Ontario Council Effort To Censure Valencia Runs Into A Buzzsaw Of Resident Resistance

In what was for a number of Ontario residents the seeming disintegration of the Ontario City Council played out right in front them Tuesday night as three-fifths of the panel’s members made an eleventh-hour effort to officially rebuke their colleague who has assumed the mantle of the community’s lead dissident.
The hurried nature of the effort, including the failure of the city clerk to provide timely public notice of the contemplated action and a corresponding failure of the city council, city staff and the city attorney to provide any text or written resolution of censure with attendant documentation resulted in the matter not being consummated, such that it was deferred to an unspecified date in the future.
What did emerge is a somewhat vague and inexact description of the transgression Ontario city officials are alleging Councilman Ruben Valencia had engaged in, relating to his recent sojourn to Mexico and social interaction with some politicians there.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, while Valencia did recuse himself from the discussion relating to his censure, his supporters made their presence known, presaging the likely response the council and city management will be subjected to if the effort to discipline Valencia for what they consider to be a non-issue persists. They hinted at a deeper motivation for tarring and discrediting Valencia than the Ontario political establishment is letting on, and insinuated that they will push for an open public discussion in which they will make the exposure of that motivation a part of the presentation of the evidence to support or oppose the resolution of censure and the deliberative procedure for its approval.The putative grounds for the censure have their basis in the city council’s recent move to end its sister city status with Guamuchil, a city in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, on January 17. Mayor Paul Leon, noting that Ontario had done much for the Mexican city throughout the 40-year span of its sister city relationship with Guamuchil, including donating various used city equipment that Guamuchil had utilized for its municipal purposes, said he wanted a more reciprocal relationship and was looking forward to Ontario forging a sister city relationship with some other international municipality. The vote to disengage from the sister city relationship with Guamuchil passed by a 4-to-1 vote, with Valencia abstaining. Ontario’s sister city status with five other cities – Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico; Mocorito, Sinaloa, Mexico; Winterthur, Switzerland; Jieyang, China; and Brockville, Ontario, Canada – remained intact.
Earlier this month, Valencia sojourned to Sinaloa on a vacation with his wife, Imelda. While there, he and La Puente Mayor Charlie Klinakis met with Sinaloa Governor Ruben Rocha Moya and Veronica Rochin, a member of the Sinaloa legislature, known as the House of Deputies.
In short order, there were a number of social media postings in which Valencia’s meetings with Moya, Rochin and other dignitaries with the cities of Los Mochis, Mocorito and Guamuchil were referenced. Some of those came to the attention of Ontario city officials. While the nature of the discussions that went on between Kinakis, Valencia and the local and state Sinaloa officials is not clear, Ontario officials assumed the worst.
In one of her posts, Rochin made reference to “strengthening our ties with the sister cities of La Puente and Ontario, California.” While Ontario remains a sister city with two Sinaloa cities – Los Mochis and Mocorito – and Ontario’s website yet lists Guamuchil as a sister city despite the city council’s January 17 action, city officials, at least initially, interpreted Valencia’s discussions with Sinaloa officials as an effort to perpetuate the sister city relationship with Guamuchil and that he was representing that he was acting as an official emissary of Ontario in doing so.
Mayor Paul Leon encapsulated the case against Valencia in an exclusive interview with the Sentinel on February 18.
“For 40 years, long before I got on the council or became mayor, we have had a one-way friendship with Guamuchil through a sister city arrangement,” Leon said. “We have sent them fire engines, police cars, equipment and other things to support their operations to the tune of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are not crying about that, and we did it out of a spirit of benevolence. We were always sending them something. We moved toward a decision where we have said we want to engage in sister city relationships that are mutually beneficial, ones that are beneficial to both cities and where our political alignment is clear. So, we ended our 40-year relationship with Guamuchil.”
Leon hinted at troubling issues below the surface that may have prompted the city’s action on January 17.
“Sinaloa is the drug cartel capital of Mexico,” he said.
With four-fifths of the council committed to a course of action, Leon said, Valencia was pulling in the opposite direction.
“This last week he has been in Sinaloa, and according to their news media and Facebook pages, he is on a sister city mission,” Leon said. “He doesn’t have the right or the authority to be acting in that capacity. We did not ask him to do that. He is not our sister city liaison. He is on television down there and in the newspapers and on social media, where it is being reported he is with a group representing the city on issues and discussing the sister cities programs. There are photos of him at parties with the Sinaloa governor and one of their congresswomen. In some of those he was referred to as the mayor of Ontario. On whose behalf is he talking? His own? We don’t know what he’s doing down there. If he makes any kind of commitment, we will not fulfill it. They have asked him to send them stuff. If he is making any kind of promise, it will fall on deaf ears when it hits our city. This guy is out of control.”
