May 27, 2016

I spent one year trying to guide Burbank’s system for designating the city’s Mayor and Vice-Mayor back to its roots as a routine, semi-automatic process free of a majority dragging politics, personal grudges and campaign interests into the fray.  Then I came close to becoming the latest target of the gamesmanship.

Many residents seem not to realize Burbank voters do not elect their Mayor.  And like some council members who’ve served as Mayor, many residents also grossly misunderstand the powers and privileges of the office.

Burbank’s Mayor is selected by the council members from among the 5 members themselves.  Typically, they select whomever served the previous year as “Vice-Mayor.”  Indeed, that tradition is so ingrained that, when talking about who will or won’t be Mayor, the battles get ugly and the controversies typically center on who is being made Vice-Mayor.  In the last 20 years or so, I can’t recall an instance of a Vice-Mayor NOT being made Mayor, save for those forced to leave office early.

As for the “powers” of the office, those are dictated by the city’s Charter.  In short, in times of disaster, the Mayor is empowered to work with the city staff and take limited actions unilaterally.  (A Mayor who does not try to connect with his or her colleagues and attempt to obtain their support and ideas in those challenging times would be a fool.)

Another duty of the Mayor is chairing public meetings.  The decisions made in this process often reflect on the city as a whole.  I’ve seen Mayors slash public comment periods and turn off public cameras while citizens spoke. I’ve seen Mayors who rarely reined in even the windiest and most irresponsible of their colleagues, no matter how far off the topic they wandered, but they’d gavel to silence public critics.  As I think they should, most sitting in the Mayor’s center seat have found a spot between the extremes.

That encapsulates the central duties of Burbank’s “figurehead” Mayor.  But ask some of my colleagues about the minimum standards for Mayoral service, and the language suddenly turns flowery, soaring to the point of generating snickers.  Suddenly, infinite wisdom, the diplomacy of a life-long State Department diplomat, a near savant in the details of city functions and the budget all become urgently critical.  Each, of course, believes they meet those lofty standards.

It doesn’t seem to trouble these people that, over the years, the Mayor’s seat has been held by quite a number of witless boobs, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting egotists, and craven political climbers.  Still, the city hasn’t collapsed, or even become a bit unsteady due to the choice in Mayor.  Fortunately, there have also been a fair number of perfectly pleasant and average men and women looking to do their best.

It’s hard for me to describe the ludicrous tactics and rationales some council members employ to accomplish their Mayoral pursuits without my seeming to demean the office and/or the city itself.  Ridicule a council member’s implication they are Burbank’s own Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin rolled into one, and so should be Mayor, and the response is a challenge that apparently one doesn’t believe Burbank DESERVES a Jefferson or Franklin.

I know Mayors who believed it was their job to summon department heads to provide regular reports and take Mayoral direction.  I’ve seen Mayors who believed it was their job to build consensus behind the scenes among council members so that, when it came time to meet in public, the vote would be a simple, straight-forward process leading to a near unanimous choice, without questions or time-wasting comments, (a pursuit almost as unrealistic as it was illegal).

At least as perceived by many, one perk of Mayoral service is the large, ornate “ceremonial office” each Mayor uses as their own for the year.  There are four other very nice offices available for council members, but the elbowing and hip-checks many engage in to try and get the one office that is literally just two inches longer than the one next to it are – or should be – deeply embarrassing to those involved.  I wish THOSE whispered arguments were in public.  One of my colleagues has actually stepped into their office just twice in the last year, once during last year’s “City Hall Open House,” and the other just this month when the office-holder took a colleague aside for a fast, post-meeting rant.

And still, council members often have, and still do, engage in every childhood game to argue they need or deserve the most spacious office.  Even those who never or rarely visit their office wrangle for the largest.  Suddenly, “seniority” and “dibs” and “I have more meetings” are flying back and forth like kids fighting over a cupcake.

Two offices were vacant when I was elected.  One incumbent had left, and a Mayor had been elevated. City Hall staff were anxious for me to decide which office I wanted so my colleagues could know which would be left vacant so the game of “musical offices” could kick off, at which time STAFF MOVES THE CONTENTS OF ONE OFFICE TO ANOTHER, much as the White House is vacated while the previous occupant and the newly-elected are busy with the inauguration.  (I took the smallest office of the five, hung my own photos, and did not join in the cut-throat game to make a change this year.)

