Chased Out By Councilwoman Calvin
San Bernardino City Manager Rob Field will depart from his post in January after 28 months as the top administrator in the county’s largest city, a casualty of confusion, contention, miscalculation, misunderstanding and, ultimately, the full unraveling of Mayor John Valdivia’s political career.
The prime mover in Field being forced out, the Sentinel has learned, is Sixth District Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin, who would have preferred that he be outright fired without any severance package being conferred upon him. Instead, Field was given leave to resign, a face-saving gesture for him by which he will be accorded the professional courtesy of a generous exit stipend and the city will avoid tarring itself as a municipality inhospitable to its top administrators beyond the somewhat dubious reputation it has in that regard already. The two-and-one third years that Field lasted as city manager is, all-in-all, par for the course in the most recent decade in financially challenged San Bernardino. After more than 15 years of deficit spending in which it burned through all of its reserves, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in 2012, taking five years to emerge from that status. In the months leading up to that filing, then-City Manager Charles McNeely had tendered his resignation. Thereafter, then-assistant City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller had taken the helm of the severely listing municipal ship and was the city manager of record when the bankruptcy was filed. She left in 2013 to take on the position of executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments and was replaced by Allen Parker, who stuck around to the end of 2015. Thereafter, Mark Scott was hired as city manager, but he bailed on the city in 2017. Thereafter, Travis-Miller, who had made her way back to San Bernardino as assistant city manager and was thus on hand when the city emerged from bankruptcy, was elevated to city manager in August 2017. During her second tour as city manager, she became closely identified with the administration of then-Mayor Carey Davis, which ultimately redounded to her detriment when John Valdivia, who had been the city’s Third Ward Councilman, defeated Davis in the November 2018 election. From the time Valdivia was sworn in as mayor in December 2018, he was militating to force Travis-Miller’s departure. In April 2019, he mustered the votes to put her on administrative leave and following the special election held in May 2019 to choose his replacement as Third Ward Councilman in which his ally Juan Figueroa was elected, Travis-Miller was terminated without any citation of cause, and the council conferred upon her a $307,941.56 severance as she headed down the road.
Travis-Miller was replaced with Teri Ledoux. Ledoux had previously been employed in San Bernardino as an administrative analyst and assistant to the city manager before she departed for the City of LaVerne to take on the $123,177.08 annual salary post of assistant to the city manager there. In October 2017, Travis-Miller arranged to lure Ledoux back to San Bernardino as her assistant city manager, in which capacity she was to receive a $190,000 annual salary. In the late winter and spring of 2019, as Valdivia’s intention of cashiering Travis-Miller was becoming clear, Ledoux at first made a show of loyalty and support for her boss. But when Valdivia adroitly offered Ledoux a promotion into the city manager’s post, which paid $268,762.59 in salary and another $46,000 per year in benefits, which would ultimately have the effect of increasing her pension from the $123,500 she stood to make as a retired assistant city manager to the $174,695.68 pension she would receive upon retiring as city manager, Ledoux went along with shunting Travis-Miller out of the way so she could take her place.
When Ledoux first settled into the position of city manager, Valdivia had the support of five of the seven members of the city council.
Over time, however, Valdivia’s political hold began to lapse. Ultimately, after a handful of blow-ups in which he expressed frustration with his inability to influence the decision-making process at City Hall in the precise ways he had promised several of his most generous political donors, the mayor’s ability to dominate Ledoux and have her do his unquestioned bidding began to slip as well. Before the 2019 calendar had elapsed, Valdivia’s discomfiture with Ledoux was every bit as pronounced as it had been with Travis-Miller.
At that point, Valdivia began casting about to find the eventual replacement for Ledoux, one whom he intended to be able to control implicitly and explicitly. In 2020, he was for a time determined to bring Chris Lopez, Hemet’s city manager since October 2019, in as Ledoux’s replacement, as he believed he had an iron-clad arrangement with Lopez that would ensure Lopez would follow his instructions to a T. Valdivia was not able to get the council to sign off on Lopez’s hiring, however.
