By Mark Gutglueck
Leaving Victorville in something of a lurch, Doug Robertson is set to move on to become Apple Valley town manager on January 1.
Robertson’s departure comes as Victorville finds itself inundated with a host of challenges, which have turned Robertson’s departure into something of a span-of-control dilemma.
The intensity of the job has been weighing on him for some time, and five months ago, when Frank Robinson’s departure as the Town of Apple Valley’s manager created a vacuum that officials there leapt to fill by enlisting the headhunting firm of Ralph Andersen & Associates to carry out a recruitment, Robertson quietly applied for the job.
After a nationwide search, Andersen recommended that the town go no further than next door and hire Robertson. The town council agreed to do so, tendering an offer of $246,540 in salary, $10,200 in other pay and $89,387 in benefits for a total annual compensation package of $346,127, which matched what the town was paying Robinson. Robertson accepted the offer despite the consideration that it represented a pay cut of $27,756 in terms of salary and an overall drop in total compensation of $6,010 from the grand total of $352,137 Robertson was receiving in Victorville when his $274,296 in salary, $22,661 in other pay and $55,180 in benefits was tallied.
What was clear was that Robertson wanted out of Victorville, where he had begun with the city in 2002 as a deputy city manager overseeing a variety of municipal projects under then-city manager John Roberts before being elevated to assistant city manager by Jim Cox in 2009, and then becoming city manager in July 2011.
With only a few respites, the pressure and conflicts at Victorville City Hall have been immense from the onset of Robertson’s tenure as city manager. Robertson inherited from Cox a $12 million cost-cutting, budget-slashing austerity program that between 2009 and 2012 entailed seven percent-to-ten percent across-the-board city staff salary reductions together with the elimination of 200 municipal positions through layoffs, forced demotions, prompted resignations, early retirements through so-called “golden handshakes, management consolidations and outsourcing. While in years past, Victorville had been one of the most politically stable of the High Desert’s cities, that changed substantially in 2010 when Terry Caldwell, who had been a member of the city council since 1973 during which he served several stints as mayor, opted not to seek reelection after 37 years. That same year, Angela Valles defeated longtime councilwoman JoAnn Almond. Once in place, Valles undertook to establish herself as a perennial challenger of the status quo. During Robertson’s last year as assistant city manager and his first year as city manager, Valles in particular went to war in earnest with another longtime member of the political establishment in Victorville, Rudy Cabriales, who had been Victorville’s fire chief before he acceded to the council in 2000. In 2012, Cabriales chose not to seek reelection while he was under withering attack by Valles over his votes as a member of the city council to have the city financially support the Victor Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, of which his wife was executive director. Things worsened for the city in 2013 when the United States Securities and Exchange Commission charged the City of Victorville, assistant city manager Keith Metzler, the Southern California Logistics Airport Authority, and bond underwriter Kinsell, Newcomb & DeDios with defrauding investors by inflating valuations of property at the Southern California Logistics Airport, in particular hangars there, in issuing and marketing airport bonds. That case has dragged on for more than four years. In 2014, Valles left the council but two years later, Blanca Gomez was elected to the council and within days of her swearing in was proving to be as sharply critical of her council colleagues as Valles had been before her. At first, the verbal fisticuffs on the council dais seemed to be exchanged, in the main, between Gomez and councilman Eric Negrete. By January, the contretemps had escalated to include Mayor Gloria Garcia. Gomez publicly excoriated the council and other city officials for what she referred to as festering political corruption, and the rest of the council returned fire in the form of vetoing her first appointment to the planning commission, then rejected her second choice and then her third choice. In short order, Gomez appeared to be implacably pitted against Negrete and Garcia, with Jim Cox, the former city manager turned councilman, and councilman Jim Kennedy consistently siding with Negrete and Garcia, or at least consenting to hold their coat and cloak while they duked it out with Gomez. In June 2018, the city’s longstanding contractual arrangement with the county to have the county