For the second time in less than a month, a strong-willed and once-dominant mayor of a San Bernardino County city has been unanimously censured by his city council colleagues.
In this case it was Barstow Mayor Paul Courtney, who was officially rebuked on a 4-to-0 vote of the city council on December 21.
There were parallels to but also differences from the action taken by the San Bernardino City Council on December 1, when that panel voted to censure Mayor John Valdivia. One element of the Barstow council’s expression of disapproval for Courtney related to using his status as the head of the city as well as the use of the city’s name and logo to engage in what has been interpreted as a political mailing camouflaged as an official handbill aimed at promoting the city but which Courtney’s critics maintained was intended to advance himself politically. Courtney was further charged with overstepping his reach as mayor in effectuating official action. Those acts were not too different from the behavior the city council in San Bernardino found so offensive related to Valdivia utilizing city resources to send out mailers inviting what were essentially his political contributors to attend a fundraiser disguised as a post-state of the city speech reception.
The admonishment delivered to Courtney, nonetheless, differed from that leveled at Valdivia, in that the activity Courtney engaged in did not involve, at least directly, the expenditure of public funds, and the objections to the Barstow mayor’s comportment pertain in the main more to the domineering elements of his personality and political ambition than the venal and graft-ridden particulars of Valdivia’s function in office.
Courtney in 2020 experienced a rapid and mostly unanticipated rise to the top of the political hill in Barstow, a desert railroad town that was once key to San Bernardino County’s establishment as not only the nation’s largest county but one of its more dynamic ones in terms of mining, manufacturing, travel and logistics at the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century. The ninth of the county’s 24 municipalities to incorporate, Barstow was at one point the county’s fourth largest city in terms of population, but since that time has fallen to become, at 23,857 residents, the 20th largest of the county’s 24 cities and incorporated towns.
Courtney in 2020 challenged and defeated Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre, a niece of one of Barstow’s most successful entrepreneurs, Ed Hackbarth, the co-founder of the Del Taco fast food chain.
Courtney, as the chief executive officer of PACE Services Corporation which he founded in Barstow in April 1986, had become a pillar of the community by virtue of a multitude of considerations beyond being a Barstow native intimately familiar with the community. Those included his status as the owner/operator of one of the city’s more successful businesses; his participation in the Barstow Chamber of Commerce, including his time as a board member; his previous service, from 2005 until 2010 on the Barstow Fire Protection District Board of Trustees; and, perhaps most significantly, his lineage, as he is the son of William Courtney, a one-time Barstow police officer and former city councilman.
Courtney ran in league with two other newcomers to Barstow municipal politics, Barbara M. Rose, a 13-year member of the Barstow Unified School District Board of Trustees, and Marilyn Dyer-Kruse, an employee of the development company owned by Michael Lewis, Barstow’s elected treasurer since 2012 and one of Courtney’s major political backers. The three campaigned together and became known to many in the city as the “Troika,” appearing on billboards, mailers and fliers they put out in common. An important element of Courtney’s appeal to the city’s voters was to belabor that the city was in what he said was a precarious financial state, while he simultaneously emphasized the need to ensure that funds generated by Measure Q, a one cent-per-dollar sales tax override put on the local ballot for the November 2018 election by the city council and approved by 59 percent of Barstow’s voters, were responsibly utilized. Measure Q was intended to generate roughly $7 million annually in local funding for ensuring the provision of local fire protection and paramedic services; providing police services, including neighborhood police patrols, crime prevention and investigations while squelching gang activity and drug-related crimes; maintaining streets and filling potholes; keeping parks in decent shape; reducing response times to 9-1-1 emergencies; and funding both senior and youth programs.
Courtney, and by extension Rose and Dyer-Kruse, were assisted in their electoral efforts by public statements occasionally made by members of the city’s Measure Q Resident Oversight Committee suggesting that the Hackbarth-McIntyre Administration was not applying the Measure Q money available to the city with alacrity.
