Glendale Mayor Ardashes “Ardy” Kassakhian (photo Aram Arkun)

New Glendale Mayor Kassakhian Focuses on Fundamentals of City Governance, Gives Voice to Armenians

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GLENDALE, Calif. — Ardashes “Ardy” Kassakhian was selected as mayor of Glendale, the Armenian-filled “Jewel City” of California, last month, on April 5, but he is not a newcomer to public service to Glendale. He has been serving on the city council for about two years, and prior to that held the elected position of city clerk for some 15 years.

He declared that many people do not have a realistic notion of what a mayor can accomplish. “As mayor now, there is the expectation that somehow I am an all-powerful Wizard of Oz, controlling things in the city. I have to continuously give people small civic lessons and explain to them that it is mostly a ceremonial position. Although I am appreciative for their well wishes and their accolades, I am really only the first among equals and we all work together with equal powers, except for the fact that I get to run the city council meetings,” Kassakhian said.

On the other hand, he explained: “While you still have to rely on three total votes – in other words two votes in addition to your own on the city council, to make sure that people on the council are supportive of your agenda, the mayorship does gives you a pulpit for urgency.”

The Covid Period

Kassakhian was elected to the Glendale City Council on March 3, 2020. He said, “Literally two weeks later we went into lockdown and I had to take my oath of office over Zoom. The world changed, conceivably forever – although we are now seeing some return to ‘normalcy.’”

Covid pushed aside all his goals for office. He said, “The last two years were very difficult, very challenging, if for no other reason than the uncertainty of what the future held. In terms of the local economy, business closures, issues regarding relations, and this now-maligned word ‘mandate,’ these were all things that we tried quickly to understand and implement, and do this in a way that was most effective…We tried to do the best we could with the information that we had.”

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He said, “We were one of the first cities to push for protections for certain businesses. We were very eager not only to protect those individuals who were renting and unable to meet their rent obligation but also to come up with a program that would help the landlords who were also not receiving rent. As a result of this chain reaction, they were unable to make their own payments, if they owned money on a property that they were using for their own income. We took revenue from our sales tax and put it towards helping businesses, renters, landowners or housing providers to weather the storm.”

Many of these programs, intended for only a few months, ended up lasting two years, but eventually state and county regulations and programs superseded the efforts of the municipality, Kassakhian said, which served their purpose.

One of the most affected business sectors was that of tourism, which declined greatly during Covid. To help bolster the sector, the city, Kassakhian said, instituted the Al Fresco Glendale dining program, while hotel passes were encouraged for day visits. Kassakhian said that he suspects al fresco dining will be continued even after the end of Covid.

As far as dealing with the large Armenian population of Glendale in this period, Kassakhian declared that the municipality recruited and engaged Armenian physicians to issue public service announcements. It tried to raise awareness of Covid issues by sharing the stories of individuals  and incentivize vaccine usage, but cutting through the misinformation spreading through the community and the public in general was difficult.

He said, “Now you can pick and choose what you want to read and as long as it fits with your greater world view and reinforces certain biases or other information you are receiving. That partially created the very dangerous situation we are in today…I think we are masters of our own destiny, but there are some dangerous trends I see in terms of news consumption and sharing of information, and that certainly played a significant role in how we fought Covid and how we were unable to convince everyone of the importance of remaining safe, socially distanced, and vaccinated.”

He added that there was no scientific or statistical research to indicate that Armenians were less likely to have taken Covid precautions, yet anecdotal evidence and extrapolation from statistics such as the lower number of vaccinations in Glendale in comparison to other cities in Los Angeles County could lead to the assumption that this situation was in part because of the Armenian population. Perhaps, he speculated, the skepticism that was one of the survival traits of the Armenians may have somehow affected their response to Covid, and not in the best way possible.

American and Armenian Community Politics

The last few years have also been filled with largescale disagreements and challenges on other issues for Armenians. Kassakhian observed: “I think that first of all, the partisan or ideological chasm that exists in American politics has percolated down to the Armenian community, or rather has affected the Armenian community, so you have these divisions of individuals who supported President Trump and those who did not but supported President Biden, and all the rhetoric that goes with this…And in addition to that, you also have had the issue of the politics of Armenia.”

He thought there may even be a connection there with the global trend towards populism. However, he said, “I think that with what happened in Armenia with the war and its aftermath, there is a general sense of heartache and even deeper skepticism and a lot of people who feel let down. I think that it is going to be a long road to recover from that, but recovery is essential.”

He observed that the local Armenian community and even the Armenian-American community as a whole is wealthier than it has ever been during its existence in the United States, and during the 2020 Artsakh war a great deal of money was raised for Armenia. Yet, he said, “What I find troubling is that despite that wealth, despite the amount of ‘new’ money, and our increased numbers, there has not been as much support and bolstering of traditional cultural institutions or the creation of new ones.”

