Big Bear Lake Brings In City Manager From San Clemente

The City of Big Bear Lake has succeeded in luring San Clemente City Manager Erik Sund to take on the position of the mountain municipality’s city manager, some five months after Frank Rush departed.
Sund is to move into the position, which in the interim has been filled by Jeff Mathieu, who was city manager of Big Bear Lake prior to Rush assuming the post in 2019.
The hiring comes during what is arguably the most contentious period in the city’s 42-year history. Differences between the city’s residents and the proprietors of tourist-related enterprises have manifested in a citizen-inspired initiative aimed at instituting regulations on short-term rental units being placed on the November 8 ballot, which is countered by a recall effort against the odd-man-out on the pro-tourist-industry city council.
Sund, who has been serving as San Clemente’s city manager since May 2021, has one-third of a century experience in local government in Southern California. He previously served as the finance manager/director for the City of Long Beach, the purchasing manager for the City of Downey, and as senior purchasing agent for the City of Irvine.  He began with San Clemente in 2013, when he was hired as assistant city manager, a position he held until his elevation to city manager last year. Sund has a Bachelor of Arts degree in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine.
He is moving from one environment of controversy to another.
In recent weeks, San Clemente was roiled by a resolution introduced by San Clemente City Councilman  Steve Knoblock that called for recognizing San Clemente as a “sanctuary of life” in which abortion is to be banned. After considerable vitriolic public discussion of that proposal, it was rejected by the council 3-to-1 during a specially-called meeting, with a number of city residents, some on both sides of the issue, criticizing Sund for letting the issue get out of hand.
On previous occasions, some San Clemente residents, albeit a minority, had opined that Sund was inadequate for the task of managing the 64,293-population city. In particular, Sund has had a rather rocky relationship with current Councilwoman Laura Ferguson. Ferguson previously served in the capacity of San Clemente’s public information officer under Sund when he was assistant city manager. She has maintained that Sund is secretive, and has consistently prevented or obstructed the release of relevant information to the public.
Despite the perception of some that Sund was responsible for certain difficulties at San Clemente City Hall, the four members of the Big Bear Lake City Council who voted to hire him perhaps see his ability to exist within a contentious environment to be a plus rather than a minus.
Beginning about two years ago in Big Bear, the community found itself caught between on one side a more numerous contingent of full-time residents who want tough restrictions imposed on both tourists and the owners of vacation rental units and on the other side the wealthier landowners and landlords who are making a substantial amount of money by renting or leasing their properties out on a temporary basis and want nothing in place that will discourage renters from coming to Big Bear Lake.
Over the last 19 to 20 months, three of the members of the four-person majority of the city council – consisting of Mayor Rick Herrick, councilman Randall Putz and Councilwoman Bynette Mote – along with Councilwoman Perri Melnick, who was appointed in July 2021, have proven more responsive to those with a stake in the tourist industry, and responded to the calls for a strict ordinance by instituting what many local residents consider to be watered-down measures to create a regulatory regime that involves a modest licensing requirement and fines on cabin owners on whose properties problems manifest, with the potential for revocation of those licenses if the nuisances persist on a given property.
A contingent of city residents who did not believe that City Hall had gone far enough formed in April 2021, eventually calling themselves Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. They lobbied for more vigorous regulation, making a concerted call for a cap on vacation rentals and pushed the city to increase the transitory occupancy tax – i.e., the city’s bed tax or hotel tax – from 8 percent to 12 percent, based on their argument that 35 percent of the calls for service from the fire department or sheriff’s department in Big Bear Lake involve short term rental properties and/or visitors to the city. In August 2021, the Big Bear Lake City Council voted 4-to-1, with Councilman Alan Lee dissenting, against a proposed cap on vacation rental permits, with the controlling council majority members saying they wanted to give the regulations that exist an opportunity to work. If those did not achieve the desired results, they said they might then put more restrictive measures into place.
That was not good enough for the group of residents animated about the issue of vacation rentals. Thereafter, member of Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals embarked on an effort to bypass the city council, setting about gathering signatures on a petition to place on the upcoming October 2022 ballot an initiative calling for a limit on the number of vacation rentals in the city. In that same election, Herrick, Putz and Melnick are up for election.
Herrick, Putz, Melnick and Councilwoman Bynette Mote, who were previously less than convinced that the resident discontent with the behavior and imposition of tourists on the locals was of a critical dimension, were a bit taken aback when the group was able to get 762 of the city’s 2,887 registered voters to endorse the petition to put the measure on this year’s ballot.
If, indeed, the effort to see the measure passed drives large numbers of voters of the polls, given Herrick’s, Putz’s and Melnick’s previous opposition to tough tourist regulations, their reelection prospects could be in jeopardy. Herrick is being challenged in the city’s District 2 by Omar Torres Cazares and Kirk Seigel. District 3 Councilman Randall Putz is opposed this year by Paul Sokoloff and Kirk Seigel. Melnick in District 4 is to face Robert Barton and Cory Blake Miholich.
