Local voters got a new opportunity last week to compare and contrast candidates for City Council, thanks to a forum hosted by the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters and presented via Zoom.
During the approximately 1½-hour event, the candidates had a minute to answer each of a series of questions regarding city affairs, future issues to consider and how they envisioned tackling problems out of the gate, should they be elected. The election will be Nov. 3, and voters in districts 1, 2 and 3 will pick their council representatives for four-year terms.
District 1 residents will choose between incumbent Bob Joe and Evelyn Zneimer, who is currently the city clerk. District 2 voters will have retired businessman Jack Donovan on their ballots but can also write in Stephen Rossi, a financial consultant appointed to finish out the unexpired term of former Councilwoman Marina Khubesrian. In District 3, voters are asked to select from among Alan Ehrlich, a financial consultant; Michelle Hammond, a former businesswoman; and Jon Primuth, an attorney serving on the school board.
What follows is a non-comprehensive sampling of questions or prompts along with key portions of each candidate’s answer. Responses are ordered by district and then alphabetically. Those interested in viewing the full forum can visit southpasadena.net/virtual-candidates-forum-for-south-pasadena-city-council.
• Ideas to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions at the Local Level
Bob Joe: “If we can start considering [electric or natural gas] vehicles for the maintenance in our public works department. … There are some things that we are going to have to look at, whether they’re going to work on a voluntary basis or on an ordinance basis.”
Evelyn Zneimer: “I would like to encourage healthy community activities such as walking and bicycling to reduce the vehicle miles traveled, to reduce the greenhouse gases and to reduce South Pasadena’s carbon footprint.”
Jack Donovan: “No. 1, in my opinion, would be the conversion for the residents as well as the city from natural gas to electricity.”
Stephen Rossi: “We have to understand what our financial situation is first before we start looking at specific budget items, whether it be our greenhouse emissions, our police budget or public safety, we have to understand what numbers we have to work with before we can decide what projects to implement at what cost.”
Alan Ehrlich: “The consultants [for the emission cap plan] discussed the commuters leaving every day, but they didn’t talk about the commuters coming into the city. I’d like to see more actionable detail so that we can make plans on what will work for our city and what won’t.”
Michelle Hammond: “We have other measures that have been approved for implementation but haven’t been implemented yet that are low cost and accessible for our city to make a lot of improvements.”
Jon Primuth: “Our state and regional governments will be regulating, so let’s get our businesses ready for the regulating.”
• Do You Support the Renewal of the Utility Users Tax?
Joe: “I think it’s so important that that revenue that we have needs to be continued.”
Zneimer: “I believe that the additional revenue of approximately $3.4 million is really needed because of all the uncertainty from the pandemic and post-pandemic.”
Donovan: “Unlike our neighboring cities — Alhambra, Pasadena — we don’t have the ability to collect a lot of sales tax, so we need other taxes and, unfortunately, we really have to rely on the UUT.”
Rossi: “One thing I do know is that when you’re in an economic downturn, as we are with the COVID pandemic, while we may not have total visibility on what our financial situation is, what I can tell you assuredly is that you don’t then take revenues out of your coffers. That would just exacerbate the problem.”
Ehrlich: “I’m not opposed to it. I know how important the UUT revenue is to the city, but given what’s been happening with our Finance Department over the last six months, I said I need to see more responsibility coming from the city.”
Hammond: “We will have to start getting creative with other sources of revenues for our city as the revenue from this tax starts to diminish over the years, but of course right now, especially with COVID, I’m definitely in favor of the UUT.”
Primuth: “We have high expectations for our city as a community and the UUT gives us that ability.”
• How Do You Propose Facilitating Landlords and Small Businesses to Help Develop South Pasadena’s Commercial Districts?
Joe: “We need to get those [new] projects moving [out of the Planning Department] and shorten the backlog of projects.”
Zneimer: “We need a sustainable way to continue to re-invest. That could take the form of a business improvement tax, and that only works if the funds are dedicated to improving street-scape design, facades and overall experience in eating, shopping and doing business in South Pasadena.”
Donovan: “The city could try to get them together, but the landlords have got to understand that it’s in their best interest to help the business owners to be in this city. The city has to act as a moderator to keep them talking to each other.”
