With a series of three claims that have jarred and outraged residents and public officials both within her community and outside of it, Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson is threatening to sue the city she has headed for more than a decade for $7.35 million.
The scope and audaciousness of her effort to personally profit through the sway she holds over 104,025-population Rialto’s decision-making process has left even some of her most ardent political supporters aghast.
Pointed up in the burgeoning controversy is the degree to which Robertson is now contending that she is a virtual outcast at Rialto City Hall, which absolutely clashes with the image of an astute public servant with a command over the bureaucracy of local government which she has cultivated for herself and promoted going back for nearly a quarter of a century and which has served her well in her political career.
At this point, Robertson and another member of the Rialto City Council, Ed Scott, are two of the longest-serving elected municipal officials in San Bernardino County. Robertson, a Caltrans employee and a Democrat, was elected to the city council in 2000, and after three terms in that capacity, was elected mayor in 2012, gaining reelection in 2016 and 2020. She has indicated she will seek reelection in 2024.
Scott, an entrepreneur and Republican, was elected to the city council 1996. In 2000, Scott vied, ultimately unsuccessfully, for San Bernardino County supervisor, necessitating that he forgo running for reelection as councilman. In 2004, he was once again elected to the city council and was reelected in 2008. In 2012, he was defeated by Robertson when he ran for mayor. For two years, Scott was absent from the council, but in 2014 was again elected to council, and thereafter was reelected in 2018 and 2022. As a Republican, Scott was among some officeholders and some candidates who had vied for city council in Rialto whose continued tenure in office or election was not favored by employees with the city or the union representing them because of the perception that they were hostile to those unions or otherwise unaccommodating to the demands those city employees were making in the collective bargaining process. In February 2021, Scott became aware that some city employees – particularly those active with the city’s police officer and firefighter unions, were using the city’s investigative resources to look into elements of Scott’s personal life, including his residency status and ownership of property outside the city in Kernville in Kern County. Scott informed Sean Greyson, the city’s fire chief who was then serving in the capacity of acting city manager, on February 16, 2021 about what he had learned. ef, that such an allegation had been made about the Rialto Fire Department.” Scott further learned that city employees had obtained access to the State of California’s law enforcement database, the California Law Enforcement Teletype System known by its acronym CLETS, on multiple occasions to obtain confidential information relating to him in order to use it to prevent his reelection to office, thus bettering their chances of obtaining the enhanced salaries and benefits at issue in the employment contract bargaining process.
Scott filed a $1 million claim against the city on August 13, 2021, throwing Marcus Fuller, who at that point had been hired as city manager, and City Attorney Eric Vail into a panic.
An inquiry into Scott’s allegations was made. What was learned was that in August 2016, 14 separate inquiries relating to Scott and his son, Myles Edward Scott, who had been killed in a single-vehicle traffic accident in 2014 were made with the California Law Enforcement Teletype System by Noretta Barker, a law enforcement technician with the Rialto Police Department. It was determined that Barker had accessed the data base for the information at the behest of a member of the fire department and a sergeant in the police department. When Barker was pressed, she declined to identify the fire captain or the police sergeant.
The full city council took up the issue of Scott’s claim on September 14. Under California law, those intending to file suit against a governmental entity must first make a claim of damages against that agency, providing the entity an opportunity to settle the matter short of going to court. Once the claim is rejected, the party making the claim has one year to file a lawsuit in state court or two years in federal court. In the vast majority of cases, such claims are routinely rejected.
On September 14, the Rialto City Council, with Scott recusing himself, considered Scott’s claim during a closed session. The matter was a convoluted, complicated and highly problematic one. On one hand, the accessing of Scott’s file within CLETS, which was developed and intended exclusively for use by law enforcement and the Department of Motor Vehicles, was a violation of the law and of Scott’s constitutional and privacy rights. Moreover, it reflected poorly on the city, its police department, its fire department and threatened to touch off further inquiry and exposure of how the city’s facilities, equipment and access to confidential governmental data was exploited against other political candidates whose philosophies and positions did not align with the interests of the city’s public employee unions. Still, Scott had first raised the issue in February 2021, some four-and-a-half years after the improper access of data had taken and he had not filed his claim until five years after it had occurred, which in both cases fell outside the three-year statute of limitations for initiating a legal action. The council at that point neither rejected nor acknowledged the validity of the claim, instead authorizing Vail to negotiate a settlement with Scott, hopeful that a contretemps involving negative publicity for the city could be avoided. Two months later, in November 2021, the city council, in accordance with a recommendation by Fuller and Vail, voted to settle Scott’s claim for $500,000. The matter was handled discretely and quietly, without fanfare and involving bureaucratic sleight-of-hand that avoided public disclosure.
