By Mark Gutglueck
Some nine months after the Barstow City Council censored Mayor Paul Anthony Courtney and authorized what was termed a “third-party” investigation into what some of its members characterized as “unauthorized” action in his official capacity, that investigation is nearing completion or has been concluded.
The secrecy around the investigation itself and what appear to be selective leaks of its contents have brought into question both the motive and validity of the probe, to say nothing of its conclusions, which have yet to be made public.
The city in pursuing the matter has made a few questionable calls along the way. One consideration is the transparency of the undertaking. So far, the city has refused to disclose who is carrying out the inquiry, or how much has been paid to that contractor for the work, in itself an irregular and questionable circumstance. While it is standard practice to maintain confidentiality with regard to the matters being covered and the individuals being interviewed or interrogated in such internal investigations, preventing disclosure of the company, individual, law firm or entity doing the investigating is unusual. Insofar as the vote to hire the investigator took place in a closed session and was not disclosed, a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law may have occurred. No one, however, has contested that action legally, including Courtney, who perhaps has reason to do so, nor any citizens or open government advocates. Courtney came into office in 2020 on a reasonably strong footing, winning election with 3,040 votes or 43.65 percent in a four-way race that included the eight-year incumbent Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre, who garnered 2,199 votes or 31.58 percent. Courtney then experienced relatively smooth sailing for his first six months in office, and seemed to be constructing a decent working relationship with his council colleagues.
Of note was that he had established into the mayor pro tem position Barbara Rose, who had been elected to the council in District 3 during the 2020 election along with Courtney. Also elected to the Barstow City Council in the 23,547-population municipality’s District 4 was Marilyn Dyer Kruse, who defeated eight-year incumbent Carmen Hernandez.
In the 2020 election, the infusion of three new members onto the five member council completely transformed the political dynamic of the city, as the three-votes represented a controlling majority and the two existing members of the council – longtime Councilman Tim Silva and James Noble, who had been in place for a mere two years at that point – were potentially rendered politically neutered or irrelevant if a ruling coalition of Courtney, Rose and Kruse formed. There was a hint that things were moving in that direction when Noble was bypassed in the mayor pro tem selection. That honorific is generally rotated among the council members, with the proviso that whoever is entrusted with what is essentially the post of vice mayor has had at least a year’s worth of experience on the council dais and will have some experience with regard to protocol and Roberts Rules of Order to be able to preside over and conduct a public meeting. Silva had already served as mayor pro tem during Hackbarth-McIntyre’s tenure and before; the expectation was that Noble was due to be elevated to that position. Thus, depending upon how sensitive and nuanced of a reading one wanted to give to the circumstance, the choice of Rose over Noble might have been considered by some as a slight, though Noble did not seem to interpret it that way.
In January 2021, barely a month after Courtney had been sworn in to office along with Rose and Kruse, the newly-composed council began on what appeared to be a makeover of Barstow City Hall, with City Manager Nikki Salas being put on administrative leave and then let go entirely. Salas’s suspension took place quietly on January 8, 2021, during a closed session in which the way the entirety of the council voted remains less than clear. What is known is that Salas was felled by the sentiment against her shared by a majority of the council, which counted both Mayor Courtney and Councilwoman Rose among its ranks, while Councilman Tim Silva was strongly opposed to the axing. Either or both Councilwoman Kruse or Councilman Noble supplied the remaining necessary vote or votes against Salas.
To the world at large, it appeared that Courtney and Rose were broadcasting on the same wavelength.
By late April 2021, however, the relationship between the two went south and at the first council meeting in May 2021, Courtney deposed Rose as mayor pro tem, replacing her with Noble. While there were other issues that complicated Courtney’s political tenure, forcing Rose out as mayor pro tem appears to have been a turning point in his mayoralty.
Rose has become a constant Courtney critic, opposing his proposals and often interrupting him as he presides over meetings, suggesting that he often ushers the council’s discussions into areas that are off-topic. And while Silva had supported the removal of Rose as mayor pro tem, in the months thereafter he joined forces with Rose to form a line on the council that sharply opposes the mayor, seemingly at every turn.
