County Supervisors Seek Charter Reform In The Face Of Measure To Cut Their Pay

Less than three months after the Red Brennan Group, a citizens advocacy coalition, qualified a ballot measure in San Bernardino County that would, if passed in November, transform the members of the county board of supervisors into part-time rather than full-time local legislators, the current board members have used their own authority in an effort to sidetrack that referendum by placing before voters a county charter revision package that will obviate the citizen group’s measure even if it manages to pass.
At stake for each of the supervisors is roughly $200,000 per year, the difference between the approximately $260,000 in salary and benefits they are currently paid by the taxpayers in their elected capacity and the $60,000 in total compensation they would receive if the voters approve the Red Brennan Group’s ballot proposal.
Unwilling to see their pay cut, the supervisors this week struck back, beginning the arrangements to put onto the November ballot what they are representing as a county charter reform measure which would have the practical effect of locking into place a salary and benefit level that is comparable to that which they are already receiving.
The diversionary ploy the board of supervisors in conjunction with the top county staff are employing mirrors in multiple respects the same tactic the board utilized in 2012 when tax reform advocate Kiernan “Red” Brennan, for whom the Red Brennan Group is named, qualified what was designated as Measure R for the ballot that year.
Measure R sought to make the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors a part-time governing body, reducing board members’ salary and benefit packages from what was for some of the board members as high as $308,000 in 2012 to $60,000 annually, while simultaneously reducing the budget for the staff of each of the supervisors to $300,000. Kiernan and his associates managed a very successful promotional campaign for Measure R, which prompted the board of supervisors, acting at the last minute in July 2012, to qualify what was designated as Measure Q for the November 2012 ballot. In practical terms, Q was a competing measure to R, one which called for a five percent reduction in the annual salary of board supervisors, but did not impact their benefit and retirement packages or their staffing levels. Adapting the Measure R advocates’ calls for reform, the proponents of Measure Q did not in any overt fashion campaign against Measure R, but rather expounded in generic terms what they represented as Measure Q’s “sensible” and “moderate” approach for achieving salary reduction for the supervisors, dropping what at that time was their $158,000 annual salaries to $151,100. Measure R passed overwhelmingly in November 2012, garnering 326,939 or 64.25 percent of the 508,846 total votes cast with regard to the initiative. Meanwhile, Measure Q passed as well, with 344,226 votes or 67.28 percent of the 511,595 votes cast relating to it. As they covered the same topic, with the passage of both Measure Q and Measure R, the measure receiving the most votes was the one enacted. In this way, county officials succeeded in keeping the terms of the reform proposed by Kiernan Brennan from being put into place.
Brennan died in 2013. Those involved with him in his government reform efforts founded the Red Brennan Group shortly thereafter, dedicating it to reducing the depth, breadth and cost of government while aiming at improving its efficiency.
In 2017, the Red Brennan Group undertook petition drives to qualify two countywide initiatives, one aimed at reducing members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to part time status and imposing on that panel’s members a commensurate reduction in pay, and another more comprehensive measure dubbed the “Leadership Accountability Initiative.”
That measure called for reversing the county’s 2010 move which changed the title and authority of the county chief administrative officer to the county chief executive officer, which had also conferred on the post higher pay. The Leadership Accountability Initiative eliminated the chief executive officer post and reestablished the county administrator position, pegged compensation of elected officials – supervisors, sheriff, district attorney, treasurer/auditor/controller and assessor – to a multiple of the median family income in the region, and eliminated increased accrual of retirement benefits by elected officials. The initiative further sought to restrict bloat within the county’s governmental structure by placing a per capita limit on the number of county employees. It also required the supervisors to use every legal means available to ensure county government employee pay and benefits were equal to private industry pay and benefits in the San Bernardino County jurisdiction.
After the initiative proposals were submitted in 2017 to the county’s stable of in-house lawyers, known as the office of county counsel, the county sued the initiatives’ proponents, claiming the initiatives violated the California Constitution, the current legal authority of the supervisors, and the single subject rule for initiatives. In its lawsuit, the county contended it therefore should not be required to complete its ministerial duty of providing a ballot title and summary for the initiative proposals.
