By Mark Gutglueck
Reports emanating from the Fifth Floor of the San Bernardino County Administrative Tower are that Gary McBride, who was chosen by the board of supervisors last October to serve as the county’s top administrator, is overmatched in the position and is being undone on an almost daily basis by the political vicissitudes besetting the position he holds.
McBride was chosen as the long-term or so-called “permanent” replacement of Greg Devereaux as the county’s head staff member last year. Ostensibly and in some real measure, McBride was chosen on the strength of his impressive command of the county’s financial picture. County supervisors, having only relatively recently witnessed the county shake off the fiscal doldrums that gripped the county over the course of the six-year-long recession that began in 2007, collectively recognized that to overcome the most consuming challenges of running a $6 billion annual operation what was needed was someone at the helm who would be comprehensively knowledgeable with regard to the county’s budgetary issues.
There was, however, one other factor that played a role in McBride’s selection that was not publicly acknowledged, something that had more to do with his actual predecessor and the issue of that predecessor’s personality.
When the reins of the county were handed over to McBride, it was Dena Smith, who had long been the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, who made the hand off. Smith at that point was functioning in the role of interim county chief executive, having moved into that post as the result of Greg Devereaux’s departure from the role of county chief executive officer earlier in 2017. It was thus Devereaux’s shoes that McBride was being called upon to fill, and it is the specter of Devereaux’s command that continues to hang over the county and its current top administrator.
For virtually anyone succeeding Devereaux, his would be a hard act to follow.
Since first landing a position in local government within San Bernardino County 27 years ago, Devereaux has cut the most impressive path imaginable, having achieved a stature that puts him head, shoulders and a good portion of his torso above that of the next highest achieving public administrator in the region. In 1991, he was hired to serve as Fontana’s redevelopment and housing manager as that city was on the brink of financial collapse, the result of a decade-and-a-half of mismanagement, malfeasance and graft on the part of a succession of public officials, in particular one-time Fontana City Manager Jack Ratelle.
Fontana’s financial situation overwhelmed each of the three city managers succeeding Ratelle – John O’Sullivan, Russ Carlsen and Jay Corey. When Corey departed in 1993, the city council elevated Devereaux to city manager. In four years he not only succeeded in lifting Fontana out of its intractable economic circumstance, but succeeded in putting that city on firm financial footing that would persist for more than two decades – to the present. Having witnessed the dramatic turnaround in Fontana, the Ontario City Council set about luring Devereaux to Ontario, succeeding in doing so in 1997. For the next dozen years he ran that city, likewise transforming it through a variety of strategies which had for the most part not been previously utilized. By 2009, Ontario had a total budget approaching $670 million – more than two-thirds of a billion dollars running through all of its funds annually – such that its financial numbers were more than double that of the next most financially dynamic city in San Bernardino County.
In November 2009, the county terminated Mark Uffer as the county’s top administrator, a position that then carried the title of county administrative officer. A recruitment drive throughout California to replace Uffer attracted 277 applicants. Sixteen of those applicants were given a second look, but inevitably, largely on the strength of his relationship with county supervisor Gary Ovitt, who was then chairman of the board of supervisors and had been mayor in Ontario during part of the time Devereaux was city manager there, Devereaux was selected. Devereaux was not hired into the post of county administrative officer – the title historically conferred upon San Bernardino County’s top employee – but rather the enhanced position of county chief executive officer. With that title came authority that none of his predecessor’s had enjoyed. Devereaux was given absolute autonomy with regard to overseeing the county’s operations as well as the hiring and firing of county department heads that went beyond the authority of any previous county administrative officer. The supervisors conferred on him a salary and benefit package unparalleled in county history and a so-called superbonus. The superbonus consisted of a provision written into his employment contract that he could not be removed as chief executive officer on anything less than four votes of the board of supervisors. Thus, the bare 3-2 majority vote that had knelled the exodus of Devereaux’s immediate predecessor and a number of top county administrators before that would be insufficient to terminate Devereaux. His firing could only come if a cause was cited and at least 80 percent of the board agreed to force him out. He was given a ten year-contract that guaranteed he would remain as chief executive officer for five years and provided him with the option of remaining another five years thereafter – with the board’s consent – as chief executive officer or instead transitioning into the position of “special projects” advisor.
