Dennis Barlow, who has been Burbank’s city attorney for 14 years, announced plans this week to step down in September. Before his arrival in Burbank, he worked as senior assistant city attorney in San Bernardino and in the county counsel’s office in Yuba and Kern counties. Barlow says he only recently decided to step down, despite wishing he could stay to tie up loose ends.
GRETCHEN MEIER: What brought you to Burbank initially?
DENNIS BARLOW: Well, it was a good career opportunity, obviously. I grew up in Glendale, and it was nice to come back to where I grew up. You always look to move up professionally in your career, and as a senior assistant this was the next logical step.
Q: What has kept you here, then, for 14 years?
A: I like Burbank a lot. It’s a great city to live and work in. I’ve really enjoyed the people, the community and the city councils I’ve worked with.
Q: When we met, you said you would end your career in Burbank. Why now?
A: I got to thinking about it last year when I had a [minor] heart attack. I have two more grandkids on the way and I thought, you know, maybe I should slow down and watch my health. Nothing special as to why. I’m just getting older, and my kids keep reminding me all the time. I have 10 children and 18 grandchildren, and I would like to see more of them. I have six married children in six different states — none in California.
Q: What were the greatest challenges you’ve faced here in Burbank?
A: We’ve struggled with the Bob Hope Airport the whole time I’ve been here. The relationship has improved, and we’re working things out. I kept thinking that I haven’t accomplished everything I want to do and maybe I’ll stay to see things though. It’s been 14 years though, and you’re never finished with everything.
Q: What else would you like to have seen finished?
A: Obviously it would be nice to have everything wrapped up in a nice bow, but that’s not going to happen. We’ve got a bit longer with [Burbank Police Department] litigation, and I would like to see the city in better financial shape. Compared to a lot of other cities though, we’re doing great.
Q: Would you say criticism of your office has been high as of late, or does it come in cycles?
A: I would say there’s always criticism generally because of the nature of law. An attorney will say that this is a lot, and people will say what you want the law to be. I understand that.
Q: What about internal problems between city departments?
A: That has rarely happened. We’ll have disagreements, but nothing horrible.
Q: Do you think city attorneys need to have a certain personality type?
A: As I’ve watched around the state, there are people who are involved with the everyday happenings, and there are those that are standoffish. There are so many different types; I would say no.
Q: Where do you see yourself in that spectrum?
A: I like to think I am somewhere in the middle. I’ve tried very hard to have my staff take ownership and be involved through an entire project. Often city attorneys will be the one to present their work, but I like my staff to see it all the way through. If they do the work, they should get to see the end result.
Q: What is the role of the city attorney? Is it forwarding the interest of the city, City Council or public at large?
A: The city — the city as reflected or represented by City Council.
Q: How do the legal issues in Burbank differ in other cities you have worked in?
A: There are always things of importance at a time, but there are basic underlying issues like the Brown Act and ethical issues that must be dealt with.
Q: How do you deal with situations where City Council goes against your advice?
A: My responsibility for the city is to provide the best legal advice that I can. Sometimes they may choose not to follow that [advice]. Professionally, that has more often not been the case, and most generally follow it. Some may bring back certain things I’m not aware of, and I’ll adjust with that information. A particular council member may say, “I just don’t agree with that.” But that has rarely happened in all the years I’ve been doing this.
Q: What is the process going to be for choosing a new city attorney?
A: That’s a decision City Council has to make, and I’ve already offered whatever assistance they may need.
Q: What advice will you impart to City Council or your successor?
A: I will provide as much or as little as they ask for. I assume since there is such a long time until I leave, there will be a seamless transition. I hope I can sit down and say, “Here’s some of the items we have.”
Q: Any other remarks now that the retirement is public?
A: Intellectually, I’ve figured out that it’s time to do this, both financially and everything else. Emotionally it will be very difficult to put this behind me and not be working for the public. I don’t enjoy the confrontational things that happen, but no one really does.