Four Of Five Upland Hopefuls Insist They Are Establishment Material

During the forum held on Tuesday, September 27 for the five competing candidates for the Upland City Council in the upcoming November 8 election, four of those sought to outdo each other only by seeing who could render himself or herself indistinguishable from his or her opponents. One cut, or sought to cut, an independent path.
This year, District 3 Councilman Carlos Garcia drew no opponent. Rudy Zuniga, the incumbent in District 4, is being opposed by Darwin Cruz and Chris Seward. District 2 Councilwoman Janice Elliott is being challenged by James Breitling.
Elliott is the dean of the council, having first been elected at-large in 2016. She astutely ran to represent District 2 when the city moved to district elections in 2018, rather than serving out her original term, as it ended in 2020, at which point it was mid-term for the District 2 representative. Thus, if she did not transition into explicitly representing District 2, she would have been obliged to leave office in 2020, with her only option of remaining politically viable in Upland being to run in that year’s mayoral race.Early in her tenure in office, Elliott found herself at odds with the remainder of the council as it was then composed, to the point that her colleagues stripped her of all but one of her committee and adjunct regional board/governmental joint powers representation assignments and censured her. Elliott did not take being rendered into the post of council iconoclast supinely, however, and fought back. Ultimately, she had the last laugh as three of her council rivals left or were terminated by the voters from the council in the 2018 election cycle, when she won, and two years later, the mayor who had declared her an outcast, Debbie Stone, was defeated by the current mayor, Bill Velto.
The 2018 election, seemingly overnight, transformed Elliott from a political irrelevancy in Upland to the central character in the political establishment, where she has remained ever since.
Joining Elliott on City of Gracious Living’s pantheon of governmental gurus is Rudy Zuniga, who vanquished Carol Timm, one of Elliott’s detractors, from the council when he won in 2018.
James Breitling for more than five years had served as one of Elliott’s key backers, helping guide her through the attacks by her council colleagues in 2017 and 2018, and she had successfully nominated him to a position on the Upland City Council Advisory Committee. Late last year she had lost her resolve to remain on the council and encouraged Breitling to run in her stead. As 2022 progressed, however, Elliott reconsidered, and recommitted to extending her political career. By that point, however, Breitling had himself committed to a council run. Consequently, they are squaring off for a head-to-head contest in November.
There has evolved since 2018 and even more so since Stone’s removal from the mayoralty in 2020, a spirit of collaboration on the council, with relatively little dissonance. One element of that is the council’s distaste for challenging or questioning city staff, which carries over into wanting to avoid any contretemps involving employee labor issues. Consequently, in seeking to comply with employee unions’ salary, benefit and retirement/pension demands, the city is having difficulty making ends meet, such that in paying those higher salaries and providing the generous benefits and retirement packages the city’s workers want, City Hall has cut traditional municipal services such as maintaining streets and alleyways, constructing infrastructure, pruning the city’s trees and caring for its parks, building and refurbishing infrastructure such as its water and sewer systems and keeping an adequate number of police officers working their beats around the city. Accordingly, the council this year used its authority to put a one-cent sales tax override proposal on the November ballot. Virtually everyone at City Hall, from the city employees who will be able to see their salary increases continued to the members of the city council and their appointees to city committees and commissions, support the voter initiative, which has been designated as Measure L.
In this way, Measure L has become something of a litmus test. Those who are a part of the city’s establishment or who are in with or favored by the city establishment support Measure L. Those who are against Measure L are persona non grata with the establishment.
One of Zuniga’s opponents in District 4 is Chris Seward. His approach in the election appears to be to capture as many votes as he can by endearing himself with the Upland political establishment even more intensely than Zuniga, a tall order given that Zuniga is, at least at present, the embodiment of the Upland political establishment.
Similarly, in District 2, Breitling appears to be purposed to show the world that he supports Measure L even more than Elliott, who was a prime mover in getting the council to put the initiative on the ballot.
The lone ranger in this year’s political field is Zuniga’s other opponent, Darwin Cruz.
Cruz, a financial professional, not only questions whether the city’s financial situation dictates that its residents tax themselves to keep City Hall functioning, he says he recognizes that Measure L has the potential to be divisive, since there are many residents who are opposed to it. He maintains the city should have earmarked the tax for specific uses so that future councils cannot divert the tax money to uses that are not acceptable to the city’s residents and taxpayers. Furthermore, specifying a purpose for the money would have triggered the necessity that the tax pass by a two-thirds margin, which Cruz says would show that the willingness to engage in taxation to shore the city up financially is supported by a sufficient margin of residents to ward off resentment over such a tax and spend approach to governance.
