Candidates And Their Supporters Exchange Blows In Colton Council Race

The Colton City Council’s contraction from a seven-member panel to five is to be effectuated with the November 8 election. As might have been anticipated, the election, which also involves the city’s mayoral contest, has touched off a degree of bitter turf fighting that, while not unheard of in the Hub City historically, has not been in evidence for more than a decade.
In this year’s electioneering, cheap shots abound, with few of the candidates being guiltless in this regard. The political establishment, which tolerated having a police chief who was a pothead when that substance was illegal, has based its campaign against two of the incumbents’ challengers on their embrasure of the California social revolution that is tolerating the marijuanification of California. The support network for one incumbent candidate who has been forced, because of the council’s numerical reduction, into a contest against another incumbent has characterized his rival as a racist. The candidate being accused of being a racist and his support network point out that his rival’s supporters have flagrantly violated city codes, and that his rival is covering for those misdoers. A band of political outsiders claim the current council has tolerated, indeed encouraged, the use of the city’s code enforcement division to target residents who have questioned a number of land use decisions by the city council and mayor, who have been accused of being influenced by money provided to them by the proponents of the developers of those projects that were at stake in those decisions. The current electoral circumstance is an outgrowth of 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 two-year terms. Districts 1, 2, and 4 were not up for election in 2020. In next month’s election, all districts in Colton will be contested, with the new districts 3 and 4 being conducted with four years at stake and districts 1 and 2 involving two-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 contests 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 intense as the political tension is in Colton, it is somewhat less than it might have been, given that Cisneros opted out of running against Toro in District 1. Since no others have emerged to challenge Toro, there will be no contest in District 1 this year, and Toro will automatically be retained on the council until 2026.
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 the incumbent 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.
Somewhat ironically, the seven-member council that has existed over the last two years and the slightly differently-composed council that existed in the two years previous to that functioned pretty much as harmoniously as any of the councils in Colton going back for three decades. All of the incumbents and all but one of the challengers in this year’s race are being badmouthed to one degree or another, in some cases rather virulently.
In District 2, Koperski, is seeking to remain on the council after he was appointed in 2019 to fill the gap that was created when Navarro was elected mayor with time yet remaining on his council term. As much as anyone, Koperski, a U.S. Air Force veteran and member of American Legion Post 155, is a member of the Colton establishment. He was heavily involved in Ken Hubbs Little League, Colton’s Jr. All-American Football program and is a member of the Knights of Columbus Council 4017. As a consequence of his conventionality and being a member of the political mainstream, Koperski has been accused along with several of his colleagues of being on the take when they allowed intensified development in La Loma Hills to proceed earlier this year after they previously shut the door on that project. Additionally, Koperski is a member of the council majority that has, according to some, thwarted the will of a majority of the city’s residents who voted in 2018 to allow marijuana to be sold within city limits.
Measure U was presented to the city’s voters in the November 2018 election. It called for allowing the city to impose a tax on marijuana businesses of up to $25 per square foot for nurseries and up to 10 percent of gross receipts for other marijuana-related or cannabis-related commercial operations. Its passage, with 6,864 votes or 69.35 percent in favor and 3,035 or 30.65 percent in opposition, was widely interpreted as the citizenry’s acceptance of marijuana cultivation and dispensaries.
While the city has initiated the acceptance of commercial cannabis permit applications, so far the city staff, at the secret direction of a majority of the city council, has used the background check, criminal history check, zoning verification, business plan, safety and security plan, labor and employment plan, neighborhood compatibility/proposed location criteria, community benefit determination and reservation of city rights elements of its approval process to prevent any marijuana/cannabis-related businesses from locating in the city.
Those who support the marijuanification of Colton consider Koperski’s stance in this regard, which essentially matches that of the rest of the council, as being reactionary and hypocritical. They point out that former Police Chief Steve Cabral was a regular marijuana smoker, even as the police department was busting potheads left and right.
