GJ Says Yucaipa Solons Lost Public’s Trust With Managerial Sacking & Voting Conflicts

In a report delivered December 15, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury stopped short of concluding that three members of the Yucaipa City Council violated the Brown Act when they forced the resignation of the former city manager, joined with their two other colleagues in outright firing the city attorney and then acted without any prior announcement to hire one of their political associates as the replacement city manager and one of the new city manager’s professional associates as the follow-on city attorney. Nevertheless, the civil review panel made a finding that Yucaipa City Hall’s controlling political coalition had engaged in action that has severely undercut its credibility with the public.
While the grand jury did not delve into the minutiae or the intricacies of the accusations that the way the troika effectuated those changes entailed an out-and-out violation of the State of California’s open public meeting law, it observed that the series of backroom maneuvers the council engaged in had created an atmosphere in which the city council “has lost the trust of many citizens.”
The city’s political establishment – consisting of the three council members who actuated those sackings and the city manager and city attorney replacements who now occupy City Halls’ most powerful staff posts – hailed the grand jury’s reluctance to get into the weeds with regard to the Brown Act implication as a vindication of the January 2023 action which changed the administrative dynamic in the city. Nevertheless, they put out a statement in which they roundly criticized the grand jury for concluding a less than thorough investigation of the controversial developments which resulted in the first recall efforts in Yucaipa’s 34-year history.
Simultaneously, a spokesman for the recall proponents said that the grand jury’s inquiry and findings had served to document two serious issues pertaining to conflicts of interest and a prior business relationship between a member of the city council and a member of the planning commission, which merits the attention of both voters and prosecutors.
The issues in Yucaipa which fell under the scrutiny of the grand jury had their genesis in, first, an October 23, 2022 vote by the Yucaipa City Council as it was then composed to extend City Manager Ray Casey’s contract until June 2024. That council consisted of Greg Bogh, David Avila, Justin Beaver, Bobby Duncan and Jon Thorp. At the time of that vote, Bogh and Avila were lame ducks, as they had both opted against running for reelection in the following month’s municipal election. In the November election, Matt Garner proved the top vote-getter in the race to replace David Avila in the First District and Chris Venable won in a two-person race to supplant Greg Bogh in the Second District.
Unbeknownst to the electorate, prior to the election a discussion had taken place between then-candidate Garner and both Beaver and Duncan in which they had discussed jettisoning Casey as city manager in the event that Garner’s election bid was successful. At some point after Garner was elected but before he was sworn into office in December 2022, the trio had confirmed that commitment.
On January 9, 2023, the first substantive meeting of the Yucaipa City Council with Garner and Venable as members, was held. After adjourning into a closed session conducted outside the scrutiny of the public shortly after the meeting began, Beaver, Duncan and Garner pressured Casey into resigning and moved to conduct a vote to terminate City Attorney David Snow. The vote to accept Casey’s resignation was 3-to-2, with Beaver, Duncan and Garner prevailing and Thorp and Venable dissenting. The council then voted 5-to-0 to fire Snow. At that point, Steven Graham, the city attorney with the City of Canyon Lake in Riverside County, materialized and began functioning as Yucaipa’s City Attorney. The council then voted 4-to-1, to offer the position of city manager to Chris Mann, who at that time was the city manager of Canyon Lake, a member of the Yucaipa Water District Board of Directors, and the principal in Mann Communications. Mann, like Graham, had been present on the civic center grounds throughout the meeting.
Nearly two score Yucaipa residents who had been alerted at the last minute that something was in the offing had shown up at the meeting, several of whom had hoped to be able to talk the council out of getting rid of Casey, a Princeton-educated civil engineer with extensive public works experience in governmental and municipal settings and construction experience in the private sector. He had served as Yucaipa’s city engineer/director of public works for five years beginning in 2003 before he was promoted to the position of city manager in 2008. The crowd’s efforts at intercession had been to no avail, and Casey abruptly joined the ranks of the unemployed or retired or both.
