Take Two for January 28, 2013

San Bernardino, already in trouble, now searches for new manager

BANKRUPTCY RESOLUTIONS

Steven Cuevas/KPCC

San Bernardino Councilman Rikke Van Johnson explains municipal bankruptcy process at a town hall meeting last week.

BANKRUPTCY RESOLUTIONS

Steven Cuevas/KPCC

San Bernardino police chief Robert Handy discusses possible cuts in staffing and service at a town hall meeting.


After only eight months on the job, San Bernardino’s acting city manager Andrea Travis-Miller is leaving.

She’s taking a pay cut to work as the executive director of the San Gabriel Council of Governments. Her departure--and the rumored upcoming departure of the city’s Finance Director-- are the latest in a long string of bad news for San Bernardino as it limps through bankruptcy court carrying $143 million in debt.

The city filed for bankruptcy on August 1, 2012, citing a $46-million deficit for this fiscal year.  A federal judge has yet to rule on the Chapter 9 protections. Granting those would shield the city from creditor lawsuits until its finances are restructured under a roadmap approved by the court. It is one of four California cities to go under recently. The others are Stockton, Vallejo, Mammoth Lakes.

Since the summer filing, the city has cut its police force to below-2009 levels and the homicide rate has shot up by more than 50 percent. City services have been reduced to the essentials, and residents are beginning to feel the impact.

City resident Cindy Moore says whever she calls the city water department or other divisions she's put on hold twice as long as before. Moore, who's lived in the city for five years, said she  got lost in an area of the city she wasn’t familiar with because the streets had no signs.

“We had all this new construction but they hadn’t put up a sign,” she said.

Lifelong resident Nick Acosta, 21,  plans to leave the city as soon as possible.

“Everybody I know wants to leave,” he said. “They say it’s trashy. Everybody. They don’t even want to say they’re from San Bernardino when they ask where you’re from.”

Like Moore, he’s noticed the consequences of cuts to city services. He said street trash isn't being cleaned up and tagging is left unaddressed.

In her short time as interim city manager, Travis-Miller made some tough calls. She stopped the city's $2.4 million monthly payments to CalPERS, America's biggest public pension fund and the city’s largest creditor, when the city filed for bankruptcy. It now owes at least $10 million to the pension system.

CALPERS wanted to sue, but a federal bankruptcy judge sided with the city in December, preventing the fund from taking legal action.  The city plans to resume payments in July.

Losing Travis-Miller now will likely complicate the bankruptcy proceedings, said economist John Husing, a former city resident.

But he's not surprised.

“She’s one of a long line of people to get disgusted around there and leave. It’s not unusual,” Husing said. In part, that's because of the city's politics.

“Everybody is at everybody’s throat,” he said. The city is well known in city manager circles to be one of the most dysfunctional places in California, he said, if not the entire country.

That will make finding her successor particularly difficult. 

Mayor Pat Morris said he’s put out calls to find “a top-notch budget specialist" who has done the job before. He has until February 19th to find a replacement. 

“We don’t have that kind of talent in-house, not even close.”

Husing said even if he were to find the perfect candidate, he has little hope for much improvement in the city.

“I don’t think you can solve San Bernardino’s problems,” Husing said.

He has studied that city’s government for nearly 50 years and he says its structure is the problem. He and others argue that the city’s hands are tied by its governing documents, which have locked it into spending levels it cannot sustain and which city officials wield as a political weapon against one another.

“You have three branches of government and unless all three agree, it is difficult to do anything,” he said.

Husing sees only one solution: dissolving the city’s charter and putting it under general law. 

Most California cities are organized under a standard set of laws and are considered general law cities. But a about a quarter of cities in the state are Charter cities. That means they have more independence and less state oversight. They’re often the older ones like Los Angeles, Compton, Pasadena, and San Bernardino. 

Still, converting the city to general law would require a majority of the council voting to put on the ballot eliminating their districts and therefore their jobs. And that seems unlikely, even to Husing.

“So whoever comes in will be dealing with a mess," he said. "They probably, as they generally have, will limp through making whatever decisions are absolutely necessary but no matter what they do coming out the other side, the long term future will be as depressing as the current situation is.”

Outside city hall stands an 11-ft sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. For Husing, it symbolizes the city’s civic virtue and racial harmony at the time it was commissioned in 1971. “The spirit of doing it came out of the African American community, the money came out of the white community and the sculptor was Hispanic,” he recalled.

After forty years, like the city, the bronze sculpture is starting to come apart. A group of citizens have organized to raise funds to repair it. Many are hopeful that a similar civic spirit can repair the city. “I mean, it was a great city that’s completely disintegrated and it’s a tragedy,” said Husing.


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