Councilman Refuses to Go Along With ‘Good Old Boys’ : Odd Man Out in S. Pasadena

Times Staff Writer

The city needed new revenue, everybody agreed. Equipment was breaking down, city employees were due for salary raises and the potential take from property and sales taxes seemed to be shrinking. Just down the road lurked a projected $90,000 budget deficit.

There was only one solution, the five members of the South Pasadena City Council agreed last August. Like legislators from dozens of other revenue-strapped cities in California, the council decided to go to the voters with a proposal for a temporary utility tax.

But the show of councilmanic unity in the face of fiscal crisis quickly deteriorated. By mid-September, councilmen were trading charges of treachery and scornfully assessing one another’s business acumen. And an embittered four-man majority took the unusual step of voting to censure a colleague.

Councilman Robert Wagner was guilty of “conduct unbecoming a councilman” for his actions in opposing the tax measure, the four asserted.

Now the city faces the possibility that the proposed three-year, 4% utility tax, which is facing stiff opposition in the community, will be defeated when South Pasadena voters go to the polls Nov. 3, according to some officials.


“On any issue, the ‘no’ vote will draw more of a crowd than the ‘yes’ vote,” said City Manager John Bernardi gloomily. “Those who are content with the way government is going--they have a tendency to stay home.”

“Factions,” said former Mayor Ted Shaw, summing up the sequence of events. “It’s been that way from the beginning of time.”

Factional feuding may be a part of any small town’s politics, but experienced observers in South Pasadena say it’s reaching seismic proportions in their city.

Not only are rivalries threatening the utility tax, they have split the city’s leadership in two, with virtually no one claiming neutrality. The rivalries, which have recently taken the form of vitriolic personal attacks, even appear to be alienating the electorate. Voters frequently complain about the usual “tempest in a teapot” at council meetings, where old battles tend to be fought and refought.

South Pasadena resident Paul Killian, strolling down Mission Street the other day with his 11-year-old daughter, Kathleen, thought for a moment before he answered a question about his city government. “Some of the issues seem small in comparison to the bigger picture,” he said diplomatically.

“It’s a joke,” added Bud Hagemeyer, manager of Balk’s Hardware Store. “They just can’t seem to get their act together.”

At the eye of the South Pasadena storm for the past four years has been Wagner, a short, bald man who, at recent council meetings, has sat in his chair on the right side of the dais with the pained look of an indigestion sufferer.

Wagner, a first-term councilman who was elected in 1984 after three unsuccessful tries, claims that he has been “ostracized” by the city’s political Establishment. The “good old boys,” as he refers to the politicians and businessmen who have run the city in recent years, turned against him because he raised questions about fiscal policy, he contends.

“When I was elected, I started doing what was considered unholy,” said Wagner, who faces reelection next year. “I asked questions regarding finances. That automatically put me at odds with the good old boys. The rule of thumb around here is that you never ask questions. You just go along.”

Wagner, who has been on the short end of a series of 4-1 council votes, is the chief spokesman for a group of dissidents who portray themselves as South Pasadena’s true fiscal conservatives and slow-growth advocates. In recent years, Wagner and his associates have led the fight to maintain the city’s civic center on Mission Street rather than relocate it to El Centro Street. They have supported restrictions on high-rise commercial buildings and mini-malls.

Now they are leading the opposition to the proposed utility tax. They acknowledge that the city needs it but say the tax rate requested is too high.

“All the acrimony started because there has never been a 100% businessman on the council before,” said Wagner, 65, a wine merchant who parlayed real estate holdings on Fair Oaks Avenue into the lucrative Squires Square shopping center, site of the Vons supermarket, now owned by his three children.

But Wagner’s council colleagues, including a policeman, a dentist, an engineer and a retired insurance executive, say his contributions have been far from constructive. They say Wagner has been an obstructionist who “weighs the mail before he weighs the issues,” as one put it.

“I call it DWP,” said Councilman Lee Prentiss. “Deceptive Wagner politics. He wants it both ways. Just prior to our putting the utility tax on the ballot, he’s gathering signatures against it while he’s saying he supports it. DWP. The whole thing is a power trip to run the city.”

