SAN BERNARDINO — City Manager Charles McNeely resigned Thursday, effective May 1, an apparent casualty of the interminable struggle between the city’s two warring political factions.
McNeely, who had been city manager in Reno, Nevada for 13 years, was highly recruited by the city and hired by San Bernardino in March 2009, taking up his stewardship of City Hall in June 2009.
He was provided with an annual salary of $275,000 per year and a $15,000 up-front relocation fee. In addition to his salary, McNeely was given $73,000 per year in health, retirement and other benefits.
Valued for his strong leadership skills, McNeely for some time set the tenor at City Hall, making a ten percent giveback of his salary as part of an effort to convince other city employees to make salary and benefit concessions on their collective bargaining contracts. He emphasized city government going back to basics, such as redressing potholes that plagued city streets and maintaining street lights and other infrastructure. He championed what he called SB Direct, a call center to facilitate the handling of city residents’ requests for assistance.
As the city struggled with dwindling revenues, McNeely led the city in its efforts to reduce spending, including making cutbacks in the fire department as well as the police department, where more than fifty law enforcement officers saw their positions eliminated over the last two years.
During the first two years of his tenure, McNeely was able to function under the safe cover of the political majority then in ascendency at City Hall, that is, the then-city council majority aligned with mayor Patrick Morris. Morris’ rival in San Bernardino was and remains city attorney Jim Penman, whom Morris defeated in the race for Mayor in 2005 and again in 2009.
Morris’s support of McNeely left the city manager at odds with the city attorney. There were manifestations of that enmity that loomed into public view at various times.
In October 2010, Penman, angry with how certain items had been agendized for the city council meetings in a way he thought favored Morris, had an argument with McNeely that came to the public’s attention. That same month, McNeely received a memo from police chief Keith Kilmer, a Morris ally, in which Kilmer alleged Penman had challenged him to a fight. McNeely diffused that crisis.
A year later, in October 2011, McNeely had to referee a battle between San Bernardino Public Works Director Nadeem Majaj and Penman over Penman’s objection to Majaj having cooperated with a police department investigation into charges that Majaj’s predecessor, Randy Kuettle, had accepted gifts from a city contractor, Matich Corporation, and then removed an inspector who questioned the work on one of Matich’s road-paving jobs. The Matich Corporation had been a Penman political backer.
Morris’ hold on the council was tenuous at best. In 2009, Dennis Baxter, one of Morris’s allies on the council, was defeated by Jason Desjardins, who was backed by Penman. When Desjardins was forced to leave the council prematurely in 2011, he was replaced by another Penman ally, Robert Jenkins. Last November, the 4-3 majority Morris continued to enjoy on the council was reversed when Tobin Brinker was replaced by yet another Penman ally, John Valdivia.
While Valdivia has made statements for public consumption that diplomatically indicated his readiness to work with McNeely, he has also said that he is looking forward to forging a new city management team. McNeeley’s contract was set to expire or be extended in June. There were indications as early as December that he was contemplating leaving. In the end, McNeely did not have the energy to function in an atmosphere beset with a continuum of political bickering.
“I wish to express my gratitude for the opportunity to have worked with you over the last three years,” McNeeley wrote in a letter to city staff informing them of his resignation. “The residents of this community are fortunate to have such dedicated employees who sacrifice so much to maintain a high level of service to this community under the most difficult of circumstances. It truly has been great to get to know many of you personally and I want to thank you for your support during my tenure as city manager and wish you and the city the very best.”