With Courtney weakened, an official committee to remove him from office formed, and on October 4, 2021, a notice of intention to circulate a recall petition against him was served on him.
According to those seeking his ouster, Courtney violated the Brown Act by discussing closed session meeting agendas on a radio show, he initiated the removal of Salas as city manager and other city employees without due process, he has cost the city money, he allegedly cooked up charges and false evidence against one of his opponents in the 2020 election, he filed a false police report that a city employee illegally forged the signature of the former city manager, he overstepped his authority as mayor, he used city resources while misrepresenting that he was engaged in official city business when he was not, he hired his campaign manager as the city’s public information officer and he again violated the Brown Act by having serial meetings with his council colleagues in an effort to line up votes in favor of the Marriott hotel project, which entailed $2.4 million in tax subsidies.
The recall proponents, despite having the advantage of working within a city where there were roughly 11,000 registered voters, such that they needed to gather the valid signatures of only about 2,200 of the city’s voters to qualify a recall question against Courtney, were unable to meet that burden within the 120-day deadline. The recall effort thus failed.
In December 2021, the city council, driven by Silva and Rose, who were being importuned by the recall proponents to assist them, leveled accusations of misconduct against Courtney. They alleged Courtney, in response to the recall effort against him, designed and distributed a flier touting the accomplishments of his mayoral administration and in so doing improperly utilized the city’s logo. Combining that faux pas, which Courtney acknowledged and apologized for, with accusations that the mayor had exceeded his authority and had pressed city staff to take action that had not been duly authorized by the city council through a formalized vote, the council considered censuring Courtney. At the December 20, 2021 council meeting, the four members ratified the censure, which was intended as an official reprimand, and then went a step further, supporting Silva’s motion for an investigation into the mayor’s conduct.
An unidentified investigator – or unidentified investigative team – was commissioned to carry out that inquiry. After more than eight months, a preliminary report on the investigation’s findings was delivered to the city council on September 12, which then reviewed the document in a closed session without Courtney being present. Based on the contents of the report, the council then, in closed session, voted to ban him from City Hall, restricting his coming and going there to being able to merely attend and officiate over council meetings. He was informed he could no longer access City Hall at all on days other than those when meetings are to be held, that he was being prevented from going into the mayor’s office within City Hall, and that he could not contact any city staff other than the city manager, police chief and city attorney. Despite taking that action, the city council and city insisted that the contents of the report of the investigation conducted by a person or parties unidentified would not be released.
In short order, however, selected elements of the investigation were promptly being leaked, including details that were calculated to make Courtney look bad. According to those whispers, Courtney was throwing his mayoral weight around, intimidating and threatening city employees and in general exceeding his authority.
Contained in the report, according to the word on the street, was an account of how Courtney had in the late Spring/early Summer of 2021, pressed then-Barstow Parks and Recreation Director Kyle Woolley to hire Melonie Reliford, who was at that time the mayor’s fiancée, into a post in the parks and recreation division. Courtney and Reliford have since wed. According to those conveying what is contained in the report, Woolley knuckled under and hired Reliford.
Also being spread around is that on occasions when City Manager Willie Hopkins Jr. and City Attorney Matthew Summers met in a private conference with the mayor which was hoped would remain low-key and would result in Courtney being persuaded to take the edge off his personality to allow for a rebuilding of relationships at City Hall on some semblance of an amicable basis, the mayor went ballistic, insisting that he was being systematically undermined by Rose and her allies, who have now come to include Silva, surprisingly since Silva deeply resented the direction Rose had adopted for the city upon first coming into office.
It appears, at least anecdotally if not scientifically, that a large number of city employees are out of sorts with the mayor. The precise reasons for that appear unclear, although there is a suggestion that Courtney’s dissatisfaction with the status quo at City Hall was apparent even before his installation as mayor. Courtney is displeased with the widespread acceptance of the way Barstow, which decades ago was the county’s fifth largest city, has now slipped to being 20th among 24 county municipalities population-wise and, in the minds of many, been relegated to an equally low position in terms of prestige.
