Departure Of Denny As City Manager Shifts
Focus Again To Warren & Her Trade-Offs For
Fontana, which for two decades ending in 2019 exhibited the most managerial and administrative stability of any of San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities, is scrambling to replace its city manager for the third time in just over two years.
The disarray at City Hall comes as questions mount over whether the three senior administrators who served in succession since July 2019 were too accommodating of the city’s political leadership, in particular Mayor Acquanetta Warren, in allowing outside financial, investment and developmental interests to dictate policy.
In the meantime, Phil Burum, who was plucked from the private sector seven months ago to serve as deputy city manager, has taken the helm in the 217,237-population city.
Ken Hunt, who had been elevated to the acting city manager post in 1997 and dropped the qualifier from his title in 1999, remained a solid 20 years as the head honcho over a municipal workforce that at present has grown to more than 1,200. During those two decades, the city, with a population of some 137,000 when Hunt came in, grew substantially, leapfrogging past Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga to become San Bernardino County’s second largest city in terms of population.
Hunt was seen as a steady-as-you-go captain of Fontana’s ship of state and a capable manager, who kept one eye on the bottom line, ran the city day-to-day and had enough of a concept of urban planning to guide the former steel town away from its status as an industrial wasteland as it moved through the first two decades of the Third Millennium.
Others were mindful that Hunt had succeeded and functioned in the shadow of Greg Devereaux, whose run as Fontana city manager began in 1993 as the city was foundering financially. Devereaux, who was promoted into the city manager’s spot after having spent two years as Fontana’s redevelopment and housing director, came into a situation in which the city was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and disincorporation as a consequence of the graft-encrusted giveaways to developers and others that had flourished under the direction of Fontana’s city manager from 1973 to 1987, Jack Ratelle. Fontana’s financial situation in the late 1980s and early 1990s overwhelmed each of the three city managers succeeding Ratelle – John O’Sullivan, Russ Carlsen and Jay Corey. Devereaux mapped out a strategy to lift Fontana out of the financial abyss that it had slid into.
In four years Devereaux not only succeeded in extracting Fontana from its intractable economic circumstance, but made strides in putting the city on firm financial footing that would persist for two decades. In this way, the success Hunt enjoyed is perceived by some to have been less Hunt’s skill in management than his ability to execute the game plan Devereaux had formulated for him.
During the last eight-and-a-half years of his tenure as city manager, Hunt had coexisted with Acquanetta Warren while she filled the role of Fontana’s mayor. She had been elected to that post in 2010, after having been appointed to the city council in 2002, elected as councilwoman in 2004 and reelected in 2008. As mayor she had been reelected in 2014 and again in 2018, largely on the strength of her incumbency, name recognition and richly-endowed campaign war chest, which at this point exceeds $350,000.
It is no secret that Warren has been able to accumulate that overwhelming electioneering fund total through accommodation of developer upon developer by means of not only her votes in support of their projects but by delivering the votes of her council colleagues in support of those builders’ project proposals as well. Hunt was able to live within this pay-to-play milieu at least in part because continuing development in the city was not out of sync with the formula that Devereaux had devised to bring about economic sustainability for the city.
This symbiosis between Hunt and Warren was evident in the way in which Hunt cruised along as city manager, and the council, led by Warren, continuously renewed Hunt’s contract. In 2011, after Warren had settled in as Fontana mayor, a salary and benefit package was conferred upon Hunt, consisting of $264,596.80 in salary, $58,909.52 in other perks and pay and $36,184.72 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $359,691.04, making him the highest paid city manager in San Bernardino County. In 2016, when his salary escalated to $291,928, his other pay reached $71,857.31 and his benefits equaled $84,591.36 for a total annual compensation of $448,376.67, Hunt was logged as the third highest paid city manager in California. With Hunt’s contract set to expire in 2021, the ink on it was not dry when already Warren and her three allies on the council in 2018 were publicly discussing extending Hunt’s contract three years beyond 2021 to 2024 or perhaps even four years to 2025, so pleased with his performance were they and concerned that some other city might lure him away.
