There was no shortage of candidates to serve as traffic and planning commissioners in Garden Grove last March. More than 40 residents with university degrees and backgrounds in real estate, construction and traffic engineering applied for the 12 positions.
Despite the number of volunteers and a city policy designed to limit nepotism, two people with family ties to the council — the son of the mayor and the husband of a councilwoman — were given seats.
In May, Mayor William Dalton and the four council members arbitrarily named a planning commissioner to fill a vacant council seat, appearing to go against a voter-mandated advisory policy on how vacancies are to be filled. Then, for the vacated commission seat, the council picked someone who hadn’t applied.
“It’s political incest,” said Steven P. Erie, a professor of political science at UC San Diego. “This is the kind of thing that happens in a town of 5,000.”
There is a long history in U.S. politics of nepotism and cronyism. Over the years, voters have tried to register their ethical concerns about such favoritism, and Garden Grove is no exception.
In 1990, a local ballot measure created an advisory policy designed to be fair to voters, prevent political deadlocks and help the council avoid any appearance of ethical impropriety. Among its stipulations, the resolution called on the council to consider appointing the runner-up from the most recent election when a council seat was vacated.
“They never actually have followed the measure since its inception,” said Robin Marcario, a parks and recreation commissioner. “Why would you bring it forth to the voters and not follow it? It makes no sense.”
In 2008, Steve Jones and Andrew Do were elected to the council. Marcario had come in third.
Yet when Do resigned in 2010, city leaders did not appoint Marcario, as the guidelines suggest. Instead, they chose planning commissioner Kris Beard, who had not run in the election but was well known to the council.
Asked about the move, Dalton said, “It’s an advisory measure and it has no binding effect.”
Phone calls and requests for interviews with City Atty. Tom Nixon went unanswered.
Garden Grove also has had since 2005 a mandatory policy designed to control nepotism. It states that a person can neither be disqualified nor get special consideration for employment simply because of being a relative of a city employee.
“In my opinion, as in most cases but not all, it appears that one has to be ready to serve the status quo ... in order for one to be placed onto any commission,” said Tony Flores, a former council candidate.
Criticism of Garden Grove’s appointments underscores the challenges small cities face when trying to avoid nepotism and cronyism.
In Orange, a relative of a council member, city manager or department head may not be considered for employment within the city in any capacity. “Such officers and personnel have the potential to exercise influence in all areas of the city due to their status,” the policy states.
In Stanton, no relative of a department head, including council members and commissioners, can be appointed to a position.
In Westminster, officials say their regulations governing nepotism apply only when hiring, not when appointing.
And in Anaheim, applicants are asked to state whether a relative works for the city. “There’s no bad or right way of handling these cases, just codes and procedures,” said Anaheim City Clerk Linda Andal.
But JoAnne Speers, executive director of the Institute for Local Government, said perception matters.
“One of the things we emphasize is that it’s always very important, even after you’ve done the legal analysis, to think about how a particular action looks to the community,” she said.
According to Garden Grove City Council minutes from last March, Dalton and Councilwoman Dina Nguyen recused themselves when their relatives — Robert Dalton and Joseph Dovinh, — were appointed.
The younger Dalton is now serving as a traffic commissioner, and Dovinh is a planning commissioner, a post that carries more prestige, officials acknowledge.
Along with other council members, Mayor Dalton voted for Dovinh — Nguyen’s husband — and she voted for the mayor’s son. And because commissioners are not screened — a standard in other cities — most council members were unaware that the younger Dalton has a criminal record.
“This is all news to me,” said Jones, who recommended and motioned the younger Dalton’s appointment, minutes show.
Still, he defended his vote. “I know Robert Dalton is a Garden Grove guy through and through.”
Nguyen said her vote was based on Dalton’s resume and application. But a review of records showed a nearly blank application and no resume.
“I think the question has to be put out there. If anyone else applies for the job with the same credentials and without a criminal history, why didn’t they get the job?” asked Kate Corrigan, president of the Orange County Criminal Defense Assn.
Further examination of the applications shows that at least two candidates appear to have the experience and background a small city would want. One is Philip Nitollama, a traffic engineer for the city of Mission Viejo, and the other is Gustavo Lopez, a Homeland Security agent with 11 years of law enforcement background.
“I stayed out of it,” the elder Dalton said of his son’s appointment. “But at the same time, there’s no benefits, no pay, just that someone wants to give something back. There’s no ulterior motive here.”
City commissions were created to encourage citizen participation in government, though positions are mostly voluntary and carry limits such as term, age and residency. Experience is taken into account but isn’t necessarily a deciding factor.
“I made some mistakes in the past, some pretty bad ones, but I like to think that I’ve done right with myself and my family,” the younger Dalton said. “I have turned my life around.”
The Political Reform Act does not allow a person convicted of a misdemeanor to serve in an elective office or act as a lobbyist for four years after a conviction. But nothing under the act prohibits a felon or ex-felon from being appointed as a public official, according to a spokesperson with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Many who aspire to political careers use city boards as a way to gain experience and eventually seek higher office, as evidenced by at least two prominent examples from Garden Grove.
• Former Assemblyman Van Thai Tran served on boards before becoming the first Vietnamese American on the City Council.
• As part of her long political career, Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is not related to the Garden Grove councilwoman and whose district includes that city, also served on the city’s traffic and planning commissions.
Although the younger Dalton said he has no political aspirations, that isn’t the case with Dovinh.
Only months after being appointed to the planning commission, he announced his candidacy for the newly redrawn 72nd Assembly District, which includes Garden Grove. In his campaign literature, his commission post is highlighted.
Council members said they couldn’t recall if they knew that Dovinh was going to run for higher office.
“I see nothing wrong with that,” said Councilman Bruce Broadwater, who had recommended the appointment. “What would that give you? Two votes?”
Dovinh did not respond to repeated emails or multiple phone calls seeking comment.
Though no complaints have been filed with the Orange County district attorney’s office, Mayor Dalton said, “maybe there’s some things we need to tighten up on.” He said he is open to reviewing the city’s appointment process.
Erie, the UC San Diego professor, said he is wary.
“This is a practice that has happened for tens of thousands of years,” he said. “A lot of it is amateur hour. We’ve seen this in Bell and a host of cities in Los Angeles County, and it spills into Orange County.”