Rolling Dice, SB Hires Riverside County Economic Guru As Sixth Manager Since 2012

On a 6-to-2 vote, San Bernardino’s mayor and city council Wednesday night hired Rob Field, the former economic development agency director for Riverside County who was abruptly fired by Riverside County Chief Executive Officer George Johnson last February, to serve as San Bernardino’s city manager, effective September 21.
While the majority of the city council’s members were impressed with Field’s credentials, expressing confidence that the challenge of righting the City of San Bernardino’s listing economic ship lies right in Field’s wheelhouse, questions exist as to whether he embodies the talent, ability and willingness to sacrifice his own personal interest in an assignment which requires on one hand, parsimony and financial austerity on the part of the city’s workforce, and on the other, aggressive expansion of the city’s revenue in an environment where businesses are abandoning the city.
The range of Field’s experience with regard to governmental operations is impressive.
He graduated from the University of California, Riverside in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in history. Two years later, he went to work as an environmental and development specialist with the Krieger & Stewart civil engineering firm in Riverside. After seven-and-a-half years with Krieger & Stewart, in 1999 he went to work for Riverside County as a mid-level employee in the economic development agency. He found himself on the fast track there, due in large measure to his patron, Supervisor John Tavaglione, who also employed Field’s brother, John, as his chief of staff. After three advancements over the course of six years, the last one into the position of assistant director, Field in 2006 was given a promotion out of the economic development agency into the position of director of Riverside County’s facilities management division. In that capacity, Field led a staff of 600 who variously oversaw design and construction of county projects, managed the county’s real property, and provided county properties with maintenance and custodial services. He was responsible for an $80 million operations budget and a $220 million capital budget.
In March 2009, Field’s career made a huge bound when Tavaglione, in conjunction with then-Riverside County Chief Executive Officer Bill Luna, in reaction to the planned retirement of then-Assistant County Executive Officer and Economic Development Agency Director Robin Zimfer, elected to merge the positions of county facilities management director with that of economic development agency director, thereby transforming Field into an assistant county executive officer.
Thereafter, Field expanded his educational credentials, earning his master’s degree from California Baptist University in leadership and organization, and obtaining extension certificates in both economic development management and land use and environmental planning from UC Riverside.
Under Luna, and the chief county executive officer who ultimately replaced Luna, Jay Orr, Field thrived in his career as a top level public administrator. In his capacity as assistant Riverside County executive officer/economic development agency director, he oversaw 24 divisions, a staff of 840, an annual operating budget of $650 million and a $1.5 billion capital improvement budget. Among his responsibilities were directly or indirectly managing, overseeing or supervising those department directors managing and operating the county’s workforce investment and development programs, the community services division, various housing programs, the county’s 36-branch library system, all of the county’s real estate, the county’s airports, the registrar of voters office, the county parks district, animal services, the agricultural commissioner and the annual Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival.
A Riverside native, he simultaneously involved himself in a number of social, educational and cultural activities. He was the chairman of both the Dean’s Advisory Council for the UCR School of Business and the UCR Highlander Athletics Association Board of Directors, a member the March Field Air Museum Board of Directors and the advisory council for UCR’s Economic Development and Innovation Center, as well as a board member of the Unforgettables Foundation.
At the end of his tenure with Riverside County, Field was one of seven assistant chief executive officers answerable to both County Chief Executive Officer George Johnson and Chief Operating Officer Lisa Brandl. He was earning an annual salary of $294,328.64 that was augmented with $28,402.12 in other pay along with benefits of $41,543.88, which provided him with a total annual compensation package of $364,274.64.
Johnson’s succession of Orr as the county’s chief executive officer in 2017 and Tavaglione’s departure as supervisor in 2018, however, would have a profound impact on Field.
Johnson had an eight year head start on Field, having begun with Riverside County in 1991. Both had progressed up the county chain of command in relatively rapid fashion, with Johnson’s key top management postings being that of director of the county’s Transportation and Land Management Agency and director of the Transportation Department. Johnson acceded in 2012 to the third highest position in the county, that of county chief assistant executive officer under Orr.