Ultimately, Courtney prevailed in the election over Hackbarth-McIntyre, while Dyer-Kruse ousted incumbent Councilwoman Carmen Hernandez in the city’s District Four city council race and Rose prevailed in the District Three contest against her opponent Leonard Williams, ultimately replacing former Councilman Richard Harpole, who had resigned from his then at-large council position to move with his family to Texas in December 2019.
Almost immediately after being installed as members of the city council, the Troika in short order rendered the two existing members of the city council, Tim Silva, who had first been elected to the council in 2006, and James Noble, who had been elected to the city council in 2018, political irrelevancies, at least temporarily. One of the first moves of the newly-composed council was to rescind the 90-day period for the review of the performance of the city manager and city attorney, the two positions at the city hired directly by the council, reducing the review time to 30 days. Then, only 28 days after their triple swearing-in, the Troika, with Silva and Noble dissenting, moved to force City Manager Nikki Salas, a vestige of the Hackbarth-McIntyre era, out of her position.
On January 7, 2021, Salas wrote a memo/letter to Assistant City Manager Cindy Prothro. That letter stated, “With the onset of the new majority city council, the intent to terminate your employment and to eliminate the position of assistant city manager was clearly expressed to me on several occasions by the mayor and mayor pro tem as a necessary step for their new administration to be successful. While I adamantly disagree with their assessment, I feel as though I have no choice but to cancel your contract.”
Salas informed Prothro she was being terminated as of the end of the business day on January 8.
On January 8, Salas was herself placed on administrative leave by a vote of the city council.
Prothro, seeing the writing on the wall, took an “involuntary voluntary” retirement the same day Salas was put on leave rather than be fired.
Eleven days later, during a closed-door meeting, the council voted 3-2, with council Tim Silva and James Noble in opposition, to accept Salas’s official resignation.
It appeared, at least to some, that the Troika was in power to stay, at least until 2024. In arriving at their agreement the previous year to work hard together to change the Barstow political landscape, Courtney and Rose had cut a deal that called for Rose to be installed as mayor pro tem, the de facto vice mayor position. With the support of Dyer-Kruse, that agreement was kept, and the mayor pro tem honor was conferred upon Rose, preparing the way, perhaps, for Rose to one day become the full-fledged mayor herself upon Courtney’s equally potential move to assume higher political office. In the interim, it was expected and anticipated that Rose and Dyer-Kruse were to be loyal members of Courtney’s ruling council coalition, such that he was to be the prime mover at Barstow City Hall, the dominant figure in local government.
To others, however, the political marriage between the mayor and mayor pro tem was one that was doomed from the outset.
Leonard Williams, the chairman of the Resident Oversight Committee for Measure Q, vied against Rose to represent District Three on the council in 2020. As one of Barstow’s residents most closely attuned to local politics, Williams sized the situation up thusly, “Paul Courtney is a strong and outspoken man. Barbara Rose is a strong and outspoken woman. They came together and worked hard to get elected. No one can take that away from them. They are alpha types who want things their way. When they first got into office they were cooperating. But everyone who really knew them gave them about six months before it was going to go bad. As it turned out, they were on the outs with each other in about three months. It started when she began to question some of the things he wanted to do. And then it went from asking questions, to her voting no on some issue. I can’t remember what that issue was, precisely. That was in February, where she showed disagreement with something he was in favor of. It was something minor. It was nothing groundbreaking. At that point, their partnership, political partnership, was over. The differences continued to escalate from there. She started to disagree with just about everything he wanted to do. The split continued to grow and then it got really ugly. She didn’t support him anymore and it came down to him deciding he did not want her as his mayor pro tem. That is when he arranged to make Councilman Noble his mayor pro tem.”
It was during Courtney’s rush to be rid of Rose as mayor pro tem that he made a number of missteps that have redounded to his political detriment, created a circumstance in which his ruling coalition has likely been permanently shattered, brought his comportment and that of three other members of the council into legal question, and set the table for the censure that he was just subjected to.
