As Barstow and its police officers remain stalled in tense contract talks, city manager steps in

A sign outside Barstow City Hall recently. City police officers say their pay is the lowest of any municipal force in San Bernardino County.
A sign outside Barstow City Hall recently. City police officers say their pay is the lowest of any municipal force in San Bernardino County.

Barstow’s full-time force of 45 sworn cops has been investigating gun crimes and busting illegal pot farms without a contract defining their wages and work conditions for nearly seven weeks as a logjam in pay talks continues.

Negotiators for the city remain in limbo with various bargaining units of city employees after months of back-and-forth talks. The focus: how to structure a new contract setting ground rules for pay, hours and available bonuses in the coming years.

Now, the city’s top hired official is stepping in on a negotiating effort that has cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars amid public criticism from Barstow employees led by Chris Kirby and Matthew Helms, presidents of the Barstow Police Department Management Association and Barstow Police Officers’ Association, respectively.

The first organization represents police captains, lieutenants and sergeants, while the other represents rank-and-file officers, detectives and corporals.

City Manager Willie Hopkins Jr. will join a closed-door meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday between the two unions and the team that has negotiated on the city’s behalf thus far.

“It’s going to be refreshing to work with someone who’s reasonable and not condescending,” said Helms, a Barstow officer himself, in public comments at a City Council meeting Monday.

Multiple police-department employees say the city's lead negotiators have been interim Finance Director Marc Puckett and John Bakhit, a private attorney in the Riverside and Cerritos offices of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. He “represents and counsels public entities in collective bargaining,” according to the firm’s website.

Bakhit, Hopkins and Puckett didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Barstow paid $19,000 of city funds to Bakhit’s firm for legal work performed in February, March and April, according to city invoice disclosures reviewed by the Daily Press. The final payout will likely dwarf that as future disclosures reflect months of negotiations heating up.

All of the agreements setting terms of employment between the city and its worker units expired on June 30. Until new deals are reached, the terms of the old ones govern.

For five of the six units, including both sets of police employees, those agreements took effect July 1, 2018, meaning it’s been five years since they last took to the negotiating table to push the city for better terms such as pay raises. Barstow Fire Protection District is the exception with an agreement that took effect July 1, 2019, but also expired in June.

It’s unclear where negotiations stand with the unions outside the Police Department, or whether any are closer to a final deal. Bargaining talks have occurred in closed sessions, and no proposed new agreements have been brought to the City Council for a vote or posted on the city’s website, which still listed the now-expired contracts for each unit as of Wednesday.

City workers and the elected council, which doesn’t participate in these negotiations, are hopeful that the city manager getting involved Thursday morning will spur a resolution, or at least some momentum toward one.

“I do look forward to going to the table and negotiating,” Hopkins said at the City Council meeting Monday. “We have been negotiating and we’ve reached tentative agreements with a few units, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Kirby, who is also the police captain, told the Daily Press he thinks Hopkins was referencing a different union, since he doesn't believe his is anywhere close to an agreement with the city.

“The thing I want to say right now is, we’re optimistic,” Kirby told the Daily Press on Tuesday.

Kirby’s union represents eight people while Helms’ covers 37 employees.

Both men say the central sticking point is that Puckett and Bakhit have only offered to extend the now-expired agreement by one year, with no new across-the-board raises.

“They’re basically saying they can’t,” Kirby told the Daily Press in an interview prior to Hopkins getting involved in the negotiations. “They haven’t come right out and said this is their last, best, final word (…) but they’ve acted like this is pretty much their last, best final.”

Kirby and Helms say Barstow pays police the least of any municipal force in San Bernardino County, making it hard to attract and retain employees.

“There’s even talk of, people are gonna start looking elsewhere for employment,” Kirby has said of Barstow’s opposition to raises in a new bargaining agreement. “How am I supposed to encourage people to come or to stay here when they can go right across the street to the Sheriff’s Department and make more money, and handle less calls for service?”

Kirby and Helms have spoken out at the last two City Council meetings, prompting council members to ask city staff for more urgent action to nail down a contract amenable to all parties.

They’ve gotten backup in those comments from residents and other city employees expressing similar frustration with the negotiating quagmire. One is Monica Carson, a “proud mom of a Barstow police officer” and 54-year-old Barstow native.

"How can we be proud of ourselves knowing that they have to beg for their raise and their new contract?” she asked in public comments at this week’s City Council meeting. “Council, mayor, what could we have done with that $2.4 million that was given away?”

The latter point is a reference to an in-the-works Marriott hotel for which the City Council approved a $2.4 million subsidy to a San Diego-based developer, since proven to have been sold to the elected council and general public on false grounds, the Daily Press previously reported.

“My son and his fellow officers leave their families every day to serve our community, not knowing if they will come back home at the end of their shift,” Carson continued at the meeting. “How can we be proud of ourselves knowing that they have to beg for their raise and their new contract?”

Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: Barstow police contract talks stall, city manager steps in