By Mark Gutglueck
Leonard X. Hernandez, who over the last half decade has demonstrated himself as one of the most ruthless inside political operators in the history of San Bernardino County Government, has clawed his way to the top of the heap. On Tuesday, the board of supervisors appointed him to succeed Gary McBride as the county’s chief executive officer, effective October 10.
Simultaneously as of October 10, McBride is moving into the position of the county’s strategic projects director.
Feared more than he is respected and respected more than he is liked, Hernandez, about whose competence there appears to be little doubt, achieved the position in some measure because of the sheer power of the information he possesses, a good deal of which consists of “dirt” or compromising material on the county’s elected political leadership, as well as other key players in the county governmental structure.
While two of the current five members of the board of supervisors, First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood and Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales, will be leaving office in December, there is evidence suggesting that Hernandez has the goods on Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe, Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford and Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman.
In 2016, Hernandez was elevated by then-County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux to the position of interim county chief operating officer and in 2017 the interim prefix was dropped from his title. This gave him comprehensive access to and control over, as well as the ability to monitor in granular detail, virtually any activity ongoing within the county. In the chief operating officer capacity, Hernandez had at the very least theoretical authority over the county’s information technology division and thereby access to all forms of nonvoice or electronic communication between county employees or emails from county employees to anyone inside or outside the county. Similarly, he could obtain, if he so desired, the records relating to contact that transpired between county employees on their office landline phones and county-issued cell phones and communication devices to ascertain whether communication between and among county workers was ongoing, though that did not extend to the contents of those conversations. Moreover, his position empowered him to employ his own staff or that of any of the county’s departments to undertake research or action with regard to any question, subject or goal he deemed appropriate. The knowledge within his reach in this regard extended from the county’s line employees in the county’s various departments to the staff of the supervisors and the supervisors themselves.
There were repeated indications as early as the first quarter of 2019, after Supervisor Rowe’s appointment to the board of supervisors in December 2018 to succeed James Ramos who had resigned as Third District supervisor following his election to the California Assembly, that her office was serving as a base for political operatives to promote her effort to remain on the board as a victor in this year’s election as well as in supporting the electoral efforts of her allies. Rowe hired at least three known political strategists/coordinators to serve as key elements of her staff. These included her chief of staff, Matt Knox; her policy director, Dillon Lesovsky; and her communications director, Suzette Swallow. Over the next year and a half there were repeated indications that political activity was ongoing in Rowe’s office. With the advent of the 2020 election season, Supervisor Rutherford called upon either Hernandez or County Counsel Michelle Blakemore to undertake an inquiry that would assure the public that county employees including members of the supervisorial staffs were not engaged in campaigning from county facilities using county equipment. Supervisor Hagman, who is currently the chairman of the board of supervisors, vectored that assignment to Hernandez.
Hernandez had the option and ability of carrying out a full and thorough investigation into the political activity being engaged in by the staffs of the various supervisors, which included the activity of Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow, as well as campaign work engaged in by Rutherford’s chief of staff, Phil Paule, along with two other members of Rutherford’s office, in addition to the political activity of members of Supervisor Hagman’s staff. Rather than aggressively fulfilling that assignment, however, in a move that both curried favor with his political masters and armed him with blackmail material he could hold back to effectuate his further climb up San Bernardino County government’s ladder of authority, Hernandez chose to leave, if not unexplored then unexplicated, material and data available through the county’s various departments, including its information technology division and the registrar of voters office, demonstrating that Swallow, who was on loan to Rowe’s office from Rutherford’s staff, served in the capacity of Rutherford’s campaign manager and as her campaign scheduler during Rutherford’s 2018 reelection campaign; that Rutherford’s assistant chief of staff, Mark Taylor, was likewise involved in Rutherford’s 2018 reelection campaign; that one of Rutherford’s district representatives, Ben Lopez, was actively involved in Rutherford’s 2018 reelection campaign; that Paule, Rutherford’s chief of staff, is involved in Assemblyman Jay Obernolte’s ongoing election campaign for election to serve as Congressman in the 8th Congressional District; that Lesovsky worked on both Rowe’s successful campaign to remain as supervisor in the Third District and Congressman Paul Cook’s successful campaign to gain election as First District supervisor in the 2020 California Primary election held on March 3; that Knox worked on the campaign related to Rowe’s March 3 election; that Hagman’s former Chief of Staff Mike Spence worked on Hagman’s 2014 campaign for Fourth District supervisor while Spence was Hagman’s chief of staff when he was at that time serving in the position of Assemblyman and that Spence was active in preparations being made for Hagman’s 2018 run for reelection; that current Hagman Chief of Staff Yekaterina Kolcheva had been involved in Hagman’s 2018 election campaign; and that Peter Rogers, Hagman’s district director, was involved in Hagman’s 2018 reelection campaign. Indications are that Hagman, in addition to recognizing that his own staff members are involved in political activity, is likewise aware of the electioneering activity involving Swallow, Taylor, Lopez, Paule, Lesovsky and Knox, and in a tacit agreement with Hernandez, is choosing to overlook a circumstance in which county employees are engaging in illegal political activity utilizing public resources.
