencia said. “Is this actually something that we are wasting time and wasting taxpayer money on? Could it happen? I am not sure. I have not seen anything that would make me think it is a viable request.”
Valencia hastened to add, “I do think we deserve to be treated fairly by Sacramento. If it is shown that San Bernardino County is not getting its share, we should do what we can do, working within the system we have, to address all of that. I am a big proponent of advocating on behalf of our city and our county and our region in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. I just think that if we are serving as politicians within our political system, as we have it, we should be realistic, realistic in what we try to accomplish and in the way we use the taxpayer money we have.”
It was the radicalized and quixotic nature of what Burum suggested that brought to it so much attention. This inevitably led to the observation that Burum, a Republican whose largesse historically has been largely if not absolutely exclusively provided to officeholders and elected office hopefuls who identify as Republicans, is in the same throes of frustration that have seized the GOP throughout California in recent years, resulting in small-, medium- and large-scale public efforts to make inroads on the Democratic stranglehold over politics in the state that have gone absolutely nowhere, such as the feverish effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021 that was solidly turned back by a margin of 61.9 percent to 38.1 percent among California’s voters overall. Given the overwhelming 46 percent-to-25 percent Democratic-to-Republican voter registration advantage in California, the Newsom recall effort never stood a chance of succeeding. Yet Republicans, locked in what Burum’s attorney Stephen Larson in a slightly different context referred to as an echo chamber, heard only their own rhetoric and repetitions of it to convince themselves that they could remove Newsom from office, staking a tremendous element of their political capital and political future on doing just that. Ultimately, as was preordained from the outset, Newsom overcame the effort, in the course of which and as a result of which he was strengthened rather than weakened, indeed to the point where in some Democratic circles his name is bandied about as a potential Democratic candidate for president in the 2024 election.
San Bernardino County remains as one of the last Republican bastions in the Golden State. Virtually every statewide office from governor to insurance commissioner is held by a Democrat and the Democrats have supermajorities in both the Assembly and State Senate. Both U.S. Senators from California are Democrats. In the California Congressional Delegation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 42 to 11. Conversely, in San Bernardino County, Republican officeholders have a decided edge over their Democratic counterparts. In 15 of the county’s 22 city councils and on both of the county’s incorporated town councils, Republicans outnumber Democrats. On the county board of supervisors, four of five members are Republicans.
Of the county’s seven members of the Assembly, three are Republicans, three are Democrats and one is a former Republican who now identifies as an independent. In the California Senate, the four seats in the state’s upper legislative house representing San Bernardino County are evenly divided between two Republicans and two Democrats.
Of the county’s five congressional representatives, two are Republicans and three are Democrats. Nevertheless, the county’s congressional districts extend to areas outside of the county and in one of those districts in which a Democrat holds the seat, in that portion of the district lying within San Bernardino County, she was outpolled by her Republican opponent.
In this way, Burum’s expressed desire to separate San Bernardino County from California is an outgrowth of the Democrats’ continuing domination of the levers of political power overall. Nevertheless, the logic that he and others have applied in formulating that strategy is subject to question, even as many of the county’s Republicans find themselves unable to hear anything other than the deafening sounds repeated within the Republican-dominated echo chamber. Different political realities exist in Sacramento and in San Bernardino. The likelihood that the secession strategy will fail, and simultaneously antagonize what Burum and many others already perceive as a set of hostile tyrants in Sacramento, appears high.
Moreover, Burum’s personal antipathy toward the Democrats and the current controlling machinery of government in Sacramento seems misplaced in at least two crucial aspects as pertains to his own business interests. California’s Democratic-controlled government, including the Jerry Brown administration that preceded Newsom’s tenure in office as well as that of the Newsom administration, has been exceptionally accommodating of the development industry over the past four or five years as it has intensified efforts at solving what it has declared to be a housing crisis. Those solutions, in particular Senate Bill 330, which was passed by the Democratic state legislature in 2019, signed into law by Brown and enthusiastically enforced by Newsom, as well as a strict enforcement of mandates imposed on the state’s cities by the California Department of Housing under the auspices of what is known as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, represent a tremendous advantage to developers.
Senate Bill 330, also known as “The Housing Crisis Act of 2019,” prohibited local governments from downzoning, adopting new development standards or changing land-use designations in residential and mixed-use areas if the change results in less-intensive uses or reductions in density. It further allows developers to request approval of housing developments that exceed density and design controls of the underlying zoning if the existing zoning is in conflict with the city’s general plan or a specific plan relating to the development of the property in question. SB 330 expedites the permitting process for all housing development and limits the minutiae that a city can dwell upon in reviewing a project. Senate Bill 330 gives developers leeway to sue cities or other jurisdictions that deny their residential project proposals. Since SB 330 went into effect, cities have not fared well in the face of such lawsuits and they have not succeeded, so far, in oversetting Senate Bill 330 by challenging it.
Under the rule of the Democratic legislature, the Brown Administration and now Newsom, the California Department of Housing has pushed for local jurisdictions to adhere to the developmental mandates inherent in the Regional Housing Needs Assessment which require that all jurisdictions, including cities and unincorporated county areas in California, include in their general plan and zoning code an accommodation of the number of dwelling units specified in the assessment, meaning each city must allow the construction of at least the number of homes the state says is its share of the burden to meet housing demand statewide.
