City Council Scuffle | Call for Disclosure Over Cell Tower Negotiations

Item on the closed session portion of last week's city council agenda prompts argument over clarity

PHOTO: Lauren Thomas | News | City of South Pasadena water tower where, the to the left, cell towers can be visibly be seen

When Alan Ehrlich saw the agenda for the closed session of last Wednesday’s South Pasadena City Council session, he grew concerned. There was a single item labeled “conference with real property negotiators.” It listed three addresses around town: the city’s parks and recreation office, its golf course, one across the street from the Billickie water tower, and a fourth with a more sketchy description somewhere in Arroyo Park. Listed as “negotiators” were the city manager and attorney while the “negotiating party” was TowerPoint Acquisitions, LLC.

“So what I see here are three large parcels of public property” for which there is some kind of property negotiation going on, “but the residents have no idea what the negotiation is about and I think we’re entitled to know,” he told the Council during its public session.

Most often public comments are heard but produce no response from councilmembers. This time was different. Fourth District Councilmember Michael Cacciotti shared Ehrlich’s concern. He asked his colleagues if they shouldn’t be more specific. He hadn’t known of the matter himself until the closed session, which took place right before the regular open session. “It wasn’t in my packet.”

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“This is the reason that I fought 22 years ago to save the Arroyo Nature Park,” Cacciotti said, passion rising in his voice. There was something on the agenda about a property sale, but it was vague. “You’ve got to be more specific,” he told the city then, “because you are not telling me what you are selling. We found out it was the Nature Park. We organized.” The city could offer more information without going into detail. “Otherwise this looks very nebulous, and I’d be concerned too.”

“We cannot go into the detail of the issue,” said acting city attorney Andrew Jared, adding he could disclose “this is not in relation to a sale of the property; it deals with existing leases on city-owned property.”

“But it’s not property,” Cacciotti shot back. “It’s actually equipment on property.” He asked if they could say it’s about a “cell tower or something like that?” The agenda item “shows a massive heap of property. Alan’s right. Are we selling a soccer field? A baseball field? I can’t tell.” Failure to say more, he asserted, would violate state disclosure law and government code.

“It has been properly noticed,” Jared replied. “We shouldn’t go any further.”

Second district Councilmember Marina Khubesrian said if an actual contract or sale emerges, “that would be discussed at the open session. What we’re looking at is very preliminary and not appropriate to put forth.”

Fifth District Councilmember Diana Mahmud agreed.

When the city was trying to sell the Arroyo property, Cacciotti persisted, “I said wait a second, you’re negotiating right now and we the public don’t have a chance to say: ‘No! Stop! You’re going to have a contract and then vote on it when we have no idea what you’re voting on.’”

The discussion went no further, but attentive citizens read the tea leaves. Cacciotti had mentioned cell towers and that TowerPoint Acquisitions LLC is a six-year-old California subsidiary of the Atlanta-based TowerPoint Capital, a telecommunications infrastructure and real estate investment company.

Moreover, last summer the city prepared a request for qualifications for “a qualified cell tower lease consultant,” which said “[t]he primary purpose of the consultant is to assist City staff with the management of multiple cell tower lease agreements, ensuring effective legal negotiations with optimal financial gain.”

The City has seven cell towers at four locations, some of which have been previously leased to companies such as Cingular Wireless. “Contracts vary in price range, terms and companies,” the RFQ explains. “The City is looking to have each contract evaluated, a few renegotiated, monitoring compliance and strategies for future cell towers and lease options through other cellular contacts such as Black Dot, who are looking to take over certain cellular contract[s].”

The RFQ also lists the city’s cell towers: two at Arroyo Park; one at Orange Grove Park; one at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course; and three at the Billicke water tower.

It is unclear if bids were received or a contract awarded. However in its “estimated timeline,” the RFQ made clear that city staff was uncertain whether any contract that was negotiated would require City Council approval.


Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.


  1. I’m grateful to Alan Ehrlich for raising the point, and glad that Councilmember Cacciotti defended the right of the public to have reliable information about its local government. A shame that the pro-transparency group is a minority on the city council.