By Mark Gutglueck
Leonard Hernandez, whose tenure as San Bernardino County’s chief executive officer started out with so much promise, at least for him, has lost considerable traction in recent months as he has fallen victim to his own vaunting ambition and the ruthless formula he had previously so successfully utilized in seeking to fulfill it.
As little as a year ago, the smart money was that Hernandez, who was selected in September 2020 and officially hired the following month to replace Gary McBride, his predecessor as the county’s chief executive officer, was on a trajectory to last another decade-and-a-half in the county’s top staff position.
In recent months, however, he and the county have encountered some rough sledding that is threatening to dislodge him from the pinnacle of government in the nation’s largest geographical county outside of Alaska.San Bernardino County, more than most of its 57 counterparts throughout the Golden State, has had unfortunate experiences with several of its top administrators.
Two of them, Harry Mays and his protégé James Hlawek, ended up in prison after the exposure of bribetaking schemes they hatched to enrich themselves by committing the county to contracts with vendors and service providers which cost taxpayers millions of dollars more than would have been the case if those contracts had been honestly bid upon rather than going to companies whose corporate officers were willing to pay to grease the way for their companies to profit.
Another, Robert Covington, brought himself and the county into disrepute when he bootlegged 22 lots on 80 acres in a dry lake in Apple Valley under his mother’s name, selling them at an inflated cost to unsuspecting buyers intent on building homes there.
In some other cases, the board of supervisors hired individuals to lead the county whose suitability for the posts fell under question after it was learned that they did not possess the skills their political masters had imputed to them. In a handful of others, personality differences with those elected officials who put them into their managerial positions manifested.
Hernandez, who is now 42, has spent close to 24 years employed in government, although initially he worked in an arena in which his migration into a senior management position seemed highly unlikely. Eight years ago, however, he began a meteoric rise that culminated in his becoming not only one of the youngest senior administrators in county history but also one of the most feared. His presence still carries with it that specter of intimidation, though it now turns out that he might have sliced himself with the sword he wielded so powerfully to cut others off at the knees.
In 1998, the then-20-year-old Hernandez obtained a part-time job as a library assistant at the Chino Branch Library while he was attending Cal State Fullerton while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history. Upon graduating from college, he obtained a full-time position at the James S. Thalman Chino Hills Branch Library, where he worked for four years. It was there that he discovered what he at that time figured was his calling, being a librarian.
He enrolled at Pennsylvania’s Clarion University, which offered an online learning program by which he was able to earn his Master of Science degree in library science. He immediately parlayed that into a promotion within the San Bernardino County Library System, becoming the manager of the Fontana Branch Library.
In 2008, when a position as the director of libraries with City of Riverside opened up, he jumped at the chance.
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 northwest Washington, but ultimately declined the offer after learning that San Bernardino County Librarian Ed Kieczykowski was leaning toward retirement. At that point, he returned to San Bernardino County as the county’s assistant librarian. In 2011, upon Kieczykowski’s departure, Hernandez moved into the position of San Bernardino County librarian. In 2013, he was offered, while he was simultaneously serving in the librarian post, a secondary position as the director of the San Bernardino County Museum.
In 2015, while Greg Devereaux was the county’s chief executive officer, Hernandez was promoted 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.
Devereaux was arguably the most dynamic top county administrator in San Bernardino County history. A transplanted West Virginian who had been that state’s minister/director of culture overseeing the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, which operated the West Virginia State Museum, the West Virginia Independence Hall, Camp Washington-Carver, the Grave Creek Archaeological Complex and the West Virginia State Museum Educational Foundation, Devereaux came to California for the opportunity it offered more than 35 years ago. After working in Orange County, he came to San Bernardino County first as the director of housing and economic development in Fontana. Three years later, he was hired as the city manager there.
