San Bernardino Sixth Ward Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin’s advocacy on behalf of her constituents went too far, according to a sanitized executive summary of an investigation ordered by Mayor Helen Tran and five members of the San Bernardino City Council, when she sought from city staff details with regard to the action of former City Manager Robert Field.
It has taken the city council more than a year to catch up with the events that precipitated the exodus of both Field and former Mayor John Valdivia, events in which Calvin had a major hand. Despite a citywide and city council consensus that San Bernardino is better off without either of those two men near the municipal helm, Calvin is now paying the price for serving as one of the sparkplugs in the engine that drove them both out of City Hall. The executive summary of an investigation ordered up by Tran and Calvin’s council colleagues suggests that Calvin’s militation against the now discredited Valdivia both publicly and behind the scenes placed city employees in what they considered to be an uncomfortable position: between two strong-willed warring political factions.
Field tendered his resignation less than a month after the November 2022 municipal election in which Tran was elected to replace Valdivia. Field, who was in place during the final two year and three months of Valdivia’s term as mayor, had grown increasingly at odds with the majority of the city council, which was itself out of step with Valdivia. Tran’s supplanting of Valdivia left Field, whose two-years and three months in the top administrator’s position was marked by his efforts to support elements of the pay-to-play ethos that was the major hallmark of Valdivia’s tenure in office, in an untenable position in the county seat, with virtually no support from the city’s political leadership. He resigned and the city council, including Valdivia, accepted his resignation on December 7, 2022, before Tran was sworn into office.
Multiple factors had undermined Field’s tour as city manager from the outset. One had been the tenuous political circumstance under which he had been hired. At the time of his election as mayor in November 2018 and his installment as mayor the following month, Valdivia was the city’s most dominant political personage, one who controlled four of the six votes on the council. In May of 2019, when his ally, Juan Figueroa, was elected in a special election to replace Valdivia as Third Ward councilman – a position Valdivia had been obliged to resign from to move into the mayor’s post – he controlled five of the council’s seven votes, with only Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett and then-Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill consistently opposing him and his policies. But in very short order over the course of the summer and then into the autumn of 2019, First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez, Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra and then-Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel all became estranged from Valdivia, largely as a consequence of his efforts to please his political donors and other entities with business before the city, many of whom, it appeared, were providing Valdivia with money or other accommodations in return from favorable treatment at City Hall. At that point, Valdivia could rely only on the support of Figueroa and then-Sixth Ward Councilman Bessine Richard.
It was in this atmosphere that the city engaged in an effort to find a replacement for retiring City Manager Teri Ledoux in 2020, a protracted process that was resolved when the Valdivia-led recruitment and interview process settled upon Field, the former economic development agency director for Riverside County. In one of his last effective efforts as mayor, Valdivia was able to convince a solid majority of the city council that Field’s understanding of finance and economic revitalization would benefit San Bernardino, which had suffered the ignominy of declaring bankruptcy in 2012, remaining in that state of suspended fiscal animation until 2017 and then suffered through the city’s hemorrhaging of red ink while Ledoux was in the role of city manager, spending some $18.67 million more on city operations than it brought in during the 16 months she was overseeing municipal operations. In September 2020, the council agreed to hire Field.
One of the things that would trip up Field was that he had never before served in the role of a city manager. In his Riverside County assignments, there had always been a higher-ranking staff member – essentially chief executive officers Bill Luna and Jay Orr – who had served as a buffer between him and the elected officials there, the members of the board of supervisors.
What was more, just seven months before Field was hired as city manager in San Bernardino, he had been abruptly fired by Riverside County Chief Executive Officer George Johnson.
It did not help Field that three of the council members who had been in place to vote on his hiring in September 2020 were no longer in office just three months later. Figueroa, Nickel, Richard and Mulvihill all stood for reelection in 2020. In the March primary election, Figueroa alone was victorious. Richard was outright defeated in a head-to-head contest against Kimberly Calvin. Both Nickel, who faced five challengers, and Mulvihill, who was up against four, found themselves in run-offs in the November 2020 election, against Ben Reynoso and Damon Alexander, respectively. Ultimately, Reynoso and Alexander prevailed.
