Buhagiar Leaving As Upland’s Finance Manager

UPLAND—(March 13) Upland finance manager Christa Buhagiar has ended her tumultuous 22-month long tenure with the City of Gracious Living. Never truly comfortable in the position from the outset, her time with the city was rocky in no small measure because two of those serving over her had more financial management experience than she did. Over the last several months, her lack of imaginative approach to her assignment began to tell and when the opportunity for her to move on in the form of a job offer from the city of West Covina came her way, she submitted her resignation to city manager Rod Butler.
Buhagiar was hired as finance manager in June 2013 to relieve some of the burden on then-city manager Stephen Dunn. Dunn had been the city’s finance director since 2001 and remained in that post when he had been elevated to city manager in 2011. Dunn was struggling with dwindling revenues and a city staff that had excessive redundancy and was top heavy management-wise. Overly generous salaries that had been doled out to city employees under the regime of former Upland Mayor John Pomierski, who had been indicted on political corruption charges just after he resigned from office in 2011, had left the city in a tenuous position financially, and it was faced with overwhelming pension obligations in the future. It was widely believed that Pomierski had purchased the silence of many city employees about his depredations by providing them with fat salaries, generous benefits and cushy pensions. Two years before Buhagiar arrived, Dunn had taken a meat cleaver to city staff, laying off or firing 27 employees, including five department managers.
Dunn was encountering resistance from staff over his further intended economies, and his City Hall reform effort bogged down as this resistance manifested during the second half of his first year as city manager. In 2012, however, Dunn’s effort at reform was boosted with the election of Glenn Bozar to the city council. Bozar was employed as a manager with Tyco Electronics, where he oversaw a lean and efficient $16 billion private industry operation. As a council member, Bozar was intent on applying principles of management developed in the private sector to municipal operations, which coincided, in at least some of the particulars, with Dunn’s effort to make city operations more efficient through the winnowing of non-productive staff.
The intent with Buhagiar’s hiring was that she would understand the Dunn agenda and provide finance department reports and data to back up further layoffs at City Hall. It did not appear, however, that she understood what her intended role was, and as she assumed the position, became much too close to her fellow municipal employees. She was thus unable or unwilling to give Dunn and the city council the informational basis upon which to proceed with wholesale firings and layoffs.
It was painfully obvious to observers that both Dunn and Bozar had a greater command of the principles of financial management and a much more in-depth grasp of reorganizational strategy than did Buhagiar. As a member of the city council and its finance committee, Bozar continuously asked her to produce data she chronically did not have at her fingertips. Bozar continued to dwell on the need for the city to cure its looming pension crisis. On several occasions at public meetings when he did so, Buhagiar’s distaste for that assignment was visible through her body language, facial expressions and the rolling of her eyes.
Dunn’s inability to execute on his city reform package resulted in the fraying of his relationship with the council, including Bozar, and last year he was let go. There followed a wave of city officials taking their exodus, including city attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow, police chief Jeff Mendenhall, and assistant public works director Acquanetta Warren. Stephanie Mendenhall, the former police chief’s wife who is the city’s administrative services director, city clerk and director of human services, is set to retire in July.
While Buhagiar’s presence on city staff was tolerated by the balance of the council, she never embraced Bozar’s agenda for pension and payroll reform, leaving perpetually unresolved the resulting dissonance between a key finance committee member and the city staff person most closely involved with municipal finances. Ironically, Bozar alone supported Buhagiar when she sought in December to win support for a $1 million citywide finance reporting system, which the remainder of the council rejected.
A telling fact is Buhagiar’s relationship to Hall Barlow. Hall Barlow left the city under a cloud when she defied the city council’s instructions on the tenor of a letter to be written to the Colonies Partners land consortium over the lack of progress with regard to the development of former city property encumbered by a revisionary clause that was entrusted to the Colonies Partners to improve. Hall Barlow is the city attorney in West Covina, where Buhagiar has landed. This last consideration is widely perceived, both by members of the council and the public, as an indication that Buhagiar’s first loyalty was not to the City of Gracious Living. There were no statements of regret at the announcement of her leaving.
The Sentinel’s effort to reach Buhagiar was unsuccessful. Her last day with Upland will be on March 26 and she is to begin with West Covina on April 13.

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