By Mark Gutglueck
Stephanie Mendenhall, who made a mercurial rise to the top level of the city of Upland’s administration in large measure because of her association with now disgraced former Upland Mayor John Pomierski, has elected to retire at the end of July of next year.
Mendenhall announced her decision in a memo to city manager Rod Butler on October 27. By stepping down from her position near the pinnacle of municipal government in Upland, Mendenhall is seeking to orchestrate the terms of her exodus, even as events around her and at City Hall are on the verge of overtaking her.
In recent months there have been ever clearer signals that growing numbers of the city’s residents and decision makers are coming to the conclusion reached by a small but influential number of city residents at the time of and in the immediate aftermath following Pomierski’s indictment, which held that Mendenhall was inextricably bound up in at least some of the former mayor’s actions, depredations and violations of the public trust.
At the September 8 council meeting, two members of the city council, Debbie Stone and Gino Filippi, sought to effectively terminate her from the city’s employ by eliminating the position she now holds as part of an amended city staff reorganization. That effort failed, for the time being, though there were indications the move would be resurrected in a different form in relatively short order.
Mendenhall’s rise through the ranks at Upland City Hall has been a remarkable one. She began with the city in the 1990s, having been brought in from a previous municipal assignment in Temple City to serve as city clerk. Previously the city clerk position had been an elected office but had been converted to a staff position, with its occupant serving at the pleasure of the city council. Mendenhall had been chosen to the post by the council then headed by mayor Bob Nolan. Her last name at that time was Rios. In her early years, she subsisted rather than thrived as a municipal functionary, laboring quietly and without fanfare, a custodian of the city’s records and the matron of its official processes, but with little authority beyond the relatively limited staff she immediately supervised. For some, her selection to the position was suspect in that she lacked the ability to type by touch, and instead used her two index fingers to hunt and peck on the keyboard. This lack of a basic secretarial skill in the individual entrusted with the city’s clerical functions raised a few eyebrows. Nevertheless, Rios garnered the favorable notice of some of the members of the city council, in particular then-councilwoman Sue Sundell, who on occasion spoke highly of the young employee, referring to her as “indispensible.”
Sundell would soon be eclipsed, however, in the 2000 election when instead of seeking reelection as a council member, she sought the mayoralty, running against her council colleague Tom Thomas and an upstart member of the city’s housing commission, John Pomierski. Pomierski, with the backing of much of the city’s business community, pulled off an upset of the two more established, experienced and credentialed candidates. Sundell, whose council term ended that year, had to leave the council. Thomas, who had been first elected in 1990, reelected in 1994 and again in 1998, remained on the council. Pomierski, then seeking to build a ruling coalition, welcomed Thomas into the fold rather than excluding him. Thomas became a part of Pomiersk’s “Team Upland,” through which Pomierski would dominate the city for ten years.
In establishing his regime, Pomierski sought to advance and promote existing or hire new staff members who would either do his bidding or tolerate his manipulation of city operations in keeping with his own interest and the advancement of his political machine.
One of those selected for advancement from within was Stephanie Rios, who, after she began dating Jeff Mendenhall, a fast-rising sergeant in the Upland Police Department in the early 2000s, married him.
One of those brought in from the outside was Pomierski’s handpicked choice as city manager, Robb Quincey.
By 2004, Pomierski had begun shaking down local business owners and operators and others with projects pending at City Hall and before the Upland City Council. Utilizing a business he owned, JP Construction, as well as the construction business owned by one of his associates, John Hennes, Pomierski worked with two others, Jason Crebs and Antony Sanchez, the co-owners of Venture West Capital, in perpetrating extortion and pay-off schemes. Those shakedowns targeted applicants for business, operating or construction permits in Upland who would be approached and informed that by securing the consulting services of Hennes, Crebs or Sanchez, approval of those applications could be guaranteed. Hennes was Pomierski’s appointee to the Upland Housing Appeals Board.
Quincey, who had been city manager in Hesperia, was handpicked by Pomierski in March 2005 to succeed Upland’s previous city manager, Mike Milhiser, whom Pomierski together with his then-supporters on the council forced into resigning. Milhiser, an experienced city manager who had previously led the cities of Montclair and Ontario, had proven less than fully accommodating of Pomerski’s approach toward governance. Simultaneously, Pomierski pressured police chief Marty Thouvenell, who had similar reservations to Pomierski’s way of doing business, into retirement and arranged for a newly promoted captain on the force, Steve Adams, to take his place.