Ultimately, Johnson at some point lost faith in Field. Because of the strict policy in California of maintaining strict confidentiality with regard to the performance of public employees, what transgressions Field engaged in that put him on the wrong side of Johnson have not been disclosed. What can be pieced together is that Johnson came to have doubts in Field’s integrity, basic competence and honesty.
Problems with the county’s capital improvement projects manifested in which Field exercised less fiscal discipline in his management role than was expected of him. This was exacerbated by Field’s tolerance of contractors whose performance was less than satisfactory and whose financial and material wherewithal to complete the projects they had successfully bid on came under question. There were, in particular, problems with regard to the construction of the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, intended to be a major holding facility for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in the central-east portion of the county. Originally approved as a $330.4 million project, it has been subject to no fewer than 29 change orders and amendments to the construction contract, which have boosted the price tag on the undertaking to at least $367 million. There have been reports of shoddy workmanship on certain phases of the project. Work on a critical element of the project ground to a halt when one of the subcontractors on the project fell into bankruptcy, requiring a receivership arrangement. The Riverside County Board of Supervisors indulged the facilities management division and Field in the delays and cost increases, at least for a time, increasing the overall budget on the project by $10.2 million to $340.6 million in February 2018.
Field provided assurances to the supervisors, the sheriff and the public that the project would reach completion by the end of summer 2019, and then missed that target date. By that point his credibility had begun to erode. Sheriff Chad Bianco, in addition to being disappointed over the missed completion date for the jail, also began questioning the need for funds in his budget to be diverted to other ongoing capital projects involving his department for which the facilities management division had already received funding. That led to questions about Field’s stewardship of funds relating to the county’s construction projects. Field getting crosswise of Bianco did not endear him to Johnson.
Field’s misrepresentations with regard to meeting the jail completion date dovetailed with concerns about Field’s overall reliability and the strength of his word. While it was recognized that in his role as economic development director Field was given wide latitude in promoting Riverside County to potential investors and corporations contemplating locating operations into the county such that he was allowed to engage in exaggerations that might result in additions to the county’s roster of commercial and manufacturing enterprises, it was understood that Field’s talent for puffery exceeded that of most other government officials. Field had simultaneously developed a reputation for advocating not just on behalf of the county but in favor of his own faculties, abilities and talent as well. For some, indeed, it has been difficult to say where Field’s promotion of the county left off and the promotion of himself started.
On February 4, Johnson gave Field his walking papers, the same day that Riverside County Public Social Services Director Sarah Mack was terminated. Some have suggested that it might not be technically correct to say that Field was sacked, but that rather he resigned when he was given that option in the face of being fired. The policy of maintaining confidence with regard to the performance and work history of public employees in California clouds the issue.
It appears that the silver-tongued Field was either able to divert the majority of the San Bernardino City Council’s attention from his firing by Johnson or was somehow able to convince the council as a whole that his termination and the grounds for it are immaterial.
The council’s primary focus is on finding a manager who can map the city out of the financial doldrums it has been unable to escape. In August 2012, the city was obliged to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. It remained in that state for four years and 10 months, emerging in June 2017. During that nearly five-year interlude, the city stiffed its creditors for slightly more than $350 million, while paying the law firm which guided it through the bankruptcy process $25 million. Under the umbrella of the bankruptcy, the city, which in 2012 had an annual operating deficit of $49 million, was able to save more than it was spending over the nearly five years it was in bankruptcy, establishing reserves of just under $40 million. Once the bankruptcy crutch was no longer in place, however, the city took in some $7 million less than it spent in 2017-18, ran an $11.2 million deficit in 2018-19, and saw that annual deficit jump to $16 million by the end of 2019-20. It is thus on a trajectory to burn through the reserves it was able to husband during the bankruptcy by December of this year or January of next year. In November, San Bernardino’s voters are to vote on a one-cent sales tax measure which city officials say is needed to keep the city from slipping into bankruptcy again, to be followed, quite possibly, by being placed into a receivership and then, perhaps, by the disincorporation of the City of San Bernardino, the county seat, altogether. City officials are less than confident the city’s voters will approve the tax initiative, which is designated as Measure S on the ballot.
