Along with a crowd of local dignitaries and well-wishers, the Burbank City Council saluted City Manager Ronald E. Davis at his retirement reception last Thursday, praising his 20-year Burbank career of “outstanding achievement, leadership and community service.” Davis had started out as the General Manager of Burbank Water & Power in 1999, before moving to City Hall in 2016. His last day as City Manager is September 30.
When Davis took over from a succession of interim City Managers, the City faced severe deficits, with needed capital improvements and popular programs on the chopping block. Davis quickly streamlined operations, reduced workers compensation outlays and persuaded City employees to pay more into their retirement programs. But cost savings wasn’t enough, and so Davis and the City Council proposed an increase in the local sales tax (Measure P) together with citizen oversight to make sure the additional revenues were spent responsibly.
In November 2018, Burbank voters passed Measure P. “We turned around this ship on the path to financial stability,” said Mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy, who appreciated Davis’ immediate tackling of the City’s “severe financial issues.” Vice Mayor Sharon Springer also lauded Davis “for achieving financial stability.”
More than a few Burbank voters supported the sales tax increase because they had witnessed how Davis had transformed BWP. By late 1998, the beleaguered utility was going broke as deregulation was upending what had been a forgiving business environment. BWP’s major customers were threatening to purchase their power from Enron, and Southern California Edison was planning to gobble up municipal utilities like BWP. The vacated General Manager position had to be filled quickly.
“Fix the utility or we’re going to sell it!” was the challenge posed to candidates for the General Manager position, recalled Council Member Jess Talamantes. But after speaking with Davis, he stated flatly to his colleagues, “I think we found our guy.”
Council Member Timothy Murphy agreed. “I know what it was like pre-Ron,” he said, calling to mind his days on the Council back in the ’90s. He appreciated Davis’ calmness in the midst of crisis, attributing it to his days “driving submarines.”
Council Member Murphy has a point. Once you’ve been a Cold War Era submariner like Davis, dogging and dodging Russian nuclear subs under the ice-covered Arctic, floundering organizations that are financially underwater don’t seem so daunting.
“And today BWP’s on anyone’s top ten list of the best public utilities,” adds Council Member Murphy. Indeed, BWP has become so financially strong that it even fully supports its own retirement liability while delivering some of the lowest water and electricity rates in Southern California.
The utility industry has also agreed with the City Council, having showered BWP with 29 major industry awards, including the American Public Power Association’s Diamond Level status for outstanding reliability for electric service. In 2010, Davis received APPA’s James D. Donovan Individual Achievement Award for his “substantial contributions to the electric utility industry, with a special commitment to public power.”
Anyone comparing photos of the BWP campus in 1999 with those of the campus today will see its striking transformation into one of the Burbank’s signature landmarks, attracting industry visitors from around the world. As Mayor Gabel-Luddy put it, “Ron at heart is a landscape architect. He loves to build stuff.”
Former BWP Board member Bob Olson was also impressed with Davis as an architect of plans that work, hailing him as a “strategic thinker” without equal.
One example of such strategic thinking occurred shortly after 9/11 when first responders from different agencies were urged to develop the ability to communicate with one another over their radios during regional emergencies. But squabbling over cost-sharing made even cooperation between Glendale and Burbank problematic. In response, Davis instituted a Joint Powers Authority (“ICI”) supporting first responder radio communications in 2003. “Today, ICI enables interoperable communications for dozens of first responder agencies,” remarked ICI Executive Director Ray Edey, who presented Davis with a radio-themed appreciation plaque.
“It tough to say goodbye to Ron,” said Council Member Bob Frutos, especially impressed by Davis’ development of people. “You delivered us a Class A, five-star leadership team.” He credits Davis with transforming Council meetings from ordeals of time-consuming rancor into sessions of civility and focus that now end well before midnight, to the gratitude of staffs and spouses alike. (Spouse Cheryl Davis nodded in vigorous agreement.)
Several other speakers praised Davis as a master mentor and builder of teams as well as things. Davis is “a teacher, a mentor, and a great strategist,” said Acting City Manager Justin Hess. “What really matters to you is the people you have met and helped to grow along the way,” said Community Development Director Patrick Prescott. “No boss has ever cared as much about my success as you have.” Current BWP General Manager Jorge Somoano paid tribute to Davis’ guidance, describing him as “a natural leader” who always looked to “the best interests of the customers as a whole.”
A close friend and community leader Barry Gussow added his praise and read aloud from a heartfelt letter from past Assistant Superintendent Tom Kissinger, in which he thanked Davis for his friendship and invaluable career advice.
Davis’ compassionate-but-results-oriented approach extended to his concern for children’s welfare, which Councilmember Murphy especially appreciated. “I was trying to start a Boys and Girls Club in Burbank, and Ron’s knowledge and financial acumen made it happen.” Davis has remained a key supporter of the Boys and Girls Club of Burbank and Greater East Valley, now serving over 1000 children, including teens.
In recognition of Davis unwavering support and guidance, B&G Club Chief Executive Officer Shanna Warren presented a ceremonial check in the amount of $3,305, representing the donations made to B&G Club on Davis’ behalf. Warren added that an anonymous donor would match this amount as well.
But the highlight was when Warren announced that in view of “Ron’s devotion to the children,” the facility for teens would now be named the Ron Davis Teen Center.
A visibly moved Davis said, “It has been our true blessing to be here.”