“Tough challenges to a particular point of view, and criticism of ideas and information are legitimate elements of a free democracy,” according the Code of Conduct set for adoption at last Wednesday’s South Pasadena City Council meeting. “This does not allow, however, public officials to make belligerent, personal, impertinent,” or other types of disparaging comments, it states.
Not only was the Code pulled from the agenda and deferred due to complaints it was offered without sufficient consultation from the City’s disgruntled Public Safety Commission, so too went the intent of its admonition on board interactions when Councilmembers Marina Khubesrian and Michael Cacciotti angrily denounced each other as being “out of touch” with South Pasadenans.
At four hours and 46 minutes, the city’s COVID-inspired, first-ever virtual public meeting may also have been one of its longest. It began 20 minutes late, each member settled in before screens and cameras at their respective homes, offering unique glimpses into their personal living spaces—Khubesrian’s frameless art; Cacciotti’s colorful Japanese folding screen; Richard Schneider’s dark, pitched-ceiling office; Diana Mahmud, staring off screen, wearing a headphone in front of a black-and-white backdrop of the city’s historical museum; and Mayor Robert Joe, his eyebrows frequently cut off by the top of the screen as framed horses galloped behind him.
For well over three hours, the session progressed through an interesting but tedious parade of department heads reporting on the extraordinary steps employees have taken to keep the city running even as most work from home in deference to an invisible and deadly virus.
But as midnight neared and having been warned by City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe that expenses and losses due to the pandemic would leave “a major chunk of missing revenue” in the budget, Councilmembers labored over items on the lengthy but normally uncontroversial list of payments which at this meeting totaled $1.8 million.
His tone growing increasingly passionate, Cacciotti questioned a number of them—a $68,300.49 legal bill that the city attorney said was due in part to an “inordinate” number of public record requests–some demanding up to 7,000 documents; $7,575 for a Sacramento lobbyist Cacciotti said the city doesn’t need; and $2,155.34 in purchases from a store outside the city that he said should have been done in town to recoup the city’s share of sales tax.
But his exasperation peaked when he came to the $12,187.50 payment for Fallbrook, CA-based RMG Communications, which bills $125/hour for 15 hours a week to serve as an “on call public information officer (PIO).” Cacciotti said the city doesn’t need it or the recently renewed $24,750 PIO contract with Pleasanton, CA-based SAE Communications.
There are so many such contracts—all, he noted, just under the $25,000 threshold for which the City Manager requires Council approval–that they are difficult to track, Cacciotti said derisively, adding they serve needs better met through adroit management of existing resources.
“Many of my residents are very concerned about how much money the city is spending” and want the contracts cancelled immediately, he said. “And I support them 110 percent.”
Fatefully, a six-week, $12,000 extension of the $24,375 RMG contract, like the Code of Conduct item, was pulled from the consent agenda for separate consideration. The city has decided not to fill the vacancy in its staff PIO position, requiring the extension to bridge the gap until next summer when a new PIO consultant can be selected and engaged.
In keeping with the protocol set for the teleconference, the clerk read 150-word versions of the four public comments—all opposed—submitted by Jan Marshall, Alan Ehrlich, Delaine Shane and Joanne Nuckols, the last of whom complained RMG failed to communicate with the public on coronavirus and warned: “People are paying attention and will remember this expenditure if you approve it.”
Ehrlich argued the city has generated exactly one message to its citizens on coronavirus awareness, compared to 28 messages sent to parents by the School District which has no PIO.
But during her update on the Management Services Department, Lucy Demirjian, Assistant to the City Manager, reported that since March the city has produced 13 COVID-related news releases and redesigned its website to feature COVID information.
“It’s unfortunate that people who have been counting have not received the notices,” Councilwoman Diana Mahmud said evenly. She defended the need for and cost of the contract extension but lamented the city’s no-win situation: people complain both that the city is not communicating enough and spending too much when it tries to communicate more. “We’re getting whip-sawed.”
Khubesrian said two comments supporting the RMG extension arrived after the deadline. She complained about the complainers, saying her constituents ask, “Why is it the same people? It seems like they are never happy about anything.” She said “it’s hard to put a lot of credibility in that when it seems like the aim is to constantly have this gaze of negativity. A majority of our residents are very satisfied with how the city is running things. Now is not the time to disassemble our communications strategy.”
Councilman Richard Schneider said simply, “I think we are in financial trouble and I am not going to vote for a $12,000 expenditure for a PIO.”
“My thoughts are somewhat similar,” said Mayor Robert Joe, the deciding vote. “We need to look at all of these contracts because we are in a very serious budget situation.”
DeWolfe stressed the “specialized skills” of a professional PIO. She described Ehrlich’s comment that only one press release went out as “laughable”. There were many dozens of postings and press releases and other contacts concerning COVID. She said the city’s communication efforts on coronavirus have been as good or better than other small cities, and warned no one on staff has the skill to maintain it. “I share the confusion that if communication is a priority, why would we then reduce the amount of resources we’re allocating to communication?”
“There is no winning with a certain group of people” who complain all the time about spending, Khubesrian said, even as the same people drive up the city’s public record response costs, which come in “way more” than the proposed $12,000 RMG extension.
“I wish it was only a few residents,” Cacciotti shot back. “But actually there’s many residents complaining about access to city management—”
“No one is complaining about that!” Khubesrian interrupted, quickly apologizing after Cacciotti called it out.
Glaring and shaking his finger at the screen, Cacciotti demanded to see a complete organizational chart of the administrative side of the city and their responsibilities. “I don’t know what’s going on. So many people have quit or left.” In 19 years on the Council he said, there’d never been a need for so many PIO consultants. Why are they needed now?
Khubesrian said she couldn’t understand why Cacciotti felt as he did. She feels “connected” with all the decisions that have been made, including the consultants. “You and I have such a different experience of all this. I know you work a lot. I think you’re a little bit out of touch, Michael. I’m sorry, but that’s my opinion.”
“Marina, actually you’re very out of touch,” Cacciotti answered. “All the residents I talk to give me a totally different opinion.”
“Guess what? They’re not on the Council, Michael. I am.”
Councilmember Mahmud and Mayor Joe then reined in their colleagues.
Before the contract extension failed on a rare 3-2 vote, the discussion closed with Mahmud’s warning that its rejection would result in a “decrease in the quality and quantity of the communications” staff produces, as there is no one who can be pulled from another department to do it. Without the contract, “we going to face increasing criticism regarding our communications.”
The media will not get responses as quickly, Khubesrian noted. The website won’t get updated and there be less social media output and public outreach.
This will occur even as the city ramps up in coming weeks to finalize both its new annual budget and the critical housing element of its 20-year General Plan.
The meeting adjourned at 12:35 a.m.