Rossi: “When we start to do too much in the way of big box stores, the character [of South Pasadena] starts to change and that drives a different type of development. I think we need to work with our current landowners in order to try and find ways to create smart, reasonable development.”
Ehrlich: “As they say in the medical community, do no harm. Some people have been very happy with the al fresco program, but many of our business owners have been hurt by it. We don’t help all of our businesses by hurting some of them. There needs to be a better thought-out approach than we’ve been doing it.”
Hammond: “We definitely need to create more energy in our downtown business districts and get more of our residents up and shopping local. In the short term, I think as a city we can continue to waive permit fees and help with programs like al fresco. In the long term, we do need more development, but as we do that development, our Planning Department needs to be very conscious about what businesses are coming in.”
Primuth: “People will be moving here and they want to live in South Pasadena. Let’s make it part of the citizenship, that we all expect that we all buy local and talk about that. Our businesses need those local, loyal customers.”
• Responses to Police Chief Joe Ortiz’s Decision to Host American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property for a Prayer Gathering (which he later canceled)
Joe: “The chief made a mistake and he did apologize. There is a learning opportunity for the chief here, so I would ask that the city manager spend some time with him and find out why he did what he did.”
Zneimer: “I don’t know exactly how the permitting went through and why the chief had involved himself. We need to understand how the vetting process was made and also have an open dialogue involving the community that he hurt. Maybe we could learn, and he could, from this mistake. Even though he apologized, the bell has been rung.”
Donovan: “I am open to asking the city manager to request a report from the police chief as to how a permit request for this event ever found its way to his desk. How did it get through the vetting process?”
Rossi: “As far as what happened with Chief Ortiz, I think it was a moment of oversight. I do think that in a community that has very much been closed over the last few years under prior city management, we need to allow people an opportunity to grow and learn if we want people to take accountability for their mistakes. We want to create a culture as a city where people are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Ehrlich: “I can say, as somebody sitting on the Public Safety Commission, that I have already sent an email to the mayor and police chief asking that this particular issue be put on our agenda for the October meeting so we can have that conversation and find out what happened.”
Hammond: “As a chief, he should have understood that, especially in these times that have extra scrutiny on the Police Department. I am appreciative that he has apologized and I do feel we can move on from this, but we need to dig into a little bit more as to what were the motives: Why did this turn into an event? Are there any ties [to other groups]?”
Primuth: “He may not have been aware; he may have been hoping to do something positive in the community. We all make mistakes like that, where we think something is going to be positive and actually turns out negative. When I say learning opportunity, I don’t mean an investigation and I don’t mean a reprimand, but I do think he should meet with the people who felt hurt and disappointed with his decision and I think there can be constructive dialogue on that.”
• How Would You Have Changed the Initial Response to the Pandemic Shutdown, and What Will You Do in 2021?
Joe: “We’re also trying to help even the new businesses coming in. We’re going to make every effort to come forth and approve these projects much quicker and much sooner.”
Zneimer: “The al fresco came a little bit too late. Most other cities, by April and May, were already going, but we had nothing. The city should have intervened. Moving forward, we hope that this is a lesson learned for failed leadership of the City Council to help our businesses.”
Donovan: “At least by the middle of April, we would have probably had the al fresco dining and whatever we could do to help the businesses. It was obvious at that time that this was going to be a long-term thing and it was time to help the businesses before they went under.”
Rossi: “I would have started talking to contacts that we have in Gov. Newsom’s office about options to work with lenders to try to get them to extend loans out of the gate by deferring payments to the back end of maturity dates. We would have worked to set up an office to help local businesses walk through getting payroll protection program loans, which were made available but were very hard to get.”
Ehrlich: “I was a fierce critic that our city was not doing enough to communicate to residents and to business owners in the early stages of the pandemic and the shutdown. We could have done so much more to prepare people and prepare the city.”
Hammond: “Unfortunately, right now, since this has gone so long, we have a dead zone now in our area because people start creating new habits and the habit is not to visit our downtown district as much. We could have improved upon that.”
Primuth: “It would be great to say we would have created a long-term plan for business sustainability, but that was not on the table. We were thinking in June that we would be reopening. Every business needs to have dual modes of operation and we have to be able to help them. The other thing I would have done, as a city, is try to find financial experts to help every small business apply for the federal assistance that was coming down. That was a paperwork nightmare for so many.”