By Mark Gutglueck
Since the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department initiated what it has dubbed Operation Hammer Strike on August 30 of this year, its deputies had seized through twelve weeks of effort as of November 26 what the department calculated as exceeding $200 million worth of marijuana being grown at unlicensed operations.
Questions are emerging with regard to the accounting for the sheriff’s department’s most recent version of its longstanding marijuana eradication project, which under the 2021-2022 county budget is being subsidized with $4 million earmarked by the board of supervisors. The department, under former Sheriff John McMahon, had as of January begun a concerted effort to find and shutter marijuana farms operating in the relative open, generally using sunlight to cultivate the plants, primarily in San Bernardino County’s vast Mojave Desert. While those operations sometimes entailed the arrest of those present at the farms and involved in their operations, particularly if they demonstrated themselves to be involved in another crime such as carrying an unlicensed firearm, most of those in place at the makeshift cultivation sites were cited and released or simply released.
McMahon’s voluntary resignation as sheriff became effective in July, shortly after the beginning of the current fiscal year. His successor, Shannon Dicus, has now burned through nearly $3 million of the $4 million that was set aside to rid San Bernardino County’s vast desert outback of the scourge of unpermitted marijuana farms, having expanded the sheriff’s department’s marijuana enforcement program from one to five teams while funding their constant activity for more than three months. The deputies, five sergeants and one lieutenant assigned to those teams have fanned out over the desert, from Piñón Hills to Phelan to Oak Hills to Summit Valley to Hesperia to Apple Valley to Victorville to Oro Grande to Helendale to Silverlakes to Adelanto to Hinkley to Four Corners to Barstow to Yermo to Newberry Springs to Twentynine Palms to Joshua Tree to Desert Heights to Landers to Johnson Valley to Lucerne Valley. With the added funding, the department has proven more aggressive than it was earlier in the year, and those caught at the sites where the cultivation is ongoing have been arrested and in most cases jailed, since the funding the sheriff’s department is receiving allows for defraying the cost of housing the arrestees at the sheriff’s various jails.
As of last week, according to the department, it has taken down 1,623 illegal outdoor greenhouses in the past 12 weeks, raided and shuttered 14 indoor growing operations, served 292 search warrants in conjunction with the operations, made 346 arrests, cut down or uprooted and carried off 292,192 marijuana plants, otherwise seized 56,249.4 pounds of processed marijuana, taken out of the possession of those involved in illicit marijuana production a total of 87 guns, confiscated $849,449 in cash which the department said was the proceeds from illicit marijuana sales, discovered in the course of its operations eight illegal electrical bypasses, and has come across and dismantled five THC extraction labs. As an inadvertent byproduct of the sheriff’s department’s activity, deputies have seized eight grams of methamphetamine that was in the possession of those it arrested.
Though the department did not provide its estimate of the total wholesale product value of cannabis seized during the 12 weeks of Operation Hammer Strike’s effort, it did provide one for the first eleven weeks, that being $194,052,220.
The department did not offer a legend or key to how the $194,052,220 figure had been calculated. It is just that lack of clarity that has brought the accounting of the operation into question.
Further questions attain to what has become of the product seized.
Complicating factors include the generic description of the plants uprooted, a lack of transparency as to the ultimate disposition of those plants and processed marijuana, difficulties with or lack of availability of records relating to the individuals arrested and charged along with the quantification and/or preservation of the marijuana they are accused of cultivating or harvesting and lax custody or preservation of the processed substances that were a product of the illicit cultivation activity.
Earlier this year, under McMahon, the department made a display of large amounts of seized marijuana being destroyed. In at least some of the earlier operations, no charges against the growers or those manning the growing operations were forthcoming. Thus, preserving the marijuana seized as evidence was not necessary. Under the even more energetic program being carried out under Dicus, however, those encountered at the farms are being arrested rather than merely being issued citations as was occurring previously. This implies that those being arrested are going to be formally charged and prosecuted. Indeed, officials with the department have made statements to that effect, and the district attorney’s office is known to be beefing up its staff to handle what is anticipated to be an influx of over 1,000 cases against defendants for participating in illicit cultivation of marijuana or owning property where that activity took place.
While the vast majority of those defendants in mounting their legal defenses if they mount legal defenses at all would not likely be sophisticated enough to put the court system and prosecutors through their paces, a minority of the defendants probably will. For that reason, preserving the evidence against them – the uprooted or already harvested marijuana – is called for. The department has not given much in the way of public information regarding what it is doing with the marijuana it is seizing. If it has developed a protocol for handling that evidence, it has not disclosed it. Nor has the department given an indication of where it is storing that evidence or what security procedure it has in place to maintain its integrity or prevent marijuana plants that were seized in one raid from being confused with marijuana plants seized in another raid.
While in many cases, the owners of the property where the illicit marijuana farms being operated in the desert were actively involved in the cultivation or were knowledgeable of it, the Sentinel has learned that a number of the illegal operations had sprouted up on properties where absentee landowners were entirely uninvolved and had no idea of what the trespassers had set up on their secondary or tertiary property. It is the growing prospect that the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office and the county itself through the policies county supervisors are now contemplating putting into place are going to initiate blanket legal or administrative action against landowners who are in fact the victims of trespass and are innocent of any criminality that will very likely result in the sheriff’s department ultimately being faced with restrictions on the autonomy and liberty of action it has so far exercised during Operation Hammer Strike.
In providing the statistics relating to Operation Hammer Strike, the department specified the number of plants but did not go beyond that description. The size or maturity of the plants was not given. Neither did the department distinguish between the various strains of marijuana that were seized. It did not quantify the uprooted marijuana in total or each plant individually by weight.
Maturity, strain and weight are all factors in determining the monetary value of marijuana.
A marijuana plant in the end stages of its growth and immediately upon harvesting will weigh substantially more than it does after it has been dried. Ordinarily, most marijuana that is sold and consumed has been dried or “cured.” Marijuana on both the illicit market and when retailed legally is generally sold in quantities measured by weight. Thus, to determine the monetary value of marijuana with any degree of accuracy, its weight must be considered.
There are myriad strains of marijuana. Cultivators constantly refine, crossbreed and hybridize marijuana to fine-tune the type, quantities and relative quantities or balance of what are recognized by chemists as 113 total cannabinoids present in the plant, those being marijuana’s constituent ingredients which provide for the drug’s palliative and psychoactive effects. In particular, strains containing a higher percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent known by its acronym THC, are usually more valuable. The department does not appear to have made much in the way of an effort in distinguishing what type of marijuana it is uprooting. As a consequence, the estimation of the valuation of the marijuana it has seized is questionable.
Moreover, the department has not made any attempt, or so it would appear, to factor in the cost variable of what its operations mean in terms of the price of marijuana locally. Under the principle of supply and demand, the more plentiful the supply of any item, substance or material, calculated against a constant demand for that commodity, the less expensive it is. The converse – dwindling availability while demand for it continues – results in an increase in price. Unquestionably, measured by any rational standard, Sheriff Dicus’s Operation Hammer Strike has been unprecedentedly successful in eradicating marijuana cultivation in San Bernardino County. That action has put a major dent in the availability of marijuana both on the illicit market as well as to licensed and permitted operators of dispensaries and shops selling the drug for its intoxicative purpose. This has undoubtedly, at least temporarily and regionally, resulted in an increase in the value of marijuana and its retail price. It is unclear if in making its calculation of the value of the marijuana it has seized, the department considered this factor.
Whether the sheriff and his deputies are conscious of that factor or not, Operation Hammer Strike is proving to be of benefit to those classes of marijuana purveyors who are alternately being protected by elements of San Bernardino County’s political establishment, which includes the politicians at the head of the county who provided the sheriff’s department with the $4 million being used to eradicate the marijuana being grown outdoors in the desert, and the more sophisticated marijuana cultivators who have devised methods of carrying out their agricultural endeavors without getting caught.
