By Mark Gutglueck
San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Leonard X. Hernandez, who assumed the position of San Bernardino County’s chief executive officer in October 2020, was given a six-year contract extension this week.
Hernandez, one of the most ruthless and skillful inside governmental operatives in San Bernardino County history, occupies a position at the pinnacle of the county government’s staff structure, such that on the county’s organizational chart he is answerable only to the five-member board of supervisors. Nevertheless, through his accumulation of inside information over the last seven years and the number of actions he has taken directly or bureaucratically facilitated, he is in possession of what is essentially blackmail material which has rendered all five of the members of the board of supervisors both beholden and vulnerable to him.
There was little indication at the beginning of Hernandez’s public career of his hardened, razor-sharpened personality that would enable him to claw his way to the top of the county hierarchy. Indeed, in 1998, he began with the county as a mild-mannered, indeed innocuous-seeming part-time service employee at its Chino branch library, after which he went to work full-time for nearly four years at the Chino Hills branch library. By means of online coursework offered by Clarion University in Pennsylvania, he obtained a master’s degree in library and information science, and by 2005, was the librarian overseeing the county’s Fontana branch library. In 2008, Hernandez left the employ of San Bernardino County to become the library director for the City of Riverside, a definite step up in his then-chosen profession. 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 west Washington, but ultimately declined the offer after learning that San Bernardino County Librarian Ed Kieczykowski was leaning toward retirement. Kieczykowski retired in 2011, and Hernandez returned to San Bernardino County to replace him. County officials were impressed by Hernandez’s performance and two years later, when the need arose, he was given a secondary assignment as the director of the San Bernardino County Museum while he was yet in the librarian post.
In 2015, then-County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux, who himself is a personage of legendary governmental administrative stature within the county, promoted Hernandez to the position of county 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. The following year, Devereaux conferred upon Hernandez the interim chief operating officer’s assignment.
Behind the scenes at that time, a struggle for dominance of the county’s power structure was ongoing between Devereaux and Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman, who had first been elected to the supervisorial post in 2014. By early 2017, Hagman had assembled enough votes and resolve on the board to ease Devereaux, who had a contract as chief executive officer running to 2020, out the door. Devereaux was prevailed upon to accept what was essentially a do-nothing or do-little 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 whose qualifications for the interim CEO position consisted chiefly of unquestioningly having processed the documentation relating to the board’s meetings for a dozen years and having served as the fill-in supervisor of the county’s land use services department in a pinch and had been moved up to one of the deputy county chief executive officer positions during the latter stage of Devereaux’s tenure as chief executive officer, was promoted by Hagman as a logical interim replacement for Devereaux because he recognized how easily he would be able to dominate her. The board went along with Hagman, and Smith served as the interim chief executive officer for eight months. Thereupon, the board, controlled by the strong-willed Hagman, settled upon elevating Gary 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, in whose veins, seemingly, ran ice water, proved more than willing to act as McBride’s hatchet man. He relished, it appeared, such assignments, 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, at which point he would close the door behind him and 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 and carry out virtually any assignment the members of the board of supervisors, collectively or singly, with or without working through McBride, tasked him with. 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. Indeed, that is what came to pass in September 2020. County officials sought to drape McBride’s firing in window dressing, initially installing him in the position of the county’s “strategic projects director” at the same salary – $373,833.78 per year – as what he was receiving as county chief executive officer, while initially focusing on the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and utilizing federal grant money in that effort. Thereafter, McBride faded from sight.
Little or nothing is lost on Hernandez, particularly if it enhances his reach or standing or hold on the office he occupies.
While Hernandez was yet employed in the capacity of chief county operating officer, Dawn Rowe was appointed 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. Almost immediately upon Rowe assuming the role of supervisor, her office became a base for political operatives to promote her effort to remain on the board during the 2020 election as well as to support the 2020 election campaigns of then-Congressman Paul Cook in his effort to move into the position of First District supervisor, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte in his bid for Congress in 2020 to replace Cook and the attempt by Thurston “Smitty” Smith to move into the Assembly position vacated by Obernolte. To this end, Rowe hired three known political strategists/coordinators to serve as key elements of her staff, including her chief of staff, Matt Knox; her policy director, Dillon Lesovsky; and her communications director, Suzette Swallow. In 2020, Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford and Hagman called upon Hernandez 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 on the taxpayers’ dime. In short order, Hernandez had damning evidence that various staff members in the county’s supervisors’ office, including Knox, Lesovsky and Swallow, Rutherford’s chief of staff Phil Paule, Rutherford’s assistant chief of staff, Mark Taylor, one of Rutherford’s district representatives, Ben Lopez, Hagman’s Chief of Staff Yekaterina Kolcheva and Peter Rogers, Hagman’s district director, had been involved in the 2018 and or then-ongoing 2020 election campaigns. In a tacit agreement with his political masters, Hernandez elected to overlook the circumstances in which Knox, Lesovsky, Swallow, Paule, Taylor, Lopez, Kolcheva and Rogers engaged in illegal political activity by utilizing public resources in carrying out electioneering activity.
