By Royal Calkins
If you live in Salinas and haven’t met the new fire chief, don’t feel slighted. Most of the firefighters in Salinas haven’t met him yet and some say they’ve never seen him.
The problem, according to firefighters, City Council members and others who follow such things, is that Fire Chief Pablo Barreto mostly works from home and only stops by fire headquarters once or twice a week. Barreto, however, says that simply isn’t true and that he is in the office four to five times a week.
Another problem, according to firefighters, City Council members and others who follow such things, is that the headquarters office, where the chief maintains a desk, has been closed most of the time for the past several weeks since the chief’s executive assistant resigned.
“That’s incorrect,” Barreto said Wednesday in a telephone interview. He said temporary help has been assigned to his office and that when the office is closed, a sign on the door directs visitors to other city offices for assistance.
Some firefighters say they have been told he works most days from his home outside the county. Barreto worked for the city of Watsonville for 22 years before taking the Salinas post in April. He says he doesn’t regularly work from home.
When he is on city property, he is said to be engaged and knowledgeable about the challenges of a department that has weathered its share of issues in recent years.
“But he’s never there,” complained a City Hall regular who makes a point of checking in with the uniformed employees.
Earlier this week, representatives of the Salinas firefighters’ union met with the chief to go over the issues and provide him with a list of priorities, a top 10 list. Afterward, Josh Hostetter, the union president, declined to discuss details. He did say, however, that “the firefighters are craving leadership and we haven’t had it for a long time.”
Hostetter would not comment on reports that the union would hold a no-confidence vote if Barreto doesn’t step it up.
Barreto also declined to discuss the topics covered in the meeting, saying they are “between myself and the union.” He characterized the meeting as positive, saying some issues were cleared up and some lines of communication were made more clear, which he said should make it easier to “get information down to them.”
City Manager Ray Corpuz said Wednesday that he was aware of the meeting but hadn’t had a chance to discuss details with Barreto. He said he meets with all the city directors and department heads every two to three weeks and the union’s concerns will be discussed at his next session with the fire chief.
Corpuz said he agreed with the union that Fire Department leadership hasn’t been everything it should be over the past year or so because of turnover after longtime Chief Ed Rodriguez retired in 2017. Though the rank and file lobbied for appointment of Deputy Chief Brett Loomis, who sometimes clashed with the Corpuz administration, Corpuz selected Jeff Johnson, a deputy chief in Kansas City, Mo.
Johnson reportedly struggled with the political side of the job and left after only eight months to take a job in Virginia. His replacement was Barreto, who had been the subject of an intensive vetting process, according to Corpuz. He is paid $195,000 annually.
One topic of frequent firehouse discussion since Barreto’s arrival is his weekend job. Many firefighters and even fire chiefs hold second jobs but Barreto’s caught extra attention. He works as a flight attendant for a major airline, flying out of the Bay Area several times a year and using his city car to get there.
Again, Barreto didn’t want to discuss details.
“I don’t talk about my second job,” he said. “It’s personal.”
He said he is allowed to use his city car while off duty but he has a practice of reimbursing the city for mileage when it becomes “excessive.”
City Council Member Steve McShane said in a recent interview that he heard about the airline job early on and approached the chief.
“I was one of the first council members, if not the first, to meet with him personally about it. I also immediately spoke with the city administration about the issue,” McShane said.
“It was made clear that it was a personnel matter and just like any other employee who may carry a second job, the chief has that right.”
McShane said he had heard concerns about lack of leadership and the issue of Barreto’s absences.
“I sympathize with rank-and-file fire personnel and have spoken with several about the topic. One union leader told me he spoke early with the chief as well. The department has seen turnover in leadership and our men and women in uniform are looking for just that right now.”
Another council member, who asked not to be named, said he had heard concerns about Barreto often being out of town. He said he had hoped to talk to the chief about it but had not been able to get in touch with him.
Another council member, Tony Barrera, who acknowledges some ongoing tensions with the city administration, said a week ago that he had not heard of any problems in the department.
Fire departments throughout California had been plagued by serious turnover at the top in the past decade, largely because the state’s public pension system calculated retirement benefits based on the last year of employment. That made it attractive for a deputy chief in one department to take a higher-paying chief’s position elsewhere and then retire after just a year.
Corpuz said he was pleased when the regulations changed to base retirement pay on the final three years of service instead of the last year.
“Things have stabilized,” he said.
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