Another crucial factor that came to dog Field was the misimpression that he was given from the outset, as a consequence of Valdivia taking a lead role in the city manager recruitment and applicant winnowing process, that Valdivia was in a more powerful political position than he actually was. In what was an astoundingly politically tone-deaf reading of the actual circumstance for someone occupying a position such as city manager – one which requires insight and sensitivity to political nuance – Field assumed that Valdivia was in control of not only the city council but city staff and the entire city. In actuality, Valdivia’s control of all three entities had been significantly attenuated even prior to Field’s arrival.
Once in place as city manager, Field took command of San Bernardino’s municipal machinery and, in compliance with Valdivia’s requests and direction, attempted, and in some cases succeeded, to facilitate creating money-making opportunities for Valdivia’s associates, affiliates, political backers or patrons. It is unclear whether Field recognized or fully understood the degree to which his action furthered the pay-to-play ethos that had come to embody Valdivia’s administration.
Relatively early on there were manifestations of the clash between the direction Valdivia was seeking to take the city in and the collective and individual vision the rest of the council had for the community. While Valdivia had hoped that with Reynoso’s replacement of Nickel and, in particular, Alexander’s replacement of his implacable foe Mulvihill, he might reform a ruling council coalition and take control of the city’s destiny, it did not play out that way. Reynoso proved to be even more hostile toward Valdivia than Nickel had been during his final two years in office. Though Alexander sought to demonstrate himself to be judiciously committed to evaluating matters that came before the city on an issue-by-issue basis without falling into any predictable alliances with anyone on the council, it became clear that Valdivia could not rely on him for automatic support. Moreover,
Calvin’s presence on the council not only deprived Valdivia of one the two reliable allies he had previously possessed on the council – Richard – she relatively early in the going emerged as the primary opposition to Valdivia, outgunning and even replacing Shorett and Mulvihill in that role.
An early manifestation of this was Calvin’s objection to Valdivia attempting – with Field’s assistance – to commandeer the apportioning process for federal Community Development Block Grant program funds, money entrusted to the city through the Department of Housing and Urban Development for community improvements. Despite the city charter and a policy that banned him from participating in the decision-making relating to how the money was to be spent, Valdivia had preempted the effort by assuming chairmanship of the meeting as part of a ploy to direct at least some of those grants to programs that would employ his political donors or businesses which had hired him, working through his company, Aadvantage Comm LLC, as a consultant. Calvin’s stand against Valdivia included refusing, as a member of the ad hoc committee impaneled to determine how the federal grants were to be spent, to participate in the meeting and loudly decrying the confabulation’s illegality.
Field and city staff had been tasked by the mayor and the city council to set into motion the makeover of the long-shuttered Carousel Mall in downtown San Bernardino. Word surfaced that Valdivia was pushing, from behind the scenes, for the city to entrust the mall redevelopment project to a Chinese-based company, SCG America, which was conveying money to Valdivia. Both Calvin and Reynoso expressed concern that Valdivia was acting improperly in promoting SCG America against other companies that had expressed an interest in the mall property, and that Field was assisting him by granting SCG America an inside track on a proposal to demolish the mall structures in preparation toward the transition of property into a mixed-use retail/residential project. Calvin and Reynoso interpreted that, as did many of the city’s residents, as a clear indication that Valdivia was on the take, that Field knew Valdivia was on the take and that Field was knowingly and directly participating in the quid pro quo arrangements the mayor was involved in. Penultimately, after the city council looked past SCG America and instead entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Renaissance Downtowns USA and ICO Real Estate Group – known jointly as the San Bernardino Development Company for renovation project, the city had to back out of that agreement after the California Department of Housing and Community Development lodge a complaint that the city had not made the Carousel Mall property available for bids by entities looking to convert the property to affordable housing.