Moreover, the clash between Rose and Courtney, in particular the application of Rose’s tactics during public forums, which include progressively bold displays of disrespect toward the mayor, have exacerbated the situation. Politics in general attracts participants who are alpha types who want to be in charge and try to dominate the circumstances in which they find themselves. When differences of opinion or intent emerge among such A-type personalities, things get contentious. Some politicians have mastered the technique of self-effacement and humility while seeking to convince their colleagues to take certain courses of action while others use a more forceful approach, seeking to achieve their goals through the imposition of their will on others who can be, and are, by natural inclination, every bit as willful as they are. Such appears to be the case in Barstow.
The Sentinel spoke with Courtney today.
Asked about the assertion that he has been too assertive and domineering in his approach and had created the contretemps he is in by overstepping his mayoral authority, Courtney said, “That’s ridiculous, patently. The council is an elected body. Each member represents and speaks for a district. They are duly elected. I am the elected mayor for the entire city. They cannot prevent me from fulfilling my role nor can I instruct the council on how the members are to do their jobs. My job does not allow me to interfere in their districts.”
Courtney said the council’s accusation that he had gone beyond the rightful and legal limits of his authority was the polar opposite of Barstow’s current reality.
“They [the council] have way overstepped their authority in what they can do,” he said, referencing the vote to ban him from the city premises. He said he had initially resisted what he called an “illegal” order that he vacate City Hall, but that he has since relented. He said he was now complying with the ban not because he considers it to be legally binding but because defying it would put City Manager Willie Hopkins in jeopardy.
“I have vacated City Hall [on all but the days when official council meetings are held, over which he still presides],” he said. “I am complying [with the order to stand down from City Hall], not because what they have done is legal, but out of respect for the city manager, who has been put in the position of where he can be terminated for dereliction if he allows me to stay. I will not do that. They have weaponized the dais. I will not do that. They have accused me of trying to dictate policy. That started before I was elected. These false accusations have been going on for two years.”
Asked from whence the animus toward him has arisen, Courtney said, “There is a reluctance to change in the City of Barstow. This is a minority, not a majority who are coming after me. I was overwhelmingly elected by nearly a 3-to-2 margin over an incumbent who had been in office for 14 years.
“With all the things that have taken place, I am disappointed but not shocked,” he said about the selective leaks from the investigation report. He said the resistance to his leadership is less with regard to him personally than his vision for the city and his intent to transform the community.
“Three decades ago, Barstow was the big town in the High Desert,” Courtney said. “All the others were the small cities. Those other cities [Victorville, Hesperia, the Town of Apple Valley and Adelanto] have been very proactive in their growth. Now, we are barely at 25,000 in the last census. Think about that.”
He said his effort to get things off top dead center and fire up Barstow’s economic engine is being met with resistance by those who are invested in keeping things as they currently are. That resistance, while vocal and in some cases creative, he said, is insignificant in terms of numbers. In the end, Courtney said, he will prevail, both at the ballot box and within the context of the council dais.
“It is a minority that have attempted to recall me,” he said. “Where has that gone? A majority of the people have indicated they like what is going on in Barstow. If the majority doesn’t want me elected mayor next time, they will let me know.”
Courtney said, “As for what former Parks and Recreation Superintendent Woolley said about me forcing him to hire my fiancée, that’s ludicrous. When Ms. Reliford was hired a year-and-a-half ago, she went through the same normal steps as anyone. This was just as the COVID pandemic was ending. There were nine openings in the parks division. She was hired for just one of nine jobs into a part-time position at minimum wage working concessions at the sports park. Dr. [Jim] Hart [then Barstow’s city manager] looked into that at the time. He shared with me and the rest of the council his finding that there was nothing wrong with the way Melonie was hired, nothing. I was shocked when people later brought this up. Why would I use pressure to get my fiancée hired into a minimum wage spot at the sports park, selling concessions? I would encourage you to speak with Darcy [Wigington], who was the human resources director then and is still the human resources director, and anyone on the selection committee. They will tell you she went through the normal process. The superintendent of parks and recreation had nothing to do with Melonie being hired. There is a process, and the city uses that process, and the city is not going just suspend the rules for something like what they are saying, which is absurd and crazy to think someone would need to suspend the rules so someone could get part-time minimum wage employment, which Melonie was more than fully qualified to perform.”
