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Dial the phone number for Main Street West, the company that prints the city's official Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Guide, and the voice that greets you on the answering machine belongs to Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo.
"Hi. You've reached The Local News and other publications published by Dave Garofalo," the mayor's recorded voice says cheerfully. "Please leave a message."
It's not a wrong number. Repeated calls to directory-assistance operators get the same response: "There is no listing for Main Street West."
When you double-check the scant information in the staff box of the Visitors Guide, it says the phone number of Main Street West is indeed the same as The Local News, a small Huntington Beach-based newspaper Garofalo publishes every week. It also reveals that the address of Main Street West matches that of a Huntington Beach consulting firm—David P. Garofalo & Associates.
Since 1997, Garofalo has voted in favor of approving—and usually increasing—the budget for the Conference and Visitors Bureau each time it has come before the City Council. And each time, the bureau has given Garofalo an exclusive, no-bid contract to print and distribute the Visitors Guide.
When conflict-of-interest questions were raised over this arrangement in the summer of 1998, Garofalo sidestepped them by announcing he had sold his newspaper to Ed Laird, a Huntington Beach paint manufacturer who is a heavy-hitting contributor to Republican political candidates, including Garofalo. Since then, The Local Newsstaff box has noted that the paper is "an AQC company," a reference to the Laird-founded Air Quality Consultants Inc. That transaction ostensibly left Garofalo free to vote in favor of funding the Conference and Visitors Bureau.
But county clerk records show Garofalo didn't sell The Local Newsto AQC until Dec. 28, 1999—a year and a half after he said he transferred the paper and three months after Garofalo voted with the rest of the council on Sept. 20, 1999, to grant the bureau $470,000 to promote tourism for the next two years. Jeff Laird, Ed's son and the company's new president, signed the county document. Local News filings with the California secretary of state's office still list Garofalo as the paper's owner.
California law prohibits an elected official from using "his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest." Officials who have such conflicts of interest are required to abstain from voting in these situations. Additionally, the agreement between the Conference and Visitors Bureau and the city of Huntington Beach demands that the bureau "shall employ no CITY official nor any regular CITY employee in the work performed pursuant to this agreement." It also insists that "No officer or employee of CITY shall have any financial interest in this Agreement in violation of the applicable provisions of the California Government Code." The capital letters are in the agreement.
Garofalo—who distributed a business card that says "Huntington Beach City Councilman" on one side and "Local News Editor" on the other—has had a prominent role in producing the Visitors Guide since 1992. He was publisher of the Huntington Beach Independent when that weekly newspaper was awarded the contract. After leaving the Independent and founding The Local News, Garofalo began producing the guide on his own. He was elected to the City Council in 1995.
When the Weekly sought Garofalo's comment in January—one month after the transaction—he did not respond to repeated phone messages left at his business, at his home, and with the Huntington Beach City Hall receptionist who answers the phones at the mayor's office. Recovering from open-heart surgery last week, Garofalo was unavailable for comment.
But Diane Baker, president of the Conference and Visitors Bureau, said the organization's board of directors determines who receives the contract to publish the Visitors Guide. "We are not an organization that is governed by a membership," she points out. "We are only governed by our board of directors." Garofalo, a founding member of the 11-year-old bureau, serves on the board of directors, although the guide identifies him only as an ex officio member.
Baker says Garofalo produces the guide free of charge, and in exchange, he is allowed to keep all advertising revenue. She acknowledged that there is no record of how much money Garofalo makes from the guide.
Conversely, because there is no competitive bidding on the contract, there is no way of knowing if the city could get a better deal—or whether it could produce the guide in-house with the printing facilities in the basement of Huntington Beach City Hall.