Uffer Era Ends on a 3-2 Vote
Mark Uffer’s five-year tenure as the county’s top administrative officer drew to a close this week with a 3-2 vote of the board of supervisors.
The sacking of Uffer, who was named interim county administrative officer in March 2004 and then given the official title as CAO in September 2004, was not done for cause, the county board members said. Rather, the three supervisors who favored having him take his leave said it was simply a matter of their changing management and policy imperatives rendering him out of step with their collective marching orders that sealed Uffer’s fate.
“The board felt it was necessary to move in a different direction at this time.” said board of supervisors chairman Gary Ovitt, who joined with supervisors Brad Mitzelfelt and Neil Derry in approving the motion to terminate Uffer.
“The board felt it was a time for a change in leadership and direction and that is why the board made this change,” said Derry. “Despite the end result of the vote, I believe Mark Uffer has done his best for the county.”
Since no cause was cited in giving Uffer his pink slip, he will be granted a full year’s pay and benefits as a severance package, as per the terms of an ordinance passed by the board in January.
Thus, Uffer will be paid his annual salary of $273,748 and about $50,000 more in deferred compensation and benefits, including cell phone, car allowance, retirement plan contributions and health insurance. Those payments will run through November 16, 2010. Thereafter, Uffer, 56, will be eligible to begin drawing retirement.
Multiple efforts by the Sentinel to reach Uffer for his reaction were unsuccessful. A secretary at the county administrative office on Wednesday said, “I do not believe we are at liberty to provide you with his contact number at this point.”
While the official comments of the board and the surviving county administration relating to Uffer were respectful and low key, maintaining there was nothing amiss with Uffer’s handling of the machinery of county government, the Sentinel’s inquiries as to the actual motivation for the change in top management were met with depictions of an administrator who was feared more than he was respected and respected more than he was liked.
Off the record explanations from several high ranking and mid ranking county officials as to why Uffer was sent packing underscored his cocksureness and heavy-handedness as traits that grated on those both above and below him over the long haul.
As early as 2007, there was sentiment on the board to have Uffer removed as CAO. Then-supervisor Dennis Hansberger was unwilling to entertain his release, however, and the two supervisors who this week opposed Uffer’s firing – supervisors Josie Gonzales and Paul Biane – were further not willing to make a top managerial change.
Upon Neil Derry’s defeat of Hansberger in 2008, Derry was under immediate pressure to, in the words of one high ranking county official, “pull the trigger on Mark from the day he was sworn in.”
Derry, however, resisted that call, insisting that he wanted to observe Uffer’s performance before making any decision with regard to his future with the county.
This week, eleven months after he assumed office, Derry fell into line with Ovitt and Mitzelfelt’s line of thinking.
According to one well placed source, Mitzelfelt’s relationship with Uffer had never been comfortable, primarily because, the source said, Uffer was less accommodating of Mitzelfelt than the supervisor felt he should be. This was an outgrowth of the manner in which Mitzelfelt came into office, i.e. through appointment in the aftermath of former supervisor Bill Postmus’s departure to become assessor.
“Brad and Mark got off on the wrong foot,” the source said. “When Brad became a supervisor, Mark Uffer did not treat him as an equal to the others because he came in as an appointed supervisors rather than as an elected one.”
With Ovitt, the major issue dividing him from the CAO was “lack of trust,” a source close to the board of supervisors said. “Gary and members of his staff have expressed that Mark was not always accurate in his representations to supervisor Ovitt and the board in general. It was felt that he had a crude management stylethat pitted supervisor against supervisor, department head against department head.”
There was no single catalyst that resulted in Uffer’s firing, according to that source. Rather it was an accumulation of smaller issues over a long period, he said.
Uffer did not gracefully weather bad news or jostling developments, according to someone who worked with him on a close and continuous basis.
“He would kill the messenger,” the county official said.
Another county employee, one at a lower ranking position, related that Uffer was too insistent on form and perception of competence and public acceptance and approval than in actual competence and performance.
“He kept giving this speech about McDonalds and how McDonalds provides first rate customer service and satisfaction and how he wanted the county residents to be as satisfied with the county at the planning counter or the courthouse or the county hospital as the customers are at McDonalds,” she said. “But the county isn’t in the business of selling hamburgers or french fries. Government is different from business.”
Another county employee said Uffer had lost the loyalty of key county workers down the chain of command.
“Uffer would throw the county’s mid-level managers and even department heads under the bus to save himself,” the employee said. “He was unforgiving of mistakes, even ones of reasonable nature where someone would be trying to innovate or try something new. If it didn’t work, he would hold them responsible. A fair number of department heads have left as of late. There was just a lack of trust by mid-level management.”
That perceived lack of tolerance for innovation or experimentation was at a variance with the reputation that preceded Uffer’s elevation into the interim and then full blown county administrative post.
For six years before that promotion he had been the administrator at Arrowhead Medical Center in Colton, the county hospital that had been mired in controversy for years before it was built but which enjoyed a decent reputation under Uffer’s leadership.
“He enjoyed great success as director of Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and prior to that as a top executive in the health care industry,” David Wert, the county’s official spokesman in 2004 and yet today wrote at the time of Uffer’s ascendency to the CAO post five years ago.
“Mark is an innovative problem-solver who has done an excellent job as interim CAO,” said Dennis Hansberger, who was then chairman of the board of supervisors. “He is an exceptional steward of the public’s resources and a very gifted leader. The board, the county’s employees, and the public are very fortunate that someone with Mark’s abilities is available to us.”
The board took up the issue of Uffer’s performance and the prospect of his continued tenure with the county during a closed session at the start of this week’s board of supervisors meeting on Tuesday. That closed hearing lasted about forty minutes and took place in a room from which Uffer was excluded. According to a well place source, “There was a debate but there was no shouting and no crying” during the board’s private deliberations. Upon the taking of the 3-2 vote to terminate Uffer, the board emerged from the room and before informing the public of its decision, a somewhat surprised Uffer was told that he was being let go.
“He did not take it well,” was how someone who overheard that exchange described it.
Uffer’s second-in-command, assistant county administrative officer Dean Arabatzis will temporarily assume Uffer’s responsibilities until the board announces who will serve as interim CAO.
Supervisor Derry said he believes he and his colleagues will look beyond those currently employed by the county as candidates to replace Uffer. “I tend to doubt we will go in-house, given that a majority of the board wants change.”
The greatest likelihood, Derry said, is that the board will choose a replacement from California who is conversant with the current fiscal constraints being put on local governments by Sacramento.
“I’m not sure we will go nationwide in our recruitment,” Derry said, saying the board will be looking at the ranks of city managers in considering a workable replcement. “There are a number of people within California and within San Bernardino County who would be suitable.”