La prensa

CV Council Vacancy Reveals Relationships Behind Appointment

Chula Vista City Council
Author:
Created: 30 January, 2023
Updated: 25 January, 2024
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13 min read

By Arturo Castañares
Editor-at-Large

The process to fill a vacancy on a local City Council has revealed an interconnected web of financial relationships between powerful political figures involved in steering the selection process.

A Chula Vista City Council meeting last Tuesday lasted more than eight hours as dozens of public speakers advocated for and against ten applicants interviewed to fill a seat on the five-member governing board of the county’s second-largest city.

Through two rounds of nominations and voting, one applicant was the favored person to get the appointment: Devonna Almagro, a political operative connected to some of the most powerful politicos in the South Bay, but whose answers on her application for the appointment drew criticism from several public speakers at the meeting.

Devonna Almagro

Devonna Almagro

 

A La Prensa San Diego article published two days before the Council meeting detailed that Almagro included on her application and resumé references to a “Bachelor of Arts” and “B.A.” degree from the University of San Diego, even though she did not graduate from the local private university, and that she had just recently moved into the Council District where she is seeking to be appointed.

Several public speakers who addressed the Council before their nominations process criticized Almagro for mispresenting her background and that Councilmembers seemed determined to appoint a friend of theirs despite her misleading application.

All of the 17 residents who applied for consideration for the appointment signed their applications under penalty of perjury that all of the facts were true and correct.

In each round of voting, both Councilwoman Andrea Cardenas and newly-elected Councilwoman Carolina Chavez each nominated and voted for Almagro, but they could not get either Mayor John McCann or Councilman Jose Preciado to add their vote to make up a majority necessary to fill the vacancy.

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Although the meetings ended after 1 a.m. the next day without a decision on the appointment, the process revealed a web of financial relationships among a group of politicos working behind the scenes to drive the decision of the Council, but that has not be publicly disclosed by either Almagro or the Councilmembers voting to appoint her.

At the center of the group is Jesus Cardenas, a political consultant who currently serves as Chief of Staff to San Diego City Councilman Stephen Whitburn, but who has also been involved in the political campaigns of -and has direct business relationships with- several of the people involved in the appointment, including Almagro herself.

Jesus Cardenas

Jesus Cardenas

 

Cardenas arrived at last week's Chula Vista City Council meeting just minutes before the members began making nominations and voting on who to appoint.

After the Council failed to decide on the appointment and they adjourned for the night after 1 a.m., Cardenas walked behind the Council dais and disappeared into a private conference room used by Councilmembers and staff, raising concerns from several members of the public who had sat through the grueling ­eight-hour meeting.

Cardenas, who is the older brother of Chula Vista City Councilwoman Andrea Cardenas, has been involved in several candidate campaigns for local offices, including his sister's 2020 election, Nora Vargas' 2020 election to the County Board of Supervisors, and both Councilman Jose Preciado's and Councilwoman Carolina Chavez's elections last year, as well as the failed mayoral campaign of Ammar Campa-Najjar.

Councilman Preciado was previously a business partner with Jesus Cardenas in a company called Innovation Media Group, LLC, where Cardenas served as President and CEO while Preciado was the Board Chairman and Chief Information Officer. Preciado resigned his position with the company and left the partnership at the end of 2013.

The company’s ability to conduct business in California was later suspended by the Franchise Tax Board in 2014 for failure to file its tax returns, and seems to have been abandoned sometime after that date. The company’s website also listed Andrea Cardenas as part of their “team”.

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Jose Preciado

Jose Preciado

 

Almagro, the preferred candidate, previously worked together with Jesus Cardenas at a political call center then joined his consulting firm, Cardenas Consulting. At some point, Cardenas then created his current company, Grassroots Resources.

Andrea Cardenas has worked for Grassroots Resources since at least 2016 and is now seemingly in charge of the company after her brother started his full-time job in Councilman Whitburn's office in January 2021, although Jesus Cardenas has continued to help manage campaigns through the November 2022 elections.

Almagro worked with both Jesus and Andrea Cardenas on the 2020 campaign of Nora Vargas when she ran for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in the South Bay area. After Vargas won, Almagro became Vargas' Director of Communications and Binational Affairs. County records show Almagro’s total compensation package is over $140,000 per year.