At that point, the Red Brennan Group postponed its efforts, consulting with legal authorities before proceeding. Following that legal guidance and a delay of nearly two years, it resumed its efforts, and began circulating a petition last year to force a referendum on a measure to reduce the total compensation of each of the members of the board of supervisors to $5,000 per month. The group gathered 75,132 signatures, which were affixed to copies of the petition. Those documents, consisting of 10,121 pages, were handed over to the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office on March 20.
According to Registrar of Voters Bob Page, a “3% random sample,” of the signatures, consisting of 2,255, were examined. Of those, 1,840 were found to be the valid signatures of registered county voters and 415 were what Page deemed “insufficient.” He found among the valid signatures one duplicate. Thus, he projected, were the full 75,132 signatures to be examined, 60,228 would be determined to be valid. The three percent sampling standard can be used to certify an initiative petition drive, Page indicated, if the sampling projection shows that more than 110 percent of the required number of voter signatures have been attained. The 60,228 signatures is equal to 112.1 percent of the 53,725 signatures needed to qualify a countywide initiative. “Therefore,” Page said, “the petition has been signed by the requisite number of qualified electors needed and based thereon is deemed sufficient.”
The language of the Red Brennan Group’s initiative states: “The total compensation of each member of the board of supervisors shall be five thousand dollars ($5,000.00) per month, which amount shall include the actual cost to the county of all benefits of whatever kind or nature including but not limited to salary, allowances, credit cards, health insurance, life insurance, leave, retirement, memberships, portable communications devices, and vehicle allowances. This compensation shall be in full compensation for all services by the respective member of the board of supervisors.”
Furthermore, the initiative, if passed, would limit board members from serving more than six years on the board altogether, allowing them one elected term of four years, while permitting them to also serve an additional half term of up to two years if the officeholder is appointed or elected to the unexpired term of another officeholder who left office.
In the meantime, at the behest of the board of supervisors, the county’s top-ranking  personnel, including County Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride, County Chief Operating Officer Leonard Hernandez and County Counsel Michelle Blakemore and their staffs cast about to find some administrative flaw or legal fault in the process that the Red Brennan Group pursued in qualifying the measure for the November election to justify disqualifying the measure from appearing on the ballot. Similarly, county staff sought to summon up sufficient facts to support a determination that the measure might adversely impact the county’s operations or have a fiscal impact on the county which could be used as a pretext to prevent the voters from considering it.
The board of supervisors declined to certify it for the ballot at its meeting on May 19, initiating that process at the board’s June 9 meeting after county staff could not find legally adequate grounds to keep it off the ballot.
Their body language indicated the supervisors were not enthusiastic about placing a measure before the voters that would potentially reduce by roughly three-quarters the remuneration they are to receive in their elected capacities in the future. Still, most of the board members were content to allow senior county staff members bad-mouth the proposal by mentioning the drawbacks passage of the measure might have. Supervisor Dawn Rowe on May 19 groused that, given the $60,000 cap on both salary and benefits/expenses, if the measure passes, she would be reduced to nearly “minimum wage,” when her costs for commuting from her home in Yucca Valley to San Bernardino on a weekly basis were factored in.
Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who is to leave office at the end of the year after four terms in office, on June 9 made the most pointed criticism of the measure, personalizing her statement to suggest that those wanting to reduce the amount of money the supervisors were paid lacked decency.
“I would welcome anyone who would like to come and join me and shadow me on a day to demonstrate the depth, the intensity, the great responsibility that this job brings,” Gonzales said. “It’s not just a fancy title. It is an extremely difficult job that challenges the very character, the integrity, the will to serve to the max. I am appalled, and I will say this because I will not be around when all this is happening, at the cheapness, at the crass way, the lack of respect that this office is being treated by the group that is behind this issue. This is wrong. If you do not like your electeds, if you don’t like your governmental representatives, I’ve said it once and I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again, then vote them out of office.”
