During the first candidate forum of election season, Glendale City Council hopefuls solidified their positions on various topics including safety, the environment, financial stewardship and development at the Jan. 25 event, hosted by the Verdugo Woodlands West Neighborhood Association.
Vying for the two open seats on the five-member City Council are Vrej Agajanian, James Clarke, Vartan Gharpetian, Andre Haghverdian, Ardy Kassakhian, Karen Kwak and Denise Miller. Kassakhian is an incumbent seeking reelection. Each candidate gave a timed introduction and a timed response to a series of questions.
With the November surge of residential burglaries, forum moderators asked candidates how they would address safety concerns in the community and which safety policies they support.
Agajanian, Clarke and Gharpetian all spoke against policies formed under Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, such as the catch and release bail policy, which releases nonviolent offenders from custody rather than holding them until arraignment. They also stressed the importance of funding the police and hiring more officers within the Glendale Police Department, which is currently facing an officer deficit.
Miller also voiced her disapproval of Gascón and praised Police Chief Manny Cid for his response to the increase in residential burglaries — particularly his decision to deploy more officers on the streets in North Glendale which were most affected by these crimes. She also distinguished GPD from other police departments in the state and in the country, saying GPD comprises “amazing leaders.”
Calling the controversy over Gascón “an old story,” Haghverdian said he would rather focus on Glendale’s specific safety needs. He wants to balance the city’s budget more efficiently so that Glendale can hire more officers and pay them higher wages.
While Kassakhian acknowledged the rise in certain crimes within Glendale and in the region, he emphasized that the city is still by and large one of the safest cities in the country to live in. He said that rather than “peddling panic and fear,” he would suggest Glendale find a way to prosecute the misdemeanors that the D.A.’s office lets go. Kassakhian emphasized his Council record of always voting to increase the police budget and implement modern technology to allow for better surveillance.
Kwak, meanwhile, argued that Glendale is a safe city and challenged the notion that more officers lead to less crime. She brought up the issue of wage theft and income inequality.
“If poor people were actually getting the wages that they’ve earned and that they deserve, perhaps these other crimes wouldn’t also happen,” Kwak said, adding that often thefts are the result of desperation.
Candidates were also asked what they would do to further protect Glendale’s indigenous trees and enhance green space in the city.
Kwak, who referenced studies that show people living in environments with more green space lead longer and happier lives, suggested the city plant more trees throughout the city, and specifically in South Glendale. She also stressed the importance of planting the right kinds of trees for the area’s climate and using rainwater and stormwater to water these trees to conserve Glendale’s fresh water.
In terms of protecting indigenous trees, Kassakhian argued that Glendale already has “some of the strictest rules” for protecting its native trees.
“What we don’t do a good job of is educating the public and residents about how to maintain those trees,” he said, suggesting the city focus on community outreach to ensure people are aware of which trees are indigenous and how to properly care for them.
Haghverdian agreed with Kassakhian’s point on educating the community. He also brought up a potential policy the city could adopt where if one tree is cut down, four new trees must be planted somewhere else in the city to compensate and increase green space.
With more than 35 oak and sycamore trees on his property, Agajanian spoke about the positive impacts of trees for creating shade and reducing the need for air conditioning. He underscored the value of Glendale’s native trees and the need to properly educate residents on their importance.
“This is something that we received from our ancestors — those who lived in Glendale before us,” he said. “So it’s incumbent upon us to take care of the indigenous trees.”
To ensure residents are obeying city policy on tree protection, Clarke suggested the city double the fines for people who cut down indigenous trees. Gharpetian too stressed that he wants tree laws enforced more strictly, adding that he also wants to create incentives to plant trees on their properties.
Miller emphasized her commitment to engaging environmentalists in the community, who she said are more educated on this issue than she is, to explore policy options that will better protect Glendale’s greenspace.
In one of their questions, Verdugo Woodlands West Neighborhood Association board members referenced the city’s five year financial forecast which showed a declining city general fund reserve balance. City staff has recommended a number of options to offset this decline including increasing existing taxes, such as property transfer tax and hotel occupancy tax; creating new taxes such as a business license tax, a parcel tax or a tax on revenues generated by noncity-owned parking facilities; leasing nine to 13 city owned properties for developments and more. Candidates were asked which, if any, of these ideas they supported or if they had new ideas to balance the budget.
“Working on the budget is probably the singular reason I’ve jumped into this race,” Miller said. “It’s a matter of diving into the root cause of particular items, where the expenditures are, where there are opportunities to [cut] and really listening to the priorities of the voters and really matching up those priorities with how we can balance the budget.”
Miller also pointed to her professional experience balancing budgets as a project manager and being on the budget committee for a state board.
Gharpetian said the Council spends too much money on projects such as the Verdugo Wash and that he would rather cut costs than raise taxes.
“I will cut reckless spending and concentrate on what’s needed today,” he said, reiterating that his top priority is hiring more police officers.
Agajanian echoed his desire to cut back on “wasteful” spending before raising taxes.
Clarke also spoke against raising and creating new taxes, such as a death tax, mansion tax and business tax.
“The chances of you getting a new business off the ground get even harder when the city wants to tax you for doing it,” Clarke said. “We cannot tax our way out of this problem,” adding that he wants to cut “unnecessary and reckless” city spending.
