McNeely To Reprise His Role As San Bernardino City Manager

Former San Bernardino City Manager Charles McNeely will reprise his role as the county seat’s top administrator, more than a decade after he resigned as the city was plunging toward its 2012 bankruptcy.
McNeely, who had previously been the city manager of Reno, Nevada, was recruited by San Bernardino as city manager in 2009. From the onset, McNeely’s time in San Bernardino was made difficult by steep financial challenges, ones that had been touched off a decade-and-a-half previously by the Department of Defense’s 1994 closure of Norton Air Force Base. In the intervening time, the local economy had contracted, such that throughout the first decade of the Third Millennium San Bernardino was engaging in deficit spending with each annual budget, depleting the reserves the municipality had built up over the course of nearly a century. A major issue for the city was the exorbitant costs to the city from past concessions to the city’s employees’ unions. In particular, salaries and benefits paid to the city’s public safety personnel – firefighters and police officers – stood at roughly 79 percent of the city’s budget. Total personnel costs ran to more than 92 percent of the budget, leaving just over 7 percent of the city’s available means for capital improvements and maintaining aging infrastructure in the 62.45-square mile city. This was exacerbated by the downturn in the U.S., California and local economy that lingered for more than six years and was dubbed the “Great Recession.”
Then-San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris, a former Superior Court Judge and before that a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office, had reached the conclusion that the city could not sustain the burden of providing constant salary and benefit increases to the city’s work force. He had assembled a bare 4-to-3 city council majority willing to resist pressure being brought upon the city to provide constant/nearly yearly salary increases to city employees.
In 2011, the effort to pull San Bernardino back from the financial abyss it was teetering over was shattered when John Valdivia, who represented himself as a fiscal conservative, managed to defeat Third Ward Councilman Tobin Brinker in that year’s municipal election. Brinker was a key Morris ally in the effort to control city employee salaries. In fact, Valdivia had been elected with heavy support from the police officers’ and firefighters’ unions based upon his commitment to them that he would work to undo the employee pay freezes put in place by the Morris coalition. Upon assuming office in the Spring of 2012, Valdivia declared there was no financial shortfall at City Hall. His presence on the city’s decision-making panel cleared the way for the police and fire unions to demand and receive the wage and benefit increases that Morris’s effort at fiscal austerity had been denying them. By April 2012, the writing was on the wall and McNeely, not wishing to be at the helm when San Bernardino declared bankruptcy, resigned effective May 1, 2012. In August of that year, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.
It is perhaps significant that McNeely is returning to San Bernardino less than two months after Valdivia, who was elected mayor in 2018, left office after he was set aside by the voters in his bid for reelection last year. Valdivia was replaced by Helen Tran, a city resident who was a city employee under McNeely before she rose to become the city’s human resources director and then departed in 2019 to become human resources director in the City of West Covina after Valdivia in his capacity as mayor involved himself in a series of disputes with approaching two dozen city employees, resulting in resignations and firings that have yet to fully untangle themselves, involving at least six still-unsettled lawsuits against the city in which inappropriate treatment of employees or wrongful termination is alleged.
Tran was favorably impressed by McNeely during the time she worked as an employee of the city while he was running municipal operations.
The city that McNeely is returning to has undergone some degree of change. It is no longer a full-service city as it was when he left. Of note is that the municipal fire department, in no small measure because Valdivia’s arrival on the council resulted in pay and benefit increases for firefighters the city could ill-afford, was dissolved in 2015 in favor of the county fire department providing fire protection service to the city. Likewise, the city’s sanitation division was closed out that same year and the city now has a franchise trash hauler. In June 2017, the city emerged from bankruptcy after nearly five years.
The city still has unresolved financial issues.
The city council entered into a contract with McNeely to serve as city manager for six months or until a replacement for outgoing City Manager Robert Field is found. Field was the sixth city manager employed by San Bernardino since McNeely left, including Andrea Travis-Miller who held that interim position for ten months after McNeely’s departure in 2012 and oversaw the city during its bankruptcy filing and returned to serve as city manager in 2018, and was ultimately terminated by the Valdivia-controlled city council in 2019.
The seven-member city council’s vote to bring McNeely back was done in a closed session and was unanimous, including the eighth vote by Tran, who on most issues has no vote, but is empowered to participate in votes pertaining to hiring the city manager and city attorney.
McNeely was the first and yet the only African American city manager in San Bernardino history.
According to the city, McNeely was considered along with 24 other candidates to fulfill the interim management post. He is being provided with a flat rate pay of $137 an hour. Under the terms of his status as a retiree within the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, he is eligible to work 960 hours per fiscal year, running from July 1 to June 30. Given that he is beginning after the mid-point of the current fiscal year, he will be able to remain as city manager from July 1 until December 31 if the need arises because the city cannot find a replacement for the full-fledged city manager position by then.

Leave a Reply