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Bankruptcy Spurs Public Anger, Mistrust, Civic Engagement San Bernardino coalitions call for charter reform

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By Chris Levister

They’ve flooded San Bernardino City Hall with tough questions, demanded audits and release of public records. They’ve taken to Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Blue Tooth, spouting everything from frustration to damnation. In bars, coffee houses, grocery aisles and in their own living rooms, they’ve watched in amazement as their city’s meltdown marched across the world stage. They’ve Tweeted, blogged, texted and railed against a city administration some called “toothless”. They’ve formed action groups and packed town hall meetings. Some have gone as far as accusing city officials of handing the city a “death sentence”. Others have insisted on “cleaning house”. In the weeks since the City Council voted to declare bankruptcy, San Bernardino has experienced a stiff jolt of civic engagement.

It's an anger-fueled form of participatory democracy that's relatively new for this working class city of 213,012 not known for being good governance watchdogs. “San Bernardino is like a bucket with a big hole in it,” says activist Rev. Bronica Martindale, president of the California Neighborhood Cluster Association. “On July 10 Martindale sat in a packed City Council chamber hoping that bucket didn’t contain the ‘B’ word.

“When I sat there and watched our elected officials cast that vote to declare bankruptcy my heart sank. My first reaction was: ‘Lord, the chickens have finally come home to roost’.” “The morning after that vote, I think we all woke up to the realization that we’re on a sinking ship – without a life raft,” said Westside resident Julius Fields. At a heated July 12 town hall hosted by Sixth Ward City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson, residents unleashed a wave of withering criticism.

“You chose to engage in toxic politics over good governance. You mismanaged our tax dollars and now you want us to bail you out,” charged Lionel Brown, an elderly resident of the city’s Westside. News that the city was on the brink of insolvency came as a surprise to many in this community. But accountant and activist Kim Carter, president of the Time For Change Foundation, said it was impossible not to know how bad the situation had become. It’s been presented to council over and over again that our city was on the brink of collapse,” said Carter directing her frustration at Johnson.

“For years you guys were warned; you’ve got to take action, you need to fix the finances instead you (City Council) just stood around looking like deer in the headlights,” said Carter. An empathic Johnson responded “you’re right; we lacked the political will to act.” But just as quickly Johnson roared back with a stinging lesson on blame: “If you're the owner of five fingers, point your pointer finger and see what happens to the bottom three fingers. That's right. They're pointing straight back at you,” he said. “For years many of you put on blinders because you found it easier to ignore what was happening around you than to do something about it.”

“Most of us shy away from civic engagement because we don’t like the toxic politics,” responded Martindale. “But it’s very crucial for you to become educated on what your leaders have been doing with our tax dollars and how they’ve been using existing laws in a political way to protect their mismanagement.”

“We demand accountability from our leaders, but we can’t stand on the sidelines and expect things to magically change,” said Carlos Teran, President of the Mt. Vernon Neighborhood Cluster Association. “Rather than doing something, most people look away believing the trash will always get picked up,” said Teran, a city employee in the Refuse and Recycling Division. At a July 21 meeting of the newly formed Concerned Citizens Coalition of San Bernardino City Council Members Virginia Marquez and John Valdivia listened intently as a packed house lamented that potholes are going unfilled, burned-out streetlights are left untouched and ball fields are languishing unmowed.

“You slashed the workforce and extracted concessions from city employees, but you protected the 900 pound gorilla: public safety,” charged Ruben Martinez. Concepcion Powell, a Grand Terrace resident, started the coalition the week of the bankruptcy move.

“Our goal is to harness the power of the five sectors: private, educational, church, nonprofit and government,” said Powell. “We have to smack City Hall on the head. There's been no leadership, that’s got to change.” “When you’ve got police and fire costs taking up 75 percent of our budget, there’s little money left for parks and crime prevention,” said Roxanne Williams, vice-chair of a group called Save Our San Bernardino (SOS) which formed four months ago.

“I've always been concerned about the lack of vision of San Bernardino, so our concern actually predated the fiscal bankruptcy,” said Williams. Growing Momentum to Change City’s Charter Teran, Martindale and Jim Smith, a member of SOS, are part of a growing momentum to reform the city’s “fifth rail” – its charter.

They say the city’s economic woes are made worse by Charter Section 186, which sets police and firefighter salaries as the average of 10 similarly sized California cities. “Apple and oranges – we don’t have the same revenue sources as say Fontana. We can’t continue to pretend to be something we aren’t,” said Smith. Kim Carter insists the city’s “antiquated” charter is merely the tip of the iceberg. “Sadly, this behavior over the years has brought the city to a place where they have lost sight of their responsibility: safeguarding taxpayer's dollars. The Titanic is going down. We want to know, where is the money?” said Carter.

“In one way or another, I believe that San Bernardino County and City has been the target of every crook, corrupt politician, backward investor and anyone else that had the opportunity to come rob, steal and destroy. So far, these folks seem to have been welcomed with open arms.”

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