So intent was Courtney on deposing Rose as vice mayor that he cast caution to the wind and violated a basic protocol in California governance pertaining to the state’s open public meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act. The Brown Act requires that all governmental business and decision-making be conducted in public and that prior notice of that action must be given to the public at least 72 hours in advance, specifically on the agenda posted prior to those meetings, before a vote on such a matter can take place. The Brown Act allows less than a quorum – a majority – of a decision-making body to discuss such action beforehand, but it outlaws serial discussions involving a body’s members such that discussion of any such issue cannot take place among a majority of an elected board’s members. The Brown Act further enjoins a quorum or a majority of an elected board’s members from coming to a consensus on how they will vote outside the forum of an official meeting.
In his zeal to remove Rose as mayor pro tem and then orchestrate her replacement with Noble, Courtney had private discussions with Noble, Dyer-Kruse and Councilman Tim Silva at several junctures in April. Then, on May 3, despite the consideration that no explicit prior announcement of considering the removal of Rose as mayor pro tem was made in the agenda for that meeting, Courtney ushered the council into a discussion of doing just that when Item 13 on that evening’s agenda came up for discussion. Item 13 referenced leadership reorganization, a vague phrase which did not convey that removing the mayor pro tem was at hand. Remarkably, once the discussion was under way, Courtney suggested that the subject of council leadership be discussed in a private session of the council, though he did not adjourn the meeting into a closed session. He then made a motion to depose Rose as mayor pro tem and replace her with Noble. Upon City Attorney Matthew Summers clarifying, in response to Silva’s question, that the mayor had the authority to nominate the mayor pro tem and the council’s role is to confirm that nomination, Silva made a motion to discuss the matter, and Councilwoman Dyer-Kruse seconded it. Faced with the prospect of being removed as mayor pro tem by her colleagues, Rose resigned from the post. Discussion of the matter ensued, during which Courtney, Silva and Dyer-Kruse acknowledged, inadvertently, that they had violated the Brown Act by having a serial discussion with regard to ending Rose’s run as mayor pro tem and replacing her. The council discussion with regard to Item 13 ended that evening without a vote on the mayor’s motion to replace Rose with Noble.
At its May 17 meeting, the council discussed an item placed on that evening’s agenda, which consisted of staff’s recommendation to appoint Noble mayor pro tem. Upon Silva making a motion to appoint Noble, which Noble then seconded, the council voted 4-to-1, with Rose dissenting, to designated Noble as the mayor pro tem.
From that point on, or perhaps even before that, Rose and Courtney have been at war.
There have been multiple manifestations of those hostilities.
On April 19, Rose’s brother, Frank Maestas, who is estranged from his councilwoman sister, penned a letter in which he alleged that Barbara had engaged in a multiplicity of fraudulent, indeed felonious, acts, including tax violations, by falsely claiming guardianship over their disabled sister and routing two of her sister’s COVID crisis-related stimulus checks to herself. There is evidence to suggest though not precisely prove that Courtney had solicited that letter from Maestas to support his May 3 effort to depose Rose as mayor pro tem. It is acknowledged that the mayor had copies of Maestas’s letter routed to his four council colleagues. While he has maintained that he merely provided copies of Maestas’s letter to the city’s other elected officials so the council would not be blindsided by the charges contained therein, others in the community have stated that Courtney gleefully shared the letter with other high profile and powerful members of the Barstow community, such as Ben Rosenberg, the president of the Barstow Unified School District Board of Trustees, and other movers and shakers in an effort to further damage Rose. Courtney has denied using Rose’s brother’s letter in an attempt to malign her.