Based upon the numbers formulated by the Southern California Association of Governments for the state as part of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, San Bernardino County must accommodate the construction of 138,110 new homes between the end of 2021 and the end of 2028, including 35,667 intended for very-low-income homebuyers; 21,903 for low-income homebuyers; 24,140 for moderate-income homebuyers and 56,400 for above moderate-income homebuyers.
In his enunciation of resentment toward state mandates dictated from on-high in Sacramento, Burum brushed past the consideration that the most intensive existing resistance to state mandates in San Bernardino County are those which work in favor of the profession he is involved in.
For that and other reasons, many questioned what it was that Burum was seeking to accomplish by floating the secession proposal and what his true motivation is.
Burum’s appearance at the July 26 meeting created something of a spectacle, as he was accompanied to the podium by not only Warren but the mayor of Upland, Bill Velto, another of the local politicians whose campaign coffers have been thickened by Burum’s contributions as well as those from the network of donors over whom Burum has sway.
Velto, whose experience in elective office has consisted of his time as an Upland councilman which started with his appointment to that role in January 2019 followed by his mayoral tenure which began the month after his election to that post in November 2020, said he had to struggle to get acclimated to the challenges of governing a municipality beholden to the state government, which in certain respects dictates policy while controlling in no small measure a city’s purse strings.
“One of the learning curves is watching the mandates come out from Sacramento and then trying to impose them on residents and listening to the levels of frustration without reacting in a negative matter,” Velto said. “One of the largest obstacles I’ve had to overcome is to listen about lack of water, regional housing needs assessments and having nothing from the state. Now we’re hearing we’re going to have to have all electric cars by 2035. I’m curious where they’re going to get the money for the roadways when the gas tax starts dropping. So, where are all these funds going to come from? How do they expect cities like Upland and many other cities in our county to achieve those mandates when we don’t have the funds? It’s incredible. Our staffing is sometimes 20 percent, 30 percent below what it should be, based strictly on mandates. So, I would encourage us to follow Jeff Burum’s and Acquanetta’s recommendations. I think we need to come together and address these issues and push the state, start recognizing the size of this county and what this county’s resources are and take advantage of that opportunity in the near future.”
A number of his constituents in Upland and an even larger number of county residents who observed the meeting were baffled by why Velto would go out of his way to attend the board of supervisors meeting to lend his support for a concept which is far more likely to antagonize multiple members of the state legislature and state executive administration than to advance the cause of county secession or the likelihood of achieving it, ultimately redounding to the detriment of Upland.
Velto’s motivation, however, became clear this week when it was learned that the Upland City Council this coming Monday, August 8, will vote to place a one-cent sales tax override measure before Upland’s voters on the November 8 ballot corresponding with this year’s gubernatorial general election.
For Velto, the success of his mayoralty is staked upon what accomplishments he can achieve during a time filled with multiple challenges, not the least of which are tight city finances based in large measure on mounting pension debt obligations brought on by decades of what now appear to have been overly generous salaries and benefits provided to city employees. To plug that funding gap, Velto and his council colleagues are hoping they can level the city’s listing financial ship through the sales tax measure, which, if passed, could bring in $16 million to the city on an annual basis, according to city staff.
While Velto is not up for re-election until 2024, he does have an interest in seeing the sales tax measure approved. Several of those who watched Velto’s appearance before the board of supervisors stated, upon learning of the city’s sponsoring of the measure, they now perceived Velto’s support of the secession proposal to be, like Warren’s and Leon’s calculated support of the concept in expectation of Burums’ continued bankrolling of their reelection campaigns, a ploy to secure funding from Burum and his network to assist in the campaign to get the sales tax approved.
In the end, the board modified Burum’s suggested wording for the measure. Whereas he made no bones about the primary intent being to deprive the State of California of some 2.2 million residents and 20,105 square miles of land the county covers with his approach, the board changed “Do you support having the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and all federal and state elected officials representing citizens within San Bernardino County to seek the approval of Congress and the State Legislature to form a state separate from California?” to “Do the people of San Bernardino County want San Bernardino County elected representatives to study and advocate for all options to obtain the county’s fair share of State funding up to and including secession from the State of California?”
For Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr., the lone Democrat on the board whose Republican opponent in the 2020 Fifth District supervisorial race, Jesse Armendarez, was heavily backed by Burum and his associates, the rewording remained a bit on the strong side. He made clear he was not intent on disengaging from the State of California.
The proposal, he said had put “a spotlight on San Bernardino County. I am not in favor of secession. I just don’t believe we have the resources or wherewithal, the staff or the ability to create our own state. I really don’t. We’d have our own governor, bring in our own constitution, there’s …our education system. That would be a concern, having to do all these services that we receive funding from the state of California. I don’t think it’s realistic. Going into Arizona or Nevada, which are neighboring states, does that mean more or less for our residents? I don’t know. That has to be part of the study. Does that mean we lose funding?”
Instead of looking to bail out of California, Baca said the county government instead should press its representatives in the state legislature to look after the county’s concerns.
“I’m not for unfunded mandates,” Baca said. “What do we have to do to make sure we are getting our fair share? Clearly, the major metropolitan counties – L.A, Frisco, those – they receive a lot more money than we do. We do have to take a look on anything we can do to enhance our services for our residents. I think that’s the bottom line here. I’m not for seceding from the state. I’m just not. I’m proud to be from California. I love California. I love San Bernardino County. I’m open for the study. I’m open to take a look, you know, these are the options, the plus and minuses. I think we have to do a financial analysis, with, without, Arizona, Nevada, what do those numbers look like to our departments.”
By Mark Gutglueck