Perpetual Blunderer Puckett Back, This Time In Barstow

Marc Puckett, the well-traveled and controversial public official who has a demonstrated pattern of winning the confidence of elected officials, parlaying that confidence into a lucrative governmental position and then being forced out amidst scandal, has resurfaced once more in a municipal role in San Bernardino County.
Puckett is now serving as Barstow’s finance director.
What was previously thought to be the end of Puckett’s public career came more than three years ago, on December 28, 2017, when the Town of Apple Valley and Puckett signed a severance and departure agreement. Puckett and the town parted ways five months and eight days after Puckett infamously, on July 20, 2017, rear-ended a vehicle on Interstate 15 in Rancho Cucamonga and then left the scene of the accident such that the severely injured victim had to fend for herself. On December 5, 2017, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office had charged Puckett with involving himself in a felony hit-and-run. As Apple Valley’s assistant town manager, he placed himself on voluntary paid administrative leave two days later. From his position as the town’s assistant city manager and finance director, Puckett wangled himself a $109,252 severance package, equal to six months salary.
Ultimately, in March 2018, Puckett’s lawyer worked out a plea deal for him in which he accepted a misdemeanor conviction, which imposed a 30-day stint in county jail, being placed on probation until 2022, paying $25,000 restitution to the victim and sustaining a fine of $4,339. The way it worked out, Puckett served just 15 days of that 30-day sentence.
The hit-and-run was not the last nor even worst legacy of Puckett’s seven-year tenure in Apple Valley.
Puckett had been hired by Apple Valley as the town’s finance director in 2011, and from shortly thereafter, then-City Manager Frank Robinson increased Puckett’s span of responsibility to the point that before 2012 dawned, Puckett was serving as the town’s de facto assistant municipal manager. Some time later, Puckett was given the assistant town manager title to augment that of finance director.
Given his command of the town’s financial affairs, Puckett was considered indispensable to Apple Valley’s operations.
The Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company, which was previously owned by the Wheeler Family Trust/Park Water Company, had been the primary purveyor of water to the Town of Apple since 1945. In 2010, Park Water made $2.4 million in upgrades to Apple Valley’s water system. The Carlyle Group, an American/multinational private equity and asset management corporation, acquired Park Water Company, thereby taking possession of the  Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company, in 2011. In 2011 the Carlyle Group undertook and completed $3.4 million in capital improvements to the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company; and another $5.7 million in work on the system in 2012. In 2012, Park Water, at the direction of the Carlyle Group, obtained from the California Public Utilities Commission permission to institute 19 percent rate increases on Apple Valley Ranchos’s customers to carry out what was said to be necessary upgrades to the aging equipment and facilities that delivered water to the 74.99-square mile town’s then-70,000 residents. Park Water Company/the Carlyle Group made another $7.5 million in upgrades to the Apple Valley water system in 2013; $8.1 million in improvements in 2014; and $7.8 million in maintenance and additions in 2015. Thereupon, the Carlyle Group obtained from the California Public Utilities Commission clearance to institute another 30 percent rate hike on Apple Valley Ranchos customers to be implemented from 2015 until 2017. As town residents began to chaff under the 19 percent water rate hike followed by the 30 percent increase, town officials, including Puckett, grew concerned.
Collectively, town management and the town council hit upon purchasing the Apple Valley Rancho Water Company outright from the Carlyle Group. Having convinced themselves, in part based upon Puckett’s calculations and in part on what Puckett said was the outcome of a survey by “an independent appraisal firm” that a “fair purchase price” for Apple Valley Ranchos was $45.54 million, town officials began a serious discussion of raising the necessary capital to effectuate a buyout of the water company. The town subsequently indicated to the Carlyle Group it would be willing to pay Park Water the somewhat unrealistic figure of $50.3 million for the Apple Valley Ranchos water system lock, stock and barrel.
The Carlyle Group, certain that its Apple Valley assets were worth far more than what the town was prepared to offer, spurned the town’s efforts to engage them in a dialogue relating to a sale. Meanwhile, the Carlyle Group was entertaining buyout offers with regard to its water holdings from other private investors. The Carlyle Group ultimately packaged a sale of the entirety of the water utilities it owned in California, consisting of Apple Valley Ranchos, the water system in Yermo and the water system serving Compton, Downey and Bellflower in Los Angeles County, along with the water assets it owned in Montana, consisting of the Mountain Water Company, the municipal water system serving Missoula. Labeling the entirety of the water works in California and Montana as Western Water Holdings, the Carlyle Group moved toward the final stage of selling them to a Canadian company, Algonquin Power/Liberty Utilities, for $327 million.
