Interview: Director of Finance – San Bernardino, California

Some people were guided by the North Star while others used a giant Arrowhead on the side of a mountain…

Too often, American history resorts to the eastern side of the United States when colonizers first got to the United States. Introduce other events like wars, slavery, financial collapses, and various political and economic victories, and by the time we get around to the history of the western United States, we’re thrown random bits of information that can’t be pieced together for a story. That’s why I decided to find a city in the Western part of the United States and learn a bit more about it. Not just any city though. A prominent and well-known city.

San Bernardino, California is the 18th largest city in the state. Though, they didn’t start that way. In 1810, it inhabited its first Spanish settlement. Rancho San Bernardino exuded an incredible amount of beautiful views; one of the most profound ones being on the side of the San Bernardino Mountains: An arrowhead. This arrowhead pointed towards health and rejuvenation. The hot and cold springs in that area were recognized for their healing properties.

San Bernardino Arrowhead Mountain

Through an unfortunate turn of events, the city began to change. It wasn’t until after the Conquest of California in 1846 that the Church of Latter-Day Saints purchased the area and renamed it. In 1851, San Bernardino got its name. The new inhabitants of the area designed the city after the “City of Zion”, also referred to as Jerusalem. In 1857, after the boom in population, the city was incorporated and in the late 19th century (the 1800s), the city became a commercial hub.

Through another series of unfortunate events, the Mormon culture that had been heavily established took a bad turn. A massacre tarnished the reputation and legacy, opening opportunities for new colonists to purchase land and property. As these new settlers started making homes in the area, laws and activities that were frowned upon by the Mormons began to be more prevalent. Drinking and fighting were more common, and the culture in the newly established San Bernardino began to dwindle.

However, between 1860 and 1905, the city began to change. In 1860, San Bernardino was involved in the California Gold Rush. 20 years later, the word of the cold and hot springs got out. In 1867 the first Chinese immigrants made a home in San Bernardino. In 1883 the California Southern Railroad linked LA with the rest of the country, creating a commercial hub in San Bernardino. In 1905, Arrowhead water was made from those springs in the mountains- I’m sure you’ve seen the water bottles around. In that same year, the city passed its first charter!

Fast forward 117 years to today, after Mcdonald’s founded their innovative fast food processes there, I get to read and write about this history. I also have the opportunity to learn from people who are currently working in the city – one of my favorite parts of writing about state and local governments!

In 1977, San Bernardino claimed an “All American City” award. In 2012 San Bernardino went bankrupt with more than $1 billion in debt. It’s such a large turn of events and one of the largest cities to go bankrupt. That’s why I reached out to the Finance Director in the city to talk a little bit more about her experiences and views on the city:

Interview with Barbara Whitehorn:

I knew Barbara was going to be one of my favorite people to interview after doing just a little bit of research into her background and who she actually is as a person.

As you know, I like to start my questions off on a lighter foot, so I started by asking her, where was the last time she vacationed and what was her favorite thing about the place?

“Vacation? What’s that? No, seriously. Um… Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. My favorite thing about it was that the Atlantic ocean is warm. I love the ocean; I like to swim out past the breakers and then tread water for hours (or until someone thinks I’m trapped out there and calls a lifeguard- it’s happened to me twice now, super embarrassing).

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned while working with local government employees, it’s that they’re very busy! The fact that she’s making time to have fun is fantastic – and why not playfully make the lifeguard uneasy while doing it?

The reason why I reached out to “B” isn’t only because of the city’s financial history, but I wanted to dive a little deeper into her own history as well. Her bachelor’s degree is in Art, and she later obtained an MBA in Finance and Accounting. I asked her why she made that transition from art to numbers:

“I didn’t, really. I have always loved both. I almost double-majored in Art History and Mathematics. Then I decided that I was way too lazy for that and rugby/alcohol was more fun than studying.”

Barbara is what some might consider a spirit animal! Living life to the fullest is how she planned it from the beginning, and who can blame her for not wanting to double-major with a mathematics degree? Art… now that’s exciting!

I like art myself, and with her having a degree in it, I assumed she has some knowledge and resources that we could check out in our free time. I asked her about them, along with has any creative outlets that she has:

“I paint (occasionally, when I have time) and I sketch all the time. None of my notebooks for work have lines. I am always sketching or drawing (pen and ink). My Dad, Art Elser, is a published poet, so another outlet for me is reading his poetry.”

I like that style of freedom. It takes a different type of mindset to be able to look at a blank page and have the ability to construct something! I did take a look at the work of her dad, Art, who’s a former member of the military and has his Ph.D. in English. The best part is that he’s here in Colorado where I am!

At this point, I wanted to talk start asking about her experience in government. She’s worked in Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, and now California. I asked her, “what are some common areas of opportunity in local government that you’ve noticed? What are common good practices?”

“Every state is different and yet, local government is much the same. There are always weird rules or crazy things about individual states (or even a particular region or county). Best practices are really common across the board. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) is the place to find the latest and greatest. Local government lost a lot of jobs at the beginning of COVID and hasn’t recovered as quickly as the rest of the economy as far as rehiring. That said, I think opportunities are there for people who want to work in public service.” 

