Stephen Rossi, whose exposition of discrepancies in the South Pasadena budget and signature plan to clean up the city’s finances by election day won him an appointment to finish out the 13-week term left after the resignation of Dr. Marina Khubesrian, told the South Pasadenan News Thursday he will commence a write-in campaign for a full term on the Council.
The move should re-energize the District 2 campaign, which became a snoozer last month after Khubesrian and one other prospective candidate dropped out, leaving only long-time resident John J. Donovan in the race.
Rossi had earlier encouraged the Council to appoint Donovan. When asked at the Council’s Aug. 19 meeting if anyone had contacted Donovan about the matter Mayor Robert Joe said, “Yes. He is not interested.” However Donovan denies that, saying he told the chief city clerk only that he wanted to wait to find out if the Council intended to fill the seat and if so, how it would go about doing so.
The Council decided to interview candidates and on Sept. 2 selected and swore in Rossi on the strength of his plan for an ad hoc finance committee that would ride herd over the city’s efforts to get its overdue 2018-19 audit and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) completed, begin work on the new audit and CAFR, finish the delayed 2020-21 budget, and take other actions so voters can have a clear picture of the city’s finances before voting on whether to renew the 7.5 percent Utility Users Tax.
“The delays caused over the last couple weeks and the additional information I’ve learned in the last week make it clear to me the issues are larger than I initially anticipated.” Rossi said he’d provide more detail on these issues during a presentation to the Finance Commission Thursday, Sept. 24. That’s the same day the Commission is set to get its first look at the much awaited 2018-19 draft audit and CAFR.
Rossi conceded he’d previously indicated he had no intention of running for a full term on the Council. “Now that I am sitting here and seeing with better visibility the depth of the issues at hand,” he realizes “it is going to take longer.” That’s because in addition to the audit and budget goals, there are significant “processes and procedural” matters to rectify, such as the city’s failure to have any month-end closing procedures — something he said the recently-departed city manager disclosed to him only last week.
In addition, Rossi’s ad hoc committee proposal hit a roadblock at Wednesday’s Council meeting after District 5 Councilmember Diana Mahmud noted the charter for the city’s standing Finance Commission covers all the issues Rossi wants the ad hoc committee to tackle.
“We previously have had turf battles” among the commissions, Mahmud said. “It does a disservice to the people who have applied and committed themselves to work for the benefit of our city through our finance commission” not to consult them. She said Rossi and the commission should negotiate “who’s doing what.”
Three of the five members of the Finance Commission have already given their informal support for the ad hoc committee, Rossi replied. Two— chair Fred Findley and commissioner Ed Elsner — said they were willing to serve on it. Rossi also wanted two members of the community and already had volunteers — Ed Corey, a former Finance Commission and Gregory S. Chun, a finance and restructuring professional and CEO of Greco Technologies. He also wanted “up to” two Councilmembers including himself. No other Councilmember expressed interest Wednesday.
Mahmud also said she was uncomfortable designating ad hoc committee members. The city should instead advertise for the community volunteers and have the Finance Commission make recommendations on who should serve. Mayor Robert Joe agreed.
Initially, District 3 Councilmember Richard Schneider and District 4 Councilmember Michael Cacciotti both supported Rossi’s plan as presented.
But then the Council discussed whether the ad hoc committee would be subject to Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires governing bodies including commissions to provide public access to and notice of their meetings. While saying he is prepared to release any information the ad hoc committee works with, Rossi told the South Pasadenan News that falling outside the Brown Act would allow the committee “to meet more flexibly, which is important given the time constraints.”
“If the proposed ad hoc finance committee would be assigned to help work with staff in the Finance Department regarding operational matters, then (it) would not be subject to the Brown Act,” staff wrote in the agenda item report. But if is assigned a “policy making advisory power,” it would be.
Rossi and Mahmud disagreed whether the committee would fall under Brown. City Attorney Teresa Hightower, while saying it is something the Council must decide, opined that “the description of what they would do sounds very much what the Finance Commission already does, which would make it a Brown Act commission.”
Hence the unanimous referral to the Finance Commission to further refine what the distinctions will be between its work and the ad hoc committee. But any recommendation made by the Finance Commission can’t be authorized by the Council until it meets next on October 7, leaving less than a month for the committee to complete its work before the election.
Meantime Rossi continues to familiarize himself with the city’s personnel and operations. He had a long talk with Treasurer Gary Pia in which a number of significant changes were identified to make the city’s monthly investment report more transparent, something the Treasurer is expected to report on at Thursday’s Finance Commission meeting.
“A lot has happened in a short amount of time.” Rossi said Finance Department staff have been “wonderful and welcoming” and that he’s spoken to everyone in the department. He does not anticipate any staff changes. “If anything, I think they need more resources.”
Rossi has sought to assure staff the ad hoc committee’s goal “is not to restructure the department but to help give them the support they need to get the right procedures and policies in place. They want to get caught up, do the right thing and make sure we do not fall this far behind again.”