In reference to that element of the Red Brennan Group’s proposed measure which called for reducing the supervisors to part-time status, Board Chairman Curt Hagman said, “This is not a part-time position if you are going to be engaged in and serve the people that you have the honor to represent.”
Though they acceded to putting the Red Brennan Group’s proposed measure before the voters, the board members were not willing to surrender to the measure’s proponents the momentum relating to the struggle over determining how much supervisors are to be paid. When the item relating to the Red Brennan Group’s initiative came back to the board this week, on Tuesday, July 14, for the second requisite ratification of it being placed on the November ballot, the board had a “reform” proposal of its own to put before the voters. That item was represented on the agenda as “a study session regarding the proposed revised county charter.” One of the options the agenda gave the board was “to replace the current county charter with the proposed revised county charter and place the revised county charter on the ballot for the November 3, 2020 election.”
The board, indeed, did just that, maintaining that putting the proposed new charter in front of the voters in November was the natural outgrowth of a long process. In doing so, Board Chairman Hagman made a handful of material misrepresentations, including stating that the county had held multiple “workshops” on revising the charter. In actuality, the county had not held any such workshops in which the public participated in framing the discussion. More accurately, the board of supervisors held a single “study session” with regard to the proposed charter alteration on October 29, 2019. No members of the public participated in that discussion.
On Tuesday, Hagman said, “Back in July of ‘19, almost a year ago, this board established an ad hoc committee, assigning myself and Supervisor Rutherford to explore revising the county charter. Basically, I said it back then, this is a living document that needs to be updated on a regular basis, especially with all the state codes and stuff. What we try to do is work with the different groups to try to make a flexible living document, ‘cause there’s so many mandates from both the federal and state government. What the county does for the most part is we’re the operators of what the federal government and/or the state government tells us to do and the funding streams that comes with this. I know there’s been a lot of misconception about the growth of county government. That is directly due to the jobs that were given to us by both the state and the federal government, with the funding sources to say, ‘Do this.’ Most of – the majority of – our budget is considered to be that special funding stream. Soon after the July 2019 meeting, county counsel, human resources, the registrar of voters started research of various options. I know, Janice [Rutherford], that you have taken the lead on this for many years, even prior to when I got on the board, so it’s more like a five or six year quest than a year quest on this. Afterward, county counsel, human resources, ROV [the registrar of voters] reviewed the input from our workshops we had [on] this, and the public continued to work on the advised county charter. We have been meeting, county staff and the select committee, at least monthly if not multiple times a month, especially these attorneys up here have been working diligently on it. So, thank you for your efforts on it. We circulated the draft back to the board on June 30th. July 10th we circulated another draft with the input that we got, and we’re back up to this meeting. I know this has been a passion for open government.”
Rutherford likewise sought to assure the public that the sudden placement of the new charter proposal on the ballot for November had organically grown out of prior discussions, obliquely implying the charter reform measure had nothing to do with the Red Brennan Group’s initiative.
“Since last year the board has had a renewed interest,” Rutherford said, in the form of the charter, which she said is “a century old and did not reflect how we county governments operate in modern California.” She said the current charter contains “outdated language about how we do [a] budget and the courts, to the sexism inherent in a lot of the language.”
Of the newly drafted charter, Rutherford said, “The changes you are looking at today reflect several things. They bring up those modernizations, take out the language that isn’t needed anymore in California because no counties do those things anymore, corrects the sexism, allows for how modern counties function, but also increases transparency, opportunities for public involvement and oversight and the flexibility for the board to change things by ordinance that the voters might wish just to acquire that [we] have a law about without locking it into the charter that a hundred years from now the board at that time doesn’t say, ‘Why did these people do this?’ So, it really is a completely revised and modern document, with the goals. I think those of you who follow my colleagues and I understand that we are committed to transparency and good governance, and that’s what we are trying to embody in this document. So, I’ve been talking to folks about it and taking feedback for the better part of my time as a supervisor.”
