By Mark Gutglueck
A month-and-a-half after Rachel Molina’s elevation to the position of Hesperia city manager was finalized, making her the second of the county’s current 24 municipal managers, questions are emerging about whether her skill set is adequate to the task.
Intrinsic to that question is not only the nature of the Hesperia managerial assignment – one that is considered, arguably because of the size of Hesperia and a host of its historical, geographical and jurisdictional aspects, to be the most challenging such job in the county – but the unseemly circumstance that precipitated her positioning to promote into the city manager’s post.
At present, Hesperia, at 73.209 square miles, is, among San Bernardino County’s 24 cities and incorporated towns, its third largest geographically, ranking behind neighboring Apple Valley and Victorville, at 77.08 square miles and 74.01 square miles, respectively. More than its sheer size, Hesperia faces a host of difficulties.
Hesperia is dealing with multiple negative legacies, some of which came into existence with or after its 1988 incorporation and others which accompanied or were a consequence of the community’s creation.
The first such legacy is the Santa Fe railroad’s bifurcation of the city.
In the 1880s, the California Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, undertook the construction of the rail system between Barstow and Colton, entrusting civil engineer Jacob Nash Victor to oversee the project. Victor laid that line through what is today Hesperia, in so doing creating the community. The township of Hesperia grew up around the rail line, rather to one side of it, and in the fullness of time, that rail line became a division in the city, a very real physical barrier.With a slight degree of curvature and variance mostly at the north end, the rail line runs essentially on a straight line through the city south-south-southwest moving south or north-north-northwest moving north, such that it divides the city east from west. The railroad tracks can be forded only at Bear Valley Road on the city’s extreme north end, by means of the Myra McGinnis Bridge on Main Street in the central part of the city and the Ranchero Road Underpass at the city’s south end. Santa Fe Avenue West and Santa Fe Avenue East closely parallel the rail line through much of the city. The east-west streets Sequoia, Pitache, Capri, Donert, Manzanita, Trinity, Sycamore, Alder, Birch, Catalpa, Hackberry, Eucalyptus, Lilac, Deodar, Mesa, Lemon, Mauna Loa, Mojave, Hercules, Willow, Vine, Live Oak, Pine, Cajon, Chestnut, Smoke Tree, Spruce, Juniper and Yucca, all of which lie between Bear Valley Road and Main Street, are divided east from west by the railroad tracks corridor. Walnut, Orange, Olive, Sultana, Muscatel, Lime, Palm, Elm, Joshua, Sage, Cactus, Allthorn, Mesquite, Bodart, Ash, Mission, Fremontia, Fir, Adelia, Larch and Rodeo streets and El Centro Road lying between Main Street and Ranchero Road are all prevented from meeting one another east and west of the railroad tracks. In this way, Hesperia is a city that is largely divided from itself, such that going from the east of the city to the west or vice versa often entails a commuting delay. Overcoming this problem is expensive, as the most recent fix to the dilemma, consisting of the Ranchero Underpass completed and opened in 2013, cost $27 million in 2006 dollars.
Thus, the entity that might be credited with being most responsible for creating Hesperia – the Santa Fe Railroad – is equally responsible for saddling Hesperia with an intractable problem, a physical and geographical division that it has yet, despite the best minds available to it during its prehistory and its 35 years as a city, been unable to solve. While certainly this is not a problem of Molina’s creation nor one which can be laid at her feet, she is at this stage the one individual personally responsible for seeking a solution. As it stands, the railroad is not amenable to allowing grade crossings at any of the 51 prospective spots where traffic might move from the east side of the city to the west or vice-versa but cannot do so because of the obstruction, and Molina has not taken the initiative to begin that dialogue.
The city’s second and perhaps even more daunting legacy is that of Penn Phillips, the father of modern Hesperia.
Marion Penn Phillips was born on June 13, 1887 in Parsons, Kansas. In the 1920s he became involved in real estate speculation and promotion, undertaking the development of Clear Lake Highland, and completed Frazier Mountain Park near Bakersfield in 1924, and a development known as the Avocado Farms near Vista in 1926. He developed large tracts in the Las Vegas basin in 1927, the development of 5,800 lots and 18,000 acres of land in the area around Coos Bay, Oregon between 1929 and 1933, and had built, in association with former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey, the famed Hotel Del Pacifico in Ensenada Mexico in 1931. From 1929 to 1932 he bought and sold more than 60,000 acres of undeveloped land in the Colorado River basin.
During the Second World War, Phillips was executive vice-chairman of the U.S. Treasury Department War Finance Committee for Southern California and following the war he developed and sold thousands of acres in Palmdale, Lancaster, Victorville, Apple Valley, Barstow and Newberry Valley.
He was serving as the vice-president and director of Standard Federal Savings and Loan Association of Los Angeles in in the early 1950s, at which time he created Omart Investment Company. On April 22, 1954, what was billed as the largest private land sale in Southern California in 35 years was consummated with Omart Investment Company’s purchase of a 36-square mile tract seven miles south of Victorville, representing roughly 90 percent of the entire township of Hesperia, for $1.25 million from the Appleton Land and Water Company and the Lacey Estate, which had owned the land jointly since 1888. Phillips, as the president of Omart, signed the land transfer documents at Pioneer Title and Insurance Company in San Bernardino.
