The Garden Grove City Council Tuesday night, under heavy public and union pressure, asked for a written report detailing what an outside investigation learned about how the city fire department is managed and its hiring policies.
The investigation by Management Partners Inc. was done in response to severe criticism Mayor Bruce Broadwater and fire officials received following the hiring last year of the mayor’s son as a firefighter and later criticism of his job performance.
City staff told citizen watchdog Tony Flores last week the findings of the investigation by the firm Management Partners would be summarized in a verbal report to city manager Matthew Fertal, and that no written report had been issued.
It's not clear if all or parts of the written report requested Tuesday will be made public or only discussed by the city council in closed session.
Members of the fire union have been up in arms since last year, when Mayor Bruce Broadwater's now 37-year-old son Jeremy was hired as a firefighter, despite a series of misdemeanor convictions. After he was hired, he received poor performance reviews from his superiors.
The fire union gave Chief David Barlag a vote of no confidence in June, citing issues with management and hiring practices. Fertal authorized a $24,000 contract in August with Management Partners Inc. to investigate their allegations. The Costa Mesa firm previously investigated the Orange County Fire Authority but later even more problems were reported beyond the consultant's findings.
Scott Kuhlman, president of the Garden Grove fire union, told the city council Tuesday the union "has thoroughly documented our issues with the current fire chief. To date, there has been no plan, no solution nor any direction from the council.
“The chief does not have support from his firefighters, including some members of the management staff. We feel public safety, trust and perception will continue to be compromised…and anxiously anticipate the release of a written report as it represents a step forward in restoring confidence in management," he said.
After Kuhlman’s comments, Broadwater asked the city manager to produce the written report by the next council meeting, although that didn’t stop the searing criticism.
“Twenty four thousand dollars and we can’t even hit print? We’re going to pass on the information over a cocktail in a dark bar - there’s no accountability, it’s just an oral communication,” said resident Josh McIntosh. “This is 2014 - there’s no excuse for that. It seems too shady. This thing should be put on the city website word-for-word.”
Other residents criticized the council for not being more proactive in ensuring transparency and requesting a report when the investigation was first initiated.
“It’s not enough for a city to want to be transparent. It has to behave transparently. Asking a group to give you a private debriefing outside of the public record is not an act of transparency,” said Andrew Halberstadt. “I know you’ve asked for a report, but I wonder why that wasn’t part of the contract to begin with. When that check was cut, why did we not ask for a written, full impartial report?”
Linda Zamora, a resident and Planning Commissioner, said Broadwater should recuse himself from a vote later in the meeting to approve and put into effect a new nepotism policy, which was passed 5-0 by the council at their last meeting.
According to Fertal, the city “contemplated” a written report and the original contract with Management Partners allows for one if requested.
(Click here to read the city's contract with Management Partners.)
When asked why he didn’t ask for a written report at the start, Fertal said “the city is involved in litigation,” although he could not explain further why that would prevent the writing of a report.
But it’s unclear how much of the report will be made public given that it could include discussion of personnel, which is exempt from public disclosure.
“Upon receipt of the report, I’ll give it to the city attorney and he would make the determination over which parts can be released,” Fertal said.
Councilmembers Dina Nguyen and Kris Beard also requested the city manager to freeze departmental transfers and promotions within the fire department until the council receives the written report at their next meeting.
With the November 4th election just around the corner, the meeting was also an opportunity for residents to link Broadwater’s bid for re-election to the hiring issue.
Resident Rod Powell told Broadwater he should withdraw his candidacy.
“Inherently, you have an advantage if your father’s the mayor. It's not hard to figure out why Chief Barlag felt pressured,” said Powell. “This council, it’s always really been one person.”
Bao Nguyen, who is one of Broadwater’s opponents, criticized Broadwater as the mayor sat behind the dais and listened. Bao Nguyen and council members Beard and Dina Nguyen have all received contributions from the Garden Grove Firefighters Association.
"I’m counting on our city leadership…the remaining four council members, because at this point I’ve lost faith in our mayor,” Bao Nguyen said. “So please go back and make sure this report is in writing. Make sure it details everything that we need to know to make sure these abuses do not happen.”
“And yes, Mayor, you’ve done good, you’ve cleaned up Harbor [Boulevard], but you’ve forgotten the rest of us. 22 years in city hall — that’s quite some time. That’s a lot of time that you neglected us,” he added.
Councilmember Nguyen reassured the audience that she takes the investigation seriously and defended Broadwater.
“Bao Nguyen is here every week because he’s running for mayor. I don’t think he should be using this podium to attack his opponent….he has to spend his own money if he wants to campaign,” Nguyen said. “I have worked with the mayor for a long time and he has made a lot of decisions to help us remain a financially stable city. I still believe he’s doing that.”
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