Rose, in turn, alleged that Courtney, in league with her council colleagues, violated the Brown Act in the move to remove her as mayor pro tem. A complaint went to the Public Integrity Unit of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Deputy District Attorney Phil Stemler carried out an investigation into the matter, summarizing his findings in a May 28 letter to Barstow City Attorney Matthew Summers. According to that letter, the city council ran afoul of the Brown Act by failing to clearly disclose on the agenda for its May 3 meeting that it was to discuss the removal of Rose as mayor pro tem. Furthermore, Stemler asserted that Courtney, Noble, Silva and Dyer-Kruse had violated the Brown Act by the holding of serial discussions relating to the removal of Rose and her replacement with Noble, discussions that were not agendized and which occurred privately and outside of a public forum. Though there was strong indication that a violation of the Brown Act occurred on two accounts, Stemler concluded that no prosecutorial action would take place as long as Summers and the council made good on a commitment Summers had made to hold a training session for the council to ensure they had a better understanding of the Brown Act, what it entails and how to avoid violating it in the future.
During the 2020 campaign, Courtney had made a decided inroad against Hackbarth-McIntyre by implying and outright stating that the city was not making efficient use of the Measure Q money available to it. He had picked up key support from firefighters and police officers during the mayoral race. After Courtney was in office, members of the Resident Oversight Committee for Measure Q, including ones who were Courtney supporters and some who were not, came to understand a significant portion of the Measure Q money was being utilized for public safety purposes as intended. They grew dismayed with Courtney’s unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Several of his former supporters are disillusioned with Courtney’s seeming inability to transition from the aggressive and divisive mode of campaigning to the more accommodating and welcoming process of governing.
Some of those who had anticipated a cooperative regime at City Hall that was inclusive of a wide variety of ideas grew alarmed at what they considered to be Courtney’s dictatorial attitude.
As the spring gave way to summer, Courtney’s control over the council had begun to seriously lapse. The ruling coalition consisting of himself, Rose and Dyer-Kruse had been forever splintered as a consequence of the contretemps between him and Rose. The early powerplay involving the firing of Salas and the forced resignation of Prothro had poisoned any possible relationship with Silva. Courtney’s remaining hope of rallying enough support to remain in charge in Barstow consisted of replacing Rose on his ruling coalition with Noble, essentially through his having elevated him to mayor pro tem.
If that ploy had any hope of succeeding, it was undercut by Stemler’s Brown Act investigation and its conclusion. Moreover, Courtney would ultimately involve himself in activity that would further estrange him from Noble.
Some of that behavior occurred off the council’s radar, involving backroom arrangements between the mayor and the interim city manager brought in by the city council after Salas’s firing. The motivation for that action, involving the cancellation of city contracts with at least two service providers, is not clear. After Salas was sacked, Courtney and the remainder of the council retained Jim Hart to serve as Barstow’s interim city manager. Hart’s previous career as a municipal official included an extended tenure as the City of Rancho Cucamonga’s administrative services director followed by ten years as the city manager of Twentynine Palms, more than two years as the city manager of Rancho Santa Margarita and ten years as the city manager of Adelanto.
Members of the council, reportedly including Noble, grew concerned at the way in which Courtney as mayor used his position of authority to suborn Hart, a well-traveled municipal executive, to his will.
This week, during a scheduled council hearing to consider the call to censure Courtney, the sponsors of the censure, councilmembers Tim Silva and Barbara Rose, acted as the mayor’s de facto prosecutors.
Using the weight of his influence as mayor, Courtney, without bringing the matter before the council, Silva alleged, induced Hart to cancel a city contract with Main Street Murals Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Barstow devoted to featuring artistic renditions along historic Route 66, as well as a contract with a lobbying firm that works on behalf of the city in Washington, D.C. Also without consulting with or a vote of the city council, Courtney had Hart allow a contract with the Harvey House, an historic train station in Downtown Barstow, to elapse, Silva maintained.
Implying that Courtney had threatened Hart in forcing the interim city manager to take that action, Silva said Hart “lied” to him about what had occurred, and that he ultimately learned of the cancellations through individuals outside of the city.
