“I am voting ‘no’ on Measure C,” South Pasadena City Clerk Evelyn Zneimer said last week. Her position may not come as much of a surprise—a yes vote for Measure C on the Nov. 5 ballot would consolidate the position of City Clerk, which has been an elected office since South Pasadena became a city 131 years ago, into an appointed civil service job.
Zneimer said that would be a loss because the position gives citizens an extra layer of oversight. “I am beholden to the people. The hired Chief City Clerk is beholden to the City Manager and to the City Council. Having an elected City Clerk also avoids cronyism,” she told the South Pasadenan News.
A hired city clerk would not be required to live in the city said Zneimer, who also rejects the city’s argument that eliminating the Clerk’s $3,600 annual stipend is a small but welcome cost saving. Putting Measure C on the ballot cost the city $11,000, she argued. “This is a joke. It doesn’t make sense that they are trying to save money when the city itself spends money like water.”
Zneimer’s was a lonely voice back on July 17 when the city voted to place the matter on the ballot — an old guard clinging to a relic of municipal history, retirement of which would promote more efficient and effective operations. But Measure C has snowballed into a catalyst for a small but active group of residents increasingly wary of city management and generated a sharp exchange between the City Clerk and a spokesperson for City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe.
In recent interviews and presentations, Zneimer has said that for two years, she hasn’t been able to meet with DeWolfe, who she says repeatedly cancels planned lunch meetings. This has prevented Zneimer from reporting Brown Act violations and raising other concerns such as a perceived diminution in the role of city commissions. Zneimer says her monthly meetings with City Clerk staff have been halted.
Led by resident Chris Bray, citizens have met at least twice recently to voice related concerns, once outside City Hall after learning the City Council had cancelled its Oct. 16 regular meeting—the last session during which citizens could have expressed concerns or asked questions about Measure C before the election, they noted—and again last Tuesday at Mama’s Brick Oven Pizza and Pasta’s new digs on Fair Oaks where Zneimer also spoke.
“The biggest concern is that the City Manager is consolidating power,” Zneimer told the 20-plus citizens at Mama’s.
Asked about Zneimer’s assertions, South Pasadena city spokesman John Pope replied by email: ”Measure C is not a referendum on the performance of any current or past elected City Clerk. It is unfortunate that Ms. Zneimer has chosen to view it as such and is responding with unsubstantiated and defensive statements. Measure C is a proposal that would align South Pasadena with the majority of California cities that have chosen to eliminate a ceremonial position in favor of a trained, professional City Clerk.
“There are multiple channels for complaints such as Brown Act violations including the city attorney and no such issues were brought to her attention by Ms. Zneimer.”
“Staff refusing to meet with an elected official seems to be no way to run a city and one can only wonder why this has been the case and why the City Council has let this occur,” wrote William Kelly, a city commissioner who read a report about Zneimer’s statements.
The City Manager’s alleged actions would contrast with the vision the city promoted when it agreed to the City Clerk bifurcation in 2013. According to a staff report produced for that vote, “the actual duties and responsibilities of the City Clerk will depend primarily on the knowledge, experience, time commitment, and preference of each elected part time City Clerk.”
In addition to its ceremonial City Clerk, South Pasadena also has a Chief City Clerk, Maria Ayala, who is a regular city employee reporting to the City Manager.
In 2013, at the behest of then-City Manager Sergio Gonzalez and former City Clerk Sally Kilby, the city “bifurcated” the position of City Clerk into the two existing positions. The decision, which transferred the dozen-or-so formal duties of the job to the Chief City Clerk, was made in response to the increasingly complex and legally prescribed duties the job entails.
On the one hand, Zneimer is uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of South Pasadena voters. Unopposed when she first ran in 2014, she garnered 2,173 votes. When she sought reelection last year, again unopposed, she virtually quadrupled her support to 8,610 votes. Zneimer got three-to-four times as many votes as any of the current city council members, who averaged less than 2,050 votes in their most recent elections.
Passage of Measure C would also leave the city with only one position elected city-wide: City Treasurer. Thus far, the city has not announced any plan to reconsider the Treasurer’s elected status, though already about two-thirds of California cities appoint their treasurers.
On the other hand, the staff report accompanying the Council’s July 17 resolution placing Measure C on the ballot gave three principal reasons for it: 1) the vote would complete the City Clerk “conversion” begun in 2013, 2) about 70 percent of California cities have already vested the City Clerk’s duties into “accountable,” appointed employees whose job requirements go well beyond simple residency and voter registration; and 3) elimination would create savings, including the City Clerk’s $300 monthly stipend.
In addition Zneimer, an attorney who also serves as a LA County Superior Court Pro Tem Judge, was unable to cite more than a few substantive actions she’s taken as City Clerk—organizing a meeting with Rep. Judy Chu at the Senior Center in response to some proposed Medicare budget cuts and facilitating restoration of the Meridian Iron Works Museum. She also acknowledged that while she attended all City Council meetings between Nov. 2013 and Dec. 2018, she has this year been going instead to a veterans’ association meeting for whose members she does occasional pro bono work. She said that commitment is now coming to an end.
Zneimer believes Measure C is confusing, and that the city council has done little publicly to educate voters about it. Although the city attorney wrote the “impartial analysis” for the ballot, the City Council did not avail itself of its right to supply an argument in favor and no party filed a statement in opposition.
City Councilman Michael Cacciotti also called the measure confusing when the city authorized it July 17. And so did former City Clerk Sally Kilby, a Measure C supporter who said citizens won’t understand how the position is presently configured with a professional, full-time salaried Chief City Clerk who already performs the job’s statutory duties and an elected ceremonial City Clerk who comes in every so often to sign official documents.
There has also been confusion about how the transition would work. According to Section 3 of the authorizing resolution, passage would “authorize the City Council to appoint a new the (sic) Chief City Clerk immediately.” The accompanying staff report noted “the City Council could, by ordinance, then delegate their appointment authority to the City Manager.” The July 17 package also includes a proposed ordinance that would become effective upon passage. It states that “the city clerk shall hereby be appointed by the City Council” but that the ordinance won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2020.
In an email to a citizen, South Pasadena Mayor Marina Khubesrian explained that if Measure C passes, “the Council would have the opportunity to appoint the current professional chief city clerk (Maria Ayala) to the city clerk position. We would then bring forth an ordinance to delegate the supervision and management of the city clerk position to the City Manager.”
In a separate email, Councilwoman Diana Mahmud told a citizen that Measure C “would not affect the term of the current elected City Clerk which ends in December 2022.”