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Ron Kaye: Is the civil grand jury relevant?

September 28, 2013

The Los Angeles County civil grand jury got a well-deserved thrashing last week from local officials for its dumbfounding end-of-the-year report on the financial health of the county's 88 cities — a report that made Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena seem more like bankrupt Stockton and San Bernardino than the prosperous suburbs they are.

It wasn't the first shot the 23 civic-minded citizens who volunteered for the job took at Glendale.

You might remember that just before Glendale's election last April, the grand jury dropped a bombshell report that called into question the legality of the city's transfer of $21 million in "surplus" electricity revenue to the General Fund and cast doubt on the competence of city officials in putting a Charter amendment on the ballot that didn't clear up the issue by replacing the transfer with a straight-out tax.

It was an unprecedented interference into a local election by the grand jury and it had an impact, helping to defeat the ballot measure.

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"If anyone in the city had done that, they would probably be prosecuted," Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian said at last Tuesday's City Council meeting, where an official repudiation was made of the grand jury's year-end report on the most critical local issue of our time, the financial health of the cities.

"The (year-end) report tells a story and that story is failure of a process," he said.

It's clear a lot of time and money was spent gathering data, but the astonishing conclusions reached obscured the value of the statistics.

On the upside, you can see for yourself why cities have problems in the fact that there are 772 fat cats on city payrolls making more than $200,000 — two-thirds of them working for fire departments or municipal utilities.

More than half — 411 — are on the payroll of Los Angeles. Locally, Glendale has 15 and Pasadena has eight, while Burbank has 14, although it isn't in the same league with Beverly Hills, a third its size, 1/100th the size of L.A., with 64 fat cats.

Where the report goes astray is in leaping to conclusions solely on the basis of comparing raw financial data without a deeper understanding of the details — or explaining why cities with the best financial practices often are ranked lower than those with the worst practices.

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