City Council South Pasadena | Primuth Apologizes, Finance Ad Hoc Reauthorized

South Pasadena City Council Meeting March 1st, 2024. Jon Primuth makes an apology for previous comments made about Finance Commissioner Sheila Rossi and the work she brought to light.
screencap: South Pasadena City Council Meeting March 1st, 2024. Jon Primuth makes an apology for previous comments made about Finance Commissioner Sheila Rossi and the work she brought to light.

In another dramatic reversal, the South Pasadena City Council last Wednesday unanimously voted to re-instate the financial advisory board it abruptly dissolved only six weeks earlier. The lead up to the vote featured an apology from Council Member Jon Primuth for comments he made about Sheila Rossi, Vice Chair of the newly reauthorized Finance Ad Hoc Committee (FAHC).

Despite impassioned pleas from a group of influential citizens, council members initially seemed poised to reject reinstatement. The fog over what drove the alarming deficit projections that  prompted Council in February to create the FAHC was clearing; possible savings in the current fiscal budget that ends June 30 were emerging; and both Council and its standing Finance Commission had since approved the mid-year budget report they’d previously delayed in the wake of the deficit projections.

“Their work is done,” Council Member Jack Donovan said of the FAHC.

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Council Member Michael Cacciotti said a renewed FAHC would constitute an unduly heavy demand and inefficient use of staff, particularly in light of the many recent and planned joint council- finance commission meetings. He rejected the mayor’s notion there is a “fiscal emergency” and other “sensationalized” descriptions of the budget, suggested the city spends too much on the finance commission now and blamed concerns over “chronic instability” in finance department staffing on “pressure and comments from community members creating an unwelcome and stressful employment environment.”

But then Primuth, who on March 20 cited Rossi’s “misrepresentations” as the reason for both his loss of confidence in and vote to kill the FAHC, read a long prepared statement. “People are worried the city is running at too much of a deficit. They’re concerned about the integrity of the city’s financial reporting. They are concerned about the anger with which some council members” spoke of the FAHC. “That would have been me.”

Although it was not his intent, Primuth said, “it appears my words had the impact of accusing her of intentionally misrepresenting. And for that I apologize.”

Starting with some “background,” Primuth then explained why he now felt the FAHC should be re-instated. Since the vote to disband it, Finance Director John Downs apologized for the “financial reporting discrepancies that had caused so much turmoil.” One citizen told Primuth he’d counted six times incorrect reports had been pushed out. This caused “a collapse of confidence in some people in the city’s own numbers.”

Now the department is producing reliable monthly reports, though “more improvement is needed” Primuth continued. The alarming projections were based on an inflated baseline. Council and the Finance Commission have taken steps to ensure more reliable projections, given staff direction to update policies, and discerned long- and short-term cost saving–without major staff cuts–by recognizing a slowdown in capital improvement spending, savings from budgeted-but-unfilled staff positions, and that some large costs–such as Caltrans housing, legal expenses, temporary contract staffing, and Housing Element development–are one-time or diminishing expenses.

The city’s financial troubles must be addressed in a way that is “transparent, collaborative and respectful,” Primuth concluded. The FAHC, with its original four members, should now be charged with making recommendations on how the city can improve its financial reporting, precisely because they have experienced what things are like without it. Therefore “they should be the ones to lead the way. That will improve public confidence.”

“There’s been a kerfuffle over the last couple months,” summarized Council Member Janet Braun, who along with Mayor Evelyn Zneimer and citizens Peter Giulioni and Sheila Rossi made up the FAHC. But it’s been good, because it brought out issues–“where things stand, what needs to be looked at.” Sometime, Braun said, “you need a little bit of kerfuffle to get to the bottom line.”

She said the FAHC should be reauthorized to focus on actual financial figures and the protocols for their presentation, rather than be left trying to reconcile budget figures with unreliable or unavailable interim actuals. The FAHC could also help with prioritization of the capital improvement program (CIP).

Mayor Zneimer agreed, adding the FAHC could address the “inadequacies” of the city’s Springbrook financial software, the antiquity of which has contributed to the financial reporting problems.

Citing the heavy calendar of budget meetings and milestones over the next month, and a renewed sense that council, finance commission and finance staff are working more smoothly together, the council ultimately elected reauthorize the FAHC to commence in July after the new budget is adopted, and charged it with reviewing the city’s year-end actual financial results, making  recommendations for the presentation and reporting of the actuals, and advising on CIP priorities.



Ben Tansey
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.