At the September 27 forum, Elliott touted what she called her “unique contributions” to the city while in office.
“Since being elected in 2016, I have supported policies and procedures that have increased transparency to promote trust in city leadership and residential involvement to improve the quality of our decisions,” Elliott said. “I have supported projects that benefited the community and opposed those that may have had a negative environmental impact.”
Cruz told the crowd assembled in the city council chambers, where the form was held, that “District 4 can do better. We need better community engagement, commitment, transparency, leadership and someone who is willing to advocate for those that cannot advocate for themselves. I will help bring business development that complements our community. I’ll bring responsible housing development to enhance the character or our community. I’ll advocate for public safety because we need a safe environment for everyone. I will protect parks and promote more park space because we need them. Together we can make a change in the right direction by electing new leadership.”
Christopher Seward, who through much of his participation read from a prepared text, endeavored to immediately let everyone know that he is a Christian and navy veteran.
Seward said, “I’m a proud resident, but I know it can be better.”
He lamented that Upland had “poor police retention that continues because police officers are choosing to leave for higher paying agencies.”
Zuniga said, “Four years ago I ran for city council because I witnessed dysfunction that existed at the time. I agree with these two gentlemen: Upland can do much better. You should have seen it four years ago. It was really bad. I want to bring stability, common sense, public safety and a bright thriving downtown to the City of Upland.”
Zuniga said he encouraged the voters in District 4 to “continue the path that my colleagues and myself have been working toward. I feel in my heart that Upland is in a much better place than it was four years ago. But my work is far from done.” He referenced the city’s hiring of a new city manager and his sponsorship a the city’s adopt-a-park program as emblematic of his success in office.
Breitling said, “City Hall exists to serve the residents first. Public safety is the foundation stone from which all healthy and prosperous communities are allowed to grow and thrive. City Hall is also responsible for the protection and maintenance of our city’s infrastructure. I support prudent investments in our city’s aging infrastructure, including our roads, sewer system, sidewalks, water systems and parks. Each district has unique strengths as well as unique challenges. District 2’s challenges have been ignored for a while. If elected, I will address those challenges by not simply sitting up here on the dais, but by going down into the trenches to facilitate resident discussion through education, consensus and collaboration.”
Breitling then jumped on the establishment bandwagon, calling for paying Upland’s employees top dollar.
“We need to keep our pay scale competitive,” he said, suggesting that the city could also provide prospective employees with “hiring bonuses and incentive packages. Our officers leave because cities like Ontario are offering a substantial amount of money just to do the exact same job.”
Elliott said, “I concur that we need to pay our officers salaries and benefits that are commensurate to other departments.”
She added, though, that Upland needed to emphasize other advantages to its workers beside money.
“I think Upland officers do appreciate the support they get in the City Upland,” Elliott said. “This community respects them a lot more than a lot of communities that I know of. This community is a safe community with which to work, unlike some of our other communities that pay a lot more. So, I think those advantages to Upland need to be accentuated. I like the idea of having a signing bonus. We already have signing bonuses. I think this council has been, since 2020, very responsive to wanting to provide more to the officers and to our employees, but we have to live within our budget.”
Cruz said, “We have to become competitive. We need to retain our officers because they are leaving to other local cities. We need to find ways and be creative, to find ways in the budget to be responsible. [We can] increase the cash bonuses, the sign-on bonuses, but also have them commit to years of service for our city. I don’t want to be giving out cash bonuses and then 12 months later they are leaving our city with our cash bonuses. There’s contingencies to any sign on bonuses that I want to see from city’s standpoint to make sure we are getting three years’, five years’ service, so that we can improve how we recruit more officers into our community.”
Seward said, “To echo what has already been said, the support I believe is amazing here in this city. If you go to other cities, maybe you don’t see that. They need to be well-compensated. You are constantly getting new officers That’s not a good thing for any of us.”