Once in place, Devereaux ruled with an iron fist. The county, like the rest of the region, state and country, faced the fiscal challenges brought on by the financial collapse of 2007 and the lingering recession and stagnation that ensued. With the accompanying drawdown in revenue available to the county forcing successive rounds of belt tightening, Devereaux succeeded in extracting reluctant concessions from the unions representing county employees to allow the freezing of salaries and reduction of benefits, generating along the way a degree of enmity with elements of the county’s workforce and the unions representing them, but nevertheless keeping the county out of the red, while shielding the members of the board of supervisors, for the most part, from political harm. The absolute authority the supervisors allowed Devereaux to wield was a necessary ingredient in his success, augmented by calculation and precision and what were sometimes perceived as ruthless tactics. He, it seemed, more than the board of supervisors who were his ostensible political masters, was the entity in charge. Traditionally, the board of supervisors would set the policy and the county administrative officer would see that the policy was executed upon. Devereaux, however, for the most part formulated the policy, which the board simply ratified, so that Devereaux could put it into action. He instituted and effectively enforced a prohibition on members of the board having any substantive contact with the county’s department heads or county employees. Rather, communication between the board and county staff went through him. In 2010, one of the members of the board when he was hired was replaced in that year’s election. In 2012, the board changed again when two members were replaced. In 2014, his original patron on the board, Ovitt, departed. Yet through all of those changes, the newcomers were willing, more or less, to tolerate Devereaux’s dictatorial manner. They were essentially able to live with his style of having primacy in dealing with county staff and department heads because in the end he was able to do so more efficiently than they could, and the general consensus was that the outcome of his management was better than anything the board would have derived if its members were in control.
Still the same, there was a growing sentiment on the board that the arrangement by which they were cut off from direct interaction with the county’s department heads and staff was less than ideal. By late 2016, there was an increasing sense that after seven years some kind of change was in order. In January 2017, Devereaux announced that two months hence, in March 2017, he would invoke that part of his contract which would allow him to step into the role of special projects advisor. Dena Smith, the long-time clerk of the board of supervisors subsequently promoted to the position of Land Use Services Department director whom Devereaux had promoted to a deputy county executive officer position and later to the position of assistant chief county executive officer, was to replace him on an interim basis while the board sought to recruit a long-term or “permanent” replacement.
In carrying out that search, the consensus of the board was that they wanted someone who embodied all, or at least most, of the positive attributes that Devereaux possessed, particularly his comprehensive vision and energy, his readiness to serve as a buffer between controversy and them, his knowledge and competence. And while they were ready to infuse in his successor authority and reach, they wanted someone who was a bit less domineering or at least someone who would vector his authority down the chain of command rather than up that chain toward them. They wanted to empower someone who had the wisdom and expertise to make the county run smoothly, whose managerial judgment was sound, but who at the same time would also be willing to defer to their vision of what was best for the county if the new top administrator’s vision deviated to whatever degree from theirs. They wanted someone who would be willing to surrender back to them their ability to have direct interaction with the county’s department heads. In short, they wanted Devereaux-Lite.
They carried out a recruitment drive and search that involved reducing the selection pool to 35 serious candidates from within county government, other public agencies and the private sector, all of whom were interviewed in private. Following considerable contemplation, the board concluded that McBride best fit the bill.
For starters, he was a 23-year county employee who served a good portion of that time in a management capacity. He thus had more than a passing familiarity with the differing management styles that Devereaux and his predecessors had exhibited over the years. He knew the county intimately, having begun with the county in 1994 as a fiscal clerk in human services. He was promoted to staff analyst in the public health department in 1996, administrative analyst in the county administrative office in 2000, public health division chief in 2002, deputy executive officer in the county administrative office in 2006, and county chief financial officer in 2013.