Beginning in early 2020, Valdivia and the city were hit with a number of lawsuits by current and former employees of the mayor’s office, including Mirna Cisneros, Karen Cervantes, Jackie Aboud, Don Smith and Valdivia’s chief of staff, Matt Brown. In those suits, Cisneros went public with how Valdivia had made sexual advances to her and misused city funds to engage in travel and activity that had no relation to city governance and he was taking money from entities with business before the city; Cervantes related how the mayor had made sexual advances toward her; Aboud likewise said Valdivia had pressured her to accommodate his sexual needs; Smith related how he had been present while Valdivia made a late night rendezvous with a city tow service franchise holder who handed Valdivia an envelope stuffed with cash; and Brown alleged Valdivia attempted to have him make fraudulent unfavorable work reviews of Cisneros, Cervantes, Aboud and Smith to justify their firings and discredit them with regard to the allegations they had made.
Valdivia’s already-moribund political career was dealt a further death blow by efforts Calvin, Reynoso and other community activists engaged in to bring to light a host of illegal activities he had engaged in. Those revelations included an exposure of how Valdivia in June 2021 utilized a host of city facilities and assets to stage what he billed as the “State of the City Address,” a barely disguised effort to promote himself but which in actuality was a fundraising event to fatten his political war chest by creating an invitation list that consisted of his past donors, whom he referred to as San Bernardino’s “movers and shakers,” along with a handful of his political associates, including Figueroa. He excluded the remaining six council members from the guest list.
The council called upon Field and the city’s top administration to look into what had occurred and seek to determine if Valdivia had violated both the law and city policy by utilizing public funds for political purposes.
Ultimately, city staff went through the various expenditures the city made in support of the address, providing that documentation to an attorney, Norma García Guillén. García Guillén thereafter had staff compile further documentation relating to Valdivia’s expenditures of public funds that were used for a hotel stay and meal in San Diego on September 20-22, 2019; a hotel stay in Irvine on September 10-11, 2020; a hotel stay and meal in Irvine on March 8-9, 2021; a hotel stay in Irvine on March 18-19, 2021; meals in Nevada on March 22-23, 2021; a meal in Newport Beach on March 23, 2021; and a meal and hotel stay in Irvine on April 13-14, 2021, all of which García Guillén said had nothing to do with city-related business and provided the basis for censuring Valdivia. García Guillén presented the case for Valdivia’s censure to the city council during a special meeting held on December 1, 2021. In the meantime, Valdivia, who over the first three-and-a-half years that he was mayor collected $854,626.21 into his mayoral electioneering fund, hired former California Assemblyman and Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco as his legal representative in an effort to ward off any criminal charges and blunt any accompanying political attacks and damage he was accumulating along the way. Ultimately, Valdivia would pay Pacheco $487,487.21 for those services, defrayed entirely by his political donors. Despite those expenditures, Pacheco’s response on behalf of Valdivia to García Guillén’s presentation had little impact, as the city council ultimately voted to censure Valdivia at the December 1, 2021 meeting.
That vote of censure, which passed unanimously – including the vote of his erstwhile ally Figueroa – presaged Valdivia’s political demise, which was made official with his third-place finish in the seven-person mayoral contest held in conjunction with the June 2022 California Primary. Valdivia’s campaign treasurer reported that he had expended $649,505.89 overall on his effort to remain in office in the 2022 election. Despite that, and the consideration that he outspent all six of his opponents in the contest, Valdivia finished out of the running, with 2,970 votes or 16.92 percent, behind second-place finisher Jim Penman, who polled 3,510 votes or 20 percent, and the top vote-getter, Helen Tran, with 7,310 votes or 41.65 percent. Tran went on to win the November 2022 run-off.
Effectuating Valdivia’s transition from a phenomenon who in December 2018 bestrode San Bernardino like a political colossus to a washed-up officeholder who in 2022 could not stay in place even by spending well over half of a million dollars and more than twice what was expended by all six of his opponents was a collective effort that involved a groundswell involving scores, indeed hundreds, of San Bernardino residents who had their fill of his exploitation of the governmental process. Nevertheless, two individuals stood out from that crowd. One was Calvin. The other was Treasure Ortiz, who had been one of the original candidates to replace Valdivia as Third Ward councilman in 2019 after he resigned that post to become mayor the previous year and a candidate against Valdivia for mayor in 2022. Ortiz had lost to Figueroa, whom Valdivia had endorsed in 2019 and she placed fourth in the 2022 mayoral race, just behind Valdivia. Both had been relentless in assailing Valdivia, particularly during his final two years in office, Calvin from her perch as an insider on the city council dais and Ortiz as an outsider in her function as a candidate and community activist.