By virtue of his position, Hernandez is now aware that former First District Supervisor/Assessor Bill Postmus has set up a political money-laundering operation and is seeking to influence Hagman, Cook and Rowe by means of money being filtered to them or into their campaign war chests to support with their votes on the board project applications or contract solicitations pursued by Postmus’s clients at the county. Hernandez and his successor as county chief operating officer, Luther Snoke, assisted a company in which Postmus is a minority Partner, Eagle 55, obtain project go-ahead and a $5.5 million guaranteed loan through the county. Hernandez and Snoke are further preparing to assist another Postmus client, Alliance Building Solutions, in securing no-bid contracts to carry out over $100 million worth of work relating to enhancing the energy efficiency of county buildings. Postmus and his partner, John “Dino” DeFazio, have requested and been accorded favorable treatment by the county’s land use services department. Hernandez had a clear window on efforts by Nachhattar Singh Chandi in which he utilized more than $50,000 in contributions spread around to local officials including Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr. and supervisors Hagman, Rowe and Cook to purchase county approval of a truck stop in Bloomington that was not in compliance with the zoning code and which involved inadequate safeguards to prevent solvents, oil and fuels from leaching into the water table beneath the development. Hernandez is aware of preparations underway to have Tim Itnyre, Cook’s chief of staff, replace him as First District supervisor in 2024 and have Dakota Higgins, Cook’s assistant chief of staff, move into the position of Itnyre’s chief of staff. Hernandez understands that Itnyre and Higgins stand at the crossroads of money Postmus is conveying into Cook’s electioneering fund, which is ultimately to be transferred to and used by Itnyre in his 2024 campaign, and the votes Cook will make in favor of the business interests which have entrusted money to Postmus to deliver to the various supervisors to ensure the passage of the project proposals or contracts pending before the board of supervisors in which those donors have an interest. Under Hernandez, Matt Knox, the political operative who formerly served as Rowe’s chief of staff, was moved into a position as one of Hernandez’s underlings, with the title of deputy chief county executive officer.
The county in February turned down a request by the Sentinel, filed under the California Public Records Act, for Hernandez’s meeting calendar going back to the beginning of his tenure as county chief executive officer, using the office of county counsel to assert that Hernandez’s calendar is exempt from disclosure. County employees have told the Sentinel the calendar illustrates the way in which Hernandez is assisting entities who are filtering money to the board of supervisors in achieving their ends. Hernandez and the board of supervisors within the last few months established Tom Bunton, who was brought to San Bernardino County from San Diego County recently and has no institutional knowledge or understanding of the degree to which Hernandez has used extortion of the board of supervisors to advance himself, as county counsel.
The 42-year-old Hernandez’s youthful appearance, upon which Supervisor Cook often makes reference, belies his ferociousness in maintaining his primacy at the apex of San Bernardino County Government, the iron fist beneath a velvet glove which he adroitly wields. Hernandez further masks, with a cheerful and friendly veneer, the single-minded determination he embodies to dominate the county administrative building, which is chock full of A-type, alpha personalities, elected and otherwise, who similarly have their hearts set on dominating any of those in their orbit who they can.
In taking their unanimous action to offer Hernandez six years of job security, the members of the board gave no hint that they might themselves actually be under his thumb and are being extorted by him.
“I’m pleased to introduce this item,” said Hagman. “Dawn [Rowe] and I, the vice-chair and I, had the chance to meet with our CEO Hernandez to talk about his extension. We believe that he’s really taken the county in the right direction over his short time period here. We really appreciate the way you and your team has (sic) been working together to bring the county forward and support our residents, especially in this time of emergency. We thought for stability purposes, that the six-year contract, which is similar to what we’ve done in past CEOs, had that stability factor that we needed.”
Hagman assiduously avoided delineating what Hernandez’s salary and benefits are to be.
Currently, Hernandez is reportedly provided with a $369,000 salary, some $95,000 in add-ons and pay augmentations, and another $209,000 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $673,000. He is to receive an annual pay increase of 5.0623 percent, consisting of a 2.5 percent increase every six months. Thus, by October 2028, he will have seen his salary alone boosted to $498,920.95 per year. Assuming his benefits and add-on pay do not increase from what he is currently receiving, by October 2028, Hernandez’s total annual compensation will stand at $802,920.95.
Without citing dollar figures, Hagman emphasized that at present Hernandez is making less than his counterparts in Riverside County and Los Angeles County.
Cook said of the move to extend Hernandez’s contract by six years, “I support the action. I think he’s doing a great job. I think there’s a certain harmony. When you have the talent, age is not a factor.”
Supervisor Baca said, “I think the big thing that’s important for this county is having some stability. I appreciate Leonard’s leadership and really following through on our efforts and our vision of the county.”
Without dissenting, Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford noted “My personal preference is that a board negotiate a contract with the executive officer at the time of his or her annual evaluation rather than putting automatic step increases into the contract. The subcommittee decided to negotiate differently that time. That’s my personal preference. It doesn’t keep me from supporting this contract. I think Mr. Hernandez is doing a fine job and brings stability to the organization. That is what motivates the rest of the contract, but I would encourage the board to look to changing that in the future.”
Rowe’s verbal endorsement of Hernandez at the meeting consisted of her seconding of Cook’s motion to approve Hernandez’s six-year contract extension. The contract extension was approved unanimously.
By Mark Gutglueck