With Mann and Graham on hand for the meeting and Graham assuming the role of city attorney on the spot without any forewarning, there were immediate accusations that a violation of The Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law, had taken place. The Brown Act prohibits a quorum of an elected governmental body or an appointed governmental body with decision-making authority from meeting, discussing any matter to be decided or voted upon or coming to a consensus in any way about a matter to be voted upon outside of a public forum. The Brown Act allows less than a quorum of an elected body – as in the case of the five-member Yucaipa City Council, two members – to meet and discuss some contemplated action to be voted upon, but it prohibits either of those two members from engaging in a “serial” meeting of a quorum, whereby one of those members then separately meets with another member to discuss the upcoming action or vote.
Residents who were opposed to what was tantamount to Casey’s sacking reasoned that a Brown Act violation had to have taken place, as Graham was on hand for the meeting before he was hired as city attorney and, likewise, Mann was immediately present, in anticipation of the action the council ultimately took.
The council majority would eventually form a response to the Brown Act violation accusation that held no such violation had occurred since the collusion with regard to Casey’s forced exit and Snow’s firing had taken place prior to Garner being sworn in as a member of the city council, such that when that plotting took place, the three did not constitute a quorum of the city council.
For those upset at Casey’s departure, that defense was one that relied on a distinction without a difference and constituted an admission of duplicity on the part of the three, given Beaver’s and Duncan’s October 23 vote to extend Casey’s contract and Garner’s failure to inform the community of his intention with regard to the city manager prior to his election.
Moreover, many Yucaipa residents, acutely conscious that their 27.8-square mile, 55,495-population city at present is less densely populated than 13 of San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated municipalities, were concerned that the council majority is set on allowing aggressive development to occur, allowing the city’s largely rural nature to be eradicated and replaced by “stack and pack” subdivision after subdivision that would make Yucaipa indistinguishable from scores of other cities in Southern California that are now composed, practically, of wall-to-wall houses. Mann owns Mann Communications, which touts itself as a mouthpiece for the development industry. Residents believed putting him in place as city manager presaged just such a development frenzy.
A recall committee formed, and some 193 city residents lent their names as sponsors of the effort, with
62 residents of District 4 signing the notice of the intention to circulate the recall petition against Justin A. Beaver, 67 residents of District 3 signing the notice of the intention to circulate the recall petition against Bobby Dean Duncan and 64 residents of District 1 signing the notice of the intention to circulate the recall petition against Councilmember Matthew Gabriel Garner.
Reasons given for seeking the recall against each of the three were that they had acted to terminate Casey and had violated the Brown Act in doing so.
In the aftermath of Casey’s departure and the hiring of Mann, Mann replaced the city clerk who had been in place under Casey, Kimberly Metzler, with his own choice, that being Ana Sauceda, whom he had previously promoted to city clerk when she was employed at the City of Canyon Lake.
To protect his political masters on the city council, Mann formulated a strategy of hiring the Los Angeles-based Sutton Law Firm, using city money, to represent Sauseda as plaintiff, acting in her capacity as the city’s chief elections officer, in a lawsuit challenging the validity of the recall effort. According to the suit as authored by two of the Sutton Law Firm’s attorneys, Bradley W. Hertz and Eli B. Love, the recall proponents could not prove their allegation that a Brown Act violation had occurred with the forced departure of Casey, and the recall proponents’ separate accusations against Beaver, Duncan and Garner that each had acted to terminate Casey and Snow was not true since no single one of them had such authority and the actions to relieve Casey of his city manager’s post and fire Snow were ones taken collectively by the entire city council body. The lawsuit was presented as adhering to recently passed law, AB 2584, allowing Sauseda to contest the accuracy of the stated grounds for a recall. Sauseda’s suit, was filed against all 193 of the recall proponents.
To augment that effort, Mann had Joseph Pradetto, whom he had hired to serve as Yucaipa’s director of governmental affairs and official spokesperson, intensify the intimidation level against the recall proponents. Pradetto, in trumpeting to the Yucaipa community that the recall proponents were being sued by the city clerk, publicly stated, “In addition to the provisions of AB 2584, Sauseda also cautions recall proponents that, ‘Per Elections Code section 18600, it is a misdemeanor offense to circulate or obtain signatures on a recall petition that intentionally misrepresent (sic) or make (sic) false statements.’”