Running against Koperski is Kelly Chastain, who was first elected to the city council in 1996, representing District 3. She was reelected in 2000 and 2004, and elected mayor, by which point she was the bona fide leader of the Colton Establishment. She has long touted herself as pro-law enforcement, supporting the same officers who busted pot smokers in their homes and on the streets of Colton and then recreated in their own homes by lighting up a joint or two or three or four, sometimes in the presence of Colton council members or its mayor. Chastain was closely aligned with the former mayor of Fontana, Mark Nuami, an electrical engineer by trade with no experience in municipal management. She was instrumental in hiring him to serve as Colton’s assistant city manager. Nuami assisted Chastain in her efforts to raise money for her campaigns, despite the ethical questions that activity raised. Under Chastain, the city pursued a policy of annexing property along the city’s periphery, despite the opposition of the property owners whose land was being annexed. She was deposed as mayor in 2010 by former Colton community development director and Colton Joint Unified School District Board Member David Zamora. That essentially brought her political career to an end. She sought to revive it in 2016, when she ran against Frank Navarro, the incumbent, in District 3, losing convincingly, with her 700 votes or 38.31 percent to Navarro’s 1,127 votes 61.69 percent.
In District 3, Isaac Suchil, who was first elected to the city council to represent District 6 in 2004, was narrowly defeated by Alex Perez for reelection in 2008 by 12 votes. In 2012, Suchil avenged that loss by trouncing Perez by 543 votes. Suchil was reelected in 2016 and again in 2020.
Many dope smokers have not forgotten that as a sheriff’s deputy, Suchil engaged in a good share of arresting and ruining the lives of potheads, who thereafter were marked with the stigmata of a criminal record. He and the rest of the city council have continued to hold the line against allowing marijuana to be commercially available, which marijuana availability advocates point out, runs counter to the sentiment of the community as reflected in the passage of the Measure U referendum, which signaled that more than two out of three voting adults in the city are in favor of giving those who want to use the intoxicant that option, just like former Colton Mayor Frank Gonzales actively gave the residents of Colton the option of using alcohol as a social lubricant when he owned and operated a liquor store.
In his candidate statement for this year’s election, Suchil told the voters of the newly-composed District 3 that he will protect immigrant rights. This, Suchil’s supporters maintain, is in contrast to his opponent, Councilman Dr. Luis González, whom they characterize as a racist. Eugene Valdez, perhaps Suchil’s most vociferous supporter, has repeatedly accused Luis González, who is no relation to former Mayor Frank Gonzales, of “clashing with Black Lives Matter and the South Colton Diversity Committee in his quest to keep South Colton in the separate but not equal state it has been for the last half century.” Valdez, the chairman of the South Colton Diversity Committee, claims that González’s filing for a civil restraining order against him constitutes proof that the current District 4 councilman has engaged in “purposeful attempts to block the inclusion of underrepresented community members and businesses into the City of Colton.”
González, who is effective at drawing positive attention to himself, has struck back at Suchil and his proxy, Valdez, by asserting that Valdez is a scofflaw who has repeatedly violated the city’s codes in maintaining the property where his South Colton business is located. Suchil, González said, is covering for him.
The charges of racism against him are patently ridiculous, González has countered, and are the fabrications of a corrupt politician who is using Valdez, whom he characterized as a master of innuendo and cheap shots, to go on the attack against him.
González has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and has 40 years experience as a music and history teacher, including at Colton High School. He writes the “City Talk” column for the Colton Courier and the Colton City News, which features information about the individuals he chooses to honor with variously “Employee Spotlight” recognition or “Community Impact” awards, given, respectively, to Colton city workers and/or city volunteers or entrepreneurs he feels merit that recognition. This “feel good” approach has generated a fair amount of good will. He is also the founder/sponsor of the Colton Area Museum Day and the Colton Youth Leadership Program.