Precipitously in 2019, however, Hunt upped and departed. Mystery surrounded his exit, as Warren, who had previously been so laudatory about his talent as a city manager and how he was virtually indispensable to the city’s operations, uttered a barely audible “The city is grateful for Ken’s dedicated service to our city,” through clenched teeth in announcing his leaving. She would go no further. Hunt offered no explanation as to the reason for the sudden change at City Hall. It remained unclear whether he had been fired or he had quit, whether he had been pushed out the window or had jumped. Warren dissembled, first implying and then stating that Hunt’s departure was his own idea. “He resigned,” she said. But that was contradicted by the consideration that Hunt, whose managerial skills were so highly valued, did not immediately move into another position. Moreover, the claim that Hunt had voluntarily departed did not jibe with the disclosure made at that time that Hunt was being kept on the city’s payroll until the end of January 2020 and was collecting a severance on top of that, as Hunt’s contract did not provide for any continuation of pay or a severance if he left the city of his own volition. Warren continued to stonewall when asked again and again what had really occurred, and when the questions persisted, she evinced anger as a ploy to resist having to clarify what the deal with Hunt was. During a break at one city council meeting, when she was approached on the matter, she said that the question was purposefully disruptive, and implied that she would have one of or both of the Fontana police officers present at the meeting deal with the questioner harshly if the inquiry did not end.
Not until earlier this year was it disclosed that Hunt had not only been kept on the payroll until January 2020 after his July 2019 departure, for which he was paid $153,558.25 in salary over those six months plus benefits of $31,104.23, but that he had been kept on the payroll until January 2021, such that he was provided another $307,116.51 plus benefits of $62,208.46 for those 12 months of not working. On top of that, Hunt was provide with “settlement pay” and a “leave payoff” that together came to $511,182.54.
In this way, Hunt was provided with $1,127,378.45 after he left in July 2019, none of which he was due if he had in fact quit. Tacitly acknowledged was that Hunt had been asked to leave, by Warren no less, and that the $1,127,378.45 was intended to buy his silence over what had precipitated his leaving.
While Hunt, in compliance with the confidentiality clause put into the separation agreement with the city he agreed to and signed in July 2019, is not talking, reliable sources close to him have told the Sentinel that he and Warren in May 2019 veered onto a collision course with one another that fully manifested the following month when Hunt let it be known that he had come to recognize Warren was on the take and he would no longer tolerate her bribetaking. Those bribes, the Sentinel is informed, originated with developers as well as Alliance Building Solutions, which was given, at Warren’s insistence, a no-bid contract to render several Fontana municipal buildings more energy efficient.
Upon Hunt’s departure, the city arranged with G. Michael Milhiser, who had previously worked as Montclair city manager, Ontario city manager and Upland city manager and, after his retirement, as interim city manager in Adelanto for two different spans of time, to serve as interim city manager in Fontana, overseeing its roughly 1,200 municipal employees.
In April 2020, the city council settled upon Mark Denny to serve as city manager. Denny, a one-time aide to California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, the director of marketing and strategic planning for Allergan, Inc., the chief of staff for Orange County Supervisor William J. Campbell and the city manager of Dana Point, was considered by Warren to represent a good bet to serve as city manager. Denny was pro-development in his orientation and not terribly fastidious about adhering to ethical or legal constraints.
In 1996, when he was working for Pringle, the then-27-year-old Denny had been charged by the Orange County District Attorney and subsequently convicted of engaging in political skullduggery along with several of Pringle’s other political associates, including Jeffrey Christopher Gibson, Rhonda Carmony, Jeff Flint, Maureen Werft and Richard Martin. Denny’s convictions on campaign documentation falsification charges before Judge Marjorie Laird Carter came in close conjunction with the recording of similar or related convictions of the five others, all of whom had been involved in an effort to prevent Pringle from losing his tenuous hold on the leadership of California’s lower legislative house. Working with Flint, who was Pringle’s deputy chief of staff, Denny set about interesting Laurie Campbell in running as a decoy candidate to weaken the candidacy of Linda Moulton-Patterson who was vying against Pringle’s political ally Scott Baugh in the specially-held 1995 election to replace one-time Assembly Speaker Doris Allen, with whom Pringle had sharp political differences.
Ultimately, Denny was among a nest of political operatives convicted of election fraud. In Denny’s case, he admitted to participating in a scheme to siphon votes from Moulton-Patterson, the more established candidate in the Assembly race against Baugh. While suspicion fell on Baugh, Pringle and then-Congressman Dana Rohrbacher over their involvement in masterminding and directing the ruse, Gibson, Carmony, Martin, Flint, Werft and Denny proved good soldiers, fell on their swords and did not turn state’s evidence on the elected officeholders who employed them.
It was perhaps Denny’s demonstrated loyalty to his boss in a political context which convinced Warren he was her man, and she relied upon the three votes on the city council she controlled at that time – those of Councilmen John Roberts, Phil Cothran, Jr. and Jesse Armendarez – to bring Denny into the Fontana fold.