Phillips simultaneously announced his intention to spend $8.25 million through the Hesperia Land Company, a subsidiary of Omart Investment Company, to prepare the property for development, indicating 1,000 acres of the property was to be allocated to industrial development, 8,000 acres for agriculture and that 5,000 homes would be built along with a two-and-one-half mile-long-and-one-quarter-mile-wide artificial lake, and a resort section.
Involved with Phillips in the Hesperia venture were Jack Dempsey as well as Charles Allen, vice-president of E.F. Hutton and Company of New York City; Fresno-based attorney Milo E. Rowell, Nat Mendelsohn of Riverside; Philip J. Farrar of Fresno; along with Los Angeles investment brokers Dan Christy and Henry Paul Willis.
Within a week, Phillips and Dempsey announced plans to renovate the Hesperia Hotel, which had been dormant since 1926.
Using the Hesperia Land Development and Hesperia Sales Corporation, Phillips promoted his construction company, U-Finish Homes, which mass-produced housing units that were completely finished on the outside, leaving the buyer to complete the interior. He secured water rights to support this community through the newly created Mojave Water Agency, of which he was a founding member.
The formula Phillips applied in Hesperia was much like the one he used with his developments elsewhere: secure land, build some homes on it, put in the minimal amount of infrastructure to make the homes habitable, bring in a population that creates the basis for a community that includes momentum for establishing some form of a jurisdictional governmental agency, sell all of the parcels acquired, take a profit and move on to the next development elsewhere.
Phillips built roads for Hesperia that were of a decidedly low standard, consisting of a mixture of desert sand used as aggregate and bitumen to create streets that were no more than one-and-a-half inches thick. The roads, when new, looked good, but under the withering desert sun and use, began to deteriorate within three to four years. The flash floods the desert is prone to further washed out the roads over the following decades, leaving many of Hesperia’s streets in poor condition, including some that eventually returned to being nothing more than dirt roads.
Phillips was equally irresponsible in the creation of the town’s water system. Though he started with the tremendous advantage of Hesperia being blessed with a world-class water supply, he squandered that asset in his head-long pursuit of a profit. Hesperia lies near the headwaters of the Mojave River, the watershed area north of the San Bernardino Mountains, a pristine and perpetually recharged water supply created by melting snow and overflowing rainwater from the heights southeast of Hesperia. The water system Phillips created for Hesperia consisted in large part of pipes cannibalized from a petroleum conveyance operation from depleted oil fields. Thus, the Hesperia Water Company, capturing water at the foot of the mountain before it rushed forward to become the Mojave River and wend out into the desert, used substandard pipes, which compromised the quality of the product provided to Hesperia for domestic use.
In this way, Phillips created what would become Hesperia’s initial infrastructure deficit. In the nearly sixty-five years since Phillips took his final leave of Hesperia, the city has struggled to overcome its inferior infrastructure foundation.
When Hesperia became a city in 1988, it was poorly served by the incorporation committee that had succeeded in obtaining that milestone, which partially as a consequence of its members’ lack of sophistication, shortsightedness and haste, failed to hold its own in hard-nosed bargaining with county representatives and other competing entities during the process for arriving at the property tax allocation formula for local governmental entities in the Hesperia community, including the city, post incorporation. Previous to Hesperia’s incorporation, when the county directly provided many of the services to the community along with the previously existing Hesperia Recreation and Park District, the Hesperia Fire District and the Hesperia Water District, that formula was somewhat less arcane. Upon incorporation, city officials failed to broker a very favorable split of property taxes with the county.
Like many of the cities that incorporated after the passage of Proposition 13, Hesperia was given a less-than-generous allotment of the diminishing property tax stream. This was a particularly harsh circumstance for Hesperia, which at 73 square miles, had over 473 miles of roads, many of them neglected and deteriorating.
The city was allotted a mere 1.59 percent of the property tax revenue – $1.59 of every $100 collected. That was the second smallest allotment of any of the cities in the county at that time and it is now the paltriest property tax share of any of the county’s current incorporated cities. At present, the county of San Bernardino keeps 14.23 cents of every property tax dollar collected in Hesperia. Indeed, in Hesperia there is a fifteen-way split of property tax. The other thirteen beneficiaries of the property tax rolls are the Hesperia Unified School District, which is given 29.5 percent; another 21.41 percent goes to the Education Revenue Augmentation Fund, most of which comes back to the school district; the Hesperia Fire Protection District pulls in 15.3 percent, nearly ten times what the city receives; The Victor Valley Community College District claims 6.4 percent; the Hesperia Recreation and Park District is given 4.3 percent. The county’s flood control district claims 2.2 percent for operations and 0.09 percent for administration; the county library system takes 1.38 percent; the Hesperia Water District is provided 1.03 percent; Community Services Area 60, which lies at the city’s periphery, is entitled to 0.99 percent; the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools accroaches 0.97 percent; the Mojave Water Agency abducts 0.50%; and the Mojave Desert Resource Conservation District nabs 0.02 percent.