Zuniga said, “We have one of the best police departments and one of the best police chiefs around. We need to have better pay, but how do we do that? We don’t have the money. We can think of all these ideas on how to get them more money and such, but the city doesn’t have the budget. We have no fat to trim. We don’t have the money. So, we have to think of different ways of raising revenue to be able to give our officers what they need to stay with us. It costs $100,000 to train an officer. And once they’re trained, they’re around for a minute, and they’re gone, because they can go somewhere else and get a higher paying job. That’s not what we need. But we still need to raise revenue. How do we do that? I myself negotiated $2 million to go to the police department to spend as they want, not for payroll, but to buy the equipment that will make their job easier. I know we’re understaffed. And when I was asked, ‘What do you want for your district?’ I said, ‘You know what would help my district and all the districts around? I need $2 million for my police department to help keep my residents safe.’ And I got that. Then it was stopped by a bunch of residents. These are the issues we have. You can’t say, ‘No’ to everything. There’s got to be a time when you say, ‘Yes,’ because we need the revenue. Our police are suffering. The past council got rid of our fire department. What’s next? What do you want to outsource next? It’s never good to outsource. We need to keep everything in-house.”
Elliott said, “I don’t do anything on my own. I work as a team, but I do support and learn from anybody that will give me the time to share their opinions. I served as chair[woman] of the finance committee, approving budgets that provide balance and support our departments’ needs in order to give services at a quality level. To generate additional revenue, I will listen closely to the people, our staff in our development department and to our economic development chair and council member and carefully consider those projects that they would like to bring forward to our city. In addition, I have spoken with various leaders about grant opportunities that would help the downtown Upland area and that have facilitated some of those introductions that were needed for that to happen.”
Elliot said she was valuable to the community for her ability to “pay attention, listen to opportunities, talking to residents, talking to people that are interested in relocating to the City of Upland and encouraging those who are starting businesses [to locate them in Upland].”
Darwin Cruz said, “I’ll work with anybody who has great ideas to bring prosperity to Upland.”
Cruz said he was willing to engage in the novel concept of penalizing Upland businesses that do not actively pursue entrepreneurial success.
“We have our historic downtown district in District 4,” Cruz said. “I see a lot of vacancies, empty offices. So, in order to bring revenue to our city, I am willing to work with City Hall to have a tax on business owners who don’t have a retail space open to the public. We need to be smarter with our space.”
Cruz went further in emphasizing his preference for active rather than passive industrial and commercial endeavors in Upland.
“I’m not a big fan of warehouses,” Cruz said. “I am a fan of businesses that complement our city. We need a lot of small businesses. We need to be smart with our limited space and bring in business owners that hire local people and bring quality service to our residents. My focus in District 4 will be to try to help the current business owners in our downtown district and also work to bring in businesses to fill those vacant spots we have in our district. The more businesses we have, the more traffic it generates, which includes more tax sales revenue. That increases our budget and pays for services we are in dire need for.
Seward said, “This goes beyond the city council. It is a team effort and involves a lot of people.” He spoke of “cutting expenses by securing our major projects. We should diversify downtown Upland with shopping and dining that attracts people from neighboring cities. We don’t need another antique shop. We don’t need any more hair salons. We don’t need the goblins and ghouls that seem to be the theme. We could be more creative and thoughtful with how we use our space and really capitalize on its proximity to the train station.”
Seward wondered aloud about using fines and penalties to generate revenue for the city, asking “Can we consider ordinances that enforce firmer penalties based on the severity of the crime or the infraction? We need to think about ways to generate income and those are some of the low hanging fruits.”
Zuniga spoke about governance from the perspective of someone already in office.
“The first order of business when I got elected four years ago was to talk with the development community and let them cut loose,” he said. “Their hands were tied for the longest time.”
He cataloged his efforts and accomplishments in spurring economic development.
“We have 11 new restaurants coming to downtown,” he said. “Our team here is constantly working with them on getting grants to do the façades, build inside, hire staff. Our team’s constantly working on that. Our staff has reached out to other cities. They’ve talked to businesses, but they don’t always want to come here. You have to have a certain type of building for a certain type of business to come here. If the building’s not a right fit for the business, the business won’t do any good, so you don’t want to hurt it. We want to find businesses that can fit in to what we have right now. And we’re doing it and it’s happening. It’s just taking a little bit longer than we thought it would.”