Denny, like Hunt had for so many years before him, seemed to mesh well with Warren. Yet even as someone willing to not only allow aggressive development to take place hand-in-hand with speculative investment, augmented with taxpayer-assisted subsidizations that defray the cost of infrastructure to jumpstart the development process and increase investor and developer profit, Denny saw that Warren’s attitude toward land speculators and project proponents had crossed the line from accommodation into outright affiliation, ones in which her own interest had become indistinguishable from the undertakings of those applying with the city for permits and project approval. The baldly pay-to-play ethos was most strikingly apparent in the accelerated pace of warehouse development in Fontana, a frenzy so intense that Warren was known, both derisively by her detractors and admiringly by her supporters, as “Warehouse Warren.”
In July of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued the City of Fontana over the April 20, 2021 Fontana Planning Commission approval of, and the June 22, 2021 Fontana City Council denial of an appeal against, Duke Realty’s proposal to build a 205,949-square foot warehouse on an 8.61-acre seven-parcel piece of ground at the southwest corner of Slover Avenue and Oleander Avenue.
Bonta took issue with the project, which is to feature 22 truck docks, 40 truck parking spaces, and 95 standard parking spaces, being immediately adjacent to a public high school. The city allowed the planning commission to utilize one of the least exacting forms of environmental certification for the project, a mitigated negative declaration.
In the lawsuit, Bonta argued that the city’s limited environmental review of the project and its failure to appropriately analyze, disclose, and mitigate the project’s environmental impacts violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the City of Fontana is required to implement all feasible mitigation measures to reduce harmful air pollution and other significant environmental impacts of the Slover and Oleander Warehouse project,” Bonta said.
While the civil action by the California Attorney General’s Office at this point merely stands as a procedural challenge to the project’s approval, Denny, already convicted once for having gone along with the criminal activity of a political personage above him in the governmental chain of command, cannot be confident that the state’s top prosecutor will not assign investigators who routinely ferret out evidence relating to criminal activity to look much more closely at the corners he and the city cut to assist Warren in accomplishing a highly questionable favor for one of her campaign donors. Indeed, questions have already been raised about monetary inducements provided to Warren in the form of political contributions and through other means, and how explicit the mayor and her donors were in arranging what might be demonstrated to a jury as quid pro quos. Denny, who is acutely conscious of the suspension of standards that took place in approving the Duke Realty Warehouse Project and others similar to it, does not want to face scrutiny on his decision-making process and the degree to which he was aware of untoward action by Warren, which he did not properly report or otherwise subject to proper protocol in his role as city manager.
The city’s version of the reason for Denny’s exit does not differ much from the initial false narrative put out with regard to Hunt’s departure.
Warren, as she said of Hunt, has indicated that it is Denny’s desire to leave.
“Mark arrived in Fontana in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown and has shown extraordinary poise and leadership in guiding our City Hall team through some very difficult months,” Warren is quoted as saying in a press release issued on September 8. “We’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to work with such a dedicated professional and look forward to staying in contact with him as (he) takes this next step in his career journey.” According to Warren, Denny requested that he be permitted to leave so that he can take a position in “the private sector nearer his home and family in Orange County.”
The city gave no indication of whether or not a severance has been conferred upon Denny.
Deputy City Manager Phil Burum was elevated to acting city manager.
Burum, whose prior experience and line of expertise falls exclusively within the realm of the building industry, is even more unabashedly pro-development than Denny. For that reason, he may be for Warren a better fit as the city’s senior staff member.
In 2018, Burum was president of the Southern California chapter of the Building Industry Association. From September of 2000 until December of 2018, he was an executive vice president of Rancho Cucamonga-based Diversified Pacific, a homebuilder. From January of 2001 until December of 2019, he was a minority participant and vice president in Colonies Crossroads, Inc., a commercial developer. From early 2018 until February 2021, when he left to become Fontana’s deputy city manager, Burum was a vice president with homebuilder DR Horton in its Southern California/Inland Empire office.
As deputy city manager in Fontana, which has been his only professional position in the public sector, Burum has been assigned virtually exclusively to issues relating to development. Burum heads the city’s development services division, which encompasses the community development, engineering and public works departments.
Though the city has already begun a search for Denny’s replacement, the city has the option of elevating Burum to the actual city manager’s post, which would allow him to continue to oversee development issues in the city, and hiring a deputy city manager who might be assigned to administrative tasks and overseeing other city departments. Given Warren’s reach and political control of three of the city’s current council members – John Roberts, Pete Garcia and Phil Cothran, Jr. – she can essentially dictate how City Hall’s hierarchy is to be structured.