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Around the Foothills

The discourse is meant to probe deeply into the public psyche.

October 25, 1990|DOUG SMITH

For the past five Wednesdays, more than 60 of Glendale's most influential citizens have met in small groups in private residences to talk about sensitive public concerns.

Their topics are gangs and drugs, home ownership, diversity in the workplace, cultural diversity and the all-inclusive, "Change--Should We or Shouldn't We?"

Among them are all five members of the City Council, several trustees and employees of the school and college districts, businessmen and financiers, developers, a judge and the publishers of a newspaper and a magazine. Balancing out the group is a diverse selection of Glendale's population, including students, housewives and blue-collar workers.

The discourse is meant to probe deeply into the public psyche. Each evening's focus is guided by a list of written questions, such as:

"What changes have you noticed in Glendale as a result of the dwindling white population?

"What steps do you think the city of Glendale ought to take to address this issue?" and

"What are the images you believe U.S. residents have of Hispanics, blacks, Mideasterners, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Jews and Anglos?"

Unfortunately, the responses of the city's leadership will be known only to the 68 people invited to the exercise.

Specifically excluded from the sessions were working reporters who might convey to their readers any small insight into the private thinking of the city's leadership.

This is the second year of what is to be an annual forum called "Understanding Glendale for the Future."

It is put together jointly by the city, Glendale Community College and a business group called Glendale Partners.

Following last year's pattern, for the benefit of the press, as they say, there was a three-hour opening session with suitable fanfare and speeches before the participants went behind closed doors.

The rationale for this secrecy--or, more graciously, privacy--was to avoid any impediment to the expression of ideas that might be delicate, embarrassing or antagonistic, said Martha Thayer, whose public relations firm organized the forum.

A similar explanation was offered this summer when the Board of Education sent some community leaders on a retreat to devise a report on the mission of the schools. In that case, the professional facilitator hired to lead the meetings barred reporters from Glendale's hometown paper, the News Press.

The paper screamed in print that the future of the schools was being molded secretly in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's public meeting law. The school district relented and the meetings, in all their resplendent tedium, were opened. The jackals of the press were happy and the News Press declared its conquest an "editorial triumph."

Those who represent the municipal/commercial complex are a degree more polished in their method.

In subtle ways, the current forum deflects any application of the Brown Act--no two council members being assigned to the same group and the product being only free discussion, rather than a report.

Finally, the hosts invited the publisher of the News Press, Judee Kendall, into their circle. The publication raised no eyebrow this time.

It's a shame, because the conversations that are going on would undoubtedly be interesting and instructive for the rest of the city. I'd like to hear what a councilman thinks should be done about the dwindling white population.

Some of those in the discussion groups, by the way, have chosen to talk about their experiences. They uniformly found them constructive.

One, 15-year-old Jessica Billingslea, a student at Glendale High School, said she made the heavy commitment of time for one reason: to help improve the image of her city.

Being half-black and half-white, she said, she has grown weary of outsiders telling her, "Oh, I feel so sorry for you," when they learn she's a resident of Glendale.

"I wanted to join this group because really it's not like that anymore," she said, before equivocating slightly. "Actually it is, but maybe we can do something about that, show that we are trying to do something. I would just like people to know. You want to be proud of your city."

She and others said there were some tense conversations and considerable disagreement over questions of public transit and taxation. There have also been notable triumphs over ignorance. The city fathers are now informed, for example, that the term Mideasterners does not apply to the town's largest ethnic group, Armenians.

It shouldn't take a Brown Act to spread such things. The Glendale stereotype that may well be last to die casts its power elite as a club that reaches all important decisions in private. That subject should be added to next year's agenda and reporters should be invited by right, whatever the consequences.

Jackals that we are, we would probably skip most of the meetings and report much out of context with an unpredictable margin of error.

We would intimidate some and stir others to excess.

But we would also spot a few more of the Jessica Billingsleas in Glendale's future.

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