fire department provide fire protection service to Victorville is set to expire. The county is not amenable to renewing that contract but instead wants the city to annex the entirety of the Victorville City Limits into a fire service zone, impose assessments of upwards of $150 annually on all of the city’s property owners and lay claim to as much as 40 percent of the city’s property tax revenue as part the arrangement to continue to provide fire protection within the city. That triggered discussion of Victorville forming its own municipal fire department, together with a proposal, in the form of a ballot initiative, Measure K which went before city voters last month as part of a special election, that would have imposed a half cent “public safety” sales tax override to be collected at all businesses in Victorville. The union representing county firefighters, believing that city officials would, if enabled by the revenue from that sales tax enhancement, opt to create a municipal fire department, opposed the Measure K sales tax initiative. Because of a peculiarity in the state elections code that requires that tax initiatives wherein the proceeds are earmarked for a specific purpose must pass by a two thirds majority, Measure K failed, despite having solid support in the community in the form of a 62 percent passage. The city now faces the prospect of having to annex itself into a county fire protection zone, and in so doing give up a significant amount of its property tax revenue to the county and saddle the city’s residents and business owners with a yearly assessment on top of that. Recently, the Victorville city clerk abruptly resigned. Meanwhile, the city is being pressured by so-called election reform advocates to discontinue the methodology it has used since the city’s 1962 incorporation of electing its council members through at-large elections and instead institute a ward system in which the city is to be divided into electoral districts. If the city does not accommodate the demand, two attorneys have vowed to sue over the issue.
While Apple Valley was known for the last six months to be seeking a replacement manager for Robinson, Robertson was playing his ploy to jump ship pretty close to the vest. When he threw his hat into the ring some time ago, it does not appear that he informed the Victorville City Council of his candidacy for the job until just three weeks ago, after Ralph Andersen & Associates had narrowed the field of applicants to four finalists and Robertson was among them.
This morning, Robertson told the Sentinel, “I feel I have done everything I can to move the city forward from a development perspective. We’ve had significant improvements in our code in relation to improving the quality and appearance of our neighborhoods and homes. We have rebuilt and paved more roads this year and next than we ever have before. We have seven new eating establishments recently opened or under construction at our Restaurant Row. There is a four story hotel being built along the freeway and another recently approved on the opposite side. We’ve hit a point that, other than one other major project we are working on, we’ve completed much of what we set out to do recently.”
Word that Robertson was going to leave Victorville did not reach the public until Friday November 24, four days before the Apple Valley Town Council was slated to approve the contract on November 28. The cat left the bag when the agenda for the town council meeting, containing the action item to finalize Robertson’s hiring, was posted.
Jim Cox, who was largely responsible for seeing that the municipal managerial torch was passed to Robertson in 2011, on Tuesday evening November 28, even as the Apple Valley Town Council was holding the meeting at which it officially approved entering into the contract with Robertson, told the Sentinel that he had not learned that Robertson was definitely making his exit from Victorville until that morning.
“All I know is he told me he was putting in an application,” Cox said. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘I think I need to.’ I said I was concerned and he said, ‘As soon as I know, I’ll let you know.’ I asked a few days later and he said there was no word yet. This morning I picked up the paper [the Victorville Daily Press] and it said the town had accepted his application or they were going to accept him and he would be working for Apple Valley as of January 1. I saw him today for a few minutes and he said a lot of things have gone on and he was at a meeting of city managers a few years ago and one of the managers participating had just left the city he was with to go to another and his explanation for doing that was ‘When you know it’s time to go, you just go.’ He said he now knew exactly what that city manager meant because now that time had come for him. What else can you say?”
