Nearing his three-year anniversary as San Bernardino County’s top staff member, Leonard Hernandez appears to be on the brink of being deposed.
A concerted move, timed for maximum effectiveness by the county’s largely disaffected mid-level staff while Hernandez has temporarily loosened his grip on the reins of power by going on vacation, is in play now. The well-coordinated series of events, if effectuated as planned, will culminate in a decision by the board of supervisors at its August 8 meeting, at which a review of Hernandez’s job performance was previously scheduled, with his being handed a pink slip.
There yet remains the possibility that Hernandez can actuate a career-saving maneuver, but such a development would likely entail a crippling mid-level executive suite bloodletting that would carry with it the potential of paralyzing the county for months and creating a schism on the board of supervisors where at present a civilized decorum in which Dawn Rowe is functioning as the board chairwoman without challenge.
In Sptember 2020 was promoted to assume the post of county chief executive officer and replace Gary McBride, his predecessor, the following month. Hernandez, 45, has now spent a quarter of a century employed in government, having begun in 1998 at the age of 20 as a part-time 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. He earned his Master of Science degree in library science in through Pennsylvania’s Clarion University’s online learning program, and promoted into the position of the Fontana Branch Library manager within the San Bernardino County Library System. In 2008, he became the director of libraries with City of Riverside, but in 2010, anticipating the retirement of San Bernardino County Librarian Ed Kieczykowski, returned to San Bernardino County. 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, then-San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux promoted Hernandez 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.
In 2017, the same year that McBride was made county chief executive officer, Hernandez was given the interim assignment of county chief operating officer and then ultimately that of full-fledged chief operating officer.
McBride, whose experience consisted of working within the county’s finance division, was affable and non-confrontational, accordingly reluctant to become forceful with the county’s various department heads. He delegated much of his interaction with staff to Hernandez. Over time, the board of supervisors, and in particular the strongest personality on the board, Supervisor Curt Hagman, began to bypass McBride, going directly to Hernandez, 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, swung into immediate action in accordance with those instructions. Ultimately, the board opted to remove McBride and replace him with Hernandez.
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.
Hernandez’s promotion came in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. He and Snoke managed to guide the county through the pandemic despite its unprecedented challenges, earning high marks for his performance in making everything, or virtually everything the county’s political leadership wanted to accomplish doable.
The element that made and makes Hernandez so effective is at the same time his Achilles’ heel. Just as his value as the county’s chief operating officer under McBride consisted of 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 officially approved by the board of supervisors 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 issue is that Hernandez’s reach exceeds his grasp. His authority and ability to strike fear into those he commands and have them carry out those commands is not matched by his depth of experience in informing or determining what those commands should be. Virtually his entire work history consists of being a government employee, giving him no workable knowledge of the demands of the private sector. Additionally, the breadth of his experience as a government employee prior to moving into top management is confined to the county’s libraries and museums, departments which have different levels of significance, priority, intensivity, controversy, invasivity, authority and urgency involving a far less substantial outlay of public funds than many 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.
Despite his lack of expertise in those areas. Hernandez has a tendency toward micromanaging. This has led to his efforts to dictate activity with regard to matters he does not fully understand and which put those in positions of responsibility into a position of following through with action they know to be ill-conceived.
While few dispute Hernandez’s underlying intelligence, talent and ability, a common observation is that Devereaux, in one of his last moves as county CEO, acted prematurely in making him chief operating officer and that he should have allowed him to obtain more seasoning and experience by having him remain in the capacity as an assistant executive officer or understudy to the chief executive officer 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 an experienced 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.
Devereaux, however, 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, they were soon out of a job. Hernandez established his reputation as someone who got results.
In his capacities 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 everyone of those employees are now gone, replaced by others now seeking to comply so that they to are not cashiered. In his role as chief executive officer, county employees say, 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. Mid-level employees are fleeing or retiring in droves.
Amidst the hemorrhaging of experienced employees, mistakes have been made, some of them costly. In April, it was publicly revealed that the county refunded to the federal government $4.4 million of $8.5 million it had received in emergency grant funding to house homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic because it had failed to make use of the money within the specified timeframe. Word now comes that the county is about to lose state grant funding that could have been applied to redress homeless issues. County employees say they were hamstrung in completing the requirements to maintain that funding because of micromanaging and unnecessary interference by Hernandez.
Similarly, new state laws intended to streamline the approval process for certain types of development, including so-called accessory dwelling units, are in effect throughout the state. In San Bernardino County, however, the land use services department has been slow to process such applications for a variety of reasons, some of which are attributed to Hernandez having forced that division’s department head’s departure unnecessarily and his seeming inability to find a suitable or willing replacement to restore the department to functionality.