There are further grounds to believe that Hernandez is aware of a complicated set of conflicts of interest involving Rutherford in her capacity as the chairwoman of the board of SBCERA, the San Bernardino County Employees Retirement Association, and the association’s senior staff members.
Hernandez, who had attained a bachelor’s degree in history from California State University Fullerton, began his career with San Bernardino County 20 years ago as a county library public service employee. By means of on-line coursework offered by Clarion University in Pennsylvania, Hernandez obtained a master’s degree in library and information science. In 2008, Hernandez left the employ of San Bernardino County to become the library director for the City of Riverside. In 2010 he applied for and was offered the executive director’s position with the Tumwater, Washington-based Timberland Regional Library System, which features 25 libraries located in a geographically dispersed section of northwest Washington, but ultimately declined the offer after learning that San Bernardino County Librarian Ed Kieczykowski was leaning toward retirement. In 2011, upon Kieczykowski’s departure, Hernandez came back to San Bernardino County to become county librarian. He subsequently rose to the occasion when he was called upon 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 county deputy executive officer.
In 2015, Hernandez was promoted to the position of deputy executive officer overseeing the community services group, which includes the county’s library and museum systems, the registrar of voters, regional parks, county airports and the county department of agriculture/weights and measures.
Devereaux conferred upon Hernandez the interim chief operating officer’s assignment in 2016. He was elevated to the position of the full-fledged county chief operating officer in 2017.
That same year, Devereaux was persuaded by the board of supervisors, led by Hagman, to accept a management consultant’s position with the county and depart as county chief executive officer. Dena Smith, the one-time clerk of the board of supervisors who had been moved up to the position of deputy county CEO during the latter stage of Devereaux’s tenure as chief executive officer, served as the interim chief executive officer for eight months, at which point the board of supervisors brought in McBride, the county’s chief financial officer, to serve as county chief executive officer.
The affable and easygoing McBride was uncomfortable with being confrontational with county staff and department heads, and was thus constitutionally incapable of carrying out firings. Hernandez proved more than willing to act as McBride’s hatchet man, seeming to relish such assignments, and throughout the county’s governmental structure, Hernandez become known, indeed feared, as what some referred to as “the grim reaper.” County employees en masse came 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 was known to unceremoniously present the unfortunate employee with a pink slip to let him or her know he or she had been terminated and was to be separated from the county at once, oftentimes without the opportunity or privilege to clean out his or her desk.
Hernandez became valued by the board of supervisors for his decisiveness and willingness to act.
A standing joke was that one day McBride would look up to see Hernandez, in the form of the grim reaper he was celebrated by county employees as being, darkening the entrance into the county chief executive officer’s quarters, at which point McBride would learn that the board of supervisors felt that his time was past.
Something akin but perhaps not quite like that has now transpired.
Last week, in a remarkable announcement in the County Wire, a posting of noteworthy events and news on the San Bernardino County official website, it was announced that McBride was to leave as county chief administrative officer to take on the position of the county’s strategic projects director.
The ostensible, but not altogether convincing, rationale given for the shift was that McBride and his formidable financial and budgeting skills were needed to guide the county in its effort to overcome the fiscal crisis brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
No mention of Hernandez was made in last week’s County Wire report. The board did, however, schedule a closed session for itself to take place on September 29, the day of the board’s final meeting in September, at 1:30 p.m., after that morning’s public session. That item referred to a “public employee appointment” under the auspices of Government Code section 54957 and a “conference with labor negotiators” in keeping with Government Code section 54957.6. The agenda item noted that Hagman was to negotiate with an “unrepresented employee” with regard to filling the role of “chief executive officer.”
On Tuesday, during that closed session, Hernandez was was appointed by the board of supervisors to serve as the county’s next chief executive officer as of October 10. The board of supervisors did so without conducting any sort of recruitment for the position, an indication that there was no serious contemplation of conferring the county CEO position on anyone other than Hernandez.
“I am humbled by the confidence the board of supervisors has placed in me and grateful for the opportunity to lead this great county organization, which has been my professional home for so many years,” Hernandez said.
“Under the leadership and guidance of the board of supervisors, the county team has built a culture of innovation, efficiency, and public service,” Hernandez said. “My overarching goal is to expand and nurture that culture within each of our worksites, within every service we provide, and within every county employee.”
“We are excited to welcome Leonard Hernandez as San Bernardino County’s new CEO,” said Hagman, speaking as the chairman of the board of supervisors. “COVID-19 has presented many unique challenges within our community, and Leonard’s extensive experience within the county and his integral role on the executive leadership team have strongly positioned him to lead the county during this unique time. I look forward to working with him in solving these challenges and know that his talents, leadership, and dedication to seeing the county thrive will serve him well as CEO.”
