Amid Calls to Audit His Work, Former Garden Grove Fire Chief Retires

David Barlag
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Former Garden Grove fire chief David Barlag, whose controversial contract as Public Safety Administrative Officer was approved by a secret City Council vote in September 2014, retired Monday, according to City Manager Scott Stiles.

Barlag’s retirement comes on the heels of a heated council meeting last Tuesday, where deadlocked council members debated whether to order an audit of Barlag’s executive position over a two-month period during which there are questions about whether he showed up for work at all.

Stiles said he received an email from Barlag on Monday morning stating he would retire immediately, nine months before his expected retirement date in December.

As Public Safety Administrative Officer, Barlag received a salary of $215,604, not including benefits, and will retire with a public safety pension. He did not return a call for comment.

Barlag, who was appointed fire chief in 2012, was publicly rebuked by city firefighters after he hired former mayor Bruce Broadwater’s son Jeremy as a firefighter in 2013, despite Jeremy Broadwater having several misdemeanor arrests on his record and reportedly failing a crucial oral exam required of all firefighters.

Although he resigned as fire chief on Sept. 30, 2014, it was not until six weeks later that the city disclosed, in a response to a public records request by Voice of OC, that Barlag had negotiated a settlement to stay on the city payroll for two more years under a newly created executive management position.

At the time, city officials claimed Barlag threatened to sue the city if he was terminated and said his new position was part of a legal settlement in order to prevent a costly and time-consuming lawsuit.

An Orange County District Attorney report released earlier this month admonished city officials for approving Barlag’s contract in closed session, stating that it was a violation of the “spirit and intent” of the state’s open meetings law.

The DA also questioned the premise that the city did not have grounds to fire Barlag given that fire chief is an at-will position, and urged city officials to conduct an audit of Barlag’s position to ensure it was not a ‘no-show’ job.

Did Barlag Work at City Hall?

Questions remain about whether Barlag was working at all before interim City Manager Allan Roeder required him to begin reporting to City Hall regularly in February 2015.

According to a conversation covertly taped by the DA, Barlag stated he and then-City Manager Matthew Fertal, who signed the contract, had an understanding that “Barlag would not be required to report to the city for work.”

Although a public records request for Barlag’s work product for the first five months of 2015 returned three hundred pages of documents, the city produced 19 pages for the period between September 30 and December 31, 2014.

The records produced by the city included a job description, a two-page summary of preliminary assignments, a description of an employee training program led by Barlag, and a handful of email records.

Although the documents are not dated, email records also show Fertal met with Barlag the week of Nov. 17, 2014 — a week after Barlag’s new position became public — to discuss his responsibilities.

The city also produced timecards that show Barlag logged 40 hours a week of work in his new position from Sept. 30 through the end of 2014. During that time, he also took 20 hours of administrative leave, 50 hours of holiday time off and cashed out 25 hours of vacation, according to the timecards.

Stiles said he couldn’t comment on the work product documents or whether Barlag was working the hours logged on those timecards.

Both Roeder and Stiles said they could not answer questions about Barlag’s employment prior to their arrival and that they focused on making his position productive during their own tenure.

“What I’ve tried to do is give [the City Council] some confidence, at least since I’ve been here, that I’ve got Dave doing meaningful work, it’s work that benefits the city, that’s where my focus has been,” said Stiles. “I know council members have different issues from before my time, but the only thing I can do is, going forward, and make sure all of our employees are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Asked whether any of his tasks required a sworn public safety classification, which entitles him to a more generous state pension formula, Stiles said Barlag’s background as a fire chief was useful experience for many of the projects.

Council at an Impasse

Since the release of the DA report, Mayor Bao Nguyen and councilmember Phat Bui have called on their colleagues to vote to implement all the recommendations of the DA’s report, including an audit of Barlag’s job.

But in two votes at separate meetings, the council was deadlocked 2-2, with councilmembers Kris Beard and Steve Jones vehemently opposed to the audit. Chris Phan recused himself from both discussions, citing his job as a deputy district attorney.

Some residents recently began circulating an online petition urging the city council to conduct the audit.

Councilmembers discussed the audit for the second time last Tuesday, at the end of a long meeting that ended at 1 a.m.

“This is something that’s still looming in our city, and it will continue. And if we truly are for transparency, then now is the time, more than any other time, to have the audit,” said Nguyen. “This is not political grandstanding, this is unfinished business.”

Both Jones and Beard felt the issue had been rehashed enough and it was time to move on.

Beard said the DA had already conducted a thorough investigation and that the city would be better off spending its money on public services, not a consultant to do an audit.

“Let’s work on putting cops on the street and not have another needless, frivolous investigation. How much money does this city need to spend to satisfy your political appetite, mayor?” Beard said.

Jones recalled the “weird” and intense politics of the November 2014 election that coincided with the Barlag’s resignation as fire chief and outrage over his new position. During that time, Broadwater lost the mayoral election to Nguyen and Fertal retired abruptly.

“People will say, oh it’s the city manager, but he’s gone. Or oh, it was the mayor, but he’s gone,” Jones said. “To be clear, neither councilmember Beard and I were the target, we were dragged in there for hours and hours, the DA was working on this for a year and they came up short.”

But both Bui and Nguyen, invoking their heritage as Vietnamese refugees who escaped communism, argued that the issue was a matter of restoring public trust in the city and in the democratic process.

“What is it we are afraid of? If you were misled and made the wrong decision, so be it,” Bui said. “I don’t care if he’s working forty hours a week. I still have a big problem with him doing nonessential tasks and getting paid an executive salary.”

After council members voted, the seven residents still left in the audience became disruptive.

“You can make investments in developments but not in your people? That’s a sign of disrespect,” resident Asunta Bamini said from the audience.