Breitling said, “We are a bedroom community. We are limited on what we can attract. We have to remember that cities only have three ways to generate revenue – through property tax, sales tax and fees. If you put the fees too high, nobody’s going to come here. As long as the council continues to work together and each council member is responsible to go out into the community to listen to not just what the community wants but tailor what the needs for the community are and listen to what the developers out there offer. Many developers don’t want to come to Upland because in their mind, Upland is a place for homes, because we’re a bedroom community. I would love a Costco. I would love all these other things, but they don’t want us. So, we have to be realistic and figure out what fits our needs and go out and get them.”
In fielding questions about revamping the city’s infrastructure and maintaining its trees, in particular those lining Euclid Avenue and in that thoroughfare’s median, all of the candidates lamented the dearth of available money.
“It comes down to revenue,” said Zuniga. “We don’t have the revenue. We need revenue to fix the trees, the sidewalks, the alleys. We need money. That’s what it’s going to come down to. Do you want better streets? Do you want healthy trees? Do you want your sidewalks fixed? Then when it comes to Measure L, you know what you need to do. There’s nothing else that we can do. We don’t have the money. We cut every part of our budget. We are thin. We are living on one-time funds, right now, and it’s going to end soon. So, we need that money. So, remember that.”
Breitling said, “Continuing to secure reoccurring revenues instead of one-time revenues is how we solve this problem. At the end of the day, it is a matter of revenue. I would prefer that the city itself perform the tree maintenance. Our street tree maintenance program needs to be increased.”
Elliott said, “I keep hearing the same thing, and I have to absolutely agree: We need more revenue.”
She said, “In order to properly take care of our trees, we [need to] properly prune our trees, which is an annual pruning at a proper time, which is not summer when it is hot and dry. The proper pruning time for trees is in its more dormant season when it’s cooler and the sap isn’t flowing. Then we would have less disease and the tree would live longer and we would not have to pay for their removal. Currently we are on a five-year [comprehensive per tree pruning] schedule. It needs to be more often than that.”
Cruz said he would actively seek more money for Upland from Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
“I have no qualms knocking on the doors of our state representatives, federal representative to say ‘We need grants. We need money. Show us a way to find more funding for our trees,’ because right now, it’s outsourced. Every tree in Upland gets serviced every seven years. We need to find a way to be more efficient with that. I am willing to talk to anybody and knock on any door to make sure we get the service that we need for our trees.”
Seward said the city should put the arm on the city’s taxpayers for more money.
“Measure L is very important,” he said. “Those funds will help us.”
A question was put to the candidates as to whether they supported Measure L.
“I support Measure L,” said Seward. “I will be voting for Measure L. It’s a matter of ripping the band-aid off, I think.”
Said Zuniga, “I’m not for taxes, but this is very important.”
He said Uplanders should tax themselves to the hilt, all the way to the maximum 10.25 cents per dollar that is permitted under the California Constitution, Government Code and Tax Code, and thus prevent any other governmental entities from beating Upland to the punch.
“The way I see it, I say max it out, because anything you leave on the table, EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], AQMD the South Coast Air Quality Management District], SBCTA [the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency] – they are already talking about it [i.e., imposing further taxes on Southern California and/or San Bernardino County]. They had a meeting [and said] that they want to go and take more money that’s left on the table. Why not keep that money here in Upland? I don’t want to pay for streets in Needles. Do you? I want my sales tax revenue to be spent here in Upland. It’s only one cent. It’s not on food or groceries. It’s not implemented on pharmaceuticals. We don’t have any big box stores here. You’re not going to buy a computer or a TV here in Upland. We have restaurants and small clothing stores. We do have a couple of car dealerships, and that’s where you are going to pay, but you know, we need that money here in Upland. We need it. It’s very important, and I will be voting for Measure L, absolutely. I know we’re doing the one cent, but whatever we leave on the table, someone else is going to come and take it, and it’s gone forever. If it doesn’t pass, remember this, if someone comes and takes it, it’s your fault it’s gone. We will never get it back again.”
Breitling said, “We must be able to make sure that we can secure the quality services that the residents have come to expect and honestly deserve in this city. As we continue to outsource everything and not increase our revenue, we can’t continue to say no to everything. You can say no to a development project. You can say no to anything you want, but at some point, you have to say yes, because the bills continue to rack up. The cost of living continues to rack up.”
Momentarily, Breitling wavered, but came back to focus on what he said is the necessity of taxing the city’s residents.
