By Mark Gutglueck
Gary McBride is on his way out as San Bernardino County’s chief executive officer.
He will depart from the county’s top staff position, which he has held for two years and ten months, as early as next Tuesday, when the board of supervisors is scheduled to appoint him to the role of strategic projects director, a position which McBride and other county officials said is being created to “better address COVID-19 fiscal challenges.”
It is widely anticipated that County Chief Operating Officer Leonard Hernandez will fill in for McBride, at least on a temporary basis, as the county’s top executive. Word is that no firm decision has yet been made on whether the board will conduct a full-blown recruitment effort to replace McBride, as at least two members of the board of supervisors, as it is currently composed, consider Hernandez to be well-suited for the chief executive officer’s post. Hernandez was enlisted to serve as San Bernardino County librarian in 2011 and was subsequently tasked to fill in as the director of the San Bernardino County Museum while yet in the librarian post. In 2015, while Greg Devereaux was the county’s chief executive officer, Hernandez was promoted to the position of deputy executive county officer. He was elevated to the position of the county’s chief operating officer in 2017. He is valued for his decisiveness and willingness to act, and has become known, indeed feared, throughout the county as McBride’s hatchet man, as the affable and easy going McBride is uncomfortable with being confrontational with county staff and department heads, and thus ill-suited to carry out firings. Virtually every county employee has come to dread the prospect of looking up to see Hernandez make his way unannounced into his or her office and closing the door behind him, at which point he will unceremoniously present him or her with a pink slip to let the unfortunate individual now he or she has been terminated and is to be separated from the county at once, oftentimes without the opportunity or privilege to clean out his or her desk.
In this way, Hernandez is considered to be an efficient and ruthless operator, one who has found favor with at least some on the board of supervisors. Moreover, his position as head of county operations for nearly three years has given him an even more comprehensive command than even that of McBride in knowing how the county is being run, including specifics of the county’s various departments along with on the staffs of the supervisors themselves. This suggests that Hernandez has all order of information with regard to actions taken at the behest of the individual supervisors in terms of legitimate constituent services as well as what are the more questionable uses of governmental authority and power, including what might be termed political activity. That knowledge has rendered Hernandez into a very powerful position, and there is nothing to indicate that his ambition does not extend to his becoming chief executive officer.
While McBride is to remain as a county staff member, county officials offered a relatively puerile justification for his departure as chief executive officer.
“As part of the county’s ongoing effort to meet the unprecedented challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the board of supervisors on Tuesday, September 29, plans to modify Chief Executive Officer Gary McBride’s contract with the county, placing him in the newly created position of strategic projects director,” an entry on the running informational section contained on the county’s website with the heading “County Wire.” According to that entry, “The Board on Tuesday will begin discussions on the appointment of a new CEO,” thereafter offering an explanation provided by Board of Supervisors Chairman Curt Hagman that “The COVID-19 pandemic has placed highly complex strains on the county’s fiscal and organizational status and outlook. This crisis requires the undivided focus of Gary’s experience, unique understating of county finance, and problem-solving talents.”
The County Wire entry emphasized that McBride “previously served for four years as the county’s chief financial officer.”
County Wire then quoted McBride as stating, “This is a great opportunity for me to concentrate my talents and passions in a way that will be of great service and benefit to the people of this county, the board of supervisors, and this organization. The crisis of COVID-19 presents us with opportunities to rethink how we address public health challenges and funding in this new era. Those are the kind of challenges I love tackling and I am excited that the board wants to focus on them.”
There were some outstanding anomalies in McBride’s sudden reassignment, not the least of which was the abruptness with which it is taking place. The 49-year-old McBride has spent the entirety of his 26-year professional career as a governmental employee/manager/administrator with San Benardino County. He was immediately preceded in the county CEO position by Dena Smith, who served nine months in an interim capacity after what was essentially the forced departure of Devereaux in January 2017. Smith had for most of her time with the county been the clerk of the board of supervisors before she was moved into the post of deputy executive officer and then that of chief operating officer under Devereaux. Devereaux had served as chief executive for seven years. It was hoped if not outright anticipated that McBride, who was 46 when he became CEO, would remain at least as long as Devereaux, and perhaps twice as long, that is until he reached the age of 60, providing the county with long-term stability in its leadership. That he is departing as the county’s top staffer to take on an assignment of lesser authority and reach is, at best, curious if not outright counter to the manner in which governmental administrative positions are assigned. Moving McBride into a lesser county post, one that will be answerable to his successor, also appears to squander the advantage that having someone who has gained three years worth of experience in handling the responsibility of the county CEO remain in that capacity represents.
Nevertheless, County Wire sought to provide a rationale for moving McBride downward on the county’s chain of command.
“As strategic projects director, McBride will assist with the development of countywide strategies to improve outcomes and efficiencies,” the posting states. “Initial projects would include analyzing and developing strategies to address the immediate and long-term fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including identifying the most effective application of [federal] CARES Act monies and other available funding vehicles. McBride will also be charged with providing the county information for determining strategic direction related to complex issues that require a multi-departmental response. One example of this is the nexus between homelessness, mental health, and incarceration.”
In seeking to further justify moving McBride out of the CEO post into the strategic projects director, the County Wire entry on the subject presented a contradiction in logic by offering praise for the county’s response to the coronoavirus pandemic so far, which was effectuated under McBride’s leadership while he was CEO, which would suggest that he was able to meet the challenge the COVID-19 crisis entails while serving in his capacity as chief executive officer. The County Wire passage pointed out that since the advent of the pandemic, McBride as CEO had overseen the county’s creation of “the first-in-the-nation COVID-compliant business partnership program, which provides cash grants to businesses, churches, schools, and nonprofit organizations who agree to operate in a COVID-safe manner to assist with the costs of safety supplies and modifications” as well as the creation of “additional capacity within the County Public Health Department so it could strategically focus on health guidance, contact tracing, vaccinations, and other core health duties” which was credited to “the county proactively [having] assigned other key pandemic-related functions to other county departments and agencies for greater efficiency.”
Moreover, according to County Wire, the McBride led county “assigned the management of COVID-19 testing to the County Office of Emergency Services, which specializes in securing facilities, staff, and supplies in crisis situations” and “assigned management of the SNF Task Force, created by Public Health to address and help prevent outbreaks in state-regulated nursing facilities, to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center.”
Arrowhead Regional Medical Center is the main campus of the county hospital.
An additional point praising McBride’s leadership as county CEO contained in the County Wire script was that “The county assigned complaints about noncompliant businesses and enforcement to a multi-agency task force headed by the county administrative office, which created the proactive education/engagement/enforcement Plan. Partners include the sheriff’s department, county fire marshal, environmental health services, code enforcement, and county counsel.”
At pre-press time on Thursday, September 24, the agenda on which the item relating to McBride’s reassignment to the post of strategic projects coordinator, was not yet publicly posted. It is therefore not clear what level or remuneration McBride will be given in his new capacity, and whether it will represent a diminution of his current level of remuneration, which stands at $557,252.52 in total annual compensation, which includes $346.192.95 in annual pay, $36,686.90 in other pay, and $174,373.70 in benefits.
If, as is anticipated, Hernandez is moved into the position of interim chief executive officer, it is likely that Luther Snoke, a current deputy executive officer, will, on at least a temporary basis, replace Hernandez as chief operating officer.
By Mark Gutglueck