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COLD WAR IN AZUSA : City Hall Turns Frosty After Council Says Mayor Raided Fridge

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The refrigerator resolution probably marked the point when political tensions in Azusa passed well beyond the ordinary. The ban on raids on the icebox at City Hall, said Councilman Bruce Latta, was a response to complaints that Mayor Eugene Moses had helped himself to employees’ lunches.

To be sure, this was not the only check on the mayor’s power: The resolution, adopted last December, also forced Moses to share his City Hall office with other council members, took away his use of a city car, restricted his authority to write letters on behalf of the city and stopped him from awarding plaques and medallions.

But Moses, who sold fish bait and gold-panning equipment before devoting all his time to the mayor’s job in the San Gabriel Valley city, was not to be outdone. The next month he hired a private detective to ferret out corruption among his colleagues and track down rumors at City Hall.

Doing the Mayor’s Bidding

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The detective, Joe Granado, a burly former FBI agent from Covina, has been doing the mayor’s bidding ever since, digging through records and showing up at council meetings to serve as Moses’ bodyguard.

“They’ve laid off of me,” Moses, 54, said of his council colleagues. “It’s because of the detective. I’ve got them on the run.”

Moses said he confers by phone nearly every day with Granado and, “I send him snooping around.” Granado, who boasts, “If the dirt is there, I’ll find it,” has looked into reports of unauthorized city expenditures, delved into complaints about city hiring practices and tried to trace the source of letters disparaging the mayor and his friends.

So far, however, Moses and Granado have not dropped any political bombshells. They primarily have produced evidence of sloppy bookkeeping and questioned some expense accounts--challenging, for instance, why one councilman stayed overnight in Los Angeles after a conference when he could have driven home.

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Council Members Intimidated

Nevertheless, the mayor insists that the inquiries have made the city staff more cooperative and intimidated members of the City Council.

But other council members said Moses is deluding himself if he believes that hiring a detective has done anything but increase antagonism.

“Let’s go back in history,” Councilman Lucio Cruz said. “Germany had its Gestapo. Russia had the KGB. Khomeini has his cronies. But Azusa never had that kind of mentality. We all thought we were working for one goal, to help the community, not tear it down.”

Azusa, a largely blue-collar city of 36,815 at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, built up soon after World War II when a housing boom uprooted citrus groves. Today, despite a deteriorated downtown area, Azusa is experiencing economic growth through refurbished shopping centers and industrial expansion that has left the city with almost 300 manufacturing plants. Boosters like to say that Azusa stands for everything from A to Z in the U.S.A.

Moses has been at odds with the council majority over redevelopment projects, appointment of staff members, expenditures for the city’s 100th birthday last April and other matters.

But personalities and not issues drive politics in the city, according to Police Chief Lloyd Wood, who gave up his additional position as city administrator in June, saying that the Police Department was being dragged into politics through his dual position.

On the Azusa council, Wood said, “It’s not like the state Legislature where you fight over a cause and you win or lose and all shake hands and go out and have a drink together. Here, everything is taken personally and when they throw digs at each other, it is beyond innuendo.”

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Use of Ghost Town

Moses, the mayor for five years, has made the post a full-time job since he lost his bait stand because his landlord sold the property to Councilman Cruz three years ago. Moses still owns Canyon City Ghost Town, a collection of frontier-style buildings and Western memorabilia on two acres at the entrance to San Gabriel Canyon, but opens it only for occasional social functions by nonprofit groups. He supports himself on income from rental property and $10,000 a year in salary and allowances as mayor.

Council members started complaining last year that Moses was spending too much time at City Hall. He stationed himself there every day to field complaints about unswept streets, broken pavement, burned-out street lights and other problems, then directed the staff to take appropriate action. Other officials said Moses disrupted routine business by insisting on priority for the complaints he handled, and also profited politically by getting credit for nearly every sidewalk repair and tree-trimming in the city.

Moses, who won another two-year term in 1986 with 56% of the vote, also bolstered his popularity by giving away proclamations, plaques and medallions at the rate of one a day. He issued 286 medallions in 15 months until the council stopped the practice after someone peeled a city seal off a medallion and attached it to a private security firm’s shield to fashion what appeared to be a police badge.

The December resolution reducing the mayor’s authority in such matters effectively left Moses with no more power than the four other members of the City Council. The council “was trying to cripple me,” Moses said.

Although he disputed his colleagues’ allegations, including the one that he raided the refrigerator, Moses agreed to stop going to City Hall every day. Then he counterattacked by hiring Granado.

Before long there was a string of problems for the detective to investigate: an arson fire that destroyed the home of one of the mayor’s supporters (Granado said he has strong suspicions about who did it, but no proof); anonymous letters to community leaders alleging that some friends of the mayor have police records and are mentally unstable, and, last month, a dead possum left on the mayor’s car.

No arrests have been made in any of the cases.

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Cites ‘Voodoo Stuff’

Granado sits in the audience at Azusa’s council meetings as an observer and, he said, to protect the mayor. Moses said he sometimes feels threatened, citing one regular spectator who practices “voodoo stuff” and wears neckties with satanic symbols.

Moses said he has paid Granado with $1,000 in campaign funds and $500 of his own money. In addition, Harry Stemrich, an ally of the mayor who is a candidate for a council seat coming open next year, has paid Granado to investigate travel expenditures by council members.

Granado said he has become so fascinated with Azusa politics that he puts in extra time free, giving matters in the city about an hour a day.

Although he concedes that his sleuthing is not appreciated around City Hall--"I don’t get a good reception"--he said it has served to “keep everything in check.”

Claims Challenged

But some city officials challenge his claims.

For instance, Granado said in July that he helped achieve the mayor’s goal of forcing Wood to give up the city administrator’s job and serve only as police chief.

Wood had become too powerful, Granado said, so “I started going after him. I made it rough for him, looking into his background. I talked to his former bosses.

“I told him what he could do is step down and I would lighten up on him.”

But Wood said the only conversation he had with Granado occurred when he found the detective wandering around City Hall and gave him directions to an office. Outside of that, Wood said, “The man has never spoken to me in his entire life.”

Granado later conceded that he had never confronted Wood.

Threat Against Life

Councilman James Cook said the use of the detective is a bid for sympathy by Moses, intended to create the illusion that he is in danger. Cook, a paramedic with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said he had an experience last year that may have given the mayor the idea.

“I had a threat against my life by someone,” Cook said. “I turned it over to the Police Department, and somebody let it slip out. Well, the mayor started spreading it around and I think what he found out is that there is some sympathy out there for someone who has had threats made against them. And so he starts saying he has had threats too.”

Despite such criticism, Moses is confident that he is getting the upper hand. Although there are clashes at almost every council meeting, his opponents have been more restrained recently, he said.

To test his theory that he has intimidated them, Moses said, he recently made a remark calculated to offend Councilman Latta. When Latta did not respond, the mayor said, “I even pushed harder.” Still, there was no response.

“Even Latta is being a good boy,” the mayor exclaimed.

But Latta, an administrator at the county fairgrounds in Pomona, said he has stopped rising to the mayor’s bait because “I’ve gotten burned out. I’m tired. I’ve lost a lot of my enthusiasm because you can only defend yourself so many times before you say, ‘What’s the use?’ ”


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