By Skye Hannah/Senior Reporter and Kevin Kenney/Review Editor
“I’m sick to my stomach. … I feel this is an intimidation tactic. … They’re being bullies, and I feel I am being bullied.”
Fighting back tears, and not always successfully, Alison Smith said those words last Friday as four city-authorized inspectors and one South Pasadena Police officer arrived at her 1726 Hanscom Drive home just before 10 a.m., a little more than 24 hours after three other SPPD officers had served a civil warrant authorizing a home search.
This was just the latest development in a protracted dispute between Smith and the city that began in January 2018, when a pipe, apparently owned by the city, clogged and flooded Smith’s hillside backyard with sewage from what she said was 17 neighboring homes. Smith says the city initially took responsibility for the “toxic” mess but then backed away when the cost of a cleanup came into sharper focus.
Since then, Smith said, the situation has only gotten nastier, with Friday’s court-ordered property search “for violations of the South Pasadena Municipal Code’’ just the latest wrinkle.
Smith and her lawyer, James T. Perez of Calabasas, say the search was in retaliation for a suit Smith filed suit against the city in February, seeking recovery of some $260,000 in costs plus $200,000 for emotional distress — and for Smith going public with her complaints during an Aug. 21 City Council meeting.
The city has yet to answer her suit, and has until Nov. 11 to do so, Perez said.
The city did, however, issue a statement on Monday regarding the search — saying, among other things, that after receiving a “confidential” complaint of unauthorized renovations on the property, “The city requested by certified mail that code enforcement officers be granted access to the home to conduct an inspection of the exterior and interior; this request was denied through Ms. Smith’s attorney.’’
Replying to a Review question about Smith’s allegations of retaliation, city spokesman John Pope said, “This was in no way retaliatory. It is common practice. The city regularly responds to code enforcement complaints with inspections. If the resident does not grant access, then a warrant becomes a necessary next step.”
Friday’s search was triggered by a complaint regarding “unpermitted modifications to the interior and exterior” of the house, according to the warrant — though Smith told the Review she was never given any specifics.
Smith said she first learned of those allegations in an Oct. 4 letter from city building official Craig Melicher (the lead inspector Friday) — including that “city staff observed from the public right of way substantial modifications to the exterior of property.”
Further, she said that in a subsequent phone call, Melicher told her attorney, Perez, “It looks like from Google Earth pictures you have a new and modified roof.”
Smith said none of that is true.
“I’m saving for a new roof,” said Smith, a single mother of three who earns about $25,000 a year as a part-time dance teacher in the South Pas schools.
Perez — who was also on hand for the search — called the situation “a potential civil-rights violation” and indicated that that is but one further avenue Smith might pursue against the city.
Perez also likened Friday’s search to a fishing expedition, as inspectors spent about an hour photographing, videotaping and taking detailed measurements of external and internal parts of the home — even the height of the bunk bed in the children’s room.
The inspectors also photographed and measured fencing, internal and external pipes, door frames, electrical boxes, closets, bedrooms, bathrooms and walked the entire periphery of the backyard.
Melicher, who was repeatedly asked by reporters as well as by Smith’s neighbors during the inspection what he was looking for, and who specifically ordered up the search, referred all questions to the city attorney, Teresa Highsmith, who did not return repeated phone calls from the Review seeking her comments.
Joining Melicher during the search were South Pasadena Planning Department Management Intern Jose Villegas, Ayla Jefferson and Dennis Tarango. Villegas wore a picture badge from the city, but the others declined repeatedly to provide any proof of identification or work title.
Villegas identified Melicher as a city building official, and Jefferson and Tarango as building officials from Transtech Engineers, Inc., a Chino-based firm that provides engineering, design, planning, and funding for public and private sectors. Melicher is listed online as the vice president of Transtech Engineers, Inc.
SPPD Officer Catalina Valdez stood guard outside the home during the search.
