Vartan Gharpetian, Mayor of Glendale

Glendale’s Mayor Vartan Gharpetian Talks Politics

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GLENDALE, Calif. – Glendale is a unique city for Armenians in the United States. With one of the largest concentrations of Armenians outside of the Republic of Armenia, four out of five of the members of the city council are now Armenian, as is the current mayor, Vartan Gharpetian. The mayor declared that there are many other exemplary aspects to his city. He said, “There are over 60 languages spoken in Glendale. It is a family-oriented city. The way the city was formed in the beginning, the mentality of the forefathers of the city and my predecessors, is why there are good schools and good, safe neighborhoods. Culturally it is rich too. We Armenians are rich in culture.”

Glendale City Hall: wall with pictures of Gharpetian’s predecessors, the former mayors of Glendale, including many Armenians (Photo credit: Aram Arkun)

Gharpetian has played an active role in Glendale public life for almost two decades. He left his native Tehran when 24 years old in 1986 to come to San Francisco. He went to Armenian school for nine years and then a Persian public high school in Tehran. He went to community college at the College of Marin, and then studied optometry at Concorde Career College from 1992 to 1993. Looking for a more concentrated Armenian community, he got married in Glendale and eventually moved there, in 1999. He got involved in the Ararat chapter of Homenetmen (Armenian General Athletic Union, a scouting and athletic organization affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation). He later served eight years as vice president of the board of the Davidian and Mariamian Educational Foundation (DMEF), which promotes the teaching of Armenian language and culture in afterschool programs at Southern California schools.

Gharpetian began working in real estate, and now is a realtor and the chief executive officer of Glendale Commercial, Inc., a full service real estate and development company. He quickly became involved in the public sphere and in various non-profit organizations based in Glendale. In 2004 he became a commissioner for 4 years of the city’s Design Review Board, served on the Parks, Recreation and Community Services commission from 2011-13, on the Historic Preservation Commission (2011-2013), and then became chair of the Housing Authority from April 2015 to April 2016.

In connection with this service, Gharpetian said, “I am committed to preserving those of our properties that are worthy of being preserved,” and noted that there are seven historic districts now in Glendale, and over 108 historic properties registered on local, state and national levels. He developed an interest in preservation when he used to live in the San Francisco area, and restored over 35 homes there over a fifteen-year period as part of his business. In Glendale, however, he no longer has the time and primarily focuses on commercial real estate.

Gharpetian also served on the Civic Advisory Board of the Glendale Adventist Medical Foundation, and the boards of the Glendale Police Foundation, the Glendale Historical Society, the Glendale Chamber of Commerce, and the Glendale Association of Realtors.

A Democrat, Gharpetian began to be involved in politics. He said, “This was a natural transition for me.” He ran unsuccessfully for the Glendale City Council, in 2009 and 2014, before being elected to his first term in 2015. He was elected mayor on May 1, 2017 by his fellow council members. This is not simply a matter of rotation, as elections for mayor by the council must be conducted annually.

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The position of mayor is a part-time volunteer job, which can take anywhere between 5 and 50 hours a week. Gharpetian said, “I spend as much time as necessary to do my job right.” He said he gets a monthly stipend, roughly between 1,300 and 1,500 dollars, including a car allowance.

Gharpetian explained his motivation to become mayor: “There are some issues in the city that I did not agree with. I had a different vision and I thought I could do better.” One of his important objectives, he said, was to improve the quality of life in Glendale. He explained that congestion and parking issues arose due to the dense structure created in south Glendale by businesses built from the 1950s to the 1970s. Even cleaning the streets in the morning is difficult at present. He said, “One of my goals is to provide enough parking, so that when people come home from work they can find a place to park.”

Gharpetian said, “When you are newly elected, you need to get to know the system better and learn how it works so you can be efficient. I was elected for the first time on the city council in 2015, so I became the chair of the Housing Authority my very first day.” As a consequence, he said, “I know the zoning code by heart.”

