SAN BERNARDINO—At the suggestion of councilman Benito Barrios, the San Bernardino City Council at a rare Tuesday night meeting this week steered itself between the extremes of cutting city manager Mark Scott completely loose and giving him what was essentially open-ended license to remain in his $280,000 per year position overseeing municipal operations in the 213,000-population county seat at his own discretion on a month-to-month basis.
Barrios floated an alternate proposal to an earlier motion that would have ended the city’s association with Scott. Instead, the council has extended Scott’s tenure with the city at least until March 7, a day after the council is next scheduled to meet and the day before the Reno City Council is slated to determine whether it will hire Scott to manage that city.
One observer likened the city council to a high school kid who gets stood up by the prettiest girl on campus for some Fancy Dan but who will not seek another date because he hopes the Fancy Dan might end up ditching her before the prom actually gets into full swing.
While the San Bernardino City Council’s members were uniformly laudatory about Scott’s job performance over the 54 weeks he has been on the job, five of the council’s seven members – Barrios, Jim Mulvihill, Henry Nickel, Virginia Marquez and John Valdivia – were straightforward in stating their belief that Scott is purposed, despite the high esteem in which he is held in San Bernardino, to depart. Such was signaled three weeks ago when it was revealed that he was being considered by Reno, Nevada as a replacement for Andrew Clinger, who resigned last year.
Scott, who had been the city manager in Burbank before he was tapped in late December 2015 to lead San Bernardino’s staff, took on the city manager’s position in San Bernardino on February 6, 2016 pursuant to a one year contract, which was done by mutual consent since the city was gun shy about a long term commitment in the wake of its experience with Allen Parker, who had been hired during the last year of former mayor Patrick Morris’s eight-year tenure as mayor. Though Parker appeared to be on the same page with Morris’s successor, Carey Davis, when the later came into office in 2013 and seemed to be at one with the necessity of significantly reducing municipal expenses through drastic cuts in personnel as well as salary and benefit reductions for remaining employees, Parker found himself resented by employee unions, leaving him in a vulnerable position. When his relationship with Davis soured in December 2014 over Parker balking at endorsing Davis’s bid to keep Mike McKinney as his chief of staff, there followed an eleven month situational deterioration as Parker grew more and more disengaged in his function at City Hall. The council handed Parker his walking papers, which involved a mutual release and a severance package including Parker getting 12 months of pay and medical coverage following his official departure as of December 31, 2015. Thus, in bringing Scott to the city, the city council offered him a single 12 month contract with the possibility of extensions. Scott, whose two major assignments were to guide the city into its final exit from the Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection it had entered into in 2012 and push through a charter reform package the majority of the council favored, was unwilling to commit beyond the year he was being offered, though he said if things worked out he would not mind remaining with the city until he retired, potentially not until 2022.
Several months before Scott’s one-year anniversary with the city arrived, the council as a whole had overcome whatever reservations its members may have had. Scott actively campaigned for the charter changes, which were passed by the voters in November, and within the last fortnight the city’s bankruptcy exit plan was ratified by the federal bankruptcy judge, Meredith Jury, overseeing the case. Meanwhile, the city council had delayed, postponed or deferred Scott’s performance review, which, at least according to some official statements, was supposed to have been undertaken at the three, four or six month point after his official start with the city. As his one year anniversary was approaching and that review had yet to be undertaken, indications were that he would be provided with ongoing one-month extensions until such time as his performance review was completed, at which point he would be offered a two-year, three-year, or four-year contract as was deemed appropriate based upon the review. Just a few days shy of his anniversary, however, on February 1, Reno posted its agenda for its February 8 city council meeting in which it was revealed that Scott was among five candidates being considered for that city’s top staff position.
That announcement, which Scott might not have anticipated, seemed to catch both him and the San Bernardino City Council flatfooted when word reached San Bernardino within 48 hours. Scott had not given any previous indication of his intention to leave San Bernardino. At first blush, what was suggested was that Scott, who had relocated to an apartment in San Bernardino to be in compliance with previous charter requirement that he live in the city, was chaffing at that limitation and was seeking to get on with Reno so he could cohabit with his wife.
