After A Set Of False Starts, SB Solons Put City Manager Into Administrative Suspension

In the logical but somewhat delayed denouement of the November 2018 election, the San Bernardino City Council on Wednesday placed City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller on paid administrative leave.
As is typical in the handling of all governmental personnel issues, the official rationale for the move toward Travis-Miller’s intended firing was not provided. What remains unclear is whether the council’s current leadership, infused in the political machine that is growing around Mayor John Valdivia, will be capable of formulating a consensus or the legal council authority within the next month to effectuate that firing.
That one-month timing is significant because the council since December 19, when Valdivia and the two other members of the council elected in November were sworn into office, has stood at six-sevenths strength. As the then-current Third Ward councilman when he was chosen mayor, Valdivia had to exit his Third Ward council position, leaving it vacant. On May 7 the deadline for a mail-in election to fill the Third Ward position elapses. Running in that election are Juan Figueroa and Treasure Ortiz. It is anticipated that Figueroa will support Valdivia’s coalition that has formed on the council, consisting of Councilman Theodore Sanchez and councilwomen Bessine Richard and Sandra Ibarra. Ortiz, however, is far less oriented in favor of the direction in which Valdivia is moving. Thus, if the council has not outright fired Travis-Miller by May 7 and Ortiz prevails over Figueroa, the votes to give Travis-Miller her walking powers will not exist.
It was the troika of Ibarra, Richard and Sanchez, according to Assistant City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, who voted during the closed session on April 3, based upon a motion by Sanchez,  to suspend Travis-Miller.  Councilmen Jim Mulvihill, Henry Nickel and Fred Shorett opposed the motion, resulting in a 3-to-3 deadlock. Valdivia, who under the city charter possesses no voting authority but does have the power to veto 4-to-3 and 3-to-2 votes and can break a tie, used the latter prerogative to support Sanchez’s motion.
The pinnacle of political power in San Bernardino is a melange of    contradictions and paradoxes involving a mix of conflicting loyalties that defy logical description. Where events will turn next is unclear.
Miller was working in the capacity of assistant to the city manager in 2012 under then-City Manager Charles McNeely when the city had virtually reached the nadir of its downward fiscal spiral that began with the 1994 closure of Norton Air Force Base followed by decades of the city’s expenditures exceeding its revenues. She and McNeely that spring and early summer formulated the strategy of the city making it’s August 2012 filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Before that filing, however, in an effort to salvage his until that point relatively impressive municipal administrative career, McNeely resigned to avoid having his name associated with the bankruptcy. Travis-Miller stepped up and was in the position of acting city manager when the city was confronted by what was up until that time its darkest hour.  Travis-Miller gamely soldiered on as acting city manager thereafter, 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 when the city made its historic exit, after five years, from bankruptcy. When City Manager Mark Scott left in 2017, the council unanimously voted to hire her as his replacement, conferring upon her a $253,080 annual salary and $93,000 in total benefits.
There was an indication at the time of the tension that would later manifest between Travis-Miller and Valdivia, who was then serving in the capacity of councilman. Noting that Travis-Miller “has already deserted our community once before,” Valdivia wrung from her a commitment to remain as city manager for five years and not surrender to the temptation to move on to a more lucrative or prestigious management position elsewhere.
“I would remind the council that I was here as your interim city manager previously and I did not accept the permanent appointment because I felt like I could not make that commitment given some of the dynamics,” Travis-Miller responded, indicating those dynamics had changed and the “council and this community have implemented a new [municipal] charter.” She said that with the city having moved beyond simply absorbing the financial punches it was continuously sustaining and proactively taking control of its destiny, she was prepared to roll her sleeves up and root herself to the city for the long haul, committing to remaining as city manager for not just five years but for the remainder of her career. Valdivia supported her hiring.
The level of confidence the council had in Travis-Miller was grounded in not just her administrative track record but the consideration that she is also a member of the California Bar, a practicing attorney who moved out of that profession solely to take on municipal management assignments. The daughter of a municipal police chief, Travis-Miller’s immersion in all phases of the elements of applying governmental and legal authority left her political masters certain she had the ability to run a city as large as San Bernardino.
