It is well established in all times and all places that even a little power tends to corrupt, especially when the power derives from being elected to public office.
That’s why it’s so interesting to get to know people right after they have taken the oath of office and to check in with them periodically to see how they are handling the temptations, the pressures and the opportunities that arise when everybody wants to be your friend — especially those who want favors.
With that in mind, I called Zareh Sinanyan, the newest member of the Glendale City Council, elected back in April after a particularly rough campaign in which comments he had made several years earlier on Youtube — hate speech of a racist and homophobic nature — had come back to haunt him and would have cost him the election, were it not for the efforts of the Armenian National Committee.
Not everybody in town wants to be Sinanyan’s friend; to this day his comments still shadow him. But his colleagues on the council and the city’s officials, as well as most people in the community, have welcomed him, though some have done so with a wary eye.
But no complaints have surfaced about how he has handled himself as an elected official. From perception and the observations of others, he’s not a long-winded blowhard or a tricky fox or a double-crosser; but as a politician, he’s got a lot to learn.
“It was very strange at the beginning,” he said over coffee last week as we talked about his first four months in office and his intentions for the future.
“Everybody knows more than you, so you try to keep quiet and absorb all you can and learn. I tried to become better informed and reach out to everyone on the dais. They have been great. We have a pretty dynamic relationship together.”
Watching how he handled himself in the tough debates recently on the upcoming electricity rate hikes, which will average about 30% compounded over the next five years, with most of the increase coming this year and next, it was pretty obvious that like every politician, his position had a lot to do with who brought him to the dance — in this case the Armenian National Committee, which strongly lobbied against the hike.
Sinanyan fought for 3% hikes every year and would have gone along with Frank Quintero’s push for 4% a year rather than the 8%, 7%, 5%, 2% and 2% increases that were approved.
With three votes in support of the plan, Sinanyan had a free pass to oppose it, so the issue that simmers too often below the surface in Glendale — the Armenian question — and his reasons for challenging the rate hike became issues that interested me.
“I have found myself in the position where I look after the interests of South Glendale in a way that I’m not sure others do. Drive around and you can see how it’s qualitatively different than North Glendale, where I live, and where people are more affluent. For South Glendale, the increases are a critical issue.”
The increase from $10 to $13 a month for low-income residents was just a “consolation prize, a backdoor solution” — and that’s the kind of thing Sinanyan says he wants to change.
“I ran on a platform that was, ‘Let’s make Glendale better.’ In order to do that, we need to make Glendale more business-friendly and we need to be more transparent,” Sinanyan said. “Let’s be straightforward, let’s be honest about what we’re doing, about what the needs are, about what’s motivating us. What I was saying is that sometime in the next five years, we’re going to raise salaries and then this whole model is going to collapse, so we’ll be having the same rate increase conversation again.”
One goal is to get rid of the transfer to the city’s General Fund of 11% of Glendale Water & Power’s electricity revenue as “surplus” when it clearly is not, since the city’s utility has been running through its reserves and delaying investment. The transfer dates back decades and has never been legally challenged. But activists have kept the controversy over it alive.
“I understand the necessity, that there’s a level of service that the public wants, so we need that money,” Sinanyan added. “What I don’t agree with is the way it’s done. We’re told GWP will be broke by 2017 the way we’re going. But it’s because of the transfer, so in reality, it is Glendale that will be broke, not GWP.
“Why are we playing this game? Let’s be honest. Let’s go to the voters and say you expect X and we’re getting Y amount of money, so to match X with Y, we’re going to need some kind of an increase somewhere.
“Maybe I’m being naïve, maybe I’m too green. I know it’s hard to pass taxes and easy to raise rates. But we should put our time and energy and political capital into this and say, ‘We don’t want to take your money and put it in one pocket and then transfer it to the other pocket to pay someone else.’ That’s where I’m coming from.”
Sinanyan wants to build relationships in all parts of the city to be a “sort of interpreter willing to do whatever it takes” to build bridges.
“I want our city to be known for substantive things because it is a great place to live and do business. This is a great city, but there is a lot of work to do to break down barriers, to help people understand each other better, to make Glendale better for everyone and not at the expense of one group or another.
“Do I know how to do it? Not really; time has its role and you have to be out there in the community.”
Having observed a lot of politicians, big and small, in a lot of places big and small, I can only tell you that politics is like heroin and like most addictions, few survive the experience intact and undamaged. It’s what makes keeping an eye on a newcomer like Sinanyan interesting as he tries to give life to his ideals.