Zareh Sinanyan (photo: Aram Arkun)

Mayor Zareh Sinanyan Working to Improve Glendale While Strengthening Ties with Armenia

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GLENDALE, Calif. – Glendale continues to play an important role in the Armenian diaspora with its large Armenian population. This means it is also a launching pad for Armenian-American politicians. Zareh Sinanyan, the current mayor, is one such public servant. He is one of the few American elected officials born in Armenia.

Sinanyan was 14-years-old when he came with his family to the US in 1988. He double-majored in history and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and says he is still a history buff. After graduating from law school at the University of Southern California, he specialized in business litigation.

He has his own law firm in Glendale which primarily did professional liability defense for companies like accounting and law firms, as well as real estate litigation. Now that he is mayor, he said, “Due to the volume of my responsibilities, my practice is down to a shadow of its former self.” Three-quarters of his time is spent on matters concerning the city of Glendale, he said. While the office of mayor only pays a modest stipend, fortunately, his wife is also a professional attorney who is supportive of his political career.

Sinanyan began his involvement with politics as an undergraduate, both on the student body government and as president of the UCLA Armenian Students Association, and it gradually expanded from there to local American politics. He said, “Initially it started with just being active on various campaigns, helping out different candidates and elected officials to get elected or reelected.”

His political involvement was closely connected to his work with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). He served on the boards initially of its Burbank chapter, then the Glendale chapter, and finally the ANCA Western Region, and only resigned as treasurer of the latter in 2013 when starting his campaign for a seat on the Glendale city council.

Sinanyan began volunteering on campaigns with ANCA in 2000, straight out of law school. He pointed out that in 1999-2000 a shift in local American politics took place. Previously Glendale was a Republican-voting city and the congressman was Republican. The Armenian community there also was more Republican-leaning, according to Sinanyan, but, he said, “I don’t think we saw too many results from Republican elected officials.”

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A shift towards voting Democratic took place, Sinanyan said, explaining: “I think we [Armenian-Americans] as a community made the transformation from being purely immigrants who just arrived to being part of society at large, and as that society was shifting towards the left so did our community.”

He said, “Not only did I come at the right time [on the Glendale political scene], but I was one of many people who played a role in this transformation.” He noted that Armenians have become much more politically mobilized over the last 18 years, creating a larger voter base as more Armenians obtained US citizenship and became registered. They now are a distinct electoral group, he said.

Through the support of Glendale City Council member Raffi Manoukian, Sinanyan was appointed to the Glendale Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission in 2006. In 2008, he was appointed to the Community Development Block Grant Advisory Commission, which he chaired from 2009 to 2011.

Glendale City Politics

A year after his election to the Glendale City Council, he was elected as mayor for a first term in 2014-15. He worked for more transparency and openness, and said, “I think I achieved that at some level in simple things.” He allowed people to speak at length at council meetings without being strict with time limits and allowed people to get their grievances off their chests. He began the “City Council in Your Neighborhood” program, which periodically held council meetings in different parts of Glendale. The meetings are also televised live and available as recordings afterward. Sinanyan said that this tradition will be continued in his second term on a quarterly basis, while the rest of the weekly meetings will be held at city hall as usual.

Zareh Sinanyan at his office in Glendale City Hall (photo: Aram Arkun)

Sinanyan changed the city’s contract practices to ensure that contracts that did not go through the Request for Proposal (RFP) process or that were no-bid contracts did not make it to the council’s consent calendar for routine acceptance.

A focus of his first mayoral term was the reduction of accidents involving vehicles or pedestrians. Glendale was a city with a reputation for safety, so that its significant number of accident casualties stood out. Sinanyan and his council, he said, exerted great effort and invested resources to improve the situation, including in community meetings, traffic engineering, public education and more enforcement, and indeed casualty numbers declined significantly.