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

  • BeeBee.BeeLeaves

    This is the cumulative effect of using public safety emp!oyees as personal young turks to city leaders to go after those in the community they do not like or want out. How many small business owners got weekly visits by fire when they wanted the land for Costco and later for those Brandywine homes. Because “there is always something”. Additionally, where did John Carter the head of human resources run off too when he did not get his promised assistant city manager position after allowing hundreds of nepotism hires? He also approved the park ranger positions for the mayors kid and his friends. Money that was for park maintenance. And even as a park ranger, those legal issues were there and still the kid gets hired. Little favors one and all. This is the result of so much misuse and malfeasance. And this poor guy is the fall guy simply because he went along with what has been done many times before him. Our past city leaders use public servants to serve themselves. And they basically all got away with it. And those that went along were rewarded with higher salaries and pensions or golden handshake buh-byes. We will bleed red when it is consolidated into the financials and it will be Carrie blood bath not pretty. All because of past greed. Not fair to the residents. Not fair.

  • John Claxton

    If Spitzer were DA, he would not only file charges, he would go down to city hall and personally handcuff them and take them into custody!

    • OCservant_Leader

      Spitzer would do it for the press-coverage for sure. We – the public really don’t care what motivates those in power to do the right thing-just DO IT!

      All operative of this “theft of public funds” scam needs to be in handcuffs, and prosecuted in a televised trial.

      This scam demonstrates how all the “players” act in “collusion” to defraud the public.

  • OCservant_Leader

    This “crew” got caught. See how they start operating to benefit only themselves? This is what is called organized crime in the public sector – graft. Brazen. Unbelievable.

    To those who want to “sweep it under the rug” – yea that’s how graft continues. The operation needs to be exposed for the taxpayer scam that it is!

  • BeeBee.BeeLeaves

    Lordy, Lordy! The young turks sure do always (sic) get to ride out into their sunset years with grand pensions that The People are saddled with for decades. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are still trying to lasso in that big ball of bonds, bull and brown who? deals that first went out of control in the mid 80’s. Poor GG. Bleeding blood red on so many levels.

  • Jacki Livingston

    This ridiculous bs is what these people are spending their time on? Greeeeeeat. Now I can see why the city has one of the single worst nursing homes in the state, where criminal embezzlement, money laundering, neglect and deaths of patients were and are going on unchecked. How freaking incompetent can they be?

  • Tommy R. Donovan

    And people wonder why at times our city gets called Garbage Grove; its stuff like this that gives it a whole new meaning, and that’s unfortunate.

    This Barlag issue, despite his “resignation”, still isn’t completely resolved. I agree with the fact that an audit should still be done, but with the impasse we’ve had at council— we’re not getting anywhere.

    Two council persons, (who were part of this mess originally), fervently continue to vote no, and a third keeps recusing himself over perceived issues he’s got about his employer (OCDA), even despite it has previously been declared there is NO conflict of interest on his part. Makes one wonder—where’s his loyalty? With his employer or the oath of office he took to serve our city?

    It doesn’t hurt to attend council meetings, folks. You get to see this all first hand. When progress is trying to be made by some… you can see a couple of the council members roll their eyes, shift in their chairs, and peruse their cell phones when they should be paying attention to the matters at hand.

    Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a voice. But progress isn’t being made.

    Good job again, Thy, on your reporting on this whole ordeal.

    • LFOldTimer

      Of course the 2 council members who helped create this mess would vote “no” on the audit. Imagine the political damage they would do to themselves if the audit revealed shenanigans. Like most politicians they serve themselves first. You get the leftover crumbs, if you’re lucky. A person of average intelligence doesn’t have to step foot into a council meeting to figure that out. Next time they run for office you should be screaming about this to anyone who would lend an ear.

  • astar2b

    Well, it’s not against the law to be an incompetent politician…

  • David Zenger

    I wonder under what tissue thin argument this Phan chap recuses himself. If you really want a conflict of interest it would be the two chuckleheads who perpetrated the act and are now voting to cover it up.

    • Tommy R. Donovan

      A couple of council meetings ago, (while they still were temporarily being held over at Village Green), part of his reasoning was because he knew one of the DA investigators who wrote the report about the Brown Act complaint.

      He not only recused himself from that agenda item that particular night… but he also left the premises and never came back.

      • David Zenger

        And yet, the two scoundrels who did the actual deed voted to absolve their own misfeasance. No bueno!

        • Tommy R. Donovan

          It’s angering to say the least.

    • the714

      I suppose this is an argument against voting for Deputy DA’s to fill any political slot; they have too many conflicts of interest, given the corrupt nature of government at all levels.

  • Roderick Powell

    Is Jeremy Broadwater still on stress leave? This will never be over until he is no longer an employee of this city. He has been the problem all along. Pure greed! Bruce Broadwater, Matthew Fertal and David Barlag all belong in jail. (maybe Jeremy Broadwater too) Kris Beard and Steve Jones, (both appointees of Bruce Broadwater) need to be off this city council for obstruction of justice. Chris Phan too! Chris Phan knew that his recusal assured that the audit of David Barlag’s no-show job would not happen. The fix was really in the night Bruce Broadwater managed to get this contract passed. His two “boys” (Beard and Jones) and him assured it. Now Beard and Jones are yet again in a position to subvert justice. Beard should truly have never been appointed to the council…and now he has the nerve to disrespect our mayor. Please Kris Beard crawl back under the rock you came out from…

  • LFOldTimer

    So they simply want to confirm that some guy appointed via a back room deal to a government job with a $215,604 salary is actually showing up to work and doing his job – and he bolts? ha.

    Then when the citizens complain that they don’t trust government all the elected officials get offended and act like something is wrong with the people who complain. ha.

    More 3rd world banana republic behavior. The fish always rots from the head down.