Quincey was hired on April 4, 2005 and given a five-year contract with an original annual salary of $195,000 and a guaranteed pay raise each January 1 equivalent to the highest percentage afforded any other city executive management employee. Additionally, Quincey was granted extraordinary autonomy and authority as city manager, including what was referred to as a super-bonus, that is, job security in the form of protection from termination on a simple majority 3-2 vote of the council. Rather, to fire Quincey, four votes were required of the council. He was also given the authority to hire and fire all of the city’s department heads upon his own authority without previous council authorization. This enabled Quincey to pressure city staff to conform policy and the approval process to Pomierski’s dictates.
Over the more than five-year span Quincey worked for Upland, he was provided, primarily at Pomierski’s behest, a series of salary and benefit enhancements such that by January 2011 he was receiving a base salary and add-ons of $368,529 with benefits of $92,096, for a total annual compensation of $460,625, making him among the highest paid city managers in the state.
Key to providing Quincey with those salary add-ons, which incentivized his cooperation in and the enabling of Pomierski’s violations of the public trust, was the function of the city clerk’s office. Under Stephanie Mendenhall’s stewardship of the department, three of the eight salary and benefit enhancements made to Quincey’s contract were done without any vote by the city council. Instead, documents authorizing those raises were generated, Pomierski signed them and they were then processed through the city clerk’s office as if they had been properly ratified by the entire council even though no vote had been taken. The document would then be passed through to the payroll department.
For Stephanie Mendenhall’s acquiescence in this arrangement, Pomierski saw to it that she was richly rewarded. By 2010, she was one of the highest paid city clerks in the state of California, receiving a base salary and add-ons of $175,606, plus benefits of $55,624 for a total annual compensation package of $231,230.
In June 2010, Pomierski’s manipulation of the machinery of Upland government for his personal enrichment was severely compromised when more than a dozen FBI and IRS agents swarmed into Upland City Hall to serve search warrants, while teams of their colleagues made simultaneous raids on Pomierski’s home and business office, as well as the offices of Hennes, Krebs and Sanchez. The raid at City Hall also forced into the open questionable activity involving Quincey. A six month lull ensued, but in December 2010 then-police chief Steve Adams went out on stress leave, at which point Mendenhall’s husband, Jeff, who had risen to the rank of captain, was promoted to serve as acting police chief. Simultaneously, Upland was rocked with a series of revelations about the depth of corruption at Upland City Hall. The following month, the council placed Robb Quincey on administrative leave.
On February 1, 2011, Sanchez and Crebs were charged by federal prosecutors with involvement in political corruption in Upland and days later entered sealed plea agreements. In the last week of February, Pomierski resigned as mayor and the next week, on March 3, Pomierski and Hennes were indicted on extortion and bribery charges in an alleged scheme to extort money and campaign contributions from two businesses seeking city permits and other government approvals.
Upland City Hall, which was already in disarray, was thrown into chaos. City officials sought to avoid further negative publicity as the city council attempted to carry on, pinning its hopes on a series of reform initiatives by Stephen Dunn, the city’s finance director who had been elevated to acting city manager after Quincey had been put on administrative leave. In May, Quincey was fired. The following month, Dunn was made permanent city manager and in an energetic house cleaning, laid off or terminated 26 employees, including four department heads, among them the director of the city’s community development department who had responsibility for the city’s land use decisions and planning function that had been exploited by Pomierski in his shakedowns of project and permit applicants. It was widely anticipated at that time that Stephanie Mendenhall, given her closeness to Pomierski and involvement as city clerk in processing the personnel and promotional items put forth by Pomierski without full council authorization, would also be terminated. In an action which Dunn now acknowledges as “a mistake,” he decided to keep Mendenhall in her position as city clerk, he said “because I needed someone who knew how things were run. A significant number of our staff had been let go or had left.” Conscious that her exorbitant salary as city clerk would be a sore point, Dunn in electing to keep Mendenhall rearranged the line of command over her so she was now answerable to the city manager directly instead of to the city council and he added to her assignments responsibility for information technology, human resources and finance, while having her retain control of the city clerk’s office. Dunn was partially relying on the consideration that Mendenhall had in the recent past obtained a master’s degree in public administration and was partially relying on the consideration that Pomierski and the pernicious influence he represented was no longer present at City Hall. The title of administrative services director was conferred upon her. She was given no salary increase beyond the $175,606 she was already making, along with $55,624 in benefits.
