New Caltrans Houses Bill | Concerns Over Fair Process

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, Council Member Zneimer brought up a concern about the new city attorney’s recent decision to further obscure details......

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | City Council South Pasadena 2021

With the Sept. 28 governor’s approval of SB 381, the city on Wednesday sought to get rolling on its ambitious plan to use its new authority exercise more control over the disposition of dozens of Caltrans properties in town.

On the agenda was a plan to set up an ad hoc implementation committee; to authorize a request for proposals for property and repair estimate professionals for 22 unoccupied homes and homes being considered for acquisition if existing tenants choose not to purchase; and to authorize an evaluation of funding options for the city’s acquisition and rehabilitation of the properties, along with a supporting “home and portfolio financial feasibility analysis.”

PHOTO: State Senator Anthony J. Portantino, 25th Senate District

The new city-sponsored bill authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino allows sale of homes to current tenants and addresses the blight of unoccupied and dilapidated properties, while creating needed affordable housing in town, according to a city staff report. It sets deadlines for Caltrans to sell properties to all current tenants in good standing at any income level and gives the city the chance to buy the 22 unoccupied properties at Caltrans’ original, 1960s-era acquisition prices in exchange for assuring affordable housing covenants.

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But after a long discussion during which Caltrans tenants, who as a group did not favor SB 381 and raised issues about the details, the city decided to put off action until November pending a broad community meeting with the senator.

“Portantino tried as hard as he could to negotiate on behalf of the tenants,” said Mayor Diana Mahmud, who spearheaded the legislation. “But he also wanted to make sure it was veto proof.” So, where there was significant opposition from Caltrans that would threaten the bill, “he ended up agreeing to modifications,” she said. The bill was amended six times.

“Sometimes when you’re making sausage you don’t get everything you want,” said Council Member Jon Primuth, so “not everything on the wish list could be delivered.”

“My family continues to support a simple and direct process as developed by the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation,” wrote Delaine Shane. “Your top-down approach is not supported by those of us who will be DIRECTLY affected.”

“The last thing we need is additional bureaucratic red tape,” wrote Caltrans tenant Linda Esposito in a comment letter. She favors a “collective[ly] negotiated solution.”

Another tenant, Andrea Weinbrecht, sent in a letter giving the history of her family’s emotional and unpleasant experience trying to buy their Caltrans home. “The constant changing of the rules and regulations have left us in the position of footing the bill or risk being evicted.”

In addition, City Manager Arminé Chaparyan said she needed more direction from the Council “on what I am bringing back” to the November meeting.

Council Member Michael Cacciotti said he wants more specifics on the ad hoc committee role and membership, and on cost to assemble the RFP and what types of financing tenants may wish to pursue, such as “side-by-side” escrows. Council Member Evelyn Zneimer noted a side-by-side was used for Caltrans sale of 2003 Berkshire, but Mayor Mahmud said that transaction may not have been legal. Councilman Jack Donovan noted that side-by-side escrows are not even mentioned in SB 381.

Chaparyan said she wants time to organize and advertise the community meeting, but said she thought it could still take place in October. “The more people are in attendance, the better.”

The city is planning to take community input on the many policy choices that will have to be made. Staff has met with Caltrans “to establish a good working relationship” as the agency prepares the necessary emergency regulations that will need to be approved. In the meantime, Caltrans could continue to make sales under the existing Affordable Sale Program provisions, though it is unclear if it intends to do so or to wait until the new emergency regulations are adopted.

CivicStone, the city existing consultant, would prepare the RFP and explore the funding options for acquisition and rehab. The city would like to hold community input meetings in October and November, issue the RFP in November and approve a property inspection and repair estimate in January.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, Council Member Zneimer brought up a concern about the new city attorney’s recent decision to further obscure details in his law firm’s public billings for how much the city spends on specific legal cases.

Zneimer, an attorney, said she did not see the harm in itemizing how much the city is spending on which case and further fleshing out the so-called “special projects” line item. She noted that in years past, the warrants regularly spelled out case numbers and costs, and said doing so would be of value to public. Council Member Jon Primuth, also an attorney, agreed.

City attorney Andrew Jared said the city was more transparent in years past, but more recently began assigning generic numbers to most cases. But as these settled out, “it became more obvious” which case was which. Under a 2016 California Supreme Court ruling, “no part of the invoice, including the total, is required to be reported” for ongoing cases, he said.

That’s why Jared decided to make the warrants “more anonymous.” But he said the public is entitled to know how much is being spent, “and the warrant register does that for the city’s various law firms. What is not required to be disclosed is how much is spent in real time on each case.”

Monthly spelling out how much is being spent on each case also puts the city at a “tactical disadvantage,” as legal opponents can draw conclusions about litigation strategy, he added. Mayor Mahmud, also an attorney, agreed.

Using generic terminology serves to “protect the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege,” Jared said. He noted law firms doing personnel work for the city do not report by case name.

However, many personnel matters are handled through confidential internal or administrative proceedings, rather than in public court dockets.

Zneimer noted the Supreme Court ruling did not prohibit disclosure of case names.

Primuth recommended the city attorney review each case. As long as case name and cost details would not prejudice the city’s legal position, then details should be disclosed. Mahmud added that she thought more could be disclosed about the “special projects” line item. Jared was charged with coming back with a policy recommendation.

Also Wednesday, the council got another earful from citizens demanding that City Manager Chaparyan’s announced plan for an “assessment” of the police department include a “rachial bias” component. Ten persons made their concern in public testimony and six more offered written comment, including one signed by supporters of three local social justice groups that itemized nine items for an “operational” audit and three more for the racial bias audit. Much of the public testimony called for “rooting out” officers with “extremist views” and asserting that other police departments across the nation are undertaking such reviews in response to reports that law enforcement and military personnel were among those who participated in the January 6 assault on the US Capitol. Among other things, the social justice groups want an examination of officers’ social media postings.

None of the Council members responded and Chaparyan offered no comment on any city issues during the agenda item set aside for city manager communications.

The Council also received new written comments on the status of the moribund Animal Commission, the prospective disbanding of which was the subject of a long discussion at the Council’s Sept. Sept. 15 meeting, where it was ultimately deferred to allow Chaparyan more time to iron out conflicting sentiments.

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. He and his wife Karin, an arts administrator from El Sereno, live in South Pasadena.