The town, led by Robinson and Puckett and advised by its legal team at Best Best & Krieger, challenged the sale before the California Public Utilities Commission, insisting that the town was interested in purchasing the water system in Apple Valley and would utilize the eminent domain process, if need be, to do so. The town implored the state to consider the public benefit of allowing Apple Valley to purchase the town’s water system.
Ultimately, the California Public Utilities Commission in December 2015 voted to allow Liberty to proceed with the acquisition of Park Water Company.
After Liberty/Algonquin took possession of the town’s water assets, Apple Valley officials moved forward with an eminent domain action aimed at seizing the water company, filing its takeover suit in San Bernardino Superior Court on January 7, 2016.
For all of 2016 and most of 2017, Puckett served as the point man on the town’s efforts to engage in what was essentially an attempt at a hostile takeover of Liberty Utilities, which is the name the town’s water purveyor functions under. Robertson, Puckett, Best Best & Krieger and the town council intended that effort to be an administrative tour-de-force, with legal and financial components.
Because of the hit-and-run debacle, Puckett absented himself from Apple Valley at the end of 2017. The town’s attempted takeover of the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company, which Puckett had choreographed, lived on for another nearly three-and-a-half years, as a tribute to his unique brand of high-priced incompetence.
After more than three years and nine months of legal sparring, the matter came to trial before Judge Donald Alvarez on October 23, 2019. After the 67-day trial which involved several suspensions and delays which were ultimately exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, the parties engaged in an extensive post trial briefing schedule followed by closing oral arguments. The matter was taken under submission, and on Friday, May 7, 2021, 18 months and 15 days after the trial began, Judge Alvarez entered his tentative decision, which was locked in on May 22, 2021.
Alvarez’s findings were devastating to Apple Valley.
Alvarez rejected the town’s effort to seize the water company, holding that, “The town cannot justify its right to take the system based on the possibility of a future plan to modify the system or its operations. Liberty has rebutted the presumptions that the public interest and necessity require the project and that the project is a more necessary public use of Liberty’s property. The preponderant evidence at trial shows that the public interest and necessity do not ‘require’ the town’s acquisition and operation of the Apple Valley Water System.”
Alvarez found, “Liberty has operated a safe and reliable water system; allowing the town to acquire it would create substantial risks to continued effective operations. Liberty has a highly skilled work force that has operated the system with a perfect water quality record. The town’s plan for operating the water system presents potential risks to public health and safety.”
The town engaged in a disingenuous/intellectually dishonest effort to discredit Liberty, Judge Alvarez indicated. The town asserted that Liberty had put homes located below two heavy capacity water tanks at great risk, such that lives might be lost were the tanks to fail. More accurately, Judge Alvarez said, it was the town that had put its residents at risk.
“The town argues that the two Desert Knolls tanks overlook numerous homes and ‘the results would be catastrophic’ if the tanks were to rupture,” Judge Alvarez wrote. “But the evidence showed that the tanks were there first: the Desert Knolls tanks were constructed in 1949 and 1988, and most of the homes below the tanks were built after 1994.The town was incorporated in 1988, meaning it was the town that approved the construction of most of the homes built below the tanks after 1994.”
The town was angling to bite off way more than it could chew with the water company takeover, Judge Alvarez said.
“The Apple Valley water system has 470 miles of underground distribution and transmission mains, which are in constant need of maintenance and replacement” and the “majority of the capital assets in a water system consists of buried pipe, out of sight to customers but constantly degrading,” Judge Alvarez stated, “There is a substantial risk that the town would fail to commit the needed level of capital improvements and maintenance to the system. While the town does not plan to change the level of investment, there is a substantial risk that it will not be able to match the capital expenditure level made under private ownership. The evidence demonstrated that owners of nearby municipally-owned water systems have invested far less than Liberty in their systems. From 2012 to 2018, capital investment in the Apple Valley system was twice (202 percent) the system’s deprecation. In contrast, the nearby municipally-owned systems (Victorville, Hesperia, Adelanto, and Helendale Community Service District) made capital investments of just 20 percent to 48 percent of the systems’ depreciation. Again, the town itself has no track record of capital expenditure levels on a water system. But the town’s record with its own sewer system shows the same pattern of investment below the rate at which the assets are depreciating, like the water systems in neighboring communities. From 2011 through 2018, the value of the town’s sewer capital assets, net of depreciation, dropped from $32.6 million to $22.5 million.”
