Ron Kaye: Throwing rocks at the windows of power

What would your town be like if its harshest critic had a seat at the table of power?

The question is a natural one for me to ask, as I am one of the harshest critics of what passes for a government in the city of Los Angeles. I have envisioned from time to time what impact I could have as a councilman ranting about backroom deals and policies that pandered to special interests at the public’s expense.

Not much, I concluded, unless the public was aroused and wanted real change. But Glendale clearly is not L.A. I’ve come to know and respect top city officials in Glendale, elected and appointed, for being forthright and for doing a pretty good job.

It was with that in mind that I sat down last week at Billy’s Deli on Orange Street, where one of the city’s harshest critics, City Council candidate Herbert Molano, was pecking at a bowl of oatmeal.

Call him a gadfly, call him a nuisance who jumbles the facts to suit his purposes, as many inside City Hall see him, or call him a visionary fighting for justice, as he sees himself; whatever label you apply, there’s no doubt Molano stands out from the field for his intelligence and perseverance in a decade-long campaign of challenging City Hall week after week with statistics and percentages and his own brand of insights.

How, I asked, can he look through a glass so darkly at Glendale when it seems like such a well-run city to me, a paradise when compared with L.A.?

“You’re basically talking about a totally corrupt system in L.A. and saying we’re not as corrupt,” he said. “But we have officials who lie, who hide the truth from the public and waste taxpayer money. The only reason we are living better than L.A. is because so many things were done right many years ago.”

Molano tells a remarkable story about his “Horatio Alger” life, how his mother fled hardships and turmoil in her homeland in Colombia and brought her children to L.A., where they faced more hardships balanced only by hope for a better life

He got to UCLA and following his instincts and interests, put together knowledge of psychology, philosophy, accounting and computers — when there were just main-frames, no PCs, no Internet — into a career as a businessman, technology salesman and systems analyst that let him prosper to the point he could cash out and work part-time as a consultant.

That’s when he says he devoted himself to his three kids and to fighting for justice in Glendale — the town he embraced when he got fed up with life in L.A.

The specific issue was rent control, which he felt allowed tenants in the two apartment buildings he bought to run circles around him, so he moved to Glendale, bought a house and an apartment building — and then in 2001, the issue of whether to have rent control came before the Glendale City Council.

He recalled thinking, “What the hell, after all this, these guys are coming in and they don’t even know what they’re doing. The problem only exists in one-half of 1% of apartments.”

Molano went to a community meeting and found like-minded allies who worked to head off rent control by forming the Glendale Apartment Assn. and helping to set up a landlord-tenant mediation service.

He got involved in the schools, questioning how Glendale High could claim a 96% graduation rate, and then started going to City Council budget sessions and putting his analytical skills to work to come up with his own numbers, then challenging the official story.

In the absence of an engaged and informed electorate, Molano and a clique of City Council regulars are, for better or worse, the voice of the people, very aware that TV broadcasts of public meetings give them an audience beyond City Hall.

He sees in Glendale city government a sinister world of self-servers — not public servants — who mislead the public, engage in lies and cover-ups and waste taxpayers’ money.

“If we can solve the problems and make a model solution in Glendale, I think that other people will want to copy it. I think there’s a real chance to do it here,” he said.

If elected, his goal would be to foster more community involvement.

“My intent is to do an outreach to the general public, to energize them, to get active, to use the title and the credibility to enroll people to get involved. Our futures are at stake, our quality of life. Government is simply about creating structures so we can collaborate. We need to go back to basics.”

Molano ran for a seat on the council back in 2007, finishing seventh in a field of eight. But this time it could be different because the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the boogeyman of L.A. politics that has tried for more than a year to get an initial contract with Glendale Water & Power, is making noises about playing a hand in the closing days before next week’s election by supporting the utility’s harshest critic.

When I asked Molano in an email how his stance on public employee wages and benefits jibes with getting support from a union that gets pay scales, pensions and work rules far more beneficial to its members than other unions, he answered this way:

“Bringing the pensions system so that it is equitable to all is a policy and perception that all employees would embrace. The disparity in benefits and pay, plus the layoffs experienced by some departments and not others, is enough to be a call to action.... Equity is call for action for most people. Let's do hope this is a game-changer.”

If I lived in Glendale, I’m not sure I’d vote for Molano, anymore than I would have necessarily voted for myself if I had run for office in L.A. Some of us are more useful on the outside throwing rocks at the windows of power than inside, with the job of making things work as best we can.


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

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