Helen Tran and Jim Penman vie for mayor of the City of San Bernardino on November 8, 2022.
Helen Tran and Jim Penman vie for mayor of the City of San Bernardino on November 8, 2022. Credit: Chris Allen, VOICE

Gail Fry | Contributor

This month the City of San Bernardino mayoral candidates Jim Penman and Helen Tran faced off in a lively debate.

The event, sponsored by the North West Project Area Committee, was held at the Sixteenth Street Seventh Day Adventist Church where those in attendance listened to the candidates share their views of the future of the city.  

Helen Tran

Candidate Helen Tran (Tran) was employed by the City of San Bernardino in 2006 as the Executive Assistant to the Director of Human Resources, and promoted to the position of Director of Human Resources (HR) after 10 years.   

City of San Bernardino mayoral candidate Helen Tran (source: helentranformayor.com).

In early 2019, when Tran served as the director of HR, three female employees submitted complaints alleging inappropriate conduct by City Mayor John Valdivia as revealed by a webpage for law firm Pelayes, & Yu, APC.   

According to the law firm, on March 14, 2019, Human Resources Director Tran penned a memorandum to Mayor Valdivia cautioning him on his pattern of assigning employee Mirna Cisneros to work outside of class when he repeatedly authorized her to work numerous events after normal work hours and outside the scope of her job description.   

Voter’s Edge website reveals, Helen Tran resigned her position at the City of San Bernardino shortly thereafter, taking a position as Director, Human Resources & Risk Management in West Covina. 

In 2006, Tran earned her Bachelor’s degree in American Studies with a minor in Education from the University of California at Santa Cruz based on the Tran campaign website.

Jim Penman

Jim Penman became an attorney in private practice in the City of San Bernardino following his graduation from law school. After being recognized as “the Best Lawyer in the Inland Empire,” Penman ran for City Attorney in San Bernardino in 1987, and was elected after gaining 70% of the vote. He held that office for 26 years.

City of San Bernardino Mayoral Candidate Jim Penman. (source: penman for mayor.com).

In 2013, Penman found himself on the outside politically when 60.66% of the voters recalled him. At the time, John Husing, an economist and political strategist said, “Penman’s reflexive suspiciousness and penchant for fighting political rivals on almost every front led to paralysis at City Hall.” “Did hard-nosed ex-city attorney clean up or cause San Bernardino’s problems?” Asked a Los Angeles Times report published at the time. 

While former Mayor Judith Valles explained in the same report that Penman suspected everyone, and did not trust any of the elected mayors including herself.        

According to Penman’s campaign website, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at California State University, San Bernardino, and went on to obtain his Juris Doctorate from Western State University, College of Law.  

The Debate

Tran pointed to her  insight and experience gained while working for the city over 14 years, knowing what the city has been through coupled with her knowledge of the complexity of city government assets among her qualifications.  She said her approach is to engage council members toward the goal of effectively addressing a number of issues presenting themselves to the city such as homelessness, public safety, dilapidated streets, aging infrastructure, a downtown in need of redevelopment, and insufficient affordable housing.   

Penman explained that he is dedicated to the City of San Bernardino, saying he was finished being politically involved after being recalled.  He claimed he was only mean to slumlords, and developers who tried to take advantage of the city.  Penman spoke of his idea to utilize two vacant buildings for homeless housing, while offering residents with mental health, anti-addiction services, and job training.     

Tran said the first item to accomplish in her first year would be creating relationships with the council, the administration, the community and everybody needed at the table to make progress for the City of San Bernardino. She pledged to be an ally to those sitting at the table, working collectively toward the goal of delivering services productively and economically to residents. 

Penman touted that he already has relationships with the people at city hall and would therefore not waste his time building relationships, and pointing to his opponent, remarked that when you have a mayor in training, they need to establish relationships during the first year. He said his first item to accomplish in his first year as mayor would be to hire more police officers as citizens calling 911 should not have to wait hours or days to receive a response from their police department.