With the elapsing of his one-year contract and a decision in Reno not yet finalized, Scott remained in place as city manager.
This week, the city council did not meet on Monday because of the Presidents Day Holiday, and instead convened on Tuesday. The agenda for that meeting contained an item pertaining to sustaining Scott as city manager on a month-to-month basis. The consideration that sometime in the previous 60 days, Scott had either actively applied for the opening in Reno or had been recruited to the position hung over the meeting, with councilman Jim Mulvihill first enunciating that the council needed to come to terms with Scott leaving either in the near or more distant term.
“He’s leaving,” Mulvihill said, sizing up the situation and offering the view that it would be best for the city to adapt to that reality sooner rather than later.
In his comments, Henry Nickel picked up on that theme. “I would not want to lose the services of Mr. Scott,” Nickel said, but bowing to the inevitable, remarked, “It may, in fact be more destabilizing keeping him month-to-month than the alternative. Uncertainty is not a friend of investment and development, which is what the city needs at this time. It has become clear Mr. Scott is seeking employment elsewhere.” By continuing on with Scott on a month to month basis, Nickel said the city will embrace instability. “Will it be next month when we get that notice? Will it be six months from now?” he asked. “If I were in the shoes of someone investing multiple millions of dollars in our city, I would be concerned I wasn’t negotiating with someone who will be out the door in the next six months and when that person is out the door and I will have to start over. I do not want to lose the services of Mr. Scott but month-to-month simply does not provide that stability.”
At that point, Nickel suggested that for the sake of future continuity the council elevate assistant city manager Andrea Travis-Miller to the position of city manager and reduce Scott to the status of assistant city manager. More than four years ago, Travis-Miller had served in the capacity of interim city manager following the departure of former city manager Charles McNeeley. “What would be the detriment to perhaps transitioning our current city manager to the assistant city manager position and transitioning our current assistant city manager, who I assume has a long term commitment to the city, to city manager?” Nickel asked.
Nickel said such a move would not signal that “we’re going to get rid of Mr. Scott but transition to someone who would have a commitment to our city long term.”
As Nickel was making the suggestion, Travis-Miller, seated in the row of city officials at the front of the council chambers in front of and beneath the council dais facing away from the citizen gallery, appeared to be shuddering at the prospect or virulently shaking her head no. After the meeting she would tell the Sentinel she was merely attempting to signal to Nickel that such a matter should not be discussed in open session. Indeed, within seconds Mayor Carey Davis, city attorney Gary Saenz and assistant city attorney Jolena Grider moved to hush Nickel, asserting in near unison that the matter would be more properly discussed in closed session.
Nickel responded, “I do agree that this is something that should take place in a closed session, but so far it has not. I simply do not think at this time we can afford a destabilizing relationship, which is what we get with a month to month [arrangement]. I cannot support a month-to-month [contract] tonight, based on the information before me… versus a more stable relationship with our city manager whoever that person may be.”
At any rate, Nickel said, he believed it “appropriate” to hold a performance review of Scott in closed session before making any decision on his extended tenure with the city.
Councilwoman Virginia Marquez said, “Mr. Scott is my fifth city manager in seven years. That is not stability. I have a problem with this agenda item. I’m a huge fan of Mark Scott because he came to us at a very good time. He was the right person for the time and he continues to be so, but I feel like if he moves on to Reno or has other plans, we’re left holding the bag. This is a very crucial time. We’re implementing a new city charter, which makes us a very strong city council/city manager form of government. We’re exiting bankruptcy. We’re moving out of City Hall. It’s just not right for us. If he moves on, then I don’t know who will be acting [city manager], and I think we have to start thinking about a succession plan. So, I cannot support this item.”
Travis-Miller, sensing the momentum of the council, sought to refocus the council, breaking into the discussion to say that she urged the council “strongly to support this item” and saying Scott had assembled “a great professional, capable team.”