Judge Alvarez said concern with regard to “insufficient investment under town ownership is well-founded. If the town were to acquire the water system, there is a risk that its capital investments will not keep up with the system’s depreciation, similar to the performance of the other nearby municipally-owned systems and the town’s own performance with its sewer system. Such under-investment would cause the system to degrade, to the detriment of the system and, ultimately, the detriment of its customers.”
In his conclusion, Judge Alvarez ruled “The court finds that Liberty, through evidence introduced during the court’s bench trial, has rebutted the presumptions established by eminent domain law for the taking of its property for use as a municipal water utility. In particular, Liberty has disproved that 1) the public interest and necessity require the town’s project; 2) the town’s project is planned in the manner that will be most compatible with the greatest public good and the least private injury; and 3) the use for which the town seeks to take Liberty’s property is a more necessary public use than the use to which Liberty’s property is presently devoted. Therefore, Liberty’s objections to the town’s right to take the Apple Valley water system are sustained. Finally, the court shall find for Liberty and shall dismiss this action.”
Puckett quarterbacked the town’s move to place Measure F before Apple Valley’s voters in a specially-called election held on June 8, 2017. Measure F asked for authorization to issue $150 million in bonds to finance the purchase of the water system in conjunction with the eminent domain complaint against Liberty Utilities. Over the life of the bonds, to retire the indebtedness in full was to run to $558 million. Apple Valley officials, with Puckett in the lead, carried out an intensive sales job on Apple Valley residents, convincing them that issuing the bonds was their wisest course of action to secure the town’s water future. Measure F passed with 7,200 votes or 57.89 percent to 5,238 votes or 42.11 percent. As it turned out, the failure of the eminent domain process to effectuate the water company takeover rendered the bonds inapplicable. The town sustained costs exceeding a million dollars with regard to their issuance and pre-sale.
By the time the eminent domain case concluded, Puckett was long gone from Apple Valley. But it had been his leadership when he was in place that led Apple Valley down the primrose path. Based in no small part on his number crunching and financial pronouncements, town officials generated among themselves the delusional confidence that a case for the takeover of the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company could not only be accomplished but effectuated at a financial cost the town could bear. As it turned out, Apple Valley did not obtain the water system, and it expended $8,355,556.45 in legal fees and costs since the commencement of the eminent domain action in 2015, consisting of $5,677,843.90 in attorney’s fees and $2,677,712.55 in legal costs other than payments to attorneys.
Before his arrival in Apple Valley, there were multiple indications of Puckett’s volatility, lack of reliability and potential for generating liability.
With a bachelor of science degree in accountancy from Ferris State University, Puckett gravitated to work as a financial officer in government. Once in government, he obtained a master of business administration in public finance from the University of Michigan-Flint.
By his late twenties, he was the director of finance with Eastpointe, Michigan, which was previously known as East Detroit. He was fired from that post for a reason never made publicly clear. He landed on his feet by obtaining a similar position with Flint, Michigan.
In Flint, he was relatively well thought of and recognized outside of the city by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada with a certificate of achievement for excellence in financial reporting. He was appointed to the Michigan Municipal Finance Officers Association Board of Directors. Having gained the trust of then-Flint Mayor Woodrow Stanley, Puckett was given significant latitude in his oversight of Flint’s financial affairs.
In late 1998, things began to misfire for Puckett. The Flint Retirement Board learned that Puckett had neglected to transfer pension funds into a money market retirement system account for what was originally thought to be roughly six months. Initially the amount of dormant money that was inactive and not accruing interest was pegged at $8 million. A little later it was disclosed the nonproductive money under Puckett’s watch was closer to $17 million. Puckett downplayed the seriousness of what had occurred, pointing out that the retirement system had overall assets totaling roughly $800 million. It was subsequently disclosed that the money not properly deposited or invested totaled more than $20 million, and had remained inactive for more than a year, meaning the retirement system had failed to gain approaching $1 million in interest over that period. In January 1999, Puckett acknowledged that his department had not had an independent audit of the retirement funds carried out over a more than a three-year period.
With tension and negative publicity hanging over the city because of the mishandling of the city’s pension fund, Mayor Stanley lost faith in Puckett, who resigned in February 1999 as Flint’s finance director. The following month, after Puckett had been replaced as finance director by Matthew Grady, a close examination of the city’s books showed misrouting of certain tax money. First it was learned that the city had diverted over $1 million in property tax payments it should have kept to other local governmental entities such as the Flint School District and a local airport. Then it was discovered that Flint had withheld from the State of Michigan approaching $4 million in industrial facility taxes over a three-year period while Puckett was in charge. In Michigan, industrial facility fees are substitutions for property taxes paid by companies.
