Public Works Director on Leave Effective Immediately | South Pasadena

Over the course of his 28 months in South Pasadena, Abbas has been praised and thanked by city council members, commissioners, and residents alike. But he also picked up the label “Mr. No” among residents who have at times been frustrated with him.

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | Public Works Director Shahid Abbas on leave

Shahid Abbas, who has served as South Pasadena Public Works Director since 2019, is on leave and Deputy Public Works Director Harold Theodore (“Ted”) Gerber has been named acting director of the department, the City of South Pasadena confirmed Friday. No further information was provided.

Attempts to reach Mr. Abbas were unsuccessful.

Meantime a consultant to the city is wrapping up an assessment of the public works department, City Manager Arminé Chaparyan told the South Pasadenan News Monday.

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Over the course of his 28 months in South Pasadena, Abbas has been praised and thanked by city council members, commissioners, and residents alike. But he also picked up the label “Mr. No” among residents who have at times been frustrated with him.

Gerber was appointed “effective immediately,” and all public works questions should be directed to him, according to a recent email Chaparyan sent to the chairs and vice chairs of the three city commissions staffed by the Public Works department—Public Works; Mobility, Transportation & infrastructure; and Natural Resources & Environment. But no information was provided about Abbas who, according to available agenda and minutes, has not attended Public Works or NREC meetings since January, or MTIC since Sept. 21.

Public Works Commission Chair Larry Abelson said a week before the city manager’s email, he reached out to Abbas about a meeting. Abbas told him the timing wouldn’t work, but that he’d reconnect after the weekend. “Then I didn’t hear from him. So it sounds to me like I need to start working with Ted.”

“We had not heard any news about this prior” to the city manager’s email, added Public Works Commission Vice Chair John Fisher. He had no additional information but “would not anticipate” Abbas’ return because of Gerber’s appointment. “I don’t think that action would have been taken” if Abbas was coming back.

Gerber, who unlike Abbas is a licensed California mechanical engineer, lives in Los Angeles and joined the city last May. For nine years prior to that, he held engineering positions in Fountain Valley. His background is in engineering and environmental compliance, and he’s worked in the utility industry for over 17 years, mostly in water and wastewater. He’s completing a master’s degree in environmental law and policy through the University of Arizona and holds bachelor’s degrees in both computer science and mechanical engineer from the University at Buffalo. In May, he told the NREC he applied for the position in part because of the city’s sustainability initiative and South Pasadena’s “progressive culture.”

Abbas, 61, was hired for the job July 8, 2019 by former City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe, shortly after she reorganized Public Works to focus on environmental sustainability. He arrived after three years in Sunnyvale, where was a traffic and transportation manager. Although he took a 36 percent overall cut in total pay and benefits, DeWolfe said at the time the move enabled him and his wife of four decades to be near their three children who live in the “vicinity” of South Pasadena.

He succeeded Dan Ojeda, who’d been interim director since December 2018, when the long-serving Virpal Singh “Paul” Toor left to take a similar position in his home city of Redlands.

Abbas had previously held public works management positions in Virginia and Michigan.

Last February, Abbas offered a list of his department’s accomplishments during 2020. These included: securing over $15 million in grants for the Fremont Avenue “complete street” project and “intelligent transportation system” in the Fair Oaks corridor; paving Camino Del Sol and Alpha Avenue; completing the city’s Climate Action Plan; installation of bicycle shelters and hitches throughout town; trimming 2,100 trees; filling 250 potholes; and many others.

But members of the community have been quietly grumbling about Abbas for some time, writing letters questioning his responsiveness and honesty. Many were incredulous, for example, when he made a presentation to the city council using what they regard as an unreliable study to minimize the seriousness of the speeding problem on Meridian Ave. Then-Council Member Richard Schneider agreed, saying both he and the city attorney believed the study should be redone.

Abbas is a “smart guy who has engineering expertise for sure” said MTIC Chair Abelson. But “some members of the community were not happy with him.” In addition, “there was a level of frustration with our inability to move projects forward as quickly as we thought they could be.”

For example, MTIC spent a lot of time putting together a list on how to spend $1.7 million in Measure R money. Months later, Abbas without notice ditched it and submitted a revised version to city council. After the commission complained, the council “deprogrammed” Abbas’ list and a new one is being prepared. But a lot of time was lost and “we were upset about the changes [he] made without our awareness.”

MTIC Vice Chair Fisher, a retired assistant general manager at LA Department of Transportation, said a couple years ago he and the commission developed a proposal to build a “loop” ramp at Fair Oaks Ave.’s exchange with SR 710–one that would “eliminate the biggest bottleneck in the city. We wanted to see that concept progress and issue some RFPs so it could be developed into a final design using 710 money. We waited and Mr. Abbas indicated he was working on it” but to date, nothing has happened.

Fisher also said the public works department never gathered the traffic and other data, or commissioned the professional study needed, to determine the efficacy of a very controversial stop sign sought for decades by residents of the neighborhood around Oak and Meridian.

Delaine Shane, spokesperson for Save Meridian Avenue for its Residents Together (SMART) Families, said that “for a number of years now, we have felt the director has not heard us.” He put off taking small steps that would help slow traffic in favor a comprehensive Complete Street solution that will take years and cost an enormous amount of money. She said she’d heard Abbas was gone. “No one would tell me why, but SMART Families doesn’t need a reason why he is no longer with the city. We look forward to working with the new acting public work director.”

Although Abbas holds a masters’ degree in management and planning from Cranfield Oxford University in England and a master’s in civil engineering from Michigan State University, he is not licensed under that name as a professional engineer, according to a spokesperson with the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Some California cities, such as Sunnyvale and South Pasadena, do not require the certification, though many list it as a “desirable” quality.

Ben Tansey
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.