Nora Vargas

Nora Vargas

 

Official County Registrar of Voters reports show that Supervisor Vargas owed Grassroots Resources over $45,000 after her election in November 2020. According to her latest campaign finance report, Vargas still owes the firm nearly $17,000 even after paying down $10,000 during 2021.

Before her election to the Board of Supervisors, Vargas served as Vice President of Community & Government Relations for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest when the group hired Jesus Cardenas as a political consultant. Cardenas was eventually terminated after a complaint was filed against him.

As La Prensa San Diego reported last week, Almagro did not disclose on her application for the vacancy that she lived with Councilwoman Cardenas in 2021 when they shared a rented home in West Chula Vista.

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The only other person who lived at the home at the time was Jehoan Espinoza, a political consultant who has worked closely with Cardenas and last year ran the campaigns of Preciado, Chavez, and mayoral candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar. Espinoza and both of the Cardenas have worked together on campaigns and in various positions within the San Diego County Democratic Party.

Almagro also donated to Councilwoman Cardenas' 2020 campaign, as well as to Councilwoman Chavez's campaign last year. Almagro also served on a Host Committee for a fundraiser for Chavez in September 2022.

Carolina Chavez

Carolina Chavez

 

Chavez last year was a staffmember to San Diego Councilman Stephen Whitburn where Jesus Cardenas is the Chief of Staff. After her election, Chavez returned to work for SIMSA, a cross border health care provider where she had worked for several years before.

During last week's meeting, Councilwoman Cardenas acknowledge knowing Almagro, but did not disclose that Almagro had worked for her brother's company the Councilwoman herself was running at the time they lived together, or that Almagro's current boss, Nora Vargas, still owes her company tens of thousands of dollars from her 2020 campaign.

"I can tell you right now that this one of the people that were guiding for me when it comes to ethics, when it comes to really serving your community," Councilwoman Cardenas said of Almagro before nominating her for the vacancy during last Tuesday's Council meeting.

Councilwoman Cardenas also dismissed the concerns over Almagro’s false claim of having earned a university degree by instead suggesting it was due to financial hardships after speakers raised of issue that Almagro sought to misrepresent her background.

“I think it’s disgraceful for us, to make the comment that someone who was not able to finish her education because of economic hardship should not be considered for this position, actually it’s very clear in her resume at it says attended, not graduated, and that’s very normal and natural in resumés, as far as I’ve seen,” Cardenas said.

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Almagro appeared to misrepresent her background by including in her resume “Bachelor of Arts: Ethnic Studies and Spanish" from "University of San Diego - San Diego, CA.", and on the application, she wrote, “Bachelor of Arts: Ethnic Studies and Spanish" from "University of San Diego - San Diego, CA." She also included "University of San Diego, B.A., Ethnic Studies and Spanish, 1997-2003" on her LinkedIn online profile.

Almagro resume

Almagro's resumé Education section

 

During her own 2020 election campaign, Councilwoman Cardenas ended up owing more than $38,000 in debt, mainly owed to a printing company, TMC Direct, that provided all of her campaign literature. TMC Direct is in a three-way partnership that includes Grassroots Resources. Cardenas had outstanding TMC Direct invoices dating back to February 2020 during the primary election and through October 2020 leading up to her election. She maintained that debt for more than one year until she began paying it down by donating over $33,000 of her own personal funds to her campaign committee.

A complaint was filed in June 2022 alleging that Cardenas violated City finance laws by accepting the unpaid campaign mailers as either a loan or extension of credit, both of which are prohibited. An outside law firm hired by the City found that Cardenas did violate the City’s rules.

Jesus Cardenas’ financial disclosures in San Diego list several of the firm's client who paid $10,000 or more to the firm, including a San Diego marijuana dispensary reported as "NS HARBOR", as well as the other companies with interests before the City of San Diego.

Last August, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that “Soon after being named Whitburn’s chief of staff, Cardenas reported that his company received at least $10,000 from former council candidate Kelvin Barrios’ campaign, Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 89, and several cannabis and public affairs firms.

