Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on Grand Terrace's new City Council members.
GRAND TERRACE - About a year ago, Bernardo Sandoval thought a man was getting a raw deal, so he started attending City Council meetings to see if he could do something about it.
That man - then-Councilman Jim Miller, who had voted with the rest of the council to approve routine payments for city advertisements in his wife's weekly newspaper - would later resign and plead guilty to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge.
But Sandoval's limited fight for Miller soon exposed him to bigger revelations about the 12,000-person city where he'd grown up, particularly the $4.6million debt it owed to the redevelopment agency.
Dismayed by the placid response from longtime players whom fellow reformers termed the old guard, Sandoval decided that the best way to change the culture of the local government was to campaign to join it.
In a four-person race that included incumbent Bea Cortes, voters gave Sandoval 36percent of the vote. His next closest opponent, former City Manager Tom Schwab, garnered 23 percent.
Combined with a convincing victory by his running mate, Mayor-elect Walt Stanckiewitz, Sandoval sees a mandate.
"It's a new day," Sandoval said. "I represent now, in this seat, the people of Grand Terrace. I did make very clear what my positions were. I do believe in a balanced budget. I believe that as a city we must live within our means. We must make very deliberate efforts to hold vendors and contractors of the city accountable to perform."
Stanckiewitz and Sandoval campaigned explicitly against a long-standing status quo represented by Schwab, whom they said had broken the city's trust during his 20 years at its helm.
"I felt that there were abuses of the RDA and also misrepresentations concerning the financial situation of the city," Sandoval said. "The $4.6million debt that no one was aware had developed over the years? Inexcusable, in my mind."
Schwab declined to comment further, but he has said in the past that the City Council knew about the debt.
Even as he vows to open up the city to increased scrutiny, Sandoval said his main goal now is unity - not just among Grand Terrace's factions, but between the city and the school district it's in, Colton Joint Unified.
"The relationship between the Colton school board and Grand Terrace was caustic," Sandoval said, detailing a history of distrust that recently boiled over in debates about construction delays at Grand Terrace High School, which was supposed to open in fall 2011.
To heal those fissures, Sandoval already has met with new school board members concerning minor disagreements and spoken with David Zamora, Colton's new mayor.
Both sides also say that more like-minded voices now represent Grand Terrace and the school district.
"During our campaign, even though we didn't technically campaign together, we did meet a lot, and we were at a lot of the same events," said Pilar Tabera, who was elected to the school board in November. "My impression is (Sandoval) speaks his mind, he's a straightforward kind of guy, he doesn't pull any punches. I can appreciate that, being a lot like that myself."
Stanckiewitz predicted the new council, which first meets Tuesday, will be heavily shaped by Sandoval's presence.
"I'm absolutely positively sure he will push for the transparency and openness that we campaigned on," Stanckiewitz said. "I think it'll be up to the other members to kind of figure out who they want to get on board or if they want to stay in old habits, but I think things are going to change significantly."