When news broke that Placentia’s financial manager was arrested for embezzling millions of dollars and plunging the small city into budgetary chaos, I was reminded of the classic Yogi Berra quote—no, not the obvious “It ain’t over until it’s over,” but “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Because that’s the thing: Not enough people have bothered to watch what goes on in the tiny North OC city’s government for about 15 years—and as a result, the city is financially fucked. Again.
I should know. 13 years ago, I began covering a $440 million redevelopment scheme called Orange County Gateway Development Initiative (OCGDI). Approved by the Placentia City Council in April 2003, it sought to bring in hotels, businesses, entertainment complexes, restaurants, museums around a proposed Metrolink station in Old Town Placentia, a tiny downtown known for its great Mexican restaurants and little else. Councilmembers tied it to a railway improvement project called OnTrac, and to a longtime wish to gentrify the surrounding barrio out of existence. Placentia politicos were so bold about their ambitions that they told angry residents during a town hall held at Valencia High School’s auditorium while not answering their questions, “You’ve got to deal with [redevelopment]. You know these things are
coming, so you better do something about it.”
For the next year, I covered the hell out of the story. My articles showed how one councilmember, Scott Brady, kept voting on projects where he had vested interests. I revealed how Placentia’s preferred pointman for OCGDI, a sweaty fat man by the name of Roy D. DePaul, just happened to have a bunch of failed businesses, tax liens, and judgements in his wake. Another story revealed how the city council gave a former mayor a sweetheart deal for his property; that one led to an OC Grand Jury investigation. The stories got so bad that on Election Night 2004, the son-in-law of disgraced Placentia mayor Judy Dickinson threatened to kick my ass. In the city council chambers. During a City Council meeting. Fuck you, chavala.
Eventually, people paid attention thanks to a coalition of liberals and conservative residents and great reporting by the Los Angeles Times‘ Dan Weikel (by that point, I had moved on to the Diocese of Orange sex-abuse scandal). In 2004 and 2006, city voters booted the bums out and replaced them with good councilmembers on a reform slate. But by then, Placentia was $30 million in debt, with two former city officials charged with felonies for violating conflict-of-interest laws. The city has been trying desperately to claw out ever since, by cutting back city services and even proposed closing parks in the city’s barrios.
But with the arrest of Michael Nguyen (a Valencia graduate who thankfully isn’t the Michael Nguyen who was my cousin Vic’s fellow Tiger back in the day), it’s sadly clear that the current city council didn’t learn any lessons. The worst part about this is that three of the five councilmembers were around when the OnTrac scandal happened—Connie Underhill (the sole incumbent from those days), Scott Nelson (Gustavo note: Please note this Scott is not the same as Scott Brady, a former pendejo councilmember caught up in the redevelopment mess back then; Scott Nelson is one of the good guys) and Craig Green. It’s especially painful to think Green—who I remember as a fiery citizen activist whose green-eyeshade prowess in looking through budgets, receipts, and invoices played as big a part as any in bringing down OnTrac, and who parlayed that into becoming the city’s treasurer before winning his current council seat in 2014—could be asleep at the wheel while Nguyen allegedly robbed the city silly.
Oh, the lot of the council will plead ignorance—after all, Nguyen is accused of wholescale fabrication of documents. And at least the members aren’t a bunch of ethically challenged fools (for the most part). But I’m reminded of one final Yogi-ism: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And in Placentia’s case, it’s deja vu all over again.