In their statements with regard to the new charter, neither Rutherford nor Hagman mentioned the provision that would lock in the supervisors’ salaries at 80 percent of that of a Superior Court Judge, which in practical terms would preserve the roughly $260,000 per year in salary and benefits they are now receiving.
Rutherford sought to diffuse any criticism that the board was rushing forward with the charter change without having first obtained the input of county residents.
“We had certainly intended as the subcommittee and as this board to have greater opportunity for public involvement, and that is something that COVID [the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying restrictions on public forums] has stolen from us. Nonetheless, we’ve had the information available on-line, and I know the chairman and I have both taken lots of emails, had phone calls, and folks who have had questions and that we have worked with. I look forward to the discussion today and hearing what the public brings to share with us today.”
During his presentation detailing the changes to the charter, Supervising Deputy County Counsel Kenneth C. Hardy explained that currently the members of the board of supervisors each receive total compensation equal to the average of the total compensation paid to the supervisors in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties. The supervisors in Orange and Riverside Counties receive compensation equal to 80 percent of a Superior Court Judge, while supervisors in San Diego County receive compensation equal to 90 percent of a Superior Court judge.
The new charter would give the San Bernardino County Supervisors a salary that stands at 80 percent of that provided to a Superior Court judge and benefits equal to what San Bernardino County pays its department heads, Hardy said. Hardy also said the new charter would limit the supervisors from serving more than three full four-year terms with the proviso that they could additionally serve up to half of a four-year term in a case in which the board member was appointed or elected to replace a predecessor who resigned from the board.
Unspoken through most of Hardy’s presentation but hanging over it was the suggestion that the board had rushed him and other members of county staff to present the newly drafted charter this week so the county could meet the deadline to have the county registrar of voters, who serves as the county’s elections officer, place the charter change measure on the ballot as an alternative to the Red Brennan Group’s proposal. Despite himself, Hardy made a Freudian slip at a point between 2 hours 30 minutes and 37 seconds and 2 hours 30 minutes and 40 seconds into the meeting video which demonstrated the degree to which the charter revision measure had been driven by the Red Brennan Group’s proposal. After having referenced how a supervisor might have his or her salary reduced if he or she were to take a larger benefit package or were to include his or her family members into the provision of benefits offered by the county, Hardy, through his use of language inadvertently revealed that the charter revision is being undertaken to prevent the supervisors’ salaries from being reduced.
“I think this is one of those unintended consequences situations here. The…” Hardy said, at which point he caught himself as he recognized that his use of the term “unintended consequences” was a reference to the proposal to reduce the supervisors’ total compensation to $60,000 per year as opposed to the total compensation of more than a quarter of a million dollars per year contained in the charter version he was previewing. There followed a four second awkward silence as he sought to refocus the sense of his presentation away from any reference to the Red Brennan Group’s reform initiative.
Speaking to the board of supervisors on Tuesday were Natalie Zuk and Tom Murphy of the Red Brennan Group.
Zuk said, “The charter rewrite proposed by the board is bad history repeating itself. Voters should not fall for it. In 2010, the board on its own authority and in violation of the county charter off-loaded executive responsibility for running the county. These duties were delegated to a non-elected chief executive officer. The board also reduced its meeting schedule to nearly half the available opportunities.”
Zuk continued, “In 2012, via initiative, Mr. Red Brennan asked a simple question – if supervisors are no longer responsible for day-to-day management of the county, why are they still compensated at a full-time rate? The result was Measure R, a small government proposal signed by 73,000 registered voters by which elected supervisors would be designated as part-time with commensurate pay. 327,000 citizens cast a vote in favor of this measure – 64 percent of the voters in the county. So why was it never implemented?”
