WILL ROGERS

Will Rogers

Can someone save citizens $5 million just by asking a question?

Exactly that may have happened in Glendale's City Hall earlier this

month.

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

usage.

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

those answers."

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

motives.

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

expenses.

*

Will Rogers' column appears every Tuesday and Friday. He can be

reached 24 hours a day at 637-3200 voice mail ext. 906, or by e-mail at

WillColumn@aol.com.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°