Barrios asked Travis Miller “What are the consequences of not supporting this tonight?” Travis-Miller said it would send a “message about stability” or lack thereof. She said that Scott had a “commitment” to the city. “I can tell you he is engaged. I have worked in the industry a very long time. Mr. Scott is one of the most engaged city managers I have ever worked with. I think it is important that you have that leadership at this time, and continue to discuss your options later. All this does is continue your relationship. It is a month-to-month [arrangement], anyway.”
When Barrios pushed to find out what the immediate effect would be if the month-to-month agreement with Scott was not approved, Grider stated, “The mayor did extend this until today. If you don’t approve this tonight, we have no city manager. We have just got out of bankruptcy and that sends the wrong message to the bankruptcy court, to our creditors.”
Councilman Fred Shorett leapt to Scott’s defense. “Mark Scott has maintained a residence in this city of San Bernardino,” he said. “He’s commuted home on the weekends. He’s been here on Friday nights and he’s been here on Saturdays. My colleague said he can’t commute. I couldn’t disagree more. I know a lot of people commute from the desert to Los Angeles on a daily basis. We did hear from Mr. Scott, and I believe him, he was not really looking for a job [in Reno]. He came here with the intention of staying for three, four, five years. He looked at the challenges. He looked at the opportunities.”
Shorrett said it was the council’s fault for dithering on offering a performance review that would have paved the way for stability with Scott. “As far as a performance review, that is something we should do,” he said. “We should do that on a regular basis. I think his performance is something that speaks for itself. I think the results that we have seen, I think the things we have done over the past year speak for themselves, as far as his leadership and performance. I am anxious for us to wait and see how he does in Reno. And if he is successful, then we wish him the best, because he helped us a great deal and we move him down the road and we take it on. But that’s going to happen within a few weeks. So a month-to-month [arrangement], I think we can. And if for some reason – I told him, Reno’s crazy if they don’t hire him. He’s that good. They would be stupid not to hire him. We do have Andrea Travis-Miller back. I’m thrilled with her performance and Mark Scott is thrilled with her performance. She can step in. I guess she’ll step in if we vote tonight to not extend the contract. But I think to not extend the contract and look like we are in chaos again would be absolutely crazy. Mr. Scott was concerned about the commute and he was concerned about his home life. This opportunity came along and this was one he really wasn’t looking for, and I believe him, and that he simply couldn’t say no, he had to give it an opportunity. But I’m convinced there is a way for him to stay, if he isn’t successful in Reno.”
Shorett said that if Scott did not get the Reno job, the city should then get a commitment from Scott. “What he has done in this community is phenomenal,” Shorrett said.
At that point, councilman John Valdivia drove what appeared to be the final nail into Scott’s coffin.
“The council provided” Scott, Valdivia said, “a $1,500 a month housing allowance.” Valdivia said he opposed that provision but that “I ultimately supported his appointment to be the city manager. I think it is clear the $1,500 [stipend] is now appearing again. I see some inconsistencies with Mr. Scott suggesting in conversations he somehow has had some issues with the housing, the apartment, for whatever reason, and he is now considering just commuting. So, I think he has made overtures that his rent and housing situation in San Bernardino has certainly, in my estimation, been compromised, and he would like to commute from Rancho Mirage and spend the nights with his wife. [That is] understandable and I respect that. Regarding his salary, I’d like to read from the record, ‘Mr. Scott shall be compensated at the annual salary set at equal to $248,076.’ [That is] on top of the other perks we provide Mr. Scott, which is the $1,500 per month for rental in the city limits. I have a deep regard for Mr. Scott. In fact, I have witnessed and experienced his commitment to professional service as a city manager. I have had a very friendly relationship with Mr. Scott. In fact, he and I meet twice monthly on various issues regarding the future of our city, my ward and the issues pertaining to the ward I serve. I have seen him to be a consummate professional in my dealings with the issues at hand. I certainly believe that he was brought in for two primary reasons, those expressed on the city charter issue, which he was unashamedly bold about his commitment to change the charter. I disagree, respectfully, on that. That was one of the main points on him coming to this city. The other issue was him leading us out of bankruptcy. I think he has accomplished both of those commitments to his own personal resumé as well as to our city. Tonight, I think we are dealing with a different matter. I certainly appreciate what councilman Mulvihill has suggested. My concern is the future of our city, the progress of our city and how in fact we will look the day after bankruptcy. Unfortunately, I don’t think we really have that plan as a legislative priority. I have certainly attempted to make those endeavors and lead the charge on the day after, so I will continue my efforts to do that. But for the time being, I too have had a deep soul search on this issue before us tonight and I cannot support a continuation of Mark Scott. I respect him. I think he is a true professional. I wish him the best. I think [of] his efforts in Reno. God bless him, if he is looking for another opportunity. That being the case, I cannot support this contract tonight.”