Such support is necessary, he said, because despite the activism of the young generations during the war, they lacked knowledge, though they had information. He said: “I was very disappointed about how lacking we were, or that new generation of activists was, in the knowledge of the history or the memory of how we got to where we did in the Artsakh war. It was disappointing but I guess we have no one to blame but ourselves, and the previous generations that have not put into place the tools to access that knowledge… I think we need to figure out ways in which we can do a better job. Why I think the understanding of the past is important is because there are a lot of lessons that we can glean from it.”

A related issue is the increasingly decentralized sense of community. Kassakhian said, “I don’t know whether that is because of technology and just where we are as the human race, but that decentralization has allowed for decentralized activism.” During the Artsakh war, GoFundMe and other independent platforms for fundraising for Armenia multiplied, till according to some estimates they were in the thousands. Kassakhian said, “It is not your local church, it is not your local agoump or cultural center doing that. I think the danger in this is that it creates a decentralization that does not ideologically stand for anything. The act of helping is great, but it is akin to everyone collecting blood on their own versus going to the Red Cross to donate blood. At the end of the day, you are trying to do good, but what good is it if there is no central repository and place that brings people together.”

The aftermath of the Artsakh 2020 war also affected Kassakhian’s city council work to a degree. He said that some people carried the weight of the defeat very heavily while others did not show anything at all. He wondered whether this was due to the different psychological stages of loss of individuals.

It certainly affected Kassakhian personally. He declared, “Halfway through my first term, when the war was happening, and immediately afterwards, to try to put on a face and carry out the duties of a council member, and go through the motions that I care about a particularly localized issue like trash or curb repair while there is this underlying trauma, was very difficult. I think that is probably the case for a lot of us. You have some days that are okay, some days that are better and some days that are worse. I think you see the same thing in the community.”

Plans for the Future

It seems that gradually California and the US in general are better able to handle the spread of Covid and government and people can return to their usual concerns, but this is still novel territory. Kassakhian said, “For us, what is challenging is that as a community we are in this place psychologically where we are trying to figure out how do we get back to the way we were. Some people are quick to rush into it. Others are more cautious and there are some people who are very, very fearful and anxious. To be able to do all the things that we want to do, do it at a pace that is reasonable, and setting the goals that are achievable, will be the challenge as we come out of Covid, while helping support our local economy and helping support our residents in terms of maintaining the quality of life.”

On his campaign website, Kassakhian had arrayed a series of goals for his work on the city council. Now that he is mayor, and the Covid pandemic hopefully will gradually recede in importance, he was asked what comes next. He prefaced his response with cautionary words: “I often tell folks, you campaign on poetry, you govern in prose. You have all these lofty goals, but then you get in and see what the real situation may be in terms of the finances of the city and potential deferred maintenance of various city resources, like sidewalks and roads, which are not inexpensive to repair.”

He said also that he felt it was necessary to be conservative in spending resources at this time because he personally feared that there may be an economic downturn sometime in the near future and it was necessary to prepare for that. Already, he noted that the rising cost of materials, supply chain issues and inflation are starting to have an impact on city spending.

Many of the problems Kassakhian and the city council face are not new. Among his most immediate goals is to allow access to school playgrounds as park facilities, as Glendale is in dire need of more open space for recreational use, especially in the southern, most densely populated parts of the city. He said he frequently related a story from his own childhood to support this, as follows: “Growing up, I would go to the elementary school that was just a few blocks from my house. It had a huge playground which was probably one of the largest swaths of open space in the area that was not a parking lot. On the weekends and after school, the gates would be closed most of the time, and we would be restricted from accessing it unless we hopped the fence, or, on the rare occasion, found it unlocked. Instead, most of the time, we turned into juvenile delinquents by either going through or over the fence. This was trespassing, which is criminal activity. We were just kids but we were willing to risk that just simply to be able to play.”

Today, Kassakhian’s goal is to enter into agreements with schools to rethink how those facilities can be used. This would help not only children, he said, but their parents, who do not have to worry about children who otherwise have to play in the streets and risk being struck by cars.

Kassakhian is also interested in introducing more arts programs into the city.

Housing, Homeless and Crime

Housing is an ongoing question of importance for the city council and in fact for many parts of California. Kassakhian said, “We have an issue of people who have been left behind by the rising tide of the economy. With prices going up and rent prices going up. Home prices in Glendale have almost doubled if not doubled in the last 9-11 years and that has priced out a lot of people from being able to find options to adequately house themselves.”

In some ways, he said, with higher earners moving into Glendale and replacing those who cannot afford housing there, this trend may be part of a process of gentrification of Glendale and many parts of California, which was pointed out in a New York Times article earlier this year by the economist Paul Krugman.