Despite the public being in the dark, Mayor Robertson had a front row seat of how her longtime council colleague had maneuvered his way to a half of a million-dollar windfall.
Roughly a year and four months later, on March 10 of this year, Robertson, represented by the Bracy Hawkins Law Firm, filed a $1 million claim against the city, one that essentially alleged what Scott had in his August 2021 claim, with the variant that it was Robertson who the claim asserted was the target.
In the claim paperwork, it was laid out that the action which had injured the mayor took place “On the premises of the Rialto Fire Department [and] Rialto Police Department.”
In describing “what particular act… caused the injury,” the claim states “Impermissably accessing and running Mrs. Robertson’s personal information through the State of California’s “CLETS” system and other systems without a legitimate law enforcement purpose, by unauthorized personnel and for improper, unauthorized and unnecessary reasons.”
According to the filed claim, the damages incurred to date, consisting of “economic and non-economic loss penalties, etc.” stand at $1,000,000.00.”
According to the claim, Robertson has witnesses to back her up but they are considered, at least as of the time of the filing of claim, to be “confidential.”
The Bracy Hawkins Law Firm consists of attorneys Allison Bracy, Channing Hawkins, Jendayi Saada and Bruce Fan. Hawkins is himself a leading political figure in Rialto, as he represents Division 4 on the West Valley Water District. Division 4 encompasses a substantial portion of Rialto, part of Colton and an area of unincorporated San Bernardino County.
An examination of Robertson’s claim determined that while the Rialto Police Department had indeed accessed information contained within the California Law Enforcement Teletype System pertaining to Robertson and members of her family, all of those inquiries related to ongoing department operations, including what were deemed legitimate investigative activity.
These investigations came about, the Sentinel is informed, as a consequence of crimes or suspected crimes in which either Mayor Robertson herself or others were victimized. At least two of those investigations came about in response to the mayor having contacted the police department or having filed a police report. These included, according to knowledgeable sources, burglary, the theft of the mayor’s vehicle, action taken by the mayor’s son which might have been interpreted as the theft of that vehicle, some order of a domestic disturbance involving the mayor’s daughter and the father of one of the mayor’s grandchildren and other incidents which were logically interpreted as criminal activity by the police department, justifying an investigation.
Multiple individuals privy to what one source characterized as an “exhaustive” audit of the police department’s accessing of law enforcement data bases with respect to the mayor and her family members said there were no instances where the information obtained relating to them was not relevant to a legitimate ongoing investigation.
Moreover, the data extraction relating to Scott was done for a different purpose, involving a different motive than was the case with Robertson. As a Republican, Scott was deemed by the public employee unions representing Rialto’s city employees – City Hall’s rank and file, firefighters and police officers – to embody an inflexible presence on the city council during contract negotiations. The information gathering effort that took place in 2016 was aimed at obtaining what those accessing the data base thought would be proof that Scott was residing or otherwise spending an inordinate amount of time outside of Rialto along with what they hoped would be derogatory information pertaining to Scott’s 17-year-old son, who had died two years previously. Indications that Scott was actually living in Kern County could be used, those who wanted to see him removed from the council, either in calls for his resignation from office or in a campaign against him to prevent him from being reelected in 2018. It was known that Myles Scott had been killed when the driver of the vehicle in which he was riding ran off the shoulder of the westbound 10 Freeway just east of the 215 Freeway and struck a tree, and that both the driver and young Scott had been inhaling nitrous oxide just prior to the accident. Those accessing the CLETS information with regard to the Scotts in 2016 did so in anticipation of finding information relating to Myles Scott’s involvement in the drug culture which could be used against his father in a political context.
