Following the last of a two-month span of dramatic turns, it appears that San Bernardino will retain its city manager for the foreseeable future.
That drama played out both publicly and privately, after the City of Reno, Nevada late last year sought to recruit San Bernardino City Manager Mark Scott as a replacement for its recently departed city manager, Andrew Clinger, who had left the “Biggest Little City in the World” under a cloud in September amid a sexual harassment investigation.
Scott, who just a year before had of his own volition resigned as city manager in Burbank to take on the city manager post in San Bernardino effective in February 2016, dealt with a number of serious challenges in his first eleven months on the job, including shepherding the city toward an exit from the Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection status it had entered into in 2012, finalizing the dissolution of what had been the city’s 137-year-old fire department in a cost-cutting and revenue producing arrangement that saw the entirety of the city annexed into a county fire protection district entailing a $148 per year parcel tax add-on, a likewise outsourcing of the city’s sanitation division to private sector trash hauler Burrtec Industries, encouraging the ultimately successful campaign to modernize the city’s 111-year old charter and guiding the city in the aftermath of December 2, 2015 mass shooting by one of their colleagues and his wife of 14 San Bernardino County Department of Public Health employees at their office in the Inland Regional Center.
Scott’s initial contract with San Bernardino was for one year and was set to expire in February. So engaged was Scott in managing the city that the job evaluation he was due which is routinely provided to government employees was not undertaken. One of the private moments of drama came when Scott, in early January, informed the city council that he was being considered for the Reno post after actively applying for it. The council members have only hinted at how that news was broken to them. There appears there were some self-recriminations on that panel with regard to having not provided Scott with that performance review and not having offered him a longer-term contract that would have locked him in and headed off the poaching attempt by Reno.
It does not appear that Scott fully understood or appreciated the more public nature of the hiring process for top governmental officials in Nevada as opposed to California. In California, efforts are made to maintain strict confidentiality with regard to the application, vetting, interviewing and selection process of government administrators. That is not so in Nevada, where state law classifies the application for a government position to be a public record once the candidate has moved beyond the initial paperwork submission and background check stages. Thus, on February 2, when Reno eliminated 36 of the 41 applicants for the city manager position, Scott, along with James Twombly, former city manager in Tulsa; Ricky Horst, city manager for Rocklin; Thomas Barwin, city manager for Sarasota, Florida; and Clark County Assistant County Manager Sabra Smith Newby were publicly identified as the five candidates being seriously considered by the Reno City Council.
News travelled the 450 miles between Reno and San Bernardino within 24 hours and by February 4 virtually anyone with an interest in the goings-on at San Bernardino City Hall was aware that Scott was leaving, and the drama went public. At the February 6 council meeting, resident Sandra Ibarra chastised Scott for doing a good job and then leaving. Belatedly, the council at its February 21 meeting agendized approving a month-to-month extension of Scott’s contract. Scott was not present, having headed to Reno to take part in the interview process there. Only councilman John Valdivia expressed dismay with Scott, saying the council should come to terms with his desire to leave and should move into the future and find someone to replace him. He recommended that the council cut its ties with him immediately. Yet even in doing so, Valdivia acknowledged “I have a deep regard for Mr. Scott. In fact, I have witnessed and experienced his commitment to professional service as a city manager. I have seen him to be a consummate professional in my dealings with the issues at hand. I have had a deep soul search on this issue before us tonight and I cannot support a continuation of Mark Scott. I respect him. I think he is a true professional. I wish him the best. I think [of] his efforts in Reno. God bless him, if he is looking for another opportunity. That being the case, I cannot support this contract tonight.”
Council members Jim Mulvihill, Henry Nickel and Virginia Marquez concurred that it appeared Scott’s departure appeared inevitable. Nevertheless, impassioned pleas by council members Fred Shorrett and Bessine Richard prompted councilman Benito Barrios to propose extending Scott’s contact through until this week, March 8, which unbeknownst to the council at the time, would be the day that Reno would hold its final public interviews with Scott and the other finalist, Smith-Newby.
At this week’s council meeting, Scott was present, despite being scheduled to be in Reno less than 24 hours later to undergo a final battery of evaluations by Reno city officials. To Barrios fell the chore of publicly confronting Scott on what his plans were, punctuated with a plea that Scott remain in San Bernardino.
