So Pas Mayor Stirs Controversy with Women Appointments

From left, So Pas Mayor Dr. Marina Khubesrian and L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. Photo by Steve Whitmore

When South Pasadena Mayor Dr. Marina Khubesrian appointed scores of women to several advisory councils the night she was sworn in, it raised the question of impropriety among residents and sitting commissioners alike.

One called it “irregular” while others went so far as to characterize the sweeping appointments as “discriminatory” and “disrespectful.” Some said they were “disgusted” with the process and that it might even be illegal.

At the City Council meeting on Dec. 19, Khubesrian was sworn in as mayor of South Pasadena as part of the council’s routine rotation. The mayoral position rotates and is not a separate elected position. Each councilmember rotates into the mayor and mayor pro tem slot for a year.

One of Khubesrian’s first actions was to agree to appoint and re-appoint 16 women to commissions. She also approved the appointment of two women to partial terms on commissions. All the commissions are voluntary.

In fact, the 18 names listed in the Dec. 19 City Council packet for the appointments and re-appointments to commissions are all women.

Khubesrian’s inaugural address that night also highlighted the need for more women in local leadership roles.

Mayor Wants Special Focus

“I want to bring a special focus on women’s leadership this year,” Khubesrian said during her inaugural address. “I believe the city can do more to encourage women to pursue and attain positions of leadership. This year, we will be hosting a Women’s Leadership conference that will focus on mentoring, training opportunities, career development, and more. We will be promoting educational scholarships for young women seeking careers in leadership. We will be honoring South Pasadena women from throughout history, so that they will be role models for all of us.”

After the City Council meeting concluded, The Review received an email from So Pas resident and tax attorney Terence Cuff, calling the mayor’s action “irregular.”

“… the South Pasadena City Council meeting this evening …(had) 16 appointments to South Pasadena commissions (and) 16 are women,” Cuff wrote in an email to The Review. “This may be coincidence, but it does seem irregular. This apparently reflects the mayor’s view…”

Cuff’s email was just the beginning of the discussion, however, as confusion and criticism followed, with residents saying it was a dismissive action directed at those who freely give their time on behalf of the city.

Three Men Seeking Re-appointment Were Denied

Some of the men already serving on commissions – who were in good standing and wanted to continue to serve the city – were denied the opportunity when their re-appointment was rejected and were replaced by women.

Appointments to voluntary commissions such as the Animal Commission or the Cultural Heritage Commission are usually routine. Re-appointments to commissions also are usually routine.

City officials confirm that three men were not re-appointed to a second term and were replaced with women.

“The strongest parity we’re seeing is in gender,” John Pope, communications director, said in an email to The Review. “Prior to these Dec/Jan appointments only 35 percent of city commission seats were held by women. This was far below the gender makeup of South Pasadena, where 51 percent of the residents are women. Following the next round of appointments, 54 percent of commissioners will be women, very closely reflecting the city’s demographics.”  

Although the appointments may be well intentioned, there might be a legal question surrounding Prop. 209. Approved by voters in 1996, the prop amended the California Constitution to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity.

Cuff said the appearance of this type of gender-based appointment process raises the question that it might violate the state constitution as well as federal regulations. Cuff, who has been a So Pas resident since 1986, also said he was not an expert in this field of law, but that it was an important issue for the City Council to address.

“It does create an inference that there may have been a violation set down in the state constitution,” Cuff said during a telephone interview with The Review. “This is an important issue and it’s worth exploring. Again, this is not my area of expertise but, as a resident, if this is a standard, I would be worried.”

City Attorney Signs Off on Appointments

However, the appointments were discussed with the City Attorney prior to being made and were deemed legally sound. 

“… the city of course complies with the Constitution and all applicable laws,” Pope said. “We specifically discussed these proposed appointments with our City Attorney prior to the December Council meeting. Our Attorney determined that Prop 209 applies specifically to ‘public employment, public education or public contracting,’ not volunteer commission appointments; therefore, appointing qualified candidates, who also happen to be women, does not violate the California Constitution.”

