Garden Grove's former fire chief David Barlag, who resigned under pressure in September after a vote of no confidence from firefighters, gets to stay on the city payroll for two more years at full salary, while taxpayers foot the bill for both an interim fire chief and executive search for his replacement, according to new records obtained by Voice of OC.
Two weeks before Barlag resigned to quell public outcry, he and city manager Matthew Fertal negotiated an agreement allowing him to continue working for the city, with the same salary as the assistant city manager, until December 2016, records show.
“It goes without saying that this was a unpleasant situation without any good outcomes for positive resolution. Dave recognized that the situation with the Fire Labor Group had deteriorated to a point that it would have been very difficult for him to move the department forward,” Fertal wrote in a Sept. 30 email to central management employees.
“He is a dedicated member of our City family, and a great member of our Central Management team,” Fertal wrote.
Union president Scott Kuhlman declined to comment.
Barlag’s new position as a Public Safety Administrative Officer pays between $160,884 to $215,604 a year, according to the city’s salary schedule, and will include a 5 percent training premium and “all other benefits provided to Central Management employees,” excluding a vehicle allowance.
Although Fertal first informed central management employees of Barlag’s resignation through a Sept. 29 email, two weeks before that announcement, Fertal, deputy city attorney Barbara Raileanu, Barlag and his lawyer R. Craig Scott negotiated the settlement agreement.
“I understand that you are limited as far as what you can do. Don’t take it personal [sic] but this is my last shot to negotiate for the rest of my life. I have suffered a lot of professional and personal damage because of the situation,” Barlag wrote in a Sept. 18 email to Fertal.
By signing the agreement, Barlag agreed to drop all legal claims against the city regarding his employment and to “voluntarily and irrevocably resign from his position as Fire Chief,” effective Sept. 30.
The first day following his resignation, Barlag was appointed to his new position, which reports directly to Fertal, and will hold that position until his voluntary retirement on December 31, 2016, according to the settlement.
It's unclear what his responsibilities will be in his new position.
The settlement agreement also includes a $3,750 reimbursement to Barlag for attorney fees and a confidentiality clause given that it is a personnel matter, although it is still subject to the California Public Records Act.
Barlag’s attorney did not return a call for comment Friday evening.
Turmoil Within the Fire Department
Barlag resigned following a near unanimous vote of no confidence from the fire union in June, born in part over the controversial hiring of Mayor Bruce Broadwater’s 37-year-old son Jeremy, despite a series of misdemeanor arrests in his youth and poor performance evaluations from his superiors.
A report by independent investigators into the department’s management issues released in October noted many firefighters felt Barlag lacked a strong leadership presence, failed to discipline employees and reportedly intervened to hire the mayor’s son.
The young Broadwater’s hiring was the “final straw” for those firefighters, who in the lead-up to the November election were outspoken about mistrust and low morale within the department and publicly pushed for Barlag’s removal.
Barlag reportedly told firefighters who asked him why he hired Broadwater that "everybody has a boss," according to the report.
Before he resigned on Sept. 30, Barlag took home $226,599.96 in salary and benefits a year, plus an additional $78,171.72 in retirement contributions.
According to the city’s municipal code, the city manager has the authority to appoint, promote and remove any city employees.
When contacted for this story, Fertal refused to answer any questions about Barlag’s job duties or the circumstances of his retirement.
As of Nov. 6, “Public Safety Administrative Officer” was not listed in the city’s salary schedule, which is posted online and was last updated in July 2014.
On Nov. 7, the day after a reporter called Fertal and submitted a Public Records Act request for information about Barlag’s employment, the city updated its website to include the position.
That position has a salary range of $13,407 to $17,967 monthly, or $103.65 an hour at the highest end. It is also eligible for alternative pay for 112-hour fire shifts only available to sworn fire department staff.
The Search for a New Chief
After Barlag's resignation, Fertal functioned as the ad hoc chief of the fire department until he appointed an interim chief, who began on Nov. 3.
Among the management decisions Fertal made was the transfer of firefighter Jeremy Broadwater to a desk position, according an Oct. 7 memo obtained by the Orange County Register, just as he is scheduled to come up for his first-year probation interview.
Broadwater still holds a sworn firefighter position, according to a recent Public Records Act request.
Interim chief Warren Hartley, appointed at the recommendation of the fire union, was a former fire chief who retired in 1999.
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