SOUTH PASADENA — Depending on whom you talk to, a petition in favor of direct election of the mayor that a citizens group intends to circulate among registered voters is either a long-delayed reform or an "ego trip" on the part of one city councilman.
"It will take the selection of the mayor out of the hands of a clique and put it in the hands of the people," says Helen Simmons, a former councilwoman who is one of eight political figures who have put their names on the petition. The group includes three former mayors, four former council members and Councilman Robert Wagner.
"I think it's a joke," says Councilman Lee Prentiss, who completed a one-year term as mayor last spring as the choice of a majority of the council, which is how mayors of South Pasadena have been selected for 100 years. "It's just a self-serving thing for someone's own gratification."
Prentiss and the others on the five-man City Council contend that Wagner, the contentious first-term councilman, is seeking to reshape the city's political system because he cannot win the top spot at City Hall under the existing system.
"It could be that, because he has not instilled confidence in the rest of the council, he feels this might be the only way for him to possibly be mayor," said Councilman Samuel Knowles. "Obviously, he would like to be."
Wagner has said that he does not intend to run for mayor if the measure is approved.
Proponents of the change have notified the city clerk of their intention to circulate petitions for a ballot referendum, asking the voters: "Shall the electors elect a mayor and four city councilmen?" The referendum would also offer a choice of a two-year or four-year term. Petitioners will have until January to collect the signatures of 13,094 registered voters, 10% of the city's electorate, to get the measure on next April's ballot.
If the petition succeeds, it would be the sixth time in six years that South Pasadena voters have been called upon to settle a heated political issue. Three of the five most recent ballot questions have been initiated by citizens groups, the other two by the council itself. Voters were asked for their opinions on such things as the height of new buildings, the proposed expansion of the Long Beach Freeway through the city and the location of City Hall.
A petition to place new restrictions on commercial development in South Pasadena is already being circulated by a group led by Simmons.
Wagner and others described the mayoral election issue in broad, reformist terms, claiming that the mayoralty has been the focus of "back-room politics" and that it has been manipulated by special interests Wagner calls "the good old boys."
Wagner claimed that the council has been controlled in recent years by development-minded politicians.
"The City Council has marched to a different drum beat from the voters," said Wagner, who has been accused of conflicts of interest resulting from his family's holdings in a shopping center next to the city's only redevelopment project. "The majority of the people don't want to change the quaint, suburban quality of the community." He said that the voters had been more willing than the city's elected leaders to place restraints on South Pasadena development.
Former Mayor John L. Sullivan, another supporter of direct election of the mayor, said that, if the measure were passed, the voters would probably support only someone who could devote all of his or her time to the office. He said the city needs a mayor "who will take over the helm and do the job without a lot of extra people."
"The council is constantly seeking the advice of other people," he said. "You could paper the walls of City Hall with all of the consultant contracts. We spend a lot of money on consultants. A full-time mayor could go out and do the research himself."
But Wagner acknowledged that part of the driving force behind the petition was his own experience of having been denied the mayoralty. "The process has led to cross, double-cross and triple-cross among the members vying for the mayor's seat," Wagner said.
Two years ago, the council adopted a system of rotating the mayoralty among all five council members. Each member was to serve a 9 1/2-month stint during his four-year council term, ensuring that every member would get a chance to sit in the largely ceremonial seat.
The mayor's only special prerogatives are to chair council meetings and to appoint commission chairmen, with the endorsement of a majority of the council.
As the only two members of the council who had never served as mayor, Prentiss, a Los Angeles Police Department detective, and Wagner, a businessman, were designated as the first two to become mayor under that system. "Prentiss said that he intended to retire from the force and that being mayor would look good on his resume in private life," Wagner said.