Gonzales

10:30 PM PDT on Monday, August 1, 2011

By JANET ZIMMERMAN
The Press-Enterprise

Special Section: San Bernardino Co. Probe

San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales considers herself an anomaly in politics.

She worked her way from a Fontana planning commissioner and city councilwoman to the first Latina on the board of supervisors, which she now chairs. Even after 14 years as a policy maker, Gonzales says she’s not a politician, just a “regular person.”

“I already know I’m not supposed to be in this position. People like me don’t get into politics and have longevity. The fact that I’m in allows for this uncommon character of mine to play a very upfront role on the political stage and impact lives,” she said.

Gonzales, 59, may be less experienced than many of her colleagues, but the Inland native knows how the game is played.

Supervisor Josie Gonzales, visiting with 100-year-old constituent Ruth Clisby at Clisby’s Colton home, says she is motivated by fear of consequences. “I believe that fear has kept me politically healthy,” she said.

She relies on the same instincts she used to protect her four now-grown children when she was a single mother.

Those instincts, she said, kept her out of trouble in the Colonies conspiracy scandal. A former supervisor, two former chiefs of staff and a developer are accused of conspiracy, bribery and other felonies in an effort to win Board of Supervisors’ approval for a $102 million settlement with Colonies over a flood control project. A second former supervisor pleaded guilty.

COMPLAINED TO DA

Gonzales was one of two no votes against the settlement. She reported what she thought were illegalities leading up to the vote to the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates complaints involving public office holders. She doesn’t know if that prompted the investigation.

In her grand jury testimony, Gonzales said she was intimidated by the developer and his friends and concealed her opinion until the day of the vote. She said she was so intent on avoiding any hint of succumbing to influence that she hid from those involved — in some cases, in her hotel room, a restroom and behind potted plants.

Gonzales is petite and soft-spoken. Former colleagues describe her as quiet and nonconfrontational but far from a pushover. They said she has a heart of gold that belies how tough she is.

“I didn’t know what Josie was going to do until the end,” former Supervisor Dennis Hansberger said of the Colonies vote. He adamantly opposed the settlement.

“She played her cards close to the vest,” he said. “Nobody owns Josie’s vote, period. I credit her with that. I have a lot of respect for Josie. She works hard to get along and work with people and remain independent.”

At age 10, Gonzales began mopping floors and prepping food at her parents’ Fontana restaurant, Mexico Lindo. She took over after her father died in 1991, with plans to start a chain.

But politics came knocking. The then-Fontana mayor and a councilman urged her to apply for the city’s Planning Commission, even though she had no experience. She was appointed in 1996.

CITY COUNCIL WIN

In 1998, she beat out nine other candidates for a seat on the City Council, with $7,000 of her own money and the help of her husband, Jess Macias.

When she ran for supervisor in 2004, Gonzales used a $365,000 inheritance to partially fund her campaign. She won, and by 2009 closed the restaurant to concentrate on being a supervisor.

“She’s our champion. She’s willing to represent the little guy,” said Joe Ayala, who became a fan after Gonzales helped his neighborhood eliminate a blighted area.

After taking office in January 2005, Gonzales met with county lawyers on the Colonies case. At that point, the proposed settlement was about $60 million, according to her testimony.

It soon became clear how much influence the supervisors’ chiefs of staff had on decisions, Gonzales testified. That was particularly true for Supervisor Gary Ovitt and his chief of staff, Mark Kirk. She described Kirk as a showoff and a rebel who spoke for Ovitt and said he favored a settlement.

Gonzales said she called it to Ovitt’s attention and took Kirk to task, to no avail.

Kirk is among those charged in the case. Also charged are Colonies developer Jeff Burum, former Supervisor Paul Biane, and Jim Erwin, a former assistant assessor and former chief of staff to Supervisor Neil Derry. They have denied wrongdoing. Former supervisor and assessor Bill Postmus pleaded guilty and is cooperating with authorities.

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