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San Bernardino City Council members are seen Wednesday, May 22, 2024, at a special meeting. On the agenda is evaluating City Manager Charles Montoya, deciding whether to fire him, and naming an interim city manager to replace him if they do. (Photo by Beau Yarbrough, ɫ̳/SCNG)
San Bernardino City Council members are seen Wednesday, May 22, 2024, at a special meeting. On the agenda is evaluating City Manager Charles Montoya, deciding whether to fire him, and naming an interim city manager to replace him if they do. (Photo by Beau Yarbrough, ɫ̳/SCNG)
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Charles Montoya, San Bernardino’s city manager for eight months, was fired Wednesday night, May 22.

The San Bernardino City Council voted unanimously in a closed-door session to terminate him without cause. Those gathered at the Feldheym Central Library in San Bernardino applauded when they heard the news.

The council also appointed Deputy City Manager Rochelle Clayton as the acting city manager. Clayton, , was previously assistant city manager in Menifee in Riverside County.

  • Former San Bernardino City Councilmember Rikke Van Johnson speaks Wednesday,...

    Former San Bernardino City Councilmember Rikke Van Johnson speaks Wednesday, May 22, 2024, to council members, criticizing their hiring of Charles Montoya as city manager. (Photo by Beau Yarbrough, ɫ̳/SCNG)

  • Former Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown reads a statement on behalf of...

    Former Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown reads a statement on behalf of her husband, Hardy Brown Sr., publisher emeritus of the Black Voice ɫ̳, at the Wednesday, May 22, 2024, San Bernardino City Council meeting. (Photo by Beau Yarbrough, ɫ̳/SCNG)

  • San Bernardino City Council members are seen Wednesday, May 22,...

    San Bernardino City Council members are seen Wednesday, May 22, 2024, at a special meeting. On the agenda is evaluating City Manager Charles Montoya, deciding whether to fire him, and naming an interim city manager to replace him if they do. (Photo by Beau Yarbrough, ɫ̳/SCNG)

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The vote to appoint Clayton was 5-3, with Councilmembers Theodore Sanchez, Sandra Ibarra and Damon Alexander voting no.

The special meeting opened with comments from the public, many of whom criticized Montoya, who was hired just eight months ago to lead the city.

There were only three items on : evaluating Montoya’s job performance, firing him and appointing an interim city manager. The council spent about an hour and 40 minutes behind closed doors before it emerged and its decision was announced.

The vote comes a week after Barbara Whitehorn, the city’s former director of finance and management services, announced in comments made at the Wednesday, May 15, council meeting that she had been fired.

In her remarks, she alleged that she had been fired for raising concerns about the planned renovation of San Bernardino City Hall, which has been vacant for seven years. Making City Hall capable of surviving a major earthquake — the building is a few miles northeast of the San Andreas Fault — would not take the $80 million figure that had been publicly floated, Whitehorn said, but would cost closer to $120 million.

The debt on such a project would cost the city at least $10 million a year for 30 years, according to Whitehorn.

“The city does not have that money,” she said May 15.

San Bernardino went bankrupt in 2012. It emerged from bankruptcy five years later.

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On Wednesday, none of the roughly dozen public speakers came out in favor of Montoya, who was not in the meeting room.

“After terminating the guy you should have never hired in the first place, you should bring back the former finance director, Barbara Whitehorn,” Rikke Van Johnson, a former councilmember, told the current council.

Laree Robinson posed a question: “Does the city manager work for the city … or does he work for himself?”

She added: “You put a fox in charge of the henhouse.”

Former Assemblymember Cheryl Brown read a statement on behalf of her husband, Hardy Brown Sr., publisher emeritus of the Black Voice ɫ̳.

“Montoya has no trust — and I’m just going to say it — with the Black community. That’s not being racist, it’s just the facts.”

Cheryl Brown asked the council to appoint Whitehorn as interim city manager.

Whitehorn alleged to a reporter after the May 15 meeting that Montoya had tried to blackmail her into quitting by threatening to release “career-ending” information.

The city pushed back two days later, in a statement released Friday, May 17. According to the statement, Whitehorn was an at-will employee who was fired for cause because of financial issues unrelated to the City Hall project.

The council hired Montoya after a contentious nine-month process to replace former city manager Rob Field. Montoya was offered the job Oct. 18. He formally started as city manager Oct. 30, with a salary of $325,000 his first year.

Wednesday night’s review of his performance is the second such review this year. The council discussed the issue behind closed doors May 1. According to , the council must conduct at least one performance review of his work each year.

Montoya started under a cloud and was not the council’s first choice for the job.

The council first offered the city manager’s role to former Salinas City Manager Steve Carrigan on Sept. 6. . But according to a legal claim filed by Carrigan against the city, someone on the seven-member San Bernardino council who was opposed to him getting the job leaked the information to Salinas officials, leading to .

After Carrigan turned San Bernardino down, the council turned to Montoya.

Montoya was formerly the city manager of Avondale, Arizona. At the time he was hired in San Bernardino, he was suing Avondale, alleging breach of contract and defamation of his character. In , Avondale Mayor Kenneth N. Weise alleged five grounds for Montoya’s firing:

  • Montoya did not live in Avondale, as required in his contract
  • He demanded funds from the city to which he was not entitled under his contract
  • He failed to make timely payments on a loan he had taken out against his retirement account
  • He received tuition reimbursement payments beyond what his contract allowed and without proper documentation or going through the appropriate channels
  • He refused to repay vehicle reimbursement funds that he had been paid in error

, as of March 27, Montoya was in the process of settling the claim.

Before working in Avondale, Montoya was the city manager of Watsonville, outside Santa Cruz.

He arrived there as a defendant in a lawsuit filed on behalf of two former police detectives in Florence, Arizona, where Montoya had worked for two and a half years as town manager. Detectives had accused Montoya of covering up corruption in Florence. He denied the allegations in 2015.

When he was hired in October, Montoya defended himself to skeptical city leaders and community members.

“I’ve always given my heart and soul to every single job I’ve done,” he told those assembled at the Oct. 18 meeting before the council vote. “I would do everything I’ve done all over again.”

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