After a three-year stint in that position in which he was credited with arresting and then reversing what had looked to be the former steel town’s steady progression toward bankruptcy, he was offered the city manager’s position in Ontario in 1997. He served in that role for more than twelve years, during which time the city made progress by leaps and bounds, with the success of the Ontario Mills mall, the steady expansion of Ontario International Airport and Devereaux’s shrewd and savvy courting of a number of corporations features of his tenure there. By persuading major-scale companies to set up their corporate headquarters in Ontario, the city reaped the benefit of becoming the “point of sale” for those companies’ business activity and sales throughout California, which made Ontario the recipient of the sales tax paid by those companies’ customers. By 2010, Ontario was the wealthiest of the 24 municipalities in San Bernardino County, with more than two-thirds of a billion dollars running through all of its municipal accounts, more than double that of its closest competitor, Rancho Cucamonga.
In 2010, former Ontario Mayor Gary Ovitt was serving as both Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor and board chairman, and he persuaded his board colleagues to hire Devereaux as the county’s top administrator when the board grew disenchanted with Mark Uffer, the one-time director of the county hospital who had been serving for more than five years in the capacity of what was then titled the county administrative officer. Devereaux agreed to leave Ontario and come aboard with the county, but only after he negotiated a substantially higher salary than what he was being paid in Ontario and what the county was paying Uffer, along with a so-called “super bonus,” which consisted of an up-until-that-point nonexistent margin of job security for the person holding the position consisting of a contractual assurance that he could not be terminated on a simple 3-to-2 majority vote of the board of supervisors and could be fired only upon a vote of at least 4-to-1 to end his status as the county’s top dog. In addition, the county changed the title of the position that he held from that of “county administrative officer” as had been the case with Uffer and those who headed the county previously to the job description of “county chief executive officer.”
Written into Devereaux’s contract as well were provisions that gave him a greater degree of authority than had been the case with his predecessors, such that it was put in writing and cast in cement that he was to be answerable only to the board of supervisors as a whole such that no single member of the board or no two members of the board had the authority to direct policy or order action and he was to be given his orders from the board in action taken publicly during an agendized meeting of the board which was imposed by a vote of no fewer than three of the board’s members. He was thus given full authority – or near full authority – to operate the county and execute policy approved by the board majority in a way he deemed best and most efficient, subject only to the limitations of the policy dictates of the collective board. He was given a guaranteed ten-year contract that called for him being switched into a management consultant position if his status as chief executive officer were to be terminated at any time during that decade.
For more than four years, despite the consideration that he had come to his position with the county in the midst of the severe economic downturn that had begun with the contraction of the national, state and local economy in late 2007 and which persisted for six years to become identified as the “great recession,” Devereaux remained in his element as he guided the county with aplomb, even as tax revenues and funding for governments of all sizes shrank, necessitating layoffs and severe belt-tightening among local governments in particular, but which the county for the most part evaded by his ability to wring concessions from the county employees’ collective bargaining units despite existing contracts. It appeared that Devereaux would serve out the ten years on his contract and, after the county, state and local economy snapped out of the funk that had engulfed them for more than five years, his contract would be renewed and he, the supervisors, the county and the world at large would have an opportunity to see how he would perform in a fully functional financial environment.
In 2014, however, Curt Hagman, who had been a councilman and mayor in Chino Hills in the early and mid 2000s and then was elected to the California Assembly in 2008, was about to be termed out of his station in the state legislature after three two-year terms as a consequence of the term limits that were then in effect. An A-type personality, Hagman in 2013 had deposed Robert Rego as the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee chairman after Rego had reestablished the central committee as a formidable political fundraising machine. Hagman then used his control of the local GOP electioneering apparatus to intimidate Gary Ovitt, a fellow Republican, out of seeking reelection as the Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor representing Carbon Canyon, Los Serranos, Chino Hills, Chino, West End, Montclair and Ontario, Guasti and lower Upland. Hagman ran as the primary Republican candidate for the Fourth District supervisorial post in 2014, emerging victorious after he and his political associate, West Covina Mayor Mike Spence, who was also Hagman’s campaign manager and chief of staff as assemblyman and later as supervisor, were able to use Hagman’s status as an assemblyman and chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee to raise enough money to outhustle and outcampaign Gloria Negrete-McLeod, who was then a Democratic Congresswoman who also vied for supervisor, despite a decided Democratic Party advantage over Republicans in the Fourth District.