In September of that year, when police chief Steve Adams officially retired after having remained on stress leave for ten months, Jeff Mendenhall was chosen to serve as police chief. This made the Mendenhalls Upland’s premier power couple, as they monopolized two of the three most far-reaching positions in Upland municipal government. With Jeff Mendenhall’s base salary and add-ons of $229,724 and benefits totaling $76,898 for a total compensation package of $306,621 annually added to Stephanie’s total annual compensation package of $231,230, Upland’s taxpayers were paying the couple more than half of a million dollars per year for their services.
That circumstance was fraught with difficulty. Many who were troubled by Stephanie Mendenhall’s advancement under Pomierski and the seeming rewards she reaped by her role in his domination of municipal procedures saw her continued placement near the pinnacle of city operations as a sign that full reform in the aftermath of the Pomierski scandal had yet to penetrate City Hall. Her husband’s functioning as the highest law enforcement officer in the city compounded the impression that the city and its officials were not serious about undoing the tarnish and discredit that Pomierski had shed upon the city. Some citizens and city employees grumbled about it, but no one was willing to speak openly about it, given the power the Mendenhall’s shared and the support for the arrangement by the city council.
The Pomierski connection aside, the placement of the married couple at the top of the pecking order in the City of Gracious Living resulted in a professional conflict that ate at morale in the city.
At the time Jeff Mendenhall was functioning as acting police and Stephanie Mendenhall was promoted to the position of administrative services director overseeing human resources in which she functioned as the de facto head of the city’s personnel division, there was concern that this entailed potential legal peril for the city and its taxpayers. When Jeff Mendenhall was made actual police chief, those circumstances were exacerbated. Essentially, filling the administrative services/finance/personnel director/city clerk post and the police chief position, which on occasion require some degree of articulation with one another and/or superintendence of or answerability to one another, with individuals who were married to one another raised the specter of favoritism or the possibility that standards that would otherwise be applied to conduct, actions and the review thereof might be compromised.
City officials, however, sought to downplay such concerns, indicating that arrangement would be permitted since such conflicts were merely theoretical or potential. They suggested that if such a conflict were to manifest, it would be addressed at that time and Dunn, as city manager, would intervene to alleviate the conflict.
The city had no nepotism policy in place. Previously, the city had faced similar, though not identical circumstances. In the 1980s, while Frank Carpenter was a member of the city council, his wife Dee had been city clerk. In the 1990s, while Gail Horton was a member of the city council, her husband, John Scanlon, was fire chief.
Resentment over this incestuous relationship in Upland simmered below the surface for more than three years, and then erupted into the open this summer, putting the Mendenhalls and the concentration of authority over internal municipal administrative processes in their hands in sharp relief, to the embarrassment of city officials the potential legal detriment of the city and possible financial liability of the city’s taxpayers.
Because of the Upland Police Department’s use of the AR-15, a lightweight, intermediate cartridge magazine-fed, air cooled rifle, as back-up to its officers’ 9 millimeter or .45 handguns, the officers are required to maintain certification for the weapon, which the department has outfitted its patrol cars with.
Traditionally the department had paid for the periodic AR-15 use training the officers had to undergo, provided them with the means, i.e., the ammunition and shooting range availability, required to complete that training, paid its officers for the time they attended the range certification and the classes related to the AR-15 use, and reimbursed them for whatever mileage costs they accrued in driving to the range and the class.
This summer, police chief Mendenhall, in keeping with budgetary restraints imposed on his department, informed the officers under his command that they would need to complete their retraining and recertification with regard to the AR-15 entirely at their own expense and on their own time, and that the department would not cover the cost of their ammunition used in the training and certification, that they would not be reimbursed for their mileage in achieving recertification and that they would not be paid for the time they spent attending AR-15 classes and the certification testing.
When the officers learned that the sergeant conducting the training for the department was, per chief Mendenhall’s orders, being paid for conducting the classes and was being reimbursed for all his incidental expenses, several of the more vocal members of the department began to openly speak about favoritism in the department and what they insisted were violations of the employment contract the city has with its police officers through its union, the Upland Police Officers Association, as well as California labor law.
Though the filing of a grievance was discussed, ultimately no such action was taken because the entity with whom such grievances are lodged would be Stephanie Mendenhall in her capacity as the head of human resources, i.e., personnel.
Dissatisfaction over the matter was so pointed that it ranged beyond the usually tightly-knit collection of officers and spilled over into the realm of public discussion in September.
