Having been outmaneuvered last year when they sought to recall three of their city council members, a group of Yucaipa activists have revived the effort to remove two of those elected city leaders from office.
At the height of the 2022 election season in Yucaipa, during which longtime incumbents David Avila and Greg Bogh had opted out of seeking reelection to their positions on the city council in, respectively, the First District and the Second District and during which Mark Taylor, Erik Sahakian, Sherilynn Long and Matt Garner were competing to replace Avila and Nena Dragoo was in a head-to-head contest to succeed Bogh, the city council on October 23, 2022 took up a discussion of whether to extend then-City Manager Ray Casey’s contract. That night, Avila, Bogh, Third District Councilman Bobby Duncan, Fourth District Councilman Justin Beaver and Fifth District Councilman Jon Tharp voted unanimously to extend Casey’s tenure with the city through June 30, 2024, conferring on him a salary and benefits that made put him among the top 20 highest remunerated city managers in California. On November 8, 2022, Garner and Venable were victorious. They were sworn in as members of the council the following month during a council meeting that was largely ceremonial in nature and did not involve much in the way of substantive action.
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, materialized and began functioning as Yucaipa’s City Attorney. The council then voted 4-to-1, to offer the position of city manager to 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 force 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 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 believed that the sacking of Casey was merely a ploy to hire Mann, the principal in Mann Communications, which according to that company’s website functions in the main as a representative of developers and development interests seeking to move building proposals past the planning process and get them approved. The website stated “Chris Mann has been an active partner in numerous development projects in California, Nevada and Arizona. Having worked both as an elected official and as a developer, he uniquely understands the development process from both the public and private perspectives. Understanding the practices and motivations of each side better than most, he is able to provide tremendous value to the entire development process, making Mann Communications an invaluable member of any project team.” As such, according to the website, Mann was able to ensure that “elected officials are… provided the political cover they need in order to support good projects.”
A good cross section of Yucaipa residents who had come to believe that Casey had an intense and intimate understanding of the need for matching any incoming development with adequate infrastructure, the cost for which had to be defrayed either by the developer or the city’s taxpayers and that he was capable of serving as not only an honest broker between pro-development and anti-development forces and sentiments within the community but advocating for and insisting that project proponents be financially responsible for the infrastructure and off-site improvements that must accompany their development efforts. Looking at the fashion in which Casey had been cashiered in favor of Mann, they became convinced that having someone who worked for accepted money from developmental interests take on the assignment of having ultimate oversight of the city’s land use decision-making authority would result not only in unbridled growth taking place in their city which had traditionally sought to refrain from becoming indistinguishable from scores or even hundreds of other cities in Southern California that are now composed, practically, of wall-to-wall houses, but that in allowing the aggressive development to occur which would obliterate the city’s largely rural nature, the city’s residents, rather than the developers reaping a profit, would be called upon to pay for the infrastructure to accommodate the “stack and pack” subdivisions that were to be built. Circumstance led them to the ineluctable conclusion that Beaver, Duncan and Garner were on the take and that Mann was their henchman.
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 that the recall proponents’ separate accusations against Beaver, Duncan and Garner that each had acted toward terminating Casey and Snow was not true since no single one of them had such authority and that 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.
Simultaneously, 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 by putting out as statement that intimated the recall proponents were liable for arrest under the auspices of California Elections Code section 18600, which gives governmental authorities such as Mann and the city council to have citizens arrested who engage to prosecute as a “misdemeanor offense” those who “circulate or obtain signatures on a recall petition that intentionally misrepresent or make 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 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 occurred and accusing the council majority, aided by Mann, Sauseda, Pradetto and the Sutton Law Firm in 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, which 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. 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.”
Less than a month later, the Yucaipa residents that were thwarted in the 2023 recall effort reformulated their approach. Dispensing, at least for the time being, with targeting Beaver, they have embarked on dual efforts to remove Garner and Duncan from office.
In the notice to circulate the petition to recall Garner, the proponents give the grounds for removing him from office as “Matt Garner apparently lied to voters because he voted to approve Serrano Estates after campaigning to “stop high density projects and protect our rural way of life. Matt Garner ignores the opinions of Yucaipa residents about development and lacks transparency on questionable expenditures, in our opinion. Matt Garnr voted to replace our competent, successful, honest, and long-time City Manager Ray Casey with Chris Mann, who we believe to be a political operative and less qualified to be our city manager, without the city conducting a transparent executive search to find a replacement for the city manager. As concerned citizens of Yucaipa, we believe Yucaipa residents have no confidence in Matt Garner and that the only way to safeguard city funds, prevent corruption, and preserve Yucaipa’s hometown charm is to remove Matt Garner from office.”
In the notice to circulate the petition to recall Duncan, the proponents give the grounds for removing him from office, stating, “As concerned citizens of Yucaipa, we believe that Yucaipa residents have no confidence in Bobby Duncan and that the only way to safeguard city funds, prevent corruption, and preserve Yucaipa’s hometown charm is to remove Bobby Duncan from office. Bobby Duncan ignores the opinions of Yucaipa residents and lacks transparency on questionable expenditures, in our opinion.
Bobby Duncan voted to replace our competent, successful, honest, and long-time City Manager
Ray Casey with Chris Mann, who we believe to be a political operative and less qualified to be our city manager, without the city conducting a transparent executive search to find a replacement for the city manager.”
