By Mark Gutglueck
HESPERIA—The City of Hesperia, which has at nearly every stage of its 29-year history been challenged from a managerial standpoint, is again rolling the dice with regard to placing City Hall under the leadership of a-yet-unproven city administrator, defying the odds once more.
In this instance, after the departure of Mike Podegracz, who served as city manager for just over a decade, the city has turned to sheriff’s captain Nils Bentsen to serve as the city’s tenth city manager.
The current city council is pinning its hopes on Bentsen, who has earned the council’s trust by virtue of his demonstrated competence in overseeing the Hesperia sheriff’s substation, which serves as the Hesperia Police Department. Rather than carry out a statewide or nationwide search for a candidate to take on the responsibility of overseeing operations in the 90,173-population city, the current council has gravitated to Bentsen, who will be the third consecutive city manager in Hesperia who had either not trained for a career in municipal management or had no prior experience in that capacity.
Bentsen faces a challenge. Indeed, Hesperia, which has infrastructure and span of control issues that dwarf those of nearly every other city in the county, has long suffered from being led by inadequate, inexperienced, self-interested, overly politically-involved or outright dishonest city managers. Two of those have been convicted of felonious activity relating to their activity in managing other Southern California cities after their departures from Hesperia.
In promoting Bentsen, the city is looking to recreate the relative success it had with his immediate predecessor, Podegracz, like Benson a department head promoted from within whose familiarity with Hesperia stood him in good stead when he was faced with the task of running it.
Hesperia, at 73.209 square miles, is San Bernardino County’s third largest city geographically, having been nosed out for first and second by Victorville and Apple Valley, at 73.741 square miles and 73.523 square miles, respectively. Providing adequate infrastructure over its sprawling spread would be challenge in any event but is exacerbated by the depredations of the man celebrated as the “father” of modern Hesperia, Penn Phillips.
In 1954, Phillips was the vice-president and director of Standard Federal Savings and Loan Association of Los Angeles. On April 22 of that year, in what was billed as the largest private land sale in Southern California in 35 years, Phillips’ corporate entity Omart Investment Company bought a 36-square mile tract seven miles south of Victorville, representing roughly 90 percent of the entire township of Hesperia, for $1.25 million from the Appleton Land and Water Company and the Lacey Estate, which had owned the land jointly since 1888. He created the Hesperia Land Development and Hesperia Sales Corporation, which worked to promote his concept of the U-Finish Home, mass-produced housing units that were completely finished on the outside, leaving the buyer to complete the interior. He secured water rights to support this community. Phillips simultaneously announced his intention to spend $8.25 million through the Hesperia Land Company, a subsidiary of Omart Investment Company, to prepare the property for development, indicating 1,000 acres of the property was to be allocated to industrial development, 8,000 acres for agriculture and that 5,000 homes would be built along with a two-and-one-half mile-long-and-one-quarter-mile-wide artificial lake, and a resort section.
The formula Phillips applied in Hesperia was much like the one he used with his developments elsewhere: secure land, build homes on it, put in the minimal amount of infrastructure to make the homes habitable, bring in a population that creates the basis for a community that includes momentum for establishing some form of a jurisdictional governmental agency, sell all of the parcels acquired, take a profit and move on to the next development elsewhere.
Phillips built roads for Hesperia that were of a decidedly low standard, consisting of a mixture of desert sand used as aggregate and bitumen to create a road that was no more than one-and-a-half inches thick. The roads, when new, looked good, but under the withering sun and use, began to deteriorate within three to four years. The flash floods the desert is prone to further washed out these roads over the following decades, leaving many of Hesperia’s streets in poor condition, including some that eventually returned to being nothing more than dirt roads.
Phillips was equally irresponsible in the creation of the town’s water system. Though he started with the tremendous advantage of Hesperia being blessed with a world-class water supply, he squandered that asset in his head-long pursuit of a profit. Hesperia lies near the headwaters of the Mojave River, the watershed area north of the San Bernardino Mountains, a pristine and perpetually recharged water supply created by melting snow and overflowing rainwater from the heights southeast of Hesperia. The water system Phillips created for Hesperia consisted in large part of pipes cannibalized from a petroleum conveyance operation from depleted oil fields. Thus, the Hesperia Water Company, capturing water at the foot of the mountain before it rushed forward to become the Mojave River and wend out into the desert, used substandard pipes, which compromised the quality of the product provided to Hesperia for domestic use.