Kwak, on the other hand, spoke in favor of the mansion tax calling it an “excellent way to increase revenue” for the city. She also suggested examining salary cuts for city employees who have compensation packages of more than $200,000.
Concerned with what he deems “too much spending on unproductive, pet projects,” Haghverdian said the city’s budget predicament has resulted from “mismanagement of funds.”
Kassakhian addressed claims of financial irresponsibility, saying that in his time on Council, every year during the budget study session, staff submits a balanced budget and they are able to pay for the services they have. Inflation has made the cost of everything increase including things like life insurance for city employers, and Glendale must make adjustments to pay and provide care for its employees, he said.
In addition to inflation, Kassakhian said the city has a pension obligation problem stemming from “promises made decades ago by previous Councils to various employee groups” that the city is legally bound to. While he doesn’t want to raise taxes, Kassakhian said he would consider a business tax and a parcel tax to ensure the city can continue to function.
DESIGN REVIEW PROCESS
Forum moderators asked City Council candidates how they will address issues surrounding the city’s design review process for developments, how they will foster community engagement with these issues and what candidates will do to “ensure that Glendale doesn’t continue on its trajectory of [building] spectacularly ugly multifamily buildings.”
Haghverdian emphasized that Glendale’s Design Review Board process must be streamlined and is currently “convoluted.” Through his experience as an engineer and working with other cities on development projects, he said their processes are far more simplified. He also stressed his belief that Glendale needs to be working with local developers instead of outsourcing.
Kwak believes the current outreach city staff does is only with developers and not with the people of Glendale and the renter community specifically. This is especially true, Kwak said, when it comes to creating the Housing Element document, a state required plan for how a city will adequately provide housing for all its residents. Additionally, the city should want to provide as much housing as it can, not merely what is required by law, Kwak said.
Miller said that speaking directly with tenants, homeowners and landlords is key to informing policy decisions regarding development practices.
“We have a 34% vacancy rate here,” Miller said. “So our development has to be more innovative. We have to partner with businesses and we have to get our businesses to incentivize their employees to stay in Glendale.”
Agajanian noted that while he understands the city has housing requirements it must meet, Glendale should not sacrifice quality in fulfilling those needs, saying that certain developments are “ruining the city with their cheap paint jobs and ugly facades.”
Calling for a new development policy that creates incentives for developers to build residential condominium projects, Gharpetian said it is imperative to have housing options that allow local residents to stay in their city.
Clarke and Kassakhian acknowledged that a balance must be struck between meeting the state-mandated housing requirements through the development of multifamily buildings and preserving the charm and character of Glendale’s neighborhoods.
In addition to the questions addressed to all candidates, forum moderators asked each candidate an individual question and gave them the opportunity to respond to someone else’s question. Here are some takeaways from that portion of the forum.
In response to how he would bring a “balanced and thoughtful” approach to the City Council, Clarke said that the current Council is “pushing radically progressive, socialist policies” and that he wants to bring a more common sense approach, in line with the views of average Americans. He also called out two fellow candidates, saying that Kwak’s ideas are not right for the city of Glendale and that Kassakhian is being pulled further to the left by Mayor Dan Brotman.
Kassakhian responded by saying now is not the time to put each other in divisive categories.
“If making sure that we have enough affordable housing for seniors and for families that can’t afford living in Glendale is considered progressive, then sure I’m progressive,” Kassakhian said. “If making sure that we have diversity in our workforce by hiring more women or minorities or giving opportunities to people and groups who were previously left away from the decision-making table is considered a progressive, then call me a progressive, that’s fine.”
In the Jan. 6 News-Press article “Meet the Candidates Running for City Council,” Kwak stated that Glendale should explore the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. During the forum, she was asked to elaborate on this issue.
Calling TOPA “intermediate ground between renting and homeownership,” Kwak explained that this act allows renters to buy shares in the corporation that owns the building they live in, rather than owning actual property.
“This will allow you to build equity so that you can take some money with you after you move out, instead of just throwing money down a blackhole, also known as rent,” she said.
Moderators also asked Miller to clarify her position on whether the City Council should move to a by-district election system. Miller said that after reviewing various City Council reports and hearings on the matter, she does not support forming Council districts because she does not believe there is sufficient evidence that districts will create more representation on the Council. She also expressed concerns that it will be more difficult for residents to connect with Councilmembers if they only have one specific representative.
Haghverdian expressed a desire to increase young people’s participation in local government in the Jan. 6 News-Press article and was asked to describe how he will execute that. Wanting to be the bridge between generations, Haghverdian says it’s key to encourage participation by hiring young people as city employees.
“We should give the young folks the opportunity,” he said. “We should hire from diverse cultures. We have to bring the new generation into the system so they will see that there is a future for them.”
When asked where historic districts and resources fit into his picture of Glendale, Agajanian stressed that for him, it all depends on how the community living in the neighborhood feels about becoming a historic district. If he sees strong community support, he will in turn show his support.
Following up his answer to the moderator’s question on financial stewardship, Gharpetian was asked how he would specifically cut costs since he is against raising taxes. He doubled down on being against raising taxes, saying the city should not put the burden of mismanaging its funds on certain segments of the community such as property owners.
Gharpetian said he would look at finances from all departments and come up with solutions to manage the budget better.
First published in the February 3 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.