Hagman came into county office with an aggressive attitude in December 2014 after spending six years as a Republican Assemblyman in Democratic-dominated Sacramento. In San Bernardino, where at that time three of the members of the five-member board of supervisors were Republicans, Hagman instantaneously transition from being a little Republican fish in the big Democratic pond of the state’s capital to being a huge Republican fish in the medium sized Republican pond of the county seat. He was instantaneously in virtual control of the board of supervisors and the only obstacle to his being in control of the county was Devereaux. With the assistance of the very-able Spence, Hagman went to work on massaging the three-fifths Republican-controlled board of supervisors in an effort to establish himself as the undisputed ruler of San Bernardino County. That assignment was complicated by the consideration that he needed not three but four votes to force Devereaux out of his chief executive officer position. Devereaux remained in place through all of 2015, but by mid-2016, Hagman had made considerable headway, such that in January 2017 a deal was brokered by which Devereaux left as CEO, taking on a management consulting role.
Dena Smith had been the clerk of the board of supervisors for many years before Devereaux had entrusted her with the post of deputy chief executive officer in 2011. As Devereaux’s deputy, Smith’s major assignment had been running the county’s land use services department. In 2016, Devereaux appointed her to the chief operating officer post. Upon Hagman effectuating Devereaux’s removal as chief executive officer, Smith was installed as his interim replacement.
One of Devereaux’s last accomplishments as chief executive officer had been to confer upon Hernandez the interim chief operating officer’s assignment to replace Smith in 2017.
Hagman was a more forceful personality than virtually everyone in the county, including all of those on the fifth floor of the county administrative headquarters at 385 North Arrowhead Avenue in downtown San Bernardino, which housed the chief executive officer’s quarters and those of the supervisors.
Smith was no match for Hagman in terms of preventing him from dominating the board and having them form a consensus in keeping with his goals, but she nevertheless represented a vestige of Devereaux’s presence in the county. Hernandez, who was a dozen years younger than Hagman, was, despite having initially advanced under Devereaux, on good terms with the supervisor, and lived in Chino in the heart of the Fourth District. Hagman recognized Hernandez as someone on the way up and he saw to it that Hernandez, later in 2017, was elevated to the position of the full-fledged county chief operating officer, which extended Hagman’s control over the levers of governance in the county.
Time went by, and ultimately, in October 2017, the board selected Gary McBride, the county’s chief financial officer, for promotion as Devereaux’s ultimate replacement. That fit perfectly with Hagman’s goals.
McBride was a devoted, accomplished and typical chief financial officer, one who was far more comfortable working with numbers than people, someone who routinely remained at his desk for three-and-a-half hours in the morning going over spreadsheets on his computer and repeating that in the afternoon, interacting with other employees only when necessary and when the job demanded it. After making the transition to chief executive officer, McBride’s routine made a minimal change, extending insofar as his having some brief interaction with the members of the board of supervisors when they came into the county administrative building once or twice a week and on the two Tuesdays each month when the board held its meetings. Generally, he remained in his office, as often as not with the door closed. He delegated much of his interaction with staff to Hernandez.
Such an arrangement was more than suitable to Hagman. Whereas Devereaux insisted that following an official vote by the board of supervisors, official action in the county was to work its way through him, such that he relayed instructions with regard to the board’s policy to the chief operating officer, who in turn would give instructions to the department heads to actuate the policy, McBride had in large measure opted out of that process. That left Hagman free to approach Hernandez directly and instruct him to carry out not only what the board as a whole had voted upon but to put into play whatever it was that Hagman on his own wanted to see accomplished. Hernandez, looking to get ahead and recognizing that Hagman was the de facto leader of the board and the county, goose-stepped into action in accordance with whatever Hagman’s orders happened to be.
The affable and easygoing McBride was uncomfortable with being confrontational with county staff and department heads, and was thus attitudinally and psychologically incapable of carrying out firings. Hernandez proved more than willing to act as McBride’s hatchet man, seeming to relish such assignments, and 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 and closing the door behind him, at which point he was known to 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.
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 had decided his time was past.
