Downey's 'Standstill' Costs a City Manager

Times Staff Writer

In the end, for City Manager Robert (Bud) Ovrom, it came down to the view from his third-story office in City Hall.

Two years ago, when Ovrom took over as city manager, he looked out over the city and envisioned an ambitious redevelopment that would revitalize hundreds of acres along Firestone Boulevard.

Out of the jumble of businesses in the area, he saw an ordered environment that would have a mall of automobile dealerships on the east side, retail shops in the center of the city and light manufacturing on the west side.

But after two years, nothing had changed, and all Ovrom felt when he looked out his window was frustration. The city's redevelopment program, long a subject of controversy, has been tied up since a residents' group challenged the plan in court last July.

So on Tuesday night, Ovrom resigned to become city manager of Burbank, a city the same size as Downey. He has accepted a job he turned down two years ago, before he came to Downey.

"The only real frustration with this job has been redevelopment," Ovrom said, adding, "the frustrations here obviously made my decision easier to make."

"Professionally, I do feel like I shortchanged Downey," he said. "They (the City Council) hired me to do a job (redevelopment) and the job didn't get done."

'Nothing I Can Point to'

Turning to his window, he said, "There's nothing I can point to in Downey and say 'I did this.' "

In Monrovia, where Ovrom for two years was assistant city manager in charge of redevelopment, and for six years was city manager, he recalled, "I could walk down the street and say 'I did this, I did that,' " he said.

Against an aerial photo of Monrovia on his wall, Ovrom pointed to a high-rise hotel and a 360,000-square-foot shopping mall that he had helped bring about as part of Monrovia's redevelopment.

Redevelopment is his "first love" in government, he said, the part of his work that gives him the most satisfaction, because of the "tangible accomplishments" that can be left behind. So he decided to leave Downey. His new salary in Burbank, where he starts June 10, will be $73,000--just $4,000 more than he earns in Downey, and he was due to receive a cost-of-living raise next month.

But Burbank, Ovrom said, offers him a chance for career advancement, because it has a larger city government. Downey has 400 employees and a $35-million budget; Burbank has 1,200 city employees and a $200-million budget, he said. He added that while Downey's redevelopment effort is "in limbo," Burbank has "one of the most active and successful redevelopment agencies in Southern California," with a $500-million budget.

For Ovrom, the final straw in Downey came last month, when the council decided to take its chances in court with the suit filed by the residents' group.

Settlement Turned Down

For five months, Ovrom had worked on an out-of-court settlement with leaders of the group fighting the redevelopment plan, but the council, in a 3-to-2 vote, and--according to other city officials--against the advice of Ovrom, rejected the proposed settlement and broke off negotiations.

Ovrom would not comment on his settlement recommendation. Council members also have steadfastly refused to comment on the decision, which was made in a closed session.

Less than two weeks after their vote, according to other city officials, Ovrom informed council members that he had been approached by the Burbank City Council and that with the Downey council's permission, he wanted to discuss the job offer with Burbank.

Council members would not talk about Ovrom's departure, except to say that it did not come as a surprise.

Tuesday night, after receiving Ovrom's resignation, the council named Fire Chief Don Davis interim city manager, effective on Ovrom's last day, June 1.

In a resignation letter to council members, Ovrom said, "Burbank was simply offering me a career opportunity which I just could not let go by. I hope no one will try to read more between the lines than what is really there."

Downey officials reacting to Ovrom's resignation unanimously praised his abilities, but some council members expressed disappointment that he was leaving after a relatively short tenure.

'Finest City Manager'

"Bud Ovrom is the finest city manager I've had the opportunity to work with," said Police Chief Bill Martin, who, in 1983, was interim city manager until Ovrom took over.

"He was the greatest," Fire Chief Davis said of the man he will replace.

Councilman Robert Cormack called Ovrom "the finest city manager in the the city's history," adding, "and I've known them all personally."

Councilman James Santangelo called Ovrom a "marvelous administrator," but said, "I thought that he was going to be here longer."

On the question of who will succeed Ovrom, Santangelo said, "We're looking for someone who is not stair-stepping, but is looking at Downey as a place he wants to be for a while."

Both officials also suggested that the leaders of Citizens Against Redevelopment Excesses (Downey CARES), the group that sued the city over its plan for 380-acre redevelopment district, may be the ones to blame for Ovrom's departure.

"Redevelopment has to be something that weighed on his mind," Santangelo said. He said that in Downey, redevelopment is "at a standstill, which is really a tremendous loss to our community. It's a shame some shortsighted people are looking out for their own gains."

Added Cormack, "We're in bad shape (because) a few misguided people are really screwing up" the city.

Advice to Officials

Paul Sarvis, president of Downey CARES, disagreed.

"If Mr. Cormack and Mr. Santangelo want to find the shortsighted people that are holding up redevelopment in Downey, they see them every morning when they shave," Sarvis said.

He added that the council could have accepted any of three proposals for a settlement offered by the residents' group.

"It has been obvious to me from the start that the council was keeping Bud on a short leash, and it would not surprise me that Bud finally decided to move someplace where he'd be given a freer rein," Sarvis said.

The residents' group comprises owners of property in the Firestone Boulevard vicinity who feared condemnation of land in the redevelopment district. The opponents say city officials were trying to subvert the intention of state redevelopment law by declaring the Firestone corridor "blighted," when in fact, the group maintains, it is a healthy commercial strip.

In the proposed settlement, the city would have relinquished its eminent-domain powers in exchange for the group dropping its suit. The group also attempted to get the city to pay it as much as $285,000 if a future city council decides to reassert eminent domain.

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