His political opponents such as Rose are purposefully misinterpreting the facts, he said. “Feel free to reach out to Dr. Hart, as well as Willie Hawkins,” Courtney said. “They will tell you the same thing that Darcy will.”
The Sentinel asked Courtney to describe the case that had been laid out against him in the report.
“That was a closed session issue,” Courtney said. “A member of the council who is being discussed is not part of the session, so I have no idea.”
The Sentinel asked Courtney who had floated the idea of censuring him in December only to then initiate the investigation and on what grounds.
“To schedule a discussion or a vote by the council do something officially takes at least two of the council,” he said. “If you do not have two members of the council that want to launch a discussion, it can’t go forward.” He did not name any specific sponsor of the censure resolution or the investigation.
The Sentinel observed that his two major antagonists appeared to be Rose and Silva.
“Of course!” he said. “Everybody knows that. Barbara Rose back in May of 2021 was my mayor pro tem. There were some issues with regard to improper contact with the city manager and staff. To make a long story short, she was replaced. James Noble became the mayor pro tem. She had a tantrum. She said that the reason the change in mayor pro tem was made was because I wanted someone who looked just like me and who would be a yes man. You can see that for yourself and hear the statement she made during the May 3, 2021 council meeting. It was unbelievable what she did. Ever since that day she has been very intentional in wanting to get even with me.”
“Tim Silva: I really can’t explain his motivation,” Courtney said. “He has been on council 16 years, during which Barstow has been like a sinking ship. Tim Silva was on the council while the ship has been sinking. He has decided he is not running again. He is leaving in December. He has decided he is done. That was his decision. I don’t know why he is coming after me. I haven’t had any personal issues with Tim or Marilyn Kruse or James Noble. I had to make the decision to let Councilwoman Rose go as mayor pro tem because of her interactions with staff. After that, a lot of anger came my way. But I haven’t had any differences with Councilwoman Kruse or Councilman Noble or Councilman Silva that I know of. There is nothing that should have caused any problems that I am aware of.”
The Sentinel inquired as to where things are going to go from this point.
“First of all, I am not quitting and I am not stepping down,” Courtney said. “Make sure that’s clear. They can continue to throw mud and dirt and put out their false narratives. It goes on and on. This is not the first time a leader has found himself in a situation and has to stand up alone and it won’t be the last time.”
Courtney continued, “The time for change in Barstow has come and it’s happening. We have made dynamic changes since December of 2020. Barstow has not seen this kind of positive change and action since Lawrence Dale was mayor.”
Dale was Barstow mayor from 2000 to 2008.
Queried as to his acceptance of his banishment from City Hall, he said, “I do go to City Hall. I have been there several times. As far as my office in City Hall, I vacated it last Saturday. I did so out of respect for our chief executive. I did not want to put him in the position where the council could accuse him of dereliction. I would never want to do that. I did it out of respect for the city manager.”
Courtney said, “My position is not based on me having an office at City Hall. My office is an impromptu office wherever I go around the city. I do not have to be there. I absolutely do not.
I don’t put any weight or validity into the city council’s decisions at this point. I don’t have to be in there to do my job. My role as mayor has not changed at all. I’m still the elected mayor. I have an office and am in office wherever I have a meeting. That’s part of being mayor. My duty has not changed at all.”
Asked if it was his perception that City Attorney Matthew Summers is militating in conjunction with Rose, Silva and the rest of the city council against him, Courtney said, “Whether he is or isn’t, I have very few interactions with him, so I can’t say.”
He is on decent terms with Hawkins, Courtney warranted. “I can say the city manager and I get together and conversate on a constant basis on how to keep things going,” he said. “I spoke with him this morning.”
By Mark Gutglueck