Just days after Garden Grove’s fire chief David Barlag resigned to quell conflict in the department over the hiring of the mayor's son as a firefighter, candidates for mayor and city council gathered at a forum Saturday afternoon to address concerns about transparency, new developments and candidates’ priorities for the city.
Billed explicitly as an informational forum and pressed to divide time between nine candidates for mayor and council, the event was more like an election sampler platter where the audience could snack on bits of detail and hear an elevator pitch from candidates themselves.
Bruce Broadwater, the 12-year incumbent mayor, faces two opponents, Garden Grove Unified school board trustee Bao Nguyen and Albert Ayala, a retired police commander.
Broadwater has been under fire after his son was hired as a firefighter last year despite a series of misdemeanor arrests. The younger Broadwater has also received poor performance reports from his superiors.
Broadwater, who was first to speak, opened by stating that he was not on the city council in 2005 when a policy banning the hiring of relatives was repealed.
“I came back in 2006, and nepotism was just rampant — and it has been ever since,” Broadwater said.
The council has since passed a new policy re-instituting that ban on the employment relatives, with the exception of some part-time work and excluding anyone who was hired prior to the ordinance’s passing — which includes Broadwater’s son Jeremy and relatives of the city manager.
The issue of whether Jeremy will stay on as a firefighter could come to a resolution after Oct. 14, when he and four other new firefighters are up for their one-year review.
Throughout the debate, Broadwater highlighted his experience as a fiscal manager for the city, bringing in new projects to boost the city’s tax revenues.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of land left to develop on. The Harbor corridor, the hotels that we put in there, that really saved Garden Grove financially. The first year, we took in 900,000 in revenue off of Harbor Boulevard, the second year was $16 million, and when the Waterpark Hotel comes in, it’ll be $25 million,” he said.
He pointed to the addition of big box stores like Wal-Mart, which opened this year, Costco and Home Depot, as generating important tax revenue and his role in building a community gymnasium at Garden Grove Park.
Meanwhile, Nguyen, who has received $15,000 in contributions and an endorsement from the fire union, said council action on the nepotism issue was too little, too late.
“We need to bring trust back to city hall. We need to restore integrity to city government,” said Nguyen. “Those years have gone by, why wasn’t action taken? It’s a little late.”
Nguyen pressed a theme of increasing citizen engagement and transparency.
“Any power is through the people via the elected officials. Currently there needs to be more oversight. We need to engage our citizens in a process of democracy. We currently have budgets where citizens have five days to review, and they aren’t engaged,” Nguyen said, in response to a question about whether the city manager has too much individual authority.
On development and job creation, Nguyen said the city should focus on improving the nuts-and-bolts of city services, and grow industries that would provide jobs for new college graduates.
"One of the biggest mistakes cities do when they try to attract developments is they neglect to have an accurate understanding of the cost burden on local government services…public safety, fire, public works, street maintenance, etc.,” Nguyen said. “You know we need to fix our streets and sidewalks - we are lacking street lights in some parts of our city still."
“When [students] come back to Garden Grove there are no viable jobs for them. The jobs we’ve developed are primarily service sector jobs..so they look elsewhere in the county. We have no return on that investment,” Nguyen said.
On many instances, Nguyen posed more questions than he answered. Asked whether he would outsource fire services to the county Fire Authority to reduce budget expenses, Nguyen praised the current fire department but was cautious in his answer.
"We have great firefighters working for our city that provide excellent service. What we need to focus on is, will that benefit us,” Nguyen said. “If we’re going to explore any kind of agreement with any other agency that’s not the city, we have to look carefully at what services are available and how would things be different…would response times increase? Would it improve services?”
Meanwhile, none of the candidates for mayor or council who were asked the question entertained the prospect of contracting out fire services to the county.
Ayala, the 91-year-old retired police commander, said he wasn’t interested in being a politician.
“I’m not a politician, I don’t expect to present myself as a politician….but I love my town and will continue giving to my town, and do my best best to have an open door policy where all people can enter - not just interested people who are supplying chunks of money,” Ayala said.
As was his view on many issues, from public safety to housing density, Ayala said he is satisfied with the direction the city is taking and doesn’t think more is necessarily better.
“We enjoy the idea of opening new stores and bringing in new revenue, but I don’t know if that’s the answer. I believe we have to control our space and the amount of businesses and value the number of business already in our city,” Ayala said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re going in the right direction."