The Burbank City Council has no clothes.
Mayor Dave Gordon had a chance this week to finally show the Media City that he could lead through a difficult and thorny issue: Whether to raise utility rates. He had his chance, but he blew it. To be fair, though, they all did.
Gordon, for so many years, has been a lone voice on the council, the losing end of more 4-1 votes than anyone cares to count. But with the election of Bob Frutos, Gordon has a reliable ally, getting him ever closer to that 3-2 win.
On June 10, Councilman Jess Talamantes gave him a shot, voting with him and Frutos against a proposed suite of utility hikes.
"I was quite surprised we got the vote," Gordon said Friday, noting his colleague (and usual foil) Emily Gabel-Luddy's jaw dropped when it happened.
The vote resulted in a staff report, discussed a week later, on how to bridge a $7.6-million gap said to occur if utility rates remained flat.
The plan had a number of cost-cutting options, including getting rid of water conservation programs, eliminating a planned broadband service to Burbank schools, and/or cutting community support funding, among others.
Gordon, at the time, said he would entertain increasing fees by a smaller amount — say a 1.5% hike for electric rather than the proposed 2.9%. But when he had a chance to do just that on June 23, he did not.
"I wanted to give him a chance to lead," Talamantes said Thursday about his June 10 vote. "I wanted to encourage him to provide something we can buy into."
Gordon remains defiant, though, stating a motion on June 23 would have been pointless.
"I could have made a motion, and then it would have failed 2-3," he said.
With Talamantes changing his vote, the City Council agreed 3-2 to hike rates 4.75% for water, 2.9% for electric, and 2.5% for both sewer and refuse services. Voilà, no cuts required, no hard decisions to make.
Is this a ton of money? No. City officials estimate this would increase the average customer's water bill by, for example, by $3.19 a month. Still, whether to raise rates is inherently a big one, and all such decisions tend to showcase the weird political currents that swirl around the dais on Olive Avenue.
Leadership is not supposed to be passive, yet everyone up there decided to either accept or reject the doomsday scenario cooked up by Burbank Water and Power staff. Talamantes, who said he was waiting for a substitute motion from either Gordon or Frutos, certainly had the ability to make one himself. He sure didn't.
And another thing that doesn't quite make sense to me. If the council wanted to not make the rate hikes — or at least make them smaller — they had another way to close the $7.6-million gap: layoffs.
However, no one seems to want to go that way. Why?
Though I cannot guess all their motivations, Talamantes said he felt layoffs were a moral issue, and as such he would be against it in principle for as long as possible.
I thought that was an interesting turn of phrase, because in private industry, layoffs are — or at least can be — a moral issue as well. That is, unless they occur, the entire enterprise is in danger.
I've had to layoff people, and I found it to be the absolutely worst part of my job. I doubt you'll find anyone that's been on either end of that table to disagree, and I have been on both. However, if I stubbornly refused to do it, we all might have lost our jobs.
Cities and public agencies don't have profit margins to worry about, and they just don't think about things the same way. But they also have a greater responsibility to ensure the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.
For instance, is having Wifi for our children worth the job of a hard-working, honest city worker? It's a terrible decision, I understand, but the answer is yes.
I don't see hard decisions being discussed because the council lacks a leader. Gordon can still be that person, but it will require working — and building trust with — his colleagues and city staff. And, by the way, proposing things rather than rejecting them.
It's clearly possible. I don't doubt Gordon's ability to build consensus, but sometimes wonder about his desire to do so. The others on the council show, on occasion, the ability to work together, but not often enough. The bigger the decision, the bigger the egos.
For the good of the city, please check your grudges and hurt feelings before you enter the council chamber. They'll still be there when you finish. I promise.
--DAN EVANS is the editor. He can be reached at (818) 627-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.