Faced with the distraction of the lawsuit and stood off by Pradetto’s threat to have them jailed for persisting with the recall effort, recall proponents fell far short of gathering, by the August 16, 2023 deadline, the minimal 1,826 valid signatures from among District 1’s 7,303 registered voters to qualify a ballot item on recalling Garner, the minimal 1,478 valid signatures of the 5,912 registered voters in District 3 to qualify a ballot item on recalling Duncan and the minimal 1,623 valid signatures from among the 6,492 registered voters in District 4 to qualify a vote on recalling Beaver.
Nevertheless, several of the recall proponents approached the San Bernardino County Grand Jury, lodging a complaint with regard to all that had occurred, doubling down on the accusation that a Brown Act violation had taken place and accusing the council majority, aided by Mann, Sauseda, Pradetto and the Sutton Law Firm, of interfering in the political process and the recall proponents’ exercise of their First Amendment Rights.
The grand jury on December 15 released a report on its investigation and findings.
“The purpose of this report is to shine a light on the actions of members of the Yucaipa City Council that have agitated and divided this once sleepy town and to make findings and recommendations to the Yucaipa City Council to help regain the trust of the citizens of Yucaipa,” the report’s introduction states.
The grand jury stated “The original complaint was that there was a violation of the Brown Act. The grand jury found no violation. However, there appears to be a violation of the public’s trust.”
In that regard, the grand jury observed that the “new city council,” i.e., the one in which Garner and Venable replaced Bogh and Avila, “through its nontransparent method of replacing the long-time city manager” created “resident disdain, resentment, and anger.”
According to the grand jury, “For many years, Yucaipa relied on its long-serving city manager for governance and on its long-serving city attorney for legal advice. In late 2022 the city council unanimously renewed the city manager’s contract. Within a month of taking office in 2023, though, a newly elected city council decided that the city needed a change. At a closed session it voted to accept the resignation of the city manager despite the contract renewal just a few months earlier. The reasons for this resignation are unknown to the grand jury. At the same closed session, the council immediately replaced the city manager with its pre-selected choice. The council didn’t require applicant vetting; indeed, it didn’t require any applicants at all. The council didn’t interview other qualified applicants; there were no other applicants to be considered for such an important decision. Some city council members believed that the applications, vetting and interviewing took place during the previous council term, and that their only function now was to approve the choices. The evidence showed that some of the council members had not met these pre-chosen candidates until the meeting during which the council appointed them. Even before the city council vote, the soon-to-be appointed new city manager (and city attorney) waited in the parking lot outside the council chambers, to be called into the meeting and introduced to the council. These city council actions blindsided many residents; their outrage followed, soon to be fueled by additional questionable actions.”
The concern of residents who then became involved in the recall effort with regard to the city embarking on aggressive residential growth found confirmation when the city pushed forward, with Mann in place as city manager, with a development proposal, referred to as the “Serrano Estates Project,” lying at the periphery of the largely rural and undeveloped “North Bench” section of the city, according to the grand jury. The council’s apparent adherence to this developmental imperative extended to a conflict of interest which, the grand jury hinted, potentially relates to issues of criminal implication.
“On August 17, 2022, the planning commission voted 4 to 2 against approval of the Serrano Estates Project,” the grand jury noted. “Immediately thereafter, the applicant appealed the decision to the city council. On September 12, 2022, the former city council voted to deny the applicant’s appeal. On January 9, 2023, the new city council was installed. On January 9, 2023, two months after the election of the three new city council members, the city council called a special session. Although the agenda had brought attention to the fact that this meeting would be used to discuss personnel issues, the public knew no particulars. While these actions were permissible, they lacked transparency. During this meeting, although the present and soon-to-be former city manager’s contract was renewed in October 2022, by a 5-to-0 vote, the city manager resigned. The council immediately appointed a new city manager to replace him. The newly elected city council then promptly removed the current city attorney and installed a new one. When the full meeting continued, constituents were informed of the new appointees. Public outcry ensued. Residents complained they had no input into the changes. The lack of transparency was evident. The selected appointees waited outside in the parking lot, knowing that they would be installed. On March 15, 2023, the Serrano Estates Project applicant made changes to the plan in accordance with suggestions made by the new city council, and the council approved it despite the objections of many citizens. The grand jury found that some residents viewed the appointment of the city council’s choice for city manager and city attorney as a move to assure that the council could approve the Serrano Estates Project. In March 2023, opposition in the community continued to grow after the Yucaipa City Council approved the project. Opponents expressed their concerns at the city council meetings and in the local paper. According to meeting minutes and media reports, opposition to the project grew with each city council meeting. At one of the heated city council meetings where the council discussed the Serrano Estates Project, a council member responded to citizens voicing their concerns by saying, “All I hear is blah, blah, blah.” In fairness, the civil grand jury has evidence that many citizens were rude in their addresses to the council. Some members of the public were disruptive; some violated the rules of the meeting; others were name-calling during their speaking time. Regarding the public complaints that the Yucaipa City Council has navigated this project opaquely and with little consideration for some of the objections of the public, the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury found city council members have prior and current personal and business relationships with entitlement and/or development companies that want to redevelop the North Bench area. The grand jury discovered there was a prior business relationship with a member of the planning commission and the city council. The businesses were real estate sales and development. The procedure complied with the law regarding consideration or approval of the Serrano Estates Project. However, the rule of law is only half of the city council’s mandate for governing. The voice of the people is the other and perhaps paramount.”