In the more than half century that has passed since Phillips took his final leave of Hesperia, the city has struggled to overcome its inferior infrastructure foundation. This was worsened by decisions made by the fledgling city council shortly after the city was incorporated in 1988. Looking southward at the upwardly mobile population of Rancho Cucamonga, a city which had incorporated a mere eleven years before in 1977, the newly formed city council, led by mayor Bruce Kitchen and councilmembers George Beardsly, Mike Lampignano, Percy Bakker and M. Val Shearer, lured Rancho Cucamonga Deputy City Manager Robert Rizzo to town to serve as the city’s first city manager. Deluded into thinking that cityhood would instantly transform their city into an economically dynamic hotbed of upscale developmennt similar to Rancho Cucamonga, the city council empowered Rizzo to cut deals with developers to convince them to begin building aggressively and soon. Rizzo took the council’s somewhat naive instructions too literally, pushing his planning staff to approve projects as proposed by developers, entailing projects with sketchy or inadequate infrastructure, both in the immediate vicinity of the neighborhoods which were springing up as well as throughout the city in general. In some cases, Rizzo, to meet payroll, diverted bond money intended for the provision of infrastructure into the general fund, where it was eaten up by the day-to-day expenses of running the city. In time, many of the landowners inveigled into the assessment districts created to debt service those bonds lost those properties in tax foreclosures as the promised increases in the value of their properties failed to materialize because the infrastructure those bonds were supposed to pay for was never built. Correspondingly, the sales tax producing development that was to accompany the improvements to those properties in question never materialized, depriving the city of revenue that could have been converted into infrastructure improvements.
And Rizzo was manipulative and dishonest, exploiting the very city council members who hired him, enabled him and directed him to develop the city at any cost. During the 1990 election, he arranged with developmental interests to get scores of residents in Orange County to write $99 checks in blank and entrust them to him. He then distributed those checks to the candidates up for election in the city council race that he deemed to be most accommodating of the pro-development agenda, including Percy Bakker, M. Val Shearer and planning commission member Donna Roland. In this way, Rizzo was seeking to obtain leverage over those to whom he was answerable. No one on the council objected until press accounts in early 1992 revealed what had occurred. Even then, the council sought to minimize the transgression. But public outrage over the corruption of the electoral and governmental process forced the council’s hand and in April 1992, Rizzo left the city.
Some 18 years later, Rizzo’s corrupt manipulations of the elected city officials who hired him came home to roost when a series of legal, financial, managerial and governmental transgressions he had engaged in as city manager with the City of Bell came to light and he was arrested, criminally charged, convicted and is now serving a 12-year sentence in state prison.
Rizzo was replaced by D.J. Collins, who for years had been the general manager of the Hesperia Water District. Under Collins, the water district in short order was subsumed by the city. Collins made little headway in dealing with the city’s infrastructure problems, and though he succeeded in diverting some of the money available from the city’s water operations to shore up the city’s inadequate road system, he and the council were strongly criticized for having broken a commitment to strictly devote water revenues to maintaining the city’s water system. Collin’s administration was severely challenged by “the revolt of the Young Turks” in the fire department, which came about when many of the fire department’s personnel, most of whom were close to a generation younger than Collins, objected to the city overriding efforts by the fire marshal to strictly enforce the state and municipal fire code with regard to new development as City Hall sought to liberalize regulations and encourage building.