Prentiss and others maintain that Wagner and his allies, including former South Pasadena police Officer Tom Biesek, lawyer Helen Simmons and real estate agent Norman Getchell, have carved out a position of “negativism” in the city. “That’s their social club, their main drive in life,” contended Prentiss. “Whatever position the city takes, they try to shoot it down.”

The feud is being played out in a small, conservative city beset by change.

Minorities, Growth

Like other cities in the western San Gabriel Valley, South Pasadena, which covers less than 3 1/2 square miles, has experienced both a significant influx of minority residents and a drive to build. Almost a quarter of the city’s 24,400 residents are Asians, according to city officials. Fearing that South Pasadena is losing its character as a typical American small town of single-family homes, residents have battled plans for condominiums and major commercial projects.

In 1983, voters rejected a proposed twin-tower office building that had been unanimously supported by the City Council. Then, after Simmons and Getchell petitioned for a ballot measure, voters imposed a 45-foot height limit on new construction. Now Simmons is leading a similar initiative drive to restrict mini-mall construction in the city.

Cap on New Housing

Last year, the council, under pressure from citizens’ petitions, voted to place a cap of 60 new housing units a year in the city.

Meanwhile, the city’s financial situation has gradually eroded, officials contend. First, Proposition 13 forced layoffs of 47 city employees, about 40% of the municipal work force. Then the city began losing federal revenue-sharing money and sales tax revenue.

The city’s top retailing operation disappeared when Ted Colliau, owner of a Chevrolet dealership on Fair Oaks Avenue, closed down and sold his property to developers. New restrictions on commercial and residential development have served to “stabilize” sales and property tax revenues, said City Manager Bernardi, just when the demand for services was expanding.

“Yes, it’s a fiscal crisis,” said Bernardi. “If I didn’t think it was, we never would have gone out on a limb to ask the public for a utility tax.”

Roots Go Back

The political brouhaha in South Pasadena--which one civic leader compares off the record to Peyton Place, the fictional setting for a lurid best-seller of the 1950s--goes way back, officials say. Unofficial city historians say it may extend back several generations, to a time when the city was run by a monolithic group of well-to-do civic leaders, concerned almost exclusively with their long-running dispute with neighboring cities and the state regarding the proposed completion of the Long Beach Freeway.

But the concentration of vitriol has increased markedly since Wagner arrived on the scene, they say.

In his unpretentious office on Mound Avenue, behind the Vons complex, there are signs of a more sociable Robert Wagner. On the walls are certificates of appreciation from organizations he has headed, such as the South Pasadena Republican Club, Rotary, Optimist and the Georgetown University Alumni Assn., as well as a picture of himself as a young man, looking like Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris,” with a goatee, a beret and a brace of wine bottles.

A wine connoisseur who makes annual trips to France and other wine-producing countries, Wagner arrived in South Pasadena from New Jersey in 1953 to visit his brother. “Two things struck me about South Pasadena in the early 1950s,” he says. “The cleanliness of the streets and the fact that you could buy a house with no money down.”

Statewide Race

Wagner settled in South Pasadena with his family, built a home there, bought a liquor store and began investing in real estate. His first foray into politics was in 1966, when, on a bet, he ran for California secretary of state, drawing almost 500,000 votes in a losing cause in the Republican primary.

He says his involvement in the liquor business may have held him back politically in his adopted hometown. “South Pasadena is noted for viewing people in our industry as quasi-second-class citizens,” he said. “My religion may have had something to do with it, too.” Wagner is Jewish, the city largely Christian.

Wagner talks frequently, with apparent hurt, of being treated as an outsider. He mentions attacks by a local newspaper that he claims refuses to interview him and the city’s refusal to recognize him as a business expert. “I’m the only one who’s ever been responsible for a multimillion-dollar budget,” he says. “Most councilmen are lawyers or dentists.”

Mayor’s Seat Withheld

He talks about what he calls the “double cross” that kept him from becoming mayor last year. An agreement with other councilmen--that each would serve as mayor for nine months during their four-year council terms--fell apart. The dispute led Wagner to organize an initiative petition calling for direct election of the mayor. Under the present system, the mayor is selected by the members of the City Council.

