Tensions rose among the Glendale City Councilmembers during their July 11 meeting surrounding discussions about Council districts, the role and duties of a directly elected mayor and potential changes to Council salary.
As part of the Council’s plan to move to districts, which would divide Glendale into six distinct districts each represented by their own Councilmember who lives within that district’s boundaries, City Attorney Michael Garcia presented the Council with the results of a survey he conducted of 35 California cities who have a similar system in their charter. The goal of this presentation was to provide options for how the Council could carry out changes to the current at-large system and facilitate a discussion of Councilmembers’ preferences before the city attorney comes back with a detailed draft of the proposed changes to the city’s charter.
With regard to the role and duties of a directly elected mayor, Garcia outlined that many of the cities he surveyed give the mayor more responsibility and control, such as the power of appointing and removing members of boards of commissions, representing the city in all regional public agencies, taking command of the police in times of extreme public danger, having veto capabilities and more. Garcia made clear that he was not suggesting these changes be implemented in Glendale, but merely reporting what other cities have done.
While Council is moving forward with creating the ballot measure for a vote-by-district system, Councilman Ara Najarian is not sold on the idea.
“I’m going to be clear. Going to districts is a mistake and having a directly elected mayor with any of these powers is a huge mistake,” Najarian said. “The voters rejected districts overwhelmingly just a few years ago. This is something that is going to fail. It’s going to fall flat and I’m going to fight against it, with all due respect to my colleagues.”
Despite rising concerns that keeping the Council’s current at-large system will result in a lawsuit on the basis that the city is violating the California Voting Rights Act, which works to protect minority groups from having their voices diluted by at-large systems, Najarian said the Council was “duping” the community into thinking going to districts was their only option. He went on to say that the idea of having a directly elected mayor is “skewed and wrong,” criticizing the added responsibility brought up in Garcia’s presentation.
Mayor Dan Brotman was quick to respond that the Council has not and will not apply all of these roles and duties to their version of a directly elected mayor.
“With all due respect, you’re putting up a complete straw man,” Brotman said to Najarian. “You’re painting a picture of something that will not be what we’re proposing.
“You say you want to keep it five at-large but you know as well as we do that that’s not legally viable,” he added. “… Our city attorney has made it fairly clear that we will get sued — and I believe that every city that has been sued has either settled or lost… We are misleading the public if we lead them to believe that if whatever we put on the ballot does not pass, then we can just keep things the way they are.”
Councilwoman Paula Devine also expressed her discontent with districts and especially with a directly elected mayor.
“I’m not even for districts but if we are going to do it, [we should do] five or seven Council districts and no directly elected mayor,” she said. “I really believe we do the best we can for every section of our city.”
Brotman emphasized that he supports having six Council districts and one directly elected mayor rather than five Council districts alone. He believes that it’s important for Glendale residents to have someone who “represents the entire city” and who residents can go to if they feel they are not being heard by their particular district Councilmember. Brotman supports four-year terms for the mayor and a two term limit, and is also interested in exploring a rank choice voting system for future elections.
Najarian also said publicly supporting Council districts “will be an albatross around [councilmembers’ necks]” when they go for reelection.
“I can tell you that I have never cast a vote on this dais, Councilmember Najarian, because I’m worried about my reelection,” Councilman Ardy Kassakhian responded. “I cast my votes because I do what’s in the best interest for the residents of this city.”
As for Kassakhian’s views of the role of a directly elected mayor, he spoke in favor of six Council districts with a directly elected mayor, adding that he’d prefer the mayor has four-year terms and maintain a similar role to what Glendale’s current mayoral position entails with some additional responsibility but nothing extreme. He also made comments regarding the members of Council who are against districts.
“It does not surprise me that some of the longest serving members of this body would be the ones most vehemently against changing the way things are run in the city to give more access to more residents … and voices to more neighborhoods,” Kassakhian said. Najarian interpreted this comment as a “personal attack.”
Councilwoman Elen Asatryan supports the system with a directly elected mayor but wants to ensure that the mayor is equal with Councilmembers and does not yield too much power. She supports the mayor having a four-year term and being a voting member of the Council but does not support the mayor having veto powers — a sentiment shared by many Councilmembers.
Another debated issue during this meeting involved finances both in terms of salaries and the cost of running for City Council.
During Garcia’s presentation, he outlined a few different methods cities use to determine salaries for Councilmembers. The current salary for Glendale’s Council is $1,430 per month. While Najarian and Devine were strongly against raising the salary of Councilmembers, Brotman, Asatryan and Kassakhian spoke to the benefits a higher salary could have on the Council.
“I recognize that this job is marked as part-time but I think when you do it right, it becomes more than a full-time job,” Asatryan said. “While some folks may not need the money to be able to serve because they either have their own income, they’re retired or they have a second income that allows for them to do that… The beauty of having a diverse Council is ensuring that people with all kinds of backgrounds are able to serve and bring their voice to the table.”
“There is a certain barrier to others wanting to run that is based on what this job demands and what the compensation is,” Kassakhian said.
Brotman, Asatryan and Kassakhian liked the method used by Santa Barbara and Inglewood, which pays the mayor the same median salary of people living in their respective counties and then pays the Council 80% of that number. For Glendale, this would be a monthly salary of about $5,666 for the mayor and $4,533 for Councilmembers.
Devine said that it was “not fiscally responsible to raise salaries” and that being on Council is a “service-oriented volunteer” role.
Another reason Kassakhian supports the districts system is that he believes it will make serving on Council more accessible to those with lower incomes.
“All candidates practically have to raise $100,000 to $150,000 … to secure these seats up here,” he said. “In the races that we have districts — school board and college board — those numbers were dwarfed one-tenth of what is required to run for [Council] in this city… I don’t want to live in a city where people need a king’s ransom to be able to have the ability to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. That is an issue of fundamental fairness.”
Devine expressed her belief that someone does not need money to win, saying that all candidates need to do is connect with the voters by demonstrating they know and care about the issues. She used Karen Kwak, who ran for Council in 2022, as an example of this.
In response, Brotman emphasized that while Kwak made successful strides, she didn’t actually win the race.
“She came in fifth,” he said. “It does go to show that you can do a certain amount with a little bit of money but you’re not crossing the line.”
Based on this feedback, Garcia will take into consideration the Council’s preferences and move forward with drafting amendments to the city’s charter.
First published in the July 15 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.