After Year of Scandal, Garden Grove Makes Transparency High Priority

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After a tumultuous year that saw the removal of three top city officials amid heavy media scrutiny and a district attorney investigation into allegations of nepotism, the Garden Grove City Council approved a strategic plan last week that emphasizes transparency and public access to City Hall.

The plan is the result of a retreat in March, one of few opportunities for the entire city council and management staff convene and discuss their vision for the city, and a rare glimpse into the differences in attitude and priorities among city officials.

While the city awaits the selection of a permanent city manager in mid-June, open government issues have risen to the top of the priority list.

Among other things, the city has re-vamped its website to include a translation application and live streaming of city meetings on Youtube; a new public records management system that allows members of the public to view and access each other’s requests; and an online building permit form.

The city will also pilot a new software system that officials hope will make city meeting agendas more accessible.

Beyond the online transparency initiatives, city leaders also discussed developing a communications policy to improve its relationship with the media and the public perception of the city.

All of this is a belated response to revelations in 2013 regarding the hiring of the former mayor’s son as a firefighter and a questionable employment contract for the former fire chief that came to light in 2014.

Ironically, a point of contention between long-serving city staff and Mayor Bao Nguyen has been the use of the phrase “city family” to describe their philosophy toward treating employees.

Although meant to signify closeness and a consideration of employees’ personal needs, Nguyen has questioned whether that phrase is appropriate for public service, especially given recent controversy over the hiring of relatives in the city.

Three sons and the niece of former City Manager Matthew Fertal were hired as city employees, some of whom still work for the city. His eldest son Matthew Jr., then an administrative aide, was also one of 16 employees who took a $35,000 buyout in 2012.

Jeremy Broadwater, the son of former Mayor Bruce Broadwater, worked as a park patrol officer for seven years before he was hired as a fireman, where he continues to work today.

“That’s really unfortunate – in a large corporate world, that’s a golden word – family oriented culture,” said councilman Phat Bui at the March retreat.

While discussing the development of a citywide communications policy for dealing with the media, some city staff members said that media coverage of these issues over the past year have perhaps fueled a misplaced public perception of cover-ups and malfeasance in the city’s operations.

Assistant City Manager Susan Emery remarked that, amid the intense media scrutiny that followed, there also wasn’t enough communication between city management.

“I don’t think we had clarity about our values as a team, and being honest and open with each other about what was happening,” said Emery.

By June 15, city management are expected to review a communications policy, which will be brought before the city council for approval by July 15.

A New Development Strategy

In addition to the transparency and openness issues, the strategic plan focuses on the city’s campaign to revamp its downtown and a change in its overall development philosophy.

Key to the downtown plan is promoting alternative forms of transportation and encouraging residents to stay in Garden Grove when looking for recreation and entertainment activities.

In July, city staff will present a conceptual design and implementation plan for several neighborhoods around the Civic Center which officials hope will be transformed into a live-and-work, multi-block downtown through private investment.

In addition to holding a second Open Streets event on Sept. 26, city officials want to improve the city’s public recreation events, such as summer movie nights and a declining Sunday Farmer’s Market on Main Street.

Also, the city plans in October to hire an outside consultant to do a downtown parking study.

Looming in the background are a number of major development projects that were spearheaded by Fertal, the former city manager.

During his tenure as city manager, Fertal focused on large developments financed by redevelopment money, projects which were delayed for several years when state legislators eliminated redevelopment agencies in 2011.

Most of those projects were just starting to pick up again when Fertal resigned in December 2014.

Another important aspect of the strategic planning process is a progress report, scheduled for June 15, on the stalled Garden Grove Galleria project, a nine-story steel structure that towers over Garden Grove Blvd.

The unfinished steel structure of the Galleria project sits along Garden Grove Boulevard, near the city's Korean Business District. Across the street, another condominium project is set to commence construction at the end of this year.

The unfinished steel structure of the Galleria project sits along Garden Grove Boulevard, near the city’s Korean Business District. Across the street, another condominium project is set to commence construction at the end of this year.

Depending on the property owner and financier’s progress in finding a new developer, the council will decide whether to act on a demolition order or let the project to move forward.

Meanwhile, the groundbreaking for the Brookhurst Triangle, a mixed-use condominium project directly across the street from the Galleria, is scheduled for July.

Also in July, the city council will have a study session on its three outstanding Grove District hotel projects. While the Great Wolf Lodge Waterpark Hotel is on track for a grand opening in February 2016, two other projects, dubbed the Site C and Site B2 developments, are still in the financial planning stages.

In his State of the City address earlier this year, Nguyen indicated a pivot away from big development projects toward marketing the city to young families looking to buy their first home.

Next month, the city council is scheduled to adopt a marketing campaign focused on this demographic that will kick off in September.

You can read the full staff report and strategic plan goals on the city website.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.