Pat Morris

Pat Morris ends his run as San Bernardino mayor on Monday as the city struggles through bankruptcy proceedings. (Rachel Luna — Staff Photographer)

By Ryan Hagen, The Sun
Posted: 03/01/14, 6:03 PM PST |

SAN BERNARDINO >> With a comedian’s timing and a victor’s posture, Mayor Pat Morris was all smiles last week as he exchanged praise and plans with local, state and federal dignitaries at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new transit center.

And at the event celebrating a milestone in a planned transportation renaissance he has made a signature of his last few years in office, he hinted at another hard-fought victory. After years of bemoaning “toxic politics” and division among city officials, all of the newly elected officials were present except Mayor-elect Carey Davis, who was at a Chapter 9 mediation session.

“If you don’t know what Chapter 9 is,” Morris quipped, “I won’t tell you.”

That would be Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code. That would be the legal protection that allowed the city to put off paying $34 million that it owed to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and others, that allowed the city to avoid what Morris himself once said would be “death” if creditors got what they were owed.

It’s also a protection that’s at risk, after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed last week to hear CalPERS’ appeal of whether the city truly qualifies for bankruptcy.

The specter of that bankruptcy hangs over the city as Morris prepares to pass the torch to Davis on Monday after eight pivotal years leading one of the few and one of the largest cities to enter Chapter 9, and as he joked at the groundbreaking, he isn’t keen to advertise it.

But ask him about the litigation, and he speaks with an optimism that wasn’t always present in the first year since the city filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

“Great progress was made on that this week, great progress with CalPERS at the negotiating table,” Morris said Friday, referring to the mediation sessions at the beginning of the week.

By order of the judge overseeing mediation, Morris is limited in what he can say, but the positivity he’s showed in his last week of office contrasts with grim assessments others have given and that he himself sometimes shared — in his final State of the City address in October, he said the city was going through a “nightmare.”

And yes, Morris said Friday, great challenges and great problems remain. But he sees a city headed in the right direction.

“I leave with a sense of optimism about our city’s future, and arrived the same way,” he said. “Despite the great meltdown of our last many years and the toxic politics of our city, the landscape is changing. The economy is in recovery and so are we.”

Within that “despite” clause, Morris reiterates what he’s often suggested are two of the toughest challenges in the city and contributors to its bankruptcy.

The meltdown he referred to is an economic one, measured by unemployment and lowered tax revenues and other slowly changing numbers seen in the Inland Empire and beyond.

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