“At our last meeting there was a pretty contentious discussion of what to do, whether to terminate the contract of our city manager or continue it so we can get some questions answered,” Barrios began. Barrios said that now was the opportunity to “get some [answers] from our city manager ,since he is here today, and also have a discussion amongst the council about what we do going forward. It is imperative we have an educated and well-informed decision because he is running our city. Rather than just ending his contract, I believe in making a very thorough and thought-out transition, doing it in a smart way and not just allowing our emotions to run wild and making a knee-jerk reaction. So, I want to start off with directly asking our city manager, because a lot of people have asked, what is he going to do if he gets the job? Will he take the job? How long will he be here? Those are just some of the questions we can start off with.”
Then, directly addressing Scott, Barrios asked, “Mr. City Manager, can you give us some clarity, so we have some direction on what to do henceforward? I know we have had some conversations in the past and you have hinted to maybe we should look to a permanent person, but we’d love to keep you. I think everybody is pleased with your work. I know I definitely am. You’ve taught me a lot. You’ve seen the passion I have in wanting to help this city and I know you are a team player and I know you’ll do your due diligence helping us make our decision tonight.”
Scott responded, “I’m going through a lot of interesting experiences lately. I think the process in Reno is very public, public to the point that everything that happens there is entirely recorded and run in public, which is something certainly most city managers never go through in their entire lives.”
He then alluded to the situation in real time, in San Bernardino at that moment, in a meeting that was being broadcast on local public access cable television.
“Being asked on television in front of the world a question like this is pretty unique, as well,” Scott said. “It rarely would happen in public. It would normally happen [in a private discussion with the council behind closed doors]. It is one the few things a city council is allowed to go into closed session and discuss. But, what the heck. This has been so public that I think not only the city council but the public deserves to hear what’s going on in my life. I don’t want to belabor it. You’ve got plenty of things to do here tonight, but to understand my situation, I think each person has to go back, in all fairness to me, to where we were in December last year  when the city was in a pretty dire situation and I am quite sure you were not going to have qualified people step up to do the job at that time. I was interested in doing that. It looked like a good mission. I was happy that I’ve had this chance. Frankly, from a professional standpoint, this year has probably been more rewarding to me than any other year that I’ve spent as a city manager because we’ve got real issues here and we’re trying to find real solutions to real world problems. I’ve had a great year. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. But I’m a 67-year-old man who has been living separate from my 43-year partner in life for almost three of the last five years, including the last year. I can’t do that forever. I don’t want to do that forever. I’ve got to put my marriage in front of my professional career at some point. I am going to live with my wife. So, I’ve moved out of my apartment, last week. I don’t live in my apartment now and I’m commuting the 130 miles a day round trip. If the Reno situation doesn’t work out, then I’m going to hope you are going to let me keep doing that. And I’m going to drive the 130 miles a day because I’d like to be involved in this city and this mission. I enjoy it. I think it matters. I think what you all do matters and I’d like to do that.”
Scott then addressed the reality that he had actively sought to leave San Bernardino and the prospect he would be hired in Nevada.
“I’m looking at the position in Reno,” he said. “In fairness to that city, it took a long time before I decided to go ahead and let them have my application. But I committed to going through their process, and I’m going to do that. I’ll be at the airport at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning to go back up there and theoretically in the next two days we’re going to find out. It’s a great place. I’ve found a lot there to like. And, I find a lot here to like. I’m a lucky guy if I get to do jobs like this my whole career, but I can’t give you an absolute commitment as to what the future holds. In order to do that I would have to pull the plug on a process that they put a lot of time and energy into me on and I won’t do that. I don’t think that would be ethical. I don’t know what will happen if I am offered the job. I haven’t met many of the people there yet. That’s the best, most honest answer I can give you.”
Scott said that he understood that his application for the position in Reno created difficulty for San Bernardino and that he was prepared to receive with equanimity the San Bernardino City Council’s decision to part with him.
“I will fully understand if the city council decides, whether today, or the next time you meet, when maybe we’ll know what’s gone on there, that you just want to go find somebody who is going to be here for years,” Scott said. “If what I am supposed to do is help you do what is right for the city and if my transition into somebody else is the best thing that I can do to help this city, then I’ll do that.”