Enlarging upon that point, the grand jury stated, “For years local residents opposed the Serrano Estates Project, and the prior city council and planning commission rejected it. But the new council nevertheless voted to approve the project. For years North Bench residents enjoyed the serenity of its rural setting. It was zoned RL-1, one home on each one-acre lot. The new city council proposed rezoning the North Bench to allow ‘cluster housing,’ more housing on less land (up to four homes on each one-acre lot and multi-resident units such as condos and apartments). Many residents believe that the approval of the Serrano Estates Project provided a gateway to the rezoning of the North Bench later because the Serrano Estates Project is immediately adjacent to the North Bench area. Many North Bench residents and some other district residents opposed the change. The proposal, the residents asserted, would deprive Yucaipa of a rural residential and open-space region and instead would create a congested sprawl with insufficient infrastructure. Anger swelled, then ballooned when residents learned that a council member was a real estate agent, had a property listed in the North Bench district and possibly stood to reap a substantial financial gain upon council approval of this proposal and subsequent sale of the listing. Despite the apparent financial conflict of interest and lack of transparency, no council member deemed it prudent to recuse himself. Angered and frustrated once again, citizens responded. The city council’s efforts to rezone the North Bench district created an uproar among Yucaipa citizens and spawned raucous city council meetings.”
The efforts to thwart the recall taken by the city council using and involving Mann, Sauseda, the Sutton Law Firm and Pradetto as proxies exacerbated the atmosphere of distrust in the city, according to the grand jury.
“A citizen’s group, the Coalition to Save Yucaipa, filed a recall notice seeking to remove three city council members, one of them the mayor,” according to the grand jury. “The city clerks’ office immediately filed a lawsuit to halt the recall, naming as defendants each citizen who signed the petition. Recall law requires that each petitioner must include his/her address. Subsequently, anonymous letters were sent to each signer, informing them that their information would be published in the local newspaper. The lawsuit filed by the office of the city clerk, and the anonymous letters, intimidated many Yucaipa residents, especially those who had their names on the petition, and therefore on the lawsuit. Many Yucaipa citizens are incensed. They do not believe the city council demonstrated adequate concern for their objections to the possible rezoning of the North Bench and to the approval of the Serrano Estates Project; they did believe that the council acted with a lack of transparency when it replaced the former city manager and city attorney, with pre-selected people, without much notice to or input from the community. The anonymous letters sent only to the recall petition signers did not help the public perception of the city council.”
In August, the deadline for the recall proponents to have gathered sufficient signatures to force the recall elections against Beaver, Duncan and Garner had elapsed. With the recall effort having failed, the judge hearing the lawsuit brought by Sauseda concluded that the matter being litigated “is deemed moot.” Despite that, Sauseda is proceeding with the lawsuit, which the grand jury said is perpetuating the community’s distrust of city government.