Some of Wagner’s colleagues have accused him of trying to capture the mayor’s seat by petition. “It could be that, because he has not instilled confidence in the rest of the council, he feels this might be the only way for him to possibly be mayor,” Councilman Samuel Knowles said when Wagner’s group announced the petition effort in July.

Denies ‘Ego’ Motive

But Wagner says flatly that he will not run for mayor if the petition, which he describes as a needed civic reform, is successful. “My ego does not require me, at my age, to be mayor,” he said.

The councilman complains frequently about the South Pasadena Review, a local weekly newspaper that regularly attacks him in its editorials. “Never in 32 years have I ever been interviewed by the editor or publisher,” says Wagner, who refused to be photographed for a city affairs magazine published by the same company.

Review Editor George Kenney said that he has interviewed Wagner “at least a dozen times” but that charges Wagner leveled at other city officials have turned out to be untrue. “I have some beautiful questions I’d love to ask him,” Kenney said. “Several times I tried to talk to him at council meetings, and he just walked away from me. I don’t care at this point. Who needs this little creep?”

Wagner’s opponents deny that he has been excluded from the life of the city. “Why should he be?” said former Mayor Shaw. “He made all his money here. His kids went to school here. He’s headed a lot of organizations. I don’t believe he’s an outsider at all.”

New Element

But critics say that Wagner and his allies have added a venomous new element to South Pasadena politics.

Since Wagner was elected in 1984, various factions have launched detailed investigations of individual councilmen’s private financial activities, developed dossiers on each other and turned over materials to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Last month, attorney Robert Weaver, active in South Pasadena civic affairs, submitted materials to the commission which, he said, may indicate that Wagner has been guilty of a conflict of interest in voting for measures that affect his own real estate holdings.

An FPPC spokeswoman confirmed that the commission was “looking into alleged violations of the Political Reform Act” by Wagner, but would not comment further.

Impropriety Alleged

Weaver contends that Wagner voted on several occasions on matters that benefited his or his family’s holdings in the city. Since last year, Wagner has abstained on most votes affecting the city’s central business district because of his investments. He says he has never voted improperly.

Besides the Wagner investigation, the FPPC has, at the instigation of the Wagner camp, investigated alleged violations by Prentiss of the Political Reform Act’s requirements for filing reports on his financial interests. The FPPC found that Prentiss had committed only “errors and omissions” rather than violations.

Prentiss is also under investigation by his employer, the Los Angeles Police Department, after Biesek claimed that Prentiss had falsified an application for disability retirement. Prentiss, who continues to work as a detective, denied the accusation but would not discuss it.

Other councilmen and city officials say their private affairs have been investigated by members of opposing factions.

Civic Center Dispute

Open hostilities began a year or so before Wagner was elected in 1984, longtime observers say. As a civic leader, Wagner led a group opposed to a council plan to build a $5-million civic center on El Centro Street. The group charged that the city had paid too much for the land--$1.1 million, or three times what the seller had paid for it earlier that year--and claimed that the city could save $2.5 million by renovating its current City Hall on Mission Street.

The issue is still being debated by the council, not only because Wagner used it as a platform for his successful council campaign in 1984 but also because it has spilled over into the utility tax debate. Each side has used its version of events to question the other’s business acumen.

Cost Overruns

The renovated City Hall on Mission Street, complete with a new white-and-russet fire and police facility, is almost completed. Its final $3.9-million cost, however, is $1.4 million above Wagner’s original estimates. Depending on whom you talk to, the cost overruns are signs of either “mismanagement” by a spendthrift city administration or self-serving manipulation of the original estimates by Wagner.

In a heated exchange during a City Council meeting two weeks ago, Wagner expressed surprise at the amount of the cost overrun, which he attributed to waste. Eliminate the unforeseen architectural changes and modifications, such as the inclusion of new City Council chambers, Wagner said, and the facility would cost what he originally estimated--about $2.5 million.