In 1996, California’s voters with the passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes throughout the state, and made it legal for dispensaries to operate, subject to local control. For sixteen years, however, no jurisdiction in San Bernardino County, including its 22 cities, two incorporated towns and the county government itself, would provide operating permits to any dispensaries. In 2012, the City of Needles relented, and allowed dispensaries to begin operations. In 2015, the City of Adelanto began allowing large-scale indoor marijuana cultivation operations to set up operations in its industrial zones. In 2016, with the passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which allowed for the use and sale of marijuana for its intoxicative effect, Adelanto graduated to allowing all order of commercial cannabis activity, with Mayor Richard Kerr publicly stating that it was his intent that Adelanto become the marijuana capital of California and, in time, the world. Simultaneously, through the initiative process, voters in the city of San Bernardino passed a ballot measure calling for marijuana to be available for sale there. Since that time, Hesperia city officials have allowed marijuana distribution operations to operate within certain areas in its city limits, and Barstow officials have consented to commercial marijuana/cannabis operations setting up in their city. Needles has since consented to allowing the marijuana and cannabis-based products used for recreational purposes to be sold in that city along with medical marijuana. San Bernardino now allows all order of commercial cannabis activity, from cultivation of marijuana to THC extraction to manufacturing of cannabis-related products to research on marijuana to warehousing and packaging to distribution to wholesaling the drug to the retailing of marijuana and cannabis products.
In several instances, the politicians in the San Bernardino County cities where highly lucrative commercial cannabis activity has been permitted have become enmeshed in graft and corruption. In Adelanto, former City Councilman Jermaine Wright, while he was still in office, was arrested by the FBI for, and was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with, accepting a bribe in exchange for agreeing to shield a marijuana distribution business and its operator from being subject to city regulation. Former Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, after he left office, was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with receiving bribes from cannabis-related business operators who had obtained permits and licensing in the city. Adelanto-based marijuana and cannabis-based business operators continue to deliver bribes to some of the politicians in Adelanto who succeeded Wright and Kerr, as well as to city management. In San Bernardino, though they have not been arrested or charged, Mayor John Valdivia and his political ally, Councilman Juan Figueroa, have been implicated in bribery schemes involving marijuana or cannabis product-related businesses that have succeeded in getting operating permits in the city or have applied to obtain such licensing. Those bribes reportedly consisted of money provided directly to Valdivia which was laundered through his consulting company, AAdvantage Comm LLC, or political contributions provided to Valdivia and Figueroa.
Former San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, through his company, Mountain States Consulting Group, as well as his business and political associates including among others Dino DeFazio and Jeremiah Brosowske, has begun filtering money originating from entrepreneurs who have already established marijuana or cannabis-based businesses or who are interested in setting up marijuana and cannabis-based commercial companies to politicians, including those in San Bernardino, Hesperia and Adelanto. Postmus further began providing money to three members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors – Chairman and Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman, Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe and Fifth District Supervisor Paul Cook – originally disguised as political contributions coming from him and his political associates. Postmus and his team were instrumental in convincing the board of supervisors to provide the $4 million to the sheriff’s department to fund Operation Hammer Strike. Supervisors Rowe and Cook, in whose districts the county’s desert area is located, were among the most vociferous elements in advocating action to shutter the illicit marijuana farms.
Operation Hammer Strike has assiduously avoided targeting the marijuana cultivation enterprises that are operated by businesses that are represented by Postmus and Mountain States Consulting Group, which include cultivation facilities in Adelanto, San Bernardino, Ontario, Cajon, Wrightwood, Hodge, Searles Valley, Harvard, Needles, Danby and Cadiz, including a large indoor facility owned and operated by Postmus’s political and business associate DeFazio.
Postmus has consistently refused to disclose how much of the money he is taking in from the various marijuana and cannabis-based commercial operations he is kicking back to Hagman, Cook, Rowe, Valdivia, Figueroa, current Adelanto Mayor Gabriel Reyes and Adelanto City Manager Jessie Flores.
Next Tuesday, December 7, the board of supervisors is set to consider, according to its meeting agenda, “a proposed ordinance to add Section 84.34.080 [to the county code], relating to abatement of items used to facilitate cannabis cultivation, and amend Section 86.09.090, relating to classification of violations as a misdemeanor offense.”
In essence, what the proposed ordinance will do is allow the sheriff’s department and the county’s code enforcement division to legally remove greenhouses, cisterns, trailers and other equipment or items used by cultivators at marijuana cultivation sites after the sheriff’s department concludes it eradication operations, and to criminally charge anyone on whose property marijuana is being grown.
The San Bernardino City Council on Wednesday night voted unanimously to censure Mayor John Valdivia.
The action came not quite three years after Valdivia was sworn in as mayor, and was sparked by his diversion, earlier this year, of taxpayer money used to promote himself politically.
Valdivia and his attorney, Rod Pacheco, were unable to dissuade the council from making an official record of its collective condemnation of what has been roundly considered the mayor’s misuse of his authority. Nevertheless, Pacheco and the mayor did effectuate a strategy of calling into question the thoroughness, one-sidedness and therefore the fairness of the censure proceeding, which at least for Valdivia’s partisans served to blunt the onus of the castigation he was subjected to.
The grounds given for the council’s reproval of its presiding officer included those diversions and similar questionable uses of public money over the last two-and-a-half years, but did not extend to even more serious accusations related to graft and bribetaking on Valdivia’s part which have been openly spoken about within the county seat even before he was elected mayor, nor did it catalog multiple examples of his comportment toward several city employees, five of whom have now filed suit against him and the city.
The censure, which stood as the strongest showing of displeasure that the council could make with regard to the mayor’s conduct in office, has no immediate tangible impact on Valdivia’s hold on the mayoral office, but could potentially be used by one of his future political challengers in a campaign to unseat him as mayor, perhaps as early as next year.
Valdivia made an extraordinary ascent to the pinnacle of politics in San Bernardino with his November 2018 election as mayor, which has been followed by an even more dramatic descent. His entry into the volatile world of local politics had come nine years before he had taken possession of the mayor’s gavel.
In 2009, Valdivia made a failed attempt to capture the Fourth Ward city council position. In 2011, after changing his residence, he successfully vied for council in the Third Ward, capturing victory with the support of the city’s employee unions, the San Bernardino Firefighters Association foremost among them, followed by the unions representing the city’s police officers and its regular line employees. He assumed the Third Ward council post in March 2012.
In February 2014, just a little less than two years after he had acceded to municipal office, Valdivia announced he would seek the Republican nomination for Congress in the 31st Congressional District, but within a short period of time decided against following through with that candidacy. In 2015, Valdivia retained his position as Ward Three councilman when no one surfaced to run against him.
Valdivia coveted the mayor’s position, as at that time San Bernardino was yet functioning under the municipal charter the city had adopted in 1905. The 1905 charter instilled in the mayor both political and administrative authority. Politically, the mayor was the presiding officer of the city council who was able to unilaterally place any item for discussion and action before the council. While presiding over meetings, the mayor controlled the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. He did not have a vote on normal business items unless the vote ended in tie, but he did possess veto power on 4-to-3 votes or 3-to-2 votes of the council, such that in actuality he held the power of two votes on virtually any issue of viable controversy or issue where the outcome was not already decided by a clear majority of the council. He was allowed to vote on matters of appointment/hiring of the city manager and appointments of city commission members. On the administrative side, the mayor under the 1905 charter had co-regency with the city manager and control over direct hiring and firing of city employees.
In 2016, the council placed before San Bernardino’s voters a charter redraft which changed the city’s treasurer, city attorney and city clerk positions from elected to appointed ones, shifted its elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, and reduced the power and administrative reach of the mayor from what it had been under the municipal charter put in placed in 1905, such that the mayor no longer shared with the city manager control over direct hiring and firing of city employees.
Despite Valdivia’s opposition, the city’s voters approved the new charter in a 2016 vote. Even though the San Bernardino mayor’s post had sustained this reduction in authority, in 2018 Valdivia challenged then-Mayor Carey Davis in that year’s election. Ultimately, Valdivia emerged victorious in that contest with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
Upon being sworn into office on December 18, 2018, Valdivia had the support of both of the council’s two newly-elected members, Ted Sanchez in the city’s First Ward and Sandra Ibarra in the Second Ward, and incumbents Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard. His opposition on the council at that time consisted of Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh District Councilman Jim Mulvihill.
