New Councilmember | Braun to Focus on Trust, Planning and Governance

South Pasadena’s new councilmember, to be sworn in tonight, vows to support rebid of city legal services, discusses other Issues and her decision to run.

PHOTO: Janet Braun | South Pasadenan.com News | District 5 Councilmember Janet Braun

Janet Braun, slated to be sworn in tonight as the councilmember from South Pasadena’s Fifth District, told the South Pasadenan News last week she will support rebidding the city’s legal services and is prepared to make the motion herself.

Braun said she’s been told the matter is set to come before the council soon. While saying she has much to learn about the city’s legal posture, “I will tell you what I told Andrew Jared, the current city attorney from the law firm Colantuono, Highsmith and Whatley: “I believe that a new firm would be helpful because I think there is a lot of mistrust, and when you have the mistrust of the public, that is a problem.”

CHW partner and assistant city attorney Teresa Highsmith, along with the firm’s advice, strategy and billings, have been the source of considerable controversy over the last several years. Meantime, its biggest boosters among city leadership have attritted steadily with the resignation of former Mayor Marina Khubesrian, the firing of former City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe, and the decision this year not to seek re-election by Council Member Diana Mahmud, whose seat Braun won after running unopposed in last month’s election.

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CHW is welcome to bid on any request for proposals the city issues, but Braun said she told Jared she sees CHW as “a litigation firm.” As a businessperson and corporate lawyer, “I am about solutions” and avoiding litigation. “Not that they are trying to make things into litigation, but it’s a mindset. When you are primarily a litigator, you look at the world a little differently.”

Invoking caveats about the scope of her knowledge of the case, Braun cited the example of the city’s legal epic battle over the cause of a sewer leak at the home of citizen Alison Smith, suggesting the litigation may have been avoidable. “Why should we be in a position where we are in a courtroom with her in the first place?”

Braun said her decision to run for council came because the “time was right.” She’s served the city on the Planning and Public Safety commissions for a total of 10 years; been deeply involved in AYSO leadership on the local, regional and national level; traveled to three state in support of Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign; gotten to know regional political leaders while working on get-out-the-vote efforts; and had been repeatedly asked to consider running for city council.

Last August, she and her colleagues at HBT-Labs–a pharmaceutical that focuses on the advancement of specialized drugs and delivery systems where she has served as COO and general counsel–closed a deal to sell the firm, though Braun will remain a paid consultant to the new owners at least through next summer.

Braun’s status as an attorney means the council will maintain its high quotient of lawyers—four of the five are all members of the bar. But “I am not a litigator. I have never been to court in my life.” Braun’s negotiated “a ton of settlements and agreements” and her take is litigation “should be a last resort. You should try hard to find solutions that will work for everybody, even if each person is not 100 percent satisfied.”

Braun said “many people are frustrated with politics right now,” and that the time came for her to start “focusing locally.” She believes she has “a good skill set to bring to the city council. So, everything just came together at the right time.”

Over the last 10 years, while some city council members have been open, “there are others who are less so. There are a lot of members of the public who feel the Council was not honest and open about things. I don’t know if that is true, but there is a perception, and perception becomes reality.”

“We have to get people more engaged. We need to establish trust again.” Whether locally, statewide or nationally, “people are getting skeptical of politics in general.” To better establish trust, she cites her own skills. “I am very open to critique, a very good listener and open to discussion.” No one likes criticism, “but instead of clamming up, you have to open up and say, ‘let me hear more.’”

Another priority, she said, is the need for the City “to get on top of our finance department.” The city manager and interim finance director are working on this, but “we have got to put structure around the Finance Department and understand our audited financial statements, our auditor and our budgeting and contract processes.” She decried the steady stream of interim directors over the past two-plus years.

“Finance is the underpinning of everything” and plays into the trust issue, Braun noted, adding she has “no basis to believe there has been any financial wrongdoing in the department, “but let’s get that stabilized before it becomes fodder for something going wrong.”

“Any corporate person would tell you, you have to have adequate internal controls, reporting to city council and other processes and procedures in place. Those are the things that help you make sure there is no internal wrongdoing.” City Manager Arminé Chaparyan has working on those, “so kudos to her, but that is what has been lacking.” Braun emphasized she “has a lot of confidence” in Chaparyan.

Braun said another pressing issue is certification of the city’s housing element, a critical portion of the general plan. The state has already rejected three drafts filed by the city, and another was submitted this month. Meantime, the city is vulnerable to the so-called “builder’s remedy” under which developers who submit projects that are 20 percent affordable housing do not have to comply with a city’s zoning ordinance or general plan.

Braun, who serves on the Planning Commission, blamed the failures of the housing element in part of Placeworks, the housing element contractor recently fired by the city. “They weren’t doing a good job,” offering old approaches even as the state upped its scrutiny of housing element requirements and dramatically increased the number of housing units cities must plan for.

In addition, the planning department “has been in a state of disarray for years” with significant turnover in directors and staff. Braun believes the city did not present the public or the Planning Commission with housing element drafts in a timely fashion. Moreover, the Planning Commission was not asked to work on the housing element but rather to review drafts brought in by planning staff.

In what was a recurring theme, Braun said it would also have been helpful to have appointed a “committee of residents” to help develop the housing element.

On Caltrans, Braun said she’s personally visited all 20 of the properties Caltrans has offered to sell the City under SB 381 and which the City has been inspecting and appraising in preparation to make an offer. “I generally do not think the City should be involved in the real estate business,” but does want to see the properties remain as single-family residences. “Those homes are not where we should be looking for multi-family affordable housing.” She wants to find “the best way for us to minimize our time in the real estate business, return the home back to their neighborhoods, and do that with Caltrans.”

Braun believes the homes would be better off owner-occupied. Asked whether she prefers the approach under SB 381 under which the properties would initially be sold to the City, and that of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation which contemplates bilateral transactions between Caltrans and private owners, Braun said that she believes while the City is “legally bound” to the rules under SB 381, it should still work with Caltrans “to see if there are alternative ways to get this done.”

Developing infrastructure and completing the longer-delayed general and downtown specific plans are also big priorities for the new council member.

Braun raised the unique idea of having regular citizens sit on the various regional boards that are normally staffed by council members. Some of these, such as the Southern California Association of Governments and Clean Power Alliance, require board members. But “we have so many people [in town] with lots of knowledge and talent. Why rely on the same five people to serve on so many boards?”

 


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.