Collins would be succeeded by a succession of relatively short-lived city managers – David Berger, Steve Dukett, David Bentz and Steve West. Following West’s departure, the city council temporarily elevated assistant city manager Rod Foster to the city manager’s position. In 2000, Western Water made an overture to Hesperia with regard to purchasing the city’s municipal water division. Making that pitch for Western Water was Robb Quincey. Quincey, who had a bachelor of arts degree in public administration and political science from the University of Minnesota, a master of public administration degree from the University of South Dakota and a doctorate in public administration with an emphasis in economics and organizational development from the University of La Verne, left quite an impression on the city council, though they did not accede to his suggestion that they sell the city’s water system to Western Water. Nevertheless, in October 2000 they offered Quincey a position as city manager. He accepted the offer. Titularly, Foster returned to his assistant city manager’s post. Quincey, however, had no actual experience in managing a governmental organization. He proved highly dependent upon Foster, who in essence served as city manager during Quincey’s more than four year tenure as city manager in Hesperia. In March 2005, Upland Mayor John Pomierski succeeded in convincing Quincey to jump ship and take on city manager duties in the City of Gracious Living. For twenty days after Quincey’s departure, Foster again served as interim city manager in Hesperia. In Upland, where like in Hesperia his reputation exceeded his skill level, Quincey soon recognized he was in over his head. He convinced Pomierski to hire Foster to serve as his assistant city manager. Foster then followed Quincey to Upland.
In Upland, Pomierski was engaged in a series of depredations, including shaking down individuals with business projects pending before City Hall to hire him as a “consultant” to facilitate their projects’ various approvals. The mayor’s bribe taking and acceptance of kickbacks grew legendary. Quincey, as Pomierski’s handpicked choice to serve as city manager, facilitated much of Pomierski’s action. In 2009 Foster left Upland to become city manager in Colton, at which point any veneer of propriety at Upland City Hall was sundered and Pomierski’s and Quincey’s self-interested machinations could no longer be suppressed or hidden. Pomierski was indicted in 2011 and convicted in 2012 and imprisoned for a year. Quincey was fired in 2011 and criminally charged in 2012 and convicted in 2014.
Following Foster’s departure for Upland in April 2005, Hesperia settled upon elevating city engineer/public works director Mike Podegracz to the city manager’s position. As it would play out, having a top administer who had an intimate understanding of the city’s infrastructure needs proved compatible with the city council’s priorities, in particular Paul Bosacki, who was elected in 2008, in no small measure on the basis of his website, Paveroadsfirst.com, which promoted using all available revenue toward refurbishing the city’s deteriorating infrastructure. Bosacki was replaced by Eric Schmidt in 2012. A new ethos has evolved on the city council, with Bill Holland, Russ Blewett and Paul Russ, and to a lesser extent Schmidt, in ascendancy. Last month, Podegracz retired. The council, which is led by Holland, a former sheriff’s deputy, selected Bentsen to lead the city.
Bentsen is home-grown, having attended Hesperia Christian School and Victor Valley College. It is perhaps this status as a Hesperia Native Son that has distinguished him from past Hesperia sheriff’s station commanders. Whereas previous sheriff’s captains who have served as what is tantamount to the police chief in Hesperia have been, if not cold and distant, then straightforward and somewhat aloof, Bentsen seems genuinely interested in the community he grew up in and engages regularly with residents, city employees and elected officials, displaying what one long time city resident called “the human element.” Since coming to Hesperia to serve as captain nearly three years ago, he has demonstrated himself, in another city resident’s words, to be “cordial, intelligent and logical.”
The decision to appoint him city manager passed on a 4-1 vote, with councilman Schmidt, the immediate past mayor prior to Holland, being the lone dissenter. Schmidt did not declare with any clarity the grounds for his objection to Bentsen, whether, perhaps, he was uncomfortable with placing into the topmost management role a leader without formal training in municipal administration or whether it was the subtle rivalry that has come to pervade the relationship between himself and Holland which was the motivating factor in his lone vote of opposition.
One area that is very likely to prove a test for Bentsen is negotiating the proper course between the city’s need to improve its infrastructure and the imperative a majority of the council is likely to place on him in accommodating development. Holland and council members Paul Russ and Russell Blewett are virulently pro-development by basic orientation. They have been confirmed in that orientation by the degree of financial support provided to their electioneering efforts by the development community. An example of how their leanings in this regard is their rock solid support for the Tapestry Project, a proposed master-planned community now slated to add 16,196 homes to the city. Assuming those units will be filled with a household of four, the Tapestry Project alone promises to zoom the city’s population from its current 90,173 to some 155,000. The intensity of that development in the southeast quadrant of the city has provoked serious opposition from a segment of the city’s populace, who see it as too much urbanization in a community that features less density and more wide open space than the cities of the Inland Valley down the Cajon Pass or in Los Angeles County. City officials have continued to support the project, making a few concessions such as scaling it back from its originally proposed 19,200 homes. Moreover, the project’s supporters point to the $12 million the project proponent, Terra Verde Group, will pay up front in development impact fees intended to cover the cost of infrastructure, in particular the widening of Ranchero Road, to offset the burden the influx of residents will represent.