Zuk answered her question, “Because also in 2012, this board placed a competing measure on the ballot. Measure Q was decidedly not a small government effort. Marketed as a ‘transparency’ measure, the proposal claimed to reduce the board’s annual salary but had no impact on benefit and retirement packages, and did nothing to restrict staffing levels. This board’s action muddied the waters for voters. Measure Q also passed and was controlling after the election. The small government proposal was never implemented.”
Zuk said the board was seeking to do this year what had been done in 2012.
“As I mentioned, today’s proposal is bad history repeating itself,” Zuk said. “A small government initiative is again already approved for the November ballot. Over 70,000 county voters signed a petition setting elected supervisor pay roughly equal to what normal county households earn. This small government initiative also sets term limits at one four-year term of service. A one-term supervisor compensated the same as most households in the county will have different incentives to govern. This approach will allow elected representatives freedom to exercise courage to restrain government’s ever-expanding appetite for the citizens’ tax dollars.”
Zuk told the board, “Rather than courageously acknowledging that proponents have a legitimate political position, and allowing a clear and straightforward vote on the small government proposal, this board once again stirs its self-interest into the mix and muddies the waters for voters.”
At that point Zuk was cut off. The Red Brennan Group subsequently told the Sentinel that the final two sentences to Zuk’s presentation ran along the lines of, “By placing a ‘charter rewrite’ on the ballot, this board again proposes to retain a compensation package that will exceed normal county households by nearly four times, and allow supervisors to serve for 12 long years. If the board today does not reject this proposed revision measure, the voters will in November.”
Murphy, the president of the Red Brennan Group, then addressed the board.
“Quickly passing through the draft charter indicates there is really much ado about nothing for the citizens of San Bernardino County,” Murphy said. “Term limits are still 12 years. Elected official compensation remains largely out of balance when compared to most people living in the county. The CEO position is codified in the charter, so taxpayers are now obligated by the charter to pay for a pretty high-paying job that the current charter requires the chair of the board to do. Interested voters when they read quickly through this thing will probably say, ‘It’s kind of the same old stuff. It removes some of the offensive language, so yeah, let’s just sign off on it.’ We think that’s a bad idea because we believe this document contains a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. The operative phrase is a simple sentence in Section 102. To quote ‘The powers mentioned in the preceding section can be exercised only by the board of supervisors.’ Here’s what that looks like in practice: Under your rights as a California citizen, let’s say you want to submit an initiative requiring the county to control its budget. ‘Sorry,’ the county says, ‘the budget is under the exclusive power of the board of supervisors.’ And rather than granting you your ballot title and summary so you can then try to go out and convince 70,000 voters to sign your petition, you get sued. You go to court.”
Murphy said, “Ask Dave Gates and Gage Bruce, county residents who were sued because they submitted a petition that the county deemed unconstitutional, because it was under the exclusive power of the board. Ask Eli Whitely. Eli believed county employees ought to fill out a time-card and the information should be readily available on-line. His right to submit this initiative is still in court a year-and-a-half later. I believe it is at the appeals court level now.”
Murphy said, “We appreciate the effort to redo the charter, but at some level we believe the draft charter is about power and more power for the expanding county government and less for its citizens.”
The Sentinel’s request that the clerk of the board provide the email communications relating to the charter change proposal that Rutherford referenced as having been submitted to the board were not forthcoming from the county by press time.
Queried by the Sentinel with regard to his misrepresentation that the county had held workshops relating to the proposed charter change, Hagman declined to respond. The Sentinel further offered all five members of the board an opportunity to speak to the perception that the charter revision was a ploy to forestall the Red Brennan Group’s effort to reduce their pay. All five spurned that offer.
Supervisor Rutherford did provide a return email to the Sentinel in which she stated, “I’ve been thinking about reforming our outdated county charter since shortly after I was elected in 2010.” Rutherford in the return email bypassed all inquiries about the element in the charter revision relating to setting the supervisors’ pay level.
None of the supervisors responded to questions asking their reaction to a suggestion at compromise which consisted of incorporating into the new charter a provision setting their compensation at 40 percent of that provided to a Superior Court judge.
-Mark Gutglueck

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