“As of the writing of this report, the office of the city clerk had not agreed to dismiss the petition for writ of mandate, despite the fact that the judge deemed the matter moot,” the grand jury stated. “Nevertheless, the Office of the Yucaipa City Clerk, with retained counsel, decided to move forward with the lawsuit. If the city clerk’s office continues on this path, Yucaipa likely will spend thousands of dollars in attorney fees and the defendants, residents who had signed the recall petitions, may spend thousands more on their own attorney fees. These actions may further erode the public trust and the Yucaipa City Council itself must share some of the blame. Since the new council term began in 2023, the Yucaipa City Council has developed a reputation among many residents of ignoring the concerns of the public and of fostering an atmosphere of mistrust, disdain, anger, resentment, lack of transparency and appearances of conflicts of interest. Regaining the residents’ trust is paramount.”
The grand jury said the city should form a watchdog committee to provide oversight of the city council, report to the public on the operations of city government, ensure compliance with general ethics principles and with campaign finance, contracting, lobbying, conflicts of interest, and other laws and regulations, as well as with government transparency guidelines. The grand jury said the city should also implement a formal written and on-line complaint process whereby citizens may ask questions or voice concerns about the actions of the city council and put in place transparent procedures that give time for council members and the community to provide input before the council solicits applications and appoints high-level city employees. The city needs to update the Yucaipa Code of Conduct as relates to the city council and it should develop an effective training policy in all city government transparency policies, as well as in the state statutes and regulations related to city government, such as the Brown Act [and] the Fair Political Practices Commission regulations about conflicts of interest.
The grand jury’s report prompted Mann and Pradetto to put out a reflexive defense of their political masters on the city council.
“Following months of heated public discourse initiated by a vocal group of residents critical of recent actions taken by the Yucaipa City Council, the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury decided to investigate allegations of Brown Act and conflict of interest violations, and other concerns over transparency. In a report released on Friday, December 15th, the grand jury found no such violations,” according to Mann and Pradetto. They quoted Mayor Justin Beaver in furthering that assertion.
“After nearly an entire year of public upset and scrutiny, the County Civil Grand Jury has confidently declared our city council violated no laws,” Beaver was cited as saying. “Certainly, when passions run high, allegations sometimes get made; in this case the allegations of criminal conduct were unfounded. I serve today as your mayor, your representative here in your local government, and I remain committed to enhancing transparency and communication between City Hall and you all.”
Despite that claim of vindication, Mann and Pradetto asserted that the grand jury’s findings and recommendations were unjustifiably critical of the city and the city council, as they were “based on an incomplete investigation and understanding of the laws and standard practices applicable to local government. The city is also disappointed that the report fails to mention that some of the complaints and recommendations relate to decisions and actions by previous councils and administration, ignoring the many efforts the current council and city manager have taken to get the city back on course.”
The grand jury’s erroneous conclusions were based on the ignorance and lack of experience and sophistication of the grand jurors, according to Mann and Pradetto.
“Civil grand juries are comprised of citizen volunteers (most often retirees), most of whom lack legal and/or local government education, training or experience,” Mann and Pradetto stated. “This clearly seems to be the case with the individuals seated on this year’s San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury, as their report demonstrates an alarming lack of understanding of common practices and laws pertaining to municipal government operations. One of the recommendations, if implemented, would actually violate the law. Another egregious error was the Grand Jury’s failure to interview the Yucaipa City Manager, who serves as the city’s chief executive officer, and thus was the person with the required experience and information needed to provide investigators with current and accurate information.”
This shortcoming, in fact, represented, according to Mann and Pradetto, either a civil or criminal violation on the part of the grand jury itself.
“The grand jury report violates state law,” Mann and Pradetto said. “By not interviewing the city manager, the grand jury report not only contains antiquated and incorrect information, but it also violates provisions of the California Penal Code. As the chief executive officer of the public agency that is the subject of the report, the city manager must be interviewed. Under Penal Code Section 933.05(e), an opportunity to address the grand jury is mandatory unless the court determines that such an interview would be detrimental to the investigation. Interviewing the city manager is a basic step in completing a comprehensive and fair investigation. Failing to do so has resulted in a report rife with factual inaccuracies.”
Further, according to Mann and Pradetto, “[T]he Grand Jury failed to offer the city the opportunity, under Penal Code Section 933.05(d), to have a representative of the city read and discuss the findings of the grand jury in order to verify the accuracy of the findings prior to release. This leads to a report with a set of findings and recommendations built upon erroneous information.”
