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The challenge of governing a bankrupt city


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    San Bernardino City Hall

    - Russel Calkins

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    Concepcion Powell founder of the Concerned Citizens Council. Behind her is the empty space where her American flag stood before it was stolen from her office.

    - Russel Calkins

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    San Bernardino mayor Pat Morris


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    Rush hour in downtown San Bernardino.

    - Russel Calkins

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    Mayor Morris hopes the new Bus Rapid Transit system will revive the downtown Carousel Mall.

    - Russel Calkins

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    The mayor's plan for San Bernardino is to use the California theater as an anchor for a downtown entertainment district.

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    The new bus system will link to this newly renovated Metrolink station which connects San Bernardino to much of Southern California.

    - Russel Calkins

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    There is a plethora of cheap property in San Bernardino.

    - Russel Calkins

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    - Russel Calkins

When a city files for bankruptcy, it means a lot of things change -- including the little things.

“I was talking with city council people,” recalls Concepcion Powell, a citizen activist. “And Miss Marquez was telling me they don't even have toilet paper.”

But Powell, founder of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, didn’t give councilor Virginia Marquez the response she was expecting.

“'Good,'" I said. "‘I'm glad because now you know how people feels.’ And she just looked at me like she couldn't believe what I was saying. I don't know if she was expecting me to say, ‘Oh, I'll get you guys a whole bunch.’"

Powell is not alone in blaming City Hall for the mess the city is in.

“All of these people spend more time fighting then really creating a plan for the city,” she says.

And Mayor Pat Morris agrees.

“It's an embarrassment,” he says. “The lack of civility at the table is a sad experience for me.”

Mayor since 2006, Morris presides over a city with a unique political divide -- one that’s been intensified since San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy this summer.

While in many cities you might see the division fall between republicans and democrats, in San Bernardino many people will tell you they either support the mayor or James Penman, the city attorney. Morris calls their relationship “conflictual.”

“He ran against me on both occasions when I've run for mayor,” Morris says. “He's by definition my lawyer and should be my closest ally and in fact it's quite the opposite.”

The city attorney declined a request for an interview. His wife Judy Penman is the head of the Bernardino Chamber of Commerce, and is relentlessly positive about the city’s future.

“We have a slogan here: It's a great day in San Bernardino,” she says.

Speaking of the challenges facing the city -- she eschews the word “problems” -- she says she is not worried about luring new businesses to the city.

“I don't think that necessarily stops people from coming in here,” she says. “I just spoke to somebody who called and said they had talked to not a council person but an elected official and said that person was always professional always honest and that person was very proud to do business with the city.”

When it comes to the future, Morris says the bankruptcy has forced San Bernardino to consider major reforms to every aspect of the how the city operates. Small ideas will no longer cut it, and Morris is banking on a future built around a project called SBX -- a rapid transit bus system that’s 16 miles long.

The new bus line uses a system called light prioritization. When a bus approaches an intersection the traffic light automatically turns from red to green.

“So you can compete with automobile for speed and efficiency,” Morris says.

The idea is that with easy access to the the regional transportation network, San Bernardino will be connected to the rest of Southern California -- making it an ideal bedroom community for people who work in nearby cities.

“When we complete our projects relative to transportation, we will have one of the first cities east of L.A. to have an alternative transportation system,” Morris says.

But whether that transportation system is enough to save San Bernardino, a city in a region of the country built around the automobile remains to be seen. 

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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