Housing the homeless 

As to issues of homelessness and mental health, Penman said the city had to provide housing to the homeless prior to having the legal ability to enforce its ordinance prohibiting outdoor camping.  He said he would have the city establish housing for the homeless, treat them with respect, kindness and decency, realizing that less than 40% want to be housed according to numerous studies. The city would use retired law enforcement officers to move them to the point where they either decide to live in the housing or locate to another city, he said. 

Tran was critical of Penman’s suggestion to rehire retired law enforcement officers to address homelessness, claiming the move would place their pension at risk based on CalPers Regulations and alleged Penman was making false promises to gain support.  She protested that Penman should stop saying she is a mayor in training, arguing that he was never a mayor. As to homelessness, Tran observed that the issue was complex with many ways to address it, explaining there is more than one solution to homelessness.  She said that as mayor, you can’t work alone, as a mayor has to be able to work collectively with the county and council to develop a policy, action plan, and adopt it prior to being eligible for government funds.   

On the issue of affordable housing, Penman placed doubt on Tran’s plan, asking how saying the council doesn’t have the money. As the former director of human resources, Penman said his opponent should know there is no impact to the pension of retired police officers if they choose to work as investigators.  He claimed the city will get affordable housing, like mayors have always gotten it, and he would start working with council members on these issues right away without having to first form a relationship.

Tran recognized affordable housing as a huge crisis statewide, explaining the state was already implementing legislation allowing cities to build affordable housing quickly. Tran suggested that abandoned buildings should be turned into affordable housing, not as housing for the homeless as Penman suggested. She said the city needs to create an avenue for renters to become homeowners.

With the mayor’s power restricted by the council, Penman said he has watched the city go down, and that he would be remiss if he didn’t take action to help the city that he has invested in and which his children and grandchildren live in.      

Tran said she also is raising her three children, and with her husband, has invested her time and life within the city.  She criticized Penman’s legacy as being 26 years of failed leadership.  “That is why I am running,” she proclaimed, concluding that she is excited to move the city forward with much needed new leadership, new energy, because there is a huge list of things that need to be done immediately.”  

Biggest obstacles

As to the biggest obstacle she found at city hall, Tran singled out a lack of leadership, explaining that without effective leadership, everything falls apart. She emphasized that you need to work as an ally, not as an adversary and charged that her opponent Penman, as the former city attorney, was adversarial.  Tran assured the voters that she would lead with humility, work cohesively with council, set aside differences, represent all of the citizens and to be an effective leader for the city, moving it forward to tackle a laundry list of issues facing the city.  Tran assured every problem has a solution.

Penman claimed the biggest obstacle when he was city attorney was corruption and that it is still the biggest obstacle today and needs to be addressed. He said he had to be adversarial to stand up to corruption. He then accused his opponent, Tran, of getting into the same thing, when her campaign sent out a memo last week, claiming that women in city hall accused him of sexual harassment. Penman countered he was investigated, and found innocent of any wrongdoing by the California State Bar, holding up documents he claimed support his statements. He cautioned that a candidate capable of lying during a campaign would likely use similar tactics in office.

Tran responded that she was standing up for those women who were faced with harassment by Penman, and would continue to stand up for them, because Penman did them wrong.

Gail Fry is a legal assistant who acted as a self-appointed government watchdog in San Bernardino County during the early 2000s. Over those years she sought public records, was critical of county-paid benefits for state judges, expressed concern over the perceived creative financing for court construction and played a key role in the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s formal warning to former San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod for violating the Political Reform Act for failing to disclose ownership of several properties over many years. Fry then served eight years as a reporter for The Alpenhorn News, a biweekly newspaper covering the San Bernardino Mountain communities. Fry remains committed in her quest to hold government officials accountable to the people they represent through her articles in Moffatt Media, The IE Voice, Black Voice News and The San Bernardino American News, as well as her work with various law firms on issues she believes will shine a light on government corruption.