Garden Grove will end a year of political tumult and controversy with new leadership on the City Council but no top executive at the helm, as city manager Matthew Fertal abruptly announced his retirement to staff Tuesday.
His departure closely follows the electoral defeat of six-term Mayor Bruce Broadwater, who called off a vote recount Monday after losing by 15 votes to school board trustee Bao Nguyen.
Fertal, 56, will retire on Dec. 31 after 10 years as city manager and 25 years with the city. He said he will not receive any severance and will retire with the benefits available to all central management employees.
He leaves behind a city in a state of transition, with many top leadership roles being filled by newcomers and a number of ongoing development projects that he helped spearhead.
With Broadwater leaving office and councilwoman Dina Nguyen termed out after eight years, the new council will be relatively inexperienced.
Bao Nguyen, 34, will hold his first office in city government. Phat Bui, a former planning commissioner and an incoming councilman, will hold his first elected office. And Police Chief Kevin Raney will retire at the end of the year, while the city is still in the process of searching for a new fire chief.
The city’s largest development projects have only recently commenced after long delays from the dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency by the state.
The largest project, the Great Wolf Lodge Waterpark Hotel on Harbor Boulevard, broke ground this year, financed by $45 million in tax-allocated bonds through former redevelopment funds. Officials hope the expense will be paid back through an estimated $8.5 million in tax revenue from the resort.
Other projects include a 200-room hotel on Harbor Boulevard and a 14-acre, housing and commercial complex called the Brookhurst Triangle, scheduled to break ground later this year.
Yet while both Broadwater and Fertal, who have long been closely aligned, prepare to leave their posts, many residents showed out in force to Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting with searing criticism of city officials.
A Year of Controversy
Although he has so far given no reason for his departure, Fertal’s announcement comes as the city faces blowback over the hiring of Broadwater’s son as a city firefighter and its handling of a settlement deal for former fire chief David Barlag.
Barlag, who resigned under pressure from the firefighters union, first threatened the city with litigation in early August. It later emerged that his resignation was the result of a settlement deal giving him two years of continued employment in exchange for dropping litigation.
At a closed session on Sept. 23, council directed the city manager to sign a settlement deal with Barlag arranging for his continued employment, but did not report their decision out of closed session or vote on the contract in an open meeting.
The city backtracked on the deal Tuesday, placing a resolution on the agenda to officially create Barlag’s new position, add it to the list of central management roles, and approve the “previously authorized settlement agreement.”
City Attorney Thomas Nixon said the settlement was “executed on behalf of the city.”
Terry Francke, a consultant for Voice of OC and a statewide open government expert, said the resolution was likely an effort to avoid further exposure to litigation.
“If the council actually did approve the hiring at the outset and it was done in closed session with no notice on the agenda, that would be a Brown Act violation, in which case the belated resolution was probably done to insulate the council from a lawsuit to nullify the hiring,” Francke said. “In other words, to “cure and correct” the violation before someone demanded it.”
The settlement agreement drew several longtime residents to Tuesday’s meeting who expressed disappointment and distrust of the City Council.
“My belief in you, individually and collectively, has been shattered,” said resident Keith Riley. “We all make mistakes and errors in judgment, but to continue to do it and keep it hidden from taxpayers, I don’t know how we can trust elected officials when these are the kinds of things that are going on.”
Tony Flores, a resident who once worked for the city police department, alleged the council intentionally violated the Brown Act by approving the deal and accused Broadwater and Fertal of coercing Barlag into hiring the mayor’s son.
“It looks like the council is trying to un-ring the bell,” said Flores. “It hasn’t been nepotism all along – it’s been an abuse of power and textbook corruption.”
Scott Weimer, a former city firefighter and member of the Downtown Business Association, called on the city to rescind Barlag’s deal altogether.
“Can you assure us you don’t have a secret sweetheart deal in the works? Then of course…that wouldn’t happen, would it?” said Weimer of Fertal’s retirement. “Are only employees who resign under a cloud of suspicion eligible for such a particular perk?”
Some residents are also threatening to recall members of the council.
”What it really boiled down to was that silence and deception is the modus operandi…we had multiple times when we could have taken a better road, but didn’t,” said Maureen Blackmun, president of the Garden Grove Neighborhood Association, at the meeting.
Blackmun was also one of few speakers Tuesday to thank Broadwater and Fertal.
“I appreciate all you’ve done for the city…I’m sorry things ended the way they did,” said Blackmun. “You guys had a good run.”
Broadwater, visibly agitated and upset by many of the comments, interrupted one speaker saying, “I’ve been insulted all night long and I’ve only got one more time to do this,” later adding “There’s nothing worst for elected officials than listening to whiners like you and pressing the [green light] button.”
He defended the settlement deal as the lesser of two evils, the most reasonable way to avoid costly litigation, and pointed to high salaries of firefighters overall, including some who make more than the former fire chief.
Council voted 4-1 to approve the resolution on Barlag’s position.
“This is not a severance. This is an agreement…related to legal matters. This was probably the best business decision we could make as a city — a cost savings to the city,” councilman Kris Beard said.
Phan, who joined the council in 2012 and is now running for First District Supervisor, was the only no vote.
“There were allegations that things were not being done properly. All of us here on the council take our duties seriously and everything we do is for the best interest of the city. All of us are ethical and have desires to move the city forward in a positive way,” Phan said.
Broadwater, contemplating his last council meeting before his successor will be sworn in on Dec. 9, reflected on his and Fertal’s accomplishments over the past decade.
“It’s been a great ride. Some of the things we’ve done and can see — drive down Harbor Blvd. It was nothing but trash when I came on the city council,” Broadwater said. “We cleaned so much of it up. It looks so great.”
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