Ex-San Bernardino County CEO Leonard X. Hernandez lands job in Washington state

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Former San Bernardino County CEO Leonard X. Hernandez has landed a new job.

Hernandez has been appointed county manager in Thurston County, Washington, the county where Olympia is located. He was formally announced as the county’s new manager at a Board of County Commissioners work session Monday, Feb. 12.

The new job comes after a tenure in San Bernardino County that included dramatic missteps and a management style that some current and former employees characterized as bullying and toxic.

“After a lengthy and through hiring process, including multiple panels with internal and external stakeholders, Mr. Hernandez was the top candidate,” Thurston County Commission Chair Tye Menser said in a county news release. “He brings a wealth of experience and fresh ideas which will be of great benefit to the county.”

Hernandez was one of five finalists interviewed in December, the Olympian newspaper reported.

Former San Bernardino CEO Leonard Hernandez, seen Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, has been hired for a government post in Washington state. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Hernandez resigned from his San Bernardino County government post in August, citing urgent family health matters, even as he was dogged by rumors of an inappropriate workplace relationship. Though his resignation became official Aug. 16, he had been out on personal leave since Aug. 8. Hernandez was replaced by former county Chief Operating Officer Luther Snoke, who became CEO in September.

Hernandez was appointed San Bernardino County CEO in September 2020. Before that, he was the county’s chief operating officer, deputy executive officer, interim museum director, county librarian and head of the Fontana library. During a stopover in Riverside County, Hernandez was the city of Riverside’s director of libraries. His contract as CEO had been extended through 2028 in April 2022.

Thurston County will pay Hernandez $220,000 annually, with a hiring bonus of $20,000 and a $5,000 moving stipend. That’s a significant drop from his final San Bernardino County salary of $391,768. According to Salary.com, the cost of living in Olympia is 18.9% lower than Chino, where Hernandez lived while working in San Bernardino County. A comparable cost of living would then be $317,723, meaning Hernandez is taking, in effect, about a $97,000 pay cut in his new position.

Hernandez is scheduled to start his new job April 1.

Once that happens, San Bernardino County will cash out his remaining unused leave time and Hernandez will stop accruing vacation time, sick time, retirement credits and other benefits, according to San Bernardino County spokesperson David Wert. But Hernandez will get one final raise, an salary increase for many county workers that goes into effect Saturday, Feb. 24.

Hernandez departed under a cloud

Hernandez’s last year in San Bernardino County was marred by the county’s mishandling of several high-profile failures.

In late 2022, the county gave back $4.4 million in federal funds meant to help the county’s homeless population. Hernandez initially blamed the county’s nonprofit partners for delays in putting the money to work, but local nonprofit groups fired back. They said the county “sat” on the money for two years and that internal turmoil in county government led to a succession of county officials being assigned to work with them, some allegedly with little understanding of how the county was responding to its homelessness crisis or how federal grant funding worked. San Bernardino County’s homeless numbers jumped 26% in 2023, more than double the national average.

San Bernardino County’s response to winter storms that hammered San Bernardino Mountains communities last February and March was widely criticized by residents.

Internal documents obtained through the California Public Records Act showed communication and coordination issues hampered the county’s ability to respond to the blizzard after a slow start. Those issues were echoed in a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department report, which questioned whether county government should remain in charge of emergency response — a responsibility it only picked up in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The county’s own long-delayed report on the storm response, released last month, found that numerous internal organizational and communication issues interfered with helping stranded residents in a timely fashion.

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’

Hernandez’s nearly three years leading San Bernardino County created a culture of bullying and intimidation, with experienced employees pushed out in favor of appointees in sync with Hernandez’s way of doing things, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and past county employees.

Hernandez did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Hernandez created a culture in which good managers were preferred over those with expertise and all decisions required his final approval, some of those interviewed said. Dozens of experienced county employees left during his time as CEO, many of them department heads and directors. Most were women.

“I think about my many friends and colleagues at my previous job, who would text some of us during leadership meetings, warning us that we shouldn’t speak up so much, that the CEO and executive staff didn’t appreciate strong women, that we should watch our backs,” Veronica Kelley, San Bernardino County’s former director of behavioral health, wrote in a September 2023 post on LinkedIn.

Kelley worked for the county 12 years before resigning in December 2021.

Members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors said they did not know of any problems with Hernandez’s management style, and praised his accomplishments, including San Bernardino County almost doubling its number of awards from the National Association of Counties. Its awards jumped from 82 in 2021 to 160 in 2022.

Fourth District County Supervisor Curt Hagman credited Hernandez for balancing the county budget, with significant funding set aside for reserves, rebranding San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control to the Animal Care Center, building a new headquarters for the Fire Protection District, and improving the county’s regional parks.

Hagman said he received no “actionable” complaints from employees or others about Hernandez, and stands by the former CEO’s performance and outcomes.

“Leonard was a strong and hard-working CEO, who kept the board office well informed, worked with his team to produce quality results, and demonstrated to my office that he was collaborative and respectful,” Hagman wrote in an email.

Hernandez told employees he prioritized workplace culture and having effective managers, rather than employee expertise.

“What we need at this time is folks that know how to build the right culture,” Hernandez said at an event at the San Bernardino County Museum in June 2023, according to a video shared with the Southern California News Group. “Once you start to foster the right culture, the right things grow.”

His team’s battle cry, he said, quoting the late management expert Peter Drucker, was that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

“We can talk strategy all day long, but if you don’t have the right culture, that fosters the right environment where good things grow, what we found is a lot of good intentions just never materialize,” Hernandez said during the event.

Some current and former employees said Hernandez ruled with an iron fist.

“The phrase he would use was ‘I’m going to discipline you out of the organization,’” said Natalie Griffith, who worked under Hernandez during the five years he was county library director. “The glee that would be on his face.”

Griffith, who is now retired, said Hernandez micromanaged all the librarians below him, stripping them of their power to make even routine decisions.

“Within two to three years, more than half of our senior librarians had retired,” Griffith said. “And more than half of them told me it wasn’t voluntary. The things he said and did to them caused them to retire.”

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