City Council | Voters to Decide if City Clerk Should be Appointed

After a heated discussion the motion was set to let voters decide in South Pasadena

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | Councilmember Michael Cacciotti

The South Pasadena City Council on Wednesday night voted to place a measure on November’s ballot asking voters to decide if the office of city clerk should be appointive. The seemingly simple question spurred the longest debate of the evening after a former city clerk spoke against the plan, which will appear on the same ballot as the city’s proposed 0.75 cent sales tax.

The South Pasadena City Clerk has been an elected office since Charles C. Miles won the job during the same February 25, 1888 election in which the city was incorporated. But by 2013, the special skills needed to do the job became so evident that the city bifurcated the job into a professional, appointed position and a “ceremonial,” part-time elected position that has minimal duties, provides no services to the public and, like city council positions, pays $300 per month.

The city didn’t eliminate the elected position because that would have required voter action, according to a report from the city manager’s office. The ballot measure would “complete the process of removing the elected position and delegate full authority to the appointive position.” That position, known as the chief city clerk, demands “professional qualifications and experience requiring technical skills and specialized knowledge of election laws/systems, conflict of interest, records management, public records requirements,” and involves an array of ministerial duties including preparation of city council minutes.

The current city clerk, Evelyn Zneimer, has served in the position since 2013 and was reelected last November in an uncontested vote with 8,610 votes—far more than any of the current councilmembers. She holds a law degree and before being elected served for many years on various city commissions and ad hoc boards. Zneimer did not return a call seeking comment.

The city clerk is also one of the only remaining elected positions subject to a city-wide vote, the city having been forced last year to elect councilmembers by district. The only other city-wide elected official is the treasurer.

The city appears to have made its move now because former Chief City Clerk Marc Donohue, who served in the position for exactly one year, took leave in May for a similar position closer to his home in Eastvale. The deputy city clerk left about the same time.

Sixty-eight percent of California cities have already gone to an appointed city clerk, the council was told, and the trend continues.

The current city clerk, Evelyn Zneimer, has served in the position since 2013 and was reelected last November in an uncontested vote with 8,610 votes—far more than any of the current councilmembers. She holds a law degree and before being elected served for many years on various city commissions and ad hoc boards.

The city appears to have made its move now because former Chief City Clerk Marc Donohue, who served in the position for exactly one year, took leave in May for a similar position closer to his home in Eastvale.

Sixty-eight percent of California cities have already gone to an appointed city clerk, the council was told, and the trend continues.

Sally Kilby, who served as the city’s elected city clerk between 2000 and 2013, when the bifurcation was initiated, and as chief city clerk after the position was created, addressed the council. She said the new position was established because of the professionalism the job requires, but that the elected position was retained “to allow the residents to feel comfortable by electing someone from the community as they had for years.”

Kilby acknowledged the position is “not essential” but said “many long time citizens believe that they would be poorly served without this position.” They may even feel that by eliminating an elected position, “the city is trying to pull something over on them.”

She said it was a mistake to put the question on the same ballot as the sales tax, as the resources needed to adequately educate voters about the clerk issue will be diverted to support the more significant tax matter. She said she’d spoken with former South Pasadena City Manager Sean Joyce, who agreed about the diversion of resources.

Councilman Michael Cacciotti said Kilby made a good point and asked if the matter could be put off until 2020.

Councilwoman Diana Mahmud was concerned that if they did that, both the position of city clerk and the measure to eliminate it would be on the same ballot, creating voter confusion and an awkward situation for anyone running for the position.

Councilmen Robert Joe and Richard Schneider agreed the clerk issue could divert attention from the sales tax, but Mayor Marina Khubesrian said the 2020 ballot was as, if not more, likely to have distracting issues. She also felt that elimination showed fiscal responsibility, since it would save the city money, albeit a few thousand dollars.

There’ll also be council member seats on the ballot in 2020, assistant city manager Lucy Demirjian pointed out. “Its cleaner to do it in 2019 than to do it in 2020.”

“We are not saying that we are going to eliminate the position,” Mayor Khubesrian emphasized. Rather, the city is asking voters if they wish to eliminate it. She said she trusts the community’s ability to field both the tax and clerk issues.

The debate went on another ten minutes with several councilmembers wavering. Some seemed more reassured after hearing that, in addition to an “impartial analysis” by the city attorney, the city council would have the option to write an argument in favor of the measure that would appear on the ballot. The Council was pressed to act because any delay would put them passed the deadline to get it on the November ballot.

At last a vote was taken and the resolution was approved 4-0, with councilmember Schneider abstaining.

Kilby left the meeting disappointed. She acknowledged the city needs a professional clerk, even saying she was not prepared when she ran for the position. But “there are a lot of voters who have always had an elected city clerk who feel that person reports to them directly, and that they don’t want that taken away from them.”

 

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