Ultimately, in September 2020, Valdivia found a city manager candidate the city council would support bringing aboard: Rob Field, Riverside County’s former economic development agency director.
Field boasted impressive credentials. A 1989 University of California at Riverside graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history, Field in 1991 went to work as an environmental and development specialist with the Krieger & Stewart civil engineering firm in Riverside. After seven-and-a-half years with Krieger & Stewart, he was hired by Riverside County as a mid-level employee in the economic development agency. Field’s brother, John, was the chief of staff to then-Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione. With Tavaglione as his patron, Field found himself on the fast track, logging three advancements over the course of six years, the last into the post of assistant county economic development director. Then, in 2006, Field was given a promotion out of the economic development agency into the position of director of Riverside County’s facilities management division. In that capacity, Field led a staff of 600 who variously oversaw design and construction of county projects, managed the county’s real property and provided county properties with maintenance and custodial services. He was responsible for an $80 million operations budget and a $220 million capital budget.
In March 2009, Field’s career made a huge bound when Tavaglione, in conjunction with then-Riverside County Chief Executive Officer Bill Luna, merged the positions of county facilities management director with that of economic development agency director, thereby transforming Field into an assistant county executive officer.
Thereafter, Field expanded his educational credentials, earning his master’s degree from California Baptist University in leadership and organization, and obtaining extension certificates in economic development management, land use and environmental planning from UC Riverside.
Under Luna and the chief county executive officer who ultimately replaced Luna, Jay Orr, Field thrived in his career as a top level public administrator. In his capacity as assistant Riverside County executive officer/economic development agency director, he oversaw 24 divisions, a staff of 840, an annual operating budget of $650 million and a $1.5 billion capital improvement budget.
In February 2019, Riverside County Chief Executive Officer George Johnson, perhaps fearing that Field had come to represent a personal threat to him in that the Riverside Board of Supervisors might get around to bringing Field in to replace him, abruptly terminated Field.
In post-bankruptcy San Bernardino, Field was perceived as exactly what the doctor ordered: a financial guru who could spur economic development on a multiplicity of levels in a way that would miraculously rejuvenate the city financially, primarily by luring businesses of all order to the city, such that San Bernardino would literally grow its way out of the financial doldrums that represented such an existential threat to it.
Valdivia was arguably the foremost practitioner of pay-to-play politics in the region, one who had secured the mayoral post by promising at first dozens, then scores and ultimately hundreds of business owners that he would ensure their success in getting their projects or their contracts with the city approved in return for substantial political donations. Even before Field had the city manager’s job, Valdivia had introduced many of those donors to Field, familiarizing them with the city manager-to-be and impressing upon Field that these were the entrepreneurs who represented San Bernardino’s best hope for financial resurrection and that as they prospered, so too would San Bernardino. An understanding was cultivated and in place by the time Field was hired. Field would make sure that those who were willing to invest in the city would see a return on their investment.
In September 2020, Field was hired on a 6-to-2 vote, with Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra and Councilman Henry Nickel dissenting.
Meanwhile, the rest of the city council, as it was then composed, held out hope that Field would be able to turn things around.
Despite the exuberance of many when Field came aboard, the actuality was that his experience in San Bernardino was foredoomed.
He embodied some flaws, what at first seemed to be imperceptible cracks in the foundation that over time widened and became far more apparent, resulting in his managerial edifice collapsing.
At the most basic level was the city’s seminal problem: the burgeoning and unreasonable costs associated with employing overpaid city staff, a problem that had existed for more than two decades, an outgrowth of the city’s public employee unions – the San Bernardino Public Employees Union/Teamsters, representing the city’s civilian workers, and the San Bernardino Police Officers Association, representing its law enforcement employees – making ever increasing demands during collective bargaining sessions on contracts for city workers. The unwillingness of the city’s unions to reduce worker salaries in line with the city’s financial means had resulted in the 59.65-square mile city making a bankruptcy declaration in 2012 and the 2015 closing out of its municipal fire department and an accompanying arrangement with the county fire department for fire protection and emergency medical service, along with a parallel shuttering of its municipal sanitation division and the granting of a franchise for refuse handling and trash hauling to Burrtec Waste Industries. Before Field arrived, McNeely, Travis-Miller, Parker, Scott, Travis-Miller again and Ledoux had proven unable or unwilling, despite the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection filing, to get the city’s workers and their bargaining units to accept any meaningful salary and benefit reductions that would reduce the cost of municipal operations. Personnel costs represented approaching 94 percent of the city’s operational budget. In its 2012 bankruptcy filing, the city had cataloged $80 million in unfunded liabilities and a $49 million annual operating deficit.
