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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com or at