Gone to the Dogs
Tustin City Councilwoman Deborah Gavello and her colleagues are driving one another barking mad

It isn’t easy being a Democrat on the Tustin City Council. Just ask Deborah Gavello, who could be forgiven for wishing she’d never won her race to join four white, male Republicans at the dais.

A local small-business owner, single mother and soccer mom, Gavello had never been involved in politics before narrowly winning election last November, beating Republican Jeff Thomas, a 12-year veteran of the council, after running a low-budget campaign devoid of any high-profile endorsements. It didn’t take long for her to earn the wrath of her colleagues by questioning the city’s investment policy. As punishment, Gavello has been dismissed from all of her committee seats. She also found herself embroiled in what has to be the most inane political “scandal” in Tustin history: allegedly abusing her power as a council member by complaining to county animal care about her neighbor’s barking dogs.

Jason Crosby

The brouhaha started last fall, when Gavello’s opponent, Thomas, criticized Tustin’s participation in the Orange County Investment Pool. Besides Tustin, the only cities that participate in the fund are Villa Park and San Clemente; Thomas argued that the investment pool, which famously went bankrupt in December 1994, was poorly administered and too risky. After beating Thomas, Gavello, who is a sales and marketing consultant for banks, investigated Tustin’s investment policy and agreed with Thomas. She brought her concerns to Tustin’s treasurer, G.W. Jeffries, who told her over lunch that he’d actually pulled the city out of the pool during the election in order to avoid bad publicity, but had promptly reinvested in the pool after the race ended.

In a July 7 council meeting, Gavello questioned Jeffries about the wisdom of remaining in the investment pool—and the reasoning behind his decision to divest during the campaign.

“Why did we pull out?” she asked.

“Because in my opinion and judgment, it was a political risk for this council and for me,” Jeffries responded.

When Gavello asked Jeffries to elaborate, Councilman Doug Davert interrupted her. “I’m going to cut you off right there,” he said. “You’re making statements in your questions. . . . It wasn’t done for political purposes.”

“He just said it was,” Gavello pointed out.

Things only got worse from there, as Gavello struggled to get a straight answer from Jeffries about why he’d yanked the city’s cash from the county investment pool and whether it was really wise to be invested at all. She was repeatedly interrupted by Davert, who accused Gavello of shilling for banks by suggesting the city invest in certificates of deposit, or CDs, which are insured by the federal government and thus virtually risk-free.

Finally, Republican Councilman Jerry Amante rose to the defense—not of Gavello, but of Jeffries. “If Ms. Gavello thinks she can question his judgment . . . then I suggest she take up some other course of duty,” he thundered.

Gavello tried to ask one last question but was cut off by Davert, who declared the session closed. “It was so embarrassing,” Gavello recalls. “I had no idea I bothered them so much until now.”

If Gavello thought her problems were over, however, she was sadly mistaken. According to the councilwoman, who works from home, she had been slowly losing her mind the past year thanks to her next-door neighbor’s barking dogs. “They barked for a whole year,” she says. “I did everything I could to get my neighbor to do something other than just leave them outside all day, barking.” When that failed, Gavello did what any city resident would do: She complained to animal care, which refused to do anything unless she provided elaborate evidence, including decibel readings, of the noise nuisance.

After Gavello presented tape recordings of the barking dogs at a hearing, the county finally issued a warning to the neighbor. The barking continued, so the county slapped the dog owner with a small fine. After that, the neighbor showed up at an Aug. 4 city council meeting to complain about Gavello. A month later, on Sept. 16, then-Mayor Davert, wrote the woman a letter saying the City Council had investigated her complaint.

“This City Council understands that there are public officials who use their public-office positions for private advantage,” Davert declared. “This council does not condone such actions.” Davert explained that a careful investigation had upheld her complaint about Gavello’s alleged abuse of power. “The City Council agreed to send you this letter apologizing for any embarrassment or inconvenience that you may have endured. . . . Please accept our sincere apology.”

When the woman’s rental lease ran out at the property, she moved; the Weekly was unable to locate her for this story.

Neither Davert nor Amante responded to e-mails seeking comment for this story. (Whether or not their reticence had anything to do with a July 29 blog post by this writer that referred to them as “obnoxious a-holes” could not be confirmed by press time.)

Last month, Davert, Amante and the rest of the council voted to banish Gavello from her three unpaid committee assignments: the Newport Bay Watershed Executive Committee, Santa Ana River Flood Protection Agency and the Water Advisory Committee of Orange County. They offered no reason for doing so, and gave her assignments to Councilman John Nielson, who will have to play a quick game of catch-up given that he hasn’t been to any of the meetings.

On Dec. 20, the city of Tustin will be required to reduce the concentration of selenium in the city’s water supply, and if it fails to do that, it could face fines of thousands of dollars per day.

“As of now, we’re not going to meet that mandate,” Gavello says. “We can be fined millions of dollars per year if we don’t solve this problem. I’m going to keep going to the meetings and speak out passionately to protect the residents and taxpayers of my city, whether I’m on the committee or not.”

nschou@ocweekly.com

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