With only a month until the Nov. 3 general election, local candidates have shifted into high gear, fighting for the prospect of a seat in City Hall or on the Burbank Unified School District board.
The candidates participated Wednesday in a series of forums, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Glendale/Burbank, allowing the contenders to answer major questions posed by the group as well as some submitted by local residents. The forums were streamed and are available on the Burbank Channel on YouTube.
Eight people are looking to nab one of two open seats on the City Council. New council members elected in November will have their positions for four years. Four people are vying to win one of three open BUSD Board of Education seats, also held for four years.
Each candidate previously submitted a statement to the Leader. These statements can be found at outlooknewspapers.com.
Here is an abridged overview of the topics the candidates were asked about. For the City Council candidate forum, each question was given to only some of the candidates, though all had the opportunity to respond to any question at the end of the forum.
COVID Effects, Personal Qualifications
Actor Michael Gogin pledged that, if elected, he would create a film commission that would issue permits to studios wanting to film on Burbank streets and inform residents ahead of time. He also predicted that the city would have “a surplus of capital” after the pandemic, allowing the city to reduce a $20 million deficit. According to a staff report for next week’s City Council meeting, the city is anticipating a deficit of about $11 million this fiscal year.
Retired claims analyst Linda Bessin said repeatedly during the forum that Burbank needed to be “modernized,” emphasizing what she called a need for the use of data to ensure transparency and efficiency.
“I’ve done my homework. I’ve done the research,” she said. “I care about finding solutions, so when people say this can’t be done, I will hunker down and find a way to get things done.”
Disability services provider Konstantine Anthony voiced concern about a rental housing collapse after the pandemic, arguing that corporations could purchase properties owned by “mom and pop” landlords and increase rent. The solution, he proposed, was passing Measure RC, a rent regulation measure on the ballot he is partially responsible for and which the city has fought against in court.
Timothy Murphy, a current council member, argued often during the forum that the council is already headed in a positive direction. He lauded the city’s efforts to place people experiencing homelessness into hotels via the state’s Project Roomkey program and success in reuniting homeless people with their families.
The main issue, he claimed, is a lack of funding, taking aim at Los Angeles County’s Measure H for diverting funds from the city.
Anthony agreed that Measure H funds should be used to propel major projects, referencing his own experience with the matter.
“I used to be homeless. I know what works and I know what doesn’t,” he said. “We really need to tackle it as a humanitarian issue and get people housed.”
Business executive Paul Herman and state Deputy Attorney General Nick Schultz both expressed interest in housing as a solution for homelessness. Herman voiced support for transforming the Scott Motel into transitional housing, a project the city is considering, while Shultz said he would explore options for homeless shelter sites.
Herman acknowledged the damage the pandemic has caused to the city’s finances, expressing concern for how its pension obligations could be affected by falling investments. However, he also noted that the city has strong reserves in its General Fund, emphasizing that Burbank needs to make sure it doesn’t lay off or furlough any of its employees.
Schultz, saying economic recovery is the centerpiece of his campaign, asserted that barriers and burdens on small businesses needed to be eased so jobs could be attracted to the city.
Murphy instead placed the focus on protecting residents and employees from the coronavirus, assuring voters that the budget was in decent shape.
“You could have all the money in the world, but it doesn’t do a darn bit of good if you’re dead,” he said. “After that, we need to focus on helping small business … but it’s got to be done in a careful, prudent, safe manner.”
Small Business Assistance
Gogin said he wanted to see small businesses open up immediately with social distancing to improve the economy.
The topic raised one of the few direct replies between candidates during the forum, between Anthony and nonprofit administrator Tamala Takahashi. Anthony pointed to a “Save Magnolia Park” town hall that he had hosted two years ago, saying much of the feedback he received suggested small business owners want to also own their property.
The city should help those owners purchase the land and give them property tax cuts, he contended, an approach that he believes would create “a small business haven.”
But Takahashi, who is also a small business owner and a member of the Magnolia Park Merchants Association board, said she hasn’t heard anyone say they want to buy their building. Instead, she believes business owners want more communication from the city and help with negotiating rent with landlords.
Schultz and Sharis Manokian emphasized the need to protect renters from being evicted, with Schultz suggesting a rent freeze alongside partnerships with the state and federal governments, while Manokian voiced support for rent control and eviction moratoriums.
Murphy agreed that money was needed from larger governments, but argued that freezing rents is a costly option for which the city doesn’t have the resources. He also pointed out that Gov. Gavin Newsom had issued a statewide eviction moratorium protecting renters.
But Herman expressed concern that commercial tenants are not receiving the same protection from that law. The City Council is set to consider extending a local moratorium preventing commercial evictions in its next meeting, though that was initially going to phase out.
“The city allowed that law to sunset, and I agreed with it, because we can’t have eviction moratoriums forever,” Herman said. “What the city needs to do is be active, nimble and adaptive to help our benefits get back to reopen in a safe and healthy manner.”
Possible Racial Bias in Police Departments
Bessin, as well as Takahashi and substitute teacher Manokian, said they believed the Burbank Police Department has made strong reforms, but agreed there was room for improvement. They all also specifically highlighted a need for more community engagement.