Whereas four and five years ago complaints about McBride’s inability to facilitate quick action were being heard while Hernandez was being lauded as a dynamic result-oriented actor, similar complaints are now being heard, with the county’s dysfunction being laid at Hernandez’s feet. To cut through county red tape and bureaucracy at this point, one is directed to bypass Hernandez and go directly to Snoke.
Hernandez yet has the power of the position he holds and enjoys the full backing of Supervisor Dawn Rowe, the current chairwoman of the board of supervisors. Rowe, whose own staff is recognized as being weaker and less effective than the staffs of all four of the other supervisors, is particularly dependent upon Hernandez for guidance and the operation of her office. Hernandez as well yet commands the loyalty of three of the county’s highest ranking staff members – Assistant Executive Officer and Human Resources Director Diane Rundles, Chief of Administration Pamela Williams and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Erickson. Rundles was selected for the position of Human Resources Director by Hernandez and promoted in 2023 to Assistant Executive Officer for her loyalty. Hernandez, with good reason, believes he can call upon the support of all four if an out-and-out power struggle is to ensue.
Nevertheless, forces are lining up against Hernandez.
Virtually every mid-level administrative employee in the county is looking forward to his departure. Four of the members of the board of supervisors – Hagman, Paul Cook, Jesse Armendarez and Joe Baca, Jr. – have misgivings about his performance. Hagman is in a lead role in what is said to be an effort to “clean the county slate.”
Hernandez presumed that he had the backing of County Counsel Tom Bunton, who leads the county’s stable of in-house attorneys. Bunton, who has the full confidence of the board’s members to navigate them through not only legal but many operational challenges, has demonstrated himself to be independent of Hernandez on multiple issues.
It appears that today, over the weekend and then on Monday and Tuesday, a series of backroom discussions and maneuverings will ultimately determine Hernandez’s future with San Bernardino County.
Many members of mid-level county management feel they have had their hands tied and bee prevented from responding to project requests from board members. Some of those are beginning to worry about their long-term employment viability and relationship with board officers should Hernandez depart from the county.
Afoot is what participants are loathe to acknowledge as a coup, but which carries all the hallmarks of such.
That action, ironically, is based on Hernandez’s willing transfer of his executive authority to Snoke when he departed for vacation. While Hernandez is out of town and out of the county executive suite located on the fifth Floor of the county administrative building at 354 Arrowhead Avenue in San Bernardino, those aligned against Hernandez are looking toward the board of supervisors at its meeting on Tuesday to use the performance review they are scheduled to carry out relating to Hernandez as the grounds for extending, for the time being, his vacation leave involuntarily. Since Hernandez is technically on his own vacation leave at this point, the county could allow his vacation to continue, such that he remain on his own leave, pending further notification to the public. This would allow the county to better manage the potentially negative attention and backlash a direct firing or putting him on administrative leave would have.
To best effectuate the plan, it would probably be best that the county simultaneously place Chief of Administration Williams on leave as well.
The Sentinel has learned that Assistant Executive Officer and Human Resources Director Diane Rundles is not being consulted in current process under way due to concern about Hernandez’s influence through her.
It is felt that while Williams, Rundles and Erickson are Hernandez loyalists, they are also realists and will accept a transition to Snoke as chief executive officer once it is cleanly effectuated. Concern is that having them in place while there are loose ends yet to be tied down in moving Hernandez out and Snoke in could create problems. For that reason, all three will need to be anesthetized to some degree until such time as they can interpret the writing on the wall.
The major sticking point in a transition from Hernandez to Snoke consists of Rowe’s closeness to Hernandez, their mutual loyalty and the authority of the chairwoman of the board of supervisors in San Bernardino County.
Despite that loyalty, there exists hard political reality which is militating against Hernandez. Chris Carrillo is purposed to run against Rowe in 2024. He has already begun to line up financial support for that run and is now in a footrace with Rowe for stitching up funding from other sources. Many of those sources consist of those elements in the private sector, particularly ones in the Third Supervisorial District where Rowe is serving, who have been and will continue to be impacted by county policy and action. A major test case in that regard is the much anticipated ambulance services contract scheduled to be awarded this month. With the only two applicants being American Medical Response and the California Division of Forestry, it is up in the air as to which candidate – Rowe or Carrillo – will obtain the support of American Medical Response and its dozens of employees. It is likely the association of county firefighters will be supporting Carrillo.
While Rowe has enjoyed the support of the development community in the past, the perception of dysfunction within the county land use services department, which many hold Hernandez responsible for, could result in crossover support for Carrillo.
There is a growing belief that even if Rowe continues to support Hernandez, she does not on her own have the political muscle to keep him in place.