Early on, however, Travis-Miller engaged in a major misstep when she called upon the city council to approve her retaining, for $100,000 per year, former San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer/Ontario City Manager/Fontana City Manager Greg Devereaux as a management consultant. This betrayed that Travis-Miller’s vaunted managerial skills were less than what they had been represented to be. She then exacerbated the miscue by outright misrepresenting the degree of assistance that Devereaux would be providing her and the city, claiming the $100,000 was buying 20 hours worth of effort from Devereaux per week. In fact, Devereaux, through his company, Worthington Partners, had no fewer than seven other consulting arrangements with governmental entities, at least three of which were paying him more than San Bernardino. Miller’s claim that Devereaux would become an intrinsic element of the city’s management team was exposed as an outright fabrication, greatly undercutting her credibility. Moreover, Miller failed to utilize Devereaux in the fashion in which his skill set could provide the city with the greatest degree of benefit. Previously, Devereaux had built the City of Ontario into the most financially formidable of all of San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities by convincing major companies to set up their corporate headquarters in Ontario, thereby ensuring that Ontario would garner point-of-sale sales tax revenues from the retailing of those companies’ goods and products. In this way, Ontario under Devereaux had more than two-thirds of a billion dollars running through all of that city’s various funds on an annual basis. Miller, however, refused to deploy Devereaux in this fashion, instead employing him to prepare and present the city’s annual budget, squandering his talent.
Neither was Travis-Miller above allowing her own personal interests from driving the city’s agenda, on occasion to the community’s detriment. Such was the case with Mark Persico, the city’s community development director. Persico had applied for the city manager’s post in 2017 when Scott’s departure was imminent, making him one of Travis-Miller’s rivals in the sweepstakes to become city manager. After Travis-Miller was elevated to the city manager’s post, a number of controversies beset the city with regard to development issues. As development was Persico’s bailiwick, those controversies, no matter their outcome, weakened him. A case in point was ACAA LP/AHD LP’s proposal that was presented to the city early last year and eventually taken up by the city council in June to establish a gas station/convenience store at the confluence of Inland Center Drive and the I-215 Freeway. That proposal included a provision that the store be able to sell hard liquor above and beyond beer and wine that is sometimes sold out of such commercial venues. Persico, as the community development director, recommended against the city approving the project with the hard liquor sales licensing component. An intrinsic element of Persico’s opposition was that San Bernardino, with the 23rd highest murder rate in the country among cities with over a 100,000 population and a host of other social problems, might do well to limit the ease with which its residents and those passing through it can come by intoxicants. That, however, clashed with the council majority’s determination to enhance sales tax revenue into the city through whatever means. Additionally,  ACAA LP/AHD LP were major contributors to the then-ongoing political campaigns of Valdivia, who was vying for mayor, and Councilman Henry Nickel, then running for the California Assembly. The city council, with Councilman James Mulvihill dissenting, overrode Persico’s objection, 6-to-1, and allowed the project to proceed with the entitlement to sell hard liquor. Sensing that Persico at that moment was vulnerable, Travis-Miller fired him.
In this way, Travis-Miller strengthened Valdivia’s political hand. The firing of Persico and the advancement of ACAA LP/AHD LP’s effort to erect what was in essence an off-the-freeway-and-back-on-the-freeway liquor store located within Valdivia’s Third Ward sent a message to virtually all of the city’s business license applicants that providing Valdivia with generous campaign donations would purchase a favorable outcome with the land use and project approval processes at City Hall. Valdivia, now recognized as the king of a pay-to-play ethos in the city, amassed a $500,000 political war chest and, after finishing first among six candidates for mayor in the June 2018 primary election, he defeated incumbent Carey Davis in the general November 2018 municipal election.
Ironically, Travis-Miller had been hired as city manager in 2017 while the city was under the guidance of then-Mayor Carey Davis. In this way, Travis-Miller was not only perceived as being but was in fact a key functionary within the Davis regime. Upon his election as mayor, Valdivia applied the same ethos that Travis-Miller had applied upon her selection as city manager, gathering up the spoils of victory. Just as Travis-Miller in solidifying her hold on the city manager’s post eventually moved to eliminate her rivals for power at City Hall, Persico included, Valdivia moved to eliminate his rivals for power at City Hall, Travis-Miller included. Indeed, the very day, December 19, that Valdivia was sworn in as mayor and both Ibarra and Sanchez took their oaths as council members, Ibarra made a motion to schedule a special session to evaluate Travis-Miller’s performance as city manager.  Thereafter followed a multiplicity of closed sessions, at both regularly scheduled and specially scheduled meeting of the council, at which Travis-Miller’s performance was to be evaluated, with “performance evaluation” being a euphemism for firing her.