In hiring Field, the city council conferred upon him a $285,000 yearly salary, $25,000 in other pay and $46,000 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $356,000, which exceeded what had been provided to any previous city manager. With the City of San Bernardino long in a death spiral in which business after business had closed or moved from the city and with City Hall, because of the exorbitant salaries and benefits paid to city employees, consistently taking in less money than it was spending, the sole hope for salvation was a leader – a head staff member, i.e., a city manager – who could impose the personal fiscal discipline on his underlings which would end the hemorrhaging of red ink. Thus, Field’s acceptance of the highest salary ever provided to a San Bernardino city manager and the demonstration of the concomitant unwillingness to sacrifice his own personal interest made it impossible for him to claim the moral authority he needed to convince the employees at City Hall to themselves accept, in the spirit of parsimony and financial austerity, the drastic pay cuts that would allow the city to balance its budget and stave off what many believe will be an inevitable second bankruptcy.
Equally problematic was that despite the challenge of redressing the city’s sputtering economy lying right in Field’s wheelhouse, he had not previously been a municipal manager. His degrees and certificates were in history, leadership and organization, economic development, land use and environmental planning, all of which, certainly, fall within the purview of municipal operations. Still, he had not trained in management nor in municipal management, the four principles of which are to plan, organize, direct and control. When the rubber met the road and he was at last called upon to actually run the city, Field found himself out of his depth and element.
Moreover, Field, despite having risen to the heights of the government establishment in Riverside County through his brother’s connection to Tavaglione, demonstrated himself as shockingly slow on the uptake when it came to reading the political lay of the land in San Bernardino. This in part was the result of his having been in large measure recruited by Valdivia and then being originally oriented to the community by the mayor. What Field failed to recognize until it was far too late was that Valdivia’s political hold on and heyday in San Bernardino had elapsed prior to Field arriving in the city. Though Valdivia’s November 2018 election and installment as mayor the following month had put him into San Bernardino’s catbird seat, as he had what appeared to be the solid backing of two-thirds of the six-sevenths strength council as it was then composed, he would see that position erode rapidly over time. Upon his swearing in, Valdivia could count upon the support of just-elected First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez and just-elected Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra as well as previously established Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard, with whom he had developed while in his role as Third Ward Councilman alliances. At that point, Valdivia’s only rivals on the council were Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh District Councilman Jim Mulvihill. For the balance of his first five months as mayor, Valdivia thus had a 4-to-2 wall of support among the council. In May 2019, when his ally Juan Figueroa defeated Treasure Ortiz in the special election to fill the Third Ward post that Valdivia had to resign from in December 2018 to take up the mayor’s gavel, he had a 5-to-2 majority ruling coalition on the council, which made him a practically irresistible political force in the county seat.
Nevertheless, by the summer of 2019, it was as if the ground beneath Valdivia’s feet began to slip and slide. First, there were indications of differences and disagreement between the mayor and Nickel, quickly followed by a parting between Valdivia and Ibarra. By October, there was indication that Sanchez was out of sync with the mayor. Valdivia, having made multiple commitments to his supporters and those who had bankrolled his mayoral campaign that he would deliver council votes to approve their projects or ensure their companies would be awarded contracts or franchises with the city, found himself unable to deliver on many of his promises.