On September 8 came the first indication that the city council was ready to act to end the Mendenhalls’ familial monopolization of authority in Upland. At that evening’s council meeting, the council was poised to consider the proposed reorganization of the city’s executive staff, which included the elimination of an executive assistant in the city manager’s office, filling the vacant position of accounting supervisor in the finance department and arranging it so that the finance manager reports directly to the city manager.
When that item came up for a vote, councilwoman Debbie Stone made a motion to amend the reorganization proposal such that the city would eliminate the position of administrative services director altogether. Saying he believed elimination of the administrative services position would, ironically, help to meet chief Mendenhall’s call for the hiring of more police officers, Councilman Gino Filippi seconded Stone’s motion and supported it with his vote. The motion died, however, when Mayor Ray Musser and councilmen Glenn Bozar and Brendan Brandt voted against it. They approved the reorganization proposal.
In the ensuing weeks, Stephanie Mendenhall’s grip on the position of administrative services director has grown ever more tenuous. Both Bozar and Musser, who were caught by surprise by Stone’s September 8 motion, have indicated they are not averse to further reorganization of the city’s top echelon, but were not prepared to rush into such a change as Stone had suggested on short notice. Both indicated they see potential conflicts in having the police chief and administrative services director positions filled by a husband -wife team. Moreover, Brendan Brandt, the last remaining member of Pomierski’s “Team Upland” ruling majority in the first decade of this century, is not seeking reelection this year and will leave the council in December. It was Brandt’s opposition to Stone’s expanded reorganization motion in September that appeared to dissuade Bozaer and Musser from supporting it.
On October 27, in a memo to Rod Butler, who has been functioning in the capacity of city manager for less than two months, Mendenhall said she would be retiring as of July 31, 2015.
Butler this week told the Sentinel, “She basically submitted her resignation in a memo to me earlier this week. It came as a little bit of a surprise to me. I am into week number six here.” Butler’s hiring effective September 29 was finalized in August and all that month he had been familiarizing himself with the city in preparation for taking on the city management assignment. He said he was “not aware” of the depth of discontent with Stephanie Mendenhall’s function until “the events at the September 8 meeting. I was not on board yet. I heard reports about it.”
Butler said he was not certain whether Stone’s motion to eliminate Mendenhall’s position had motivated her to resign. “She did not mention that in her correspondence to me,” Butler said. “I suppose that’s a possibility. You would need to get comment from her on that.”
The Sentinel’s effort to reach Stephanie Mendenhall, by means of messages left at each of the phones at her three desks at City Hall as well her cell phone, were unsuccessful.
As to whether Mendenhall and her husband or the city in general had engaged in any improprieties by having them serve in their conflicting capacities, Butler said, “I think that would depend on what the city’s nepotism policy is. The city has no comprehensive nepotism policy. The only prohibition is against individuals who are spouses being in the same department. Her husband is police chief and she is the administrative services director, so it is not a direct violation of policy.”
Nevertheless, Butler said, “Always as a city manager, I try to be sensitive to situations where there may be an appearance of a problem in the organization, which is a longwinded way of saying I was sensitive to it, but because it is not a direct violation of stated policy it was not something I saw as an issue that needed to be acted upon. I can see why people see some sort of problem there.”
Butler said he understood the seriousness of the action relating to Pomierski’s usurping the authority of the city council by signing without a full council vote documents to up Quincey’s compensation and then having Stephanie Mendenhall process it in her capacity as city clerk
“I was aware through media coverage of the several increases made to Mr. Quincey’s contract and that several of those appeared to have been done without votes by the city council. I did not know Stephanie Mendenhall’s role in signing those documents as a witness or being involved in the creation of those documents. Now that I have come on board, I am certainly trying to create a situation where there are policies that deal with direct conflicts or violations of ethics laws, including the reforms that have come into place after the city of Bell scandals. Those salary increases that happened without council votes were a problem. That situation involved actions that are much more clearly a violation than they were before the city of Bell clean-up action. I am trying to be sensitive to ethics laws and to make sure our officials and staff are aware of those laws and regulations. We are doing things that prevent conflicts in those areas.”
Those he will hire to take over Mendenhall’s various roles when she leaves, Butler said, will be called upon to do a better job than she did under Pomierski and to be mindful of the legal and ethical rules city staff and elected officials must adhere to in order to maintain the trust of the city’s residents. “As we look to replace Stephanie next year, we are going to be looking for professionals in the city clerk’s role, management, administration and human resources who are familiar with those regulations and have worked in an environment where there has been an emphasis on ethics and helping officials follow the law regarding conflicts of interest, financial conflicts, that whole realm of law,” Butler said.
By Mark Gutglueck