Hesperia was not the only city in the county which formerly found itself shortchanged with regard to the division of property tax. Chino Hills, which incorporated in 1991; Apple Valley, which like Hesperia incorporated in 1988; Highland, which incorporated in 1987; Victorville, which incorporated in 1962; Rancho Cucamonga, which incorporated in 1977; Fontana, which incorporated in 1952; and Adelanto, which incorporated in 1970 found themselves in similar circumstances, with Victorville at that time being allotted no return in property tax at all. In no case were any of those cities formerly experiencing more than a 5.2 percent return of property tax collected within their respective borders. In 2003, the county agreed to allot all of those cities 7 percent of the property tax on any land annexed into those cities after that point. Also, several of the cities, individually and collectively pursued litigation and legislation sponsored by local state lawmakers aimed at upping those cities’ property tax revenue.
Hesperia participated in those efforts. The first legislative effort in this regard, Assembly Bill 1057, failed on the Senate floor in 1999. Subsequently, then-Assemblyman Phil Wyman introduced Assembly Bill 1378, which was designed to give Hesperia a larger share of property taxes collected by the county, such that Hesperia at that time stood to be the recipient of $2 million more per year if Assembly Bill 1378 passed. But the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose AB 1378 and a key member of the board, former Assemblyman and then Chairman of the Board Fred Aguiar lobbied in Sacramento against it. Wyman than dropped the legislative try, saying “I killed the bill because we’d rather do it together at the local level.”
Hesperia officials abandoned the legislative approach and pulled out of litigation the city was engaged in as a co-plaintiff with other cities after assurances were provided that then-Hesperia Mayor Jim Lindley would be able to use his entrée with his then-political ally, then-supervisor Bill Postmus, to amicably negotiate with the county an increase in Hesperia’s share of the property tax return. That came to naught, however, when there was a falling out between Postmus and Lindley, whereupon Postmus ceased his intercession on behalf of the City of Progress.
For Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, and Fontana, the litigative/legislative approach succeeded and by 2006, those cities saw an increase in their end of the formula for property tax splits.
Victorville saw its share of property tax pass-through upped from zero to 4.72 percent, with 6 percent going to its fire district and 5 percent going to its park district.
Apple Valley was granted 9.4 percent of the property taxes its residents pay, and another 9.2 percent was handed over to the town’s fire district.
The city of Rancho Cucamonga now gets 5.11 percent and its fire district is provided with 12.48 percent.
A deal was brokered with the city of Chino Hills such that it continues to get a 3.9 percent return on property tax paid for property that was previously within the city and ten percent of taxes from new development. The city of Chino Hills’ fire district also receives 15.15 percent of the property tax paid by Chino Hills residents.
In Fontana, the city receives a 3.8 percent property tax return, while its fire department is granted an 18.55 percent return.
The city of Highland is given 24.4 percent of the property tax collected within city limits.
Hesperia remains as the forlorn stepchild of the county when it comes to the distribution of property tax, receiving receives 1.75 percent of the property tax the residents living within its city limits pay.
The infrastructure deficit Phillips saddled Hesperia with was compounded by a series of decisions made by the fledgling city council shortly after the city was incorporated in 1988 and doubled down upon by the councils that succeeded the first. Looking southward at the upwardly mobile population of Rancho Cucamonga, a city which had incorporated a mere eleven years before in 1977, the newly formed city council, led by mayor Bruce Kitchen and councilmembers George Beardsley, Mike Lampignano, Percy Bakker and M. Val Shearer, lured Rancho Cucamonga Deputy City Manager Robert Rizzo to town to serve as the city’s first city manager. Deluded into thinking that cityhood would instantly transform their city into an economically dynamic hotbed of upscale development similar to Rancho Cucamonga, the city council empowered Rizzo to cut deals with developers to convince them to begin building aggressively and soon. Rizzo took the council’s somewhat naive instructions too literally, pushing his planning staff to approve projects as proposed by developers, entailing projects with sketchy or inadequate infrastructure, both in the immediate vicinity of the neighborhoods which were springing up as well as throughout the city in general.
In some cases, Rizzo, to meet payroll, diverted bond money intended for the provision of infrastructure into the general fund, where it was eaten up by the day-to-day expenses of running the city. In time, many of the landowners inveigled into the assessment districts created to debt service those bonds lost those properties in tax foreclosures as the promised increases in the value of their properties failed to materialize because the infrastructure those bonds were supposed to pay for was never built. Correspondingly, the sales tax producing commercial development that was to accompany the improvements to those properties in question never materialized, depriving the city of revenue that could have been converted into infrastructure improvements.
The centerpiece of Hesperia’s developmental fixation was the Rancho Las Flores project, which was being pushed by the Dana Point-based ARC Las Flores Corporation and was originally projected to result in the construction of 9,100 residential units in Summit Valley, on 10,000 acres at the city’s extreme south end that consisted of the 490-acre Las Flores Ranch and several adjacent parcels, including Bureau of Land Management property obtained through a series of land swaps. Rizzo, convinced Bakker, Beardsley and Kitchen that the project would generate economic development and create neighborhoods to rival those in upscale Orange County. Within two years, the scope of the project grew and in 1990, the city approved the Rancho Las Flores specific plan, which called for development of 15,540 housing units in eight phases.
