SOUTH PASADENA — In the latest chapter of the stormy relationship between City Councilman Robert Wagner and his colleagues, the council has censured Wagner for allegedly deceiving a former councilman who is recovering from brain surgery.
The council last week passed a measure of censure, on a 4-0 vote, accusing Wagner of "conduct unbecoming a councilman" after he elicited a signed endorsement from former Councilman Robert Veir of arguments opposing the city's proposed 4% utility tax. Veir, a councilman between 1974 and 1978, has been partially paralyzed since 1983, when he underwent surgery for a brain tumor.
Veir has since renounced the statement, saying that he never opposed the utility tax. "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," he said, explaining why he signed the statement.
'A Badge of Honor'
The unrepentant Wagner termed the censure "a badge of honor for attempting to serve the taxpayers of the city by keeping taxes down." He said he would have a copy of the measure laminated so that he can hang it in his office, among 22 plaques and commendations he has received from "many leading organizations."
The anti-tax arguments, along with Veir's signature, were to have been published in the sample ballot to be distributed before the Nov. 3 election, in which voters will be asked to approve the tax on their gas, electricity and telephone bills.
Veir wrote to the city clerk, asking that his name be removed from the statement.
"He thought it was a sort of petition to make sure that the money wasn't used in improper ways," said Veir's wife, Barbara, who was present during Wagner's 2 1/2-hour talk with Veir on Aug. 11. She characterized Wagner's attempt to enlist her husband's support as "a con."
But she said that she and her husband feel no rancor toward Wagner. "He's been very dear to come and visit with my Bob," Barbara Veir said. "I always appreciate his coming to visit and bring my husband up to date."
Councilman Sam Knowles, who proposed the censure measure, said that "it appeared that he (Wagner) was purposely misleading a former city councilman to support a cause that Bob Wagner was supporting."
But Wagner insisted that he had had no intention of deceiving Veir. "I did not misrepresent the issues, but I definitely respect his (Veir's) right to change his mind," he said.
Many Earlier Flaps
The brouhaha is another in a long series of flaps between the first-term councilman and his colleagues. Wagner has frequently described other members of the council as dupes of special interests, particularly developers, whom he terms "the good old boys."
He, in turn, has been accused of a conflict of interest during his membership on the city's Redevelopment Agency and of divulging to his political allies information from closed executive sessions on collective bargaining. A colleague last year accused Wagner of a conflict of interest for voting on a redevelopment project, which is near a shopping center that the family owns.
Wagner, who had initially supported the utility tax, said the dispute began when he protested the lack of an adequate "sunset" clause in the tax bill, committing the city to ending the tax as soon as it had covered a projected budgetary shortfall of about $600,000.
He said termination of the tax needs to be spelled out because of a danger that the tax could become permanent. "I've never heard of any governmental agency that ever, having the power to collect dollars, just stopped collecting them," he said.
But supporters of the tax said the measure is limited to three years, with the council having the authority to terminate it sooner. Knowles said that other members of the council "feel we carry a responsibility to sunset it ourselves," should the tax income begin to create surpluses.
"He's beaten that issue to death," said Mayor James Hodge. "We can drop the percentage of the tax down to zero if there is a proper surplus. It's all done in public meetings. The safeguards are there. For him to oppose the tax is ludicrous, in my opinion."
Wagner contends that the tax can meet the projected shortfall in one year. "According to their own figures, the tax should raise $720,000 annually," he said. "That means a gross sum in excess of $2.2 million over three years, which they want to put in the general fund."
But Hodge countered that Wagner was "not addressing (the needs of) future years."
"The shortfall isn't going to go away the following year," he said. "We want to demonstrate that we can accomplish the things we need to accomplish with what we have. We won't wind up with a major excess of funds. We're not going to have a party with the money."
Council members favoring the tax and City Manager John Bernardi have contended that the tax is needed to replace aged and obsolete equipment, to increase some salaries and to perform long-deferred services, such as pruning trees. The city also plans to install computers in its offices, and to hire its first new staff members since Proposition 13 forced layoffs of more than a third of the city's work force 10 years ago.