By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
This year’s mayoral and council race may well just be sideshows to the battle for Measure M, where Carson residents are asked whether they want to return to a rotating mayorship, a la pre-1992, or retain their right to directly elect the mayor. But perhaps the real question is whether residents are ready to turn away from patronage style politics to one that’s geared toward constituent issues and more closely aligned with participatory government.
Despite a council that agrees on most issues, it is the appointment process and the actual running of meetings that’s seen the most explosive divisions on the council.
Since his resounding victory over the 2008 recall effort, followed by an overwhelming 2009 reelection victory, Mayor Dear has hit one snag after the next—snags that have contributed to deterioration of an already rocky relationship with council members Lula Davis-Holmes and Mike Gipson.
This was followed by controversy over Carson’s Haiti Disaster relief efforts when benefit organizers accused Dear of grandstanding after he scheduled a special council meeting at the same time and location as the benefit organizers’ planning meeting. Relief organizer Del Huff balked at the intrusion by conditioning the group’s acceptance of the city’s donation in exchange for autonomy in planning the events. Dear accused the organizer of playing racial politics with the relief, and gaveled her into silence when she attempted to reply.
During this same time period, then-District Attorney Steve Cooley found Dear’s use of the mute button, which allows the mayor to cut the microphone of speakers, violated the Brown Act. A complaint was filed against Dear for cutting the microphone of speakers that were particularly critical of himself and other councilmembers.
In 2011, Mayor Dear was essentially defanged in June 2011 when his hard fought council majority was turned to cinder after a falling out with former council ally Julie Ruiz Raber when she refused to back him on the renaming of a street after him.
From then on the new council majority, Raber, Gipson, and Holmes rejected Dear’s commission appointments with the exception of those to the Mobilehome Rental Review Board and that of the Carson Historical Committee.
In fact, a war of attrition has taken up an increasing proportion of the council time over the past 18 months compared to constituent needs. In Sept. 2011, the Public Works Commission proposed naming Leandro Street, a small road that runs through the new Boulevards at South Bay project, for Dear. Eventually the proposal was shot down 3-2.
Three months later in December 2011, an agenda item proposing to rename the council chambers for long time Carson City Clerk, Helen Kawagoe. Though the council unanimously agreed that something of importance should be named for Kawagoe, the council majority voted to table and continue the item until the following meeting whereby something “bigger” could be considered to honor the beloved city clerk.
At the following meeting Dear spearheaded an effort to immediately rename the council chambers for Kawagoe — an effort supported by organized advocates called the Helen’s Dream Coalition–after submitting thousands of signed petitions to the city council.
After scores of public testimony were heard and a dozen motions and substitute motions issued, the council majority decided to rename the council chambers for Kawagoe posthumously, waiving the 60 day wait period after her passing. The council also proposed hosting a retirement party in Kawagoe’s honor. It was at that moment that a movement dedicated to the immediate renaming of the council chambers had emerged to specifically aid Dear’s ambitions from outside the council.
Indeed, Jim Dear’s mayorship, and Measure M’s success, may be linked.
The Road to a Directly Elected Mayorship
A general law city mayor’s role is distinguishable from that of a regular council member in that the mayor is charged with the responsibility of facilitating meetings and make appointments to commissions and other boards that are ratified by the rest of the council. Previously, the city’s residents directly elected the councilmembers and whichever councilperson that was able to secure the support of two others became mayor on an annually rotating basis. Occasionally in Carson’s history, mayor’s served two or more years at a time.
Carson’s government operated in this fashion until the early 1990s when then Councilwoman Sylvia Muise agendized an item that would have depoliticized the mayor’s selection process by basing the rotation on any combination of factors to ensure that the mayorship was really a rotated mayorship.
Among the alternatives city staff suggested:
- Rotating the mayor every 12th month based first on the length of service since the last election and secondly, on that council person’s with a last name beginning with the letter closest to the letter “A.”
- Rotating the mayorship every 12th month based on the length of years served since the last election. And in the event that two or more eligible councilpersons have the same length of service since their last election, the council person that received the greatest number of votes in that election would serve as mayor. But no council member having served as mayor for one term would be eligible for reelection to the mayorship until four mayoralty terms have passed since their election to the mayorship.
The issue was revisited during the following council meeting, a meeting at which Apollo West Carson Players founder and president Marvin Clayton suggested that the city directly elect its mayor.
In a recent interview with Random Lengths News, Vera Robles DeWitt, the 1990-91 Carson mayor during a brief break in Mitoma’s reign, suggested that Councilwoman Sylvia Muise was frustrated that Councilman Mike Mitoma kept getting elected Mayor, and cited that as a reason why she pursued changing the mechanism by which the rotating mayorship worked.