Among the difficulties facing Glendale, Gharpetian explained, was affordable housing. He said, “Our seniors are in a tough position. Rents are raising while income plateaued.” The city was being overbuilt, and many new apartment buildings were catering to the entrepreneurial class, primarily with one-bedroom apartments. Gharpetian said, “My idea is to develop projects that serve everybody. We have to build projects that will serve families as well.” Entry level housing thus is very important for him, he stated, and he is working to bring 4-500 units of affordable housing.

As a big soccer fan and coach, he said he was instrumental with his colleagues in allocating about 10.5 million dollars for soccer fields, and is working on getting a soccer stadium in town. He wants to increase the amount of open space in the city, such as through parks.

In order to bring new businesses to Glendale, Gharpetian said he is trying to make improvements in the sales and property taxes. He wants to build a technology hub in Glendale, and create incentives for manufacturing technology components. For example, Gharpetian said, computer chips could be built in Glendale. The mayoralty is connecting the existing technology companies through hosting events, and also looking into making a cluster area for them.

Though Glendale is in general economically in good shape, with a low unemployment rate (4.7 percent in December 2016), and an annual municipal budget of over 840,000,000 dollars according to the mayor, like many other American cities it grapples with how to support families in poverty. This year, with the changes that the Trump administration is bringing to federal spending, Gharpetian said that he fears that rental housing assistance for low income families through Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, might be cut back, along with Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to the city website (http://www.glendaleca.gov/government/departments/city-clerk/boards-and-commissions-/community-development-block-grant-advisory-committee), each year the city receives approximately $3,400,000 in CDBG funds, and an advisory committee of five members, four of whom this year are Armenian, participates in the preparation of a spending plan. A small portion of this money goes to Armenian organizations operating in Glendale like the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) and Homenetmen Glendale “Ararat” Chapter.

Gharpetian declared that over 45 percent of the population of Glendale, or around 90,000 people, is Armenian. It is this concentration of population that makes Glendale different for Armenians. He said, “Whenever you have a majority of the population from a certain race or ethnic group, it will have its programs, schools, churches, and festivals.” He said that in Glendale, as wherever else Armenians have gone in the world, “first we build our churches, then we build our schools and then our organizations; and that old-fashioned lifestyle is continuing here.”

He made sure to stress that Armenian public officials in Glendale “are elected to serve the community as a whole…We don’t discriminate.” For example, he said, the independence of the first Republic of Armenia, May, 28, was celebrated right outside of City Hall, and, he said, “If other nationalities or religious groups want to do the same thing here they are welcome to do so.”

The programs the city provides are for the population as a whole. The recreation centers of the Glendale Parks and Recreation Department provides English as a Second Language classes, as well as exercise and yoga clashes. There are a few adult recreation centers for the entire population. Glendale Community College has many classes, and there are elderly Armenians who go there to learn English. Armenian organizations like Homenetmen and ARS have programs for the elderly.

As a result of the DMEF programs since 1978, the dual immersion concept entered the public school curriculum some eight to ten years ago, and now not only do two Glendale schools have Armenian dual immersion programs, but it led to similar programs in seven or eight different languages in different Glendale schools.

The Glendale municipality because of its large Armenian population has a variety of connections with the Republic of Armenia. Glendale has a sister city program with both Ghapan, from over 10 years ago, and Gyumri, starting 3 years ago. Gharpetian said that cultural programs are shared between the cities and the countries.

Furthermore, the Glendale police department has gone to Armenia to provide training and advice. Gharpetian said he wants to send a delegation from the Glendale Fire Department to show how training takes place here. He added, “I made a motion last year to send 12 of our fire trucks that are retired but in very good shape to Armenia. I am raising funds for the cost of transfer. We also sent some ambulances to Armenia from Glendale.”

Glendale has an arrangement with Adventist Health Glendale to send volunteers annually to border towns in Armenian and provide free clinics and medical care. Private Armenian organizations in Glendale of course also aid Armenia directly. For example, the Armenian Medical Society provides mobile clinics for Armenia and keep them there.

