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Crisis Deepens at West Covina City Hall

Cities: Resignations, investigations continue to rock a government that had sailed through years of prosperity. Mayor plays down concerns.

March 02, 1998|RICHARD WINTON and NICHOLAS RICCARDI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The growing and prosperous city of West Covina, which bills itself as "The Heart of the San Gabriel Valley," nowadays seems like a city on the verge of a civic coronary.

Six top City Hall managers, including the police chief and city manager, have departed in the last five months. The police have been working without a contract for eight months. And a bevy of micro-scandals with colorful nicknames like "Towgate," "Badgegate" and "Passgate" have made life in City Hall a case study in municipal misery.

"If we put a help wanted ad up to run City Hall, I don't think anyone would apply," said City Councilman Mike Touhey.

How bad is it? After only four weeks on the job, the acting police chief rushed to the hospital with chest pains, an emergency he blamed in part on job stress. And the city attorney, nicknamed the "Kenneth Starr of West Covina" for the internal inquiries she has launched, asked for a police officer to attend a Planning Commission meeting because she said she felt threatened.

"There are more investigations going on than high-level employees left there" said Mike Spence, the West Covina school board president.

The police union has taken out full-page ads in one newspaper decrying what it calls the chaos in the city. The woes of City Hall have even become an issue in the upcoming April election as Spence, an opponent of a $1.4-million property tax increase, cites the crises and vacancies as reasons not to give the city any more money. The city is suing Spence to remove such rhetoric from the ballot.

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It all seems slightly out of place in a city that prides itself on being an attractive destination for families and businesses.

Mayor Ben Wong said the recent departures, like that of the city manager to Glendale, reflect a demand elsewhere for the city's employees and do not signify a crisis. "I don't think there is anything for citizens to be concerned about," he said.

But city staff say that problems have been sparked by aggressive, bellicose City Council members bent on persecuting anyone who doesn't follow their dictates. Council members complain that city managers have long kept them in the dark and allowed small problems to accumulate over the years and become crises.

One outsider who has studied West Covina offers a different perspective. Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said the city had been focusing its resources on a lengthy battle to close a giant landfill, and had failed to keep its house in order.

Plus, Heslop added, West Covina is a victim of a trend afflicting cities across the nation. "The quality and caliber of leadership has fallen off in municipalities," Heslop said. "West Covina was once led by capable municipal leaders from the business community--the finest few in the city. Today is a different story."

Although problems may have been brewing for some time, one event five months ago set the city's current series of woes in motion.

An unsigned letter rolled off the faxes of city officials stating that Police Chief John T. Distelrath had hired his private business partner as a consultant for the department.

Distelrath denied any wrongdoing, but was placed on paid leave while City Atty. Elizabeth Martyn investigated the chief's decision to hire his business partner--who is also president of West Covina's Chamber of Commerce.

Distelrath was dismissed from his post last month. After finding evidence that Distelrath used federal funds to pay his partner, Martyn referred the matter to federal authorities.

City Hall sources say that once Distelrath was placed on leave, his supporters began to implicate others in various misdeeds.

"After one person is implicated in a scandal, they turn around and tell us about more people who were involved," Touhey said. "They turn on everyone else."

In January, the city's attention turned to reports that Mayor Wong in 1996 had flashed his city-issued badge and confiscated another motorist's license after a minor accident on the Harbor Freeway.

Wong, who is running as a Democratic candidate in the 60th Assembly District this year, admitted a lapse of judgment but said he did nothing illegal. A key issue in the matter was how law enforcement officials handled the case. In a memo, Distelrath said a local prosecutor told him that no charges would be filed, but that the prosecutor--a neighbor of Wong--said he had directed Distelrath to the Los Angeles city attorney's office because the incident happened in that city.

The whole matter was promptly dubbed "Badgegate."

Next came "Towgate." The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating West Covina police officers for possibly inappropriately purchasing vehicles from local towing companies, which remove cars at the direction of police.

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