Indeed, Muise served on the council through much of the 1980s and 90s, but only a single term as mayor in 1986-87. In contrast, Mitoma, had already served one mayoral term by the time changes in the rotating mayorship were being considered. Mitoma went on to serve a series of one year terms until the council completely converted to a directly elected mayoral system with four year terms in 1997.
DeWitt said of those times “that whoever has the money… you can have three elected officials from the same block.”
“Well how does that work out for the community? You walk the community and talk to your neighbors. Many can’t get along with their colleagues to get your issue passed,” she said.
“To be honest, I don’t take it personal. I just thought I was being of service. I did want to put on there the districting and the mayor issue on that ballot,” DeWitt said. “The districting never happened but the directly elected mayorship did.”
Measure M and Attack on Democracy or Cronyism?
Measure M opponents has frequently characterized the measure as an attack on democracy and participatory government.
Dr. Rita Boggs, an occasional city council candidate and civic leader since the early 1990s, still remembers the days when Carson had relatively few commissions. She recalls that under the rotating mayorship, each council member was able to name a person to a commission, while the mayor had three appointees.
“People thought that sounded good,” Dr. Boggs explained. “But what people didn’t realize was that it gave more power to the mayor than he previously had. So now, the mayor is now naming all of the commissioners and what it does is it gives him added support.”
Dr. Boggs noted that patronage has defined the relationship between the mayor and his commissioners.
“If so-and-so gets named to this commission, the mayor extracts this, that, and the other so that they would support him… In order to stay on the commission, you have to support the mayor. I think that was an outcome that was not intended when the city chose to change to a directly elected mayor.”
Council member and mayoral candidate, Lula Davis-Holmes attacked this form of patronage politics from a different angle, noting:
Our founding fathers knew what they were doing. When this was approved, they said that exactly what we’re experiencing today is what we were going to experience. We had never experienced this with the previous mayors—that dictator style of leadership—where you have to come to me to get something done in the City of Carson. But that’s not the case.
The limits of a directly elected mayor has been laid bare these past 18 months. Holmes said it succinctly, “The only difference between the mayor and myself is that he facilitates the meetings and he appoints the commissions. He doesn’t have more votes and he doesn’t have veto power. It gives the business community a fair opportunity so that they know that they have to deal with us all equally.
“No one can be going around saying that, “I’m the mayor of the City of Carson,” intimating Dear’s claim to a higher degree of executive privilege than he has. “Right now, this mayor does not have three votes.”
Holmes and Dr. Boggs’s observations highlight an underlying long-term concern about the role of cronyism to maintain electoral power bases, (which keeps) keeping an incumbent in power for extended periods of time.
In the short term, as a result of the looseness in the requirements to become a commissioner and the fact that the mayor has sole appointment discretion, inappropriate people are kept on commissions despite proven instances of impropriety tarnishing the commission’s name.
“We’ve had commissioners who had to be asked to step down because of sexual advancements on city employees that were unwarranted,” Councilman Mike Gipson explained. “[This] could have made the city liable if those employees had made a sexual harassment claim for not protecting them in the public workplace. These are things the general public doesn’t know that has grown increasingly of concern on the council.”
Holmes was asked how many instances of commissioner impropriety of which she was aware. She replied, ‘Too many.”
“Over there at the fire at Carson and Avalon, we had commissioners flashing their cards and the fire department,” an exasperated Holmes said. “Give me a break. ‘I’m commissioner so-and-so and I’m a spokesperson,” Holmes animatedly said.
Holmes was referring to the blaze that occurred at the apartment complex across from City Hall on Oct. 27, 2011. Holmes praised City Manager David Biggs subsequent action of altering commissioner business cards so that they were distinct from the business cards of city councilmembers
Then there’s the case of former Public Relations Commissioner and publisher of the now defunct Carson Venture Magazine, Zeke Vidaurri. He is also on record as the owner of consulting company. In the interest of full disclosure, Vidaurri was a sales contractor with Random Lengths News before launching his publication.
Mayor Dear originally appointed Vidaurri to the Utility Users Tax Commission in 2009. In August 2011, Dear transferred him to the Public Relations Commission shortly after he expanded the size of the commission from seven members to eight in August 2011.
In April 2011, Vidaurri announced before the city council that he would be “representing the mayor at public events, as requested.”