San Bernardino is an overwhelmingly Democratic town. Of the city’s 93,801 voters, 44,839 or 47.80226 percent are registered Democrats, while 21,106 or 22.5647 percent are registered as Republicans. Among the city’s Hispanic population, the party registration numbers favoring the Democrats are even more lopsided. Both Davis and Valdvia are Republicans. Despite his Republican Party affiliation, Davis had been roundly endorsed by the Democrats in his 2013/2014 election run, when the city was functioning under its original 1905 Municipal Charter, when he had been endorsed by his predecessor, Mayor Patrick Morris, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. During his single term as mayor, Davis had made several reforms championed by Morris in an effort to overcome the city’s severe financial challenges. Those included dispensing with the 1905 Municipal Charter, which had infused in the mayor not only political power but administrative power to include authority to hire and fire city personnel and making the mayor, with the city manager, the co-regent of the city. The new charter greatly reduced the mayor’s administrative authority, instead giving the elected mayor and city council policy-making primacy but entrusting to the city manager administrative and executive authority. Another change effectuated under Davis was a move championed by Morris to close out the city’s fire department and annex the entirety of the city limits into a county fire service assessment zone to have the county fire department take on the responsibility of providing fire prevention, fire suppression and emergency medical response within the city. Valdivia, who was heavily backed by the firefighters union when he was first elected to the city council in 2011, opposed both the charter reform and the shuttering of the fire department. Even before he was elected mayor, word circulating around San Bernardino was that applicants for business licenses to engage in commercial marijuana enterprises, enterprises which the city was on the verge of permitting on a major scale, were funneling money to him. This put Valdivia at odds with the Travis-Miller, given her familial law enforcement background. Complicating the issue was that marijuana availability advocates at that point were playing both sides of the street, hedging their bets because it was not known with any precision whether Valdivia or Davis would ultimately win, and cannabis money was simultaneously being filtered into the Davis campaign.
Thus, Valdivia had one foot planted in the Republican camp; another on the Democratic reservation; he was courting Hispanic voters by tacitly celebrating his ethnicity while holding himself out as a rock-ribbed conservative on social and financial issues to white voters; his appeal was to taxpayers and holding government spending in line; simultaneously he was backed by public employee unions who expected him to continue escalating their salaries and benefits; he was in Travis-Miller’s corner when she took action that was in keeping with his own political interests, as when she cashiered Persico; he saw her as the enemy, which she was, as she was silently militating for his opponent, Davis, in the back room during the election season.
When the council took the first several runs at Travis-Miller in December, January, February and March, the city manager hung on because only two solid votes, those of Ibarra and Sanchez, existed to hand her a pink slip. Valdivia, who was simultaneously militating to undue several of the restrictions placed on the mayor by the new charter and was also working to attenuate the city manager’s generic authority, had been counting on Councilman Henry Nickel and Councilwoman Bessine Richard swinging behind the effort. Neither was, previously, ready to sign on. This week, however, Richard finally demonstrated herself willing to take the first step, consisting of placing Travis-Miller on administrative leave with pay.
An additional irony is that the gambit to relieve Travis-Miller of command has resulted in the elevation of Assistant City Manager Teri Ledoux into the position of acting city manager. Ledoux was installed as assistant city manager by Travis-Miller in October 2017. At that time Ledoux was working in La Verne as the assistant to the city manager. Previously, Ledoux had worked in San Bernardino, having been an assistant to the city manager for 15 years between 1995 to 2000. She had promoted to the post of administrative services director and was in that position when Travis-Miller, who had just replaced McNeely as the city’s lead administrator, in July 2012 brought her back to serve as what was in effect the deputy city manager. When Travis-Miller departed San Bernardino in 2013, Ledoux left as well. What the city council’s 3-to-3 vote last week capped with Valdivia’s tiebreaker has bought the city is, essentially, Travis-Miller Lite in the person of Ledoux.
Both a waiting game and a race is now on in earnest. All eyes are on the contest between Figueroa and Ortiz. Anthony Aguirre had also initially signed up for that contest, but then withdrew. Because of his lag in withdrawing, his name yet appears on the ballots that were mailed out. If Figueroa, a sure Valdivia ally, prevails, Travis-Miller is history. If Ortiz wins, Travis-Miller can remain in office, most likely, for another two years.
Whether, of course, Travis-Miller would want to remain in place as city manager under circumstances that include a divided city council in which a bare 4-to-3 majority is out of step with the mayor is another question.
-Mark Gutglueck

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