Op-Ed | When the Chips are Down…

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | Water tower and valley below, showcasing the 'City of Trees', South Pasadena

Publishers Note: Alison Smith made a claim and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the City of South Pasadena in connection with a January 2018 sewage spill that flooded the backyard of her home on Hanscom Drive. The case received local publicity. Now, with the filing last month of a settlement in the case, Smith desires to offer the following statement to the community.

By Alison Smith

“When the chips are down, look who’s around.” One of my mama’s many sayings as a hard-working midwestern single mom of three. I learned a lot from that woman and I appreciate all of those life tips even more since I lost her in 2017. I am my mother’s daughter in many ways, however, I have broken unhealthy generational patterns as well.

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My mom used to take her problems, her heartaches, and her broken dreams and stuff them down in a pillowcase and then throw that pillowcase over her shoulder and carry it around with her in life. Unfortunately, it weighed heavy on her. If you happen to be someone she met on an airplane, park bench or simply in a grocery store and you gave her more than five minutes of your time, you could hear all about those pillowcase items as she would dredge them up, one by one and let you know how they were all part of her story.

Yes, we are a culmination of many happenstances in our lives, but none of that needs to define us, correct? What matters is that we learn from those heartbreaks, move through them, and then on to the other side to strengthen our souls, our hearts, and our reasons for being here. With that, I am not gonna stuff anything down, I never have. My gift and my curse.

After four years of litigation I just stumbled into, please know everything about my being is stronger and I will not let this define me as well. Lord knows I don’t want to be known or remembered as the “poop yard family” or “Sewage Smith.” And yes, I walked away with a settlement. A settlement that will pay for my attorneys, a new sewer lateral that isn’t needed, and the IRS.

Nothing more.

PHOTO: Alison Smith | South Pasadenan.com News | Alison with her family

As I was in the backyard this past holiday weekend, I sighed to myself. A rolled-up, piece of sewage-soaked fake grass remains, as it was too heavy for any workers to carry away. The toys, lawn furniture, and landscaping were never repaired or replaced and they won’t be for a while. This was the only thing I had in my original claim. I am not complaining, I am stating. Because I want you, the citizens of South Pasadena, to know that this was never looked upon as a lottery ticket in the first place.

But Alison? Then why did you have a million-dollar lawsuit against the City only months after the sewage spill? You have every reason to ask.

When this began, it was a $4,000 claim to the City of South Pasadena. All I wanted was for my yard to be cleaned up, the toys and yard furniture to be replaced, and my peace of mind restored. After months of non-response, I was encouraged to get a lawyer to simply write a letter with their legal stamp so I could get my $4,000 back.

So, that’s what I did. I hired a lawyer to come over to my home, explain the situation, and hope that he would be willing to write this legal form letter. Well, the lawyer came to my home, looked in my backyard, met my children, and sat me down at my dining table. He explained what had happened was an environmental hazard. That 30-plus hours of raw sewage spilling on my property without the City’s quick response was irresponsible, negligent, and many many other fancy terms that lawyers use to professionally reframe the situation and also to scare the sh#$% out of you.

He emphasized that the City representative telling me to “close my windows and doors and not to let my children or pets go into the backyard until this was resolved” was a reckless statement. How the City did not immediately remove me from the premises and put my family up at a hotel was an “abomination” in his eyes. How we have no idea the effects this could have on my children, their health, and my health. He did scare me, but he wasn’t wrong about any of this. All of that was the core of my opening litigation against the City. All he had to say was “children’s health” and that was that. I was suing a city I loved.

We all know what happened after that. Months later, I went to the city council meeting with my children and had my 3 minutes asking for a peaceful resolution. It snowballed from there. An article was written. The citizens came forward in my support and then, my home was searched with a warrant that included police presence and forcible entry if necessary.

That was not fun. I can say that so flippantly because I have already been through much therapy to gather the tools so I won’t go into state or hives or heart palpitations when I speak of this happening. This also opened the doors for a few good–no, great people (warriors really) to dig their heels down and find out WHY this was happening.

My case was the catalyst to discovering a lack of an active Sewer System Management Plan (SSMP), which thanks to those warriors has been implemented recently in 2022. My case also cracked open a nut of scrupulous dealings, fake email accounts, serious problems with the budget, dishonesty, and overall non-transparency. Again, it was my case… I am not taking the credit for any of this, as it was those great warriors I mentioned before that were taking on these tasks AND still had the energy to hold my hand and heart through one of the toughest times in my entire life.

I am writing to you to let you know what these people did. How much of their time and reputations they sacrificed. I ask of you to acknowledge them as heroes who are making a difference in the town that you live in. Not troublemakers, nor conspiracy theorists. Highly intelligent, methodical, empathetic, brave souls who stand up for others when they see something is not right, fair or just.

People who can take themselves out of the equation and see things from an omniscient point of view and gather facts, educate themselves on case law, city codes, hidden answers in wordy documentation, and much much more in foreign wheelhouses as well as their own. People who spent countless hours to crack open the truth so that we can go about our 4th of July parades, our Farmers Markets, our wonderful schools, and our hometown greatness while staying almost oblivious to the seedy underbelly that was taking over.

These people are the heroes. Not just because they are my friends, but because they are stand up, decent, resilient human beings who want the best for the people in this town.

When the chips are down, look who’s around. I looked around and so, I would like to thank them publicly. I won’t use last names except for one exceptional couple whose names should be engraved on something admirable and permanent in South Pasadena.

Please know I appreciated the quiet support as well. All support was and is invaluable. You know who you are.

First and foremost: Stephen and Sheila Rossi

Sam & Sheila



And of course, my children, Rowan, Arthur and Aliza