In February 1999 Puckett departed the Wolverine State and moved to California, quickly landing a job as the finance director in Costa Mesa.
For a decade, Puckett did well in the Orange County city. He was active in professional organizations for those employed in the financial world and in the arena of public agency finance, such as the California Municipal Treasurers Association. In the summer of 2009, he had been elected to assume the presidency of that organization later that year when precipitously, in August 2009, he was placed on leave by the City of Costa Mesa over some unspecified irregularity. City officials would not disclose what the issue was, but said it had “nothing” to do with any “financial improprieties.” Puckett resigned his position in September 2009 and also resigned as a member of the California Municipal Treasurers Association. As Puckett was the president-elect of the association, its executive director had to scramble to find his replacement.
Puckett wandered in the desert for some time thereafter, but ultimately was able to market his skill set, landing the position of finance director with the City of Petaluma in the San Francisco Bay Area in November 2010. But after being there less than two months, Puckett precipitously resigned in late December 2010, effective January 7, 2011, citing “family reasons.”
Once back in Southern California, Puckett went to work almost immediately with Apple Valley, revealing why he had left Petaluma in the lurch.
At the end of 2017 when he left Apple Valley, Puckett, having achieved the age of 55, retired. At the time of his retirement, Apple Valley was paying him $217,486 in yearly salary, $22,282 in other pay, and benefits of $92,948.95 for a total annual compensation of $332,716.95.
Under the terms of his participation in the California Public Retirement System, Puckett was eligible to begin drawing a rather substantial pension.
In 2020 he receive an annual pension of $136,731.36 through the California Public Employees Retirement System, based on his 20 years as a public employee in California. The Sentinel was unable to find the pension Puckett is receiving as a former employee with the Michigan cities of Flint and Eastpointe.
As a California Public Employees Retirement System pensioner, Puckett can, if he chooses, work up to 960 hours – equal to 24 40-hour weeks – per year with a public agency. Previously, Puckett, Puckett augmented his retirement stipend by working as the interim finance manager with the City of West Covina.
In April, interim Barstow City Manager Jim Hart submitted to the city council a “resolution of appointment and employment contract for Marc Puckett to serve as interim finance director.”
In the executive summary for that resolution, Hart wrote, “The city is in need of an interim finance director. The interim city manager recommends the city council approve the attached resolution and employment agreement to appoint Marc Puckett as interim finance director. Mr. Puckett has approximately 33 years of public finance experience and has served as a finance director for more than 20 of those. Additionally, Mr. Puckett has been a leader in the local chapter of the Municipal Finance Officers Association. He most recently completed an interim assignment with the City of West Covina. If approved, Mr. Puckett will serve as interim finance director, until September 30, 2021 or the recruitment for a permanent finance director is concluded.”
Puckett is being paid a monthly salary of $14,159.57, which translates to $81.69 per hour, based on his working 173.333 hours per month.
Of note is that starting in 2011, when Puckett was 48 years old, he began a spree of traffic law violations that might best be described as typical of an adolescent one-third his age.
In February 2011, he was ticketed and subsequently found guilty for speeding in excess of 65 miles per hour in San Bernardino County. In March 2011, he was ticketed and eventually found guilty of running a red light in San Bernardino County. In August of 2011, he was ticketed and fined $25 for driving without a license plate in San Bernardino County. In April of 2012 he was ticketed and ultimately convicted of speeding in excess of 70 miles per hour in San Bernardino County. In June of 2012, he was ticketed and ultimately convicted of speeding in excess of 65 miles per hour in San Bernardino County. In September of 2013, he was ticketed for speeding in excess of 70 miles per hour. The matter was resolved with his paying a $426 fine and attending traffic school. In July 2014, Puckett was ticketed for speeding in excess of 65 miles per hour. With the loss of his license on the line if he were convicted, he retained attorney James Edward Perron to represent him. Perron engaged in a bit of judge shopping, continuing the case and filing an affidavit of prejudice against one of the judges. He continued the case more than once and on the trial date, the officer who ticketed Puckett failed to show up and the matter was dismissed. In November 2014, Puckett was once again ticketed for speeding in San Bernardino County. He again retained Perron, who, working his magic, had the charge changed to coasting out of gear going down the Cajon Pass. Perron entered a no contest plea on Puckett’s behalf. Puckett was fined $534. In December 2014, Puckett was ticketed for speeding. In April 2015, after the timeframe within which an accumulation of speeding convictions would trigger Puckett’s loss of driving privileges had elapsed, Perron entered a no contest fee on Puckett’s behalf. Puckett was fined $559 and attended traffic school.
-Mark Gutglueck

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