After Swift Exit From SB, Williams Resurfaces As Finance Manager In Upland

(April 14) Scott Williams, who made a hasty and ignominious exodus from San Bernardino last month as that city’s finance director, has resurfaced as Upland’s interim finance manager.
Williams was hired by San Bernardino in December to replace David Cain, but lasted only to the second week of March at the county seat.  Two weeks later, on March 25, he was given the temporary billet as Upland finance manager as the City of Gracious Living was looking to replace Christa Buhagiar, who left Upland to go to work in West Covina. Williams had the opportunity of working two days with Buhagiar before she departed, giving him an opportunity to acclimate himself.
It is an open question as to whether Williams will apply to succeed Buhagiar, when the finance manager position, which pays $225,418 per year in total compensation, is filled on a permanent basis.
An atmosphere of intrigue appears to surround Williams, as did it Buhagiar, and the finance director position in San Bernardino and finance manager post in Upland. The top finance posts in both cities are complicated by the financial challenges each face. The circumstance in San Bernardino is more dire than it is in Upland.
After two decades of mounting financial challenges and almost ten years of deficit spending, San Bernardino in 2012 filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. It has yet to emerge from that status, though its plan to do so is due for review by the judge hearing the bankruptcy, Riverside-based Federal Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury, on May 30.
Williams’ predecessor in San Bernardino, David Cain, lasted 18 months in the position, having been hired in March 2013 and exiting in September 2014.
Beginning just before San Bernardino’s 2012 bankruptcy filing, each of that city’s annual budgets have been constantly reworked from previous drafts, provisionally balanced upon wishful or overly optimistic revenue projection but in reality reflecting  inexact and differing actual deficits, typically totaling in the tens of millions of dollars.
The Herculean task of arriving at budgets for the county seat took its toll on Cain, who upped and quit three months after San Bernardino passed its provisionally-based current 2014-15 budget.  A telling feature of his exhaustion was that in June, after having put the unwieldy fiscal figures onto paper, Cain was not up to the task of attending the city council meeting where the budget was passed, where he would have needed to withstand the firestorm of protest over the cutting he had done. Neither did San Bernardino City Manager Allen Parker.
Both of Parker’s predecessors as city manager, Charles McNeely and interim Andrea Travis-Miller, were undone by San Bernardino’s financial challenges. McNeely left just prior to the city’s bankruptcy filing.
Williams was lured from Northern California to come into the vacuum Cain’s departure created, and he arrived in San Bernardino in December. But he soon proved inadequate to the overwhelming task he had accepted.
The month prior to Williams’ arrival, Jury had set the May 30 deadline for the presentation of bankruptcy exit plan and its attendant documentation for presentation. Complicating this was that last spring, San Bernardino had jettisoned its previous auditing firm – Rogers, Anderson, Malody and Scott – after it demonstrated itself as unable to get its arms around the city’s financial picture and the audit it was supposed to complete for fiscal year 2011-12 – just as the city was heading into bankruptcy – literally took two years to complete. That document was not submitted until June 2014.
The city then brought in the Macias, Gini and O’Connell LLP accounting firm, depending on that company to provide a transparent profile of the city’s financial condition overall as well as its income and outgo, liabilities and assets, investments and rates of return, reserves and balances.
In June, the council approved a contract with Macias, Gini and O’Connell, LLP to perform an independent audit of the city’s financial records for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013 and the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, at a cost of $218,086. But despite the representation by  Macias, Gini and O’Connell that it would be able to carry out the auditing in a timely manner, the firm had made seemingly little, if any progress toward that goal when Jury’s deadline was announced in November.  Four months later, in early March, the firm gave indication it would most likely be unable to hit the May 30 target. One of the reasons for that delay, San Bernardino City officials would claim shortly thereafter, was because Williams had control of the information the auditing firm needed to go over to make its report but that Williams had dithered, carrying out his own review, even though assistant city manager Nita McKay had been pushing him to turn over to Macias, Gini and O’Connell everything the firm needed to do its work.  Williams was shown the door.  According to Parker, some order of personality conflict had emerged between Williams and McKay, and McKay had petulantly balked at working with McKay and taking orders from her, even though she was higher in the municipal pecking order than he was.
Meanwhile, in Upland, another intrigue-filled drama was playing out.
Back in 2013, Christa Buhagiar had been hired by then-city manager Stephen Dunn to serve as that city’s finance manager. Dunn had been Upland finance manager before he was elevated to the city manager’s position in 2011, and for two years had filled the dual roles of city manager and finance manager.  Buhagiar came into the finance manager position to reduce the work load on Dunn shortly after Glen Bozar, who had been elected in 2012, assumed his position on the city council.
A self-styled “taxpayer advocate” intent on effectuating financial reform in Upland, particularly reining in what he considered to be excessive employee salaries as well as current and future pension costs, Bozar wanted strict financial assessments of all order of city functions made, economies applied, unnecessary spending to be identified and eliminated and no further imposition of taxes or fees on residents or businesses levied until all means of cost reductions were exhausted. Bozar wangled an appointment to the city council’s two-member finance committee, from which post he undertook his effort at financial reform in earnest.
Buhagiar, who soon recognized that Bozar was a lone wolf with regard to aggressive financial reform and that the remainder of the council had a far more laissez faire attitude with regard to that issue, proved less than fully accommodating of the reforms Bozar was advocating. Because Buhagiar never embraced Bozar’s agenda for pension and payroll reform, the resulting dissonance between a key finance committee member and the city staff person most closely involved with municipal finances was never resolved.
During her tenure with Upland, Buhagiar had developed a close working relationship with city attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow. Hall Barlow left the city under a cloud late last year 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 surfaced as the city attorney in West Covina.  By late February, arrangements were made for Buhagiar to jump to the finance director position in West Covina. In early March, her resignation as Upland’ finance manager was abruptly announced.
With Buhagiar leaving Upland in the lurch, the timing of Williams’ departure from San Bernardino proved fortuitous for Upland and Williams. In this way, Williams was without gainful employment for less than two weeks, and Upland was able to have him in place two days before Buhagiar actually departed for West Covina, allowing her to show him at least some of the ropes.
Upland City Manager Rod Butler said that Williams is not a CPA as is Buhagiar, but that he has extensive experience in working budgets and in information technology systems.  This last talent is of some moment, as Upland has just moved to acquire a $2 million city-wide accounting system that will allow the city’s entire financial function, department-by-department, to be profiled and closely monitored  on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute basis.
Butler offered assurances that an adequate background check of Williams had been carried out, covering his employment history as the lead financial adviser for the Regional Governmental Services Authority in Napa and the finance director in Sonoma as well as his more abbreviated stint in San Bernardino. Butler said he believed Williams had the requisite knowledge and skill to serve as the interim finance manager. He said he would “certainly be eligible” to apply to fill the permanent position of finance manager when that recruitment effort is undertaken.
As to his experience in San Bernardino, Williams told the Sentinel, “I am not at liberty to discuss that.”
Dunn, who has since retired as Upland city manager, to the Sentinel, “Mr Williams will have some of the same challenges he had at San Bernardino plus responsibility to install a new accounting system. It will take a huge effort on his part to be successful. I wish him luck.”

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