Indeed, that is precisely what occurred in September 2020. Window dressing was applied, as the county made use of the then-ongoing COVID pandemic to announce that McBride was being reassigned, without any decrease in his $373,833.78 salary, $95,934.21 in pay add-ons and perquisites along with his $209,608.03 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $679,376.02. The ever-agreeable McBride went along with the deal.
When Hernandez made the transition from chief operating officer to chief executive officer, Luther Snoke, one of the county’s deputy executive officers, was promoted into the position of chief operating officer to replace Hernandez.
For more than a year-and-a-half, the tandem of Hernandez and Snoke appeared to be an unstoppable, dual-headed juggernaut that would overcome everything in its path, clearing a way through the county bureaucracy for Hagman and the rest of the board of supervisors, making virtually whatever the county’s political leadership wanted to accomplish doable, come hell, highwater, low water or pandemic.
A first major test came when the county’s voters in November 2020, barely a month after Hernandez was in place as chief executive officer, passed by a supermajority – 516,184 votes or 66.84 percent to 256,098 or 33.16 percent – Measure K, which mandated the five supervisors be deemed part-time legislators, such that each was to see his or her total annual compensation, which ranged, depending on the number of their familial dependents covered under their benefit plans, from $242,941.27 to $280,905.92 annually, reduced to $60,000. Hernandez huddled with then-County Counsel Michelle Blakemore, the county’s top in-house attorney, and formulated a plan to prevent the supervisors’ pay reduction from taking place. They proposed having the county retain three attorneys – Bradley Hertz, James Sutton and Nicholas Sanders of the Los Angeles-based Sutton Law Firm – and then authorizing them to sue the supervisors’ own immediate employee, Lynna Monell, the clerk of the board of supervisors of San Bernardino County, in a legal petition to keep her from implementing Measure K. The board complied with that proposal, authorizing the lawsuit, and further acceded to the strategy of pursuing the matter in San Bernardino Superior Court wherein the matter could be kept in front of a judge known to be sympathetic to the county’s governmental hierarchy rather than removing it to another county where there would be less prospect of political, administrative or financial pressure being brought to bear on the adjudicative process. Simultaneously, at Hernandez’s urging, Blakemore, who as county counsel was supposed to make a spirited defense of Monell’s right and obligation to effectuate the directives inherent in Measure K, forewent making any defense of the initiative or assertion of Monell’s duty to enforce its provisions.
The filing of the lawsuit put Measure K into abeyance while it was subject to legal challenge, preventing the salary reductions from going into effect until such time as the matter was adjudicated.
The matter was maneuvered into the courtroom of San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez, who was known to county officials to be beholden to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for having accorded him the courtesy of being escorted home on occasions when he had too much to drink before getting behind the wheel of his car. Judge Alvarez made a finding invalidating the entirety of Measure K on the grounds that its secondary provision limiting supervisors to a single four-year term was unconstitutional and that the term limitation element of the measure was not separable from its salary and benefit reductions. This, Judge Alvarez ruled, rendered Measure K unenforceable.
Ultimately, the sponsor of Measure K, the government reform advocacy coalition known as the Red Brennan Group, appealed Alvarez’s finding and obtained a tentative ruling reversing his invalidation of the measure. But the Hernandez/Blakemore legal ploy bought the board of supervisors two years of time, during which the county government placed on the November 2022 ballot what it represented as its own government reform initiative, Measure D, which restored each individual supervisor’s total annual compensation to roughly $255,000 to $275,000 while imposing on the supervisors term limits of three four-year terms, essentially equivalent to what had been the wage-scale and number-of-years-in-office rules that had been in place before Measure K’s passage. Measure D passed by a margin of 241,894 votes or 58.22 percent to 173,582 votes or 41.78 percent.
In hatching a plan to prevent Measure K and the county’s government reform advocates from reducing the supervisors to a financial status coequal to the average county resident, Hernandez vindicated the faith the board had placed in him.