In contrast to Scott, Robertson, a Democrat and one-time Caltrans employee who has been retired since 2012 and is currently pulling a $92,797.82 pension through the California Public Employees Retirement System, is closely aligned with labor and the unions representing the city’s employees. As such, those who were militating against Scott had no reason to seek any derogatory information pertaining to her, through law enforcement’s data bases or otherwise.
At its April 11, 2023 meeting, the city council rejected Robertson’s March 10 claim.
Two weeks prior to lodging the March 10 claim, on February 24, 2023, Robertson, represented by attorney Michelle D. Strickland had filed a claim against the city seeking reimbursement of an estimated $350,000 based on the city having misdirected, beginning in 2003, what was an agreed-upon deferred compensation payment of $750 per month into a wrong account. That money for the mayor, members of the city council, city clerk and city treasurer was supposed to have been deposited into an account identical to one set up for the city manager, a 401(a) money purchase pension plan and trust fund. Instead, the money had been routed into a 457 retirement plan. According to the claim on Robertson’s behalf filed by Strickland, Robertson is owed $132,446.62, which is equal to the amount of money put into the 457 retirement plan, and three indeterminate sums, including money to make up for an increased tax liability of 18 percent, consulting fees and attorney fees and costs, which Strickland calculated to be a “$350.000.00 total estimated amount of prospective damages.”
At its December 14, 2021 meeting, the city council had accepted a report from then-City Manager Marcus Fuller and then-City Attorney Eric Vail in which they presented a timeline running from December of 2003, at which point the city council adopted a resolution authorizing the city’s elected officials to receive the same health, welfare and cost reimbursement benefits as received by the city’s senior management, and the then-current date, detailing how the $500 per month benefit intended for the city’s elected officials between July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015 and the $750 per month benefit intended for the city’s elected officials between July 1, 2015 and through October 2021 had not been paid. Fuller’s and Vail’s report and recommendation, which the city council including Mayor Roberson signed off on, stated the “city will make payment of amounts due and owing to eligible elected officials whose terms fell within the time period of July 1, 2014 through the current date.”
City officials, after looking into the claim, concluded that the misplacement of funds was an issue not only with Mayor Robertson but with other members of the city council and that the matter pertaining to all of the city’s officials, including the mayor had been redressed with a formula that corrected the fund diversion and which is fair, making up for any tax penalty that Robertson or the others may have been subjected to.
The city’s senior management team, consisting of acting City Manager Arron Brown and Vail, who found themselves in the extremely delicate position of having to traverse the mayor, returned a recommendation to the city council that it reject Robertson’s claim. The city council did so at its March 14 meeting.
On May 17, Robertson, again represented by Strickland, filed a $6 million claim against the city, consisting of $5 million in “ongoing” damages and another $1 million in “estimate prospective” damages, alleging that “The city council and city manager have acted continually with discriminatory intent, violating ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] regs [regulations] and in violation of Fair Employment and Housing [Act] guidelines, and in the commission of their discriminatory acts continue to committing gender and racial discrimination, by refusing to address health and safety issues and ADA accommodations for disabilities which the city has been made aware [of] since the inception my employment as mayor and is an ongoing concern. Further, the city continues to financially abuse the mayor in their [sic] refusal to compensate her for their own errors, which constitutes financial elder abuse in W & I [Welfare and Institutions] Code § 15657.5.”
In delineating the particular act or omission that resulted in Robertson’s injury or damages, the claim states, “The city council and city manager continue [to] be indifferent and discriminatory regarding my personal safety after a domestic terrorism report from the December 2 attack, which has gone unaddressed even though as the mayor, I have continued to address the issues of my vulnerability.”
Robertson’s reference was to the December 2, 2015 massacre at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino in which a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health inspector, Syed Rizwan Farook, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, used semiautomatic handguns and rifles to kill 14 of Farook’s fellow and sister Department of Public Health employees and seriously injured 22 others.