The Mayor avoids all that, and is simply given the biggest office.

The Mayor also represents the city in several traditional and ad hoc circumstances.  For example, the Mayor typically gives a “State of the City” address each year that serves as a fundraising event for the Chamber of Commerce.  Some Mayors have tried to improvise their way through a speech, and others spend literally months planning and developing a video production starring themselves and produced by the city’s Public Information Office, often with help and special effects from local studios.

According to the current and immediately previous council’s policy, the Vice-Mayor and Mayor were also charged with representing the full council during negotiations revolving around airport and a potential terminal replacement.  (Any product of this last must also be relayed to and approved by the others, and ultimately approved by voters.)  Mayors and Vice-Mayors also meet with and lobby state and federal dignitaries on the city’s behalf.

The Mayor is expected to attend virtually countless “ribbon cuttings,” events celebrating the opening of new businesses.  But no one person could meet the demand for these services, even if they surrendered their business and personal lives.  Indeed, I was filling in for a Mayor within a month of having been elected.  All of the council members have stood in for various Mayors.

It’s this high-visibility throughout the year that makes service as Mayor a sought-after perk for those seeking re-election.  Indeed, when I first proposed a simple rotation system assuring those who had not yet served as Mayor were given a chance before those who had already served, my plan discouraged giving any incumbent up for re-election the Mayoral seat in their election year.  I said it offers a special benefit not available to any challenger, whether on the council or off.

It took only a few seconds for me to realize this was being perceived as a direct attack on my then-new colleague, Jess Talamantes.  He was Vice-Mayor at the time, expected to be made Mayor in May, 2016, and remain as Mayor up through his presumed bid for reelection in April 2017.  Believing it wasn’t fair to Talamantes to change the unofficial rules he’d been appointed under at the last minute, I dropped that facet from my proposal.

I had hoped to see the Vice-Mayoral and Mayoral selection processes return to a, simple rotation, giving almost everyone a turn.  (Because terms are 4 years long, and there are 5 council members, there’s no way to guarantee a one-term office holder will be able to serve as Mayor.

It was almost exactly one year between my request for the subject to be added to an agenda for discussion, and the matter appearing on the agenda last month.

After discussing the rotation and other alternatives, there was a vote.  Three council members, including myself, voted for the rotation to be finalized in writing by the City Attorney.  One voted “No.”  The last abstained, explaining that he was tired and didn’t understand what had been proposed.  He said he’d wait until he was rested and could review the City Attorney’s version.

One month later the City Attorney’s draft of the policy previously approved by a majority came back for a formal vote.  It was summarily rejected, largely without explanation, in a 1-4 vote.

On May 2 of this year the council met for its annual “reorganization.”  As expected, Talamantes was named Mayor.  Next came the call for nominations for Vice-Mayor.  After a lengthy, uncomfortable silence, Talamantes nominated Emily Gabel-Luddy, and the world waited for a “second.”  When the silence reached and surpassed embarrassing, Gabel nominated me and, after another long delay, David Gordon seconded the nomination.  I was ultimately approved in a 5-0 vote because, well, that’s how they prefer to do things.

Why didn’t Talamantes nominate me, the only council member who hadn’t yet served as Mayor?  I don’t know, and never will.  I could ask, but wouldn’t expect to hear the truth.  And that’s not a slam on Talamantes – it’s probably human nature for him to automatically mumble something more palatable than the cold, hard truth.  Besides, I haven’t asked the other three why, in that long, uncomfortable silence, none of them nominated me, either.  The closest I’d get to an answer would be a list of intangible shortcomings, all adding up to a failure to meet that supposed Jefferson/Franklin standard.

Frankly, I just don’t care to sit through more windy speeches of the sort that lead the uninformed to believe the Mayor has his finger on a nuclear button, negotiates with kings, and is somehow chosen by a miraculous light breaking through the clouds after 40 days of rain.

Yes, I do recognize saying things like that offers some colleagues more of exactly what it is that keeps them from supporting me.  You see, contrary to all protestations and pretty rhetoric, “talking straight” and “telling the truth” about the esteemed position are not among the minimum requirements for serving as Mayor.  Someone telling the council members what they want and expect to hear is typically what they’re looking for.