An enmity pitting Herrick, Putz, Melnick and Mote against Councilman Lee has developed, both on the basis of Lee’s championing of the city’s full-time residents on the short-term rental reform movement and other issues. An effort to recall him has qualified for the ballot in November. Thus, four of the council members are up for election this year.
Rush, whose performance was deemed as more than satisfactory by Herrick, Putz, Mote and Melnick, claimed that he was being poorly treated by Lee and tendered his resignation earlier this year. On April 4, 2022, the city council voted to enter into a contract with Peckham & McKenney for the recruitment of a city manager. Peckham & McKenney sought and invited candidates with what was deemed a desirable level of skill and experience to consider moving into the post, obtaining 67 applications for the job, roughly 40 percent of which were from city management professions from outside the state. More than 15 of those who applied were sitting city managers. The field was reduced after an initial vetting from 67 to 30, then to 18, after which, in July, the city council conducted interviews of the candidates. The pool was then reduced to 12. That group was halved to six and thereafter reduced to two finalists, including Sund.
After settling upon Sund, the council directed City Clerk/Human Resources Director Erica Stephenson to extend him a contract.
There is less than perfect transparency with regard to what the city offered Sund, what he countered with and what has ultimately been arrived at. As city clerk, Stephenson authored the staff report for the special meeting held on August 11 at which Sund’s hiring was to be considered and during which he was ultimately selected to serve in the city manager’s post. In that report, Stephenson wrote that Sund’s “completed employment agreement will be made available for public review at the time of convening open session.” Eight days later, however, that agreement has yet to be posted to the city’s website.
The Sentinel is given to understand that Sund, who was provided with a salary of $250,000, $50,323 in pay add-ons and perquisites, $71,553 in benefits and a roughly $13,000 annual contribution toward his pension for a total annual compensation of $384,776 while he was employed in San Clemente, is to receive $265,000 in salary, benefits of around $75,000, an approximate $17,000 contribution toward his retirement account and an indeterminate amount of money in pay add-ons and perquisites while serving in his capacity as Big Bear Lake City manager.
Director of administrative services Kelly Ent is to serve as interim city manager until September 19, as Jeff Mathieu was determined to end his fill-in assignment and return to retirement. As of September 19, Sund is to officially begin as city manager.
According to City Attorney Steven Deitsch, Sund will be provided with a base salary of $265,000. Deistsch did not quantify Sund’s benefits. Deitsch said Sund and his eligible dependents will be provided with a health plan and dental and vision insurance coverage and that the city will pay for a $250,000 term life insurance policy. He is to accrue, Deitsch said, 80 hours of vacation time per year with 40 hours of accrued vacation to be placed into his leave bank immediately. He is to be provided with 12 paid holidays annually. He is to accrue 88 hours of sick leave per year and can accrue that sick leave without limits. After five years, he is eligible to cash out his accrued sick leave at 25 percent of its value. He is also to be allotted 56 hours of paid administrative leave annually with a maximum accrual of 112 hours. The city is also to contribute annually toward his retirement deferred compensation benefits, not to exceed three percent of his basic salary. He is also to be enrolled in the San Bernardino County Employees Retirement Association. The city is to provide him as well with the unrestricted use of an automobile for which the city is to pay for comprehensive liability and damage insurance as well as pay to cover the operational and maintenance costs. The city will also pay for any professional dues and subscriptions for affiliations Sund has related to his managerial duties and the city is to pay for any city related travel seminars and professional development opportunities he attends. Sund is also to be provided with a laptop computer and a stipend of $100 per month toward a cell phone. If the city terminates the contract, Sund is due a six-month severance.
Councilman Randall Putz said that what the city has agreed to pay Sund is “consistent with what other city managers make. It is my hope that as a council and as a community we will be fair and reasonable to this city manager and welcome him and give him every opportunity to succeed and avoid running him off like the last one.”
Councilman Alan Lee said, “The hiring of a city manager is perhaps the most important role of a city council and is not and should not be taken lightly. We received 67 applications, 30 of which were deemed to be qualified. So, certainly there is great interest and a great applicant pool. I thought that it was important for the city council hopefully to vote unanimously and set the tone on a new city manager, but based in part on the shenanigans at the last meeting, the gamesmanship at the last meeting, it informed me and reinforced in me that this is not a decision we should be making hastily. It is not a decision which should be viewed in politics. To do so would be a disservice to Erik and a disservice to the community. The reality is that four of us, and if you listen to the word on the street, all five of us will be up for election. I don’t think we should be rushing to hire a city manager, when we might not even be here. In fact, I would suggest and believe that at least some of us, potentially all of us, will not be here.”