Cox said it was an inopportune time for Robertson to be checking out of Victorville City Hall. Cox himself twice departed as Victorville city manager. As a much younger man, Cox began as a mid-level staffer with the city in November of 1967 and was elevated to the city manager post in December 1969. He led the city for thirty years, retiring in December 1999. That exit, unlike Robertson’s, was planned and announced well in advance. Like Robertson, Cox subsequently served as Apple Valley town manager, albeit in an extended interim capacity, when he was lured out of retirement in 2008. He subsequently came back as Victorville city manager in 2009, remaining in that position for more than two years, at which time an orderly transition was made in handing off the reins to Robertson, who had worked side by side with Cox almost those entire two years, attending practically every meeting of substance that Cox had attended.
Cox, who has been on the city council since 2012, including a stint as mayor, and who was reelected in 2016, said it was “difficult” having to deal with Robertson’s departure.
“Well, of course whenever you have so many things going on as we do right now – and he’s involved right in the middle of those issues – we’re going to be at a loss with him gone,” Cox said.
Cox ticked off the pressing things that need to be tended to in Victorville.
“Right now our contract with county fire is to soon be up,” he said. “We just had an initiative to generate tax to deal with the fire issue and it got 62 percent of the vote but we needed 67 percent for passage. That’s an issue and we now have to negotiate a new package for fire protection with the county. We have an issue with our wastewater management plant and we’re negotiating that with Hesperia and Apple Valley and to a lesser extent with the county. The city clerk just resigned and he [Robertson] hired a new city clerk who hasn’t been brought fully up to speed yet. We just received another letter from a law firm saying they are going to sue us if we don’t switch over from at-large elections to a ward system. We’re right in the middle of a whole bunch of things.”
Robertson acknowledged a few pangs of regret over the timing of his departure.
“There are two major issues I am disappointed I will not be around to see to the end, fire operations and the [legal action by the] SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission],” he said. “On fire, I am actively transitioning my pieces of the analysis and negotiation to the assistant city manager and deputy city manager next week. I will still be involved until the end of December but over the next month, they will each assume the lead on one of the two remaining options, a county fire contract or the restart of the Victorville City Fire Department.”
Cox said he could only engage in conjecture as to why Robertson decided to leave.
“I don’t know what happened,” Cox said. “He decided it was time to leave. We’ve had a little bit of turmoil with the city the past few months. He didn’t say it was the turmoil with the council, but that’s my own observation. Only he can say why. I can only guess. Our council meetings are full of hostility and some sharp differences that sound a whole lot worse than what they are and are downright an embarrassment, in my opinion. I think Doug is too professional to say that, so he just said it was time to move on. You have things that are going on that are so very disruptive to a manager and staff, so it is not surprising that he was frustrated and felt it was time to go.”
Robertson said, “There are probably a dozen reasons why, that in their totality, make me ready to go. I won’t share all of them because I do not wish to discuss specific people or projects, as my comments may come off as negative, and there’s no reason for that. Over the years I have had differences of opinion with various council members. Staff and I advise them, then carry out their direction whether we agree or disagree. I often say my opinion is that of any three council members. As you are aware, that is basically how it works.”
Cox, who knows from nearly three-and-a-half decades of personal experience, said another consideration for Robertson is that the management assignment in Victorville is a whole lot heavier than it is in Apple Valley. “Victorville is much bigger,” said Cox. “It has its own water supply, and a huge airport. When I was city manager, we had one of the largest redevelopment areas in the state. We have huge infrastructure requirements, including a complex sewer system. When I was city manager, we had nearly as many traffic signals on 7th Street as Apple Valley has in the entire town. Victorville and Apple Valley are right up next to each other but they are altogether different. There are not enough hours in a day to manage Victorville. That’s why you need an assistant city manager and a deputy city manager. Apple Valley is much smaller. There are a lot of differences. For a city manager or town manager, they both can give you headaches, but with Victorville it’s huge. Victorville requires a lot of concentration and you are going all the time.”
