In Missive To Employees, City Manager Conflates San Bernardino With Covina

In a faux pas of what is perhaps form rather than of substance, the San Bernardino city manager last week confused the city she is now leading with the city where she was employed as top administrator two years ago.
In a year-end letter to the city’s employees, city manager Andrea Travis-Miller referred to San Bernardino as Covina. The confusion was made at a crucial point in the missive that dealt with the concept of taking pride in the city and striving for excellence, a blunder that may have undercut the spirit and substance of Travis-Miller’s attempt to connect with her underlings at City Hall.
Dated December 21, the letter carries the salutation “To all of our city employees.” It begins, “As 2017 draws to a close and 2018 begins to dawn, it seems like a great time to reflect on what we have accomplished, the journey we have taken to get to where we are, and the plans we have for an exciting, bright future in San Bernardino. I’d like to begin by telling you how much I appreciate each of you. The city would not be where it is without the contributions made by each and every one of our employees. Thank you for all of your work and your resiliency over the last year.”
Though the letter then goes on to state “Last year was a year of transition” and celebrates “significant progress… in the face of significant challenges,” while referencing “a period of change in the city’s leadership – a new city manager, assistant city manager and several new department [heads],” the letter makes no overt reference to San Bernardino’s emergence from bankruptcy, which was ratified this spring by Federal Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury and effectuated on June 15. The bankruptcy is mentioned in passing on page two of the letter in conjunction with “tough decisions” and an assertion “the city established a sustainable financial model that serves as a strong foundation.”
Travis-Miller wrote, “Critical positions throughout the organization are also being filled to ensure we have the complement of talent needed to provide high quality service to our community. With the team in place and with the help of all of you, we are making strides in achieving our strategic goal of creating a culture of leadership, service and high performance throughout the organization.”
The letter takes on the character of a pep talk, encouraging employees to focus on “responsiveness, priority setting, effective communication, and engaged leadership.”
Travis-Miller told her employees, “In the spirit of providing good customer service, we are creating an atmosphere of caring. It means treating people with respect, listening, proposing reasonable solutions, and following through in a timely manner. Through the strategic planning process, the mayor and city council and staff are establishing priority goals and objectives, identifying the job of the city, our vision and new paradigms that will guide our efforts in the coming years. Producing results will instill confidence in the city. Clear messages that are delivered at the appropriate time are critical to building confidence. As an organization, we are working to earn the trust of our community. We are demonstrating a commitment to using their resources wisely, and we are building a reputation for excellence.”
Working toward a crescendo, Travis Miller wrote, “2018 will bring its own mix of successes and challenges, but our direction is clear. Our job is to continue to focus intently on what we can control – providing our residents and businesses with the best, most responsive municipal services; managing our costs and spending taxpayer money prudently; building our reputation; and doing our part to keep San Bernardino moving forward and ensure we are recognized as one of the safest, most desirable cities in the Inland Empire.”
At that point, Travis-Miller called upon the city’s employees to “strive for excellence in everything you do,” and moved into the province wherein she conflated San Bernardino with Covina, calling for “excellence in your work, excellence with our residents, businesses, people we do business with, and visitors to our community, excellence with your teammates, excellence in the community, excellence with our resources, [and] excellence in yourself.”
It was under the topic of community that Travis-Miller called for “excellence in how you give of your time and efforts to make Covina a great place to live and work.”
Travis-Miller, an attorney, is well-traveled as a municipal employee. This is her second go-round in San Bernardino. In her mid-30s she acceded to the position of La Mirada city manager in 2001. She remained in that position until 2008, at which point she went to work with a law firm. In 2011, she agreed to become San Bernardino deputy city manager under then-city manager Charles McNeeley. It was in the final stages of McNeeley’s tenure as city manager that a long-developing financial crisis at last overtook the city. McNeeley resigned. In that circumstance, Travis-Miller was elevated to the position of acting city manager. In tandem with then-finance director Jason Simpson, Travis-Miller made a review of the city’s financial books, at the conclusion of which the duo convinced the city council in July 2012 that its best course was to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. The city did so the following month. Travis-Miller gamely soldiered on as acting city manager, but in 2013 left to become the executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments. In March 2015, she accepted the position of city manager in Covina.
After she resigned as Covina city manager in May 2016, Travis-Miller made her way back to San Bernardino, where she was again installed as deputy city manager. She was in place as deputy city manager when the city made its historic exit, after nearly five years, from bankruptcy. She was designated in July to replace Mark Scott as city manager following his official departure in August.
It appears that Travis-Miller may have been working from a boilerplate text in composing the letter and simply overlooked language relating to Covina, which remained in the template, as the last time she utilized it she was the city manager in that city. Another interpretation is that Travis-Miller may have actually composed the letter herself within the last few weeks, but in doing so mnemonically or reflexively defaulted to the reference to Covina, and then failed to catch the error before posting the letter.
The error raised, under one interpretation, questions about the sincerity of the letter writing effort, as this would indicate it was being done by rote and without regard for the city’s true character and uniqueness. Under the variant interpretation, it raised a question about the failing of Travis-Miller’s mental performance on the fly.
Many were willing to forgive someone who is actively engaged in running the oldest and populous municipality in San Bernardino County, with over 216,000 residents, a community beset my numerous intractable challenges for having committed a single word textual error. Some were not.
Local attorney Tim Prince, whose father Ralph was the longest serving city attorney in San Bernardino history, said he sees the mistake as symbolic of recent City Hall failures.
“The current leadership at City Hall seems to be operating from a formulaic mentality of one size fits all without regard to the history and uniqueness of San Bernardino. This administration closed our beautiful City Hall without a plan to retrofit and reopen it, closed the Carousel Mall without a developer committed to redevelop it, throws out our historic city charter for a formulaic shell, outsources our historic fire department and refuse services for ever-increasing fees, and spends barrels of money on out-of-town consultants. These management practices all reflect a low standard of city manager advice and accountability., the same type of shoddy leadership that would slap San Bernardino’s name on text prepared for another city.”
San Bernardino City Councilman Fred Shorett told the Sentinel, “There is no way she would be using a template, and for someone to suggest she would have set letters where she would substitute in one city for another is just absurd. This was a simple slip of the tongue or the pen or whatever. This woman is thoroughly entrenched in this city like no other city manager I have worked with in ten years. This isn’t anything other than a small mistake and not worth talking about at all. Andrea is involved and enthusiastic about what she is doing and totally dedicated to restoring San Bernardino into a world class city. For someone to suggest she is working from a template is something I find personally insulting.”
Mark Gutglueck

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