Robertson’s claim further states, “After the terrorism report was made, the city immediately installed a security door in one of my Caucasian male colleague’s office, completely ignoring my concern for my personal safety. For at least one year and ongoing, the city manager continues to ignore my requests for reasonable accommodation based on an automobile accident in 2019. The Mayor continues to request that she have ergonomic equipment for lumbar support and carpal tunnel support, as well as safety precautions.”
The claim maintains that “the city manager immediately addressed the concerns of the city treasurer, a male, who just had surgery and complained that he could not go through the metal detectors or open certain doors.”
Robertson is African-American.
The reference to the “terrorism report” was an assessment made of safety issues and vulnerabilities at Rialto City Hall made by a security consultant, the Netira Group, retained by the city in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. According to Netira, which provided the city with its survey of the circumstance at Rialto City Hall and its recommendations in March 2016, the occupants of some of the offices at City Hall, including the mayor, because they have windows, could be exposed to attack by an armed assailant. Netira suggested this hazard could be lessened by the erection of a fence around City Hall.
A perimeter fence has not been built around City Hall.
As for Robertson’s assertion that “the city immediately installed a security door in one of my Caucasian male colleague’s office,” city officials point out that the Netira Group made no recommendation that the mayor’s office be augmented with a security door and that, in fact, it was more than four-and-a-half years after the Netira Group delivered its recommendations that a security door was installed in Councilman Raphael Trujillo’s office, which was the most logical location for such an addition to City Hall. Trujillo does not match up with the “Caucasian male” term used in Robertson’s claim, as Trujillo is a Hispanic male, city officials said. This misrepresentation, according to city officials, is an example of overreach by which Robertson is seeking to imbue the circumstance with a racial/racist component that simply does not exist.
The Netira Group’s suggested remedies were conceived and expressed some seven years ago and where practical were implemented at a previous date, such that Robertson’s raising of the issue now is highly curious and suspect, city officials said.
With respect to accommodations intended to assist Robertson with the physical issues growing out of her traffic accident, city officials contend that all reasonable efforts were made to provide Robertson, as has been done with other officials and employees who face challenges because of physical disabilities or infirmities, with furniture, desks, chairs, materials and equipment to facilitate the mayor’s ability to function in her elected capacity efficiently, safely and without aggravating her injury/condition.
To the extent that Robertson has accused the city of violating the Americans With Disability Act, fair housing and employment regulations or engaging in discrimination based on any issues including race and or/physical limitations, city officials say there is no substance to any element of the mayor’s claim.
Robertson’s May 17 claim was placed on the June 13 city council meeting agenda for consideration. At that meeting, City Attorney Vail suggested removing the item from that evening’s slate of council action and continued to the June 27, 2023 council meeting so that the full support for the claim would be included in the backup material for that meeting’s agenda. No such material was included with the June 27 agenda, however, and the council has not yet voted on whether to resolve the matter or reject the claim.
Word about Robertson’s effort to wring from Rialto $7,350,000 has astounded many of those who have heard it, and dumbfounded a number of the county’s elected officials who have developed working relationships with her over the years in such contexts as intergovernmental platforms and joint powers authorities, including three in which she is a full voting member – the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, the Southern California Association of Governments and the League of California Cities.
“I don’t know what to say,” said one when the language of Robertson’s claims were read to her. “I’m speechless.”
Said another, “After being elected how many times – six? – by the voters to represent them, she’s going to sue the governmental agency she heads for $7 million? Is it possible for there to be anything more contemptible than that?”
Having been in elected office in Rialto for 23 years and mayor for more than a decade, Robertson qualifies as the single most influential person exercising political and ultimate administrative authority over Rialto City Hall and its employees going back for close to a generation. A recurrent observation with regard to Robertson’s claims against the city was that if, indeed, what she and her attorneys are alleging is true, she, as the individual who has been the most responsible for overseeing government in Rialto for some time, is indicting herself and calling into question her own performance and function as a councilwoman and mayor, since she was instrumental in hiring the city managers serving the city going back more than two decades and approving the managerial and administrative decisions they engaged in, including hiring those who, presumably, are responsible for the shortcomings in performance that led to the injuries/damages referenced in her claims.