Khubesrian stands by her appointments as well, saying they are proper and, in fact, align the advisory boards more to the demographics of the city. The mayor broke down her response in an email to The Review.

“My priority in making my list of proposed commission appointments for the entire City Council to consider was to build commission advisory teams that better represented the diversity of our community,” Khubesrian said in the email. “I took advantage of the opportunity to add balance, new perspectives and skill sets provided by the historic large number of new and diverse, highly talented applicants. Where possible, I strived to have at least two women per five-member commission following the governor’s initiative for corporate boards. Evidence is strong that having at least two women on leadership teams makes the team stronger and better decisions are reached. All applicants I considered were highly qualified, and had strong interest in serving their city. In some cases they were men, in others they were women.”

City Officials Support the Move

Other city officials agree with Khubesrian, saying it makes the commissions more diverse and a better reflection of the local population.

“It’s unfortunate that the controversy has obscured what should be recognized as a very positive development for South Pasadena in terms of diversity and women’s leadership,” Pope said. “Commissioners are at-will, volunteer appointments made at the discretion of the City’s current mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The City has 78 commissioners serving on 13 advisory bodies (soon to be 14 with the addition of the Public Arts Commission).”

Khubesrian went on to say that all commission appointments have to be approved by council members and are not just under her purview.

“Commission terms are set for 3 years so that the people’s elected body has the authority to decide what is in the best interest of the entire community at that time and be held accountable by the electorate for its stewardship of the city,” Khubesrian said. “By voting unanimously to approve my proposed appointments, the City Council made a strong statement of support for the strategy I’ve outlined and prioritized to form the advisory teams that will best serve our city.” 

Resident Says It May Be Time for Change

One resident that criticized the action said it might be time to go to the ballot box and vote for new councilmembers.

“One of the rationales that other councilmembers are offering for why they supported Marina’s appointments is that it’s unprecedented for council not to do so,” the resident wrote in an email to The Review. “But what Marina did is also unprecedented and should have been challenged. The councilmembers have gotten too comfortable with each other. They want to be unanimous on everything they do. This is not good. I think we need new blood across the board.”

Khubesrian also explained that commissions are voluntary and not employees of the city.

“Commission appointments are made by the entire City Council,” she said. “They are volunteer positions, not employment hires, and serve at the discretion of the council. The City Council is elected to represent the entire population of the city and strives to reflect the population on its advisory bodies. My selection of proposed commission appointments was carefully done after thorough review of all applications. All applicants were thoroughly vetted.”

Khubesrian also said she’s aware that some volunteers feel disrespected by the appointments but that is not the City Council’s intent.

“The City Council values all of our volunteers and thanks them for their time and service to our city,” she said.

The List of Women Appointed

The recommended commission appointments and re-appointments listed in the City Council agenda packet for Dec. 19 were as follows:

Appoint the following individuals to a full three-year term ending December 31, 2021: Audrey Norton to the Animal Commission; Kristin Morrish to the Cultural Heritage Commission; Kay Younger to the Design Review Board, Samantha Hill to the Design Review Board; Debra Beadle to the Library Board of Trustees, Bianca Richards to the Library Board of Trustees; Rona Bortz to the Natural Resources and Environmental Commission, Madeline C. Di Giorgi to the Natural Resources and Environmental Commission, Cynthia Liu to the Natural Resources and Environmental Commission; Robin Hamilton to the Public Safety Commission, Stephanie Cao to the Public Safety Commission; Julie Ellen Papadakis to the Senior Citizen Commission.

Re-appoint the following individuals to a full three-year term ending December 31, 2021: Ellen Wood to the Finance Commission; Kelly M. Koldus to the Planning Commission; Grace Liu Kung to the Public Safety Commission; Cindi Knight to the Senior Citizen Commission.

Appoint the following individuals to partial terms: Kristine Kwong to the Parks & Recreation Commission (term ending December 31, 2020); Lauren Myles to the Natural Resources and Environmental Commission (term ending December 31, 2019).