In May 2019, the city held a special election in the city’s Third Ward to select Valdivia’s council replacement, as he had been obliged to resign that post to move into the mayor’s slot. Prevailing in that contest was Juan Figueroa, who was one of Valdivia’s allies.
Immediately upon Figueroa coming into office, Valdivia effectuated the removal of City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, whom he considered to be a vestige of the Davis Administration. He thereafter installed Travis-Miller’s assistant city manager, Teri Ledoux, into the position of city manager. In so doing, Valdivia and his then-chief of staff, Bill Essayli, brokered a deal that conferred upon the soon-to-retire Ledoux a boost into the city’s senior administrative position she would otherwise never have achieved, and with it an annual pension approaching $190,000 upon retirement in exchange for surrendering to Valdivia the power as mayor that had been attenuated with the 2016 charter change, that being the de facto authority to hire and fire city employees and department heads through the new city manager.
At that point, it appeared Valdivia had an absolute political lockhold on San Bernardino. Over the next six months, however, the control over the city Valdivia had so masterfully cultivated slipped from his grasp.
Before the end of Summer 2019, Valdivia alienated first Ibarra and then Nickel. In October 2019, Valdivia was on the outs with Sanchez. At that point, the only reliable votes on the council he could count on were those of Figueroa and Richard, while he found himself unable to muster the support of Mulvihill, Shorett, Ibarra, Sanchez and Nickel for any of his initiatives. Having effectively lost control of the council, Valdivia, growing increasingly frustrated, began to lash out at city staff, ultimately alienating then-City Manager Ledoux and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, both of whom were once safely within his camp.
In January 2020, Mirna Cisneros, Valdivia’s constituent service representative, and Karen Cervantes, his special assistant, went public with accounts of how Valdivia had pressured them to have sex with him. Cisneros related how Valdivia had solicited and received bribes. She also laid out how he used city money to travel nationally and internationally on business unrelated to the city, which included raising money for himself or his future political campaigns. Thereafter, Jackie Aboud, Valdivia’s field representative, came forward to say that Valdivia had squeezed her to have sexual relations with him, and that Valdivia had used his influence as mayor to provide favorable city treatment to his donors and supporters, while working to prevent city services from being rendered to his constituents who were not supporters, in particular those in the city’s Fourth and Seventh Wards, represented by his two longstanding rivals on the council, Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill. Alissa Payne, whom Valdivia had appointed to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, publicly surfaced with accounts that were in some fashion similar to those of Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud with regard to sexual advances the mayor had made toward her. Don Smith, who had worked on Valdivia’s campaign for mayor and was subsequently hired by the city to serve as Valdivia’s part time field representative, offered specific accounts of bribetaking by the mayor, including one of a kickback that had originated from holders of the city’s tow truck franchises, consisting of a cash-stuffed envelope given to the mayor in Smith’s presence. Matt Brown, who was brought in to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, roughly a month after his original chief of staff, Bilal Essayli, resigned, stated that he was being retaliated against by Valdivia for having sought to protect Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud in the face of Valdivia’s treatment of them, and he retained Tristan Pelayes, the lawyer who was representing Cervantes, Cisneros, Aboud, Payne, and Smith. Ultimately, Aboud, Brown, Cervantes, Cisneros and Smith sued the city over the ordeals they had with Valdivia.
In the 2020 election cycle, Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally, Juan Figueroa, was reelected, and Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally Bessine Richard was voted out of office, replaced by Kimberly Calvin. Both Henry Nickel, who had evolved into one of Valdivia’s political foes, and Jim Mulvihill, who had never been aligned with Valdivia, were likewise chased from office by the city’s voters, replaced, respectively, by Ben Reynoso and Damon Alexander. While Valdivia held out hope that Alexander would show himself to be a reliable ally, that did not come about. Calvin very early on clashed with Valdivia, and Reynoso has proven to be a more committed antagonist to the mayor than was Nickel. After the new council was seated in December 2020, Figueroa’s was the only vote of consistent support on the council that Valdivia could count upon.
Even before he was elected mayor, there were recurrent reports that Valdivia was on the take, involved in graft and bribery at the worst and at the very least a practitioner of pay-to-play politics in which he was provided with donations to his political campaign fund in exchange for his vote as a council member supporting those donors’ applications for city franchises or project approval with the community development department or contracts to deliver services and/or goods to the city. After his election as mayor, there were further indications that Valdivia was heavily involved in trading his votes for campaign donations as well as evidence suggesting he was receiving bribes from entities doing business with the city or seeking project approvals, such as many of the applicants for permits and licenses to operate commercial marijuana/cannabis-related businesses in the city. Those revelations included accounts of Valdivia being provided with cash that was not reported as campaign donations and which he simply pocketed, or payments made to him through his consulting business, AAdvantage Comm LLC, which served as a laundering mechanism for the payoffs he received.
Earlier this year, Valdivia and Figueroa were dealt the blows of revelations pertaining to both receiving support and money, characterized as bribes, from entities with applications for commercial marijuana operations in the city as well as from SCG America, which was competing to obtain redevelopment rights at the Carousel Mall in downtown San Bernardino.
Late this spring, Valdivia courted further controversy by billing the city for $4,686 to cover the expenses – extending to the cost of gilded invitations, flowers, balloons, meals and drinks – for a so-called VIP reception to be held at the Hilltop Restaurant in San Bernardino in the immediate aftermath of the mayor’s state of the city address. That event, Valdivia insisted, was to accommodate his list of invitees, a group Valdivia characterized as San Bernardino’s “residents, stakeholders and movers and shakers.” It turned out, however, that attendance at the reception was to be limited to those who were invited, and the only council member invited was Figueroa, Valdivia’s lone remaining ally on the council. Nearly all of those invited were Valdivia’s campaign donors, whom he intended to hit up again for more electioneering funding.
Valdivia’s boldness in utilizing public funds for political purposes further estranged him from the members of the council, and they called upon City Manager Robert Field to have the matter investigated.
Field and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho arranged to have the Costa Mesa-based law firm of García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank delve into the particulars of what Valdivia had done. An attorney with García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank, Kendra L. Carney Mehr, in conjunction with the Openheimer Investigations Group probed the matter and generated a report. That report, which was reviewed by the city council, became the basis of a proposal for the city council to officially censure Valdivia.
According to Mehr’s eight-page report, “The mayor’s office caused 2,075 postcards featuring Mayor Valdivia to be mailed at the city’s expense on or about June 4, 2021, in violation of Government Code section 89002. Elected officials are prohibited from sending mass mailings at public expense as described in Government Code sections 89001-89003.”
The postcards did not invite those to whom they were sent to the state of the city speech but rather served as invitations to the mayor’s reception/fundraiser held after the speech, Mehr noted. The reception, she stated, was not “a public meeting or event, but instead… a private event [that] promoted the mayor individually. The city spent more than $2,500 of public funds to design, produce, print, and mail post cards at the direction of the mayor. The design and printing costs were $2,134.08 and the bulk rate mailing cost was $546.33. The mayor violated the mass mailing prohibitions set forth in Government Code section 89002.”
Furthermore, according to Mehr’s report, “In June 2021, the mayor solicited a contribution of $5,000 from the Inland Empire Health Plan to be paid to the City of San Bernardino. Inland Empire Health Plan paid the contribution. The mayor did not report the behest payment as required by Government Code section 84224. An elected official who fundraises or otherwise solicits payments from one individual or organization to be given to another individual or organization is required to report the payment over $4,999. The mayor did not report the behest payment as required by the Fair Political Practices Commission rules.”
According to Mehr, at the mayor’s “exclusive VIP reception… which took place after the annual state of the city address on June 15, 2021… the event provided a giveaway item, a ‘hot drink travel set’ that promoted the mayor, not the city, demonstrating the focus of the event was to promote the mayor personally and not the city. In fact, the mayor requested that the city logo be removed from the travel set and replaced with a logo used by the mayor. Invitations were restricted to a list of individuals selected by the mayor. Valdivia did not include most city staff or other city elected officials. City staff and other city elected officials were kept in the dark about the event. The mayor misused city funds by applying for reimbursement of expenses for the VIP reception following the state of the city address for personal or campaign purposes.”