Courtney was accused of trying to manufacture an appearance that his administration is successful by generating flyers announcing economic progress for the city. The mayor crossed the line by making it appear that the flyers were an official function of the city, when they were in fact a ploy by Courtney to stir up public support, Silva said.
Silva said that flyers Courtney had distributed throughout the Barstow community utilized the city’s logo and the names of city council members to promote himself by referencing accomplishments allegedly achieved during Courtney’s tenure as mayor, extending to the creation of twenty new businesses in the city.
Furthermore, Silva charged that Courtney had utilized his position as mayor and the access it gave him to the letter from Maestas to use it to inflict personal and political damage on Rose.
Beyond that, Silva said the mayor was threatening city employees to bully them into carrying out his personal political goals that were not approved by the remainder of the council.
Silva said his intent was “to keep the city safe from liability,” which he said Courtney was subjecting the city and its taxpayers to.
Silva summarized Courtney’s transgressions as “abuse of official capacity” and the “gain of personal benefit from the misuse of government property.” The first of these, Silva said, was “the flyer.” The second consisted, Silva said, in the “misuse of official information. That would be the distribution of the Rose Family letter with the intent to cause harm.”
The case against the mayor was airtight, Silva insisted.
“On the first, council, you don’t have to decide he did wrong,” Silva said. “He admitted it. You have to decide if you are going to allow it to continue. On the second, the letter was taken to you and you know in which way in which it was presented to you,” which Silva said demonstrated Courtney’s “intent was to harm Council Member Rose.”
Silva was somewhat secretive in the way he presented the charges against the mayor. Though, presumably, Courtney knows whom he threatened, Silva stopped short of documenting in public who that employee was. It was not clear why Silva did not make this disclosure.
“A Barstow employee was threatened by the mayor of their position if they did not do what he wanted,” Silva said. Silva implied the threatened employee worked in the code enforcement division, although he was not explicit.
“He did make a decision that employee would not do their job,” Silva said. “He did threaten a city employee with firing.”
Summarizing, Silva said, “He did take out the Rose letter. He did give direction to staff. We’re talking harassment. We’ve got city employees in fear of the mayor.”
The city would end up getting sued if it did not rein in the mayor, Silva said, saying the city would experience “major liability” if the council did not address Courtney’s behavior with a censure.
Rose said, “The mayor exploited my family, and he exploited me.”
Rose repeated Silva’s charge that Hart, while serving in the capacity of interim city manager, enabled Courtney.
“I can tell you in multiple conversations I had with Dr. Hart, he lied to support the mayor,” Rose said. “The mayor continues to be defiant.”
Rose said Courtney was involved in “the misuse of tax dollars, the use of power to intimidate our staff. He is hurting our city and continues to put our city at risk.”
Courtney disputed the suggestion that the flyer, which was paid for at his own expense, was intended for self-aggrandizement. Rather, he suggested, he was promoting the city and had shared credit for what had been accomplished with the other members of the city council. “There’s no personal gain in this for me,” he lamented, pointing out that the flyer, which had set him back $657, had been printed and distributed at his own “personal expense,” Courtney said. He was merely working to create, the mayor said, a “better Barstow” and was giving the city “free advertising” he was now being chastised for.
He had learned his lesson, Courtney insisted and vowed, “I will not use the city logo nor the city seal.”
Courtney referenced Stemler’s May 28 letter, which indicated that the district attorney’s office considered the Brown Act violation matter now closed as a consequence of the council having committed to a tutorial about the state’s open public meeting regulations and how to adhere to them. He said that Silva’s and Rose’s effort to subject him to the censure motion was a political ruse to undercut his legitimate mayoral authority.
Courtney said he had removed Rose as mayor pro tem because she was unequal to the task of leading the city in his absence. He suggested that she was overdramatizing the situation in an effort to harm him politically. He removed her as his back-up because of, he said, her “previous actions, words and candor. I cannot continue to sit here with what was going on, and it was going on for months. So, when the decision was made to make sure if in my absence the person that sits on the dais would at least not have a temper tantrum or speak down to the CM [city manager] or staff, I became very uncomfortable. It was not just me [that was] uncomfortable, but the continued remarks from the general public. I warned you. I told you so, but it just continues to go on and on and on and on about Barbara Rose.”