“Burbank is in the middle of L.A. County,” Manokian said. “It has the opportunity to set an example and precedent for police departments — not only here, but for police departments around the nation.”
Schultz referenced his legal experience, voicing support for law enforcement and their need for equipment, but admitting that he has “seen a criminal justice system that is unfair and unjust and treats people differently on the basis of the color of their skin or the amount of money they have in their pocket.” Prevention of crime and rehabilitation, he added, are major goals.
Gogin took a different view, emphasizing multiple times that, though he wants more funding for the homeless and mental health programs, he does not believe in defunding police departments.
“I know that we are not a community that is chasing down some hoodlum in the middle of our city and beating him up,” he said.
Takahashi referenced her experience on the BUSD’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, saying she wanted to see the city have a coalition or task force on the subject. She added that she believes it’s the responsibility of people in power to pursue diversity.
“I think it’s up to the leaders who already are here,” she said. “It’s not up to diverse people to step up on their own. We all need to help each other.”
Bessin spoke in a similar vein, saying that diversity, equity and inclusion can’t be buzzwords that disappear after a while, and that the city needs to better at informing people how to get involved in committees and other functions.
Anthony’s response focused on diversity in the workforce; he said he wants a worker retention program so people laid off due to the pandemic are the first to get their jobs back, a policy he believes will maintain Burbank’s current diversity.
BUSD BOARD OF EDUCATION
Current board President Armond Aghakhanian noted that the school district has a reopening committee and has been discussing what a return to campus might look like. However, he said he did not want the district to reopen until it was allowed to.
“We’re not going to be jeopardizing the health and safety of our students, parents and, of course, our teachers,” he said.
His colleagues on the board, Steve Ferguson and Roberta Reynolds, agreed that safety was paramount, with Ferguson saying his focus was on keeping supply chains for protective equipment open, and Reynolds explaining that she wants the youngest and most vulnerable students to get the first chance to return to the classroom.
Emily Weisberg, who teaches history at a Chatsworth school, said she wants to ensure a hybrid teaching model for students with preexisting health conditions, as well as daily temperature checks and hazard pay for teachers and staff.
Ferguson placed the blame on the federal and state governments for being slow to funnel resources to BUSD classrooms, suggesting that fundraisers could allow the district to purchase equipment that could help with technical issues afflicting distance learning.
Aghakhanian acknowledged the district needs to make cuts to stabilize its finances. But he also echoed Ferguson’s statement, saying the district doesn’t get its share of federal or state funds and suggesting it communicate with representatives to advocate for more resources.
Weisberg said that, after speaking with Assistant Superintendent Debbie Kukta, she wanted to take a look at “no-bid” contracts the district has and see a bigger reserve in the BUSD budget.
The district, she added, needs to look “at what we can do through community partnerships, through looking at very specific things in our budget and trying to come up with a very realistic plan that doesn’t rely on someone on the federal or state level giving us more money, because we know the likelihood of that is small.”
Reynolds noted that the mental strain of distance learning is not just on students, but also on teachers and parents. She said about 2,000 students are already receiving mental health services through the district, and expressed interest in finding child-care options for parents.
Ferguson agreed with the emphasis on resources, adding that publicizing their availability could help address the factors contributing to stress for families. He added that informing parents far ahead of time when the district is making transitions would help them, though he also acknowledged the immense stress everyone in the district is under.
“The honest-to-God truth is that we’re not going to even solve that in one 50-minute session with a therapist,” he said.
Weisberg agreed that clear, consistent communication with families was important, adding that she wants to ask school wellness centers about the training they’re doing to make sure their staff members are well prepared to offer help. She also wants to find ways to help students complaining of headaches because of time spent in front of a screen.
Equity and Diversity
Weisberg, who mentioned she teaches at a school where half of the student population is Black, said she believes students need to see themselves in what is taught and who is teaching them, emphasizing that issues of diversity aren’t political, but human.
“All of our students, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their religion, they deserve to feel supported, they deserve to feel heard, they deserve to feel safe,” she said. “It is not a right or left issue. It is an issue of protecting our students, our teachers and our staff.”
Aghakhanian explained that he co-founded the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee last year. He said “diverse spaces” need to be created, and suggested that improvements could be as simple as providing translations and helping recent immigrants navigate the democratic systems around them.
The committee is personal for Aghakhanian, who described himself as “the candidate with the longest last name.”
“It really breaks my heart when my son asks me, ‘Why is my last name different?’ or ‘Why can’t people pronounce my first name?’”
Reynolds said she was proud of the work the district had done to promote equity, and added she believes students’ perspectives should be taken into account to ensure they feel safe and understood.
Reynolds, Ferguson and Aghakhanian all emphasized communication as having the highest importance when dealing with construction matters, while Weisberg expressed concern with what she described as Burbank’s nervousness about working with unions.
Ferguson specifically referenced the Walt Disney Elementary School modernization project, delays in which caused parents to complain at a recent board meeting. Families need to know, he said, when setbacks occur.
Reynolds agreed, acknowledging that a lack of communication about which bond projects are next in line for construction has caused some tension between the district and families.
“There have been times when the communication was not what it should have been, and that has caused tremendous misunderstanding and feelings that there are certain schools that are being shortchanged,” she said, adding that she believes the voices of principals should be given the greatest priority.