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They only have eyes for city cameras

AS IF YOU ASKED

“Mommy! Make the scary man stop looking at me!” Without meaning to

imply any real danger, or an intent to scare kids, that sniffling cry

is what I imagine might be the response these days if any parent is

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foolish enough to let their child watch a Burbank City Council

meeting as council candidates campaign from the public podium.

Michael Bergfeld, a 53-year-old lawyer, is the latest of those

looking to attract the attention of voters via City Hall’s cameras

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and cable television channel. Typically, he heads to the public’s

podium and uses a comment from a council member or staff as a

springboard into prepared remarks. After rattling off a summary of

the council’s alleged misdeeds, Bergfeld cocks his head, glares

straight into the camera and says directly to viewers, “And that’s

why I’m a candidate for Burbank City Council.”

If it doesn’t completely creep you out the first couple of times

you see that, you have ice in your veins. I’ve been with political

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players when it happened, and also sitting among a group of friends

oblivious to local politics, but the reactions have been the same.

Some just say, “That is REALLY weird!” And at least one says

something like, “Eeek, it’s like he sees right into my house, and I’m

naked!”

Bergfeld and his contemporary cohorts in candidacy aren’t the

first to use council meetings as a campaign stump. For years it has

been an unspoken tradition that, in the months and weeks leading up

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to the filing period, hopefuls suddenly develop interest in attending

and speaking up at council meetings. And for all the gnashing of

teeth about hopefuls misusing the system citizens pay for, no one has

invented a machine that automatically detects when the rambling of

sitting council members crosses the line from necessary discourse to

self-congratulatory puffery.

Indeed, some of us still remember when a council in the mid-1990s

eagerly contorted virtually any agenda item into lectures on the

folly of voting in favor of two ballot initiatives aimed at limiting

growth.

It wasn’t until the recent campaign for an airport-related ballot

initiative, Measure A, that council meeting campaigning became overt.

Measure A proponents videotaped testimonials from supporters, playing

them as public comment during meetings. The unvarnished commercials

opened and closed with shots of campaign signs touting the measure,

graphics for the mini-productions.

That practice has evolved into performances like Bergfeld’s. Of

course, we still see some of the old-fashioned variety. For example,

to my knowledge, council candidate Michael Porco has never once

appeared at a council meeting or any other civic event to speak out

on an issue. But he recently stepped before a council meeting to

rattle off statewide statistics about the need for day care, and to

demand the council spell out what it’s doing to promote child-care

facilities. When the council or planning board has been deluged with

outraged neighborhood protests in the past because a resident won

state permission to open or expand their day-care facilities, I don’t

remember Porco popping up to support the provider.

Esther Espinoza is no stranger to viewers of the meetings, though

she’s adopted a new persona in light of her candidacy. When I

happened to spot Espinoza at a local market gathering signatures for

her nominating petition, I wondered if those signing know she’s long

been infamous for using public- comment time to spew racial slurs.

She’s also well known for applying ethnic labels to various

council members, with little attention paid to their actual heritage.

They’re put in a position that might be hilarious only to columnists.

Should they inform viewers they’re not actually the race or religion

Espinoza just attributed to them, this at the risk of implying they

think it’s something shameful? Or do they stay quiet, thereby

implying that an Hispanic Christian really is a Lithuanian Jew?

But Espinoza as a candidate has cleaned up her language, and

stopped spewing the bizarre, unfounded and easily refuted charges of

criminal wrongdoing and racial prejudice she used to level every

week. It has perhaps been the one positive aspect to her candidacy,

leading some to hope she survives the primary, delaying her return to

epithets a few weeks longer, until after the general election.

Bergfeld’s performances are intriguing because he seems to mimic

the message touted by former councilman Ted McConkey when he lost his

reelection bid. Speaking almost exclusively on airport issues,

Bergfeld ridicules and mocks the council, charging incompetence and

deceit. But where McConkey used rage, Bergfeld employs smug

superiority. Why, you’d think the guy believes he’s God’s gift -- or

a columnist.

As one local wag said, Bergfeld probably wasn’t in town more than

a few weeks before realizing he’s the smartest guy here. After

another week he also seems to have concluded everyone who disagrees

with him is a drooling moron.

Bergfeld also routinely reveals a weakness in his TV appearances:

exceptionally thin skin. When council members respond to his remarks,

he returns later and routinely characterizes their arguments as

“cheap shots.” Just this week, he smirked and scolded Councilman Dave

Golonski’s point-by-point rebuttal of his earlier comments, and said,

“Making smart, snide comments is inappropriate.”

In fairness, Bergfeld does live by that credo. His comments drip

with snide, but are often 100% smart-free. This time he was upset

because officials refuted his claims they back terminal expansion,

and he fired back “Never once did I use the word[s] expanded

terminal.” True enough. But he did say the council supposedly “gave

the airport” a new terminal 20,000 square feet larger than needed.

“Expanded” seems to be a reasonable inference, but no law says

Bergfeld has to be reasonable.

In his quest to elevate the caliber of public discourse, Bergfeld

then used a cartoon- dopey voice and pretended to be Mayor David

Laurell. “Gee, I’m stupid.” Then he said to Laurell in his own voice,

“Your only qualification for this office is that you know how to use

a hair dryer.” So THAT’s the erudite, learned rhetoric lacking in

City Hall today!

As is the case with so many complaints about public- comment

periods at public meetings, there is no reasonable, legitimate means

to prohibit campaign abuses without infringing on basic, vital

rights. The only “solution” is for speakers to restrain themselves,

and for voters to hold them accountable. There’s no sign the former

is likely to become popular among candidates, so that leaves it to

you.

WILL ROGERS’ column appears in every edition of the Leader. He can

be reached 24 hours a day at 637-3200, voice mail ext. 906, or by

e-mail at will.rogers@latimes. com or willrogersemail@earthlink. net.


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