“That [the cost of living] is also something that City Hall, every one of us in our homes are feeling currently,” Breitling said. “If we don’t figure out a way to be able to secure that money – and like Rudy was saying – that is money that would completely come to us, completely come to Upland versus the chopping up of every other penny that comes out of property tax or sales tax. When we think of 7.75 [cents of sales tax per dollar, which is the current sales tax rate in Upland] some people think that all goes to the county or state. No. That’s broken up by so many government entities. This last election, the AQMD was this close to putting a quarter cent sales tax on the ballot, which would have covered the four-county region of San Bernardino, L.A., Orange and Riverside. Any government agency can do that. They can impose and collect those taxes. So, actually, at the end of the day, if we could max out to the 10.25 [cents per dollar] ceiling, which many cities have done – and I know it sounds ridiculous – but either you get the money and keep it here or somebody else takes the money.”
Elliott said, “I am an unequivocal Yes on L We have utilized two city surveys to determine our residents’ priorities. The one percent sales tax will be designated in a special account to be used according to the priorities that residents have set. The city council advisory committee will be meeting quarterly to provide assurance that these funds are properly allocated and spent. I really am concerned about the infrastructure and properly funding our police. You can help us by voting yes on L.”
Cruz alone took a stance against the proposed Upland sales tax hike.
“I personally would not vote for Measure L,” Cruz said. “I’m a no vote. I think the process of how this measure got onto the ballot was the incorrect one. It should have been a special tax process. For those who are not familiar with the special tax: It takes a supermajority to pass such an initiative. Right now, it’s on a simple majority plus one. God forbid, if this passes by a narrow margin, all we accomplish is a divided community. This is why the supermajority works. It protects the tax revenue for those purposes.”
Seward said that in terms of community volunteerism, “I’m not superinvolved. That might not be a good look. I am busy raising a wonderful little boy that my wife and I are hoping to be a great young man that will be part of society here in this city.”
He said he was working toward creating an organization for veterans and abused women.
“I do try to serve at my church here in Upland as often as time permits,” Seward said.
Zuniga said he is a supporter of National Little League and that he took part in the Upland Pride clean ups. “I’m the current master of the Upland Masonic Lodge and I also a 32nd Degree Mason.”
Breitling said he was a member of the Upland Community Emergency Response Team, making preparations for power outages and earthquakes
“Community service is a nonstop engagement job,” he said.
Elliott said, she was a member of the call out crew of the Upland Community Emergency Response Team. She said, “I represent my church with the Upland Interfaith Council as part of the Compassionate Communites outreach.” She has served as the treasurer of and volunteer for the Friends of Upland Animal Shelter.
Cruz said, “I help my neighbors. We’re Americans. We help each other. That’s part of being a neighbor. That’s what I’m here for. My legacy is not how much money I’ll leave behind or the inheritance to my kid. I want my legacy to be how much impact I’ve given to other people’s lives.”
In making his final pitch to District 4’s voters, Seward said, “Most would agree politics – whether at the local state or federal level – have been chronically dysfunctional. It is overwhelming. Upland is no stranger to corruption,” which he said manifested in “unrestrained local powers that went unchecked. Think about whether this city has improved over the last four years or has it degraded in many ways. Jesus Christ is my savior and my authority and if elected I will not be led by political pressures but by Biblical principles.”
Zuniga touted programs to rid the city of vagrants that had been pursued by the city during his tenure in office. He said the city provided “help to help a lot of folks.” Many improvements to the city effectuated by the council he had been a part of are “coming to fruition,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet and I would just love to see them happen. We can talk about getting grants all day long but need taxes as well,” he said in making a final pitch for the passage of Measure L.
Breitling said, “Our city is a wonderful place to raise your family. “ He, too, spoke again in support of Measure L, saying the city’s residents need to “support the tax. We need to make sure we fund the city services to the caliber of the level of service that Upland residents have grown to expect.” He said, “I consider myself a hands-on leader.”
Elliott said she had been a team player who had “worked with the city council.” Policies she and her council colleagues had put in place, she said, “will save over $60 million.” She said she had “supported a general fund reserve policy to provide for services beyond what is needed in an emergency and anticipated future needs.” The council had increased community involvement, she said and had hired a new city attorney and new city manager. She credited herself and the council with having created “improved employee morale.” She said the city needed “stability and balance. My six years of experience and my unique qualification provide this balance.”
Cruz said, “I care deeply about this community and I’ll do my best to improve the quality of life for all residents. Are you ready for a change? I ask you to join me and vote for a change.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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