‘Winegate’ Controversy Engrosses Council

More than two hours of discussing what one caller coined as “winegate” produced more headache than anything for the City Council this week.
Ultimately, four council members voted to formally codify a rule directly forbidding the consumption of alcohol during board, commission or council meetings. However, a separate motion to simply recognize the event in question — that a member of the Design Review Board was on two occasions seen sipping from a wine glass during a meeting — fizzled out on an unusual 2-1-2 vote.

Councilman Ara Najarian had requested that the item be set aside for discussion shortly after the incident, in which DRB member Francesca Smith apparently drank from a wine glass during the board’s Jan. 14 meeting and later toasted her fellow board members as they adjourned, while a public hearing was underway. However, he explicitly said he had no interest in discussing any potential reprimands or removals, at least not Tuesday night.
“I’m not here to discuss that,” he said. “I want the council to state that drinking an alcoholic beverage during a board, commission or council meeting is unacceptable conduct.”
Smith, an appointee of Councilman Dan Brotman, did not speak or appear before the council on Tuesday, although Brotman defended his appointee as being apologetic for the episode. Brotman said when he spoke with her previously, she told him her husband had essentially prepared a wine spritzer before, which was diluted with seltzer water.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone what she did,” Brotman said Tuesday, “but I accept that it was a one-off judgment error, that it had no effect whatsoever on her abilities or decisions that day and that it won’t happen again. That’s good enough for me.”
Najarian contended that the optics of the situation were bad enough regardless of what was in the glass, because of the board’s status as a quasi-judicial body that oversees the exceptionally contentious issue of development in Glendale. That these hearings often break down into emotional and heated debates and involve expending large amounts of money and personal time only heightens this responsibility, he argued.
“It’s for these reasons that there has to be absolute trust in the integrity of the commission members,” Najarian said. “The process must be beyond reproach. Once integrity and trust is lost, it can never be restored. Every decision made after trust and integrity is shattered, and the process following, will be suspect by all the parties appearing before the DRB, the applicants and the opponents alike.”
Many of the 56 people who called in for public comment Tuesday felt the matter was, at best, blown out of proportion and, at worst, a calculated attack on Smith for her more conservative approach to project approval and strict interpretation of the city’s design codes.
“I was shocked at how so many of the callers felt that her having that glass of wine or whatever it was was not a big deal,” Councilwoman Paula Devine said. “Whether it was wine or a diluted drink, the perception was unacceptable and it was an unfortunate decision that was made by this commissioner.”
Still, numerous callers castigated Smith for the optics of such a sensitive position and a handful — including the attorney for a client whose project was denied at this meeting — outright said she was drunk.
Brotman took offense in particular to this suggestion and said Smith had an unspecific medical condition — for which she takes medication — that causes her to have slurred speech.
“The question of being perceived to be drunk is very, very sensitive to her,” he said.
Najarian admitted he did not know of this issue and said he had not spoken to Smith at all since she was confirmed to her seat in May.
Brotman also capitalized on the suggestions that the issue was more politically motivated than it was principled, and added that Mayor Vrej Agajanian called previously to warn him that someone would bring up the issue and that he might avoid it by asking Smith to resign.
“The issue is about certain people being unhappy with what my appointed commissioner and I are trying to do,” Brotman said. “I nominated Francesca Smith because I wanted somebody who doesn’t accept the garbage that often passes for good design here, someone who believes that Glendale residents actually deserve better.”
Councilman Ardy Kassakhian highlighted that for all of an agenda report consisting of half a page with Smith’s statement to Brotman attached, it absorbed what he viewed as an undue amount of energy.
“I’m at a loss,” he said. “Never have more words been spoken for a shorter report than this. If we do note and file this, then we ought to file it under the folder of ‘First World Problems’ given everything that we’re dealing with globally, locally, businesses suffering, and we’re sitting here talking about a wine glass.”
Brotman abstained from voting on the motion directing the policy rewrite. When Najarian asked for the council to vote on dictating the policy, he admitted it was “almost a joke” that it even needed to be done. It nevertheless ended up being the closest thing to a rebuke at all, because his request that the council formally acknowledge that the event occurred only further splintered.
“I don’t have any idea” what she was drinking, said Devine, who joined Brotman in abstaining. “We’ve heard different things.”
Agajanian and Najarian voted yes on that item, while Kassakhian voted no, dooming the request — “I don’t know what she was drinking,” he said, “I don’t think that’s been substantiated clearly.”
As the council moved onto other business, Najarian offered one final exasperated comment.
“OK council,” he said. “Don’t let your eyes deceive you.”