JoAnn Cousino, who had been Barstow’s city clerk for more than two decades, has abruptly resigned from that post after questions were raised concerning her residency and eligibility to hold office.
Cousino’s departure comes amid a significant increase of resident dissent with the direction of the city and accompanying controversy. Cousino’s retirement was effective October 1, some six months after local residents, galvanized by city officials’ move to have residents impose on themselves a 1 percent sales tax override just a year after a previous half cent sales tax proposal failed, have stepped up their questioning of the city’s elected leadership and its decision-making processes. A central element of the growing resident dissatisfaction centers on the pay and benefit levels that have been conferred upon city employees, which have depleted available funds for basic city services.
In an effort to backfill the city’s budget, the city council has gone along with city staff’s plan to increase revenue to run municipal operations by raising taxes. Working residents, meanwhile, most of whom are employed in the private sector, have salaries and weekly paychecks which are on average less than half of those provided to city workers, who have the added advantage over most city residents of being able to count upon pensions in retirement that will outrun the paychecks and salaries of common citizens. Many of those employees will be eligible for pensions exceeding $100,000 per year.
Cousino was a popular figure, both within the 24,000 population city and at City Hall. Known as JoJo, she had begun with the city in 1989 as what she described as a “casual” employee, her first position ever in the workplace.
Originally from a small city in Wisconsin, she would likely have remained there for the rest of her life but for an unfortunate circumstance that befell her sister. Cousino elaborated on that in 2014.
“My sister had gotten sick in Las Vegas, and she passed away from leukemia at a young age, leaving five children,” Cousino said. Before her sister’s death, Cousino had come to Las Vegas to help her sister. At some point thereafter, Cousino’s widower brother-in-law, who worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, was transferred to Yermo. Cousino remained in Las Vegas, taking care of her nieces and nephews, while her brother-in-law was engaged in California, working on the railroad. Five years later, Cousino married her brother-in-law, and, she said, “I moved with the children to live with him in Yermo.” She obtained what she described as her “first job” with the City of Barstow in 1989. She was hired, she said, as “a casual person,” with the city, vectored to assignments as they came up. Among the first of those was one converting city records from paper to a more compact format. “The city had sold the hospital and had Office B up in the medical center loaded with records, and so I was hired as a casual to do the microfilming of all of those records,” she said. “It took me a year-and-a-half to get those records done.”
In 1992, she became deputy city clerk, working under then-City Clerk Donna Sluder. After Sluder’s retirement. Cousino ran successfully for city clerk in 1996.
In Barstow, the city clerk is one of seven elected municipal officials, which include the mayor, four city council members and the city treasurer. The Barstow city clerk has responsibility for multiple functions, providing administrative, legislative, and secretarial support to the city council, the Barstow Fire Protection District, the successor agency to the now shuttered redevelopment agency and its oversight board, the city’s public facilities corporation, the city’s public financing authority, the Barstow Community Services Foundation and the foundation for the Harvey House, which is a major Barstow historical landmark. In addition, the city clerk’s office works in conjunction with the California Secretary of State and the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters as the filing office for elected officials, committees, and designated employees. The city clerk’s office is the reception and cashier center for the city and provides administrative support in the registering of business licenses, collecting transient occupancy taxes, processing public records requests, receiving claims and subpoenas, processing U.S. passports applications, issuing Barstow Area Transit bus passes and preparing certificates of recognition.
Barstow’s city leaders have traditionally chosen to confer upon the city clerk duties other than the role to which that officeholder is elected. Those include that of city historian and manager of the city clerk’s services, which combined provide the city clerk with a substantial salary. In 2016, the last year for which salary and benefit figures for Barstow employees are publicly available, Cousino brought down $111,576 in salary, $23,487 in other pay, and $18,358 in benefits, for a total compensation package of $153,421.