According to Mehr, Valdivia from 2019 through June 2021 also sought reimbursements for travel and meals to which he was not entitled at various times during his tenure as mayor, including, she documented:
• A hotel stay and meal in San Diego on September 20-22, 2019;
• Overnight parking charges from June 29-30, 2020;
• A hotel stay in Irvine on September 10-11, 2020;
• Parking at Mission Inn, Riverside on October 27, 2020;
• Parking at West Beverly Hills Hotel on January 17, 2021;
• 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
• A meal and hotel stay in Irvine on April 13-14, 2021.
The city council’s consideration of the censure of the mayor was set for a special meeting at 5 p.m. on December 1. That meeting was adjourned separately from the regularly scheduled city council meeting, which was scheduled for 7 p.m. San Bernardino holds its regular council meetings on the first and third Monday of each month. The December 1 special meeting featured only a single item, that being the consideration of the mayor’s censure.
Presenting the substance of Mehr’s report that evening was not Mehr, but rather the founder of the García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank law firm, Norma García Guillén. The choice of García Guillén to make the presentation was a calculated one. García Guillén was an associate at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, a prestigious national law firm, before she created what has become García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank with Tabitha Rainey Pullara in 2012. It was thought that she would have sufficient gravitas to match Valdivia’s legal representative, Rod Pacheco, such that she might merely lay out the facts contained in Mehr’s report without having to argue a case for censuring Valdivia, thus maintaining the fiction of García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank along with Mehr having conducted an impartial and dispassionate review of Valdivia’s actions. More importantly, García Guillén is a Latina, and as such she possesses an inherent immunity to the charges of racism that Valdivia has a demonstrated propensity for using when he is confronted with accusations of political or legal impropriety. On repeated occasions, upon being questioned or challenged with regard to his violation of city policy, state law, Fair Political Practices Commission regulations, the pay-for-play nature of his votes on the council or indications of outright graft, Valdivia has responded by asserting that he is being victimized by the white establishment. And while currently three of the city council’s seven members – Sanchez, Figueroa and Ibarra – are Hispanic, two of the council members – Calvin and Alexander – are African-American and one of the council members – Reynoso – is of mixed Hispanic and African-American parentage, one of the council members – Shorett – is white, as is San Bernardino’s city manager, Robert Field. The two investigators with Openheimer Investigations Group – Zaneta Seidel and Renee Jansen – are likewise white, as is Mehr. Thus, the way was clear for Valdivia to maintain that the censure proposal was part of a racist plot to discredit him, only the second Latino mayor in the city’s history. García Guillén presenting the evidence arrayed against him in this way was a means of preventing Valdivia from asserting that the cataloging of his misuse of his authority was overblown, illegitimate and an outgrowth of the white community’s hatred toward Mexican-Americans.
That being the case, Valdivia and Pacheco opted to abandon utilizing the subject of race or ethnicity in the mayor’s defense, and instead explored an opposite course from what was expected, that being to attack both García Guillén and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho. Personalizing the attack on two of the principals Pacheco represented as being key to the information being presented against the mayor ostensibly was meant to call into question the grounds for the censure. Though in the end it did not dissuade the council from censuring Valdivia, what Pacheco was able to achieve was to create a spectacle in which he successfully bated García Guillén into responding to his attack on her, such that she abandoned the aspect of an independent investigator dispassionately reciting the facts that had been churned up during the inquiry conducted by Mehr, Jansen and Seidel, instead showing herself as an advocate for the censure.
Part of the Valdivia defense strategy was dependent upon Pacheco’s gravitas relative to that of García Guillén. Pacheco at one time was the leading Hispanic Republican politician in California. A half of a generation before Valdivia, Pacheco made his entry into politics in a rather spectacular fashion. After having acceded to a position of high rank within the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office under then-Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask, Pacheco in 1996 made a successful run for the California Assembly, becoming the first Latino Republican elected to the Assembly in more than a century. He was elected leader of the Republican caucus, marking the first time in the state’s history that a Hispanic legislator had risen to that position. Because the Republicans surrendered their majority hold on the Assembly in the 1996 election, Pacheco narrowly missed out on becoming the first Hispanic California Assembly speaker. After being termed out of the legislature, he returned to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, where in 2006, he was elected district attorney, serving a single four-year term. He is now in private practice.
When Pacheco began his presentation, he attempted to present documentation he implied would serve to vindicate Valdivia with regard to at least some of the accusations of misappropriate conduct against him. Pacheco wanted those documents photocopied and distributed among the council. That met with immediate rejection, and it was stated that the time for marshaling any such evidence had elapsed, as such material should have been presented while the investigation was ongoing, Pacheco was told. It was pointed out that Valdivia had been invited to meet with the investigators to provide his version of events, but had declined.
In his presentation, Pacheco maintained Valdivia was a man of rectitude who was undeserving of the obloquy being heaped upon him. The mayor’s lawyer represented his client as an earnest public servant seeking to lead a city out of the financial doldrums it has been caught in. Pacheco imputed to several members of the city council political motives in the move to condemn the mayor, and he harshly criticized the process as it was being conducted and overseen by García Guillén and Carvalho as one-sided and unfair. The former prosecutor accused García Guillén of misinterpreting the law or omitting facts and details to suit the case for censure.
With every aspersion that Pacheco would cast toward García Guillén, she felt obliged to defend herself and justify the conclusion of the report as being even-handed and non-political. In the face of Pacheco’s insinuations that she was nothing more than a gun-for-hire who was serving as the city council’s attack dog, the more strident García Guillén’s responses became and the more she came across as someone who was indeed gunning for Valdivia.
The atmospherics at the meeting, which was held in the auditorium at the Norman Feldheym Library redounded to Valdivia’s benefit in this regard as well, rather paradoxically because they were so unfavorable to the mayor. Though there were Valdivia supporters present, the majority of those in attendance were decidedly those holding the mayor in low regard. Throughout the meeting, many of them did not hesitate in vocalizing their disdain for Valdivia, applauding and cheering those members of the council speaking from the dais or members of the public during the comment period who voiced criticism or disapproval of Valdivia and his actions. Nor did they hesitate in jeering or mocking any of those who spoke positively of the mayor, interrupting those speakers with catcalls or guffaws. This contributed to the overall impression that Valdivia was being subjected to a kangaroo court in which he was not being given a fair and balanced hearing.
“What is the purpose of this hearing?” Pacheco at one point asked rhetorically. “Is its purpose to improve the lives of the citizens in San Bernardino or is this to drive political objectives being engineered by the city attorney? This is not the first investigation she has created and probably won’t be the last.”
Pacheco asserted, “The mailings made by the city on behalf of the mayor for the state of the city address and the VIP reception for the mayor were in fact legal. The law allows a mass mailing to be done if it is an invitation to an event.”
García Guillén pointed out that while California law allows public money to be used to promote public events, Pacheco omitted the word “public” when he quoted the law stating that city money could be used to promote events. García Guillén said that though the state of the city address was a public event, the reception held afterwards was a political fundraiser, which was not a public event in the sense referred to in the California Government Code that she maintained Pacheco had misquoted, and she insisted that Valdivia had used city money and resources to promote the fundraiser rather than the state of the city speech, thereby running afoul of the law and the city’s policy.
Presiding over the meeting was Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Ibarra, who at one point importuned the crowd to remain respectful toward Pacheco after members of the audience had begun to hurl epithets at him.
During the council’s discussion of the censure proposal, the prevailing sentiment toward making the censure was apparent.
“He [Valdivia] has been asked and given all the opportunities and has never felt that he has to operate by the rules,” Councilman Fred Shorett said.
“We must purge City Hall of all corruption and members who choose to do the exact opposite of the oath we’ve voluntarily taken,” said Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin.
Councilman Ben Reynoso stated his belief that the issues delineated in the investigation were sufficient to warrant Valdivia’s censure, while intimating that the council, through information provided to it in closed sessions, was aware of even more serious transgressions on Valdivia’s part that for reasons of the city’s legal liability cannot be disclosed. He said the city could not dare to let Valdivia off the hook.