Cardenas ran Barrios’ campaign for San Diego City Council in 2020, but Barrios was forced to suspend his campaign after he admitted misusing funds while serving as the Treasurer for the San Diego County Young Democrats, and also for moonlighting for a labor union while he was a San Diego City Council staffmember. Barrios was investigated by the San Diego District Attorney’s office.

During last Tuesday’s eight-hour meeting, the only person who spoke in favor of Almagro’s appointment was Kelvin Barrios who now represents the Laborers' Local 89 union, both of which were Jesus Cardenas’ clients.

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After Tuesday’s Council meeting, Jesus Cardenas and another long-time associate raised concerns from members of the public when the two men walked behind the Council’s dais to join Councilmembers in a private conference room usually reserved for members and staff.

The other person, Roberto Alcantar, is a Public Affairs Manager for San Diego Gas & Electric, which has several contractual relationships with the City. Alcantar is also elected to the Southwestern College’s Board.

Roberto Alcantar

Roberto Alcantar

 

Previously, Alcantar worked for Cardenas’ Grassroots Resources on issues in Chula Vista, including marijuana dispensaries. 

But, regardless of their relationships, the perception that a political consultant and a paid lobbyist for the area’s utility company would join a majority of the Council in a behind-the-scenes meeting immediately following the contentious Council meeting raised concerns from the public.

One local elected official who was in the audience during the marathon Council meeting voiced her concerns to Mayor John McCann and City Attorney Glen Googins after the meeting.

Delia Cervantes, who spoke before the Council twice during public comment periods, complained that it appeared like people with personal interests in the appointment process were allowed to meet privately with Councilmembers to pressure them into voting for their candidate.

“Jesus Cardenas is financially connected to at least two members of the Council, and his close associate ran the campaign of another, giving him influence over a majority of the City Council,” Cervantes told La Prensa San Diego after the meeting. “It is inappropriate for the City Attorney to allow anyone with an interest in influencing the appointment to go meet privately with the members,” she added.

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The Council held two rounds of voting where each member was given the opportunity to nominate an applicant followed by a vote of the Council. The selection of someone to fill the vacancy required three or more votes.

Two Councilmembers, Andrea Cardenas and Carolina Chavez, nominated and voted Almagro time each, but neither Mayor John McCann or Councilman Jose Preciado voted along with them to make a majority.

McCann nominated two other applicants, Nimpa Akana in the first round, and Tanya Williams in the second round. Preciado nominated another applicant, Griselda Delgado, in each of the rounds.

After two rounds of voting without any nomination receiving a majority vote, the Council voted to adjourn to a special meeting next Tuesday.

Several of the public speakers commented on concerns raised about Almagro’s background, with some warning the Council not to select her over inconsistencies in statements she made on her application, including her claim to have earned a “Bachelor of Arts” degree from the University of San Diego even though she did not graduate, and writing that she lived the in Council District 3 “for close to 15 years” but only registered to vote in the area in November 2022.

Applicants for the vacancy must live and be registered to vote in the District which includes the Eastern neighborhoods of Sunbow, Otay Ranch, Millenia, and Winding Walk.

The vacancy came about after Councilman Steve Padilla was elected to the California State Senate in the November election and took office in December. Under the City’s Charter, the Council had the choice to either appoint someone to fill the vacancy or to call a special election later in the year.

Councilmembers earn an annual salary of $61,029 for the part-time position and can maintain their outside employment. The Mayor receives a full-time salary of $152,574.

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Councilmembers voted to utilize an appointment process, but their power to choose someone expires 45 days after the vacancy was declared, which will happen on February 3rd. If they cannot agree on an appointment by a majority vote of the four current members, the vacancy would then have to be filled by a special election.

The special Council meeting to continue to appointment process will be on Tuesday, January 31st, beginning at 5:00pm at the Chula Vista Council Chambers.

A group has organized a rally before the upcoming Council meeting to draw attention to the "cronyism and deception at Chula Vista City Hall." The rally is scheduled to take place at in front of Chula Vista City Hall at 4:00 p.m. before the 5:00 p.m. start of the Council meeting.

Investigative Reporter Alberto Garcia contributed to this article.

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