By Mark Gutglueck
Three days after conducting backroom interviews of an undisclosed number of applicants for Upland’s city manager post, the city council had not by today, Friday, August 27, reached a hiring decision.
Tuesday’s specially-held and remotely-staged interactions between the city’s top decision-makers and those who are interested in filling the city manager post were necessitated by the council’s decision in March that was fully actuated in April to part company with then-City Manager Rosemary Hoerning, and the apparent unwillingness of Assistant City Manager Steven Parker, who is now serving in the role of acting city manager, to accept the actual city manager assignment.
Upland for the last three decades has experienced, in comparison to the other 23 municipalities in San Bernardino County, unparalleled instability with its city manager position.
This was not always so. In March of 1942, Richard Manley, who would later become the Second District San Bernardino County supervisor, took on the role of Upland’s de facto city manager after having served nearly 12 years as Upland city engineer. In 1947, after Manley, at the age of 57 completed the requirements for his master’s degree in public administration by attending night classes at the University of Southern California, became Upland’s first official city manager when that position was formally established. In 1954, Manley was succeeded by Elwin “Pinky” Alder, a licensed pilot and civil draftsman. In 1974, Lee Travers, who was formerly a naval officer, succeeded Alder. Travers remained as city manager for fifteen years. Thus, over the course of 47 years, Upland employed three city managers.
Thereafter, over the next 31 years, Upland has had a succession of 13 city managers: Ray Silver, Mike Matlock, Kevin Northcraft, Martin Thouvenell, G. Michael Milhiser, Robin Quincey, Stephen Dunn, Martin Lomeli, Rod Butler, Martin Thouvenell once more, Bill Manis, Martin Thouvenell a third intermittent time, Jeannette Vagnozzi, Rosemary Hoerning and now Steven Parker.
Manley, Alder and Travers were highly invested in Upland, having established their homes in the city, and thereby identifying the well-being of the city with their own personal interest. With a few rare exceptions, the city managers who served after them were journeymen city managers who had come to Upland to essentially mark time as participants in the California Public Employees Retirement System, gain further experience in the role of city manager and move on to a higher-paying position with another city. Few were leaning forward and taking risks, and they were generally seeking to accomplish no more than keeping at least three of the council members to whom they were answerable satisfied with their presence, while rocking no boats. Uniformly, they gravitated toward mediocrity with regard to the public execution of their duties, and considered it both impolite and impolitic to talk about the performance or incompetence of the department heads or staff they oversaw. When confronted with corruption on the part of their political masters, they ignored it or sought to exploit it to their own advantage. Few had the initiative to lead the city with regard to anything other than meandering toward the status quo during what typically became an average two-to-four-year tenure in the city manager position, and they functioned without any meaningful goals other than fattening their pensions. All proved to be relatively competent tactical leaders capable of keeping the city running on a day-to-day basis, but exhibited no strategic vision as far as shaping the city going forward. All shared a talent for focusing on their own welfare rather than that of the city’s residents, and few had the stomach for pushing city staff toward anything beyond rote and minimal productivity. From one city manager to the next, each understanding that the vast majority of Upland’s citizens were paying no attention, they had no incentive or desire to achieve any out-of-the-box success. They stumbled on without making any significant institutional changes, with the exception of Thouvenell’s shuttering of the Upland Municipal Fire Department in 2017.
The turnover in city managers was a function, for the most part, of an opportunity arising for the holder of the position to get a similar job elsewhere or a personality conflict developing between the city manager and a member or members of the city council and/or the mayor. From time to time, the city council would be gripped with a sense of stagnation or a lack of progress, or faced with a faux-pas on the part of the city manager that became public. These incidents sometimes resulted in the city manager being let go. On more than one occasion, as is currently the case, the council acted to terminate or force a city manager out without having a successor on tap. In some cases, the haste in choosing a replacement came back to haunt the council.
From one perspective, what can be said is that the Upland City Council over the years displayed a pattern of hiring a series of yes men as city managers. The council members and mayor would be pleased, at first, with this show of respect, but later, upon recognizing that they themselves lacked the understanding and skill to move the city in a positive direction, they grew impatient and angry with the city manager they had hired for not being strong enough to stand up and guide the city using his own expertise and initiative, instead substituting subservience and deference to them for actual leadership.
Three decades ago, two-fifths of the city council wanted to hire as city manager Mike Matlock, who had been assistant city manager in Upland for some time and who served in the capacity of acting city manager after Ray Silver left the city in the lurch to take another more lucrative job elsewhere. While Matlock was then young enough and willing to commit to Upland in the tradition of Manley, Alder and Travers, three-fifths of the council did not have confidence in him, and he was returned to the position of assistant city manager when the city instead hired Kevin Northcraft. Northcraft had already demonstrated himself as willing, as well, to relocate his family to Upland and make a long-term commitment to remain as city manager, but personality conflicts with two members of the city council precluded that. As the city was about to axe him, Northcraft in public pleaded, to no avail, for the city to reconsider and allow him to prove his worth to the city.
The most egregious example of the city council banking on a city manager whose loyalty to himself and his own wallet outran his value to the city was Rob Quincey. Quincey, who deferred much of the actual management of the city to Assistant City Manager Rod Foster, served as city manager for five years and ten months. During that time, he wangled eight salary and benefit increases from the mayor and city council, zooming his total annual compensation package from $260,000 to $429,000, and used some of that money to purchase five years of additional credit in the California Public Employees Retirement System.
The city council has been secretive and stealthy about its consideration of city manager candidates and the process of elimination it is using in its march toward a selection. Instead of holding Tuesday morning’s hearing in public, it did so in a remote forum. Initially, a live video of the early public portion of the proceedings was displayed on the visual monitors in the council meeting chamber at City Hall. With members of the public gathered there to witness the council’s deliberations and action, just as some were formulating a request that the volume be turned up, a city employee came into the chamber and, without communicating the reason for doing so, shut off the video.
Unknown is what qualities, precisely, the current mayor and city council is seeking in the next city manager. Whether they are willing to hire someone with municipal management expertise who is yet young enough to remain in the position for a decade or more is one question. Another unknown is if they will be enthusiastic about someone who is determined, ambitious and cooperative, who understands team playing but has enough initiative and confidence to develop a game plan appropriate for Upland on his own, and who understands what assets are and are not available to the city, as well as what can be made of those assets. Whether the members of the council individually and collectively can set aside their egos and hire someone with sufficient backbone to stand up to them when he or she senses that the council is either without direction or attitudinally mistracked, and is capable of council/managerial discourse even if that requires frank review of unpalatable options has yet to be determined.
Parker this afternoon told the Sentinel, “The city council is still in the process of selecting a new city manager. The city council expects to make an announcement of a new city manager once that person’s employment agreement is fully executed.”
By Mark Gutglueck