I like that she mentioned the weird rules with each state. One of my next projects with the blog is to write a little bit about how each state government works – so that will be an interesting process. But, to reiterate for the readers, “opportunities are there for people who want to work in public service.”

I personally would like to help with the marketing and communication side of local government, but talking with the Finance Director, I wanted to know what are the most important (technical & non-technical) skills for being a Finance Director and how has her experience being a controller/consultant helped?

“The technical accounting and financial skills are all good, but honestly, the most important skill at the level of director or CFO is communication. If you can’t write clearly, concisely and in language that isn’t filled with accounting jargon, forget it. And public speaking! You have to be able to present financial information in layperson terms. And when I say layperson, I mean, 4th-grade level terms. Not that I’m suggesting that people aren’t smart. Using common language shows respect for the people to whom we are speaking. For example, a brain surgeon isn’t necessarily going to understand assets equal liabilities plus equity, any more than a financial professional understands the function of the hippocampus. But the brain surgeon simplifies her area of expertise so that we understand it- not because we’re idiots, but because we aren’t brain surgeons. When she simplifies it, she shows respect for the people to whom she is speaking, because she wants them to understand what she is saying. Of course, using common language doesn’t mean condescension- that’s something that can be challenging when people who are really technically skilled and haven’t spent a lot of time working on their communication can get tripped up. And once someone believes that you are condescending to them- you are done. They aren’t listening now and they aren’t going to listen to you in the future.”

She’s exactly right! Communication is key and being able to articulate your thoughts in a way that everyone can understand is an underrated skill. As she said, don’t talk down, simply inform and be ready to ask any questions the other person might have.

To piggyback off of the skills that are required, I wanted to know what tools she uses that are most helpful in her position:

“I tell people not to get bogged down in spending 100% of your time reading about your job and trying to get better at your job. Get better at being a human, and you’ll be better at your job. Take time to breathe. Don’t sit all day. Set reminders to get up and walk around. I had one of my cancer docs (yep- it’s been a fun year) tell me that I should go sit outside in the sun for 10 minutes a day. I read novels. Lots of novels. Mysteries, sci-fi, whatever. I read probably two or three a week.”

This woman is amazing. I don’t want to add anything to what she said, I just want to encourage you to read it again.

It sounds like she has most things figured out, but everyone has trials and tribulations at their jobs. I asked her what would make her job easier:

“1,000 more staff? Nothing within my control.”

And that’s completely understandable. Everyone could do more with more people. That’s why I like to emphasize technology and software that can take the place of some of those people. If you’re a Finance Director in another state/city and have a software solution that’s helping you significantly, I’d like for you to share it on the govStrategy community page or reach out to B.

With her years of service in finances, her decision-making is practical and well thought out. I asked her, “What do you take into consideration when determining if the city should budget for an item/service?”

“(1) How does this benefit the community? If it doesn’t, like we are improving an internal software, then, (2) How does this improve internal processes and either save taxpayer money or staff time? (3) Are there alternatives we haven’t considered? (4) Are there shared service considerations? For example, if a department is asking to hire an Accounting Technician- do they need their own, or can they share services with another co-located department? There are many more, but these are the top questions I can think of.”

It seems like the general thought process isn’t a selfish one. The more people who benefit from a budget item, the better! New and future finance directors, take note!

On top of that piece of advice, I asked for some more that she’d give to a new Finance Director:

“Relax. It’s really a fun job. You’ll do great.”

I’m a fan of numbers, making decisions, and budgeting, so I can see how this job has its perks! I’d like to emphasize the “relax” part. Everything can be fixed and if a person like B, knowing the financial state of the city, can stay positive, you can too.

I decided to end the questions on another lighter note. NOT to gauge her financial discipline at all, I asked her what she would do if she inherited $100,000 from a long, lost relative:

“Priorities, priorities… hmmm… add a hot tub to the pool and add heat to the pool (moving to California required that I have a pool- BEST THING EVER). Redo a few things around the house.”

You could say there are some luxuries to living in California!

Barbara Whitehorn, MBA, CTP

Continuing to look at the Arrowhead as a sign of rejuvenation and life…

So, what’s next for the city of San Bernardino?

A couple of questions that I asked myself: How does the city continue to recover from the bankruptcy? What kind of culture does it want to establish and how does it continue to establish that culture? After all, the city is home to the largest fast-food chain in the world!

Maybe “diversifying the portfolio”. Finding new sources of income is not only beneficial on a personal level, but on a city level as well. Learning from neighboring cities that have been able to find multiple streams of income is something that the city can do. Resources such as our community that we’re building here with govStrategy will allow individuals to seek out help and ask uncomfortable questions – because we’re all just figuring things out.

How does San Bernardino grow their population? Bringing in new residents is the main goal for every municipality because it brings in new tax revenue, new businesses, and overall economic growth. What are similar cities like Detroit doing to grow their population? Is a rebrand necessary for the city to keep prospering?

Having a comprehensive plan is important for long-term planning and it creates an amazing amount of transparency. This transparency can allow others to take a look inside your processes and also allows you to take a look into other agencies’ processes. Collaboration is key and our goal is to enhance that collaboration through our communities and consolidated website for comprehensive plans

Check out San Bernardino’s vision and goals here; and check out neighboring municipalities here.

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