Lee said those challenging Herrick, Melnick and Putz and those who have applied to replace him if he is recalled could potentially be running the city after the November election. He said those who might be elected “should have a voice in the direction of this city. It smacks as politics for us to appoint a city manager, which is one of the most profound things we do. We have less than 90 days for an election. My remarks have nothing to do with the capabilities, competence of Erik. That’s one concern I have. This council should do like other councils and wait.”
Lee said, “The other issue is I am concerned about the finances. I’m very familiar with what other city managers make. $265,000 is more than what [former City Manager] Frank [Rush] made, more than what the governor makes, more than what other comparable city managers make, more than what most city managers in San Bernardino County make, more than most city managers that manage tourism communities.”
Lee pointed out that Sund has far greater responsibilities in San Clemente which is much larger geographically and population-wise than Big Bear Lake, employed a staff of 200 as compared to 60 employees, a $120 million budget as compared to a $20 million budget. “I just don’t think it is fiscally responsible. I cannot support the package, nor can I support the timing of this appointment.”
The vote was 4-to-1 to hire Sund.
Upon his hiring, Sund will surpass more than half of the city and town managers overseeing the 23 other municipalities in San Bernardino County in terms of salary. This will be the case despite the consideration that at 6.24 square miles, Big Bear Lake is the third smallest of San Bernardino County’s 22 cities and two incorporated towns geographically, ahead of 5.53-square mile Montclair and 3.5-square mile Grand Terrace. With 5,231 residents, Big Bear Lake is the second-smallest municipal entity population-wise in the county, ahead of Needles with its 4,959 occupants.
Of note is that Sund is to make roughly as much money as Edward Starr, the city manager of Montclair, a city of near comparable physical dimension to Big Bear but with a population of more than times that of Big Bear at 40,041. Starr, has been city manager of Montclair, which has the most dynamic sales tax-to-land area ratios of all of San Bernardino County’s cities and one of the most dynamic sales tax-to-per capita population ratios of all of San Bernardino County’s cities, for 12 years. Starr, who is considered by many to be the county’s leading municipal management professional, was paid a salary before benefits and add-ons of $265.801.80 in 2021.
Frank Luckino, the city manager of Twentynine Palms, which counts 28,669 residents within its 59.14-square mile confines, was provided with a $196,846.39 salary in 2021.
Colton, a 16.04-square mile jurisdiction within which 54,198 people dwell, pays its city manager, Bill Smith, $207,252 annually.
Benjamin Montgomery, the city manager of 82,213-population, 44.75 square miles Chino Hills, was provided with a before-benefits-and-perquisites salary of $238,042.27 last year.
Michael Blay, the city manager of 77,140-population and 15.62 square mile Upland is currently being paid a $251,407.01 salary.
Nils Bentsen is currently being paid $242,690.42 in salary to manage 101,746-population and 73.21-square mile Hesperia.
Keith Metzler, the city manager of 127,086-population, 73.74-square mile Victorville, was paid less money in 2021 – $253,488 – than Sund was paid to begin as city manager in Big Bear this year.
Theeravut Thaipejr, who serves as both the city manager and public works director/city engineer for the 25,097-population, 7.52 square mile city of Loma Linda, is being paid $248,081.68 this year.
There are a handful of city managers in San Bernardino County presently being paid more than Sund will earn in Big Bear Lake.
Charles Duggan, the city manager of 73,168-population, 36.43 square mile Redlands, has a salary of $269,984.
Robert Field, San Bernardino’s city manager, was paid a salary of $295,332 in 2021. In addition to being the county seat, 59.65-square mile San Bernardino is the county’s largest city population-wise at 222,101 and is beset with social and economic challenges that have rendered it one of the most problematic governmental operations in California, indeed throughout the United States for an urban area of its size.
John Gillison last year was provided with a $314,592 salary to run 46.5-square mile, 174,628-population Rancho Cucamonga.
Matt Ballantyne, who was hired earlier this year to manage 217,237 population, 42.4-square mile Fontana, is being paid a $315,000 salary.
Scott Ochoa, Ontario’s city manager, is provided $338,566.16 to manage that 197,886-population, 50.01-square mile city. Ontario is the county’s most economically advantaged city, with approaching two-thirds of a billion dollars running through all of its municipal funds on an annual basis, outdistancing both Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana, the county’s second-ranking and third-ranking municipal economic powerhouses.
Big Bear Mayor Rick Herrick used the radio station KBHR-FM 93.3, which he owns and operates, to state to the Big Bear Lake community, “We are thrilled to announce that the city council has selected a new city manager. Erik Sund will help lead our city as we plan and build for our future. I feel strongly and I’m sure that you’ll agree, Erik is a great fit for Big Bear, being a Southern California native and along with his wife and family, they have spent much time enjoying our mountain community.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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