At that point it thus appeared that Scott was done for in San Bernardino, with Valdivia, Marquez, Nickel, and Mulvihill looking to the future beyond Scott and Barrios appearing to be leaning heavily against renewing his contract on a month-to-month basis.
Scott was not there to speak for himself, as he was in Reno for further evaluation by city officials there with the other three finalists for the position Clark County Nevada Assistant Administrator Sabra Smith Newby, Rocklin City Manager Rick Horst, and former Tulsa, Oklahoma City Manager James Twombly. Palpable throughout the discussion 455 miles south was the suggestion that Scott is indeed set on leaving San Bernardino. Some sensed prevarication in his having cited how working and living in San Bernardino was forcing him to be apart from his wife, given that Reno is more distant from where she is living than is San Bernardino. Earlier that evening, Scott Olsen, a San Bernardino resident had said, “I do support Mark Scott staying with the city. I’m not surprised Mark Scott is entertaining the idea of going to Reno. I’m a little confused if Mark lives in Rancho Mirage, which he has all along and his wife has a profession there, how leaving San Bernardino and going to Reno makes him closer to his wife and Rancho Mirage, but that’s his personal business.”
Olson said the council should not delude itself or make misrepresentations to its residents about the inducements it is prepared to offer Scott to stay.
“What gets me is the city employs $1,500 per month to keep up the illusion that he is a resident in the city of San Bernardino when we know his residency, his legal residency, has been Rancho Mirage all along,” Olsen said. “If we bring Mark Scott back, why don’t we pay him mileage instead of a housing allowance to create this phony illusion?”
After Valdivia’s statement, councilwoman Bessine Richard, the newest member of the council, weighed in. With relatively simple phraseology, she sent the council momentum careening back toward the sentiment of keeping the door open for Scott.
“This was hard for me to think about,” Richard said. “But if you guys think about it, and I am speaking to my colleagues up here, if you don’t agree to this, that means you guys believe Mark Scott should be fired, because that is exactly what will happen. Is that something we really want to do? Because he has done great things in the city within the short time I’ve been here and the short time he’s been here. So, I just ask that we make a stipulation in there that we look at him and maybe add some things to the contract. But he does not deserve to be fired. People talked about the performance review and you’re absolutely right, he should have had a performance review. I know from being in the position I serve in that everybody gets a performance review within ninety days of their employment. So why didn’t we give him a performance review within 90 days of his employment? We can’t just fault him. We have to fault ourselves. So, I just say he’s done great things in the city and we don’t want to be a city without a city manager again. It’s month-to-month. Should something happen we have no problem saying bye-bye. But right now he has not done anything he should be fired for.”
At that point, Barrios leapt into the breach and proffered an alternative motion that called for extending Scott’s current status with the city at least until March 7, by which time it was thought that there would be enough time to communicate with Scott about his intentions. The March 7 date was chosen because the council will meet the prior day, at which point other relevant action with regard to Scott might be taken. The entire council, including Mayor Carey Davis, voted 8-0 in support of the motion.
Later that evening, the council would learn that the Reno City Council had that evening eliminated Horst and Twombly from consideration and will have Scott and Newby back for further interviews on March 7 before making a final decision on March 8.