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A sense of civic frustration in beleaguered San Bernardino

Three officials face a recall vote in a city that one resident says has been in 'substantial decline and spiraling downward.'

September 08, 2013|By Rick Rojas
  • A view of San Bernardino City Hall. With three city officials facing a recall vote, some observers say the frustration in the embattled city could bring sweeping change.
A view of San Bernardino City Hall. With three city officials facing a recall… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

For Scott Beard, San Bernardino's decision to file for bankruptcy was just the last in a long list of grievances against the city where he has lived for 15 years.

He saw crime worsen and more panhandlers on street corners. He saw an exodus of residents and businesses. He saw the city's core hollowing and its pride evaporating.

San Bernardino, he said, has been in "substantial decline and spiraling downward."

The common denominator in all of this, he said, was the city's leadership.

"No one has taken responsibility for it, even to this day," he said of the bankruptcy, which was filed in 2012 and allowed to proceed after a judge's ruling last month. "These guys were never going to get together as a team."

That frustration prompted a recall effort against the mayor, city attorney and the seven members of the City Council. Beard's organization, San Bernardino Residents for Responsible Government, served recall notices to all of them.

After the group collected signatures and argued in court, three elected officials — two council members and City Atty. James Penman — will face a recall vote.

Penman, among others, has criticized the group, calling it a cabal of businessmen driven by financial motivations, not an interest in aiding an ailing city.

Whatever its motivation, the push reflects a widespread attitude that San Bernardino is stumbling and that its leaders have done little to help it back up. With seven of nine elected officials soon having to go before voters — including those facing a recall — some observers say the frustration could bring sweeping change.

"They're frustrated with the lack of leadership," said Roxanne Williams, who is running for the seat of recall target John Valdivia. "There's no vision, no plan. … They want leaders who can work together to turn it around."

The recall advocates want a stronger outline for how to lift the city out of bankruptcy and make it more hospitable to business and to residents, including reinvigorating the downtown area.

San Bernardino was one of a handful of California cities that sought bankruptcy protection last summer, with officials citing a deficit of more than $45 million brought about by declining tax revenues, increased pension costs and a tapped reserve.

Mike Thomas, a manager at a mortgage company and a newcomer to politics, has launched a bid for City Council.

"You should probably get rid of the City Council and start out with a new one," Thomas said. Of the council members serving when the city filed for bankruptcy, he said: "They were there, they were on duty when it happened on their watch."

Some on the council who are running for reelection didn't dispute assertions that San Bernardino is suffering, even acknowledging the dysfunction plaguing the council.

"They look at us, and all we do is fight," said Councilwoman Virginia Marquez, elected in 2009.

She said she understood the motivation for the recall effort — she shared those frustrations — but worried about the cost to the city, estimated as high as $450,000.

The two council members facing a recall — Valdivia, elected in 2011, and Wendy McCammack, in her fourth term — did not return calls for comment.

A recall effort against Councilman Chas A. Kelley failed to get enough signatures. He is running for mayor this year, making arguments that sound similar to those of people who sought to boot him out, including a desire to have city leaders lay out a blueprint for economic recovery.

"San Bernardino is a city that needs a new generation of leadership," Kelley said. "Frankly, the old guard has failed San Bernardino and failed us with a capital 'F.' … You're talking to a new-generation leader, delivering results over rhetoric."

Recall leaders have portrayed Penman, first elected city attorney in 1987, as a leading figure in the old guard.

"He's the one constant who has caused most of the heartburn," Beard said.

Penman remains defiant, calling Beard, a real estate developer, someone who "sees dollar signs out of the city's misfortune."

Penman also said that current city leaders were well-versed in the bankruptcy process and knew what needed to be done.

"We're experts in municipal bankruptcy," he said. "I'm sorry we are, but we are."

Penman said he was confident that the voters who elected him several times would support him again, citing his history of pursuing corruption cases.

"It's not a job for me, it's a calling for me to serve my community," he said of the office he's held for 26 years.

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