While Highsmith did not return messages from the Review, she did attend Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting, where she addressed the issue of the search following public comments, according to audio obtained by the Review.
“When it comes to the city’s attention that (unpermitted work) may be occurring, the first thing the city does procedurally is attempt to verify that information,” said Highsmith. “It’s not going to go out and do any enforcement on allegations without first verifying. Sometimes the city can verify by standing in the public right of way and looking to see. Other times it’s not so clear.”
The warrant — signed Wednesday, Oct. 16, by Superior Court Judge Jared D. Moses and served by SPPD Det. Michael Palmieri, Sgt. Tom Jacobs and Det. Andrew Dubois on Thursday — informed Smith that “any peace officer or person authorized by ordinance of the Mayor and City Council of the City of South Pasadena to enforce the South Pasadena Municipal Code” was “commanded” to enter Smith’s home.
The purpose was “to inspect the exterior and interior of the Property, including the front, rear and side yards, and all interior rooms, for violations of the South Pasadena Municipal Code,’’ the warrant said.
“Forcible entry onto the Property” was also authorized, if deemed necessary, according to the warrant.
On Thursday, as the warrant was being served, Smith met the three officers in her driveway while loading her children into the car for school. She said her middle child was scared and asked, “Mommy, are they going to arrest you?”
Smith said the officers acted professionally and considerately.
She also said that Palmieri told her that, in his 16 years of the SPPD force, “Police presence has never been requested in a non-criminal case.”
Smith shared concerns that the “bullying” action is in “retaliation” for her going public with her story when she spoke to the City Council on Aug. 21, sharing a sense of frustration that the city had done nothing to rectify the January 2018 overflow, which spilled sewage from surrounding homes into her backyard for more than 30 hours.
Monday, Pope issued this statement on the matter:
“The city is responding to a confidential complaint alleging that unauthorized renovations have been made to the Smith home. In addition to the complaint, city inspectors have found evidence that exterior renovations have been made to the home without permits.
“On Oct. 5, 2019, the city requested by certified mail that code enforcement officers be granted access to the home to conduct an inspection of the exterior and interior; this request was denied through Ms. Smith’s attorney.
“As a result, an inspection warrant has been obtained for the limited purpose of inspecting the property to determine the extent of the alleged unpermitted renovations. …
“Code enforcement actions are often needed to maintain these standards and investigation of code violation allegations is the first step in any potential code enforcement action. To avoid potential retaliation, all complaints are kept anonymous.”
Meanwhile, her backyard remains unusable, Smith said.
“We avoid the backyard at all costs,” she said.
Smith also said that, after initially receiving a verbal acknowledgment of city responsibility by South Pasadena Facilities Supervisor Francois Brard in January 2018, the city retracted its stance of support and told her the matter was under investigation.
She further said that, before her conversation with Brard, another city maintenance worker, Richard Arriola, told her the clog came from a city-owned pipe, installed 18 months earlier, behind her house.
During Friday’s hour-long search, several of Smith’s friends and neighbors, as well as a handful of invited reporters, followed inspectors as they probed her home. Except for one brief trip to the backyard following an inspector’s question, Smith herself sat on her living room couch, across from Perez.
“I feel this is an intimidation tactic,” said Smith. “I’ve never slandered my city. I just wanted them to take responsibility, and they did (initially).”
Later, she told the Review, “I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’m just depleted. I just want it to be over. … I’m gutted.”
The issue has sparked much chatter on local social media — prompting Mayor Marina Khubesrian to post on a private Facebook page aimed at city residents (titled 91030) that she was “concerned about the rising mob mentality of looking for a scapegoat to blame when emotions and fears are stirred up. This type of discourse is dangerous and is impacting the morale of our city employees.”
Prior to the inspection, Smith said she has never sued anyone before — “I don’t live by that code” — but that this experience has changed her mindset.
“Their pushback is so severe,’’ she said of the city. “I just don’t know what they’re going to come up with — I mean, what’s next?”