Supervisor Robert Lovingood, who had acceded to the position of board chairman early in 2017, lauded McBride as a “standout candidate” distinguished by his “integrity, strong financial background and experience with the county.” Supervisor Curt Hagman cited McBride’s “wise counsel, innovative management style and commitment to accept nothing but the best from himself and all those around him.” Supervisor Josie Gonzales praised him as “visionary.” Supervisor Janice Rutherford expressed enthusiasm for McBride’s “passion for this organization.” Supervisor James Ramos said he had confidence in McBride based on his “abundant wealth of institutional knowledge.”
The glowing praise for McBride aside, the board did not entrust him with the comprehensive set of keys to the San Bernardino County Kingdom that had been vouchsafed to Devereaux. McBride was not provided with the superbonus Devereaux enjoyed, meaning he could be handed a pink slip on a bare majority 3-to-2 vote. Similarly, the board did not confer upon McBride the title of chief county executive officer. Rather, the previous title of county administrative officer was reinstated as the county’s top staff position with his promotion.
The Sentinel is informed that following a roughly three-month-long honeymoon, the marriage between the board and McBride began to sour in January or early February.
While McBride was a more-than-capable individual with regard to handling financial issues, his ability to smoothly, efficiently and satisfactorily manage the operation of an organization as large as that of the county is open to question. What is obvious is that he is not the A-type, Alpha-Dog personality that Greg Devereaux is.
In compliance with the board’s collective expectations, McBride from the outset of his tenure discontinued the practice of restricting the county’s department heads from having direct substantial contact with the board of supervisors. This apparently has had the unintended consequence of decreasing the degree of alacrity with which the county’s department heads react to the commands coming from McBride as compared to how they would snap to when Devereaux gave orders. From the standpoint of the board of supervisors, this is undesirable, since they want relatively quick action when they have given policy directives and have asked for certain action.
Meanwhile, Devereaux remains connected to the county’s governmental structure as he yet functions in the capacity of special projects advisor, which is essentially a consultancy position Simultaneously, Devereaux is working as a consultant with a bevy of governmental and private sector entities. Reportedly, Devereaux retains a degree of authority at the county, both as a consequence of his consultancy arrangement there and his longstanding status at the top of the heap. Some county employees still say they work for him. In particular, because doing so is in the interest of some of his current set of clients, Devereaux continues to exercise, the Sentinel has been told, reach into the county’s Land Use Services Department. In that venue and a few others, it is almost as if he never left the employ of the county and he is still a major shot caller. Indeed, some county employees have on occasion and quite recently referred to Devereaux as their “boss.”
A major factor in the rough sledding that McBride is experiencing is the division on the board that suddenly flared into existence some six months ago, precipitated by Supervisor Ramos’s decision to run for California Assembly in the 40th District. This, in turn, triggered a move by the incumbent 40th District Assemblyman, Marc Steinorth, to forego vying for reelection to the Assembly and instead seek election in the June Primary election to the Second District County Supervisor’s post held by Janice Rutherford. When Supervisor Curt Hagman endorsed Steinorth in that contest, it opened up a schism on the board that previously did not exist. Ultimately, Rutherford turned back Steinorth’s electoral challenge and is now set to remain as supervisor for another four years. The once amicable relationship she had with Hagman has suffered as a consequence of Hagman’s endorsement of Steinorth, and the frosty relationship between the two supervisors in recent months has been apparent in the sometimes tart exchanges between them during board meetings.