While a minority of city residents are at one with Holland, Russ and Blewett and are pressing to have the project facilitated, an even more sizable segment of Hesperia and Oak Hills residents, not to mention those in Summit Valley, are adamantly opposed to making a radical change to the character of the property located near and on historic Las Flores Ranch.
Ongoing are Hesperia’s continuing road integrity problems. Moreover, Hesperia has historically suffered from inadequate or even non-existent grading in large swathes of the municipality, which has created flooding problems in the city’s industrial and commercial areas as well as its residential neighborhoods, resulting in some cases in fatalities. This circumstance represents a continuing liability to the city. And the city is bedeviled by the consideration that it is bifurcated by the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, which can be forded only at Bear Valley Road on the city’s extreme north end, by means of the Myra McGinnis Bridge on Main Street in the central part of the city and the Ranchero Underpass at the city’s south end. In this way, Hesperia is a city that is largely divided from itself, such that going from the east of the city to the west or vice versa often entails a commuting delay. Overcoming this problem is expensive, as the most recent fix to the dilemma, consisting of the Ranchero Underpass completed and opened in 2013, cost $27 million.
Another challenge that Bentsen faces is that departing with Podegracz was a significant portion of his municipal support network – director of development services Scott Priester, economic development director Steve Lantsberger and director of public Works Dale Burke. It is rumored that management services director Brian Johnson will soon depart the city as well. The loss of expertise and institutional memory these departures represent to not auger well for anyone thrust into the city manager’s position. And these departures will put Bentsen in the position of having to answer to and please the political directives of the council collectively and its members singularly without having access to experienced and authoritative municipal planning staff to guide him.
Whether Bentsen now fully understands that the council majority may be asking him and the decimated municipal staff he leads to accede to a development agenda that is on track to repeat the mistakes of the past that put a higher priority on building houses and neighborhoods than on ensuring there is adequate infrastructure to support that development is an open question. A further question is whether, even if he does understand that future generations of Hesperians might be hurt by a mad rush toward development today, he has the strength of character and wherewithal to stand up to his political masters. Indeed, the Tapestry Project may be the first of a series of tests in this regard and if he approves amenable to rubber stamping the development community’s proposals, the flood gates for further aggressive development may be opened.
Holland and Russ are further supported by city employee unions. Just as in the case of the demands and pressure on City Hall by the development community, Bentsen will need to make crucial decisions with regard to not only the size of city staff but the level of remuneration and benefits those employees are to receive. As a sheriff’s department employee who is to retire at the age of 51 from that organization and receive a pension equal to 81 percent of his highest pay while working with the sheriff’s department, Bentsen may not have what is perceived as the moral authority to hold the line on salary and benefits to be paid to city employees, even if in the years ahead council members who are less friendly to the employees union than Holland and Russ are elected.
And like every Hesperia city manager who came before him, Bentsen is saddled with an arrangement put in place when the city first incorporated which provides it with a return of only 1.57 percent to 1.59 percent of the property tax collected within its borders. In this regard, Hesperia is the long forgotten stepchild of San Bernardino County, receiving the lowest percentage of property tax than all of the county’s 24 incorporated municipalities. Efforts have been made to adjust that inequity in the past, none of which succeeded. Should Bentsen take on that task and succeed in cracking that nut, he might on the basis of that alone lay claim to being, in a positive rather than a negative sense, the city’s most noteworthy city manager.
Because he was engaged in transitioning from his role as Hesperia Sheriff’s Station commander to city manager, which is to take place over the weekend, Bentsen was unable to participate in an interview with the Sentinel this week, his secretary said.
By Mark Gutglueck