Barrios then articulated the operative question. “If you are not offered the job [in Reno],” Barrios asked, “will you come back and recommit to the city long term?”
“I’ll come back to you to talk about that possibility and what would be involved to do that,” Scott said. “I could do this for the rest of my career and be happy here, but I’m not sure how many years I can do a 130-mile round trip and we’re not in a position where she can just move here and give up what she has, and I’m not going to ask her to do that. So, we’ll have to figure that out. I could be very happy working this mission in this job.”
Barrios then said, “What is on the table is to go to a month-to-month contract and I’d like to hear the thoughts of the council.”
Councilman Fred Shorrett said, “What you are doing in Reno is not a surprise to us and you were very honest to us up front. I thought I heard you say you don’t even know if you are going to take it if they give it to you. I am sorry this has been such a public thing. I really am. It’s too bad. You committed to them and you went up there and we knew you were going to and you’ve been narrowed down to two candidates and I said before when you were not here they would be fools not to hire you because of your competency. But I did clearly hear you say that if you’re not selected that you’re willing to come here and help us do whatever we need to do to make a transition, if that’s what’s best for the city. So, I’d like to move that we continue month-to-month and let’s give you the opportunity to finish your interviews up there and see what the outcome is by Wednesday and we’ll go from there.”
City attorney Gary Saenz said, “I want to add that from the perspective of the bankruptcy that if Mark Scott is going to leave our city to work in Reno, it would benefit us to have a smooth and timely transition which would be something that is well-planned rather than an abrupt transition. We are about to exit bankruptcy and there is a lot of things going on in our city. What we need is a smooth transition.”
Councilman Henry Nickel, sensing that perhaps that evening might be the last public opportunity for him to say so, said, “I just want to express the gratitude that has been expressed to me by a vast majority of my constituents. I think we’ve been very impressed with your professionalism, your commitment to engaging our residents in a way that has really been refreshing and we really greatly appreciate the service you have provided. And should you leave, you will be missed, let there be no doubt. But I completely appreciate the need to address family and family-related concerns. So, I will not hold that against you in any way. I thank you for your offer to help us. I think one thing we do need is we need stability in our city now. I think we’ve got that from you over the last year. I think you’ve been steadfast in your leadership and I appreciate that and I hope to continue that as our city moves forward, should you stay or should you go. Thank you and thank you for your commitment to continue the legacy you helped us to start.”
The council then voted unanimously to approve Shorrett’s motion.
Scott departed from the council meeting early that evening. He departed for Reno the next morning and headed into the final rounds of the evaluation process with city officials there. He appeared to be cruising toward a new existence in the Silver State. After watching Smith Newby’s hour-and-eight minute interview with the Reno City Council, all Scott needed to do was get through his public back-and-forth with the same officials.
But at that point, Scott, who has a master’s degree in business from Stanford University Graduate School of Business and who was city manager in Fresno, Culver City, Spartanburg, South Carolina and Beverly Hills before he was city manager in Burbank, realized he had left his heart in San Bernardino. When he came before the Reno City Council he said, “I have a dramatic announcement. I think you’ve already met your future city manager, and it is she,” indicating Smith Newby.
On Thursday, he was back in his office in San Bernardino. That night, Scott from his Rancho Mirage home told the Sentinel that he is now back in San Bernardino “heavily.” Asked if he was going to remain in place as city manager for another two years, Scott said, “I don’t know. That’s not my decision. My first contract was for a year and I have not really discussed with the council the length of any new contract. I think we can work something out. I would like to be here for a while. I get to work with some very good officials here.”
Scott offered an explanation of what occurred earlier this week in Reno, when he essentially walked away from the position there. “This week was the first time in the process where I actually met the council members one-on-one,” he said. “Other than the televised interview that took place on February 21, I never actually met them. So it was in the middle of the interviews this week as I was getting a real feel for the city that I came around to thinking that just wasn’t what I wanted and it wasn’t going to work out.”
Scott said he knows how important maintaining stability in San Bernardino is and that he might have offended some of the council in contemplating bolting.
“I don’t blame them at all for wanting someone willing to make a long term commitment,” he said. “I’m sorry I put them through that. But it looks like it has worked out at this point and I am looking forward to being here for some time to come.”
Following the last of a two-month span of dramatic turns, it appears that San Bernardino will retain its city manager for the foreseeable future.