Similarly, there were a number of other adjustments of the county’s policy in the early rounds of Hernandez’s tenure as the county’s chief executive officer. Somewhat disturbing, however, was that just as his effectiveness as the county’s chief operating officer under McBride had been dependent upon his ruthless willingness to exercise his authority, his reach as chief executive officer was in equal measure contingent upon intimidation and fear. His stock had risen while he was in the capacity of chief operating officer because of a symbiotic exchange with the board: he was willing to do what neither McBride nor most previous chief executive officers would allow, which was to let the board of supervisors have their way or put into play the action they wanted taken without having to hold a public vote ratifying the policy they were embarking upon. In return, his own power grew. What the board members, in particular Hagman, wanted, Hernandez wanted and therefore achieved for them. Under this arrangement, the county’s department heads had a simple choice: either do what Hernandez ordered them to do, whether what he was asking of them was kosher or not, or risk being fired. When he made the transition to chief executive officer, he continued to apply that formula.
About a year-and-a-half into his time as the chief executive, however, the county structure was beginning to feel the toll of the way he had been operating.
One element of the problem Hernandez is now having stems from his own limitations. Virtually his entire work history consists of being a government employee. Additionally, the breadth of his experience as a government employee is somewhat confined. Prior to becoming a deputy executive officer, he was a librarian. For a relatively short time he had overseen the county museum, as well. To be sure, libraries and museums are important cultural entities that have their place in the lives of many county residents. Still, most citizens and government employees understand those departments to have different levels of significance, priority, intensivity, controversy, invasivity, authority and urgency than many other departments. Moreover, the county’s libraries and its museum involve a far less substantial outlay of public funds than is the case with several other departments. Upon becoming chief operating officer, Hernandez knew very little about public works and engineering; the county hospital; land use services; the county health department; behavioral health; the department of human services formerly known as social services or the welfare department; the building department; real estate services, not to mention the departments that function under the authority of county elected officials other than the board of supervisors.
When Hernandez more than five year into Devereaux’s time as chief executive officer demonstrated himself as a bright department head worthy of promotion and was accordingly plucked by Devereaux to move into a deputy executive officer assignment, an opportunity presented itself to allow him to remain in that capacity as Devereaux’s understudy for another five to ten years so that he might familiarize himself with the nuts and bolts of a wide variety of the county’s departments and divisions either in depth or at least in a fashion that was not superficial, which would have rendered him into a seasoned county administrator who might eventually take the helm himself. An extensive period under Devereaux’s guidance likely would have given him an understanding of how the various county departments are purposed to articulate into an overarchingly cohesive operation.
But Devereaux lasted less than two years as chief executive officer after Hernandez came into the county administrative suite, at which point Hernandez found himself thrust into the post of chief operating officer. His response to this was to use his primary asset – his utter ruthlessness – to serve his political masters, to threaten department heads with termination if they didn’t do exactly what he told them to do, regardless of whether what he was ordering them to do was in accordance with standards or agreed upon best practices, wise, sustainable or justifiable in the long run. If those department heads did not do as they were told, if they refused to beat on the round peg placed before them long enough and hard enough and from as many angles as it might take to fit it into a square hole, they were soon out of a job. Hernandez established his reputation as someone who got results, someone who not only succeeded in getting square pegs into square holes and round pegs into round holes but getting round pegs into square holes and square pegs into round pegs if that was what was called for.
In his capacity as both the county’s chief operating officer and as its chief executive officer, Hernandez encountered employees who resisted, or refused to follow, his orders or instructions. Virtually all of those employees are now gone. In his role as chief executive officer, Hernandez values loyalty above competence. Under Hernandez, a department head who salutes and carries out his or her marching orders, realistic or unrealistic, is highly valued. One who takes it upon him or herself to attempt to explain why the goal or timetable that Hernandez has outlined is either unachievable or fraught with complication that may result in problematic results is deemed an obstructionist. A direct consequence of this is that at present, roughly half of the county’s departments/divisions have interim department heads, individuals who have been temporarily promoted into their department’s top spot because the department leader quit, was fired or was forced out.
While Hernandez still draws kudos from some for being a can do guy who gets things done, others lament that county government has come to exist as a spectacle in which someone who doesn’t know what he is doing is telling department heads, many of whom are not fully qualified to hold the positions they occupy and have not mastered all aspects of the function they are overseeing, what to do and how to do it.
The inadequacy, potential liability and actual liability of this circumstance is beginning to dawn on some of the members of the board of supervisors.