Contentious politics is nothing new to Ontario. Going back a quarter of a century or more, there has been intense dissension among the ranks of the council, together with conflicting alliances that have occasionally shifted. Censure has proven to be a recurrent element of Ontario’s political playbook.
Rudy Favila, who was on the city council from 1992 until 1996, grew crosswise of three of his colleagues after disagreements emerged between him and them on a handful of issues. He was censured, which inflicted a wound that kept him from being reelected in 1996.
In 2000, Debbie Acker was elected to the city council. In less than a year, she demonstrated herself as being consistently out of step with the other four members of the council and to have a different vision with regard to the future of the city. In 2003, the council voted to censure her, and she opted out of seeking reelection the following year.
In 2014, the Ontario City Council considered censuring Councilman Paul Vincent Avila, who like Acker was perennially at odds with his colleagues on the council and was even more strident than she was in raising his objections and hurling insults at his rivals. The council instead of censuring Avila sanctioned him, an act that was distinct from a censure without any practical difference. In 2016, Avila lost his bid for reelection, and was replaced by Valencia.
There have been other celebrated differences on the Ontario City Council, ones that did not result in censure, but which involved an interpersonal bitterness that were every bit as intense. Some of those differences have involved a logic or progression of reason that has not remained internally consistent.
Jim Bowman, who is currently a member of the city council, was first elected to that body in 1986, leaving that post in 1998 to become the city’s fire chief. He returned to the council in 2006 and has been reelected to the position ever since. Early in his tenure as a councilman, Bowman had intense differences with then-Councilman Beecher Medlin. Bowman, citing Medlin’s ownership of commercial properties in the city that included a gas station, sought to bar Medlin from participating in any votes relating to the city’s redevelopment agency, going so far as suggesting that by casting his votes as a member of the city’s redevelopment agency board, Medlin was engaging in a criminal conflict of interest. By 1990, however, when Medlin made a failed run for San Bernardino County Fourth District supervisor, Bowman had forged an alliance with him, endorsing Medlin in that contest.
More than a decade ago, Leon found himself on the opposite side of a political divide from both Bowman and Councilman Alan Wapner. Ontario is one of the few San Bernardino County cities in which the mayor is substantially more than a ceremonial position. As such, in 2007 the city council had voted to confer on him a $30,000 raise on top of the $25,000 stipend the mayor was already receiving along with the approximately $10,000 in other stipends he received for attending meetings as the city’s representative to various joint powers authorities and regional governmental boards such as the Southern California Association of Governments), the San Bernardino Association of Governments, the Southern California Rail Authority and the like. In 2009, Wapner, Bowman and their council ally, Debra Dorst-Porada, voted to strip Leon not only of the $30,000 per year augmentation to his mayoral pay but of most of his adjunct committee assignments, effectively reducing the roughly $65,000 in pay he received to $25,000.
Despite his differences with Wapner and Bowman, the three found themselves in office in Ontario on the same election cycle, such that Leon ran for mayor and both Wapner and Bowman ran for the city council in 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. Consequently, in appealing to the voters for reelection, all three found it to be in their interest to tout their shared accomplishments. In this way, something of a love/hate relationship had developed between Leon and Wapner and, to a lesser extent, between Leon and Bowman. While on multiple levels Leon and Wapner despise each other, when their reelection years come around, they begrudgingly endorse one another and Bowman, going so far as to run as a three-man slate.
Meanwhile, as early as 2012, Valencia had been bitten by the political bug, at which time he ran, unsuccessfully, for city council. He did so again in 2014, once more unsuccessfully. In doing so that year, he targeted Wapner, and his support network piled on, posting to YouTube footage taken by a security video camera mounted at a private residence in the area of East Hazeltine and South Pleasant Avenue in which it appeared Wapner was in public physically assaulting his 15-year-old daughter.
Despite failing to capture a position on the council in either 2012 or 2014, Valencia emerged as the champion of the underdog in Ontario, standing as he did foursquare in opposition to Wapner, who has been on the city council consistently since 1994.
