Board Names John McMahon San Bernardino County’s 35th Sheriff

(December 21)   The board of supervisors on Tuesday appointed assistant sheriff John McMahon to succeed sheriff Rod Hoops upon Hoops’  upcoming retirement on December 31, midway through his current term.
Reports have been circulating since September 2011 that Hoops was looking to leave office and install McMahon as his successor. Hoops was himself appointed sheriff when his predecessor, Gary Penrod, chose to resign as sheriff midterm in January 2009. Hoops, running as an incumbent, was elected sheriff in 2010.
According to several department and county sources, Hoops was dissuaded from leaving last year because of concern that such an exodus would have come too soon after the 2010 election. Hoops made a public announcement on November 7, the day after this year’s election, of his intention to leave at the end of the year to take a position as a fellow with the Washington D.C.-based National Police Foundation. In so doing, he recommended that the board of supervisors appoint McMahon to replace him.
As one of the department’s two assistant sheriffs, McMahon is the third ranking member of the department, behind Hoops and undersheriff Robert Fonzi. Prior to taking his current position, McMahon held the rank of deputy chief, in which assignment he oversaw the department’s desert division along with its detention facilities. Previously, he was captain of the sheriff’s station in Apple Valley, serving as police chief in that desert town where he had grown up. His previous billets included serving as a lieutenant, sergeant, detective and deputy. He joined the department at the age of 21 in 1985. He obtained an A.S. degree in police science from Victor Valley College and holds a B.A. in criminal justice management from Union University. A graduate of Apple Valley High School, he currently resides in Phelan.
In making the appointment, chairwoman of the board of supervisors Josie Gonzales said McMahon had been characterized to her as having a “great reputation” and “diverse experience” along with being “highly ethical” and “hard working.” She said he was further described as being “calm, engaged, transparent, fair, and a good communicator.”
Several of the county’s senior law enforcement officials, including several police chiefs, were at the meeting, ostensibly in support of McMahon. For the last several months, McMahon has essentially been serving in the capacity of sheriff, as Hoops has become less active and visible in his elected role in leading the department and Fonzi has been undergoing and recovering from two shoulder surgeries.
There has been some perception that Fonzi was stepped over in the elevation of McMahon. Fonzi’s medical leave earlier this year came at a crucial time when the de facto passing of the baton from Hoops to McMahon was occurring. McMahon garnered the inside track in the race to succeed Hoops in some measure based upon being favored by Hoops himself but also on the positive relationship McMahon developed with county administrative officer Greg Devereaux. McMahon was present during Devereaux’s discussions with the deputies’ union representatives relating to contract concessions on the officers’ salary and benefit packages, which Devereaux considers key to balancing the county’s budget over the next several years.
McMahon’s selection was in some degree marred by repeated charges from several quarters that the board of supervisors and Devereaux were party to a contrived arrangement by Hoops to name his successor. Shortly after Hoops’ retirement announcement and his call for McMahon to take his place, Gonzales publicly stated she wanted to make the transition a quick and seamless one. This prompted Keith Bushey, who boasted an impressive list of law enforcement credentials including having been San Bernardino County’s former marshal, a former deputy chief in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, a commander with the Los Angeles Police Department, an instructor in law enforcement techniques with the FBI and a colonel in the Marine Corps, to write a letter to Gonzales in which he stated that the county was engaged in “an insular, non-competitive and seemingly secretive selection process. The perception within the sheriff’s department, which is just about universal, is that sheriff Hoops has already brokered an agreement with the board to ensure the appointment of John McMahon as his replacement.”
This triggered a virulent denial on Gonzales’ part and she vowed an open, aboveboard and transparent process in choosing Hoops’ replacement. On December 4, the board gave indication it would consider other interested candidates, indicating along the way that those under consideration would be vetted, interviewed and their qualifications carefully weighed by a subcommittee of the board, to consist of Gonzales and supervisor Gary Ovitt, before a recommendation to the full board would be made.