“What happens when you let little things like this go on forever?” Reynoso asked. “This is principle. I don’t care if it’s a dollar. I don’t care if it’s $10,000.”
He denounced Valdivia for having comported himself in such a way that he was shedding discredit on the entire city council.
“We are putting ourselves in an embarrassing spotlight to rid ourselves of corruption,” Reynoso said. “People ran for office who are on this dais today for multiple reasons. One of them was a clear conception that this city is corrupt from the inside. It is disturbing the things we can’t tell you that actually happen inside the city. I am disheartened by the community of developers and business owners who potentially jeopardize yourself by saying that you can reach a crooked person at any time of the night, any time of day, to get anything done that you want. That’s not why we came here. This is embarrassing. This is something we had to do.”
Councilwoman Ibarra said it was apparent to her that Valdivia had utilized taxpayer money to promote the VIP reception as a personal fundraiser and that his intention was not to draw people to listen to his state of the city address but to aggrandize himself.
“I am also a voter in the city,” Ibarra said. “I did not get an invitation. The concern we are having here is the private VIP reception he held, and the people he invited. That was not for the public. When only a limited amount of people are invited, that is not the public. He did not represent the public at that VIP reception. That was a private event only to benefit himself. What matters here is the ethics, the integrity of the work we do here for our city.”
The sole deviation from the tenor of the council indicating its members were resigned to rebuking Valdivia was a round of questioning of City Attorney Carvalho and García Guillén which Councilman Figueroa attempted to engage in during the time allotted him. In the precepts to some of Figueroa’s questions was the suggestion or outright assertion that the investigation had not been thorough.
“Part of my issue or concern with it is there was a mention of at least two council members, and I would like to have asked, ‘Were any council members actually interviewed during this process?’” Figueroa said to Carvalho. “I know that I wasn’t. So, I wasn’t interviewed but yet I can openly say that my name came up a couple of times. In fact, it’s in the back-up material here. Yet the person who investigated didn’t seem to reach out to council members to ask further questions. I have serious concern with that. Why wasn’t I contacted? I’m greatly disappointed in that. There was a comment made earlier about information being withheld and not doing your due diligence and not following up with the council member who has actually been named in this. I feel you actually have an obligation to reach out to that individual.”
Despite Figueroa’s consistent previous standing as a key Valdivia political ally and his statements and questions during Wednesday night’s discussion indicating his less than complete satisfaction with the investigation of the mayor, Figueroa joined with his colleagues in voting to censure Valdivia, such that the motion to do so passed unanimously. Furthermore, Figueroa joined in with the others in unanimously supporting a second motion to schedule a future council consideration of removing the mayor as the city’s representative to various regional and joint powers authority boards.
Cucamonga Valley Water District Board Member Luis Cetina’s announcement of his candidacy for Second District supervisor in 2022 signals a set of behind-the-scene political developments at the county, several of which will not be publicly revealed for weeks or months.
The Sentinel has learned that Cetina has brokered a deal with incumbent Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford for her support in return for Cetina’s commitment to maintain the county employment status of the Second District supervisor’s current staff members.
Moreover, the deal between Rutherford and Cetina is an indication that an arrangement between Rutherford and Bob Dutton, San Bernardino County’s assessor-recorder-county clerk, in which they would mutually support one another in Dutton making a run for Second District supervisor next year and Rutherford running to replace Dutton as assessor-recorder-county clerk, is no longer operative.
Simultaneously, the accommodation between Cetina and Rutherford sets the stage for Rutherford’s former colleague on both the board of supervisors and the Fontana City Council, Josie Gonzales, making a run against Dutton next year. Meanwhile, up in the air are the potential Second District supervisorial candidacies of current Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, who more than a decade-and-a-half ago served on the Fontana City Council with Rutherford and Gonzales, as well as former Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez, who in 2020 ran a failed campaign for supervisor in the Fifth District.
Another open question is what is to become of Rutherford, who under San Bernardino County’s currently applicable term limit regulations is obliged to step down as Second District supervisor in 2022 upon the completion of her third term in county office, the first of which came in 2010 when she successfully challenged then-Supervisor Paul Biane. There is no readily apparent office up for election in 2022 for which Rutherford is considered to be an obvious candidate, although she yet has the option of seeking either of two state legislative offices, depending upon the final setting of district boundaries in keeping with the redistricting to occur in accordance with the 2020 U.S. Census.
For many, Cetina’s candidacy for supervisor was not anticipated. It has now been disclosed that Rutherford was instrumental in laying the foundation for his attempted transition from the water district board position he has held since 2012 by arranging for or serving as a conduit for $95,000 in donations to his recently-created supervisorial campaign electioneering fund.
In some measure, Rutherford is pinning her hope of remaining politically relevant on Cetina’s electoral prospect. At the same time, it appears she is risking, or at least potentially risking, a continuation of her relatively amiable relationship with Warren. It is publicly unknown at this juncture whether Rutherford undertook her arrangement with Cetina with or without having consulted with Warren ahead of time to obtain the Fontana mayor’s assonance in promoting Cetina for the supervisor’s post.
Warren is playing close to the vest what her future political intentions are. In 2002, she was appointed to the Fontana city council to fill the vacancy created when then-City Councilman Mark Nuami was elected mayor while he yet had two years left on his council term. Rutherford and Gonzales both supported Warren’s appointment to the council. Two years later, Warren won election and Rutherford was reelected to the council, and they were both reelected in 2008. In 2010, Rutherford ran successfully for supervisor and Warren unsuccessfully vied for the Republican nomination for Assembly in California’s 63rd Assembly District in that year’s June primary, thereafter in November running successfully for Fontana mayor, becoming the first African-American and the first woman to be elected to that post in Fontana’s then-58-year history. She was reelected in 2014 and in 2018. As of June 30 of this year, she had $560,000 in her campaign war chest, a sum which would start her off in an advantageous position if she were to run for Second District supervisor, and make here competitive if she were to seek state legislative office – either in the Assembly of California Senate – although she would be at a relative disadvantage to an incumbent or strong Democrat, given that any legislative district she ends up being in as a result of redistricting will have a substantially larger number of registered Democrats than registered Republicans.
Warren is a rarity – an African-American woman who has gained considerable traction as a Republican politician, as most officeholders of her gender and ethnicity are Democrats. Her political success in Fontana is remarkable, given that over 49 percent of the city’s voters are registered Democrats while registered Republicans hover around 20 percent, a contingent smaller than the 23 percent of the city’s voters who express no party preference. Those registered with the American Independent, Green, Libertarian, Peace & Freedom and other more obscure political parties account for the remaining roughly 8 percent of the city’s voters. Because the Republican Party in San Bernardino County is far better organized and more efficient than the county’s Democratic Party, Republican candidates generally throughout San Bernardino County fare better in elections than is reflected in their party registration numbers. Warren has been a beneficiary of the Republican Party’s ability to outcoordinate, outhustle and outcampaign its Democratic rivals in San Bernardino County overall and in Fontana specifically, where despite the Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a margin of almost five-to-two, four of the five members of the city council are Republicans. Joined by her three Republican colleagues on the council, Warren has dominated Fontana for a decade, and is a force to be reckoned with.