Rizzo, however, was manipulative and dishonest, exploiting the very city council members who hired him, enabled him and directed him to develop the city at any cost. During the 1990 election, he arranged with developmental interests to get scores of residents in Orange County to write $99 checks in blank and entrust them to him. He then distributed those checks to the candidates up for election in the city council race that he deemed to be most accommodating of the pro-development agenda, including Percy Bakker, M. Val Shearer and planning commission member Donna Roland. In this way, Rizzo was seeking to obtain leverage over those to whom he was answerable. No one on the council objected until press accounts in early 1992 revealed what had occurred. Even then, the council sought to minimize the transgression. But public outrage over the corruption of the electoral and governmental process forced the council’s hand and in April 1992, Rizzo left the city.
Some 18 years later, Rizzo’s corrupt manipulations of the elected city officials who hired him came home to roost when a series of legal, financial, managerial and governmental transgressions he had engaged in as city manager with the City of Bell came to light and he was arrested, criminally charged, convicted and given a 12-year sentence in state prison.
The Rancho Las Flores project never got off the drawing boards, though it remained active, on paper, under succeeding city managers and the guidance of community development director Tom Harp and principal planner Dave Reno, suffering setbacks with the revelations of Rizzo’s illicit efforts to filter money from Orange County development interests into the campaign coffers of council member candidates amenable to the aggressive development proposals that would have doubled the city’s population. The project’s prospects were damaged as well by other significant challenges that retarded its progression, such as the economic downturn of 1991 and 1992 and the listing of three species that inhabited the property – the arroyo toad, the Least Bell’s Vireo and the willow flycatcher – as endangered.
Even without Rizzo at the helm, the developmental imperative that the city council embraced and which thus inescapably gripped the members of the council resulted in the city waiving requirements that the projects given approval entail the foundational framework and both on-site and off-site improvements such as roads, wastewater treatment capability, water and sewer lines and stormwater facilities to handle the impacts and consequences of that construction and the inhabitation of what was being built. When objections to allowing projects to proceed without the need supporting improvements to accommodate it would be made, project proponents or members of the council themselves would insist that insisting on such requirements would heed progress and economic opportunity. Continued growth would generate prosperity and a larger local economy, which ultimately would lead to the enhancement of property values and commercial development, and thus future property tax and sales tax enhancements, the growth proponents insisted. With that attitude prevailing, the city’s infrastructure deficit continued to compound.
Rizzo was replaced by D.J. Collins, who for years had been the general manager of the Hesperia Water District. Under Collins, the water district in short order was subsumed by the city. Collins made little headway in dealing with the city’s infrastructure problems, and though he succeeded in diverting some of the money available from the city’s water operations to shore up the city’s inadequate road system, he and the council were strongly criticized for having broken a commitment to strictly devote water revenues to maintaining the city’s water system. Collins’ administration was severely challenged by “the revolt of the Young Turks” in the fire department, which came about when many of the fire department’s personnel, most of whom were close to a generation younger than Collins, objected to the city overriding efforts by the fire marshal to strictly enforce the state and municipal fire code with regard to new development as City Hall sought to liberalize regulations and encourage building.
Collins would be succeeded by a succession of relatively short-lived city managers – David Berger, Steve Dukett, David Bentz and Steve West. Following West’s departure, the city council temporarily elevated assistant city manager Rod Foster to the city manager’s position. In 2000, Western Water made an overture to Hesperia with regard to purchasing the city’s municipal water division. Making that pitch for Western Water was Robb Quincey. Quincey, who had a Bachelor of Arts degree in public administration and political science from the University of Minnesota, a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of South Dakota and a doctorate in public administration with an emphasis in economics and organizational development from the University of La Verne, left quite an impression on the city council, though they did not accede to his suggestion that they sell the city’s water system to Western Water. Nevertheless, in October 2000 they offered Quincey a position as city manager. He accepted the offer. Titularly, Foster returned to his assistant city manager’s post. Quincey, however, had no actual experience in managing a governmental organization. He proved no more effective in holding in check the developmental imperative embodied by the city’s political leadership than any of the previous city managers and, in actuality, embraced it in his effort to remain in good standing with the city council.
In terms of overseeing the day-to-day municipal operations, Quincey, the show horse, proved highly dependent upon Foster, the workhorse, who in essence served as the de-facto city administrator during Quincey’s more than four-year tenure as city manager in Hesperia.
In March 2005, Upland Mayor John Pomierski succeeded in convincing Quincey to jump ship and take on the managerial duties in the City of Gracious Living. For twenty days after Quincey’s departure, Foster again served as interim city manager in Hesperia. In Upland, where like in Hesperia his reputation exceeded his skill level, Quincey soon recognized he was in over his head. He convinced Pomierski to hire Foster to serve as his assistant city manager. Foster then followed Quincey to Upland. Over time in Upland, events would overtake Pomierski and Quincey, with both criminally charged and convicted of corruptions of the political process, based on graft, monetary diversions and conflicts of interest, with Upland reflecting what had occurred in Hesperia, mainly the developmental imperative having been sustained by the development community’s payment of bribes and political contributions to the elected decision-makers who approved development proposal after development proposal without requiring that the project proponent accompany each succeeding addition to the community with adequate infrastructure to keep up with the impact of the new growth let alone replace, refurbish or redo the crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure from previous rounds of overdevelopment. Because of Upland’s higher profile than Hesperia and the greater level of sophistication of its citizenry, Pomierski and Quincey were caught out and prosecuted, whereas in Hesperia, similar depredations, while not entirely unnoticed, continued without being effectively checked, prevented or prosecuted.
