Ron Kaye: The trouble with Harry

Let's have a big round of applause for retired law professor Harry Zavos.

Citing the state Constitution and a lawsuit won by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he got Glendale officials three years ago to stop transferring “surplus” water revenue to the city's General Fund.

Score one for Harry.

Then, he began a crusade to end the transfer of what this year is $21 million in electricity revenues to the General Fund — money that is desperately needed to maintain basic city services at a time when Glendale, like nearly every government agency in California, is facing huge budget deficits.

Doggedly persistent, one-pointed like a pit bull, Zavos pushed city officials to the wall, claiming the transfer amounted to a tax requiring voter approval under the state's Proposition 26 and violated the City Charter's rules for Glendale Water & Power financial operations.

Finally, City Atty. Mike Garcia and Senior Assistant City Atty. Christine Godinez issued a 16-page legal opinion backed by a 40-slide PowerPoint presentation that came before the Glendale Water & Power Commission three weeks ago. It should properly be called the “Zavos Report.”

Score two for Harry.

The opinion amounted to a detailed refutation of most of the retired lawyer's assertions with one clear exception: The transfer needs to be made in a single payment at the end of the fiscal year and not in monthly installments, as the practice has been.

Score two-and-a-half for Harry.

Prop. 26 doesn't apply because the transfer was grandfathered in, according to the city's lawyers, who dispute Zavos' reading of the City Charter on whether transfers come from “gross revenue” or “net revenue” after all costs are accounted for.

Still, a majority of Glendale Water & Power commissioners took the point Zavos was making seriously enough to raise questions about the practice in terms of the impact the transfer of up to 25% of electricity revenue has on the utility's solvency, and on rates to consumers.

“Starting the conversation about moving forward, we really need to be very judicious about how much we transfer, where the first priority needs to be maintaining the integrity of the system so we're not depleting it,” commission President Zanku Armenian said at the Aug. 6 meeting.

“Then we can look at where else we might spread some of the revenue to cover other needs in the city, because if the system falls apart, then everything falls apart in the city,” he added.

Score three for Harry.

The trouble with Harry in the eyes of Glendale City Council members became clear when they took up the “Zavos Report” two weeks ago, along with discussion of a possible electricity rate hike.

The council's impatience with Zavos surfaced when he started to speak during the general public comment period but was interrupted by Councilman Ara Najarian's “point of order” just 15 seconds into his effort to say that the city should put the transfer as a Charter amendment, or as a new tax, on the ballot and let voters decide.

What ensued was a confusing back-and-forth involving Mayor Frank Quintero, Najarian, the city attorney and an increasingly frustrated Zavos, who was having trouble getting a word in edgewise. When the next speaker came to the podium, Councilman Dave Weaver declared there was a lack of “decorum” and stormed out.

Still, Zavos' crusade has gotten City Manager Scott Ochoa and other city officials to take a hard look at the City Charter and to start a review that will clear up outdated practices and ambiguous language with a ballot measure that will go before voters as early as next spring.

Score four for Harry.

“He asked questions that deserved to be asked, and now that he's got the answers, it's time to start moving forward,” Ochoa said. “Hopefully, a Charter amendment will resolve the issue once and for all. We have spent way too much time and money shadowboxing this issue.”

It isn't easy to achieve what Zavos has, and it isn't going to be any easier to take a “see you in court” stance and find the money for lawyers and other costs associated with suing the city to find out who's right about the law.

So a word of advice, Harry: Declare victory, and start drafting changes to the Charter that would satisfy what you want to see, and get Glendale moving on to dealing with all the other problems that need attention.

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

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