Each of them came under scrutiny as a consequence.
While he yet hand his grip on the mayor’s gavel, Valdivia could be very demanding. Calvin had come to consider virtually every priority that the mayor was pursuing to be illegitimate. Without the explicit endorsement of the council, Calvin believed, Valdivia had no authority to issue orders to city staff. Field carrying out, or attempting to carry out, Valdivia’s agenda, infuriated Calvin. Thus, Field for some time found himself vacillating between Valdivia’s demands and the expectations of the remainder of the council. When Calvin learned that Field was hiding from her and the council action he was taking on behalf of Valdivia, Calvin became angrier still. Indeed, Valdivia emerged as a major unifying factor for the council, as opposing him more than any other single issue put Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Reynoso, Calvin and and Alexander on the same page. Over the last year or so, Field had come to realize that it was virtually impossible to please both camps – one consisting of Valdivia and Figueroa and the other composed of of Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Reynoso, Calvin and Alexander – simultaneously, and he came to understand that having kowtowed to Valdivia for the first year he was city manager had been a major mistake. Field’s life at that point was, in the words of a well-placed source at City Hall, “a literal living hell.” The formula that Field at last had adopted to maintain his sanity was to meet the expectations of Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Reynoso, Calvin and Alexander as best he could and simply live with Valdivia’s contempt.
Despite that, Calvin never got over her discomfiture with Field’s indulgence of Valdivia during the first 15 or 16 months of the time he had been city manager.
A byproduct of Valdivia’s political demise was the end of Field’s career as a city manager. Because of the secrecy – what is referred to as confidentiality – of public personnel matters, it is not known too far beyond the confines of City Hall how many employees Field brought in with him or hired during the time he was in place. Because of that confidentiality, it is not known if any of the personnel that came in with Field or were hired at his instigation left when he did, nor how many. It is not known either if anyone he hired remained in place after his departure or how many.
What is known is that when Calvin had Valdivia in her cross hairs, there was some collateral damage.
Valdivia’s barely-disguised effort to promote himself, the 2021 “State of the City Address,” served as the epiphany that ultimately brought Field to full consciousness of how Valdivia was perceived by a substantial cross section of the community. Until that debacle, Field was working to further Valdivia’s goals, believing he was rightly carrying out what the council majority wanted him to do. Even after it became apparent that Valdivia was persona non grata among his own city council, it took Field several months to adjust. Again, because of the secrecy of government and the confidentiality of discussions that take place in closed “executive” sessions of city councils in California, it is not known how fully on display the hostility between most of the members of the city council and the mayor was and how Field could have gone on as long as he did without coming to the conclusion that Valdivia was a paper political tiger. It is no secret, however, that Calvin had enough of the pay-to-play ethos the city was drenched and was gunning for Valdivia. Anyone who got in the way was blasted.
What is alleged now is that in her single-minded pursuit of blowing Valdivia out of office, Calvin engaged in some of the same things Valdivia was famous for, pursuing action unilaterally using her own authority without the consent of her council colleagues, buttonholing city employees to find out from them what the mayor and city manager were cooking up, and that her demands created a toxic work environment.
In response to the complaint of at least once city employee, the city council arranged to have the city contract with Laguna Niguel-based JL Group, LLC to conduct an administrative investigation to determine whether Calvin engaged in behavior that rose to the level of misconduct and may have violated city rules and/or policies based upon the allegations raised by the claimant.
The city has not released the investigative report. Instead, on December 7, it put out a press release that revealed the existence of the investigation and stated, “On Wednesday, December 6, the San Bernardino City Council voted 5-0 in closed session, with council members Ben Reynoso and Kimberly Calvin absent, to release the executive summary” of the report.