Under Cousino, significant modernization of the city’s public information processes were made. In 2014, she said, “I have been able to bring our city into the 21st Century. We have webcasting for city council meetings and we have an agenda that is on the web so anyone can see them. They can select old agendas or prior to current meetings they can click on it and see the items verbatim, and they can pull the minutes from there. The city council has given us the opportunity to get our records in digital form. We have almost a half of a million records in digitized format. There are many cities in California that don’t have that opportunity.”
Cousino has consistently been very supportive of the city council, which she regularly lauded in superlative terms.
“I thank our great council and administrator for their foresight in letting me progress into the 21st Century,” Cousino said, “because that’s where we get the connection to our citizens and keep it transparent.”
Simultaneously, Cousino has been instrumental in facilitating of the city’s elected leadership in its collective agenda, including, her critics have said, thwarting the competing political efforts of those known to be interested in taking the city in a different direction than the city councils that shared the dais with Cousino over the years.
One such example is Cousino’s disqualification of the city council candidacy of Nathaniel Pickett, Sr. and others in 2016, which resulted in no city council election being held that year and all of the incumbents whose terms were up that year being returned to office without having to stand for reelection.
Her making a finding that some would-be office holders in Barstow were not qualified to run is now viewed as highly ironic, given that Cousino is now herself said to have not been qualified to run for the office she held.
Pickett, who said he had worked in the past with Cousino in efforts to redress homelessness in the community and considered her a friend, told the Sentinel, “JoJo did the dirty work of the council by not allowing certain people to run for office. She was the enforcer. I have been trying to make a difference in this community for years. Two years ago, some people approached me and asked me to run. I submitted my papers and was told the following day after I certified my candidate papers that I did not live in the city. Most people in the city would have vouched that I resided in the city. To make sure I did not get in, the council voted to not allow me or anyone to be elected by cancelling the election, stating that no one submitted a package, and that the city would save $20,000. I sent a letter to the California Attorney General, asking why am I not allowed to run for office, and the city clerk, who lives outside of the city, has been allowed to assume office for many years.”
Cousino acknowledged that at one point she had lived in Yermo.
Pickett said, “She lives in Newberry. I’ve been to her house.”
The Sentinel is informed that earlier this year complaints about Cousino being out of compliance with the residency requirement went to the California Attorney General’s Office and the California Secretary of State. It is unclear whether an official investigation into the matter was opened. Prior to a finding being delivered by either agency, a determination was made by Barstow City Attorney Teresa Highsmith that it would be in the city’s best interest for Cousino to voluntarily leave. Reportedly, city officials, including the mayor, council, Highsmith, and City Manager Curt Mitchell agreed to offer Cousino a “golden handshake” to convince her to leave before the matter reached a critical stage and the city was subjected to what those officials consider “undue embarrassment.”
“Last month the city attorney told JoJo she had to resign,” Pickett said.
Had Cousino not left, there was a distinct possibility that a criminal prosecution would have ensued. In 2010, former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon was charged and in 2014 convicted of voter fraud and perjury for misrepresenting that he lived in a home in Panorama City and claiming it as his voting address so he would be qualified to run for his position on the council.
In a private exchange, Cousino essentially acknowledged that the council had made her resignation an attractive option.
“All is good,” she said. “God created an opportunity for me to retire and those papers were signed in June. The city gave an incentive and I will be able to retire and be debt free. I couldn’t argue with that. I had to protect my work investment and benefits, which might be changed or removed when times are tight, or the governor decides.”
In a statement to the Sentinel yesterday morning delivered through Tanya Gordon, who was deputy city clerk working directly under Cousino and is now considered to be, variously, the acting city clerk or interim city clerk, City Manager Curt Mitchell said of Cousino “She was not forced to resign. It was her decision to retire.”
Curiously, the agenda for the October 15 Barstow City Council meeting yet lists Cousino as the city clerk. That agenda, posted today, October 12, bears Cousino’s signature in blue ink, along with that of Mitchell, Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre and Finance Director Patricia Rosenberg.