“I have known Leonard since 2006, when he was the manager of the Fontana Branch Library,” said Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales. “Throughout the years, I have watched him grow as a leader and I have seen his commitment to serving the community. As a supervisor for the past 16 years, I know that there is no decision more important than the selection of the CEO. I have full confidence in Leonard and I have no doubt that he will help guide our county to new heights in the years to come.”
“Leonard first impressed me with his leadership and problem-solving skills when he was placed in charge of the Lewis Library in Fontana while I was on the city council,” Supervisor Janice Rutherford said. “Since then, he’s continued to demonstrate his leadership abilities, commitment to excellence in public service, and his dedication to ethics, and I look forward to working with him to address the challenges facing our county.”
“I appreciate Leonard’s willingness to accept the role of CEO and continue the leadership that has been established,” said First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood. “His experience and knowledge of the county is foundational to our ongoing success and I look forward to working with him in this capacity. As a county, we have faced unprecedented challenges and I am confident that these proactive leadership transitions prepare us well for what is ahead. I want to thank Gary for his leadership and continued commitment to help the county strategically navigate the complexities that this health crisis has brought.”
Supervisor Rowe came closest to acknowledging that Hernandez was able to accede to the top county staff position as a consequence of his accumulation of knowledge with regard to where the county’s skeletons are buried, including those she is personally responsible for. “I look forward to working with Leonard to implement the vision of our board of supervisors,” said Rowe. “He is a hard-working leader with a keen understanding of the inner-workings of our county government. I’m confident that he will continue the great progress made by his predecessor, Gary McBride.”
The official county announcement of the board’s action in elevating Hernandez to chief executive officer notes that in his capacity as county chief operating officer, Hernandez “has coordinated the county’s multi-departmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the leadership of the board of supervisors the county’s COVID task force has led the State of California in its response to the pandemic and service to the public.”
An accomplished San Bernardino County political figure, one who has worked in close proximity to Hernandez, characterized him as “smart” and as a “skilled political infighter” who has used his range of talents to propel his professional career forward.
“He knows the laws of power,” the politician told the Sentinel. “He has watched how government works and how politicians conduct things. He has a good grasp of how politics works.”
That the board of supervisors has cashiered McBride in favor of Hernandez is no surprise, the politician said. “Gary was well-suited to being the chief financial officer, but I never saw him as being the caliber of a chief executive. I was baffled when he was elevated to CEO, and I was not the only one. I think in the extended aftermath of Greg Devereaux leaving, there was a panic that set in, and the board felt there was an immediate need to fill that position.”
The elected official described Hernandez as “sort of Greg Devereaux’s protégé. I think that around Greg Devereaux there were some very adept people involved in government. He [Hernandez] learned from them, but I also think he has a natural inclination and ability to influence things. I think he is capable of being very influential.”
Hernandez’s image as a hardhearted and almost sadistic overlord who takes pleasure in firing people is a gross exaggeration, the official told the Sentinel.
“All in all, I think he is a decent guy,” the public official said, while emphasizing that Hernandez was not easily deceived.
“Things don’t go by Leonard,” the official said. “He is a good reader of people and circumstances. I anticipate he is going to be around a long time. I think he is going to be on that perch for a while. I could be wrong, I suppose. There is a difference between the things you do to get to the top and what you do when you get there. To last, you have to be able to build and solidify a team, an organization around you. It is very easy to make enemies,” the official observed, conceding that Hernandez had accumulated a few, a reality which sprung from holding a position of high authority in a large organization. “It’s a hard slag to build alliances that will last,” the politician said. “You can make enemies all day long. And enemies will last a long time. Once you are locked in a fortress, you are a dead man. Sound leadership of a large organization is built on a solid combination of fear and trust. There is always going to be fear of whoever is at the top of the organization, but that has to be counterbalanced with trust.”
The reason the board perhaps encountered little resistance from McBride in accepting the demotion is that he sustained only a minimal reduction in his remuneration. His annual salary as county chief executive officer stood at $313,670.67. As strategic projects director, he will see his pay diminished by a little more than $15,000 annually, with his salary falling to $298,209.60 per year. At present, McBride has a total annual compensation package of $588,728.81, including the $313,670.67 in salary, $92,965.10 in pay other than salary and $182,093 in benefits. As strategic projects director, it is anticipated his annual compensation will drop into the $530,000 range.
Hernandez, who is pulling down $206,650.80 yearly in salary as chief operating officer along with $26,567.20 in other pay and $117,390.60 in annual benefits for a total annual compensation package of $350,608.60, will see his annual salary zoom to around $302,000 and his total compensation package jump to somewhere in excess of $510,000.
By Mark Gutglueck