Can someone save citizens $5 million just by asking a question?
Exactly that may have happened in Glendale's City Hall earlier this
At their first council meeting, all new council members are
miraculously transformed into experts in finance, sewers, street repair,
waste disposal, planning, zoning, law enforcement, business development,
public utility management and parliamentary procedure. By the official's
second meeting, that list probably doubles.
All right, so there is no miraculous transformation. The guy who
couldn't balance a checkbook before the election is no better at it
afterward. What an individual brings to council service isn't necessarily
a college degree or special expertise.
Glendale's form of city government holds that part-time council
members, citizens from any walk of life, make decisions with guidance
from full-time staff and other paid advisors. That's not to say it's an
official's duty to approve staff recommendations. If that were so, we
wouldn't need a council.
Rather, it's a council member's duty to explore issues and weigh
proposals in light of their own priorities, and those of the citizens.
It's their duty to ask questions. Sometimes staffers go too far in trying
to lead the council to what they believe is a right decision, and that's
when the council member's questions are most important.
We've had, and probably always will have, an official or two who takes
their first look at meeting agenda packets during the meeting itself.
They skip to the last page of staff reports, read the recommendations,
and try to keep up with discussions among colleagues and staff.
About the only time this kind of council member is more involved is
when an influential advisor speaks up in advance. "Keep an eye on item
7-A tomorrow night," says the advisor. "The resolution will..." and from
there you can fill in the blanks.
Either the advisors urge an approval, or they want it killed. The
official is then primed with the questions to ask, or arguments to make.
Some defend this means of doing the city's business.
"Why hire staff if we won't listen to them?" is one defense I've
heard. "It's in the staff's interest to get it right," is another. "I'm
not a lawyer, so how can I reject the city attorney's opinion?" is one
variation on a very popular argument for councilmanic abdication.
Two weeks ago, the two newest council members, Bob Yousefian and Frank
Quintero, reviewed agenda reports before their first meeting. It was
their questions -- never heard by the general public -- that some say may
save Glendale $5 million.
The pair came across a recommendation from the director of public
service to approve a five-year electrical services agreement with Walt
Disney World Co. It was related to the recently approved project that has
Disney developing up to 6-million square feet of building space over 30
years. The agreement would give Disney discounts on city charges for
electrical infrastructure required by the project.
Reading the report given council members reveals an odd choice made by
the staff. Under the heading "Fiscal Impact" are details on city revenues
after the discount. Nowhere is there a dollar figure for the amount being
discounted. That's a device that some staffers -- primarily those
involved in business development -- have used before with great success.
Elected officials who wouldn't dare ask for more, or who act
reflexively based upon platitudes like "we must be more business
friendly," never notice the absence of such details. But Yousefian asked
for the number, one that should have been prominently included.
In a deal the staff report bragged would earn the city $434,780,
Yousefian learned that, over the project's life, the city would surrender
$5 million it's otherwise entitled to.
The report asserts the discount creates an incentive for Disney to
develop its project faster than the minimums spelled out in its plans.
The report also says the deal would bar Disney from generating its own
power (at least until the deal expires in five years), and impose other
commitments to aid Glendale Water & Power in predicting and managing
An irony in the discount is that GWP recently announced a rate
increase for customers. To offset boosts in the cost of generating power,
electric rates were raised by about 5%. But the discount proposal has
Disney keeping $5 million that would otherwise go to GWP.
Yousefian and Quintero had more questions, even without in-depth
knowledge of electric facilities, utility financing, development
agreements or business incentives. Examples of questions prompted by the
proposed deal include, can other businesses get similar deals? How is a
$5 million price cut an incentive for a multibillion dollar multinational
firm to speed development of a 30 year project? Do we want to accelerate
the project beyond the schedule in the city approved plan? If so, why
isn't acceleration guaranteed? Aren't the promises Disney offers in the
deal mostly pledges to employ efforts that will help the firm lower its
utility costs anyway, regardless of the discount?
Finally, what other special requests and favors are waiting in the
wings, "ups and extras' we didn't know about back when the city was
weighing Disney's project? How many concessions can Disney win before
it's fair to gripe we're not getting what the city approved last year?
The discount for Disney was never discussed at a council meeting. City
Manager Jim Starbird told me he didn't have and couldn't get answers for
the new council members' questions.
"In some cases there were no answers, and in some there were half
answers that didn't satisfy me," Starbird told me. "It won't be back on
the agenda until we have all the answers and I am confident I can support
Mind boggling to me is that some staffers had recommended approval of
the deal, even though we now know they didn't have answers to vital,
fundamental questions. One has to wonder about their priorities and
Several city officials tell me the discount has been tabled, implying
the idea will either be drastically modified, or never heard from again.
This deal aside, I'll be eager to see whether certain staffers stick with
their practice of proudly touting benefits, and forgetting to detail
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