Uncle Sham

A Yankee Doodle guide to mayoral mischief in Huntington Beach!

Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo seems surprised to discover he's in deep trouble.

If so, he's one of the last to know. Accounts of his crass audacity have been bouncing around Huntington Beach almost since the moment he showed up in town 30 years ago after a roundabout journey from his hometown of Cranston, Rhode Island.

"Sometimes it's sickening, and sometimes it's just sad, but Dave has always been one to stretch the truth," says Roger Slates, 71, whose four decades of involvement in Huntington Beach politics include stints on the chamber of commerce, board of Realtors, planning commission and coastal commission. "So many of the things he says he was and did, he really wasn't and didn't."

Since Garofalo was elected to the City Council in 1994, his lack of propriety has taken on greater significance. Garofalo makes his money with a publishing business, which, among other things, produces a biweekly newspaper, The Local News, and the city's annual tourism guide. Both publications are funded almost exclusively by local advertising revenue, which frequently comes from people with business before the City Council.

Garofalo didn't help himself when he failed to draw a clear line between the city's business and his own: soon after he was first elected to the City Council in 1994, he began distributing a two-sided business card—with the Huntington Beach city seal on the side that identified him as a council member, and the logo of The Local News on the side that identified him as its publisher.

The problem is money. There is the money Garofalo has been making by publishing The Local News twice a month. There is also the money Garofalo has been making by publishing the Huntington Beach Visitor's Guide. Publicly, Garofalo insists that he makes little or even nothing printing the Visitor's Guide; privately, former employees say, he regards it as his "profit center," more lucrative than its parent company. Garofalo gets the Visitor's Guide publishing contract through a no-bid process from an agency that is funded by his City Council vote; he then gets to keep all the revenue—minus production costs—his company earns selling advertising space in the guide.

Then there are the mayor's side projects, chief among them a series of questionable housing deals. Consider just one for a moment: a lavish $565,000 house up on Poppy Hill Circle that was grant-deeded to Garofalo by Seacliff developer Chris Gibbs in the spring of 1998. Garofalo quitclaimed the home to oil company owner George Pearson for $625,000 that summer—one day after escrow closed—and still hasn't provided proof he ever paid anything for the place.

There is, as mounting evidence suggests, lots more where that came from.

"I honestly feel Garofalo should resign," said Slates. "For the betterment of the city and to stop embarrassing his family."

Several community activists have amplified Slates' call for Garofalo's resignation. During the June 5 City Council meeting, Council Members Dave Sullivan and Tom Harman criticized Garofalo's behavior and requested full disclosure. More people lined up to voice their complaints at the June 19 meeting. Before the public-comment session, however, Garofalo made an announcement. Looking disheveled and bewildered, he launched into a five-minute discourse, during which he promised to "divest" himself of the publishing interests that have been at the center of the controversy.

(Garofalo has announced the sale of The Local News—and the Visitor's Guide contract along with it—before. Documents obtained by the Weekly show that sale—to one of Garofalo's allies, local businessman Ed Laird—may never have taken place.)

As his disjointed address continued, Garofalo insisted on his innocence and blamed mean-spirited persons for his predicament. "I believe I have been the subject of unprecedented scrutiny by the press," he complained. It was, of course, Garofalo, a hound for attention, who last December transformed his administrative rotation from council member into the largely ceremonial position of mayor into a weeklong celebratory extravaganza, complete with marching bands and dancing girls, the likes of which Huntington Beach had never before seen.

If Garofalo is surprised by the fireworks now exploding around him, he shouldn't be: he lit the fuse months ago with his very own sparkler.

WAKE-UP CALL Okay, so maybe the way it finally came down was a little surprising, with seldom-seen city attorney Gail Hutton playing it uncharacteristically straight with the mayor. After years of soft-pedaling his behavior, Hutton came right out and advised Garofalo on June 19 to "declare a conflict of interest on the record" and to abstain from voting on a range of projects and issues involving businesses from which he has been collecting cash or special considerations.

That was weird. And the council meetings ahead will probably seem weirder. If he follows Hutton's advice, Garofalo won't vote on major development projects from downtown redevelopment to the seashore; won't vote on tourism initiatives; won't vote on a makeover of the city's sprawling mall near the 405 and Beach Boulevard. He won't vote on any project in which he might have a financial interest. And given the way Garofalo mixes his politics with his publishing, that may mean he won't vote on anything at all—ever.

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