While he agreed that this is part of a broader problem beyond the authority of Glendale alone, Kassakhian is not a fan of broad-brush solutions such as the recent California state laws on zoning, declaring “Any time a jurisdiction takes away control from another jurisdiction, it is problematic. I think that it erodes the essence of democracy – that people can make decisions for themselves.” He had some ideas of what the state could do to improve the situation (hint: better transportation options and networks) but preferred to focus on Glendale’s own municipal actions.

For now, he observed that “We have tried to build affordable housing in Glendale. We are going to be bringing on another 500 units in the next five years, but 500 units given our population is still not nearly enough.”

Public safety is on the agenda, with an escalation of crime not just in Glendale but in the Los Angeles metropolitan region recently due to a variety of causes. One of them, regionally and statewide, Kassakhian said, may be connected to policies to alleviate the overpopulation of prisons and jails, which he said, “although well intended have not hit their mark.” For some crimes, for example, the penalty is not immediate jail, while there is a no-money bail policy in California allowing criminals to easily get released. Furthermore, some criminals may not have been given the tools when they had been initially incarcerated to reintegrate into society and so fall into very bad habits for themselves and society, he said.

There is another factor, Kassakhian said: “Not to associate the crime with the unhoused population necessarily, but we have a number of people who are homeless and unhoused and need help. For that reason we are trying to get them the help that they need. Some of them have mental health issues and need psychiatric help, as well as medical help. Without this, the homelessness issue from which they are suffering may not be resolved.”

Kassakhian said that Glendale has been up until now able to address the spike in crime but its resources are stretched thin. Consequently, he said, “I am looking in upcoming budgets to see how we can increase some police personnel.” This is also important for traffic safety, he said, because there are major issues with people who drive recklessly and must be brought into compliance with traffic laws.

Energy, Environment, Civic Education

An important energy and environmental issue he is concerned with is the question of replacing or repowering the natural gas fired Grayson Power Plant. He did not stake out a position but noted that there is an ongoing vigorous debate in the community between those rightfully concerned about global warming and climate change and those approaching it from the utility’s point of view. In addition, there are those who both want to do right for the environment but also make Glendale energy independent, especially in the event of a catastrophic event like an earthquake which could, Kassakhian said, otherwise leave Glendale isolated and without power for some time.

A long-term goal of Kassakhian is to start a civic academy to train the next generation of city leaders. He said, “A lot of folks, I think, are excited or impassioned to be involved in the political dialogue but may not have all the tools available to them to have an effective voice – mainly the  knowledge and understanding of how city government functions.” The understanding of the basic financial obligations of a city to remain solvent, maintain infrastructure and respond to emergencies is often lacking, he said.

In particular, he pointed to a type of distraction he called “municipal inertia.” Kassakhian explained: “When a hot issue or topic captures the national attention and then it percolates down to the city level, then everyone wants the city to shift gears and pursue that issue, forgetting that there are certain fundamental responsibilities that we have as elected officials to maintain the quality of basic life in the city – parks, roads, public safety, utilities, waste disposal and all the things that help a city function day to day.”

Civic education can also remind residents that people need to take personal responsibility both for their actions and for enhancing their community. Kassakhian stressed, “Government is not here to be their caretaker for everything.”

Representing Armenians

Though not a primary goal, Kassakhian did have one goal on a personal level which directly concerns Armenians in the US. He said, “I want to use my platform as an elected official representing one of the highest concentrations of Armenian Americans in the United States to educate and inform people about what is happening in Artsakh and the help our compatriots need to be able to survive under some very dire circumstances – the threat of continuous attack, harassment, displacement and ethnic cleansing. We are all up in arms and upset over what is happening in Ukraine, but there is absolutely no reason to dismiss what happened and what is continuing to happen in Artsakh.”

In fact, Kassakhian noted one such step towards that goal: the city had sponsored the premiere of a documentary on post-war life in Artsakh, “A Desire to Live,” on April 21, with the producer and composer answering questions afterwards.

Kassakhian recently participated in or spoke at a number of Armenian Genocide commemoration events, including to a group of children in the Glendale Unified School District, and gave interviews to several media outlets. He served as program chair of the city’s own commemoration, back after a two-year Covid-related hiatus, at the Alex Theater. Prepared with the Lark Musical Society, it focused on the music of Gomidas Vartabed, who suffered trauma as a result of the Genocide, but through his music continues to inspire many. Kassakhian said: “By performing his music – those village songs from the towns of western Armenia, we can showcase it and show the world what was lost when the Turks tried to eradicate this ancient people from the face of the earth.”

Boosting Glendale

Ultimately, Kassakhian is second to none in his hometown spirit, and enthusiastically declared: “I am excited about what the future holds for Glendale. I am very bullish on Glendale. I think that it is still one of the best places in the country to live, work and raise a family in, and I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue serving this community as much as I can.”

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