A Little F-Town History – James L. Armstrong – A Case Study in Arrogance


In the year 1992 Fullerton’s City Manager Bill Winter was just about out of gas. He had been running on fumes for quite a while and figured it was time to rest on his threadbare laurels. He could also see the handwriting on the wall. A practical cipher, he had let Hugh Berry run the city and the Redevelopment Agency. A culture of permissiveness obtained at City hall during his tenure. Things were about to change – but not for the better.

The Council hired James L. Armstrong to replace Winter. He had been in Anaheim as an Assistant City Mananger and had also done a term at Hanford located somewhere out in the miasma of the San Joaquin Valley.

James L. Armstrong. Nobody Could have Guessed What Was in Store

James L. Armstrong. Nobody Could have Guessed What Was in Store

Armstrong arrived just as the 90s recession was beginning to sink its teeth into the local government wallet. Revenue was falling and something had to be done to protect city workers. Lack of revenue threatened automatic “step increases,” raises, and City PERS contributions. Perhaps Armstrong felt he had the solid backing of the City Council, but the Fullerton novice certainly had no reading of the mood of the electorate.

Within six months of assuming his new job, Armstrong had persuaded Molly Mc Clanahan, Buck Catlin, and Don Bankhead to go along with the imposition of a new Utility Tax. They deliberately denied a plebescite – knowing as they did that it would be rejected. And so they held the usual dog-and-pony budget hearings, passed a budget based on the Utility Tax, and approved the tax, too. Bankhead and Catlin were allegedly conservative Republicans, but that soon became an apparent farce; even worse, Bankhead had run for re-election in the fall of 1992 promising no new taxes!

The citizenry rose up in fury! Raising taxes during a recession just to protect city employees? The tocsin was sounded and an strange new locution echoed through the corridors of City Hall - Recall! The word had never been uttered in staid, conservative Fullerton before. The statists and the public employee unions, and Fullerton’s good-government liberals were aghast. The newly energized pro-recall  crew were seen as outsiders – who are these people, they’ve never served on one our precious committees! Barbarians at the gates! God, almighty! Civilization itself was at stake.

We're From The Steppes, and We're here to Help!

We're From The Steppes, and We're here to Help!

Within a  year the Recalls Committee, gained their signatures, placed a recall on the June 1994 ballot, and successfully recalled Catlin, Bankhead and McClanahan. He had only been on the job eighteen months, but our hero Armstrong had instigated a municipal civil war, and had managed to mismanage three of his supporters into ignominious political humiliation.

Watch Out For That first Step...

Watch Out For That first Step...

The way things ultimately worked out, the new Councilmembers were no better than the old. But the Utility Tax was repealed during the interregnum; without it the City got along just fine. But because the Old Guard had managed to hang on to elected office the managers in City Hall never had to confront the consequences of their point-blank refusal to reconsider the way they ran their departments. This was Fullerton after all.

Meantime Jim Armstrong was a busy fellow. He presided over just about every Redevelopment fumble, boondoggle, and cover-up of the 1990s; he made it very clear that when bureaucrats blundered the wagons were to be circled and nobody (in City Hall) would be any the worse for it. The jewels in his tarnished crown were the attempt in 1993 to forestall the Depot corrective work caused by incompetent design (full story coming soon), the complete mismanagement of the new Corporate Yard project, the deployment of attack dog Susan Hunt – whose job was to kick all citizen groups out of city facilities and keep them out, and his mania to turn public facilities into cost centers administered by city employees (see related post on Hillcrest Park).

lean and mean. Well, lean anyway.

Lean and mean. Well, mean anyway.

An aura of arrogance clung to City Hall like the ripe aroma surrounding  the local Materials Recycling Facility; the City Council was just there to ratify Armstrong’s policy. If they liked that, so much the better. And they sure seemed to.

Whee! We don't actually have to do anything!

Armstrong’s miserable misrule came to an end in 2001 when he took the top job in Santa Barbara – you see in Jim’s line of work nothing succeeds like failure. And he set the bar high for his successor, Chris Myers, who learned from the best: when you find a cushy spot like Fullerton where nobody demands accountability, stick to it like a barnacle – until something better comes along. In the meantime – close ranks, clam-up, and cover up.

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  1. #1 by Matt Leslie on April 26, 2009

    Is this the reason there are currently no free meeting spaces for citizen groups in Fullerton city facilities?

  2. #2 by The Fullerton Shadow on April 27, 2009

    Yes.

    Armstrong and Hunt organized a two-pronged assault. First Hunt started kicking out local organizations that had been using facilities (for free and without Community Service babysitting) for years. The boxing club was kicked out of Chapman Park; the Isaak Walton League was no longer allowed to manage their building in Hillcrest Park; she tried to grab the Lions Field fieldhouse to use for art classes, etc. At the same a new regime of having to pay fees to use facilities was ushered in – even if the use was impact-free. This was about raising revenue, but even more importantly it was about exercizing authority over the citzenry. Hunt and Armstrong were both anal-compulsive about that.

  3. #3 by Joe Sipowicz on April 27, 2009

    The Defenestration of Prague. Too funny!

    Too bad the slugs slimed thir way back in through the window.

  4. #4 by just a guy on April 27, 2009

    The lessons we learned have now been documented for the future generations of Fullerton. In any other city they would have been forgotten. I really appreciate this blog.

  5. #5 by anon on April 27, 2009

    Everybody likes monkeys.

  6. #6 by Joe Sipowicz on April 27, 2009

    Must be. They keep getting elected.

  7. #7 by Coach Jer C. on April 27, 2009

    I wondered what ever happened to Susan Hunt, she left so quietly and quickly, now don’t get me wrong, I’m glad she’s gone, she gave eviction notices to the volunteers from Pop Warner and Bobby Sox, and the next thing we noticed….she was gone?

  8. #8 by X Gman on April 29, 2009

    I’m curious to know how our city employees’ retirement funds fared since the Utility tax wasn’t imposed. Anyone know?

  9. #9 by Jack D on April 29, 2009

    X Gman, this might not answer your question, but it sure is interesting:

    http://www.californiapensionreform.com/calpers/database_results.asp

  10. #10 by Former Recaller on May 4, 2009

    Thanks for this post. It brings back a lot of fond memories of the Recall and how the People took charge of their own fate. As far as Armstrong is concerned, my recollections are of a high-strung, control freak, and arrogant as hell. That’s why Susan Hunt an Paul Dudley were able to be abusive, too.

    Any way thanks for the post. maybe a new generation can learn from it.

  11. #11 by Former City Employee on May 17, 2009

    Swear to God. It was one of Armstrong’s first days on the job. It was Halloween. Then-council member Buck Catlin came to City Hall in a freaking nazi uniform. There were people working in the building whose parents were Holocaust survivors. While Good Ol’ Buck was laughing around with “Heil Hitler”s, one offended employee went to Armstrong to complain. Armstrong did absolutely nothing. What a jerk.

    Any yes, Dudley was abusive. First hand knowledge.

  12. #12 by The Fullerton Harpoon on May 17, 2009

    $1000 to anybody who can produce a photo of Buck Catlin in Nazi uniform!

  13. #13 by Former Fullerton Businesswoman on May 17, 2009

    Jim Strongarm is the reason why Santa Barbara is in the tank and now crying for a utility tax. Fullerton got lucky when he bolted for the coastal hills.

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