Holmes asked staff on the legal ramification of allowing non-residents to act as a representative of an elected official. Holmes doesn’t recall ever getting a response to her question, but according to the City Manager’s office, there are no rules regarding who can be an elected official’s representative.
These details by themselves are only significant when paired with Vidaurri’s purported pattern of using his City Hall connections and status as a commissioner to attain favored treatment.
Dr. Boggs on Vidaurri, she said he was, “strange to us.”
“I believe Zeke lives in Palos Verdes but the mayor has made use of his services here. To the best I know, he is not an employee of the city. However, recently he turned up at the planning commission as a consultant to accompany a company that had business in front of the planning commission, which is rather interesting to me,” she said.
“The planning commission people were appointed by the Mayor and by also having a consultant also appointed by the mayor, does that distort the company’s case before the planning commission? This happened rather recently. In this case, it was little strange because there is a connection between that consultant and the mayor,” Dr. Boggs said.
Indeed, Vidaurri is described in Planning Commission minutes as a representative of Reggie Guinto Nov. 13, 2012. The Planning Commission was considering whether to revoke Guinto’s Conditional Use Permit for his auto repair business. Vidaurri also represented Jacqueline Adame on Apr. 24, Feb. 14, and Jan. 10 of 2012, dates in which he was still ostensibly the mayor’s public representative and a Public Relations commissioner.
“I actually confronted the mayor with that. ‘Why would you select a consultant for yourself from outside the city for yourself? Is there no one inside the city you could have hired?’” Dr. Boggs recalled.
But Vidaurri’s wasn’t the only case of Commissioner behaving questionably. Council member Holmes suggested that there have been a number of commissioners whose actions didn’t always pass the sniff test.
“We had one who had inappropriate conduct with staff,” Holmes explained. “He had to be removed because I pushed the issue. And for sure one of them should have been asked to resigned but had not been. There was one who tried to embezzle money. You have one that’s still sitting there even after an investigation,” she said.
The only person on the council that was unaware of commissioner impropriety allegations was Councilman Elito Santarina, who when asked, point-blank, replied, “I will be honest. Not that I know of.”
“I agree one hundred percent [that the appearance of impropriety must be avoided]. But I’m not aware of any instances,” Santarina said.
When told of Vidaurri’s representation of local body auto shops before the Planning Commission, Santarina described Vidaurri’s actions as improper.
“That was why I was in favor….and this only after the fact….and I came to know that he in fact resigned,” Santarina said.
Dear’s perspective on the mayorship and the attacks on his leadership
It is Sweeney’s tenure that continues to be Dear’s raison d’etre at city hall. Dear describes the opposition arrayed against him, at least in part, as Daryl Sweeney supporters, even now, ten years after Mayor Daryl Sweeney’s conviction on corruption charges. Dear notes that many of them were behind the 2008 recall effort.
When Dear was elected mayor in 2004, he only had been on the council for three years. During those three years, a corruption scandal broke and 12 people were indicted and convicted of federal crimes, including Mayor Sweeney.
“When I got elected in 2004, the first thing I did was lead the healing process for the city, because psychologically and emotionally people were quite affected,” he noted.
Dear depicts the core supporters of former Mayor Daryl Sweeney as fervent followers of charismatic cult leader in the form of Father Divine, noting that disgraced mayor’s core supporters, “probably would have disliked anybody who came in after him because he was very popular, and very charismatic and charming.
“It was pretty severe in the sense that some of the followers publicly exclaimed that they would take a bullet for him. Another follower exclaimed he (Daryl Sweeney) was Jesus incarnated that came back to Earth. Another follower said she had demons inside of her and that’s why she does what she does… and this was when he was still mayor,” Dear said.
Dear noted that thought Mayor Sweeney went to jail, his core supporters didn’t.
“They remain in the community, hoping and wishing that they could regain power, because they had a privileged position in the community,” Dear said.
Dear recalled a leadership conference, ostensibly during his first time where the consultant teaching the class conducted an unscientific survey, where he asked attendees by show of hands who thought they were members of the dominant class in Carson. Dear said that it was basically the core Sweeney supporters that showed their hands.
“So they had this sense of empowerment and this sense of self-righteous position in the community because of their mayor,” Dear said. “They were commissioners at the time, because they were appointed. So these individuals are the ones that led the recall against me,” he said.
Through his discussion of the licentiousness of the previous mayoral administration and associated appointees, Dear’s views on the mayorship and the office associated powers become less clear. Dear was asked directly if he was aware of any commissioners who used their status for personal in any form.
“None that have actually done something illegal or unethical, or tried to get personal gain for themselves,” Dear replied. “But having said that, there have been a couple that have given the impression that that’s what they’ve been doing,” Dear said.