Armendarez, who was a major donor to local political campaigns and a then-member of the Fontana Unified School Board, was plucked from that position by Warren in 2016 to run for city council, which he did successfully, becoming a member of Warren’s ruling coalition. In 2020, without Warren’s blessing, Armendarez became the Republican standard bearer in the race to replace Josie Gonzales as Fifth District supervisor. Gonzales was termed out of that position after having served four four-year terms as supervisor, the last three of which were subject to term limitations following the passage of 2006’s Measure P, which raised supervisors’ salaries and benefits but thereafter reduced them to three elected terms. Warren’s preference was that Clifford Young, who as a member of the West Valley Water District Board of Directors stands with Warren as one of the two most prominent African-American Republican politicians in San Bernardino County and who more than a decade-and-a-half ago served a short stint as the appointed Fifth District supervisor, run for the supervisorial position again last year. Armendarez jumped into the race ahead of Young against two Democrats, Colton Joint Unified School District Board Member, Dan Flores, who was Gonzales’s chief of staff, and Rialto Councilman Joe Baca, Jr., the son of the longtime former Congressman and California state legislator. Armendarez’s vaulting ambition ruffled Warren a bit, although she eventually came around, as was incumbent upon her as a Republican, to support him. Despite local district, municipal and county offices officially being by state law defined as nonpartisan, in San Bernardino County those contests invariably reflect a strong political party-affiliation orientation. The 2020 race was ultimately won by Baca. Armendarez, a successful real estate broker, remains, as does Warren, a local Republican stalwart, and he is a major contributor to Republican causes and campaigns. It is not altogether clear to outsiders whether there is a developing clash between Armendarez and Warren over each’s future political ambition, as in the case of their putative mutual interest in becoming Second District supervisor. The east portion of Fontana currently lies within San Bernardino County’s Fifth District, and the western side of the city falls within the county’s Second District. The county board of supervisors is contemplating, as early as next week, a redistricting plan that would place virtually all of Fontana within the Second District. If the supervisors indeed adopt that new district map, Armendarez will be eligible to run for supervisor in the Second District. If the new map leaves the east side of Fontana in the Fifth District, Armendarez would remain a resident of the Fifth District. Nevertheless, as a real estate agent with considerable financial means, Armendarez could in very short order move himself and his family westward across the dividing line between the two districts once the county concludes the redistricting process that will set the district borders from 2022 until 2032. Many anticipate that Armendarez, who spent upwards of $100,000 of his own money in funding his campaign for supervisor in the Fifth District last year, will make such a move, as the prospects for a Republican candidate in the Second District are so much better than in the county’s Fifth Supervisorial District, wherein 50.8 percent of the voters are registered Democrats, 18.7 percent of the voters are registered Republicans, 23.2 percent of the voters have no party affiliation and 7.3 percent identify as members of the less-well established American political parties.
Despite the consideration that the Second District, like Fontana, has more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, the Republicans seem to hold the upper hand in the entirety of the Second District in terms of getting its party members elected there. The Democratic-to-Republican disparity in the Second District is not as overwhelming in the Second District as it is in Fontana. At present, 41 percent of the Second District’s voters are registered Democrats and 30.6 percent are Republicans. On the city councils of all three of the Second District’s municipalities – Upland, Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana – as well as on the boards of the district’s several agencies such as school, water and utility districts, the lion’s share of the officeholders are Republicans. It is of note, therefore, that all of the aforementioned politicians with the exception of Gonzales – Rutherford, Dutton, Warren, Cetina and Armendarez – are members of the GOP.
Cetina makes an interesting case study in a politician.
He qualifies as something of a technocrat, having earned his bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with an emphasis on the environment from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He began working with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in 1986, serving as a surveyor, construction plan reviewer, water supply calculator and forecaster, and has graduated up the chain of command into the arena of legislative and policy analysis. Despite his training as an engineer, he has not been utilized by the Metropolitan Water District in that capacity. He is at present the principal governmental and regional affairs representative for the Metropolitan Water District, promoting water policy among government, joint powers authorities, chambers of commerce, and both private economic partnerships and public/private economic partnerships.
Cetina was elected to the Cucamonga Valley Water District Board of Directors in November 2012, eight years after the entity he was elected to represent had changed its name from the Cucamonga County Water District. He represents Division 4 within the district. He has served on the district’s water resources and government as well as its public affairs committees, and he represents the district on the Chino Basin Water Bank Planning Authority as that entity’s chairman. Further, he is the Cucamonga Valley Water District’s representative on the Fontana Union Water Company Board of Directors as well as on the Rancho Cucamonga Chamber of Commerce. He was elected to the Association of California Water Agencies Region 9 Board of Directors in 2018, again in 2020 and will serve his third term through 2023. He also serves on that entity’s agriculture and water quality committees.
He is currently the vice chairman of the Cucamonga Valley Water District Board of Directors. Since his election to the board nine years ago, he has functioned with a knowledge regarding water issues and operations that has been well-contexted and grounded.
Like Armendarez, Cetina is a relatively uncommon example of a Hispanic Republican politician in California, where Latino registered Democrats outnumber Latino registered Republicans by nearly three-to-one and where Hispanic voters consistently vote for Democrats roughly 77 percent of the time. A member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Cetina has advocated for a more energetic GOP outreach effort toward Latino voters.
Despite his success as a politician, his assets and positive attributes and the faith that Rutherford is demonstrating in him by her support of his candidacy, there are several knocks against Cetina that might complicate his effort to get elected supervisor.
The first of these is that he has spent a large measure, indeed virtually all, of his professional life as a government employee. There is a cross section of the electorate, in particular Republicans, who feel that it is a mistake to have institutional government employees manning elected positions overseeing government. They use analogies such as monkeys running the zoo or inmates managing the asylum to illustrate the reality of what they consider to be double-dipping, wherein a government employee, who makes a living working for the government and enjoys the relatively high salary and far more generous benefits that are available to public sector employees than are available generally in the private sector for the same level of work, serves in the capacity of overseeing government. Those of this opinion hold that it is inadvisable to have creatures of government exercising control over the government, and that it is healthier to elect individuals from the private sector, which is regulated by government, as citizen legislators overseeing governmental entities since they understand how onerous government regulation can be.
A second derogatory regarding Cetina that dovetails with the first is that as a member of the Cucamonga Valley Water District Board he has consistently voted in favor or rate increases on the district’s customers, and has supported local government’s layering of more and higher taxes upon its residents.
This was exemplified at the October 13, 2015 meeting of the Cucamonga Valley Water District Board, at which Cetina joined with his board colleagues in passing Resolution No. 2015-10-1, a declaration in support of Measure A, a proposal put on the ballot by the Rancho Cucamonga City Council that year calling for a local tax increase to improve street lighting, parks and landscaping on the west side of the city. In order to get the measure passed, city officials had scheduled the vote for an odd-year election at which it was anticipated voter turnout would be limited and municipal officials hoped they could drive to the polls enough civic improvement supporters for the measure to prevail. This strategy called for drumming up support from as many other civic leaders as possible, including the board members of the water district. The water district board’s vote to endorse the tax increase antagonized a fair number of Rancho Cucamonga residents who were not only opposed to the tax increase but what they considered to be the city’s underhanded tactic of setting a vote on the matter during an off-year election season when few people were paying attention and only a fraction of the city’s voters participated in the vote. On November 3, 2015, Measure A was overwhelmingly defeated 77.97 percent to 22.03 percent, with 2,289 votes in support and 8,103 votes against it.
Many local Republicans have questioned whether Cetina embodies a purist Republican attitude with regard to minimizing the burden of the expense of government through the limitation of taxation.
Another criticism that is made of Cetina pertains to the action taken by the Cucamonga Valley Water District Board on October 27, 2015 to pass Resolution No. 2015-10-5, which moved the district’s elections to odd years, and, consequentially, skipped the election scheduled for November 2016. Cetina and his fellow and sister board members did this despite then-Governor Jerry Brown having signed, on September 1, 2015, nearly two months prior to the board initiating that action, Senate Bill 415, the California Voters Rights Participation Act, which was passed by the California Legislature earlier that year.
The California Voter Rights Participation Act required that in jurisdictions holding odd-year elections wherein there was lower voter turnout than in elections in the same area held in even-numbered years, the elections were to be moved to even-numbered years.
The full consequences of the passage of Resolution No. 2015-10-5 and the eventual enforcement of Senate Bill 415 was to confer upon all of the members of the water board, first, a one-year extension of what were then their current terms in in office, followed by yet another one-year extension of their terms in office when the law Senate Bill 415 put in place was enforced, such that Cetina and his board colleagues have now become beneficiaries of what is a two-year extension in office, two years in which they bypassed having to face the voters to hold elective office. As a consequence, Cetina and his colleagues on the board are looked down upon by many for what is perceived as a shifty gaming of the democratic process.
