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San Bernardino city leaders still sparring a year after declaring bankruptcy

San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris at the entryway to Wildwood Park that he maintains as a volunteer.
San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris at the entryway to Wildwood Park that he maintains as a volunteer.
Sharon McNary/KPCC
San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris at the entryway to Wildwood Park that he maintains as a volunteer.
Office of San Bernardino City Attorney James Penman
Sharon McNary/KPCC
San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris at the entryway to Wildwood Park that he maintains as a volunteer.
Diane Koster volunteers to help clean the dog run at Wildwood Park, and admires the roses that Mayor Pat Morris' wife maintains, also as a volunteer.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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It's been a year since San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy to restructure its $45 million deficit. City leaders say that, since then, they've slashed non-emergency services to the bare essentials to keep fire and police services intact for the city of 213,000.

But the roses in the curbside garden at Wildwood Park are nicely pruned, and the cactus and succulents are thriving amid the redwood mulch next to the park's driveway. That's because Mayor Pat Morris, his wife Sally and a small cadre of other volunteers donate the labor to care for them.

"We've got about 500 acres of park in this city with a crew of no more than 13 workers to maintain [them]. It is a tragic stretch of resources," Morris said, reaching down to grab a few errant twigs among the cacti.

"We began to ask people to step up and volunteer. I mean, that's the great American tradition," he said.

But volunteers aren't solving the city's core problems, says Diane Koster, who does her part by cleaning up the dog run at Wildwood Park.  She's dismayed by the missing gate latches, the broken push-button light switch to illuminate the yard, the dead tree and piles of flammable dry palm tree debris, and the pools of standing water around broken sprinklers.

She's also aware of the homeless population that sets up camp in and around the park. She notes their possessions lined up along the back wall of a Little League dugout building.

"A blow-up bed in one of those, something that's been carted away from someplace and put down here like a big chair, trash can, shopping cart filled with who knows what," Koster said.

Beyond the park's deteriorating condition, Koster says the city's deeper problems are the conflicts among city officials and stakeholders.

"They all argue," she said. "And my feeling about their arguing is that they are all singularly possessed with themselves and whatever it is that they all singularly want."

Bankruptcy has not stilled the feuding of the city's elected officials, says Morris,  who's been mayor since 2005.

"There's a lot of political turmoil in this city, has been long before I arrived, and it has not abated at all," Morris said.

Jonathan Anderson is chair of the Public Administration department at Cal State San Bernardino.  He says the structure of the city government is partly to blame for the city going belly-up.

"It seems like there is a lot of competition between the elected officials, and they are fighting amongst themselves rather than having a unified operation," Anderson said.

A committee of dissatisfied citizens calling themselves San Bernardino Residents for Responsible Government  turned in petitions Wednesday to recall three of the seven city council members and the city attorney.

James Penman, who has been the elected city attorney for 26 years, said he doesn't see any dysfunction in city government, only in the mayor's office under Morris. He blamed the bankruptcy on the city overspending as the economy and housing market tanked.

But pensions  for city employees are central to the ongoing debate over how to restructure the city's finances.  Morris said San Bernardino can't afford to keep the pensions as-is.

"You cannot retire people at 50 years old, at literally 100 percent of their wages," Morris said. He complains it is unsustainable for the city to continue to pay retirees' health insurance until they become eligible for Medicare, and to them the full value of their unused vacation, sick leave and other service hours, and "cash it out — a quarter-million dollars when they step out the door."

City Attorney Penman derives a lot of political support through his defense of police and fire benefits — he says pensions are not the problem.

"If the cause of the city's bankruptcy were the pensions, there would be another 30, 40, maybe even 100 cities in bankruptcy," Penman said.

Ultimately, the council voted 4-3 to force police and firefighters to contribute toward their pensions, and Morris expressed frustration that the vote was not unanimous.

The city goes before a bankruptcy judge late in late August for a ruling on how it might restructure its pension obligations and other debts.

Morris said, "The question then becomes, do we have the political will to make the required further cuts to pay off our debts, to assemble a reserve and build a new fiscal foundation for this city?"

Morris says he's not running for reelection in November, so he won't be around to answer that question. Penman, who has lost twice in mayoral races to Morris, says he is not running for mayor this year. His term ends in 2015.

Meanwhile the campaign to recall the city attorney and council members is in legal limbo. The city clerk refused to count the signatures, citing a technical violation by recall proponents, who have asked a court to intervene.