Throughout his tenure as county chief executive officer, Devereaux did not need to deal with any such scenario, as the board members throughout that time were more or less on genial terms with one another. Though it is not distinctly obvious at every turn, what appears to be the case is that a divide has opened on the council in which supervisors Rutherford and Gonzales are on one side, with supervisors Hagman and Ramos on the other. While there are individual issues involving the board that may not fit within that definition, there is evidence that this split is manifesting, with Supervisor Lovingood at a loss because the divide is spoiling, at least to a degree, his chairmanship, which he waited five years since his 2012 election to the board to attain, as the cooperative atmosphere that he was counting upon when he inherited the gavel late last year has evaporated. This has put McBride in a very delicate position, as he is now serving a board chairman who is less than pleased with the terms of his own existence in a politically tense atmosphere. McBride’s inability to resolve this dilemma is not endearing him to Lovingood. Though Devereaux did not have to confront such a situation, had such a circumstance presented itself, it likely would have proven far less challenging to him than it is to McBride, as Devereaux’s stronger personality would have reduced any board divisions to a secondary status to his own overriding will. Moreover, with his superbonus requiring that the board assemble four votes to axe him, any board divisions would have strengthened rather than weakened Devereaux. That is not quite the case with McBride, who is now in the position of potentially offending one board faction or another at any point when a difference over policy or other issues emerges and he recommends a course of action that one side or the other disagrees with. As the factions on the board that have formed are hardening, the way in which McBride reacts with regard to the issues of difference which crop up between those factions has become treacherous, such that he is no longer free to simply analyze those issues and offer a straightforward assessment and suggested course of action, as in doing so he may come down on one side of the political divide or another, inducing potential enmity with one or two or even three of his political masters. An accumulation of such disagreements over time carries with it the potential that a three-member majority willing to terminate McBride will emerge.
Not unlike practically all other governmental administrators, McBride is ill-equipped to deal with the lack of unity at the level above him.
One of McBride’s colleagues at the county who worked closely with him and served in a similar capacity and at the same level of advancement before McBride became chief financial officer told the Sentinel, “Gary is very smart and very capable. He knows finance like no one else. It’s just that politics and political infighting for sure are not his forte. When it came down to being in the position of county administrator, he wasn’t ready for the rodeo.”
McBride’s $422,761 annual total compensation contract as of its signing last October ran for four years, three months and three days, until February 28, 2022. While the board must declare a cause if it does fire him during the first fifteen months of his contract, beginning in March 2019 he is considered to be a completely at-will employee and can be let go for any reason, explained or unexplained.
There has been speculation as to what remedies might be applied to the situation. What has been suggested, on one hand, is that the board might move to strengthen McBride by altering his contract to give him the superbonus that Devereaux had, thereby upping his confidence and freeing him to act with the same degree of vigor in meeting the county’s burgeoning and emerging problems. On the other hand, it has been suggested that a solution might be had in the form of allowing McBride, by mutual consent, to return to his previous post as deputy administrator overseeing the county’s finances, and replacing him as county administrative officer with another candidate.
McBride did not respond to a series of questions pertaining to the circumstances he and the county are in more than eight months into his tenure as county administrative officer.
Similarly, most of the board’s members spurned questions about where they stand with McBride at this point.
Supervisor Curt Hagman demurred at responding to whether he would consider letting McBride return to his former position of chief financial officer if McBride either chose to leave, or the board elected to relieve him of, the top command position. Nor did he clarify whether, or to what extent, Devereaux is assisting or guiding McBride in the management of the county.
McBride, Hagman opined, “is doing a good job.” He said that he could not speak for how others on the board felt, but said, “I haven’t heard anything bad about him from anyone. I’m pleased with him.”
David Wert, the county’s official spokesman, told the Sentinel that “From my view on the front lines, nothing [suggesting McBride is in difficulty in his role as county administrative officer] rings true. The county is operating under the same paradigm that the board created in 2010-2011, and I haven’t seen or sensed any displeasure on the part of the board or a need or desire to step further into an executive role. No two people run an organization in exactly the same way, but the June 12 budget hearing is the best public evidence that Gary and the board are working well together.”