According to the executive summary, “This investigation detailed…factfinders to determine the circumstances surrounding the concerns brought forward by a claimant. Claimant indicated he had been subjected to an unfavorable work atmosphere and, as a result, he began to document incidents that he felt rose to the level of misconduct. Claimant also alleged that Ms. Calvin has contacted him and other city staff directly, and made requests that exceeded the authority of a city councilperson which in essence circumvented the city manager.”
The summary continues, “Ms. Calvin is clearly a highly engaged councilmember and was able to articulate a vision for her ward that she felt would address the needs of her community. While her passion for her electorate is evident, it appeared that her desire to enact positive change would at times create an
atmosphere that was not conducive to an efficient and collaborative workplace and may have violated city rules. On December 15, 2020, Ms. Calvin signed an acknowledgment of mandatory compliance with the city’s harassment policies.”
According to the summary, “The City’s policy on non-discrimination, retaliation, workplace harassment, and sexual harassment outlines the city’s expectations for maintaining a healthy work environment. The facts in this matter demonstrated that Ms. Calvin has repeatedly contacted city staff directly for information and has made requests to provide documents or further research on a specific subject. She has also given city staff direction regarding their specific work assignments
that went beyond a simple request for information. Interpretation of the municipal code provided by a witness is that any requests which require staff to prepare documents or spend time beyond a simple answer to a question are not
appropriate and circumvent the chain of command. Witnesses indicated that several attempts were made to address chain of command issues with the city council.”
According to the summary, “Claimant provided e-mails that verified his allegations that Ms. Calvin contacted staff directly. There were multiple e-mails which Ms. Calvin sent to staff members directly. A witness explained that these emails could cause confusion with staff because they were uncertain about what their response should be and to whom they should be responding. City staff corroborated these assertions and described the anxiety these situations caused at times.”
According to the summary, “The facts in this matter also indicated that many of Ms. Calvin’s interactions with city staff were not on behalf of the city council as a body; rather, she was at times acting unilaterally to make personal requests of her own.”
The summary states, “During the course of this investigation there were several witnesses who reported interactions that they had with Ms. Calvin that also appeared to rise to the level of misconduct.” The summary, however, offers no specific examples of the referenced misconduct.
According to the summary, “There is clearly a very highly charged political atmosphere within the City as a result of Ms. Calvin’s interactions with city staff. Several witnesses expressed that they have experienced negative physical reactions to the stress that they attribute to Ms. Calvin’s behavior. Claimant also alleged that City e-mails may have been improperly forwarded to a local activist, Treasure Ortiz, circumventing the Public Records Act process. While it was clear that another person was in possession of the city e-mails in question, it was not possible to ascertain if they had forwarded this information directly to Ms. Ortiz. The greater weight of credible evidence indicated that they had given this information to other employees who may have subsequently provided it to Ms.Ortiz.”
According to the summary, there were four findings from the investigation.
In the first instance, the summary states investigators sustained the accusation that “City Councilmember Kimberly Calvin created an uncomfortable work environment for claimant that may have violated City of San Bernardino rules.
In the second, the summary states investigators sustained the allegation “City Councilmember Kimberly Calvin created an uncomfortable work environment for additional (other than claimant) City of San Bernardino staff and/or city council colleagues other than [the] claimant” in a way “that may have violated City of San Bernardino rules.”
Thirdly, according to the summary, the investigators were unable to sustain the conclusion that “another person forward[ed] city-generated e-mails to Treasure Ortiz.
Fourth, the investigators, according to the summary, sustained that “City Councilmember Kimberly Calvin violated City of San Bernardino rules regarding her communications and/or direction to city staff?”
In an exchange with the Sentinel early today, Friday, December 8, Calvin said, “My questioning staff was my trying to get answers on what I believe were inappropriate actions of the former City Manager, Rob Field.”
The Sentinel’s inquiries with JL Group personnel, including investigators Mike Hamel, Tom Fischbacher, Jeff Berkenkamp, Patrick O’Dowd, Chad Ellis, Dan Jenks, Bill Whalen and Erik Herzog, attorneys Agnes Szkopek and Michael Peters and attorneys/investigators/principals Jeff Love and Jeff Johnson, as to how Calvin could look into Field’s comportment at City Hall without bypassing him and contacting city employees were unanswered at press time.