SAN BERNARDINO—The book on the long simmering feud between San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris and San Bernardino City Attorney Jim Penman opened a new chapter this week. The delicate political balance on the city council that had previously favored Morris reversed with the departure of Morris’s ally, councilman Tobin Brinker, and the swearing in of new councilman John Valdivia, who was endorsed by Penman in his race against Brinker last year and elected in November.
As one of the first orders of business at the Monday March 5 meeting following the oath-taking ceremonies for the most recently elected or reelected city officials, the newly composed and aligned council voted 6-1 to provide the city attorney’s office with $939,000 in supplemental funding that Penman has been requesting for months but which the previous city council, at Penman’s urging, denied.
At a rare breakfast meeting between Morris and Penman on March 5, prior to Valdivia’s ascendency to the council, the mayor and city attorney took a stab at burying the hatchet. And Morris did emerge from the meeting willing, either because of political reality or a newfound and sincere inclination toward amity, to get on with life and allow Penman autonomy as well. At the council meeting, when the issue of increasing the amount of money the city attorney should have to work with, Morris said, the council should ask “our city manager to find funding for this.”
As mayor, Morris leads the council, wields the gavel at meetings and controls the tenor of discussion and debate, but does not have a vote unless his is needed to break a tie. His signal of support resulted in the two of the three members of the council who previously voted to deny the increased funding to the city attorney’s office – Fred Shorett and Virginia Marquez – to vote in support of upping Penman’s office’s budget. Councilman Rikke Van Johnson voted against it.
Last spring, Penman had his office launch an investigation of Morris, Brinker, Shorett and Van Johnson based upon allegations Penman did not specify but which he at one point indicated related to violations of the Political Reform Act that were in some fashion tied into alleged misdemeanor violations of the city municipal code by non-elected officials. Penman never released the report of the outcome of that investigation, although he claimed in May that Morris had prevented him from making a report of some the ongoing investigation’s findings at that time.
Morris, a Democrat, called the Republican Penman’s report pertaining to Political Reform Act violations “nothing but a political diatribe filled with revisionist history and political puffery.” He accused the city attorney “of ramping up the political agenda in this city, attempting to hijack the council’s agenda to meet your political needs, particularly during election years.”
Penman accused the mayor of seeking to “interfere with the prosecutorial duties of this office” and chastised him for preventing him from delivering the report in a public forum, saying that Morris was “afraid to hear what another public official has to say.”
The political rivalry between Morris and Penman extends back to 2005, when Morris outdistanced Penman in the race for mayor. He again defeated Penman in a head-to-head contest in 2009. In 2010, Morris sponsored a measure to change the San Bernardino city attorney into an appointed position, but that change in the city charter failed at the polls.
With the departure of Brinker, whose enmity toward Penman was nearly as great as that of Morris, it now appears that Penman holds sway over the city council. Penman enjoys an ironclad alliance with councilwoman Wendy McCammack and councilman Chas Kelly, who were both reelected in November. Penman is also aligned somewhat less closely with Robert Jenkins, who was elected to replace a previous Penman ally, Jason Desjardins. Valdivia, a pharmaceutical company representative who ran with Penman’s support last year, now is seen as the fourth crucial vote to hold Penman’s coalition of support together. Nevertheless, Valdivia downplayed the significance of that alliance, remarking during the swearing in ceremony that the press and public’s perception of him as a member of the Penman political machine was an “unfair characterization” and that his loyalty would be to the residents of the 3rd Ward who had elected him. He said he consider himself a political “independent.” If that self appraisal is accurate, Penman’s hold on City Hall is more tenuous than many perceive.
Indeed, Penman’s political grip on the function at City Hall was attenuated somewhat in the recent city clerk’s election in which his favored candidate, Amelia Sanchez-Lopez, was narrowly defeated by Georgeann Hanna, who is connected to Morris.