“Both of them resigned by my request,” Dear noted.
As a kind of defense to how Carson handles its appointment process, Dear points to former Los Angeles mayor, Jim Hahn’s administration, as an example.
“I think he was a good honest man, but he had commissioners that were not honest. And that was one of the the primary causes of his downfall,” he said. “You know, those individuals that I appoint, even though it requires a confirmation vote from the majority of the council, it’s [still] a reflection on me because I chose them,” Dear explained.
“Only on occasion [have] I appointed someone I didn’t know because councilmembers recommended them and I appointed them based on the council member’s word. Am I taking a chance doing that? Yes I am. I take chances…So once they are appointed to a commission, I am proud to say that they are independent thinkers,” Dear continued.
But the issue is the licentiousness that commissioners tend to exhibit and the broader meaning of commissioners owing their appointments to a single individual.
Dear denies that Vidaurri is his public representative. He simply describes the moment in front the city council chambers where Vidaurri announced his new position as simply as an invalid announcement.
At the time, Councilwoman Holmes asked staff to look at the legality of having a non-resident speak for an elected official and to get back to her. It’s not clear if Holmes ever got an answer, but he City Manager’s office in an emailed response said there are no rules governing an electeds choice of representative. Nevertheless, the council’s minutes reflect that the mayor was altogether silent on the issue.
Dear said he couldn’t say anything because it was during oral communications and it’s against the Brown Act to speak on issues not on the agenda.
When it was pointed out that Mr. Vidaurri has on occasion acted as if he did represented the mayor in public events, the mayor replied, “that a lot of people do that.”
When confronted with the specific example of Vidaurri speaking on his behalf during Charolette Brimmer’s candidacy announcement this past December since he was running late, the mayor focused specifically on the issue of Vidaurri speaking on his behalf. He said that was a different issue.
“He does not represent me either formally or informally,” Dear said. “But you know, I have a lot of friends and they will try to speak for me if I’m not going to be there at all or if I’m going to be late.”
But this isn’t the only place where there’s overreach by a commissioner. In 2012, Vidaurri, who was still known as the mayor’s representative, even if the mayor didn’t acknowledge it, as well as a Public Relations commissioner, represented appeared before the Planning Commission on several occasions on behalf of two auto repair shop owners. The mayor said he was aware of it.
“I did hear about that,” Dear said. “And I asked him about it and he said he was not paid to do that,” Dear explained. “He did it as a volunteer and in a democracy, you really can’t stop someone from volunteering or speaking because of First Amendment rights,” Dear reasoned.
Vidaurri resigned from the Public Relations commission in May 2012, but he was still identifying himself as a commissioner well after that date.
On October 10, 2012, Carson’s City Treasurer Karen Avilla received an email from the VP-Branch Manager Lea Manalad of East West Bank to head off a potential conflict. Two weeks prior to the email, Vidaurri went to the Carson branch of East West Bank to cash a check. Frustrated by the length of the lines, he went to the branch manager’s office to complain.
According to the email, acquired by Random Lengths News through a public records request, Manalad explained to Vidaurri that they were doing their best to get the line moving and service everyone as fast as possible.
It was then that Vidaurri shared that he was a city official, knows the mayor, and has connections within the community, and said that, “East West bank will not be happy to have a reputation on providing bad service.” Manalad related that she apologized and thanked Mr. Vidaurri for his input.
The incident was made all the more egregious given the the city of Carson was in the process of transferring its accounts to the bank.
But this is only one commissioner out of more than 200. But as interviews with council members and city hall insiders suggest, it’s not uncommon for commissioners to overreach their authority nor easy to gauge how deep their loyalties are to the ones that empowered them.
Mayor Dear sees Measure M as simply a measure put on the ballot by the block of three—the same block of three that has been “trying to curtail the authority of the office of mayor.”
Indeed, the block of three in the past year has banned the practice of appointing ex-officios to the boards; and a modest reduction in the size of commissions was achieved.
And still, the mayor is confident in his chances at reelection.
“I’ve run for mayor four times. And in each election, I get a higher percentage of the vote. It went from 48 percent to 52 percent to 58 percent to 62 percent. So maybe they think that because they can’t compete with me in an election, they want to eliminate the position.
“That’s $12,000 to $20,000 of the taxpayers’ money being used to put it on the ballot in a time when we have a budget deficit. It’s bad timing.”
The question for Carson residents is whether the time is ripe to resolve some of the long term issues that has plagued Carson’ politics.