Advice for Future Mayors From Those Who’ve Done the Job

In the east wing of Burbank City Hall, just off the rotunda, you’ll find a portrait gallery. The gallery isn’t exactly a big draw for tourists visiting Southern California. In fact, it’s probably fair to assume that most Burbankers don’t even know it exists.
If you are ever in City Hall, you may want to check out the gallery, which will give you a gander at the official portraits of the 62 men and women who have served as the city’s mayor.

As next month’s City Council election nears, with seven people vying to have their portrait added to that gallery, each of them would be well armed if they had the opportunity to get a bit of advice from the 62 who have occupied the mayor’s office — from the first, Thomas Story, to the current one, Sharon Springer. One would have to believe there would be a lot of wisdom to be found if that could be done, though the one piece of advice to shy away from would be from the city’s 12th mayor, Frank Tillson, on how to pose for your official city portrait. He thought it would be a good idea to do so while smoking a cigarette.
So just what sort of advice would come from those who have held the office in the past to the two council members who will be elected on Nov. 3? The limitation of space in this column precludes an offering from each of the 21 living people who have held the office, but here are a few gems that may be of help to them.
Burbank’s first female mayor, Mary Lou Howard, who served in the mid-1980s, said her advice would be to always remember that while it’s important to give all the needed resources, respect and competitive compensation to every city employee, council members should never forget that the staff, through the city manager, works for them, not the other way around.
“A council member has been entrusted with the position they hold to do their best to represent the people of the city of Burbank and make every decision with their best interest at the forefront, not to please staff or let them steer the agenda,” said Howard.
Michael Hastings, who served in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said he once read something in a church bulletin that always stayed with him: “Leadership is not only a privilege to be enjoyed, but a fragile gift to be exercised for the well-being of others.”
“I have been striving ever since then to live by those words,” said Hastings. “I think when it comes to offering advice for our civic leaders, that says it all.”
He also recommended that new council members listen and seek sage advice.
“Be honest with yourself and know when you don’t know,” he added. “Carefully read everything that is provided to you to describe agenda items and ask questions of staff members to get clarity prior to deliberating. Be kind and respectful to your colleagues, don’t lose sight of your family and their needs, cherish the honor, and always remember who you work for: the people.”
Bill Wiggins, who served in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said, “My best advice is this: If you can get up the day after a council meeting, look yourself in the mirror and say ‘I did what I thought was best,’ then you made the right decision.”
Outgoing City Council member and former Mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy pointed out that the job entails a lot more than the ceremonial aspect most people see and having your portrait added to the mayoral gallery.
“Once you get sworn in, you quickly learn it is not the job you thought it would be,” she said.
“You have to deal with so many things at the same time, so it’s imperative that you just dig in and not shy away from anything. You really have to be accountable and step up to every challenge you’re faced with. You also have to stay true to yourself. Say what you mean and mean what you say. That may sound trite, but it’s a fundamental part of the job.”
Gabel-Luddy recalled that former Mayor Jef Vander Borght gave her some good advice when she first got elected.
“Jef told me the job is a marathon, not a sprint, and that you have to pace yourself,” she said. “I always remembered that, especially on challenging days. The other great piece of advice I got was to never forget that I wasn’t drafted to be a council member, I asked for the job. That advice was given with a great sense of humor by my husband, Bill, and I thought of it many times during difficult times and contentious meetings — that I had asked for it.”
As for what she feels will be the legacy of her service to Burbank, Gabel-Luddy said that as a former professional planner she always felt she had the skills and expertise in planning, design and negotiations to have the confidence to take on a developer. “Because of that I believe I was able to help my colleagues bring about changes that have been beneficial to our neighborhoods and our city at large,” she opined.
Recalling some of her best memories, she said the construction of the city’s annual Rose Parade float entry and participating in Burbank on Parade and the Hap Minor and Ponytail Baseball and Softball Jamboree parades were some of the most joyous. “Burbank isn’t Mayberry, but the values reflected in those kinds of activities bring people together; they are joyful, and they create a sense of community.”
Asked what she found to be the most gratifying part of the job, she said there were many things.
“Perhaps the most gratifying thing was having the ability to personally assist people who were despondent and didn’t know where to turn,” she said.
She recalled getting a desperate call from a young immigrant who, along with his family, was crammed into a small apartment and having a difficult time making ends meet. “I offered him some guidance and suggested he contact the Burbank Temporary Aid Center. Then one day when I was there, he also happened to be there. He came up and introduced himself and told me how grateful he was for the guidance I gave him. He ultimately got a job, went to Burbank’s New York Film Academy and then moved back east where he is now teaching at a university.”
As for exiting public life, Gabel-Luddy said there is a sadness in leaving.
“I have come to know so many folks I otherwise would never have known. Not seeing those people on a regular basis will be sad,” she said. “On the other hand, I hope to remain active and engaged in some way, although I’m not exactly sure what that will be as of yet.”
Gabel-Luddy paused as she gave more thought to her feelings on leaving.
“When I walk out of City Hall as a private citizen, it will be a little like stepping off a cliff,” she said. “But I will do so fully expecting that the ground will come up to meet me.”

David Laurell may be reached at or (818) 563-1007.

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