San Bernardino debates shaking up city government in wake of financial crisis

San Bernardino is trapped in a heated debate between those who believe the city should stay on the charter system, and those who want a change.
San Bernardino is trapped in a heated debate between those who believe the city should stay on the charter system, and those who want a change.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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The San Bernardino city government is grappling with bankruptcy, and now the impasse within City Hall is turning to the city's form of government.

With the city's charter status, there’s a seven-member city council that presides over seven different wards, a mayor who votes on issues only when there’s a tie and an elected city attorney who wields a lot of power.

“And so the result has generally been stalemate on any major issue,” says Inland Empire economist and San Bernardino City Hall watcher John Husing.

As a consequence of the stalemate, the power centers have not gotten along, Husing said. That split has manifested as an intense debate over the city's charter status, and whether it should continue as such.

Longtime resident Bob Smith has been an outspoken critic of the way San Bernardino’s government operates under a charter system.

“The charter is what got us into this problem!” Smith recently exclaimed during a city council meeting.

Smith heads “Save Our San Bernardino,” an advocacy group he started in the aftermath of the city’s fiscal collapse. He says San Bernardino should dump its charter and become a “general law” city — that’s where council members are elected at-large, the mayor has a vote and the city attorney is hired instead of elected.

“These are desperate times,” Smith says. “We need to put pressure on our city council people to vote on whether we should disband this charter.”

But San Bernardino’s voters rejected proposed changes to the charter two years ago. Supporters of the charter system say San Bernardino should focus instead on repairing its finances, not on upending city hall.

Councilman Robert Jenkins says local government can be a bit dysfunctional, but the charter does work.

“Well, all areas of the city are represented,” Jenkins said. “If we go to a general law city, the more affluent areas could actually have all [of the] representation on the city council. The west side may not have representation; the 2nd ward may not have representation.”

“Currently, every part of the city has a voice at city hall and sometimes it gets hot and heated. We just got to work through that [and] try to be respectful to others,” Jenkins said.

Recent city council meetings may have been a little short on respect with local residents blasting officials over their handling of city money.

“Nobody else has a charter like the failed city of San Bernardino!” bellowed attorney Tim Prince at a council meeting last month.

Prince is also a member of the San Bernardino Chamber of Commerce. He's not a fan of the city charter.

“If any of you have rejected the idea of changing our charter out of hand because of some special interest pressure,” he said, “you’re not doing your job to the taxpayers of this city!”

Prince and others point to Section 186 in the charter. It sets pay for police and firefighters based on what’s paid at cities of about the same size. Under 186, those salaries can’t be cut, even in tough budget times when other city workers are taking pay cuts.

“186 has our hands tied. We cannot afford to operate under that charter amendment,” says councilman Fred Shorett, the most outspoken charter critic on the city council.

Shorett is the most outspoken charter critic on the city council. He’s pushing a charter reform proposal that could alter Section 186’s prohibition of pay cuts to police and firefighters.

“It’s gonna set the stage for the future reorganization of this city and that’s what is needed, we’re at the bottom of the barrel now,” Shorett says. “Bankruptcy should be a red flag and we should take the opportunity at this time to not only fix our financial problems but fix the structure of this city.”

Police and fire unions did agree to a 10 percent cut for three years, but in benefits only. Those concessions expired earlier this year. But San Bernardino police union president Steve Turner argues that given the city’s high crime rate, a charter that prevents pay cuts to police and firefighters is fair.

“In a general law city, you could go years and years without a pay raise and eventually that agency would start to fall behind,” Turner said.

“We’re unique in that our crime rate is high,” he says. “So when you compare wages to the crime rate, you could argue that we’re actually paid less than we should be in comparison to those same agencies.”

Despite the renewed effort to let voters decide if the charter should be reformed or done away with entirely, city attorney James Penman says no one should blame the charter for San Bernardino’s current trouble.

“Why we’re in the fiscal crisis will be coming out. But it was not the charter,” Penman said.

He blames alleged accounting tricks by city finance employees that he says hid the depth of the budget crater.

“But at this point we need to be looking ahead and fixing the problem not focusing on pointing fingers. We’re going to get through this.”

If a majority of the city council agrees to a charter reform proposal, it could go before San Bernardino voters in November.