A fourth aspersion cast at Cetina consists of his pattern of reluctance to engage with his Cucamonga Valley Water District constituents as well as the public served by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in the face of inquiries about both of those district’s policies and/or controversies they have become embroiled in. This unwillingness to interact with the public has manifested despite Cetina occupying a position with the Metropolitan Water District, that of governmental and regional affairs liaison, and being on the public affairs committee with the Cucamonga Valley Water District, positions in which it is incumbent upon him to be responsive to public inquiries. Cetina has eschewed interaction with the public despite his serving on the board of the San Gabriel Valley Public Affairs Network. Indeed, even before the COVID-18 crisis led to sequestering and isolation of personnel, it was virtually impossible for anyone outside of the Metropolitan Water District to have direct personal or even telephonic contact with Cetina at his workplace, with the only practical means of connection to him being by email. Cetina has a poor record of responding to such emails.
Cetina, in general, comes across as being averse to confrontation and controversy, and is unwilling to be engaged when topics stray into arenas about which there is sharp or even subtle public disagreement.
In an apparent effort to overcome the degree to which he has been limited to being employed exclusively in the public sector during his professional life, Cetina has endeavored to involve himself in certain activities meant to shore up his reputation or credentials with the private sector and the business community. He is the chairman of the Gateway Chambers Alliance, a member of the San Gabriel Valley Legislative Coalition of Chambers, a Rancho Cucamonga Chamber of Commerce board member and an active participant in the Inland Empire Chamber Alliance.
Despite repeated attempts by the Sentinel to locate Cetina and speak to him directly, phone messages left for him at the Metropolitan Water District office as well as on his cell phone and emails sent to his Metropolitan Water District and Cucamonga Valley Water District addresses, Cetina has not responded to questions relating to whether he believes his lack of experience in the private sector might hamper him in serving as supervisor as well as questions relating to his vote in 2015 as a water board member to shift the electoral schedule of Cucamonga Valley Water District board members in such a way that it provided him and his colleagues with what is a two-year extension in office during which he and they did not need to be answerable to the district’s constituency.
The Sentinel sought to reach Rutherford’s campaign consultant in the 2018 election, Matt Rexroad, who is rumored to be lined up to assist Cetina in his electoral effort next year.
“I don’t even know who that is,” Rexroad said.
Over the last 50 months since it was first introduced publicly there has been little movement with regard to the proposal to have Loma Linda de-annex over 200 acres lying within its city limits so the City of Colton can subsume them to allow a subdivision of homes to be built at the farthest western extension of the vast undeveloped wilderness sometimes referred to as the South Hills.
In general, political entities and governments which oversee nations, states, counties, cities, towns or villages seek to expand and take on more territory, more authority and more power. It goes against the grain and the flow of nature for a government to surrender power or authority or give up land. Nevertheless, that is what the City of Loma Linda is being called upon to do near its border with the City of Colton in Reche Canyon. And while all of the requirements for that to occur have not been lined up, it appears that once everything is in place, a majority of Loma Linda officials will be willing for the de-annexation to take place.
University Realty LLC is proposing to construct 350 houses on 209 acres that currently fall within the City of Loma Linda’s jurisdiction at that city’s farthest extension westward.
The property at issue lies proximate to Reche Canyon in Colton, a once rustic area that has become more urbanized as a consequence of incremental development that has been ongoing for three-quarters of a century. Simultaneously, there has been an intensification of the use of Reche Canyon Road, once a little-used back passage linking San Bernardino and Riverside counties which became a far more popular thoroughfare in the decades since the 1984 incorporation of Moreno Valley.
University Realty LLC, also known as Arizona State University Enterprise Partners, is an arm of Arizona State University which is engaged in raising money for that institution of higher learning by acquiring donations of property which can be developed commercially, residentially, and industrially to create a revenue stream, ultimately passed along to the university, or to otherwise make investments in real estate that can subsequently be sold at a profit, and to engage in development projects including what University Realty founder and chief executive officer M. Randy Levin terms “full service, ground-up development including acquisitions and entitlements of land, master-planning and building design, construction, and financing of office, industrial and multi-family projects.”
Loma Linda is contemplating de-annexation of the 209 acres because, lying at the extreme west end of Loma Linda, the property is separated by nearly a mile from the closest available municipal infrastructure and utilities further eastward in Loma Linda, on the other side of the roughly 3,000-acre undeveloped South Hills wilderness. Thus, Loma Linda cannot economically provide the road access, water systems, wastewater treatment services or other infrastructure needed to support the subdivision University Realty is proposing. Colton, however, has long established municipal infrastructure proximate to the 209-acre site. Once the property is absorbed by Colton, those services could be provided. In this way, it appears that what University Realty is trying to do is move the land use decision authority with regard to the property it is intent on developing from Loma Linda to Colton.
Levin/University Realty and Loma Linda city officials/City Hall share a devotion to educational institutions. In Loma Linda’s case that is Loma Linda University. By assuring Loma Linda University Medical Center administrators that the project planned for the property to be annexed to Colton, dubbed Rancho del Prado, will provide housing suitable for doctors and other medical professionals working at the medical center, Levin has created a commonality of interest with Loma Linda city officials relating to having the project proceed. In this way, a majority of Loma Linda officials have shown themselves amenable to going along with the de-annexation proposal.
The Loma Linda governmental structure, nonetheless, has not proven to be a monolith in supporting University Realty’s development agenda. Some officials expressed reservations about the city surrendering its land use authority with regard to the property. Under Loma Linda’s standards, no more than one home could be constructed on each ten acres of the property under discussion. What University Realty is seeking is 1.674 units per acre, or 16.74 homes per ten acres. Planning commissioners Doree Morgan and Larry Karpenko, in particular, expressed reservations about the wisdom of going along with University Realty’s proposal. Likewise, Mayor Phill Dupper is skeptical about the wisdom of the proposal.
Despite that reluctance on the part of a handful of Loma Linda officials, the Loma Linda City Council in October 2017 voted to send a letter to the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees governmental jurisdictional issues, in support of letting Colton annex the property, after Arizona State University Enterprise Partners/University Realty, represented by Levin and Christine Aghassi, suggested the property should be moved into Colton’s sphere of influence. The letter stated that the property now in the possession of University Realty “cannot be served by Loma Linda with fire, police, water and other public services, either now or in the future. The City of Colton is the logical provider of these services.” The letter is widely interpreted as a clear signal that the majority of Loma Linda’s decision-makers were in favor of the project.
Levin and Aghassi have in the meantime hosted several community meetings in Colton, specifically in Reche Canyon, where they have sought to persuade local residents that the project will be a beneficial one.
Some Reche Canyon residents have not been easily sold on the idea. In the years since its 1984 incorporation, Moreno Valley has grown to become Riverside County’s second largest city, with a population of 221,387, making it larger, population-wise, than the City of San Bernardino. Reche Canyon Road extends in a winding south-southeasterly fashion into Riverside County, bifurcating at one point into the continuation of Reche Canyon Road and Reche Vista Drive. Reche Canyon Road continues southeast until it reaches Locust Avenue in the Cloverdale district of Moreno Valley. Reche Vista Drive moves generally south, whereupon it bifurcates into Reche Vista Drive and Perris Boulevard, both of which take motorists into the heart of Moreno Valley. In this way, Reche Canyon Road represents a major backroad conduit between Riverside County and San Bernardino County.
As a consequence, on a typical weekday more than fifteen thousand vehicles travel through the canyon, using the road as a shortcut to bypass the 60 Freeway and the I-215 Freeway to reach San Bernardino, the I-10 Freeway, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Redlands and elsewhere in San Bernardino County.
Reche Canyon residents, many of whom originally moved there because they considered it an idyllic rural island in the midst of the rapidly urbanizing Inland Empire, are resentful of the University Realty proposal and the hundreds of more cars it will inject into the already overburdened traffic stream on Reche Canyon Road.
In the early summer of 2020, the City of Colton was closely examining University Realty’s project proposal, and what would be needed to make it a reality. The project has not progressed any further than that, however.
This week, Councilman Rhodes Rigsby told the Sentinel there is no clear indication what will happen to the Loma Linda de-annexation/Colton annexation proposal.
“There are so many variables, it is hard to predict what will happen,” he said. “There is still so much that needs to be worked out for it to go through the planning process.”
A consistency of intent and willingness needs to be maintained on all sides, Rigsby said.
“The developer could lose interest,” he said. “The nearby residents might oppose it. The city [Loma Linda] might not be willing. Colton might not want to go along with the annexation.”