The Sentinel made repeated efforts to contact Robertson at City Hall. In an email, the Sentinel directly inquired of Robertson as to whether she considered herself in any way responsible for creating the circumstance in which the organization she has led for so long mistreated her in the fashion she outlined and engaged in the discriminatory behavior she is alleging.
The Sentinel asked Robertson what the poor performance of the Rialto city employees she described in her claims says about her effectiveness as an elected official.
Multiple observers have remarked that Robertson’s pursuit of claims surpassing $7 million is an indication that she is going end her tenure in office with the conclusion of her current term. The Sentinel asked in the email it sent to her if she will seek reelection in 2024.
The Sentinel further sought from Robertson whether she is some order of extraordinary economic adversity at present which would explicate why in the course of three months she would lodge three claims against the city she is leading for more than $7 million.
The Sentinel asked Robertson if she could convincingly contradict the suggestion that there is something unseemly in her using her position of power and authority as the elected representative of the people of Rialto to try to wield for yourself a $7 million plus payday.
Mayor Robertson did not return the Sentinel’s phone calls and did not respond to its email.
The Sentinel likewise sent emails to Robertson’s two attorneys – Michelle Strickland and Channing Hawkins – inquiring about the claims. Strickland offered a terse response of “No comment.” Hawkins did not respond.
Councilman Scott told the Sentinel, “I don’t think there is validity in any of the claims the mayor has filed. They are convoluted and not very clear.”
Scott said, “With regard to the CLETS issue, an audit was done and the only time she was run was in conjunction with a burglary at her home or some kind of disturbance and when her car was stolen once or twice. In those instances, those are legitimate investigations. None of those were improperly run.”
The councilman said, “There is nothing to the claim that the city council and the city manager are discriminating against in the aftermath of her injury in that auto accident or because of her age. The city is very accommodating to all of us who have those kind of issues. [Rialto City Treasurer] Ed Carrillo and I both have terminal illnesses and the city has been very good about taking care of use and making it so we can do everything we need to do. We both have devices implanted in our bodies. If either one of us went through the metal detector, the walk-through magnetometer, our wires could detach. As far as accommodations, I have never seen them not accommodate any employee who has some sort of physical or medical issue. The city has treated her no differently than it treats any of us or the city’s employees who have medical or physical disability issues. It just doesn’t stand to reason that the current city manager or any of our previous city managers would treat the mayor any differently than anyone else and certainly no city manager would ever treat the mayor more poorly than someone else at the city.”
The suggestion that the city is neglecting the mayor’s safety and leaving her vulnerable to being gunned down in her office at City Hall is an overly dramatized misrepresentation, Scott said.
“It’s a brick building,” he said. “There is a window in her office. I have a window in my office. I do not sit in front of the window and I do not believe the mayor does either. If she does sit in front of her window, she doesn’t have to. If need be, her desk could be moved.”
Scott took issue with the passage in her claim that the city had provided a security door for a “Caucasian” council member.
“She said, ‘Caucasian” council member,” Scott said. “I am the only Caucasian council member. I did not get a security door. If need be, I can exit through Councilman Trujillo’s office, and I am completely comfortable doing that. This is a non-issue.”
Robertson’s claim that the city manager or city staff had purposefully misdirected her 401A money does not hold up, Scott said. “First off, it was the city manager who caught what was going on and brought it to our attention,” Scott said. “And it wasn’t just the mayor whose funds were misplaced for a time. It was every elected officeholder. The city manager made sure that we were all taken care of and compensated. She didn’t agree with the formula, apparently. It may not have been the most perfect formula, but it was resolved for all of us. No one is complaining, except for her.”
Scott added, “There is no racial or racist component to any of this.”
The Sentinel asked Scott if Robertson intends to leave office at the end of her current term.
“She has said she is going to run for reelection in 2024,” Scott said.
That being the case, the Sentinel asked, doesn’t seeing $7.35 million in taxpayer funds from the city complicate that?
“I certainly would think so,” Scott said. “That would be a good question from the community.”
With a series of three claims that have jarred and outraged residents and public officials both within her community and outside of it, Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson is threatening to sue the city she has headed for more than a decade for $7.35 million.