City Council Discusses Electing Mayor, Creating Districts

Following a lively discussion on whether the city ought to develop dedicated City Council districts and potentially make the mayor’s seat an elected position, the council concluded the debate by filing an informational report and moved on.
The council indicated it may pick the discussion back up in the future, but it’s clear that some members will have to convince others to proceed forth with any changes.

Councilmen Ardy Kassakhian and Dan Brotman argued firmly in favor of the considerations, while Mayor Paula Devine and Councilman Ara Najarian passionately defended the current system of electing five at-large members who rotate the mayorship each year. Devine, Najarian and Councilman Vrej Agajanian chose to file the report, while Brotman said no and Kassakhian, out of respect to the work behind the staff report, abstained instead of giving a firm dissent.
“I’m sure that eventually we will look into it again,” Devine said, following this week’s vote.
Kassakhian and Brotman had previously asked for the discussion, based on interest from residents who have requested such consideration in the past. Data indicates that it is relatively unusual that Glendale, the 23rd largest city in California by population, uses an at-large mayor system. Of the 74 most populated cities here, 58 of them (78%) use geographical districts for council members, and 52 (72%) elect their mayors.
In Los Angeles County, large cities with geographical districts and elected mayors include Los Angeles, Long Beach, Palmdale, Pomona and Pasadena. Burbank, like Glendale, utilizes a ceremonial mayor and at-large council system, as does Santa Clarita; however, Santa Clarita intends to switch to geographic districts and an elected mayor with administrative duties.
Other cities use hybrid systems. Lancaster elects a mayor and four at-large council members, while Inglewood elects its mayors and four council members by district — however, they also use city managers as the chief administrators.
Residents offering public comment on Tuesday were generally united in favor of creating districts, which they said would better represent less affluent neighborhoods in Glendale. Some contended it would also bring the voice of renters into the local political arena — more than 60% of city residents are renters, and the densest neighborhoods are concentrated in the downtown area south of the 134 Freeway.
Both the Glendale Unified School District and the Glendale Community College Board of Trustees have used geographical districts since the 2017 elections, while a city ballot measure proposing a switch to council districts failed in 2015.
“It’s something we’ve seen work in our school district and college district and I think it’s time has come,” Kassakhian said Tuesday.
Kassakhian remained committed to keeping a city manager and less inclined to have an elected mayor. However, he was open to systems like that in Seattle, which makes use of district and at-large council members.
“Under our system of governance, I don’t know if it makes sense to have a strong second executive body,” he added, “but we do need representation and we do need more diversity and I think one of the ways to achieve that is districts.”
Brotman, who also said he thinks ranked-choice voting and even paid, full-time council members are worth considering, observed that individual districts would be less financially challenging for candidates because of the substantially smaller campaign footprints.
“Whether it will change anything in terms of ethnic, racial or gender diversity, I don’t know. I hope so,” he said. “I think it will certainly change geographic diversity and certainly lower the barrier to entry for potential candidates because it will be a lot less expensive to run a campaign.”
Najarian, by far the longest-tenured council member, pushed back on the notion that certain neighborhoods aren’t well-represented. Gus Gomez, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, hailed from South Glendale — which often is cited as having little success in local elections — while the infamous John Drayman hailed from Montrose.
While acknowledging that three of the five council members all hail from the same 91208 ZIP Code — which generally follows the 2 Freeway and reaches into the affluent foothill neighborhoods on either side — Najarian contended at-large seats remain attainable for other areas.
“Show me a district, and I’ll show you a candidate that has been elected from that district in recent history,” he said, “so I’m not sure what the problem is.”
Furthermore, Najarian looked at L.A. politics as an example and warned, in his opinion, that dividing seats by district might invite elected members to essentially lord over their territory, with little recourse for dissenting residents. He called it “Balkanization.”
“You might as well slice up Glendale into five separate cities, because that’s really what happens. You’re going to have five little kings in the city of Glendale,” he said. “If someone from Mr. Kassakhian’s district wants to call me up on an issue — ‘Oh we have a lot of speeding on Glenoaks, that building they want to build is too close to my property line’ — forget about it. I’m not going to step into Mr. Kassakhian’s district, the same way I wouldn’t want him to step into my district. That’s the way the city breaks up and that’s wrong.”
Devine, similarly, said she feels that at-large seats give residents multiple connections to city politics and that the nature of the elections requires candidates have to put in the effort to include every neighborhood.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been in favor of districts, because of the idea of creating these ‘fiefdoms’ where you have one council member sticking up for his or her district,” she said. “Then, of course, there is the possibility of bartering — if I do this for you, you do this for me — I don’t really think that’s a good way of government. I just feel like we’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”