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San Bernardino looks to regroup after firing city manager

San Bernardino recently added an important item to the list of things it needs to get done before it can proceed on some major projects.

Hire a city manager.

During a special closed session May 22, the city council voted unanimously to remove Charles Montoya as the city’s top administrator, effective immediately, only seven months after he took the job.

At the same time, the council voted 6-3 to make Deputy City Manager Rochelle Clayton temporary acting city manager. Council members Theodore Sanchez, Sandra Ibarra and Damon Alexander cast the dissenting votes.

Montoya was fired without cause. He will receive one year’s salary – $325,000 – in severance, according to Jeff Kraus, San Bernardino spokesman.

Clayton was Menifee’s deputy city manager until joining San Bernardino in April.

Montoya was let go one week after Barbara Whitehorn, San Bernardino’s former finance director, told the city council that she was fired after questioning whether the city can afford to renovate city hall, a five-story building at 290 N. D St. downtown.

That structure has been vacant since 2017 after it was shut down because of earthquake safety concerns.  Since then city staff has worked at various downtown buildings, while the council and city commissions have held their meetings at Feldheym Library.

Restoring city hall is major priority, but it’s not the primary item on San Bernardino’s “city-restoration” agenda. That would be replacing the former Carousel Mall with a mixed-use residential, retail and office development that will make downtown an attractive place to work and shop.

Nothing less than San Bernardino’s economic future depends on the city council “getting it right” when it decides exactly what to do with that vacant 43-acre site next to Interstate 215, according to Councilman Theodore Sanchez.

“We want something that brings in 50,000 or 60,000 people, something like a school campus,” Sanchez said one year ago, when the council was deciding whether or not to demolish the mall, an action it ultimately took. “We want a crowded downtown that will support businesses, and to get that we need a solid economic driver downtown. Right now, it’s just government employees and homeless people.”

Unfortunately, city hall and the Carousel Mall property might remain unchanged for awhile.  Without a city manager, the council may have a more difficult time getting those projects off the ground.

“We do have a lot on our plate, and that make things more complicated,” said Alexander, who lost his bid for reelection in March and will leave office at the end of this year. “You can’t put a percentage on it – you can’t say it will be 10 times or 20 times more complicated – but not having a city manager in place will definitely make it more difficult.

“If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand municipal government.”

Ultimately, the seven-member council will decide who will be San Bernardino’s next city manager, but how that decision will be made hasn’t been determined, nor has a deadline been set. Prior to Montoya’s hiring, the council considered about 60 “serious” candidates and spoke with 10 to 15 of them before selecting Montoya, according to Alexander.

Even though that process concluded only seven months ago, said he expects to receive a fresh list of candidates when the hiring process begins.

“I haven’t heard for sure, but I think we’re going to start all over again,” Alexander said. “I don’t think we’re going to go back to last year’s list.”

Besides having a track record as a city manager, Councilman Fred Shorett’s ideal candidate to replace Montoya will commit to staying for awhile in San Bernardino, a city that has had eight city managers (several of them interim) since 2015.

“I’m looking for someone who will provide the city with strong leadership,” Shorett said. “That’s my starting point. After that, I want someone who will be around for at least three or four years. I’m not worried about losing a few months on Carousel Mall or the city hall project.

If that happens, I don’t think it would matter that much.”

Shorett declined to discuss the details of Montoya’s firing.

“I wanted him to succeed, because if he succeeded then San Bernardino succeeded, but it didn’t work out,” Shorett said. “So we had to get rid of him, and now we have to replace him, and that won’t be easy. We’re going to have to do our due diligence.”

Montoya’s dismissal did not sit well with Alan Stanly, owner of several downtown San Bernardino properties, including the seven-story Enterprise Building at 320 N. E St., which he’s owned for seven years.

“I believe that Charles Montoya did a lot of good things while he was city manager, and that firing him was a big mistake,” said Stanly, who spoke on Montoya’s behalf before the council on several occasions. “It’s a tremendous setback. He built up a lot of momentum, and now that’s gone.”

The future of the former Carousel Mall property and the city hall renovation are now both in doubt, according to Stanly.

“It could delay both of them for years,” he said.

For now, the council needs to focus on replacing Montoya, a process it has yet to discuss, Mayor Helen Tran said.

“I’m looking for someone who understands San Bernardino, and who will help us continue the progress we’ve made,” Tran said. “Someone who feels the pulse of the city.”

Despite the turnover of the last nine years, being San Bernardino’s city manager remains an attractive job, Tran believes.

“I don’t believe it’s been damaged,” Tran said. “I think there are a lot of qualified people out there, and there’s always someone who is looking for a challenge. We just have to go through the (hiring) process and then make the right decision.”

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