Upon Valencia being elected to the council in 2016, there was widespread speculation that he and Leon would gravitate to a natural alliance such that by achieving a third vote – perhaps by driving a wedge between Wapner and either or both Bowman and Dorst-Porada – they would take control of the council. That did not occur, however.
Valencia was reelected in 2020 and last year challenged Leon for the mayoralty. Also running in the mayoral election was Christian Garcia. Leon cruised to victory by a comfortable margin with 15,583 of 29,173 total votes cast or 53.42 percent to Valencia’s 10,129 votes or 34.72 percent, with Garcia’s 3,461 votes or 11.86 percent making up the difference.
According to Leon, his victory would have been far more convincing than it was but for the consideration that he had been distracted by the death of his brother, which took his heart out of campaigning. He pointed out that Valencia had declared his 2022 candidacy for mayor in early 2021, which meant that his opponent had carried out a more than 20-month-long campaign. Despite that advantage, Leon said, Valencia was unable to summon up the voter support he needed to win.
“Because I was dealing with my brother’s death, I didn’t start campaigning until August,” Leon said. “I had three months to catch someone who had been running for almost two years. I put him to bed by nearly 20 percent. After taking that kind of drubbing, he still doesn’t understand that he isn’t the mayor. He doesn’t understand either that when you are elected to the council you are just one-fifth of the decision-making body. You don’t get to call the shots on your own. You are not elected as the leader, and you are definitely not the leader if you are one against four.”
Under California’s government code, all action of a governmental body must be taken as part of an agendized official public meeting. The Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law, requires that an agenda disclosing all items to be discussed and/or acted upon must be made available to the public at least 72 hours or three business day prior to a meeting. Exceptions can be made, but only in cases of dire emergency that will impact the public welfare or safety.
When the agenda for Tuesday’s city council meeting was posted on Thursday, February 16, there was no mention of a censure. It was not until the non-business days of the weekend had begun, two days later, on Saturday February 18, that City Clerk Sheila Mautz was contacted by Leon and instructed to put an emergency walk-on item onto the agenda.
The agenda add-on read: “A Resolution To Censure A Council Member: That the city council discuss and provide direction to staff regarding the adoption of a resolution censuring Council Member Ruben Valencia for unauthorized representation of the city’s interests and/or positions.”
There was no resolution accompanying the emergency announcement. What was suggested by the post was that either the resolution would be drawn up over the weekend or on Monday and Tuesday and would be presented to the public and the council at the Tuesday night meeting or that the council would draft the resolution during the course of the meeting.
Valencia was still in Sinaloa when he learned of what was going to be discussed two days hence. In a brief statement to the Sentinel Valencia made on Sunday morning while he was yet in Mexico, he said he anticipated that when he got to the meeting, he would be “put on trial in a kangaroo court and convicted.” Later that day, he and his wife flew back to Ontario.
In the meantime, Valencia’s supporters rallied, discussing among themselves what was developing, examining the strength of the case against the councilman, which was based, in large measure not on anything that Valencia had said directly but media coverage and social media postings, which in any event did not contain any statements attributed to him relating to City of Ontario policy or pending action by the city.
Word spread that Valencia was out of town and that the city council was rushing to hold a censure hearing against him in absentia so he could be officially rebuked.
Tuesday night, a stirred-up public demanded that a cogent case be presented against Valencia together with evidence and that Valencia be afforded the opportunity to defend himself.
Valencia was back in plenty of time and was at the meeting. Absent was Bowman. Present in the council chambers was Cory Briggs, Valencia’s attorney and the grandson of Homer F. Briggs, a former Ontario councilman.
Valencia’s supporters vowed to make a demonstration of the motives behind the censure effort, which they intimated had much to do with Valencia’s stand against the pay-to-play ethos they said had gripped the city as well as his knowledge of improper personal activity engaged in by the mayor and certain council members. The censure resolution is an attempt to discredit him before any revelation of that highly damaging information about the mayor and councilman and top-ranking staff is publicly made, his supporters suggested.
Celina Lopez, who ran for the city council in 2020 and 2022, said the move to censure Valencia “shows a lack of transparency, unethical behavior, bullying and using your voting power against the very people who put you in those seats. Regardless of the differences, and believe me, I have my own, this action shows you are not capable of working with others unless they’re aligned with your agenda. Let us know how you arrive at the decision of censureship without providing the community with any type of supporting documentation on the agenda. The lack of transparency on why this is taking place shows that you have your own agenda, which doesn’t include the community you serve.”
If indeed the plan had been to railroad Valencia that night, the council thought better of it.