With Quincey’s departure to Upland in 2005, the city had an opportunity to promote Foster, a committed municipal managerial professional who was perhaps the most qualified and talented employee in that role the city ever had, but Quincey prevailed upon his political masters in Upland to offer Foster a contract to serve as his assistant city manager there, and Foster departed.
Hesperia turned to Mike Podegracz, who had served as Hesperia’s contract engineer/director of public works before he was hired, in 1999, as the director of development services in 1999. Podegracz would remain in the city manager’s post for just over a decade, making him the city’s longest serving city manager. Despite the adherence of a majority of the city council to the development imperative, there was hope that under Podegracz, an engineer by training and profession, the city would adopt some semblance of a policy by which the new growth would be balanced with sufficient infrastructure. That promise was lived up to only to the extent that through much of Podegracz’s tenure as city manager – that is from late 2007 through 2013, the local state and national economies were dealing with what was at first a severe downturn followed by a sluggishness of several years’ duration that sharply reduced development.
The pro-growth forces that had driven Hesperia’s population to increase from 48,373 at the time of its incorporation in 1988 to 50,819 in 1990 to 62,582 in 2000 to 90,173 in 2010 to 100,200 in 2020 had never abated, manifesting in Bill Holland and Russ Blewett being elected to the city council in 2010 and Paul Russ being elected to the council in 2014.
In 2012, the council voted to reduce its development impact fees as a ploy of encouraging further expansion and it extended those reductions in 2014. Also in 2014, the Texas-based Terra Verde Group, led in California by its director of development, John Ohanian, signaled its intention to revive the Las Flores Ranch project, which had lain dormant for some two decades, after having acquired the 10,000 acres near Summit Valley previously controlled by then-bankrupt ARC Las Flores for roughly $45 million.
Podegracz’s term as city manager – the longest in the city’s history – drew to a close in 2015 when he voluntarily retired. His tenure as city manager had shaped the career and future of Molina, one of his eventual successors, in more ways than one.
In 2007, when Molina was hired as a senior office assistant in the Podegracz’s office, another employee, Kim Summers, had already been with the city for eight years. At that time, Summers held the position, city spokeswoman, that Molina a few years later, when Summers promoted to the position of assistant to the city manager, would take on.
As an employee within the City of Hesperia’s administrative suite, Molina witnessed, as did others, the gradual development of a romantic relationship between Summers and the married Podegracz. Steadily over time, Summers took on more and more assignments of intensity, seriousness and gravity, promoting to the position of assistant to the city manager by 2009 and then in 2012 to deputy city manager. In 2014, she applied for and was hired in Murrieta as assistant city manager there. In 2017, upon the retirement of Murrieta City Manager Rick Dudley, the Murrieta City Council promoted her to city manager.
While there is indication of Summers’ ability and competence in her performance in both Hesperia and Murrieta and she has a record of accomplishment in the two cities, her willingness to engage in an intimate relationship with Podegracz, her superior at Hesperia City Hall, did not harm her chances for professional advancement, such that she promoted into two of the more senior posts within the Hesperia municipal management suite while Podegracz was city manager. This was not lost on Molina.
During the time that Podegracz was city manager, after Summers had promoted to the position of assistant to the city manager, Molina was entrusted with the public information officer assignment, serving as the city’s representative and spokeswoman.
In July 2015, Podegracz informed the city council he would depart as city manager toward the end of that year. In December, he made good on that, and exiting with him were Director of Development Services Scott Priester, Economic Development Director Steve Lantsberger and Director of Public Works Dale Burke.
Rather than seek out a career municipal management professional to replace Podegracz, the city council, dominated by the stridently pro-development Holland, Blewett and Russ, opted to hire Nils Bentsen, who over the previous three-and-a-half years had been the commander of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Hesperia Station – serving in the capacity of what was essentially Hesperia’s chief of police, as the city has from its inception contracted with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement services.
Holland, who was then the mayor, had previously worked as a sheriff’s deputy and personally knew Bentsen. While for some, the challenges and extraordinary issues Hesperia faced as a city presented a strong reason for relying upon a seasoned city manager steeped in the arenas of either financial organization, civil engineering, land use policy or urban planning, Holland, Blewett and Russ felt having a manager who would not obsessively focus on the barriers to further development would better allow them to pursue the economic growth in the city that those who had bankrolled putting them in office were looking to achieve. In that way, Bentsen’s lack of expertise and experience in ensuring adequate roads, bridges, sewers, utilities, flood control and other infrastructure and public improvements registered as an advantage rather than a disadvantage, a quality that recommended him insofar as the then-ruling coalition on the city council was concerned.
