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

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.