In response to the suggestion that he was abandoning Victorville at a crucial moment, Robertson said, “As far as a ‘lurch,’ financially the city is healthy and tremendously so when compared to what Jim and I inherited when he came back in 2009. We did things to turn this city around that had lasting impacts and saved the city from potential bankruptcy, although in hindsight we weren’t as close as it seemed at the time. We have built a management and executive management team that gives me comfort that the good work we’ve started will continue.”
Cox said, “We are going to have to get an interim manager. The ship doesn’t just run itself. I know we’ve got a lot of good staff, but they are going to need guidance. So we have to get someone in place short term. I will be getting together with the mayor, who I work very closely and very well with. I assume we will be talking with the city attorney. I have already told the city clerk that as a council we will need to have the council and the mayor sit down and talk with the attorney about what steps we will be taking.”
Cox said it would be a mistake to run out immediately and install someone in the city manager’s post with a long term commitment or multi-year contract.
“Having an interim will give the council an opportunity to discuss whether we should recruit regionally or statewide or federally, whether we want to change direction or keep going the same way, change the job description, change our philosophy on what we want,” he said. “We can look at the compensation for the position. We can reassess what we want in a city manager overall. Our council has not had that discussion because up to now there was no reason to. Suddenly we have to face a vacancy in a very important job. We should sit down among ourselves with a consultant and see if we need to modify anything, have a full discussion of what we want and what we envision in a city manager. We need to work as a team on this. We need to get the right person because we’re going to get someone who is brand new walking into the same commitment he [Robertson] just left.”
Sue Jones, Victorville’s official spokesperson, essentially confirmed that the information about Robertson’s potential departure was withheld for several months and did not come into public focus until the release of the Apple Valley Town Council’s agenda for Tuesday. “The agenda was noticed 72 hours before the meeting,” Jones said.
Most of Victorville staff learned of his probable departure Monday morning, November 27, Jones said. “On Monday, he sent an email to our employees to notify them that he had applied and was considered a candidate,” she said. Jones was unable to say how much of a heads up Robertson had given the city council or other top ranking Victorville administrators with regard to his departure.
“Honestly, I can’t speak to what other people knew and when they were notified,” she said.
Jones said Victorville will not founder as a consequence of Robertson’s exit.
“He won’t begin working in Apple Valley until January 2, so there will be a transition period while he is still here,” she said. “The council will have time to make a decision, so it is not like he was hired and will be gone tomorrow. It’s not as if we are going to be completely spinning out of control. The council will meet and there will be time for an interim to be appointed and the selection process for a new manager.”
One complication is that the logical interim manager appointment and perhaps even the logical promotion from within the ranks to city manager – that of assistant city manager Keith Metzler – is likely undoable, as the legal matter brought on by the Securities and Exchange Commission filing against the city hangs ominously over Victorville, and Metzler is a central object of federal authorities’ accusations in that case. A trial date on the civil filing has been set for January 23, 2018, and prior to that date and throughout the proceedings Metzler would not be likely to be able to devote sufficient attention to the operations of the city the situation demands.
Robertson said, “The SEC case has been arduous, simply because of the time it takes to get to trial. I have said from day one that based on the evidence, I see no wrongdoing by anyone at the city. I believe when we finally get to the courtroom the SEC case will amount to nothing because there was no wrongdoing and no ill gotten gains. Obviously, nothing before a jury is a sure thing, but I am absolutely confident the city will prevail. I committed to our legislators that when we win, I will be asking the federal government to reimburse our expenses. Unfortunately, there is no provision in law for us to ask to go after the SEC for attorney’s fees but that doesn’t mean the federal government couldn’t find another fair and equitable way through grants or other funding to help us do the things we would have otherwise done with the money spent defending ourselves. The SEC case is now in the hands of the attorneys and set to go to trial in late January 2018. Neither I nor staff will have much impact at this point. I am saddened I won’t be in Victorville for its conclusion but that won’t stop me from advocating for equity once it is finally over.”
By Mark Gutglueck