A case in point is that of Terry Rahhal, who previously oversaw the county’s land use services department. Experienced and respected, Rahhal had worked her way to the top of her profession as a planner with impeccable credentials and an impressive comprehension of all forms of development, including residential, commercial and industrial in both urban, suburban and rural settings. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the standards applied to the infrastructure that must accompany development in whatever context it is to occur and embodied a complete mastery of the California Environmental Quality Act and its multiple methods or options of providing a project with environmental certification, running the gauntlet from a full-blown environmental impact report to a slightly less comprehensive environmental impact statement and further down the scale of impact evaluation to an environmental assessment to an environmental examination to a mitigated negative declaration to a negative declaration.
When Rahhal insisted on running her department by the book, she rubbed Hernandez the wrong way, resulting in him not firing her, per se, but forcing her out as land use services director by allowing her to resign/retire. Absent her direction, the department has fallen into a state of disarray in which uncertainty and a lack of prompt follow-through has untracked projects, left other projects’ permits unprocessed or undertakings delayed.
Hagman, whose backing of Hernandez was key to his advancement into the post of the county’s chief executive officer, experienced this chaos firsthand. Long a resident of Chino Hills where a decade-and-a-half ago he was mayor, Hagman a while back purchased what some have said is his “dream house” in the unincorporated county area outside the Chino Hills City Limits. He embarked on an effort to construct on the property an accessory dwelling unit, that is a secondary lodging in the form of a cottage, the approval process for which under recent state law encouraging residential construction to offset California’s housing shortage has been simplified and facilitated. Despite that, Hagman encountered multiple delays and complications as his applications for the construction project approval and permits wended their way through the county land use services department, which has jurisdiction in unincorporated county areas. The experience has given Hagman a glimpse of what was wrought with Hernandez’s installation as county chief executive officer.
Contained within Hernandez’s personality is the drive to micromanage the county, his incessant need to stay on top of or otherwise monitor all interactions between county staff and not only its elected officials but those who work within the elected officials’ offices. County employees are required to electronically carbon copy to Hernandez any communications – primarily emails and text messages – that they send to the supervisors or the other county elected officials or their employees, including those with the sheriff’s department, district attorney’s office, treasurer’s/tax collector’s/auditor’s/controller’s office or assessor’s/county clerk’s/county recorder’s office. While the classic function of someone in a manager’s role such as that of the chief executive officer is to plan, organize direct and control, Hernandez has taken the concept of control to what many county employees consider to be absurd lengths. The sheer volume of emails and text messages that are routed to Hernandez represent a substantial challenge merely in terms of the time it takes to wade through them and this often distracts him from focusing on the more important communications specifically intended for his attention sent from county employees who are seeking to communicate directly with him and get his direction.
Simultaneously, county employees have told the Sentinel, while Hernandez insists that all such information and communication flow to him even when such minutiae is not crucial to his own executive and administrative function, he is pointedly reluctant or even unwilling to allow information that comes into his possession to reach others who have a desire or actual need to have access to it.
This is illustrated by the secretiveness that Hernandez is insisting upon with regard to the numbers that were obtained in late January as a result of what is known as the “point-in-time” count of the homeless population in the county. This year, that count was conducted on January 26 and involved several San Bernardino County divisions, including the office of homeless services, the sheriff’s department, the department of behavioral health, the department of aging and adult services, the public health department, the probation department and a large number of volunteers from the county’s 24 municipalities and its unincorporated communities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local governments to conduct counts of their homeless populations at least every other year, and with the exception of 2021 because of the COVID 19 pandemic, San Bernardino County has conducted such counts every year since 2013.
There is a natural curiosity as to the results of those counts as well as practical reasons why information as to the number and whereabouts of the homeless can facilitate efforts to redress the matter. In addition, elements and individuals within county government have requested the data in the form of the preliminary numbers, which are generally available the day of or, at the latest, the day after the count takes place.
Hernandez has decreed, however, that the numbers, both in total and as to each individual city or community in the county, are to be withheld until they are confirmed. This means that the official count – and any count whatsoever – will likely remain publicly undisclosed until April. That withholding applies not just to the public but internally within the county.
