Ron Kaye: Civic engagement and high expectations

It was the changing of the guard — Parcher Plaza at Glendale City Hall filled with people celebrating Mayor Frank Quintero with taquitos and cupcakes, a gathering of well-wishers that included Burbank Mayor Dave Golonski, who offered a framed memento in tribute.

The irony was hard to miss.

Quintero was retiring quietly, much as he had served the public for 12 years; Golonski was going out with something of a roar, essentially fired by voters just two days earlier in a runoff election after 20 years of serving his city.

Both men had achievements to take pride in, helping their cities at a time of great transition and enormous stresses to stay healthy and vibrant.

I've known Golonski a long time, since an issue in the alley behind him — a large-scale development taking place without anyone in his neighborhood knowing about it or having a say — got him involved in activism and led him to the noise problems from Bob Hope Airport, and finally, to win a City Council seat in 1993 as a slow-growth candidate in the face of a decade of growth at any price.

"It's been a great run, but after 20 years, I guess my time was up. Maybe it's a function of being there so long," Golonski said, taking defeat philosophically as we chatted before the Quintero event.

"We've seen an evolution take place in Burbank," he said. "But we managed to grow and prosper and still somehow hold onto the small-town community feeling and pride. That's extremely important to me."

As a politician, Golonski made a lot of friends over the years, and his share of enemies — politics is what cities are all about.

The word "politics" itself derives from the ancient Greek word polis, meaning city, as in Athens and Sparta, where human beings came together in common purpose and feel they are part of something greater than themselves.

Cities are the basis of civilization, not nations. Great cities are about real politics, grassroots grappling with economics and quality-of-life issues that directly affect everyone's life.

That's why it seems so ridiculous to me that voter turnout is far higher in state and national elections than in local ones. Or that the vast majority of people pay far more attention to abstract issues and what is happening far away than what is happening down the street — to stuff that directly affects them, and that they, in turn, can directly affect.

My city, Los Angeles, is a shameless city, a city where every elected official is bought and owned by interlocking business and labor interests and the public is disengaged or paralyzed by its powerlessness.

Burbank and Glendale aren't like that. They're small enough for people to feel connected, big enough to control their destinies.

"It isn't just about leadership or voter turnout — it's about civic engagement," Golonski said. "There's a cadre of people in Burbank involved in all kinds of stuff, making the schools better, pushing the arts, the sustainability commission, people delivering meals to the elderly — they're all part of that machine and they're all committed to making sure that machine is pointed in the right direction."

He explained why he never had other higher political ambitions.

"You never have to vote for anything you don't believe in," he said. "I tell new council members I'm never going to vote for anything you support unless you convince me it's the right thing to do, so you shouldn't vote for anything I support unless you believe it's the right thing to do.

"If you go to Sacramento, you can't do that because your seat will be in the nose-bleed seats and you'll never accomplish anything."

The biggest challenge of his time in office was Lockheed leaving, a void that was filled by the entertainment industry —something he believes the city needs to work hard to change by diversifying its economic base.

His biggest regret is that the council didn't see the use-of-force and internal discrimination allegations at the Police Department sooner.

"There was so much esteem for the police and everyone was so happy at how effective they were that when issues came up about how they were being effective, there were people that just refused to believe that that was a possibility that there were such problems," he said.

What makes Burbank special, what makes great cities work, Golonski added, is that "you have strong, caring neighborhoods that will come out in force and a community with high expectations."

At 54, Golonski said doesn't intend to simply go away. "But my level of involvement is going to be different," he said.


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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