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San Bernardino’s first African American City Manager brought transparency, skill, pride

By Chris Levister

When Charles McNeely walked into a June 2009 reception hosted by the Inland Empire African American Chamber of Commerce (IEAACC) the crowd burst into applause. “My first reaction was ‘Hallelujah’,” recalls IEAACC president Carl Dameron. “We finally have a brilliant, experienced, educated, Black professional, with a laudable track record of working collaboratively to get things done.” “San Bernardino is a city with great potential,” McNeely said days after the City Council appointed him to the position in March of 2009. “We’re going to do great things together.”

Three years later, Thursday, March 22, McNeely threw in the towel blaming the turbulent politics at City Hall.

“It’s really about the politics of this community,” McNeely said, calling the environment “toxic” and “horrendous.”

“If they want to govern that way, I choose not to be a part of it.” McNeely who previously served for 13 years as the top administrator in Reno, Nev., said resistance to his leadership strategies surfaced early in his tenure. He once quipped “These guys insist on dueling while Rome burns.”

“His resignation is a damn shame but no surprise,” said Dr. Jesse Patterson a retired public administrator and advisor on matters of public policy. “It was inevitable,”

“He was the hope for sensible person of exemplary skill and vision who would drag our city back from the brink of self destruction,” says Sixth Ward City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson. “But even more importantly, take the emergency measures necessary for our city and its citizens to cope with the Great Recession that beset us in 2008.”

“He was a pragmatic visionary – a Black man who was going to come to a city known for its protracted history of exclusion to create an environment that would lift all boats, not just the boats of a few,” recalls longtime Inland community leader Francis Grice.

Reports of McNeely’s departure heated up in December 2011 when the Black Voice News published a commentary that said he might leave in January, 2012 because a reshaped council might not agree with his direction. Robert Jenkins took office in August, 2011 and John Valdivia joined the dais this month.

“It is a fight that I am certain any sane person, McNeely included, would not want to engage in everyday and tarnish a good reputation of public service to many communities. I will hate to see anyone pushed out of a job but it is a double whammy loss to the Black citizens of the community,” wrote BVN publisher Hardy Brown. McNeely said he has been alarmed about the political climate of the city since the departure of Police Chief Keith Kilmer last year, but March 19’s council meeting, where city staffers again faced harsh criticism from some council members, was the last straw.

“This new council also might become problematic to the new chief of police Robert Handy,” added Brown.

“In my opinion, the last police chief left or was pushed out by the association, some council members, and an argumentative city attorney, who has not changed his approach to being the city’s legal counsel.” Shortly after McNeely resigned, James Graham, assistant to the city manager, who joined the city in November 2010 and worked with McNeely in Reno and Public Works Director Nadeem Majaj also, tendered their resignations. These resignations are not about race or male vs. female, said Dameron. “This is a 20-year battle by certain people in and out of City Hall who want to maintain the status quo.”

Other city officials, including Mayor Pat Morris, lamented the loss of high-profile employees due to the city’s divisive politics.

“The goal in hiring McNeely was to bring professionalism to City Hall,” said Morris.

“Instead he and his staff have been subjected to “highly emotional, highly accusatory” attacks from council members during public meetings.” Councilman Johnson also blamed “the toxic environment at City Hall” and predicted McNeely and the others won’t be the last to leave.

“You have high level workers quitting and retiring early at record levels. Some leave quietly, others — notably former Police Chief Keith Kilmer — spoke out openly about the toxic atmosphere that drove their resignations.” Kilmer was the second police chief to depart in the past six years; the finance director retired in December.

In recent months, the city has also witnessed the departure of an assistant fire chief, assistant police chief and assistant parks and recreation director, Johnson said.

“We can expect the talent exodus to get worse,” said Johnson “Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years to change over the short term.”

“I think Charles has done a fine job under extraordinarily difficult conditions,” City Councilman Fred Shorett said.

Councilwoman Virginia Marquez called McNeely’s departure a sad day for the city and praised his ability to recruit top talent. “He brought openness with a management style that gave objective business recommendations to the council for public policy based on researching the issue. He also integrated the workforce from top to bottom to reflect the diversity of the community that resides within,” said Brown.

“I find it frustrating, that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in our city and in our governing institutions,” said Rev. Oliver Lambert longtime community organizer and pastor of Missions for Jesus Christ in San Bernardino.

“With so many of our citizens in dire straits, while many of our public service employees live and spend their dollars outside our city, one is not surprised that San Bernardino is not only the second most impoverished city in the U.S. but one of the nation’s most dysfunctional,” said Lambert.

McNeely’s contract was due to expire June 1. He will depart City Hall May 1.

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