When asked about negative publicity about Armenians in the local media, Mayor Gharpetian said, “It is not just Armenians—it is against every nationality. It is a matter of getting used to a new neighbor. We [Armenians] moved to Glendale around 35-45 years ago, when a wave of Armenians came in. We proved to be a good, peaceful community which improved the quality of life in Glendale. Property values went up.”

As far as crime goes, he stressed that “most of the crimes by Armenians are white collar crimes. We like any other community have our bad apples. I have not seen robberies, home invasbions and drive-by shootings [by Armenians].” He said he did not know of any Armenian gangs in Glendale. In addition, he said “the general drug issue is there, but not as much as in our neighboring cities. Ours is a confined area because our police department is very, very proactive.”

Ghapretian said, “There will always be people upset with things, but elections are the proof” of the acceptance of Armenians, since non-Armenian votes are necessary to elect council members. He said, “We are no longer newcomers. Our children were born here. It will take another generation, and I think this issue will be resolved. As my father used to tell me, wherever you go in the world the sky is the same color—you will find arrogant people everywhere.”

He also felt that internal political Armenian community dissension has decreased. He said, “That divide, if you will, I have not seen it in a long time. The way this [last municipal] election went is a testimony to this. If you look at our city council’s makeup, Ara Najarian is from Cleveland, Ohio, Zareh Sinanyan from Armenia, and I am from Iran. This community is past the mentality of where you are from comes first—we are all Armenian-Americans first.”

Gharpetian also pointed out that the city council seats were non-partisan in terms of American political parties. He supported fellow Iranian-Armenian Vrej Aghajanian, a Republican and a personal friend, for example, in the election.

As an Armenian, Gharpetian said “our job is to build the next generation.” His focus is on the youth, and, he said, “how to keep them involved through sports and education.” For example, the Homenentmen Ararat basketball programs for youth under 16 have over 2000 members, all run on a volunteer basis. Soccer programs are also very active in Glendale.

He said, “It all comes down to your families and how you raise your children. You have to instill Armenian values and teach being a good Armenian American. You don’t have to give one up to do the other. The numbers help. We have so many Armenian associations here—the Armenian Society of LA, the Armenian National Committee (ANC), the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), Ararat Homenetmen, the Tekeyan Cultural Association, and many others.  When you have a cultural event, and out of around 100,000 Armenians, 2 percent show up you have a packed house.”

He encourages Armenians, like any other group of people, to get involved in politics. He commented, “We have young kids getting elected on the school district and college board. Of course you have to mentor and open doors for them. Internships are very important for them. We are part of this community and need to be involved.”

Thirty percent of registered voters, he said, are Armenian, and probably half of the Armenians are registered. He said, “If you look at other nationalities, their percentage [of registration] is very low, maybe 8-to 12 percent. But because our overall numbers are smaller, we need a bigger percentage to make a difference. It is a challenge. We have to constantly educate people about the rights and privileges of voting, and keep registering people. Organizations like the AGBU, ANC and the Armenian Society of LA, and the Armenian political parties, must do the registration. Local politcal parties do their share. It is a collaborative effort to increase the numbers of voters.”

Gharpetian spoke briefly about his family. They have close ties with Armenia. He said, “My uncle moved back to Armenia in 1947, and I have so many relatives, first cousins, second cousins, and third cousins, with whom we kept in touch. If not every year, every other year we visit Armenia and do what we can to help the country.”

He exclaimed, “I have a great family. My wife Armina is a dentist, and is a member of the Glendale Board of Education [she was its president until this April]. I have three daughters. My oldest is 19, named Nazeli, is attending Woodbury University. My second daughter, Nayra, is in ninth grade, while our 10-year-old Nelin, is in elementary school.”

He said, “We go to a lot of Armenian events as a family. We try to attend every event in Glendale.” The children go to public schools, and attended DMEF classes. They also went to Armenian summer camps. The mayor himself pursues several hobbies, including collecting classic cars, antiques and Armenian rugs.

Gharpetian promises to stay in municipal government for at least several terms. He said, “I need to be here a certain amount of time to achieve my goals and deliver my promises. After that I must see where my family, life and health is. Every elected official has ambitions to go to a higher position and I am not exempt from this.”

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