González is the president of the Colton Historical Society. He hosts workshops on various topics for young people in an effort to get them civically involved.
The way González has succeeded in using the media, such as it exists in Colton, to promote himself while he has promoted others has rankled Suchil and his supporters. Suchil’s supporters have sought to undercut González by repeating the racism refrain against González. Suchil has supported, in league with the South Colton Diversity Committee, San Bernardino County’s Resolution 2020-103, aimed at combating racism, an oblique attack on González. Suchil further came across as angling at González when he vowed in his candidate statement, published by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters, to continue the struggle for social justice, supporting people of color and championing immigrants’ rights.
Echevarria, a sergeant with the San Bernardino Police Department who in 2021 was paid
$444,422.08 in total compensation, including $224,119 in salary, $72,498 in overtime pay, $42,848 in benefits and a $98,554.08 contribution toward his anticipated $220,000 annual pension when he retires, was first elected to the Colton City Council in 2020.
Colton’s marijuanos find the 44-year-old Echevarria to be insufferable, as he climbed to his current vaunted position as a law enforcement officer by joining in with his colleagues at the San Bernardino Police Department in making arrests of cannabis users during the early phase of his career. His critics point out that the City of San Bernardino has now legalized marijuana sales within its city limits, clearing the way for 17 such commercial marijuana operations, which are pouring money into the city’s coffers. Thus, Echevarria is being paid and putting food on his family’s table from the tax proceeds on the same substance that just a few short years ago he was throwing people in jail for possessing or selling themselves.
The only candidate who has escaped being denigrated in this year’s Colton municipal election is Robert Wilson, one of Echevarria’s two challengers. He is a retired San Bernardino County employee.
Echevarria’s other opponent represents the other side of the cultural divide over marijuana. Though she was previously a member of the Colton Planning Commission, Montes finds herself on the wrong side of the establishment these days. She is going up against Echevarria, who despite his stand against marijuana, has found a way to make money off of it. As a younger man, Echevarria brought home a paycheck for collaring people smoking weed or possessing it or selling it. He no longer is making arrests of those who get high by blowing grass, but a percentage of the fees and taxes paid by consumers of the drug and those who sell it to them goes into the City of San Bernardino’s general fund, and some of that money gets doled out to him. Nevertheless, Echevarria is part of the city council that has yet to allow marijuana sales to take place in Colton.
Echevarria’s colleagues want him to get reelected because they want no part of Montes on the council. They say, with an eyeroll, that Montes is a pothead, one who has signed onto such exemplifiers of hippiedom as having concern about, and advocating with regard to, the environment and global warming. They say she wants to bring the rest of Colton down to her level by encouraging others to smoke the drug by means of making the sale of it copacetic in Colton.
In this year’s mayoral race, 77-year-old Frank Navarro, today’s embodiment of the Colton establishment, is seeking to remain in office, four years after he was first elected mayor and ten years after he was elected to the council to represent District 3.
Navarro has never met a development project he doesn’t like and he openly admitted to meeting with Modern Pacific principal Scott McKhann and former Mayor Richard DeLaRosa before championing McKhann’s La Loma Hills residential subdivision proposal, those opposed to that project say. During Navarro’s term as mayor, his detractors allege, the city’s code enforcement division targeted city residents who opposed development projects ultimately approved by the city council. What’s more, those who want to have ready access to weed say, Navarro is stodgy old man who is against the city’s marijuanification.
Navarro is opposed in this year’s election by Mark Garcia, who ran against Navarro four years ago. Navarro trounced Garcia in that contest, pulling in 7,228 votes or 77.37 percent to the runner-up’s 2,114 votes or 22.63 percent.
If Colton’s voters reverse themselves and choose Garcia over the incumbent, Colton will really go to pot, Navarro’s supporters and Garcia’s detractors say. Garcia, they said, was busted for selling marijuana less than a decade ago.
-Mark Gutglueck

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