Jim Penman

James Penman speaks at a forum for the mayoral candidates in 2005. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

By Joe Mozingo
Dec. 30, 2015

  • James Penman says he fought dysfunction at San Bernardino’s City Hall. His critics see his tenure as city attorney differently.

His gray hair was impeccable, as were his suits and ties, cinched into Windsor knots. With his penetrating gaze and stern, pockmarked face, James Penman made a distinctive impression as he roamed San Bernardino in his Chevy sedan.

Whether emerging from a police raid in his flak jacket or speaking out against corruption at City Hall, the city attorney, to many, cut a figure of rectitude in a city of deep decay.

Plenty of others, including outside professionals hired to reverse the city’s decline, saw Penman as the major impediment to fixing San Bernardino’s problems.

Penman did not operate like a traditional city attorney whose job was to advise the mayor and City Council on legal issues. In his 26 years in office, which ended with his ouster two years ago, he became more an old-school political boss, whose clout extended to virtually every part of city government — and was maintained with strong support from San Bernardino’s police and firefighters unions.

Today, Penman argues that the Police and Fire Departments’ widely praised response to the Dec. 2 terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center validates the city’s investment in those services.

He says he simply fought to ensure law and order and never held power out of proportion to his office. His no-nonsense approach, he says, reflected his responsibilities as city attorney: to root out corruption and ensure that city officials adhered to open-meeting and public-records laws.

“The biggest problem the city attorney had was getting them to follow the Public Records Act and Brown Act,” he says. “The second problem was them taking bribes.”

One of Penman’s supporters, former Mayor Judith Valles, said the corruption that Penman encountered, including a mid-1990s bribery scheme that ended in the conviction of two council members, sealed his approach to the job.

“He didn’t trust anybody,” she said. “Anyone who came as mayor, he didn’t trust. He didn’t trust me. Everyone was suspect.”

That attitude was Penman’s key flaw, says John Husing, an economist and political strategist who writes the Inland Empire Quarterly Economic Report. Penman’s reflexive suspiciousness and penchant for fighting political rivals on almost every front led to paralysis at City Hall, Husing said.

”He was the major disrupting influence who brought the city to its knees. He’s made it impossible to get anything done…. From the day he was elected city attorney, he fought with every mayor to try to run the city from his office.”

Penman grew up in San Bernardino. He says he helped pay his way through Cal State San Bernardino by working as a firefighter in the unincorporated area of Muscoy, on the city’s dusty northwestern edge. He later attended Western State College of Law in Fullerton.

San Bernardino voters first elected him city attorney in 1987 and recalled him in 2013, a year after the city filed for bankruptcy. During his 2 1/2 decades in office, he explored other political paths, running once for district attorney and twice for mayor, both times against Patrick Morris.

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