Nestled unobtrusively at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, the city of Glendora hardly seems a place stewing with political controversy. Its streets are quiet, its parks plentiful, its light poles proudly decorated with names of servicemen and women fighting in Iraq.
But over the last several years, this quiet little town has waged a series of spirited, sometimes angry and sometimes frankly ludicrous debates. Acrimony often overshadows City Council meetings, and a local public-access television show has become a sort of government-in-exile by a former mayor, a Los Angeles deputy district attorney named John Harrold.
Led by Harrold, critics of the current mayor and council accuse them of bending, even breaking, the law in order to help a political benefactor, of retaliating against those who speak out and of violating state public records laws. Among their allegations: that the council earlier this year approved a rezoning and development agreement that benefited a local sprinkler and irrigation company, Rain Bird Corp., whose top official supplied most of the money that helped put those same council members in office.
City leaders vehemently deny any wrongdoing in that or any of the other areas that have sparked dissent. They instead complain about being harangued by Harrold and his allies. The result is a fractious town, sharply divided over the work of its government and facing off in bitterly opposing camps.
The effect on local politics has been unmistakable. In a little more than five years, Glendora elected one slate of leaders, then tossed them out in a recall, then brought in new ones and chewed up some of them. It has cycled through 11 council members and six mayors. Politics, says the city manager, who was hired by one faction and now works for the other, has devolved into "blood sport."
Doug Tessitor, the city's current mayor, acknowledged that his town has become a divided, sometimes nasty, place. He chiefly blames Harrold, whom he describes as "sick" and prone to leveling "charge after charge after unsubstantiated charge." On one recent afternoon, Tessitor watched a recording of one of Harrold's shows, shaking his head in wonder as he was derided as "incompetent" and "a crook" atop a "culture of corruption."
"There," he said, as the program was paused. "You get the idea."
Harrold, who served for three years as mayor before being ousted, fires right back. "A group of insiders has great influence at City Hall," he said. "I disrupted that."
"These guys," another resident, Gil Aguirre, said of the current council, "don't like to be challenged."
The current struggles for power in the 52,000-resident town on the edge of Los Angeles County date roughly to the late 1990s, when advocates of slower growth and open government united to begin running candidates for office. In 1999, two of those candidates won seats on the five-member council. That attracted some concerned interest from local developers, and their worries were realized two years later when two more candidates advocating slower growth won their campaigns.
The new council majority worked quickly to consolidate its power, replacing a number of city commissioners and officials. And then the counterrevolution began. Alarmed by what others viewed as a purge, council critics launched a recall. Tessitor was picked to oversee campaign finances.
He and other recall supporters turned, as many in Glendora have in recent years, to Arthur Ludwick. Heir to Glendora's leading business, Rain Bird Corp., Ludwick has deep pockets and an abiding interest in Glendora civic life. His name and that of his wife grace the new wing of a local hospital, and his philanthropy has extended to other community projects as well. So when recall supporters needed cash to support their effort, they reached out to Ludwick. He and his wife produced. They donated, lent or otherwise supplied more than $125,000 toward the effort. They were, by far, the biggest contributors to the campaign.
The recall prevailed, casting out three members of the council -- including Harrold -- and replacing them with three others. The next year, another election brought Tessitor to office.
Once in place, the new council was presented with a development proposal that involved Ludwick. Rain Bird was interested in selling a large parcel of land in Glendora, and William Lyon Homes agreed to develop it. For that project to proceed, however, the land needed to be rezoned to allow residential development.
Last Jan. 24, the City Council approved the rezoning and the development agreement. The vote was 4 to 0, with one council member abstaining because he lived close to the development area. Of the four votes in favor, three were from council members involved in the recall -- two who won office directly as a result and Tessitor, who helped organize the campaign.
Critics noted the neatness of that exchange: Rain Bird's executive paid for the recall that helped turn over the council. The new council then approved the deal sought by Rain Bird.
Tessitor, a retired insurance salesman who acknowledges that he has sold some policies to Rain Bird officials over the years, says it's true that Ludwick may have benefited from the council vote, but he defends the vote as a good move for the city. The rezoning took land that could have been developed for light industrial uses and transformed it into a small residential community, he said.
Eric Ziegler, the city manager, agrees. "The fact that Art Ludwick financed a recall does not ... create a conflict," he said. "In terms of the legalities here, there is no question."