Once in place, Bentsen proved himself to be in line with the council’s expectations, an accommodationist rather than an obstructionist. Moreover, he was willing to install into a key position relating to Hesperia’s welcoming of the building industry – that of development services director – not a traditional municipal professional committed to the standards of best practices and land use standards but rather someone not unlike himself, a law enforcement professional who had no formal training with regard to municipal or governmentally-imposed building standards – Michael Blay, a former sergeant with the sheriff’s department with whom he had once served.
An object demonstration of the pro-growth orientation of the Bentsen administration was made on January 26, 2016, not even a month after he had assumed the city manager’s post, with staff’s presentation of the Tapestry development proposal, the follow-on to the never-realized Las Flores Ranch Development. Despite a firestorm of protest by residents who made clear they did not consider the project to be one the city should pursue, the city council unanimously approved proceeding with it. The proponents made a number of representations they were patently unable to live up to, including that the project would get under way at once, providing homes for young families, the first of which would be ready for occupancy by first time homebuyers and first-time move-up buyers by late 2018 to early 2019, ranging in price from $200,000 to $400,000 and that the Terra Verde Group would complete, at its own expense, infrastructure such as utilities, roads, curbs, gutters, sewers, a wastewater treatment facility, schools and parks as well as the installation or alteration of 40 intersections and the widening of Ranchero Road and I Avenue.
Terra Verde Group, it turned out, was not going to build the homes but merely obtain the entitlement to build, intending to have the actual construction handled by established home builders in the region. Issues with the availability of water, which always existed but were never cogently addressed, became an existential threat to the undertaking, entailing delay upon delay for more than four years. There followed efforts to rewrite history. The project would have gone ahead full speed, Ohanian said, but for the interference of the COVID-19 pandemic. That explanation was inadequate, of course, because the building that was supposed to be taking by late mid-to-late 2017 so that occupancy could begin by late 2018 to early 2019 was scheduled some two-and-a-half years before the pandemic manifested.
What is now conspicuously clear was there was never a cogent plan or even vague intention that the proponent would provide the infrastructure a 15,663-home planned development would need, and that the game plan that had existed for the Las Flores Ranch property and the surrounding acreage since Rizzo had been city manager had never changed: the developers who stood to profit by the conversion of the land would manipulate the pro-growth politicians they had bankrolled into office to force the city’s staff to machinate the public financing of that infrastructure.
By 2021, having taken a full measure of the current council, its sophistication and that of Bentsen, the investors behind the Terra Verde Group have recommitted to developing the land with a slightly changed focus. A subgroup of investors, Schlegel Capital and The Beaumont Group, will utilize DMB Development to oversee construction of the homes and 700,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. Gone is the pledge to make the homes affordable to first time homebuyers. Rather than starting in the $200,000 range, the least expensive home will run $450,000. And buyers, who would have been able to anticipate relatively modest annual property tax bills based upon the previously represented home prices in the $200,000s, will be doubly stung. Not only will they pay property taxes based upon homes priced in the high $400,000s, $500,000s, $600,000 and $700,000s, those buyers will also be hit with Mello-Roos fees that are to be applied to the Tapestry neighborhoods to defray the cost of the community facilities districts that are to be created to finance the building of the infrastructure. The current city council has now been convinced by the representatives of the Terra Verde Group that the only way the project can move forward is if the Mello-Roos district is formed in advance of the project completion. Thus, each homeowner who buys into the subdivision will take on the responsibility, on top of his/her annual mortgage and normal property taxes, a yearly $4,000 to $5,000 Mello-Roos assessment in order to pay for the construction of the infrastructure the entire project will need. Some have questioned whether The Tapestry project was originally conceived of and sold to Hesperia’s political leadership as an undertaking that was to take advantage of the wellspring of homebuyers unable to afford the steeply priced housing available in lower San Bernardino County, Riverside County, Los Angeles County and Orange County who would be willing to invest in no-frills, slightly lower quality and therefore less expensive homes in the High Desert. With the transformation of the Tapestry concept to one that would entail “starter” homes in the half-million-dollar range or more with a combined yearly property tax and Mello Roos fee burden approaching $10,000, the viability the Terra Verde Group will be able to market the homes and thereby service the debt to cover the cost of infrastructure has come into question. Those who opposed the project all along and other critics of the city are now sounding dire warnings as to what the city has involved itself in with Tapestry, which is also referred to as the Silverwood Project. Not only will Hesperia be burdening itself with 15,663 lower-quality homes, many of which will remain empty and unsellable, those critics have warned, but no true progress in eradicating Hesperia’s multi-generational infrastructure deficit will have been made.
After a relatively short duration as Hesperia’s development services director, particularly one who had no previous experience in municipal management or the issues pertaining to urban planning and development, Blay was promoted by Bentsen to assistant city manager.
Things within the executive suite at Hesperia City Hall were going along swimmingly, or so it seemed, until late 2020. At that point, a degree of tension was palpable among those serving at the senior staff level, it was reported. Then there emanated from City Hall an account of a shouting match that had taken place between Bentsen and Blay, one that was seen by a handful of employees and heard by several more.
The underlying issue was problems, the Sentinel was informed, with Blay’s performance as assistant city manager or, at least, Bentsen’s expectations with regard to Blay’s performance. Things reached a crisis, the Sentinel was told, when Bentsen learned that Blay was having sexual relations with more than one of the women he oversaw in his capacity as assistant city manager.