He said that he felt he could not really accomplish much in his first mayoral year on local transportation, though he strongly believed in improving mass transit in Glendale as well as in greater Los Angeles, where, he said, “it is actually pretty atrocious.” He pointed out that, for example, Glendale only has one train station at the very southern edge of the city, so it does not serve 99 percent of the population.

One year after being reelected to city council, Sinanyan was elected to his second term as mayor in April 2018. He said that his primary focus “always has to be maintaining the level of services that the residents expect and improving them to the extent possible.” At the same time, the cost must not be excessive, he qualified. Transportation is still a key issue on which he will keep pushing, he said, but the issue which he called “paramount” at this point is the housing crisis, which is not limited to Glendale but is a state-wide problem.

Sinanyan said that it is explained by a decades-long imbalance between the numbers of people moving to California and the number of new housing units being built. He said, “Clearly, if you are a good city, a safe city, with good schools and a lot of jobs, you become a victim of your own success, and that is where Glendale is at. We are having elderly, economically disadvantaged, and working-class families being squeezed out of Glendale because they can’t pay their rent. It is really unfortunate, very terrible.” Furthermore, new investors in what appears to be a lucrative field are imposing 50-70 percent rent hikes to try to immediately recover their expenses.

He confessed that there was little he could do to fight these trends, saying, “The tools that we have are quite limited.” Lack of sufficient funding and the complex California state bureaucratic process necessary to create new low income housing means that this housing only is being added “at a snail’s pace,” he said. Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, a federal program which pays money to landlords to provide housing to low income families, is not being actively pursued with the present climate in Washington. Sinanyan said that “as you may imagine, they are not very eager nowadays to increase funding for anything that has to do with poor people. I am being cynical of course, but it is true; it is true.”

The city has changed its ways of soliciting proposals for low income housing projects and now instead of preparing its specific Request for Proposals is casting a wider net by asking for proposals from the private sector and hoping for creative solutions.

Rent control is a possible solution. Sinanyan said, “I am not jumping immediately into it because there are consequences to rent control. There are negative consequences to rent control. Clearly there are a positive consequences too, but I am concerned about the negative consequences.” He said, “As a general rule, there is a libertarian streak in me, where I don’t want too much interference with the market…the last thing I want to do is for the government to dictate every minutia of economic policy, but we have come to a point where it is a dire, dire situation for a lot of people, a lot of our constituents, a lot of our voters, and it is no easy problem to deal with.”

Instead, he said, “I am hoping for a slowdown in rent increases and that the market stabilizes, because things have been growing since 2013 nonstop. At some point, I hope it comes to an end, and when it does, by that time, that we have not lost too many of our residents and this does not become a city that is reserved for only wealthy people. This seems to be the direction in the entire state at this point.”

When asked whether real estate owners have a preponderant influence in the council, he replied that there are at least two members who are involved in real estate professionally, but he is not. He has some tenants in the building in which he lives but otherwise owns no other real estate.

Another important focus for Sinanyan is to create the conditions allowing the retention of existing jobs and the attraction of new ones to Glendale. He said that over the past twenty years industries came and left Glendale, including banking, insurance and various corporate headquarters, without the city having much control over this process. Three years ago, in response, he promulgated the Glendale Tech Initiative to focus on high tech companies and just two weeks ago approved the proposals for an accelerator operator in Glendale. Thousands of jobs now come from tech, with billion-dollar companies as well as many small and medium size ones operating there. Some large companies are Armenian-owned, such as Service Titan, founded by two young Armenian-American entrepreneurs who graduated the Glendale public school system.

With Gov. Jerry Brown at right, August 2 (photo from Zareh Sinanyan Facebook page)

Among the major challenges Sinanyan said he faces is maintaining a balanced budget, and more specifically, the problem of pension obligations escalating over time while sufficient investments had not been made in the past. He said the years 2024 and 2025 will be the worst years, after which changes made in 2010 and 2013 will make the increases taper off.