Mayor John Valdivia and five-sevenths of the city council this week expressed hope that Field will have the ability to miraculously rejuvenate the city financially, primarily by luring businesses of all order to the city. If indeed Field can do so, he will earn all of the $356,000 in total compensation the city council has conferred upon him, consisting of $285,000 in salary, $25,000 in other pay and $46,000 in benefits.
Nevertheless, there is widespread concern that the city council, in the generosity it displayed toward Field, has fated him and the city to failure. There is skepticism that San Bernardino, long in a death spiral in which business after business has closed or moved from the city, can overnight reverse that course or even, in the interim of a few years or even a half-decade, effectuate that turnaround. Analysts have for some time noted that a major factor in the City of San Bernardino’s economic faltering consists less of the dearth of money that it is bringing in and more in the money it is spending. At the basis of this are the exorbitant salaries and benefits the city is paying its employees.
In neighboring Colton, a decade ago at the height of the recession that began in 2007, then-City Manager Rod Foster, facing economic reality head on, recognized that the city could not sustain its continuing municipal salary and benefit outlays. He initiated negotiations with the city’s unions, informing the employees’ labor representatives that the city was on the brink of engaging in massive layoffs of its workforce unless concessions on already in-place labor contracts were made. When the union balked, Foster imposed on himself a ten percent salary reduction, setting the tone for the needed austerity at the top. He repeated the warning that layoffs were imminent, at which point the unions consented to allowing that austerity to work its way downward.
In San Bernardino, the situation is far more dire today than it was in Colton ten years ago. Nevertheless, San Bernardino’s leadership appears to be more determined to protect its own financial position than to take the action necessary to prevent the city from plunging into the financial abyss it is rapidly moving toward.
In 2012, Andrea Travis-Miller was serving in the position of a high level assistant to then-San Bernardino City Manager Charles McNeely. Nearly a decade of deficit spending had pushed San Bernardino to the brink and McNeely to distraction. Travis-Miller was promoted to assistant city manager, and she and then-Finance Director Jason Simpson worked day and night to plug the city’s overwhelming budget gaps. When McNeely, concerned about what being at the helm of San Bernardino when it declared bankruptcy would do to his career and reputation, resigned, Travis-Miller gamely stepped forward and accepted the interim city manager’s post. In tandem with Simpson, Travis-Miller made a comprehensive review of the city’s financial books, the conclusions of which were so startling that the city council in July 2012 resolved to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection on the basis of a 45-page report from Travis-Miller recommending the city do just that. The city did so the following month. Travis-Miller bravely remained in place, soldiering on as acting city manager, disregarding the negative associations that attended her continuing association with a city in bankruptcy. She remained with the city until February 2013, at which point she took on the position of the executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Economic Development Authority. Moving into the city manager’s post after her departure was Allen Parker, who was then succeeded in 2016 by Mark Scott. Scott at that point sought to convince Travis-Miller to return to San Bernardino to serve in the capacity of assistant city manager during the final phase of the city’s exit from bankruptcy. Travis-Miller, who had gone on to become the city manager of Covina after a stint as the executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Economic Development Authority, acceded to Scott’s call. When Scott left the city in August 2017, convinced that Travis-Miller’s standing as a law school graduate, a member of the California Bar, her practice with the law firm of Manning & Kass Ellrod Ramirez Trestor from 2008 until 2011, her previous term as the city manager of La Mirada and her work as acting city manager in guiding San Bernardino through its financial immolation in 2012 to the safe shore of the Chapter 9 filing stood her in good stead to manage the city, Mayor Carey Davis and the city council unanimously hired her to do just that, conferring on her a three-year contract as city manager. Fifteen months later, however, John Valdivia, who had been the city’s Third Ward Councilman, was elected mayor. Upon Valdivia being sworn in on December 19, 2018, a personality conflict between the domineering Valdivia and Travis-Miller was at once obvious, with Valdivia trying but failing on that very day to convince a majority of the council to fire Travis-Miller. Over the next four months, Valdivia took one run after another in his effort to cashier Travis-Miller, continually falling short. When at last in April 2019 the council deadlocked 3-to-3 in a vote to suspend Travis-Miller, Valdivia used his tie-breaking authority as mayor to decide the issue. Travis-Miller remained on administrative leave until the following month, at which point a special election to select Valdivia’s successor as Third Ward Councilman was held. Upon Valdivia’s ally Juan Figueroa prevailing in that race and his being seated on the council, Travis-Miller was fired. The council soon thereafter replaced her with Teri Ledoux, whose previous municipal experience had consisted of work as a relatively low-level analyst in San Bernardino and then as an executive assistant to the city managers in Huntington Beach and La Verne before she was recruited by Travis-Miller to return to San Bernardino as her assistant city manager in late 2017.