Mann went on the record as stating, “This is particularly concerning because the report contains several significant factual errors that will only serve to inflame the tensions and public sentiment for which the grand jury expresses so much concern. It was irresponsible to allow this report to be released without giving the city an opportunity to correct flagrant misinformation, with the expectation that the city will simply address the inaccuracies in its official response, as the damage to public trust will already have been done.”
Mann and Pradetto dismissed the grand jury’s criticism of the secretiveness that led up to Mann’s hiring, saying, “Confidentiality is an important consideration in any recruitment. Present job security and long-term career opportunities could be jeopardized if an applicant’s interest in another position is made public prematurely. In recent months, many other local jurisdictions have hired a city manager or county CEO without undertaking a public engagement effort, and a number of those hires were made without a formal recruitment process. A high-profile example is the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, which has selected two of its past three CEOs without conducting open recruitments, and sought public engagement in none of those cases. Standard practice does not involve community input into personnel matters because such involvement could undermine recruitment efforts and compromise a candidate’s right to a confidential process. However, these facts did not preclude the grand jury from making critical findings of the Yucaipa City Council’s process and making related recommendations. Had the grand jury researched the law and customary practices for the appointment of agency executives, it would have found that confidentiality in the process is not only legal, it is critical to a successful transition.”
The grand jury’s findings with regard to the present city council reviving the application for the Serrano Estates development after it was rejected by the previous city council were flawed, Mann and Pradetto asserted, since “The applicant modified the project and resubmitted it as a new project, triggering a new hearing process.”
Mann and Pradetto sought to defend Sauseda’s filing of the lawsuit challenging the recall effort.
“The recall proponents did not challenge the city clerk’s assertion in the lawsuit that the petitions contained false or misleading statements,” they said.
Mann and Pradetto took issue with the grand jury’s statement that the city council needs to implement additional transparency measures and to offer additional training for elected officials.
“Since the new city council was elected and new city manager appointed, the city has taken extraordinary measures to increase transparency that were not done under previous administrations,” according to Mann and Pradetto.
Chris Robles, a spokesman for the Coalition to Save Yucaipa, said Mann’s and Pradetto’s attempts at minimizing the seriousness of the grand jury report and its findings through their ill-advised attacks on grand jury itself did not detract from “the alarming findings that underscore concerns related to conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency with their local governance. Although not intended as a criminal indictment, the December 15, 2023 Grand Jury report does reveal two significantly disturbing issues worth referring to law enforcement, those being conflicts of interest with developers and a prior business relationship between a member of the city council and the planning commission. The grand jury found that certain city council members have conflicts of interest with developers seeking to develop the North Bench area. This revelation raises questions about the impartiality and fairness of decision-making processes related to this and other development projects in Yucaipa. Another troubling discovery outlined in the report is a prior business relationship between a member of the planning commission and the city council. The nature of this relationship involved real estate sales and development, indicating potential conflicts that could compromise the integrity of city planning and development decisions.”
Speaking on behalf of the Coalition to Save Yucaipa, Robles said, “While we find vindication in the grand jury’s 2023 Report that our reasons for recalling three city council members were honest and correct and the city clerk’s lawsuit was merely judicial harassment designed to intimidate residents and protect the council majority, it deeply saddens us that the reputation of our beloved Yucaipa has been severely damaged by this city council. The grand jury report shines a light on the year-long erosion of public trust in Yucaipa’s municipal governance, the wasted tax dollars on a self-serving lawsuit, council member incompetency, lack of transparency, and conflicts of interest with developers. We call upon all Yucaipa residents to join our demand for the city council to immediately and transparently address these issues, demonstrating a commitment to rebuilding the trust and confidence of the community. The Coalition to Save Yucaipa remains steadfast in its mission to promote responsible and ethical governance, and will continue to monitor developments related to the grand jury’s admonishment of the Yucaipa City Council.”
Kathy Sellers, one of the recall proponents, told the Sentinel, “Joe Pradetto’s comment that the report found no wrongdoing is another example of his pompous word salad. As I read the report, the grand jury found numerous examples of malfeasance. Several people also filed formal complaints with the district attorney’s office and that investigation is still ongoing.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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