In short order, at Bentsen’s direction, a separation agreement between the city and Blay was drawn up, and Blay was terminated. The friendship between Bentsen and Blay, which extended back nearly three decades to the time they had been deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, had come to an abrupt end.
A codicil to the separation agreement was a nondisclosure agreement that was apparently signed by all parties which was aimed at averting scandal and adverse publicity for the city as well as for Blay, for the women involved and for Bentsen.
In the initial aftermath of Bentsen and Blay’s row at City Hall, there were some in the know as to what had brought it about who were anticipating that not only Blay but the female employees he had entangled himself with were to be disciplined or terminated for having compromised the office professionalism they were expected to maintain. While Blay was, in fact, let go, the Sentinel is given to understand that there was concern at the time that firing the women along with him could have any of several unintended and undesirable effects, and for those reasons the women in question were neither fired nor subjected to any discipline. One of those concerns was that a dual, triple or quadruple firing could invite unwanted scrutiny on its own and/or one of the terminated women might make a public objection that would bring the underlying circumstance to light. Moreover, because Blay’s status as assistant city manager put him on the city’s organizational chart in a position above the women involved such that they were either directly or by theory indirectly answerable to him, Eric Dunn, who was then the city attorney, was concerned one or more of the women might contest their firings by claiming they were victimized in the circumstance by a sexual predator who had used his authority to pressure them into their individual sexual relationships with him.
According to employees and officials at City Hall, one of the women caught up in the matter that led to Blay’s exit was Molina.
The Sentinel’s effort to obtain a copy of the nondisclosure agreement relating to Blay’s departure resulted in City Attorney Pam Lee telling the Sentinel this morning, August 4, that “There is a separation agreement regarding Michael Blay, which is a public record that can be requested through the city clerk’s office.”
The Sentinel made an immediate inquiry with City Clerk Melinda Sayre’s office for a copy of that document, although it is not clear whether it includes the nondisclosure agreement at issue. Despite the city website’s statement that the city clerk’s office is open on Fridays until 4:30 p.m., the Sentinel was informed by recording that the city clerk’s office is not open on Fridays. The Sentinel made a request by email to Sayre for that document, but had not received it by press time.
Last year, Bentsen’s time as a public employee eclipsed 33-and-one-third years. Given that the calculation for public employee pensions in California uses a multiplicand of three percent for each year that a law enforcement or city management employee is employed times the maximum annual salary of that employee during his employment span in government, Bentsen was at a point where he was maxed out in the pension system, such that he could make as much money in retirement as he could working. He elected to retire, recommending as he did so that the city council appoint Molina, whom he had elevated to the position of assistant to the city manager in 2016, deputy city manager in 2020 and assistant city manager in 2021 when Blay departed, as his successor as city manager. In October 2022, the city council essentially acceded to that recommendation. At the same time, it increased Bentsen’s $258,825 salary by ten percent, such that what had been a total annual compensation rate of $364,764.36 when his annual perquisites and add-ons and benefits of $105,939.36 were included jumped to $390,649.86, or $32,554.15 per month. In addition, the council simultaneously consented to hiring Molina as city manager effective at once at an annual salary of $240,000, plus $23,789 in pay add-ons or perquisites along with $67,306.86 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $331,095.86, or $27,591.32 per month.
Effective December 12, 2022 running through June 18, 2023, Bentsen was provided with a $23,725.62 monthly bonus equal to his monthly salary to serve as Molina’s mentor as she made the full transition over those roughly six months to a city manager who could function on her own and without oversight. Thus, technically, between October 2022 and June 2023, Hesperia was functioning with two city managers.
With Bentsen’s departure on June 18 and Molina in sole command of the city, the sheer enormity of the job she has taken on has become apparent. Almost immediately, problems manifested.
A first major operative challenge were conditions in the city’s animal control division. Despite demands for service out in the community and what appears to be more than adequate space within the city’s animal shelter to house captured animals, those animals have been turned away. Complaints have mounted.
An unverified report is that upwards of ten city employees resigned their positions with the city in the roughly five weeks after Molina became city manager. Accompanying this was an account of two employees accepting promotions offered by Molina and then, in relatively speedy terms, tendering their resignations. Moreover, it is reported that Molina has moved to rehire two employees who, during Bentsen’s tenure as city manager, were terminated by the city or were otherwise forced to depart primarily because of inadequacy in their respective performances. Word among staff and other officials is that Molina rehired both because they represent an institutional knowledge of the city and the departments that she finds necessary in order to be able to run the city because, despite her more than 15 years’ experience as a city employee, she simply does not have a comprehensive enough knowledge of either the nuts and bolts of municipal management or specific circumstances in Hesperia to competently oversee the city’s operations.
This lack of confidence in her ability has led to the hemorrhaging of city employees, both remaining and departed employees have said.
