When Bob Frutos was appointed by his peers on the City Council to become Burbank’s mayor in December, he immediately identified what he called the city’s most important issue: the economy.
Like other governments on every level, Burbank is reeling from the impacts of a pandemic that is surging to record levels. City officials have credited financially conservative policies for somewhat cushioning the economic blow of reduced tax revenue, but the General Fund is projected to reach a deficit by the end of fiscal year 2022 unless new measures are taken.
The financial pain is perhaps felt even more acutely by Burbank’s employees and small business owners, as shops close their doors for good and thousands of local workers remain unemployed.
But since Burbank is subject to the health orders of L.A. County and the state of California, Frutos is faced with a dilemma. He knows the local economy needs to be helped and people allowed to return to work — but how?
“People look at us at the local level wanting their local elected officials to go against the state or the county,” he said. “The local government is really in a tough position because there’s nothing that we can do.”
DIVISION ON RESPONSES
Frutos, who previously held his position in 2016 and has been on the City Council since 2013, said that he sees part of his role as reassuring the public that government services will remain intact, as well as uniting the city.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the Burbank community is divided on how governments should respond to the coronavirus pandemic, adding that reports of county and state officials violating their own health orders have added fuel to the flames.
Health orders from the county and state have attracted lawsuits, with recent legal battles waged over in-person dining bans. A local restaurant, Tinhorn Flats Saloon and Grill, has openly defied those bans, attracting anti-lockdown diners and infuriating many other residents.
“It really comes down to individual responsibility, and again it goes back to how divided we are because there are people that are saying, ‘You know what? I’m not going to lose my business,’” Frutos said. “There are emotions on both sides of the equation.”
“What do we do at the local level?” he added. “What does the average resident do? We’re split on that. And that’s another tough million-dollar question.”
REFLECTING ON POLICE REFORM
Frutos explained that he ran for City Council in 2013 after reports surfaced of excessive force and discrimination within the Burbank Police Department, costing the city millions of dollars in legal fees.
Having been a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department during the 1992 L.A. riots and a period of mandated internal reform, Frutos said he felt he could bring his background and experience to the table in the BPD’s situation.
Now, Frutos acknowledges that, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans in encounters with police officers, Burbank and other cities across the country need to listen to the national conversation about police reform and implement best practices. But he also expressed caution toward implementing some of the ideas that have arisen through Black Lives Matter and other movements advocating for reform.
Defunding police departments “is probably not the right way to go,” Frutos said. He argued that funneling money from law enforcement into social services is a good idea theoretically, but that most of those services aren’t set up to be available on-demand; when a call comes in regarding a mental health crisis during the early hours of the morning, the police is the department that is available.
“Is it necessarily a police job? No. I agree with the national conversation,” Frutos said. “But let’s put it in reality.”
He pointed instead to progress the department has already made, such as through its Mental Health Evaluation Team. The partnership with L.A. County, funded by the City Council, involves an officer and a county clinician responding to mental health calls.
Frutos also acknowledged that the city faces challenges that were present even before the pandemic hit, such as homelessness, environmental concerns and a need for more affordable housing.
And though, he said, he wishes he could give the public a date for when the health orders would be lifted, he added that “the positive sign of Burbank is that we as a community are going to make it through this.”
“Getting back to the Burbank that we all love and being sociable — that’s so important,” Frutos added.