Glendale City Council: Old rule brings new consequences for mid-term open seat

When city officials changed the rules on how to fill an empty City Council seat mid-term, they didn't expect to be stuck deciding between a batch of bad choices roughly eight years later.

The 2005 change was supposed to prompt an early election and create cost savings, neither of which have come to fruition in the wake of Rafi Manoukian's departure from the City Council after being elected to the city treasurer post last week.

It's not the only change to the city Charter that has had unintended consequences, sometimes decades after the fact.

Just this year, three amendments to the city's Charter — a set of rules that govern everything from how much officials are paid to how elections are run — have caused confusion and controversy. So much so, that officials have spent dozens of hours analyzing historical documents to determine what voters wanted when they approved the amendments in the first place.

In response to the wave of Charter debacles, some council members said they'd like to discuss a complete review to remove ambiguities.

"We should have these rules clear and not open to interpretation," said Councilman Ara Najarian.

But "laws are complicated, because life is complicated," said Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at Chapman University. "When you try to write things that consider all the permutations, then you end up with something like the internal revenue code."

One of the biggest Charter controversies this year centered around a multi-million dollar transfer Glendale makes each year from the city's water utility to help pay for public services. City officials pointed to a part of the Charter amendment that states up to 25% of the utility's operating revenues can be transferred, while opponents pointed to another line that said the money should come from a surplus fund.

Officials put a measure on the ballot earlier this month to remove the surplus fund language and other provisions they considered superfluous. The measure ultimately failed.

Still, city officials say they plan to continue the transfer because the authors of the provision nearly 70 years ago intended for the money to come from operating revenues.

"Sometimes [Charter amendments] are not as precise as you'd like them to be, so we do have to go back to those historical records," said Councilwoman Laura Friedman.

The last time the city undertook a Charter review was in 2005, when officials changed the rules for filling in an empty council seat.

Those rules — all of which required the city spending hundreds of thousands of dollars — came back to haunt council members this week. While the Charter change was aimed at shortening the time an appointee would fill an open council seat, the monetary constraints actually lengthen their service.

"Whoever [wrote the amendment], didn't consider the costs of elections and didn't consider the disparity in the election costs," Najarian said.

Mayor Dave Weaver said he wanted to place another amendment on the ballot to change the replacement rule. Councilman Zareh Sinanyan said he wouldn't want to undertake a Charter revision if it was too costly.

Another charter change caused a stir this week, this time in the form of a 1982 tweak to a revolving-door policy that limited city employment for council members. While the original Charter language exempted elective office, it's not specifically addressed in the current language, which bars council members from holding "any compensated city office or city employ until two years after leaving the office."

Najarian said he believes the rule would prevent former Mayor Frank Quintero from being appointed to the open council seat — a likely scenario — because it's a paid position, and conversely block former Councilman Rafi Manoukian, who was recently elected treasurer, from taking the job.

Manoukian disagrees.

"It seems like there are people who don't like the results of the election," Manoukian said. "The people have spoken."

City Attorney Mike Garcia said the amendment was never intended to block people from being elected to another office, which is a constitutional right.

In the end, whatever path Glendale takes toward a solution will likely be the same path taken that led to the problems in the first place.

"There's no particular solution," Rotunda, the law professor, said of conflicting Charter interpretations. "It's just something we should take care of when we draft legislation." 

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Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

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