Wagner’s colleagues reacted angrily, charging that he was as much involved in planning and building the facility as anyone else in the city. “Mr. Wagner never ceases to amaze me,” said Prentiss, who contends that Wagner is trying to use the issue for political advantage. “There have been 20 votes on the new building. Every vote taken since the first one has been unanimous.”

The hottest issue on the table right now is, of course, the utility tax. The council debate has focused not only on the measure itself but on Wagner’s actions in opposing it. Supporters claim that the tax, estimated to cost each South Pasadena household $100 a year, is necessary to make up for budget shortfalls and to maintain the high level of services in the city.

Smaller Tax Urged

“We can put a police officer on your doorstep in less than three minutes,” said Bernardi. “Try that in L. A.”

Wagner and other opponents agree that the city needs a temporary tax. But they say the proposed measure would take too much of a bite. It will “give them (the city) four times more than they need,” Wagner contends.

If his efforts are successful and the tax is defeated, he says, he will petition for another, more modest utility tax in the spring election.

Several council members say it’s not Wagner’s arguments that have infuriated them but what they call his “deceptive” maneuvers.

“From the beginning, we felt that we needed a unanimous vote from the council to win this,” said Mayor James Hodge. “Nobody wants to vote for a tax measure. But when you have a unanimous council, you send the message that, after careful consideration, it’s the thing to do.”

Sunset Clause

Hodge said Wagner initially supported the measure, with the provision that there be a “sunset” clause terminating the tax when the city had drawn sufficient funds. Then, in a 24-hour period in August, Wagner switched positions, going from a council meeting at which he spoke in favor of the measure to a series of meetings with civic leaders at which he circulated a petition against it. Wagner says that he changed his mind because there were not sufficient assurances in the measure’s language that the tax would be terminated when no longer needed.

After Wagner persuaded former Councilman Robert Veir to sign the petition, which would have placed Veir’s name on the city’s sample ballot as an opponent of the tax, Wagner’s colleagues voted to censure him.

Veir, who has been disabled since he underwent surgery for a brain tumor in 1983, subsequently renounced the petition, claiming that Wagner had misrepresented it. Veir’s wife, Barbara, described the petition as a “con,” saying Wagner represented it to her husband only as something “to make sure that the money wasn’t used in an improper way” rather than as a document of opposition. Wagner contends that he did not mislead Veir.

‘Playing Games’

Hodge contends that the proposed tax measure has a built-in sunset clause and that it is “ludicrous” to claim that the council would not abide by it.

“They’re just playing games with the time limit,” he said. “Everything is done in public. There’s a three-year sunset clause, which could be lowered if we found we didn’t need the tax anymore.”

Bernardi says the bitter opposition to the tax, like other positions taken by Wagner and his allies, is based on an emotional distrust of public officials rather than rational arguments. “The idea is to foster that mistrust of government,” he said. “These are the knights in shining armor, watching over the government to make sure that tax dollars are spent the way they’re supposed to be.”

But Wagner, saying he will laminate a copy of the censure letter and hang it on his office wall next to all the certificates of honor, is adamant in opposition.

“One thing I learned as a quartermaster in the Army,” he said. “You always make requisitions in excess of what you need.” He contends that the city’s budget shortfall figures are based on a “wish list” of things requested by department heads.

No one is certain of the long-range effects of the political split in South Pasadena. Despite all the steamy rhetoric, the divisions are based more on personality than ideology, most experienced observers agree. “In my opinion, it’s personalities,” said Simmons. “The more times he (Wagner) is right, the more upset the others get.” Both sides cite efforts they have made to compromise, only to be rebuffed.

Mediation appears unlikely, since there appear to be no influential leaders in the city who have not taken sides.

Some participants are settling in contentedly for the long haul, contending that a fractious leadership is part of American democracy. “I don’t think it’s healthy to have a 5-0 council,” said Biesek, who delights in playing what he calls “hardball” politics. “There’s no reason not to have a councilman or two disagree with the majority. That’s why we have a democratic system.”

South Pasadenans are really living in “Small Town, U. S. A.,” said Shaw. “Maybe that’s the reason there’s so much butting of heads. A little town is kind of like a family. We beat up on one another, but don’t let some outsider come in and say something.”