Council critics, however, seized on that vote as further evidence of what they see as a city leadership all too willing to accommodate development and other moneyed interests. They question a recent renewal of a contract with the city's trash hauler. They object to the council's decision to allow the developer of a new shopping mall to post a sign on city property. At every turn, they suggest that money is changing hands; when Harrold gets on a roll on his show, he pulls a sheaf of bills from his pocket and fans them for the audience as a reminder.
As that gesture makes clear, when the sides collide in Glendora, it can get ugly.
Take the sunny Memorial Day weekend afternoon in 2005. Ziegler and Gary Clifford, then the mayor, were tooling around town when they spotted a man named Richard Hicks washing out paintbrushes into a storm drain. They called authorities and Hicks, whose wife had spoken out critically about the council, was cited the next day, accused of violating a misdemeanor toxic-waste disposal law.
Although Hicks ultimately pleaded no contest, others saw it as a clear case of retaliation. What, they asked, were the mayor and city manager doing outside Hicks' home that afternoon? Harrold accused Ziegler and Clifford of stalking Hicks. Ziegler protested that it was merely a coincidence, that they had been out driving and happened to spot Hicks -- not that they'd gone looking for him.
To this day, Hicks is not sure whether he was simply caught with a paintbrush or targeted for retaliation. He just wants to put the matter behind him and rushes a reporter off the phone. Asked whether he was a scofflaw or a political prisoner, he answered, "It's hard to say."
The paintbrush incident embedded itself in Glendora's fast-expanding political lore alongside a continuing and, to the participants, infuriating debate over the city's handling of public records. There, the leading protagonist is Gil Aguirre, who owns property in town and sought access to city records relating to the formation of a street lighting district. He opposed the idea and asked for documents that would provide information on it.
The city at first tried to brush him off -- illegally demanding to know why he wanted certain documents before agreeing to hand them over -- then attempted to impose an administrative fee, also illegal under the Public Records Act. Aguirre, a mild-mannered but persistent sort, kept at it, demanding his rights under California law.
Ziegler now admits that the city failed to turn over documents to Aguirre as required by law but says it eventually complied. Aguirre continues to protest and has filed suit. His case is slated for trial next year.
Even the most casual perusal of Glendora's record-keeping suggests it's far from perfect. Take the Jan. 24, 2006, council meeting at which the Rain Bird-William Lyon Homes project was approved. The city's news release omitted all mention of Rain Bird, and its website featured another curious omission. By this fall, minutes of every one of this year's council meetings through August were posted for the public to review -- except for the Jan. 24 meeting.
"I'm not a conspiracy guy, but what does that tell you?" Aguirre asked.
Those minutes were not displayed for more than six months. A few hours after The Times requested a copy of them, the city clerk posted them on the website.
All these controversies play out in Glendora and, inevitably, on Harrold's television show, "Public Comment." The show gives Harrold a weekly platform to attack his adversaries, and he uses it to considerable effect.
In 2005, Harrold satirized Tessitor and the rest of the council by comparing them to the characters in "The Wizard of Oz." Unamused, Tessitor informed Warner Bros., which then delivered Harrold a stern letter threatening to sue him for unauthorized use of the film and warning that its damages could exceed $200,000.
Harrold kept at it. This spring, he used his show to question a recent renewal of the city's trash contract and laced his commentary with barely concealed hints of organized-crime involvement. During the show, one panelist asked Harrold: "If you were to do a word association and you were asked, 'What business do you associate with organized crime?' "
"Trash!" Harrold replied.
That earned Harrold another threatening letter, this time from lawyers for the agitated trash hauler, who did not appreciate that comment or others, including one noting the prevalence of trash companies in the "Sopranos."
Tessitor's wife urges him not to watch Harrold's show, but he can't help himself. It offers, he said, clear evidence of what he's up against -- a reckless opponent willing to dirty up those he does not like, even at the fringes of the law.
Harrold admits no such thing. He sees himself as being in battle with the forces of repression, a shadowy but venal old-boy network.
He takes to cable week after week; just last month, he was accusing Tessitor of incompetence and obstruction of justice while three other panelists looked on in agreement and callers, some of them regulars on the show, dialed up to register their approval.
And so it goes in Glendora.
There is no doubt that Harrold and Tessitor are locked in a long combat with few points of agreement. And on that, at least, the two do concur: Neither side sees this ending any time soon.
"I have a feeling John Harrold will be back, will be running for office again," Tessitor said with a sigh.
A few days later, Harrold proved him right. "I am," he said last week, "on the ballot and running for City Council."