The Sentinel was unable to reach Garner or Duncan by press time.
Mann told the Sentinel, “Per Elections Code Section 11042.5, it is the city clerk who has the authority to make a determination as to whether or not to seek a writ of mandate and injunctive relief prohibiting the circulation of recall petitions until such time as the statements of reasons/grounds for the recall efforts are deleted or amended so they are not false or misleading. Thus, while I have opinions on the on the accuracy of the statements made in the notices, it is not my decision to make. I will exert no pressure one way or the other on the city clerk, as I believe it would be inappropriate for me to do so.”
Mann said, “Since you asked my opinion, I do find a number of the statements made to be factually questionable and misleading. Whether those concerns rise to a level that warrants a legal challenge is entirely up to the city clerk.
For example, recall proponents state, “Matt Garner apparently lied to voters because he voted to approve Serrano Estates after campaigning to ‘stop high density projects and protect our rural way of life.’” It is true that Councilman Garner voted for the Serrano Estates project. However, this statement is misleading as it insinuates that Serrano Estates is a high-density project. I’m not aware of any city where half-acre and quarter-acre lots are considered high density. Yucaipa’s development code defines high density as 20-24 dwelling units per acre, which would in practice translate to a 3-story apartment or condominium building. Serrano Estates contains only half-acre lots (2 dwelling units per acre) and quarter acre lots (4 dwelling units per acre). These are sizable single-family lots by any reasonable definition. Yet, the average voter reading the statement submitted by recall proponents would be misled into believing that Councilman Garner voted for a high-density project, such as apartments or condos, in the North Bench area of Yucaipa. This is just not the case.”
While Mann’s assertion about the overall density of the Serrano Estates project as was discussed last year is accurate, the city council last year proposed rezoning the North Bench to allow ‘cluster housing,’ that is, up to four homes on each one-acre lot and multi-resident units such as condos and apartments. Residents are concerned that the “open space” on the remainder of the Serrano Estates could be, at a future date, developed into more housing.
Mann continued, “Case law has established that simply stating an accusation as an opinion is not sufficient to avoid having defamed someone, and does not prevent a statement from being misleading. The notices filed for both Councilman Garner and Councilman Duncan contain such statements, expressing as opinion insinuations of corruption and fiscal mismanagement without referencing any actual specific incidents or providing evidence of any kind. In actuality, neither Councilman Duncan nor Councilman Garner have been found [to have engaged in] any wrongdoing whatsoever.”
Mann said, “I cannot comment about Mr. Casey’s performance as city manager. Based on the city’s financial situation and the state of the organization at City Hall that I inherited when I took over as city manager, I will let people draw their own conclusions. Naturally, I take issue with the statements recall proponents made about me. While I suppose one could make an argument that I had been a political operative at one point in my career based on my previous work owning and operating a public relations firm, this has certainly not been the case for many years.”
Yucaipa residents maintain that Mann was involved in promoting Garner’s campaign in 2022, particularly in slamming the candidacy Sherilynn Long.
“I was also disappointed that recall proponents called my qualifications into question,” Mann said. “By doing so, they discount my 25 years of experience working in and with local government, as well as the fact that my four years of experience as a city manager prior to taking the job in Yucaipa were four more years of city manager experience than my predecessor had when he was appointed. In addition, qualifications for a job involve much more than simply the number of years someone has done the job. Hypothetically speaking, I would take someone who has, in short order, proven themselves to be highly effective and successful in the profession over someone who has, over many years, driven an organization to the brink of financial ruin and destroyed employee morale.”
Mann propounded, “On a positive note, in recent weeks this group of residents and I have been able to open a dialogue and we seem to be making progress toward a more productive working relationship. I suspect and choose to believe that they had already drafted, printed and began getting signatures on the notices of intention prior to this positive development. I’d like to think that their statements, at least as they pertain to me, might read differently had they been written today. While I am disappointed in the approach recall proponents took with their statements on the notices of intention and believe there is a likelihood that petition signers and voters will be misled by them, I do acknowledge that the statements submitted this time were very different and scaled back from the statements the same recall proponents submitted with their last effort. I appreciate that it appears there was at least an attempt to not run afoul of the Elections Code this time around.”
Mann said, “I do not envy the city clerk’s position here. She must balance the free speech rights of recall proponents with her responsibility to protect voters by ensuring that false and misleading information is not distributed on official, taxpayer-funded elections documents.”
The Sentinel inquired with Sauseda by email as to whether she will allow the recall effort to proceed. She did not respond by press time.
Jim Penman, the former San Bernardino City Attorney, was retained by the recall proponents.
In an open letter to Yucaipa voters dated November 30, 2023, he stated that he had read the notice of intent to circulate the recall petition regarding Duncan. Penman wrote, “It is my legal opinion that this notice, including the grounds for the recall are truthful, accurate and not misleading. It is my further legal opinion that should a petition be filed with the Superior Court of the State of California requesting an injunction to prohibit the circulation of such a petition for the recall of Yucaipa City Council Member Bobby Duncan that said request for injunctive relief would be denied because the grounds for the recall as stated in the notice are true and are not misleading.”
Having been outmaneuvered last year when they sought to recall three of their city council members, a group of Yucaipa activists have revived the effort to remove two of those elected city leaders from office.