Homelessness in the county is most pronounced within the Fifth Supervisorial District. As a consequence, Fifth District Supervisor Joe Baca and his staff have requested that the numbers – qualified as being tentative and unofficial – be released. Likewise, the First and Second districts have significant numbers of homeless, both sheltered and unsheltered, subsisting at various spots within them. First District Supervisor Paul Cook and his staff as well as Second District Supervisor Jesse Armendarez and his people have requested that they be given an assessment of what challenges their communities face in dealing with the dispossessed living on the streets. Inexplicably, however, Hernandez insists on keeping the numbers from them.
There have been different interpretations among county officials, county employees and county residents of Hernandez’s motives and intent in suppressing information and his insistence on maintaining control of the information and how it is distributed and applied.
Some are yet willing to forgive this tendency toward micromanagement, believing it is a reflection, actually, of his ability. They see his efforts as well-intentioned and intrinsic to ensuring that the right steps are being taken in running the government and believe his insistence on being informed about what is going on is merely a manifestation of ensuring the board and county residents are being served not only adequately but well.
Others, however, see what is going on as a power grab or an effort to shift power to himself and/or an unintentional acknowledgment on his part that he doesn’t have the competency or skill to do the job he has been tasked with. To them, the secretiveness is a sign that he is overwhelmed and is trying to keep anyone from finding out.
Some see an ironic parallel between what occurred during McBride’s tenure as chief executive officer and what is happening now. There was a perception three years ago that McBride was not up to or capable of running the county and therefore had to rely on Hernandez, who was, or seemed to be, a supercompetent or omnipotent administrator. Instead of going to McBride to get something done, the supervisors pegged Hernandez, the chief operating officer, as the go-to guy. At present, the county supervisors and their staffs have learned or are learning that Hernandez’s reputation for getting things done was based not on his ability or knowledge of how things worked but rather on his ability to intimidate county staff do what they were told without regard for what the consequences would be down the road. Because his insistence that staff demonstrate absolute loyalty to him has resulted in so many knowledgeable and capable county employees leaving and because he does not embody that knowledge or ability himself, Hernandez is no longer able to produce results, county employees have observed.
The one thing Hernandez has done right, county employees have told the Sentinel, is to delegate responsibility for about two-fifths of the county’s function to Snoke. According to them, Snoke delivers on the tasks he is called upon to perform in a remarkably short turnaround time. They attributed Snoke’s ability to meet expectations to his previous employment, before going to work for the county, within the private sector.
“In the business world, outside the realm of government, time is money,” one high-ranking county official told the Sentinel. “That’s where Luther came from. Luther is a thousand times more efficient than Leonard. If you ask Luther to do something that hasn’t been done before, he gets it right the first time and goes on to the next thing and then the next and then the next. Leonard isn’t agile enough to meet new demands. He doesn’t necessarily know how things work, but he can tell someone who does know to make it work. If you want to run things day-to-day the way they’ve always been run with no changes, Leonard’s your man. If you want to do new things, identify solutions, meet challenges head on, you call Luther.”
For the time being, the Sentinel was told, Hernandez is safe. But things aren’t what they were even as recently as this time last year and the ground is continuing to shift under his feet.
The support of Hagman, former Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe were key factors in Hernandez’s ascendancy. He was helped as well by the support of former Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who was termed out of office in 2020, just a few months after Hernandez became county CEO. Joe Baca, Jr., who succeeded Gonzales, has had a decent relationship with Hernandez. Still, Hernandez has stiff-armed Baca with regard to information that the supervisor and his staff have sought, such as that pertaining to current homeless numbers. Baca is slowly learning as well, one county insider told the Sentinel, that Hernandez’s effort to simulate competence is more sizzle than steak. “Joe is starting to see that the CEO is an empty suit,” the staffer said.
Hernandez was hired as chief operating officer with the support of then-First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood. Lovingood in December 2020 was succeeded by Paul Cook, who is on the brink of turning 80 years old and is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, former California assemblyman and congressman. Previously, Cook in public would engage in good natured repartee with Hernandez, ribbing him about how his youthful appearance clashed with his position of authority. More recently, however, word has spread about Hernandez’s involvement in an effort to depose Cook as supervisor and see him replaced, perhaps even before Cook’s current term draws to a close in 2024. It thus appears that one solid vote to remove Hernandez as county CEO exists.
