Civic and faith leaders argue toxic environment impedes San Bernardino’s progress
By Chris Levister –
San Bernardino City Council has a long running history of fractious politics.
Routinely council members passionately argue and threaten each other. Its meetings broadcast on the local access TV are the butt of water cooler jokes and comedian lampoons.
“The city has its own reality show called “Hijacked,” laments Sixth Ward City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson.
During a May 2011 council meeting City Attorney Jim Penman and Mayor Pat Morris got into a shouting match over what Penman is allowed to say beyond
giving legal advice to the council. “You have made a practice, particularly during election years, of ramping up the political agenda in this city, attempting to hijack the council’s agenda to meet your political needs, sir,” Morris said, shouting over Penman’s disagreement. Frustrated at not being allowed to speak, Penman addressed the council from the speaker’s podium after filling out two public comment cards.
He publically released a letter to Morris and the council that said the Mayor was trying to “interfere with the prosecutorial duties of this office.”
Audience reaction to the council’s disagreements can vary from deep sighs and rolling eyes to whispered expletives to delighted comments like, “This is better than TV.”
The name-calling and posturing might be entertaining to some, but it can do serious damage to the city and its residents, especially if it gets in the way of the council doing its job, Johnson said Friday during a special meeting of the Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches (IECAAC) and the Westside Action Group (WAG).
Johnson and others at the gathering blamed the toxic environment at City Hall for ‘chasing out’ former Police Chief Keith Kilmer, other key staffers and a host of volunteers.
“City Manager Charles McNeely is fed up with the feuding to the point of leaving,” said Johnson. “We the people must speak out against this constant repulsive and disgraceful behavior. We must serve as a beacon of light for a community where so many other lights are dimmed,” said Johnson.
“My job as an elected leader and your job – if you care enough - said Johnson is to educate the masses about what’s going on at City Hall. “We need you to come to the council meetings. You need you to speak out against this behavior.”
“The truth is, the people who suffer most when governments have a lot of infighting are the residents,” said IECAAC president. The Reverend Phillip Powell, pastor at The Centre at Highland who did not attend the meeting because of a pervious engagement.
“We’ve got the City Attorney Jim Penman and his “Council Team” publicly calling staff members ‘liars’ about issues that could result in costly lawsuits against the city,” said Johnson.
He accused Penman of insulting the mayor, members of the council, the city manager, finance director and director of public works.
“He’s called members of the council stupid, bullies and used the term ‘shame on you’ as he called each of them by name,” said Johnson.
Penman and Mayor Morris are political archenemies, having opposed each other in a mayoral campaign and on a ballot measure to make city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer appointed offices, a proposition that likely would have put Penman out of a job had it passed.
Last November Penman narrowly escaped defeat, beating challenger David McKenna by less than 4 percentage points.
“The slim victory shows San Bernardino voters are beginning to recognize Penman’s foibles; his disruptiveness; his politicization of the most mundane city issues,” opined the Press Enterprise.
In a recent dust-up Public Works Director Nadeem Majaj accused Penman of retaliating against him for cancelling a $2.5 million city contract with Matich Corp. , which has contributed thousands of dollars to Penman’s election campaign.
“I am being threatened by a person who is known for his fear mongering and intimidation tactics,” said Majaj.
Penman responded: “The last time I remember threatening harm to someone was a few seconds before getting my tail kicked on the playground in the third grade.”
“The bullying, disrespect and unethical reprehensive behavior is a sad joke,” said WAG member Walter Hawkins. Doubly sad when you consider the serious challenges facing this city.”
Topped only by Detroit, San Bernardino is the second-poorest city in the country with 34.6 percent of people living in poverty 2011 U.S. Census Bureau estimates show.
The one time “All-America” city once thriving with primarily blue col lar workers earning middle class wages is in deep trouble.
“Ghet to Streets of San Bernardino”, a YouTube video chronicles a city griped by homelessness, joblessness, poverty and growing desperation.
Featured on American Public Media program Marketplace, Kim Carter, founder of the Time for Change Foundation labeled San Bernardino “The Failed American Dream”.
The decline traces back to the closure of the 1980s and 1990s of the Kaiser Steel plant in nearby Fontana, Norton Air Force Base, railroad yards and other job-rich employers spurred the city’s decline. City leaders agree reviving the city will take years.
“This once vital city finds itself in a time of crisis and change scattered, unfocused and constantly reacting instead of being proactive,” said The Reverend Raymond Turner, pastor of Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
Turner a frequent critic of City Hall antics said with a high level of conflict that’s constant, a community can just get a bad reputation, and that affects investment or attempts to woo economic development.
“What businesses want when they make an investment in a community is stability, and if they see a community that looks like the government is unstable or is defeating itself, that can knock a community out of the running, he said.
“If a company has five sites it is considering, it’s going to choose the one rolling out the red carpet, not the community where the leaders are bickering among themselves,” said a Westside business owner.
Several at the gathering suggested hiring an independent mediator, “Worse case, call in the state attorney general or the U.S. Justice Department, said one listener.
“Our role said Powell is to empower, energize and educate the masses. The true test of "good" governance he said, “is the degree to which it delivers on the promise of human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.”
“We can educate people about their role in government and equip them to participate effectively in it, but at the end of the day, the key attributes of good governance: are RESPECT, transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation and responsiveness (to the needs of the people).”
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