Ovitt, however, was vacationing throughout most of the first half of December and was unable to meet with any of the candidates other than McMahon.
Both Bushey and Paul Schrader, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and Rancho Cucamonga resident who had run for sheriff in 2010 and placed second behind Hoops, had indicated interest in being considered for the sheriff’s position. Bushey and Schrader on December 18 said that they had not been granted interviews by the Gonzales/Ovitt subcommittee as had been intimated by Gonzales on December 4.
County spokesman David Wert told the Sentinel, “I know there was some discussion about conducting interviews. County counsel rendered an opinion that conducting interviews would be an intervention of the Brown Act.”
Wert’s reference was to the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, which requires that governing board members meet in public.
“The county wasn’t obligated to conduct interviews,” Wert added. “The board invited Mr. Bushey and Mr. Schrader to send in a resume. Mr. Bushey sent in a resume. Mr. Schrader declined to do so.”
The failure to conduct the interviews resurrected charges of a backroom deal. It was pointed out that county counsel Jean Rene-Basle had not indicated that interviews could not be conducted but rather that it was inadvisable to interview candidates for an elected office in a closed session. The interviews could have been structured as an open forum, those in attendance at Tuesday’s hearing pointed out. Gonzales said she had deferred to Basle. County officials said it was Gonzales who made the final decision not to hear directly from alternate candidates.
Supervisor Janice Rutherford, who nonetheless voted to name McMahon sheriff, expressed surprise that the interviews had not taken place and said she had not been informed that the closed door interviews of the candidates would have constituted a Brown Act violation until December 16.
“You should have at least talked to us,” Schrader said to the board on December 18. “You based a decision on people from the inside.” He said that he was not informed until December 17 that the subcommittee would consider his resume, in explaining why he had not submitted one.
Schrader’s wife pointedly accused Gonzales of lying.
Flustered, Gonzales defended her position, going so far as to criticize Hoops for abruptly resigning and then saddling the board with the perception of engaging in favoritism by his public endorsement of McMahon.
She said that she and Ovitt had met with the sheriff’s executive staff, the district attorney, public defender, chief probation officer and leaders of the union representing sheriff’s deputies.
“We have taken into account everything that was submitted to us,” she said, seeking to assure the public Hoops’ endorsement of McMahon had not tilted the outcome of her and Ovitt’s decision. “Mr. McMahon deserves this, and not because the sheriff said so. Mr. McMahon needed to stand on his own, and he has done that.”
Gonzales said McMahon’s management of the county jail system, his familiarity with the state’s prison realignment program and his interfacing with both the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices rendered him a superior choice to Bushey and Schrader.
“Based on all of our meetings,” said Ovitt, “John McMahon has the respect of the department and the law enforcement agencies he works with, the public defender, the district attorney, and probation. The right man for the job at this time is John McMahon.”
On December 31, McMahon is due to be sworn in as the 35th sheriff in San Bernardino County since its founding in 1853. He will follow Robert Clift, Joseph Bridger, Valentine J. Herring, Charles W. Piercy, William Tarleton, Anson Van Leuven, E.M. Smith, J.A. Moore, Henry Wilkes, Benjamin F. Matthews, G.F. Fulgham, Newton Noble, A.J. Curry, William Davies, John C. King, J.B. Burkhart, Nelson Green Gill, John Albert Cole, Edwin Chidsey Seymour, James P. Booth, Francis L. Holcomb, Charles A. Rouse, John C. Ralphs, J.L. McMinn, Walter A. Shay, Ernest T. Shay, Emmett L. Shay, James W. Stocker, Eugene W. Mueller, Frank Bland, Floyd Tidwell, Richard G. Williams, Gary Penrod, and Rod Hoops.
McMahon indicated he will seek election in 2014 to retain the position, which provides an annual salary of $225,574 plus $217,115 per year in benefits for a total compensation package of $442,689.

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