Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo, a center-stage type of guy, typically presides over City Council meetings as though they're his very own game show. But when Garofalo saw elderly constituent Eileen Murphy gingerly approach the podium to begin the public-comment session at Monday night's meeting, his gooey grin and smarmy flow suddenly coagulated into blank panic. As Murphy looked down at her notes and began to speak, Garofalo abruptly leaped to his feet and exited, stage left, into the wings of the council chambers.
"Where's the mayor?" Murphy exclaimed with loud surprise when she looked up from her notes to see Garofalo's chair empty except for his sport coat draped over the back. Murphy waited a few moments, maybe to see if Garofalo would return, certainly until the audience's laughter had subsided. Then she resumed her disgusted assessment of the mayor's lengthening list of unsettling financial connections to land developers and business owners with projects before the council. As her three-minute speaking allotment expired, Murphy concluded with a challenge: "My question to you, Mr. Mayor—wherever you are—is to explain why all of this is not a conflict of interest."
That question has been on a lot of lips around town for several years. Since he was first elected to the City Council in 1994, Garofalo has earned a living as a local wheeler-dealer, involving himself in numerous murky real-estate and business deals. But his main claim to fame is The Local News—his newspaper funded almost exclusively by local advertising revenue. This revenue frequently comes from local merchants with businesses before the City Council.
Making matters worse, Garofalo has repeatedly submitted state-mandated personal financial-disclosure forms that are hazy, incomplete and late. When questioned by reporters, he has either declined to answer or responded with vagueness, contradiction, empty homilies or defensive anger—usually in phone messages left on answering machines or unsigned communiqués via fax machine. Even so, his political star has continued to rise amid speculation he is being groomed for higher offices by power brokers within the Republican Party.
Nine months of investigative stories by the Weekly—and recent contributions from the Huntington Beach Independent—finally moved residents to speak out in an official forum Monday night. The main target of their wrath: a $2,995 ad-payment check Garofalo accepted from the firm CIM, which currently has considerable redevelopment business pending before the council. The check was for an ad in the Huntington Beach Visitor's Guide, which Garofalo publishes. Although Garofalo has long claimed he doesn't own the publishing company that puts out the Guide, the check was made out to Garofalo himself.
Faced with their anger, Garofalo disappeared.
"The mayor's absence speaks volumes," said Debbie Cook, a longtime community activist and the third of six Huntington Beach residents—and Council Members Tom Harman and Dave Sullivan—who addressed Garofalo's unbecoming behavior.
Garofalo returned to his seat near the end of Cook's remarks, roughly when she was bemoaning the way he "treats the city's business as his personal open-pit mining operation" and calling for an investigation by the state attorney general. Other speakers, sprinkling their testimonies with words like "payoff," "ruse," "sellout" and "tip of the iceberg," requested remedies ranging from full disclosure by Garofalo to investigations by the city attorney or the state Fair Political Practices Commission to a simple, open press conference. Significantly, nobody suggested an investigation by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukas, perhaps mindful that Rackaukas is one of Garofalo's political allies who attended the mayor's extravagant swearing-in ceremony last year.
Longtime council watchers said the pointed public comments were unprecedented in the era of televised Huntington Beach council meetings. Harman and Sullivan called upon Garofalo to make full financial disclosure and pressed an equally evasive deputy city attorney Scott Field (city attorney Gail Hutton was absent) about lax oversight. Harman was especially concerned about the CIM check and also raised questions about Garofalo's no-bid contract to publish the Visitor's Guide. Garofalo has cast repeated votes in favor of CIM and the Visitor's Bureau that controls the guide, and Harman wondered whether the mayor's participation was putting the city at risk. Fields never offered a coherent response.
Other speakers, including planning commissioner Bob Biddle, demanded an explanation for Garofalo's involvement in a bizarre 1998 real-estate transaction. Developer Chris Gibbs grant-deeded Garofalo a lavish house in the brand-new Seacliff development in March of that year, and in July—one day after escrow closed—Garofalo sold it for $625,000. Garofalo, who was sitting on a council subcommittee negotiating with Gibbs over unprecedented multimillion-dollar rebates, has refused to produce documents proving he paid anything for the home.
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Others questioned the legitimacy of the sale of Garofalo's newspaper, The Local News, to longtime benefactor Ed Laird. That sale, announced in the summer of 1998, was intended to clear Garofalo of conflict-of-interest concerns involving advertisers who might also have business with the city. But the transfer of ownership was not filed until December 1999. Once again, Garofalo has refused to show proof of sale.
When public comment concluded Monday night, Garofalo responded typically. First, he criticized the residents who came forward, claiming they had ulterior motives. Then, except for a blanket reassurance that "there has been nothing improper; all this is the usual stuff," he ignored the demands for accountability. He didn't completely brush off Harman and Sullivan, although his response to them was rather familiar, too. "I'll answer their questions," he said, "in a letter."
But if the Huntington Beach City Council is sincerely interested in getting clear of Garofalo's conflict-of-interest allegations that are reflecting so poorly on the integrity of its decisions, it can conduct its own investigation. Article III, Section 304, Paragraph B of the city charter gives the council the power to "judge the qualifications of its members" and the "authority to compel the attendance of witnesses, to examine them under oath and to compel the production of evidence before it."
Garofalo undoubtedly wouldn't relish that. On the other hand, you can't get much more center stage than the witness stand.