Travis-Miller sued the city for wrongful termination. That suit was settled earlier this year with the city agreeing to pay her $750,000.
Ledoux, who had eclipsed the age of 60 at the time she was moved into the city manager’s position, was intent on retiring upon reaching the age of 62. By serving in the city manager’s post for the 16 months she has held that position, she has enhanced her standing in the California Public Employees Retirement System so that the $114,000 pension she was eligible to receive in 2019 has escalated to $181,275. She is set to begin receiving that annual pension upon her retirement next week. Given the thin nature of her skill set, Ledoux was overmatched throughout her tenure as city manager. She was unable to stanch the city’s hemorrhaging of red ink, such that San Bernardino spent some $18.67 million more on city operations while she was managing the city than the revenue it brought in during the same 16 months. Her inability to impose on the city the fiscal discipline it needed to end that deficit spending proved a factor in the city council’s decision to hire Field, who is expected to spur economic development that will result in revenue increases to erase, or at least substantially reduce, that deficit.
In the meantime, Travis-Miller, whose $750,000 settlement with the city included a clause calling for both sides to refrain from any negative or derogatory comments about one another, has again filed suit against the city and is seeking another $750,000, claiming that a Facebook posting by Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra in which Ibarra said she stood by the decision to terminate Travis-Miller has irreparably damaged the former city manager’s reputation.
Thus, Field is coming to San Bernardino as the sixth city manager since 2012 – or the seventh if Travis-Miller who had two tours in that capacity is counted twice. In each case, the city councils as they were then or are currently composed saw each successive holder of the position as the city’s savior.
Unless, however, Field can accomplish what each of his five predecessors failed to carry off – transforming the city economically – he is bound to be no more successful than any of them. Moreover, his acceptance of the highest salary ever conferred upon a San Bernardino city manager makes it unlikely he will be able to claim the moral authority he will need to convince the employees at City Hall to accept the drastic pay cuts that would allow the city to balance its budget and stave off what is looking like an inevitable second bankruptcy. Mayor John Valdivia and his two rivals on the council – Councilman Fred Shorett and Councilman Jim Mulvihill – were in unusual accord and came across as equally enthusiastic about Field. They were joined in that enthusiasm by Valdivia’s two council allies, Councilwoman Bessine Richard and Councilman Juan Figueroa, as well as Councilman Ted Sanchez.
Wednesday night, in the 6-to-2 vote to hire Field and confer upon him the $285,000 salary/$356,000 total annual compensation contract, Councilwoman Ibarra and Councilman Henry Nickel dissented.
Ibarra’s objection appeared to be based upon the amount of money contained in Field’s contract.
Nickel’s rationale for not supporting Field’s appointment to the city manager’s position was more opaque. Nickel indicated that he was going to “respectfully vote against” hiring Field.
Nickel, who is currently an analyst employed by San Bernardino County, was formerly employed as a staff analyst with the Riverside County Transportation Commission. That assignment put Nickel into communication with Johnson, who terminated Field in February. What, precisely, Nickel is privy to as a consequence of his Riverside County connections was not disclosed at Wednesday evening’s city council meeting. Nor is it known what information Nickel may have conveyed to his colleagues in private or during discussions, closed to the public, relating to the selection of San Bernardino’s newest city manager from among the 47 applicants who applied for the job.
Mark Gutglueck

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