There followed a series of revelations that brought Valdivia into disrepute. Cannabis entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork, regaling newspaper reporters and the public with the way, in exchange for cash, he had promised commercial marijuana operation licenses and permits to those who had applied for them. Whereas he had taken for granted that Ledoux had his back and would automatically process any requests he made at City Hall, her finely attuned political radar kept her immediately – by the hour and sometimes by the minute – apprised of what the attitudes on the council and throughout City Hall with regard to the mayor’s latest demands and proposals were. When the prevailing sentiment was unfavorable to Valdivia, particularly when what he was asking for looked like an ethically questionable or potentially illegal ploy to assist one of his political patrons, Ledoux either dragged her feet or simply said, “No.” This made Valdivia’s blood boil and, ill-advisedly, he lashed out, making gratuitous and counterproductive attacks upon Ledoux and other members of city staff. Included in those Valdivia attacked were City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, who up until that time had endeavored to remain on good terms with him.
Behind the scenes, things were getting ugly at City Hall. The city’s human resources director, Helen Tran, resigned from her post and went to work for the City of West Covina.
By December of 2019, the only votes of support on the council Valdivia could consistently rely on were those of Figueroa and Richard.
When it rains, it pours. In January of 2020, an employee in his office, Mirna Cisneros, went public with how he had made sexual advances to her and misused city funds to engage in travel and activity that had nothing to do with city business and he was taking money from those with business before the city; another employee of the mayor’s office, Karen Cervantes, related how the mayor had made sexual advances toward her; his field representative, Jackie Aboud, likewise said Valdivia had pressured her to accommodate his sexual needs; Alissa Payne, a single mother whom Valdivia appointed to two city commissions, said Valdivia had made similar indecent overtures to her; Valdivia’s field representative Don Smith related how he had been present while Valdivia made a late night rendezvous with a city tow service franchise holder who handed Valdivia an envelope stuffed with cash; Valdivia’s chief of staff, Matt Brown, came forward to say that Valdivia attempted to have him make fraudulent unfavorable work reviews of Cisneros, Cervantes, Aboud and Smith to justify their firings and discredit them with regard to the allegations they had made.
Based on a host of Valdivia’s actions, the city found itself facing nearly a dozen lawsuits.
At that point, the 2020 electoral season was in full swing. In the March primary election, Valdivia’s ally, Juan Figueroa, was reelected. His other remaining faithful ally, Bessine Richard, was defeated by her challenger, Kimberly Calvin. On the same day, Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill in a five contestant-race, and Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel, in a six contestant-race, placed, respectively, second and first against Damon Alexander and Ben Reynoso in their contests. Ultimately, in November, Alexander and Reynoso prevailed. Though Valdivia had hopes of befriending Alexander and converting him to an ally, that did not occur once the installation of the new council took place. Additionally, any thought that Valdivia entertained of striking up common political ground with Reynoso failed, as it turned out that Reynoso was even more hostile toward the mayor than Nickel had been.
It was in September 2020, two months before the November 2020 general election in which Mulvihill and Nickel were turned out of office and three months before the December 2020 formation of the new council that included Alexander, Calvin and Reynoso, that the council and Valdivia had hired Field on a 6-to-2 vote, with council members Ibarra and Nickel dissenting.
Ibarra’s objection appeared to be based upon the $285,000 in salary and $356,000 total compensation delineated in Field’s contract.
Nickel’s rationale for not supporting Field’s appointment to the city manager’s position was more opaque. Nickel indicated that he was going to “respectfully vote against” hiring Field.