The city is increasing taxes, but for a different reason than the pensions. He explained that when the county puts a tax measure on the ballot, if it passes, city residents are forced to pay into it without getting equivalent returns. For example, last year Glendale residents paid $10 million towards Measure H, meant to deal with homelessness, but only received roughly $280,000. This led Glendale, and neighboring Pasadena and Burbank, to put a tax increase on their local ballots in order to reach the maximum ceiling for taxes. This will allow these cities to keep their revenues and not give them to the county for its measures.

Sinanyan serves on several important boards while on the City Council. He recently became president of the board of directors of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, which operates the Hollywood Burbank (“Bob Hope”) Airport. One important project is to build a new terminal, which will take until 2024 or 2025. A second is to maintain a nice airport experience there. Three more flights to New York City are being added in September, along with direct flights for the first time to Boston and Chicago.

He is also the chairman of the Eco-Rapid Transit Board, which includes representatives of communities in a 40-mile corridor from the Bob Hope Airport to downtown Los Angeles and Artesia, where transportation is to be improved. Glendale is part of the southern leg of its rail project, funded under Los Angeles County’s Measure M tax measure.

Sinanyan is one of 38 board members of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, where he supported the controversial Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta twin tunnel project, he said, “because it is good for Glendale, because we don’t have our own water.” Though it does not bring any new water into town, it ensures that water will continue to get there, Sinanyan explained. Governor Jerry Brown supported the project, which was opposed by many environmentalists as well as Delta landowners and Sacramento-area elected officials.

Armenian Relations

Sinanyan said that as at least 40 percent of his constituents were of Armenian ancestry, he had to take their concerns into account irrespective of his personal background. He stressed that “the key as an elected official is not to do things specifically for the community because if you are making things better in Glendale in general, you are already indirectly benefiting the [Armenian-American] community.” In other words, good governance benefits everyone.

However, he noted that until around six or seven years ago, only a small minority of city employees were Armenian, meaning that there was a great disconnect between the former and the population. For example, he said, less than five percent of police officers were Armenian-American, and less than one percent of the fire department, while overall at best ten percent of the city employees were Armenian Americans. Sinanyan said this situation has been ameliorated, with upwards of 18 percent of the city employees being Armenian American, over 30 police offices and 6 or 7 firefighters. He said, “That is something that I have been able to influence, I think.”

Connections with the Republic of Armenia are important for Glendale due to its Armenian population as well as Sinanyan, who still has many close relatives there. The first time Sinanyan returned as a young man, in 1993 while at UCLA, he went alone to volunteer at the American University of Armenia. He volunteered again in 1995, and afterwards continued to visit Armenia for personal reasons. Since 2010, he has gone every year, and sometimes twice a year. After marrying, he and his wife bought an apartment in Yerevan, and take their children there every summer.

Sinanyan said that whether council member or mayor, when in Armenia, he had frequent opportunities to speak to the media. He said, “I had a clear, critical approach to the government. I looked at it as, I have a homeland, and you are ruining it, and I don’t like it.” He noted that despite his close relationship with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in the US, not once did any media source from the ARF invite him for an interview in Armenia, whereas with the exception of the directly government-controlled public channel, he was invited by nearly all other media.

Zareh Sinanyan reading to children at Kotayk’s Regional Library in Hrazdan, Armenia in July, 2018 (photo from Zareh Sinanyan’s Facebook site)

During the five years prior to 2018, he met with only three government officials, including Yerevan mayor Taron Margaryan, at his invitation, and Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobyan. He said he decided not to meet again with them because it would not lead to anything productive and he did not want to associate with them.

On the other hand, he was in contact with the opposition movement. He met the current prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, at the Electric Yerevan protests of the summer of 2015, through a mutual friend, Romanos Melikyan, who was on the board of Pashinyan’s Civic Contract. Sinanyan said, “We became friends immediately.” They kept in touch, and Pashinyan visited the US once as a parliamentary deputy.

