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By any other name, it’s still a lie

AS IF YOU ASKED

I feel a little guilty for not having written something over the past

couple of weeks as it became clear interim City Manager Mary Alvord

would be named this week to the office permanently. My failure was

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due in part to pressing issues. But the movement also became such a

widely known foregone conclusion that rushing to tell you would have

felt like hurrying to reveal Saturdays will henceforth follow

Fridays.

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To be clear, the council’s Tuesday vote was to initiate

negotiations exclusively with Alvord. That’s not precisely the same

as the appointment. But for reasonable purposes, for those who don’t

bicker over defining the word “is,” it’s the same.

There was a bloodless coup in Burbank City Hall this week. Despite

the charter, which empowers the council to select the city manager,

this city manager was chosen by her colleagues and subordinates.

Unfortunately, and as we saw in a similar situation with the school

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district’s recent choice of a new superintendent, valid gripes about

officials working behind our backs are characterized as implications

the final choice isn’t a good person. Given Alvord’s reputation and

long tenure in the city, at least that’s a tougher sell.

It wasn’t long ago officials and other city leaders were pledging

to search for a replacement for then-departing City Manager Bud

Ovrom. One council member was pushing for Alvord well before Ovrom

left the building. But other elected and appointed officials, along

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with other community players, said privately that conducting a search

was no reflection on Alvord, Ovrom’s No. 2 since 2000. They said it

was in Burbank’s best interest, especially since some of Alvord’s

weaknesses are in areas expected to be critical over the next few

years.

In examples of hypocrisy as unvarnished as I’ve ever seen, this

week some of the same esteemed public servants and community leaders

elbowed one another for a chance to say in public they never

considered anything other than supporting Alvord. In some cases,

those who last month had the gravest concerns offered the most

gushing praise this week.

City Atty. Dennis Barlow kicked off the excesses at Tuesday’s

meeting. Some folks have hyper-technical definitions for the word

“lie,” and lawyers are especially comfortable with such games. But I

have no trouble characterizing as a lie words a speaker offers

knowing they create a false impression and mislead listeners. By my

fussy standard, on Tuesday Barlow happily dropped one of the city’s

biggest whoppers of the past decade.

Before the council took up discussion of a process to replace the

city manager, Barlow outlined for the audience and officials the

council’s alternatives. Smiling, he said the council had chosen to go

with an “open” process, one that would allow the public to see

everything. Barlow looked utterly huggable, and everyone watching

surely felt warm and fuzzy.

Trouble is, as Barlow spoke he knew as well as any and all of the

council members exactly what would happen in the next several

minutes. I knew, virtually every staffer in the room knew, and scores

of community leaders across town knew. And the entire process leading

to that conclusion was handled in closed sessions and private chats

over the previous weeks.

Contrary to Barlow’s poppycock, if the process were pornography,

we merely saw the actors having a post-performance smoke.

I guess it was within the realm of universal possibilities that

the council wouldn’t agree to skip the process of inviting

applications and candidates. Before voting, the council might have

suddenly burst into flames. Alvord may yet attend a ground-breaking

event before her contract is finished, and no one can say it would be

impossible for a careless operator to inadvertently squash her

beneath the tracks of a bulldozer.

But barring such flukes, there was no truth to Barlow’s shuck and

jive about citizens enjoying “an open and public” process. Alvord was

set as the next city manager before he spoke, and he knew it.

No member of the public was in the rooms as council members were

warned that, if Alvord was not appointed, the result would be an

exodus of vital management team members. In some cases, executives

made polite threats personally. In others, someone had permission to

speak for others, or counselors to the council claimed to know the

intent of certain managers.

Despite Barlow’s happy talk, the citizens never heard the council

warned that failing to pick Alvord would demoralize the few city

staff who would remain. There was no meeting where we all got to hear

the lectures council members gave about an obligation to establish an

ascension policy for city employees.

And when did we hear arguments to counter those, such as the

importance of looking to see whether there is a candidate whose

experience and qualifications might outweigh the benefit of having

lived in Burbank for decades? We didn’t. When was some earnest

idealist given a chance to observe that the last out-of-towner named

to the seat stuck around for 18 years? They weren’t.

I was also appalled when every council member sat quietly as

Barlow took offense on their behalf to a public speaker’s mention of

an “offer” having been made to Glendale’s city manager. Barlow

lectured that there had been no such offer. Any uninformed citizen

watching would conclude the speaker had recklessly leveled an

outlandish charge.

Again, even as Barlow lectured, he knew that before the council

was cowed by threats -- or at best was convinced behind the scenes --

Glendale CEO Jim Starbird was asked if he’d consider working in

Burbank. When he said he would, each council member called a

counterpart on Glendale’s council to ask if they’d take it personally

if Burbank pursued their city manager. Barlow also knew that two

Burbank council members then met with Starbird to express their

council’s interest. That avenue was closed off days later, when

Starbird negotiated a pay raise and improved contract with Glendale’s

council.

Had Barlow mentioned the meetings and their substance within his

scolding, he’d end up feeling like a jackass for quibbling over the

word “offer.” But as far as our five elected officials were

concerned, it was OK for the city attorney to impugn a citizen’s

credibility, because the only alternative was one of them telling the

whole truth, impugning Barlow’s credibility. But that might have

demoralized him, and we know what havoc that can cause.

There are good arguments for appointing Alvord, and the council is

entitled to be swayed by staff arguments and personnel concerns, and

to hold priorities others dispute. But we’ve been lied to about how,

when and why Alvord was picked.

* 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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