At the time, no one explained to Field the level of tension that existed between, on one side, the mayor, and on the other, Mulvihill, Nickel, Shorett, Ibarra and Sanchez. Based upon Valdivia having actively recruited him and pushed for his hiring followed by the endorsement of him as city manager by five of the council’s seven members, Field assumed there was a cordial working relationship between the mayor and the council. He failed to fully reckon with the divided house he had entered into, and he did not understand the degree to which his efforts to assist Valdivia in pleasing the multitude of campaign donors who had invested in the mayor’s political career was not appreciated by Mulvihill, Nickel, Shorett, Ibarra and Sanchez. After the November elections of Reynoso and Alexander and the December inaugural in which Nickel, Richard and Mulvihill were supplanted by Reynoso, Calvin and Alexander, the somewhat politically tone deaf Field failed to perceive, first, the slight tinge of resentment the three newcomers had over Valdivia and the previous council saddling them with Field less than three months before they came into office in a way by which they had no say in who was to manage the city they were now heading and, second, the manner in which Field assumed that Valdivia was the unquestioned leader of San Bernardino and seemed intent on pleasing him by facilitating virtually everything he asked for. For Alexander, a retired federal law enforcement agent who was used to functioning in a governmental environment in which everyone worked as part of the team toward an either loosely agreed upon or an explicitly delineated goal, this was less of a concern than it was with Reynoso and Calvin, two community activists who were at least as sensitive to the needs and perceptions of the community’s outsiders as they were to those who were part of the city government inner sanctum. When they saw the rather fawning attitude that Field, who was yet grateful to Valdivia for having recruited him into the city manager’s post, evinced toward the mayor and how he seemed to be constantly engaged in what they perceived as working hard to accommodate or outright suck up to Valdivia, they grew angry, particularly Calvin.
Throughout the first six months of 2021, Field, inexplicably – given that he was witness to what was going on behind the scenes and present during virtually all of the closed sessions of the city council except those where his own performance was being discussed – failed to read the divide in the city council that pitted, unmistakably, Valdivia and Figueroa against Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Reynoso, Calvin and Alexander.
Field and city staff, based upon prompting from the mayor and city council, were looking toward the eventual makeover of the long-shuttered Carousel Mall in downtown San Bernardino. Word surfaced that Valdivia was pushing, from behind the scenes, for the city to entrust the mall redevelopment project to a Chinese-based company, SCG America, which was conveying money to Valdivia. Both Calvin and Reynoso expressed concern that Valdivia was acting improperly in promoting SCG America against other companies that had expressed an interest in the mall property, and that Field was assisting him by granting SCG America an inside track on a proposal to demolish the mall structures in preparation toward the transition of property into a mixed use retail/residential project. Calvin and Reynoso interpreted that, as did many of the city’s residents, as a clear indication that Valdivia was on the take, that Field knew Valdivia was on the take and that Field was knowingly and directly participating in the quid pro quo arrangements the mayor was involved in.
The epiphany that ultimately brought Field to full consciousness of how Valdivia was perceived by a substantial cross section of the community came in June 2021 when Valdivia utilized a host of city facilities and assets to stage what he billed as the “State of the City Address,” a barely disguised effort to promote himself. Ostensibly laid out as a city event, Valdivia completely gave away that it was a fundraising event to fatten his political war chest by creating an invitation list that consisted of his past donors, whom he referred to as San Benardino’s “movers and shakers,” along with a handful of his political associates, including Figueroa. He excluded the remaining six council members from the guest list.
The council called upon Field and the city’s top administration to look into what had occurred and seek to determine if Valdivia had violated both the law and city policy by utilizing public funds for political purposes.
Ultimately, city staff went through the various expenditures the city made in support of the address, providing that documentation to an attorney, Norma García Guillén. García Guillén thereafter had staff compile further documentation relating to Valdivia’s expenditures of public funds that were used for a hotel stay and meal in San Diego on September 20-22, 2019; a hotel stay in Irvine on September 10-11, 2020; a hotel stay and meal in Irvine on March 8-9, 2021; a hotel stay in Irvine on March 18-19, 2021; meals in Nevada on March 22-23, 2021; a meal in Newport Beach on March 23, 2021; and a meal and hotel stay in Irvine on April 13-14, 2021, all of which García Guillén said had nothing to do with city-related business and provided the basis for censuring Valdivia. García Guillén presented the case for Valdivia’s censure to the city council during a special meeting held on December 1, 2021. In response to García Guillén’s presentation, Valdivia’s attorney, Rod Pacheco, offered a defense, which the city council ultimately rejected when it voted to censure Valdivia.
In the preparation of that censure effort, the degree to which Valdivia was out of favor with the city council at last dawned on Field. His support of Valdivia became more tepid after that, but the damage to his relationship with several members of the council had been done by that point.
