Wrong Side of the Tracks

State investigates Placentia case that
OC grand jury said was legal

A state agency appears ready to derail a controversial effort to redevelop Placentia's quaint downtown.

Trouble began almost as soon as Placentia officials created OnTrac, an agency whose ostensible purpose was to oversee upscale development along the path of the Burlington-Santa Fe Railroad. Led by Mayor Scott Brady, the city began offering sweetheart contracts to business partners and former city workers, all the while ignoring the pleas of the area's residents to leave their neighborhoods alone.

Now, with the redevelopment project sucking the city into debt estimated in the millions, the tiny North County community has slashed park and youth programs, and there's talk of outsourcing the police department. Angry citizens attend City Council meetings, threatening to boot the bums out, and the Orange County district attorney's office is investigating allegations that Christopher Becker, Placentia's former public works director, improperly influenced the decision that made him OnTrac's executive director.

But the biggest news came July 5. On that day, the state controller's office announced it's auditing OnTrac after learning that council members may have illegally transferred millions of dollars from Placentia's gas-tax fund to cover OnTrac's losses.

That could kill the city's redevelopment plan. But it also raises an important question: What the hell was the Orange County grand jury thinking when it looked at the same evidence and blessed the project?

Prompted by a series of articles in the Weeklylast year, the grand jury investigated OnTrac and released a report on June 7. The five-page study, "OnTrac and the City of Placentia: Funding, Favoritism, and Fairness," examined whether city officials had overpaid for property owned by former Placentia mayor and OnTrac adviser George Ziegler (see "Mayorly Screwed" March 12, 2004) and whether the City Council improperly used grants to pay for OnTrac's costs.

The grand jury's conclusion: everything is peachy keen in Placentia.

That conclusion infuriated Craig Green, a mortgage broker and member of Citizens for a Better Placentia. Green and others have spent the past two years exposing the financial wrongdoings of the Placentia City Council, digging through documents and releasing their findings on their website, betterplacentia.org.

Both the grand jury and the state controller's office consulted Citizens for a Better Placentia for their respective investigations—but the similarities end there. While the state controller's office stayed in contact with Green and his colleagues, the grand jury took documents—and then disappeared.

"We provided them with information, but they never came back and asked us any more questions," said Green. "They never bothered with the full picture. It makes you wonder."

This isn't the first time the grand jury has blown a major case. In 2000, the grand jury's foreman failed to inform fellow jurors that he had refused a request to investigate ties between officials of a bank he helped found and former Huntington Beach mayor Dave Garofalo and developer George Argyros (see "Jury Rigged?" March 3, 2000). In 2004, it flouted state law when it criticized the Santa Ana Unified School District for allowing parents to seek waivers that would permit children to continue in bilingual education classes, as required by California law. And it continues to ignore various requests by sex-abuse victims of the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal to investigate connections between the church, the district attorney's office and the Republican Party.

Green tried to be sympathetic to the grand jury. "They're only there for one year," he said. "They're just regular people like you and me; they fall short. The state, though, has people who know what rocks to turn over. They're going to be different."


GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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