Wheres George?

Sunshine was bouncing off the Pacific Ocean, streaming through a huge picture window and fanning out across a delectable brunch buffet arranged in the nook of an elegant hotel ballroom. Ed Laird was beaming, too, weaving through the crowd like a cross between Santa Claus and Jerry Springer. The smell of victory hung thick in the holiday air—or was that just the collision of bad colognes? Congressman Dana Rohrabacher took a quick look at the indulgent scene unfolding amid the spirit of Christmas, delivered a few platitudes and headed straight to church.

It was the end of a weeklong coronation for Dave Garofalo, the new mayor of Huntington Beach, a week remarkable in its fanfare and repulsive in its fatuousness. Garofalo, the short and swarthy second-term City Council member, inherited the title of mayor according to a city charter that rotates the position. The honor is akin to the grade-school principle that gives everybody a chance to bang erasers. Garofalo will warm the mayor's chair for only one year; then somebody else will get the job.

But Garofalo transformed the simple change in the City Council seating chart into the regal march of a triumphant Napoleon. The week began with marching bands and serenades at the Dec. 6 City Council meeting where he was sworn in. It ended to the tune of more than $10,000, which is how much money was raised for him, not at Waterloo, but at a Dec. 12 brunch at the Waterfront Hilton. Except that we just remembered Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo. Whatever.

In the interests of full disclosure, we must confess that the OC Weekly kicked in $99 to Garofalo's office-holder account to attend the brunch and rub bad leisure wear—what is it with rich people and pastels and plaid?—with 100 or so of Orange County's self-anointed movers and shakedown artists.

Guests included planning commissioner and Garofalo benefactor Laird, Pacific Liberty Bank president Rich Ganulin, Lincoln Club president Mike Capaldi, planning commissioner Fred Speaker, Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) and Waterfront Hilton president Steve Bone.

Garofalo tried to look like one of this crowd, but all his wide smiling and hand-shaking couldn't hide his probationary status. Garofalo is being tentatively groomed for a run for the county Board of Supervisors in 2002, and it will likely take a win in that election before he is fully accepted by the inner circle of OC Republicans. Meanwhile, Garofalo's true rank among these people was illustrated by the behavior of Congressman Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), Baugh and megadeveloper George Argyros. Rohrabacher couldn't leave quickly enough, excusing himself to attend Mass “for the first time in eight weeks.” Baugh summoned Garofalo to the podium to present him with a big, framed proclamation from the California Assembly—and then told the new mayor that he couldn't take the pretty document home. Turns out it was a theatrical prop, actually inscribed with the name of one of Baugh's staff members. Garofalo went back to his table empty-handed, although Baugh promised to get him one just like it. Argyros, listed on the invitation as part of the host committee—at least we think it was him; it mentioned a “Geroge” Argyros— didn't even bother to show up.

The comfort level wasn't any better in certain corners of the room, such as where Ganulin was sitting next to Capaldi. Ganulin had no sooner taken his seat than Capaldi asked him, “How are things at the bank?” Trying to have a nice morning, Ganulin answered pleadingly, “Can we talk about something else?” But Capaldi persevered in his interrogation. Finally, Ganulin said exasperatedly, “Let's talk about you. How are you doing?”

Ganulin's evasion was understandable. For the past five weeks, the Weekly has detailed how Wal-Mart developer George Argyros, three Huntington Beach City Council members (including Garofalo) and two city planning commissioners (including Laird) are all investors in Pacific Liberty. Garofalo and Laird also sit on the bank's board of directors. Of the above investors, only City Council member Pam Julien included her investment on her state-mandated personal disclosure form for 1998. City attorney Gail Hutton said the investments don't constitute a conflict of interest, but added that she refused repeated requests to invest in the bank for fear such investments might appear a conflict of interest. The Orange County grand jury—whose foreman, Philip Inglee, is also a Pacific Liberty investor—also found no conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, everybody finished breakfast, and the program began with a trash-TV talk-show theme. Laird and two others circulated through the crowd with cordless microphones, asking prominent guests for their wish list for Garafalo's, uhhh, “administration”—soon to include, the mayor later announced, a 15-member cabinet!

Translated, most of the wishes boiled down to “More money, please.” But other comments were a hybrid of highfalutin' arrogance and deep-seated cruelty. They lampooned Bob Cronk, a private citizen who led a drive that gathered 22,000 signatures against Argyros' plan to build the Wal-Mart. They made sexually insulting comments about Susie Newman, whose complaints to the state Fair Political Practices Committee, district attorney's office and Orange County grand jury prompted investigations of the various city officials' Pacific Liberty investments. And they mocked Ron Davis, who volunteered pro bono legal services to Cronk when the Wal-Mart developer sued him.

Ironically, out in the gift shop, a television was tuned to Garafalo's show on HB-3, the city's cable-access channel. From the screen, Garafalo's talking head —and those of guests Laird and Bone—was encouraging citizens to “raise a hand” and get involved. They offered no inkling of the abuse that awaits them if they take up the challenge by taking an opposing view.

Back in the ballroom, Garofalo's talking head was still yakking away, now seeming perched atop a podium, which obscured most of the rest of his diminutive body. He was outlining his four-point plan for 2000—marketing, economic development, environment and civility. It sounded pretty good until he fleshed out some of the details, which amounted to attracting venture capitalists, exploiting Huntington Beach's waterfront for construction and tourism, defiling its remaining pristine wetlands with an intrusive “interpretive center”—all the while characterizing opponents as an “insane” and a “mean-spirited vocal minority.”

On that note, Garofalo invited the gathering to sing. Sheet music was distributed, and everybody joined in for a little Christmas carol. Considering the ethnic composition of the room and the spirit of the season they all shared, the choice couldn't have been more appropriate: “White Christmas.”

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