In June, Valdivia ran for reelection against six other candidates, including former Human Resources Director Helen Tran, former City Attorney James Penman, former Councilman Henry Nickel and government reform activist Treasure Ortiz. He ran in third place, with Tran and Penman qualifying for the November 8 run-off. Ultimately, Tran was elected to serve as mayor beginning later this month for a term running until December 2026.
On December 7, Valdivia, in what may be one of his most significant last acts as mayor before he leaves office later this month, announced that in closed session that evening the city council accepted Field’s resignation.
Things had been building toward Field’s exit for some time. For the majority of the council, most of the major things facing the city under Fields watch had taken care of themselves. It was an accumulation of smaller items that had been allowed to fester that led to the conclusion that he was not the best fit for the city. One of the things that tripped him up was that he had never before served in the role of a city manager. In his Riverside County assignments, there had always been a higher ranking staff member – essentially chief executive officers Bill Luna and Jay Orr – who had served as a buffer between him and the elected officials there, the members of the board of supervisors. In San Bernardino, Field found himself answerable directly to the mayor and city council, having to function in an assignment where he had to please his political masters, interact with them directly and bear the brunt of their displeasure when he or the staff he headed were unable to meet their requests or demands. This was exacerbated by the consideration that at San Bernardino City Hall generally and among the council particularly, both before and after the 2020 election, there was a good degree of chaos, a situation in which there was no agreement on what the council’s role is and what the city manager’s role should be. Compounding that was his having to deal with Valdivia’s efforts at micromanagement. After February 2021, the more he sought to placate Valdivia, the angrier Calvin became. For the last year-and-a-half, Field was spending nearly 20 percent of his time seeking to ameliorate Calvin. When he did so successfully, they managed to peacefully coexist. When he fell short, Field’s life was, in the words of a well-placed source at City Hall, “a literal living hell.” Valdivia could be very demanding. Calvin had come to consider virtually every priority that the mayor was pursuing to be illegitimate. Without the explicit endorsement of the council, Calvin believed, Valdivia had no authority to issue orders to city staff. Field carrying out, or attempting to carry out, Valdivia’s agenda, infuriated Calvin. Thus, Field for some time found himself vacillating between Valdivia’s demands and the expectations of the remainder of the council. When Calvin learned that Field was hiding from her and the council action he was taking on behalf of Valdivia, Calvin became angrier still. Indeed, Valdivia emerged as a major unifying factor for the council, as opposing him more than any other single issue put Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Reynoso, Calvin and and Alexander on the same page. Over the last year or so, Field had come to realize that it was virtually impossible to please both camps – one consisting of Valdivia and Figueroa and the other composed of of Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Reynoso, Calvin and Alexander – simultaneously, and he came to understand that having kowtowed to Valdivia for the first year he was city manager had been a major mistake. The formula that Field at last had adopted to maintain his sanity was to meet the expectations of Sanchez, Ibarra, Shorett, Reynoso, Calvin and Alexander as best he could and simply live with Valdivia’s contempt.
Despite that, Calvin never got over her discomfiture with Field’s indulgence of Valdivia during the first 15 or 16 months of the time he had been city manager.
With Tran’s election and her pending installation as mayor just around the corner, the time for Field to leave was propitious. Rather than comply with Calvin’s wish that the council terminate him with cause – the cause being that he had abated Valdivia in a good number of his depredations – cooler heads on the council prevailed and an arrangement was arrived at by which Field tendered his resignation and the council accepted it. Field is to receive a generous severance allotment, but city officials were not able to delineate whether that was to entail 100 percent, 75 percent or 50 percent of his current annual salary of $406,850.
“As this is a personnel issue, I am not at liberty to say much,” Councilman Damon Alexander told the Sentinel. “I can say that the decision that he would leave was one that was mutually arrived at between Rob and the city council. I can speak only for myself, but from my perspective, I must say Rob was effective in guiding our city the entire time I have been here. He did a good job of hiring our department directors. Unless I am forgetting someone, he was the one who hired all of our current directors, and I believe he assembled a good team. I can also tell you that he did a good job in giving the city an operational structure, in trying to create policies for the city where we were lacking in policy and structure previously.”