The fashion in which she has been undone by the relatively minor challenge of filling gaps in the city’s animal control division is emblematic of her having gotten in over her head by taking on the city manager’s post, those observing the current chaos at City Hall have said. With top flight city management professionals such as D.J. Collins and Rod Foster not having been able to overcome the pro-growth dictates of their political masters on the city council long enough to provide meaningful and productive focus toward overcoming the legacies of Penn Phillips and Robert Rizzo and the cumulative infrastructure deficit stretching back nearly seven decades, few believe Molina has the experience or acumen to so much as recognize the challenges she is dealing with, let alone overcome them.
This is compounded by the dark insinuations about how it was that she was able to promote as rapidly as she did into first the deputy city manager and then the assistant city manager posts she held for the roughly two-and-a-half years before her promotion to city manager, typified by a suggestion that she had, as one city employee crudely put it, “slept her way to the top at City Hall.”
The Sentinel, in an email, this week inquired directly with Molina whether there had indeed been a wave of employee resignations in the aftermath of her assumption of the city managerial role in Hesperia and if she could quantify the number of employees who left the city from June 19, 2023 through August 1, 2023 and identify those employees by job title along with the grounds those employees gave for their resignations.
Molina did not respond.
Asked to refute the contention that her occupation of the top staff position or her management approach/style/ability had anything to do with those resignations, Molina did not respond.
Nor did Molina clarify the circumstances or situation pertaining to or accuracy of the report of two employees accepting promotions and resigning. She did not address questions about whether she had hired two employees whom Bentsen had previously terminated.
The Sentinel sought to take up with Molina some of the widely held beliefs that there was impropriety in the way she was able to promote, and promote so rapidly, specifically reports, relating to the relationships, that is physical with sexual overtones, she was reported to have had with her immediate male superiors at City Hall.
The Sentinel asked about the surfacing of her name in connection with the barely-contained scandal pertaining to Blay. The Sentinel noted that there were further insinuations, based upon Bentsen’s recommendation last year, despite her slender municipal operations résumé and lack of expertise in any single given government departmental function beyond public relations that she succeed him as city manager, suggesting she was involved with him.
Asked if she acknowledged having had a physical, i.e., sexual relationship with Michael Blay, Molina made no response. Asked if she now considered her relationship with Blay to have been improper, Molina did not respond.
She likewise avoided responses to similar questions relating to Bentsen and she did not respond to direct inquiries as to whether her sexual relationships with her superiors within Hesperia’s managerial structure contributed to her advancement within the Hesperia governmental hierarchy.
Molina similarly avoided questions directly posed to her about Hesperia’s need to overcome its infrastructure deficit that is the legacy of Penn Phillips, the inadequate property tax arrangement that is the legacy of the city’s founders, the legacy of Robert Rizzo which established a city managerial commitment to facilitate the development imperative embraced by the city’s political leadership, the physical/geographical bifurcation of the community by the Santa Fe Railroad and what prospect she felt she had for successfully dealing with the City of Hesperia’s myriad challenges.
After alluding to how at least some city employees are convinced she is not up to managing the city, the Sentinel asked Molina if at this point she believes she bit off more than she can chew by becoming Hesperia city manager and what cogent refutation she could provide to those skeptics who contend that her first month on the job had demonstrated her as inadequate to the task. She chose not to answer.
Molina is not entirely without her defenders.
On the dais at the Hesperia City Council meetings at present, six of the eight personages are women – Mayor Brigit Bennington, Councilwomen Rebekah Swanson and Allison Lee, City Manager Rachel Molina, City Attorney Pam Lee and City Clerk Melinda Sayre. It was pointed out that social attitudes in the High Desert are somewhat behind the times and the lack of acceptance of women in positions of authority is to be expected in a place like Hesperia, where the challenges the city faces, including its infrastructure deficit, is the doing of men who controlled the politics and offices and machinery of government throughout the community’s history. That Molina and Summers before her came into a male-dominated, indeed chauvinistic setting in which women were disrespected, disregarded and debased and were able to work their way up the ladder from the comparatively lowly positions they were initially hired into, using what assets they did possess by turning the weaknesses of the exploitative men who have ruled the roost in Hesperia for so long against them is, Molina’s supporters say, proof that they are fit to be managing Hesperia and Murrieta. Her detractors may not like that Molina scratched her way to the top of the heap in Hesperia, but that she did so is indisputable.
Mayor Bennington, in response to an inquiry by the Sentinel said she was “disheartened” at questions relating to Molina “not being qualified for the position she holds.
Bennington said, “The Council voted 5-0 to approve her contract because she has the necessary experience and education to perform in this role. Ms. Molina has a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Chapman University and a master’s degree in public administration from California Baptist University. In addition to serving as a senior office assistant and public information officer earlier in her career, during her 16-year tenure, she has served as department head for community relations/city manager’s office and economic development, human resources, information technology and development services. As development services director, she was responsible for engineering, planning and community development.”
Bennington said, “Like council members across the country, I use my own experience and education to help inform my decision making. I stand by my voting record and reject any accusation that I make decisions that are in any way influenced by anything other than the best interests of the residents I serve. During my tenure with the City of Hesperia, as well as with another municipality, I have been personally aware of city managers across the state who have been appointed with far less experience and education. As the city’s first woman city manager, the types of accusations raised against Ms. Molina are discouraging to other women in the profession whose accomplishments are intended to be diminished by those with questionable motives, as is clearly the case here.”
By Mark Gutglueck