From a logical jurisdictional standpoint relating to the proximity and availability of infrastructure, the land under focus would best be located within the city limits of Colton rather than Loma Linda, Rigsby said.
“Those boundaries were set a half century ago,” Rigsby said, referencing Loma Linda’s September 1970 incorporation. “If you talk to the officials at LAFCO [the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission], which has responsibility over the borders and jurisdictions, they will tell you that the way the city borders were drawn was the product of a lazy surveying process, and for decades they have talked about fixing that. If you look at that particular property, the acreage owned by University Realty, it is completely disassociated from Loma Linda. It should have been part of Colton to begin with. The critical infrastructure that is near the property is Colton’s. Loma Linda has absolutely no ability to provide services to that land. If the officials with LAFCO were setting the boundaries today, it would not be a part of Loma Linda.”
Nevertheless, Rigsby said, jurisdiction of the property is not going to be automatically turned over to Colton. If Colton’s annexation of the property entails de-annexing a dozen or more properties or homes from Loma Linda, he said, the landowners will have a say in which city they remain in or are drafted into. “If there are 12 or more existing homes or properties involved, a request must be made of them,” Rigsby said. “They have to consent to being annexed, or it won’t take place.”
Such consent would be rendered by a simple majority vote of the landowners impacted by the de-annexation/annexation assenting to Colton’s takeover. If a majority of the voters opposed, the property would remain defined as lying within the confines of Loma Linda.
The California Department of Water Resources on Wednesday announced that it will not be allocating any water from the State Water Project to any of the 29 water agencies that contract to receive that water at least through the first several months of 2022.
“Given the unprecedented drought conditions, the State Water Project’s initial allocation will focus on the health and safety needs for 2022 of the 29 water agencies that contract to receive State Water Project supplies,” a statement by the agency on December 1 reads. “The Department of Water Resources has advised these water agencies to expect an initial allocation that prioritizes health and safety water needs and that the State Water Project will not be planning water deliveries through its typical allocation process until the state has a clearer picture of the hydrologic and reservoir conditions going into the spring.”
The California State Water Project is a multi-purpose water storage and delivery system that extends more than 705 miles, running two-thirds the length of California. It consists of a collection of canals, pipelines, reservoirs, and hydroelectric power facilities which capture snowmelt in Northern California and delivers that clean water to 27 million Californians, 750,000 acres of farmland, and businesses throughout the state.
Wednesday’s announcement came as California faces a continuing and severe drought. The Department of Water Resources has engaged in periodic shuttering of the water system in the past, but this is the earliest date at which a zero percent water allocation announcement has ever been made.
Each year, the Department of Water Resources provides the initial State Water Project allocation by December 1 based on available water storage and projected water supply demands. Allocations are updated monthly as snowpack and runoff information is assessed, with a final allocation typically determined in May or June.
The lowest initial allocations to occur on December 1 in past years were 5 percent in 2010 and 2014. Last year, the initial State Water Project allocation was 10 percent, though because of increasing dry conditions, the final allocation was lowered to 5 percent.
“Despite a wet start to the water year, conditions have dried out since that first storm and we are still planning for a below-average water year. That means we need to prepare now for a dry winter and severe drought conditions to continue through 2022,” said Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth. “We will be working with our federal partners and State Water Project contractors to take a conservative planning approach to balance limited water supplies with the needs of residents, businesses, and the environment.”
According to the Department of Water Resources, it is now focusing on prioritizing the available water supply in four categories: water for health and safety needs and California Delta salinity control; water for endangered species; water to reserve in storage; and water for additional supply allocations if the hydrology allows.
While the Department of Water Resources is tasked with ensuring the delivery of adequate water throughout the state, there has been significant prioritization with regard to the ecology of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, also known as the California Delta, in recent years, as diversions of water from it and the drought have begun to threaten dozens of species within its footprint. The California Delta is an expansive inland river delta and estuary in Northern California, formed at the western edge of the Central Valley by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and lies just east of where the rivers enter Suisun Bay, which flows into San Francisco Bay and then the Pacific Ocean via San Pablo Bay.
In addition to limiting the initial allocation to health and safety needs, the Department of Water Resources is making plans to adjust State Water Project operations this winter and spring. The Department of Water Resources is capturing and storing water when possible in Lake Oroville and south of the California Delta in San Luis Reservoir to increase available supplies for 2022 and will continue to do so throughout the winter. Health and safety demands for the Bay Area and Central and Southern California will be met with water available from the California Delta as well as water stored in San Luis Reservoir. Water in Lake Oroville will be reserved to maintain California Delta water quality, protect endangered species, and meet senior water right needs. Beyond minimal exports to meet South Bay health and safety needs, water stored in Lake Oroville will be used for south of California Delta deliveries only if hydrology conditions improve. The Department of Water Resources plans to conserve as much storage as possible in Oroville in anticipation of a third dry year, and potentially a dry 2023.
Also on December 1, the Department of Water Resources along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, submitted a temporary urgency change petition to the State Water Resources Control Board. If approved, the petition would allow for the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project to operate under modifications to the water quality and water right permit requirements in the California Delta from February through April 2022, should conditions warrant. These modifications may be needed to conserve water in Lake Oroville to ensure minimum health and safety water supplies are available later in the year if dry conditions persist. If significant precipitation materializes in the next few months, standards may be met through natural means and modifications to the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project operations may not be necessary.
The Department of Water Resources is also delaying the removal of an emergency drought salinity barrier in the California Delta. The rock barrier across West False River was scheduled to be removed by November 30. Drought conditions have persisted, however, and leaving the barrier in place will enable a more efficient drought response in spring 2022 if needed. The Department of Water Resources plans to create a notch in the barrier in January 2022 to allow for fish passage and boat traffic until April 2022.
“It is going to take a multi-pronged approach to successfully respond to these unprecedented drought conditions,” said Nemeth.
In thirsty Southern California, there is concern that dealing with the drought without the safety net of water importation from the north may prove overwhelming.
In one portion of San Bernardino County that concern is less acute.
According to Heather Dyer, the chief executive officer and general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, through conservation and water management efforts, San Bernardino County should be able to come through the current water availability crisis. The San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District service area stretches from parts of Fontana in the west to Yucaipa in the east.
Despite the dismal projection of zero water availability through the State Water Project over the next four to six months, San Bernardino Valley Municipal officials said they are not panicking, and neither should the public.
“Our region has been actively preparing for droughts like this,” stated Bob Tincher, chief water resources officer for the district. “Our primary strategy is to store water during wet years, when it is plentiful, and then rely on that stored water during times of drought, like the one we find ourselves in this year.”
The region has several large underground aquifers where it stores water during wet years. Those aquifers are now 80 percent or more full. The amount of water in storage means that the region can make it through 2022 and even make it through additional years of drought, if needed, San Bernardino Valley Municipal officials said.
Storage is not the only tool available to reduce the local impacts of the current drought. The region has also been stretching its supplies in recent years by using water more efficiently. Although the region’s population has increased over the past decade, water use has nevertheless decreased.
“We would like to thank residents and businesses for their efficient water use and challenge everyone to take the next step toward even great conservation of our valuable water resources,” said Dyer. “Whatever opportunities you might have, no action is too small – fixing leaks, using a shut-off nozzle on your garden hose, turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth, shortening your irrigation schedule, reducing the number of irrigation days, shorter showers; it all helps.”
Although the region is well-positioned to overcome the current drought, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District is continuing to develop additional supplies for the future such as recycled water and stormwater capture as well as enhancements to the State Water Project known as the Delta Conveyance and Sites Reservoir. If the Sites Reservoir was in place today, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District would have received six times more water this year, district officials said.
“Previous generations invested in the State Water Project on behalf of the region. Now it is our generation’s turn to invest in improvements to the State Water Project that will help ensure a reliable water supply into the future,” said Paul Kielhold, president of the San Bernardino Valley Water District Board of Directors.
Although the initial allocation is zero, there is some prospect that the final allocation will be higher than zero. The allocation is continuously adjusted, throughout the rainy season, based upon actual rainfall.
“We plan for the worst, but hope for the best,” Tincher said.