Wayward City Clerk Says He Will Quit : Government: Hawthorne official has been living in Hawaii since 1987. He says job has been a 'burden.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patrick E. Keller does not understand the controversy over his preference for living on this lush island instead of in Hawthorne, the nondescript, congested city where he is clerk.

But because city officials are ready to boot him from office over the fact that he lives in Hawaii while collecting his $600-a-month city paycheck, Keller said Thursday he will resign.

In fact, Keller said he has not wanted the job for some time. He said he only ran for reelection in 1989--two years after he moved to Hawaii--because there were no other candidates.

"It's just been a burden on me, where I felt obligated to help out the city," Keller said in an interview at his real estate office with a view of misty Mt. Hualalai. "I have no desire to be city clerk. . . . If this is causing some problems for the administration of the city, they have better things to worry about than me."

Keller, 44, said it was no secret that he has lived in Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawaii since 1987.

Indeed, city officials have had Keller's address and telephone numbers in Hawaii, but say they believed he maintained a legal residence in Hawthorne, even though they rarely saw him at City Hall. It was not until last week that news reports disclosed that Keller had listed a friend's address on his voter registration form. Annoyed city officials have scheduled a residency hearing for Monday aimed at forcing him from office.

Hawthorne Mayor Steve Andersen said Keller told him in a phone call Thursday that he "really had no interest" in the job.

"I remember having this feeling, like, 'geez, if you felt that way, I wish you'd taken care of it a long time ago,' " Andersen said.

Councilwoman Betty Ainsworth expressed frustration that Keller did not resign the moment he decided not to return to Hawthorne.

"It was morally and ethically wrong that he did not resign at that time. Legally, I don't know," Ainsworth said. "I was thinking that Pat Keller, city clerk, would know better than anybody how to handle it properly. I'm very disappointed, and that's putting it mildly."

Keller said he has no regrets about moving to Hawaii.

"I wanted to live in Hawaii. I love it here," he said. "I just wanted to get away from the rat race in Southern California . . . the traffic, congestion and pressure. I felt I had done my time."

He left behind a bitter divorce struggle in which his ex-wife obtained a court order to have support payments for their four children deducted from his city paychecks, according to court documents. In addition, Keller is being sued by El Segundo Bank, where he was once on the board of directors, for allegedly failing to repay $35,000 in credit card bills and overdraft charges, according to court documents. Keller said he has not been notified of the lawsuit and had to resign from the board because the divorce left him financially insolvent.

In Kailua-Kona, which bills itself as the sportfishing capital of the world, Keller and his new wife live in fashionable Kailua View Estates. They reside in a gray wood-frame home on an ocean-view lot. It is about a five-minute drive from his well-kept home to both the beauty salon he owns and the real estate office where he works.

He says he is no jet-setter. "I'm not living in luxury," he said. "I'm renting a house, driving a Nissan Sentra and living the way I am."

Keller is a tall, slender man with short-cropped gray hair, a quick smile and a deep voice. His shaded contact lenses turn his eyes the color of palm fronds.

Although he quickly admitted to a reporter that he was wearing tinted contact lenses, he told a waitress that his eyes really were that color and that their hue changes in the sunlight.

"I told you, I don't tell everybody," he later confided.

It is comments like these, however, that lead some of his friends and acquaintances to question his integrity.

Diane and Rod Hakes, who allowed Keller to stay with them for several months after he had sold a former home in Kailua-Kona, said he misled them about a number of little things. Diane Hakes said Keller would tell her he was visiting Los Angeles when he was traveling in Malaysia, the home of his new wife.

"You don't know when this man is telling you the truth," she said.

Keller said his trips to Malaysia were personal, and that he felt no obligation to disclose details to friends.

John Most, who hired Keller as a real estate salesman about five months ago, sees his salesmanship in a positive light. "He's a very hard worker," Most said. "He's the best-organized real estate agent I know."

Several of Keller's acquaintances and employees said he made no effort to hide his position as Hawthorne city clerk, and in fact often expressed pride in his title. However, some people were perplexed that he seemed to pay so little attention to the job.

Niva (Sunny) Langi, 44, a hairdresser and former manager of Keller's Unistyle salon, said she frequently fielded calls from Robin Parker, the chief deputy city clerk who supervised the office in Keller's absence.

"He doesn't let her know where he is, ever," Langi said. "She calls all the time and asks where he is. She tells me: 'You know, I'm getting to the end of my rope. It's very important that I speak to him.' "

Keller insists that he always has been accessible to Parker and other city officials.

Speaking to a reporter for the first time since the controversy over his residency erupted last week, Keller said he has not always been as blase about Hawthorne's affairs. He became involved in local politics in the 1970s, when he founded a group called Hawthorne Organization for Political Emancipation. In 1981, he ran for city clerk against Lisa J. Miller, a deputy city clerk and daughter of then-Mayor Joseph Miller. Keller said it would be improper for the mayor's daughter to hold that position.

After winning election, Keller said he was mortified at the condition of the city clerk's office.

"When I was first elected, the office had no management system in place at all," Keller said. "The former clerk had everything in his head."

But under Keller's supervision, the office was computerized, a task he said consumed more than 30 hours a week for more than a year.

Before his move to Hawaii, Keller said he attended City Council meetings regularly and met once a month with the staff of the city clerk's office. After he left Hawthorne, he said he checked in with the office regularly by telephone and for a short time continued to fly back for the twice-monthly council meetings.

But he eventually concluded that his presence was unnecessary.

Council members vowed to go forward with Monday's residency hearing if Keller's letter of resignation does not arrive before then or if its contents are too ambiguous to declare the seat vacant.

If Keller's resignation letter is accepted, the council must decide whether to fill the 21 months remaining in the term by appointing a replacement or holding a special election. Three of the five council members said they are inclined to appoint someone rather than spend $50,000 on a November election.

But Keller was quick to offer his advice to the council on how to proceed, cautioning that appointing a replacement would jeopardize the independence of the city clerk's office. He suggested that the council hold a public hearing to determine how residents want the position to be filled.

"If they want to elect somebody who wants to work there full time, that's fine," Keller said, reclining in his office chair. "I think the people should have an opportunity to elect a new city clerk. But if they appoint someone, the voters . . . will lose."

Times staff writers James Rainey and Janet Rae-Dupree in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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