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At least one man knows where he’s going

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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

that one.

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

with.

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

goal.

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

years.

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 will.rogers@latimes.com or at

willrogersemail@earthlink.net.


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