Instead of holding the censure hearing that night, the council deferred action on it until an indefinite future meeting, offering an assurance that the basis of the censure would be explicitly and fully disclosed, and that Valencia would have an opportunity to controvert the accusations against him and to defend himself.
Maria Galvan said it seemed like the council was trying to sneak the censure of Valencia through the process and past the community. She questioned why the council had felt it necessary to “submit a change to the agenda over the weekend.” She decried the council for not being up front, denouncing it for not including the resolution of censure in the agenda packet, questioning whether such a ploy was a violation “of council ethics rules.” The council wasn’t providing, she said, “an explanation” of the action it was taking.
“If it is going to be on any part of the agenda it has to have information along with it,” she said.
“This isn’t up for discussion for any of us right now,” Leon told what appeared to be a hostile crowd. “I am just saying on the next agenda this will be an item that will be up for discussion, but not today. I have to bring it up. The next time it’s on the agenda, Mr. Valencia will be given an opportunity to explain his action or whatever, and then the council votes on whether to censure or not. This is just saying we’re going to discuss that. I have to give warning that this is going to be coming up, so that everybody can be informed. It isn’t saying that it has happened. Everyone will have their say.”
Cory Briggs, Valencia’s attorney, addressed the council, informing them that he intended to put the city and the council through its paces by insisting that Valencia be provided with due process and that he was looking to not only delve into the council’s motive and rationale for going after Valencia but would inquire as to whether the council had sought to load the dice against his client by arriving at a decision to censure Valencia and discussing doing so in advance of that evening’s meeting.
The Brown Act prohibits a quorum of an elected body from coming to a decision on action or reaching a consensus on action outside of an agendized meeting that is open to the public.
Verbally, Briggs made a public records request on the spot.
“I would like all the private and public account email, text messages, voice mails, everything exchanged by any member of the city council to anybody, including other members of the city council about this item,” Briggs said.
Briggs said the council was initiating action that was not properly defined.
“Your agenda doesn’t tell anybody what this is about,” he said.
Straitjacketing Valencia into a censure, Briggs said, was a likely violation of the city’s code of ethics and its rules of procedure.
He threatened a lawsuit if the city proceeded that night without making specific the charges against Valencia and giving him an opportunity to respond.
“I don’t think you want to litigate,” Briggs said.
The council was improperly seeking to use the censure procedure to engage in political one-upmanship, Briggs said.
“You clearly have an issue with one of your colleagues on the council,” Briggs said, pointing out that was hardly the basis for an official expression of condemnation. “This council has never been united since my grandfather was on it. I can think of very few 5-0 votes on anything of significance. You and your colleagues need to ask yourselves whether you want to pay Mr. Duran [i.e., Ontario City Attorney Ruben Duran] a bunch of money to make some sort of political point as opposed to addressing a serious issue, which is not what’s before you.”
Briggs said the council was relying on information of unproven reliability in formulating the charges against Valencia.
“Mr. Mayor, you just recited what you know [about Valencia’s interactions with public officials in Sinaloa],” Briggs said. “You didn’t tell anybody where you got that information. You didn’t tell anybody who your source is. You referred to some Mexican officials. You probably got the information from social media. And we’re supposed to believe that? You should be a little more candid with folks and tell people where you got your information. You should tell people why it was so important that you amended your agenda over the weekend to rush and put this on. All of that should be disclosed because you are now the key witness. You are the initiator of this, the instigator. You’ve got to tell the public everything you know. You haven’t done that and that’s what happens in the due process portion of this proceeding. My client’s due process rights allow him to examine witnesses, under oath. Just because your rules of procedure say the rules of evidence don’t apply doesn’t mean the Constitution doesn’t apply.”
Leon sought to face Briggs down, implying that all of the evidence against Valencia was rock solid and that there was nothing to the suggestion that he and the rest of the council are seeking to propound a defense by going on the offensive against Valencia.
“I got all your answers for you in due process,” Leon said. “We’ll do it.”
Briggs responded, “I am glad that you are going to be a witness and that you’ll take an oath to be cross examined during that process.”
Leon didn’t blink. “I’m good with that,” the mayor said.
In his parting shot, Briggs reemphasized that he wanted “All of your communications. It’s hard for me to believe that Ms. Dorst-Porada and Mr. Wapner walked in here tonight, having no idea what was going to be discussed. And if they knew what was going to be discussed, that’d be a Brown Act violation,” Briggs said.
-Mark Gutglueck

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