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Desert Town Can't Shake Its Wild West Reputation

Adelanto: The entire council faces recall, police chief was fired and two city managers quit--all in a year.

October 22, 2001|PHIL WILLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ADELANTO, Calif. — When he took over as mayor, Tristan Pelayes thought shutting down the Charlie's Girls strip club on the edge of this desert town would be his biggest headache.

Half an hour after being appointed, he knew better.

Pelayes was handed a set of recall petitions that accused him and two other City Council members of everything from corruption and racketeering to poor hygiene and problem marriages.

"It's totally groundless. This is what happens when someone new comes in and tries to clean things up," said Pelayes, an attorney in the county counsel's office for San Bernardino County and a former sheriff's deputy. "This is making the city look like a joke."

Even with the local casino boarded up and tumbleweeds lying against empty saloons, this parched Mojave Desert hamlet and old Air Force outpost can't seem to shake its reputation as a scandal-plagued, Wild West town.

Within the last year, Adelanto's police chief has been fired, two city managers have quit, a mayor was unseated and recall campaigns have been launched against all five City Council members.

In this one post office town of 18,000, known for its packed welfare rolls and 100-degree days, the political free-for-all has grown as twisted as the desert's gnarled Joshua trees. The campaign to recall one councilman is being led, in part, by his next-door neighbor.

Even people who have lived here for years--long enough to see another former police chief sent to federal prison and three previous council members recalled in 1996--say they can't remember a more venomous atmosphere inside Adelanto City Hall.

"Who needs 'em," said resident Diana Torres, 39, an employee at Yvonne's Beauty Salon. "All I can hope for is something better to come in. I mean, it can't get any worse."

Adelanto is tucked up against the former George Air Force Base, about 65 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the high desert area known as Victor Valley. The Pentagon abandoned the air base in 1992, taking away an estimated 5,000 area jobs and drying up the local economy, and that's when the trouble really began in Adelanto.

The city fathers dreamed--some say foolishly--of converting the base into an international airport. Adelanto spent about $11 million--twice its annual budget--suing neighboring cities for complete control of the facility and wound up with nothing.

"That started our downfall, and we're not close to recouping," said Charlotte Foster, a former mayor and local real estate agent. "Just take a look. If you drive down the highway and you see boarded-up businesses on main intersections, what does that tell you?"

The city's older neighborhoods remain pocked by abandoned homes with plywood covering the windows and weed-filled front yards. Adelanto has a strip club but no supermarket. It has a bingo hall but no drug store.

"If I want a pair of shoes, I have to drive to Victorville," Foster said. "You know, in Spanish, Adelanto means 'to go forward.' That's exactly what we're not doing."

Adelanto's only decent restaurant was at the Hi Desert Casino, a card club that closed about four years ago. The casino still stands, fenced off and boarded up, across the street from City Hall.

The casino's demise was prompted by a City Council vote to increase taxes on the club, and was among the top grievances listed in the current recall campaign against Councilman William Hartz. Hartz served as mayor, a ceremonial post selected by council members, for more than five years before he was voted out two weeks ago.

The most damning, and bizarre, allegation against Hartz was unearthed last year. When a vacancy opened up on the council and it was looking for candidates to appoint as a replacement, Hartz lobbied for Jerry Steffanus--without revealing that Steffanus was his half brother.

Council members Pelayes and Richard Althouse said they were shocked when the truth was disclosed.

"No one ever told me they were blood brothers," Althouse said. "I never would have voted for the guy."

Adelanto real estate agent F.J. Ambercrombie, whose partner sold Steffanus his new house, launched recall campaigns against Hartz and Steffanus in August. Neither can be trusted, Ambercrombie says, and both were way too cozy with the Adelanto Police Department.

"I hate to see this city destroyed, and that's what's happening," Ambercrombie said. "A lot of stuff was going on under the sheets."

Hartz calls the criticism hogwash, and said everyone knew Steffanus was his brother.

"It's a lie," Hartz said. "They just wanted something to [complain] about."

Hartz blames the recall campaigns on a group of disgruntled council candidates who got trounced in the last election--a list that includes Ambercrombie.

"I've lived in big cities, little cities, towns all over this country. I've never seen a city like this in my entire life," said Hartz, 72, a retired insurance executive. "There are people in this town who would cut your throat and stab you in the back and not think twice."

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