AS IF YOU ASKED
A news conference earlier this week confirmed what was first
reported in this space more than a month ago, and Burbank City
Manager Bud Ovrom’s departure to head the Community Redevelopment
Agency in Los Angeles is now virtually certain.
All that remains is an approval by an L.A. City Council committee,
followed almost immediately by the full council’s approval, a
two-step process expected to wrap up next week. Both approvals are
widely perceived as mere protocol.
Ovrom was formally offered the job roughly a week ago, and in the
interim negotiated the final terms of his contract. By the tentative
timeline, Ovrom is expected to assume his new office the first Monday
in March. But he’s already scurrying around town on some missions
related to the new job, including meetings to get acquainted with
community leaders in Los Angeles. In Ovrom’s occasional absences, as
has always been the case when he’s been unavailable for more
pedestrian reasons, Assistant City Manager Mary Alvord acts as the
top city official.
In a rushed chat just after the official announcement, Ovrom and I
talked about the likely process for replacing him, the names of
candidates already being bandied about, and a few related topics. As
part of that, we discussed one of any city manager’s greatest
challenges: dealing with difficult, hostile and sometimes wholly
dysfunctional city councils.
In his 17 years in Burbank, Ovrom has had his share of friendly
panels, and some council members who seemed to be in absolute
lockstep with his visions and tactics. But there have also been
clashes, some uglier than any car wreck. Those have run the gamut
from belligerent ideological foes to the mentally unstable and
drug-addled. Some have been merely antagonistic toward his views, and
others have publicly announced they wanted to fire him.
“I outlived all the bastards,” Ovrom told me with a laugh. I took
some offense to that, because I’m still here. But perhaps he was only
referring to the bastards in office.
Ovrom prefers to talk about the councils that went well, or even
the officials who disagreed with him but who did so with facts,
figures and a modicum of respect. He also notes repeatedly that, no
matter how scandalous or troublesome councils might have seemed over
the years, it has never been hard to find other cities where things
were worse. Pasadena once had a council member bringing his gun to
the dais, and South Gate has been rife with arrests and internecine
lawsuits. One council had members blowing whistles to silence
colleagues, and another saw officials hurling pieces of a celebration
cake at one another.
“I’ve really worked with some terrific councils,” Ovrom said. “I
might be crazy giving up what might be the world’s greatest and most
secure job.” Most secure? He’s leaving, so I’ll let him get away with
I’ll come back to more on Ovrom, his history and his future,
another day. But City Hall has kicked into high gear on an activity
that already has consumed a lot of energy the past month -- wondering
how the council will replace Ovrom.
Literally no one will talk on the record about favorites, or
candidates they refuse to consider. Moreover, council members and
Mayor David Laurell have gone on the record saying they expect to
conduct a national search, though sorting the details of that won’t
even begin until a closed council session Tuesday.
As assistant city manager, Alvord would seem to be a natural to be
first in line, but she told me she has yet to decide whether she will
pursue the office.
“I have the advantage of having had a close-up view to see what it
takes for the best to do the job,” Alvord said. “But that also means
I have to be pretty pragmatic about whether I can fill those shoes.”
Indeed, Alvord speaks so highly of Ovrom’s record that she admits
intimidation at the prospect of trying to follow him.
“There are still a lot of pieces of the puzzle to come together,
and I have to see where some key people are, and to look at my own
skill sets,” Alvord said. She said there is no timeline for her to
make a decision.
As for other candidates inside the city, multiple sources say most
of the “likely suspects” have said they’re not interested. The
exception is Bruce Feng, the director of Public Works. He’s being
not-so-quietly touted by some insiders, but no one has suggested he
wouldn’t have to compete in a national search.
The name of Glendale’s city manager, Jim Starbird, also has been
floated. Starbird and Ovrom are friends, and their styles are
somewhat similar. Further, some suspect a move could be attractive to
him. Starbird is in the midst of dealing with a dysfunctional council
himself, though it’s a walk in the park compared to some Ovrom dealt
But Starbird spent years going after the top spot in Glendale, and
started there in 1998. It would seem to be a bit early for him to
surrender on what he’s convincingly claimed all along was a career
According to a reliable source, the assistant city manager in
Glendale, Bob McFall, sent word he’s available if Burbank comes
calling. But it remains one of the great mysteries in life as to how
McFall has kept his office in Glendale. So, one has to believe that,
long before the ink was dry on an application form, the reasons for
that wonder would be relayed to the few Burbank officials who don’t
already know about controversies McFall has been tied to over the
Not incidentally, even after Ovrom was offered the job in Los
Angeles, some in City Hall doubted his departure was assured.
Numerous sources say there was a brief exchange of informal hints
Ovrom could be convinced to stay, if the convincing came in the form
of cash and guarantees. Among proposals floated was a raise of almost
50% and a two-year guarantee.
Some city officials are deeply concerned about Ovrom’s departure
coming just on the brink of Burbank having to deal with economic
downturns and the state budget crisis, fiascos Ovrom has weathered in
the past. Many are also concerned that, while Ovrom assembled a
management team effective in its respective duties, no one is a clear
and confident heir. In that light, considering the expense of a
search, I heard it suggested that the raise and guarantee could save
money in the long run.
Ultimately, however, the idea seems to have been rejected before
it was taken up formally. In fact, one camp derided it as a "$75,000
reward for threatening to leave us in the lurch.”
Some see the upcoming vacancy as a hot new issue in the council
campaigns underway, but I’m skeptical. I expect every candidate to
support casting a wide net to find the best, and to say the new hire
should have a great reputation, good ideas, and make a pledge to
jealously guard the interests of residents and the business
community. Finally, he or she had better be looking out for us on
airport issues. What else CAN they say? Oh, and there will surely be
demands the current council hold off on any decision until the newly
elected council takes office May 1.
It’s a bit ironic that, considering the upheaval in City Hall and
the upcoming council elections, right now the only person who knows
where they’re going is Ovrom.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at