Glendale official raises a glass — and sparks #Winegate
More than three hours into a Glendale Design Review Board meeting, Commissioner Francesca Smith raised a wineglass containing a small amount of pinkish liquid.
She smiled as she appeared to toast her colleagues after seconding a motion to adjourn the meeting, held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, about 8:30 p.m.
Smith has not said whether there was wine in the glass. Sipping from it toward the end of the meeting did not affect her judgment, she said.
But other city officials were bothered by the display of what looked like an alcoholic beverage at the Jan. 14 meeting, at which the board considered proposals to raze, build and add to homes.
About a month after “Winegate,” as some locals are calling it, the Glendale City Council passed a motion 4 to 0 declaring that drinking alcohol while conducting official business is inappropriate. Another motion to state on the record that Smith was drinking failed.
As the pandemic stretches into its second year, virtual faux pas are piling up, from the reporter who gave a live interview in suit jacket and bare legs to the Texas lawyer who appeared in a virtual court hearing with the face of a kitten.
With meetings that were once in person now attended from kitchens and living rooms, private behavior can bleed into the public eye. A Vallejo planning commissioner resigned in April after drinking what appeared to be a beer and tossing his cat into the air.
Smith will keep the volunteer job she has held since May. She did not appear to be inebriated during the meeting and took her first visible drink from the glass about three hours in.
Her defenders say a little nip during city business is excusable, especially during the new normal of the pandemic. Some say the criticism is motivated in part by Smith’s preservationist bent and inclination to vote against projects she believes are not up to city standards.
More than 50 people spoke at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, with most supporting Smith.
Joanne Hedge, founder of the Glendale Rancho Neighborhood Assn., said she did not find Smith’s toast shocking or inappropriate.
Hedge said she wished Smith had been on the board during her neighborhood’s losing battle against “a truly awful hotel design” in 2019.
Others said they were aghast that a city official would create a perception that business was not being taken seriously.
The Design Review Board votes on projects that can cost millions of dollars, with requests for redesign sometimes setting a homeowner or developer back thousands.
Resident Pina Jones said that “drinking on the job, any job, is irresponsible.”
“Is it OK for my kids’ volunteer teacher’s aide to be drinking on the job on Zoom? You know, we all have long days, but this is not a social gathering,” said Jones, who sometimes watches the meetings with her children.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School whose expertise includes election law and governance issues, said the debate suggests a lack of consensus about community standards.
She is wary of penalizing people for behaviors that are not illegal and do not affect their job performance.
After all, she said, some public officials text or respond to emails during meetings, which could mean they are not paying full attention.
“The question really should be, ‘Was she doing her job 100%?’” Levinson said. “I actually worry more about the slippery slope of regulation.”
For John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, the issue is cut-and-dried: Government officials shouldn’t do anything over Zoom they wouldn’t do in person.
Though officials might check email during an in-person meeting, they probably wouldn’t be sipping wine or other libations, he said.
Amid the pandemic, they still need to “take the business seriously, and to demonstrate to the public, and others that they’re engaging with, that they are in fact being respectful of the way government processes have to be conducted today,” Pelissero said.
Smith, who is in her early 60s and has lived in the city for about a dozen years, is an architectural historian and former director of the Glendale Historical Society.
In an email to The Times, she didn’t say exactly what she was drinking. She said the glass, “which among other things, contained soda water and ice cubes,” was given to her by her husband toward the end of the meeting.
“It did not impair my professional judgment in any way,” Smith said in a statement. “As a professional with nearly four decades of experience in design review, I take my appointment very seriously.”
She said she often is the lone dissenting voice against projects she believes do not meet city standards.
The inclusion of the drinking incident on the City Council agenda was “retaliation for acting as a catalyst of change,” she said.
Indeed, shortly before Smith raised her glass at the Jan. 14 meeting, she cast the only vote against proposed additions to a single-family home.
City Councilman Dan Brotman, who appointed Smith to the board, said the wineglass was inappropriate. But he also believes that Smith was targeted for her opinions on design.
In the past, the Design Review Board had been “largely a rubber stamp” for projects, Brotman said. He believes that “mansionization” and hillside development in Glendale have gotten out of hand.
Brotman abstained from voting on both motions concerning Smith’s behavior during the recent council meeting, saying “this whole exercise is completely absurd.”
City Councilman Ara Najarian asked that the drinking incident be put on the meeting agenda. He said his request had nothing to do with development and everything to do with the wine glass.
“It’s not about how she votes. It’s about conduct,” Najarian said. “Whether she’s a great designer or whether she’s a great historic preservationist has nothing to do with an excuse of conduct.”
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