Addressing Rose directly, he said, “I respect the fact that you hold your family high and close. So do I. If I wanted to get into the performance mode like you are well known to do, I can shed a tear, too. But I’m not into performance. I’m into getting things done. For you to sit here and say that the city manager and city attorney had several conversations with me about liability and on and on and on, me doing my job, I’m surprised you would sit here and say that. For you to say that, I’m not really surprised because you’re into theatrics, and you’re pretty good at it. I just roll with the flow when you try to indicate that I’ve cost the city a hundred thousand dollars in legal fees, etcetera, etcetera. I know your chosen profession is HR [human resources], according to you. I’m thankful it’s not accounting or numbers, because we would really be in trouble. Dr. Hart: I do encourage you all to go take a look at how Dr. Hart was treated by Barbara Rose, meeting, after meeting, after meeting, after meeting, after meeting. She can speak about her want for the censure or whatever the case may be. I got that, because she has the ability to present her argument, just like I have the ability to present my argument. I’m not going to laugh at her or snicker at her. I choose not to reduce myself to that level where I got to get into the performance mode. It is like a theater. I don’t come here twice a month for the theater. I come here twice a month to do policy, procedure, etcetera, hopin’ to get the majority to continue to move our city forward. We are moving our city forward despite what you are witnessing up here. Do we apparently have a city staff member or city staff saying whatever? Perhaps we do. I’m not surprised at anything that’s being said.”
Courtney said he is being attacked by the same small crowd of malcontent residents who are demonizing the police chief as corrupt and being involved in a “cover-up.” The police chief’s performance, Courtney said, has been exemplary.
“They question every single item on the agenda,” Courtney said of the naysayers, “but in the end the majority continues to move things forward. The majority has been 3-2, 3-2, 3-2, because that’s how we get things done.”
The majority Courtney alluded to consisted of him, Noble and Dyer-Kruse.
“The majority love the fact that the City of Barstow is moving forward,” he said.
Courtney implied that the minority of Rose and Silva are running behind, and that is why they were pursuing the censure. He accused Rose of racism, saying that she objected to Noble being named mayor pro tem “because he looked like me.” Both Noble and Courtney are African-American. Rose is Hispanic.
When questioned by Silva, Courtney denied intimidating city staff.
Courtney said it was not necessary to spend precious city funds to carry out an independent investigation. “It’s money we don’t have,” he said.
The mayor was unable to convince the council to reconsider its censure action, however, and of significance was that his remaining ally on the council, Dyer-Kruse, abandoned him to support the censure resolution. Dyer-Kruse said before the vote that Courtney’s actions with regard to the flyer and the Brown Act violations were “concerning,” but that the mayor had desisted in that action. This was a seeming indication she did not think the censure was necessary. Ultimately, however, she supported the censure of the mayor.
Silva managed to take it beyond that, getting the city council, including Dyer-Kruse, to follow up with a secondary motion to have an independent investigation into Courtney’s action.
Courtney remained unbowed.
“We can pick and choose a lot of stuff that was done wrong,” he said. “The truth is a lot of stuff was done right and it will continue to be done right. I can challenge any of you who want to beat up on us: ‘There is an election coming up in 2022. Sign up.’”
The mayor said he did not want to and would not run for reelection is 2024, but remained committed to serving out the term he was elected to.
“Life continues,” he said. “If the vote is to censure me, I can live with it. I’m going on.”
Those close to City Hall said that whether Courtney will remain as a political force is riding on the independent investigation, and that if it is shown Courtney threatened city employees as he was accused of by Silva, his authority, already diminished, will elapse entirely.
For the second time in less than a month, a strong-willed and once-dominant mayor of a San Bernardino County city has been unanimously censured by his city council colleagues.