By Jim Tortolano
Westminster and Garden Grove each had their roots in the original Wild West, with the former born in 1870 and the latter in 1874. But nearly a century later a new “Wild West” in which the “black hats” used money and political influence instead of six-guns and barbed wire in their struggles, which resulted in scandal and prison terms for some of the “pioneers.”
The post-World War II baby boom hit West Orange County with a tidal wave of development and new residents. Small towns turned into real cities, and that meant opportunities for a lot of profit to be made and reputations ruined.
It all started in 1959. Garden Grove had incorporated in 1956 and Westminster the next year. Cities all across the county scrambled to extend their borders and gobble up unincorporated areas to add to their size and economies.
One of the independent areas still not part of any city was the area generally west of Beach Boulevard and north of Garden Grove Boulevard. This region was christened Eastgate because is approximated the “eastern gate” of the Long Beach-based Bixby Ranch. Together with the Garden Park development, Eastgate represented what’s now known as West Garden Grove. But it might not have been.
According to historian Jerry Howard, Westminster made an effort to annex the area, a claim matched by Garden Grove. “There was going to be a fight and it looked like Westminster was going to win,” said Howard.
Into the breach stepped Louis Franklin “Lou” Laramore, a developer who coveted the area for a large housing tract of 2,500 homes.
But according to historian Chris Jepsen, writing in his OChistorical.blogspot.com, the battle between the two neighboring cities was “holding up the project, costing Laramore about $25,000 a month.” The solution was clear: use that money to get one of the cities to drop its claim.
In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Laramore cooperated with the Orange County District Attorney and testified that he had paid all five members of the Westminster City Council and the city manager a bribe of $24,000 to essentially cede the land to Garden Grove.
“They were selling it for their own enrichment,” said Howard. “Since time immemorial, that’s business. It wasn’t Westminster’s property but it was going to be.”
Arrested and convicted on bribery charges in December 1961 were City Administrator James Black, Mayor George Meinhardt and councilmembers Arthur Paysen and Gerald Herbert Allison. The other two council members, Gordon Dorfsmith and Eugene Edwards, had pleaded guilty earlier, and received a sentence of one year in the Orange County Jail. The latter four were sent to a state prison in Chino for terms of one to 14 years. All had resigned before the prosecution.
How did the deal come to light? “It was kind of known they could be bought,” said Howard. “It was kind of informal, but the word was that you could work with them. But I’m not so sure how unusual that was.”
Laws have been passed to deter such shenanigans, but Howard sees the game as being legal today, but not much more ethical. Rather than pay a bribe, “a developer gives a contribution to the [political] party, which forwards the money to the candidate the next day,” said Howard, a continuance of the cozy relationship between some builders and some political leaders.
But how did residents react to the original Eastgate scandal? “Westminster people aren’t holier than thou,” he said. “The general feeling is that if you hang a piece of meat on the clothesline, a dog’s going to go after it. You can’t blame the dog.”