Sinanyan said, “He always was a prominent political figure in Armenia, but on a personal level, I saw a lot of strength in him. I had come to a point where I was starting to lose hope like many, many Armenians. He wasn’t. That always struck me as remarkable.”

When movements sprouted in Glendale to support Pashinyan, Sinanyan helped. He said, “The goal was twofold. One was to show our support to our brothers, that they are not alone, and that we care and are watching, and to show the government [of Armenia] that they are alone and rejected, even in the diaspora. I did speak officially as mayor, both at the first demonstration, which was on April 18 and the big one on April 22, when Nikol was abducted. In both I made sure that I said I am speaking as a fellow Armenian, who is worried about what is happening in Armenia.” The April 18 Glendale demonstration had a good 800-900 people, Sinanyan said, while the April 22 one was much bigger, with perhaps as many as five thousand.

During this period, Sinanyan said, “Something remarkable happened.” During the April 18 demonstration, he asked Pashinyan on the telephone whether his friends could donate a brand new tractor to Nor Kyank village, the only village in all of Armenia which officially had announced its adherence to the revolution. This would express their gratitude to the villagers and encourage others to join the movement.

Zareh Sinanyan at Nor Kyank village, Armenia, delivering the tractor donated by Armen Vahanyan and Alexander Markaryan. Sinanyan on his Facebook account declared, “I hope this act of giving sets an example to others who want to take their step and make the positive results of the Velvet Revolution immediate and apparent to all.” (photo from Zareh Sinanyan Facebook site)

Pashinyan agreed on condition that it would be announced publicly. It was, so Sinanyan and some of his friends came to Armenia in early May to deliver the tractor. A documentary was filmed about this which is available through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on the internet. Sinanyan arrived in Armenia in time also to be present in Yerevan for the second parliamentary debate on May 8, which ended with Pashinyan’s victorious selection as prime minister.

 

May 8 at a private dinner at Vostan Restaurant by Tsirani in Yerevan: from the left, Zareh Sinanyan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, First Lady Anna Hakobyan Pashinyan; second from the front on the right, singer Hasmik Papyan, third, comedian and now Yerevan mayoral candidate Harutyun Marutyan, and fourth, Serj Tankian (photo from Zareh Sinanyan’s Facebook site).

Sinanyan went a second time this summer to take his children on their annual summer trip, but also met with many of the new government officials, including the new prime minister Pashinyan. He said, “One of the purposes of spending a lot of time there was planning a California State Assembly and Senate delegation trip to Armenia which is going to take place on September 4.” This is going to have a focus on tech and agriculture, and many major tech companies in Silicon Valley will send representatives. Sinanyan noted that California State Senator Anthony Portantino, whom he took to Armenia for the first time in 2016, is the muscle behind this forthcoming trip.

In additional to these relations of the mayor directly with Armenia, the city of Glendale has sister city relations with two cities in Armenia, Ghapan and Gyumri. The relationship with Ghapan dates from 2002, but it has cooled off over time. Sinanyan said, “It is not due to our laziness or unwillingness to do anything, but these sister city models work only if you have a community group that has a plan and mediates between the two cities and stokes these relationships…That hasn’t been the case basically.”

The Gyumri case is more recent. The mayor of Gyumri invited Sinanyan to visit and create the sister city relationship while Sinanyan was in his first term as mayor. He said that he agreed, on condition that a Gyumri community group be created in Glendale to push this forward. The group was created and the memorandum signed, but not much was done afterwards by the group. However, Sinanyan said, “The potential is there. With this [Velvet] revolution, the people are more motivated, so people are more likely to get involved and do good deeds for Hayastan and Glendale.”

As an active and energetic young politician, who seems to be devoting most of his time to public service, Sinanyan seems to have a promising future in this field. However, when queried about what lies next for him, he cautiously answered, “I have no idea. I don’t have an answer for that.”

 

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