Former Supervisor Janice Rutherford was a reliable member of the voting bloc that brought Hernandez in to replace McBride, and she was, right up until the time she was obliged by term limits to leave office in December 2022, highly laudatory of him and his ability. Her replacement as Second District supervisor, Jesse Armendarez, is yet orienting himself to county operations and remains a tabula rasa as far as Hernandez’s function goes, although the chief executive officer so far has not had occasion to impress the board of supervisors’ newest member with the same degree of dynamic responsiveness as Snoke has on a repeated basis over the last two-and-a-half months.
Supervisor Dawn Rowe has grown highly dependent on Hernandez and relies on him as much or more than on her own office staff. What is more, Hernandez is highly conscious that Rowe, who was selected last month to serve as chairwoman of the board for a two-year term, is his most important ally and crucial to his prospect of remaining as chief executive officer.
Unlike Devereaux, Hernandez was not provided with a super bonus when he was promoted to chief executive officer in 2020, and he can be handed his walking papers on a simple 3-to-2 vote. In this way, the overwhelming red hot 5-to-0 enthusiasm for him among board members that was demonstrated at the time of his hiring and which might even have yet been extant as recently as a year ago has cooled considerably and might even be described as lukewarm.
Hagman, who is yet the dominant personage on the board despite Rowe’s role as chairwoman, remains key to Hernandez’s survivability. Under the term limits that were in place when he was elected in 2014, Hagman is due to leave office as supervisor in 2026, at the end of his third term. Yet the wording of the provision pertaining to term limits contained in Measure D passed by the county’s voters three-and-a-half months ago can be interpreted in such a way that Hagman could now be entitled to serve three more terms as supervisor. It remains to be seen whether he will pursue a legal determination on that question and test whether he can indeed ask the Fourth District’s voters to retain him in office another four years in 2026 and perhaps again in 2030 and maybe even again in 2034. If Hernandez, as county chief executive officer, uses his authority to have county counsel assist Hagman in such a pursuit, Hagman may deem it in his own interest to keep Hernandez in place.
On the other hand, Hagman, who has been characterized by more than just a few as a career politician, might consider it a better move to move on to another political office, perhaps by running for the California State Senate or U.S. Congress. If that is the case, he may deem it in his interest that the county engage in dynamic action over the next two to four years, which will burnish his image as a politician of accomplishment and perhaps render him more electable to higher office. In that case, Hernandez’s usefulness to Hagman may have come to an end. If, indeed, Hagman has come to the conclusion that it is time to cashier Hernandez, he will no doubt be able to scare up two votes to add to his own to do that.
There are other considerations, ones both above and below the surface.
It is impossible to ignore Hernandez’s already demonstrated ruthlessness and instinct for professional survival and advancement. There is indication that just as he was previously, he is now more than prepared to step over or kick to the curb the county employees down the chain of command by threatening to fire them or indeed actually terminating them if he perceives doing so to be in his interest. There are indications that in order to remain in place he is equally willing to pull the trigger or at least threaten to pull the trigger on his political masters up the chain of command. Rumors abound that he made book on the members of the board of supervisors while he was chief operating officer and has continued to do so while he is serving as chief executive officer, a vantage point from which he is excellently positioned to observe corners being cut, the way decisions are made, what arrangements have been made and what political horsetrading has taken place in backrooms or during closed sessions. And just as he and Blakemore were able to maneuver the lawsuit the board of supervisors filed against its own clerk into the courtroom of a Superior Court Judge who had a few secrets that judge did not want exposed which were exploited to obtain a determination that kept the supervisors from losing their quarter of a million dollars a year compensation, Hernandez may prove himself to not be above holding back a thing or two that he knows about the supervisors to remind them that it might be best all-around to let him keep his job and the $336,561.82 in salary, $40,746.20 in pay add-ons and perquisites and $196,035.72 in benefits he receives for a current total annual compensation of $573,343.74.
By Mark Gutglueck