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Councilman Refuses to Go Along With 'Good Old Boys' : Odd Man Out in S. Pasadena

October 25, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

The city needed new revenue, everybody agreed. Equipment was breaking down, city employees were due for salary raises and the potential take from property and sales taxes seemed to be shrinking. Just down the road lurked a projected $90,000 budget deficit.

There was only one solution, the five members of the South Pasadena City Council agreed last August. Like legislators from dozens of other revenue-strapped cities in California, the council decided to go to the voters with a proposal for a temporary utility tax.

But the show of councilmanic unity in the face of fiscal crisis quickly deteriorated. By mid-September, councilmen were trading charges of treachery and scornfully assessing one another's business acumen. And an embittered four-man majority took the unusual step of voting to censure a colleague.

Councilman Robert Wagner was guilty of "conduct unbecoming a councilman" for his actions in opposing the tax measure, the four asserted.

Now the city faces the possibility that the proposed three-year, 4% utility tax, which is facing stiff opposition in the community, will be defeated when South Pasadena voters go to the polls Nov. 3, according to some officials.

"On any issue, the 'no' vote will draw more of a crowd than the 'yes' vote," said City Manager John Bernardi gloomily. "Those who are content with the way government is going--they have a tendency to stay home."

"Factions," said former Mayor Ted Shaw, summing up the sequence of events. "It's been that way from the beginning of time."

Factional feuding may be a part of any small town's politics, but experienced observers in South Pasadena say it's reaching seismic proportions in their city.

Not only are rivalries threatening the utility tax, they have split the city's leadership in two, with virtually no one claiming neutrality. The rivalries, which have recently taken the form of vitriolic personal attacks, even appear to be alienating the electorate. Voters frequently complain about the usual "tempest in a teapot" at council meetings, where old battles tend to be fought and refought.

South Pasadena resident Paul Killian, strolling down Mission Street the other day with his 11-year-old daughter, Kathleen, thought for a moment before he answered a question about his city government. "Some of the issues seem small in comparison to the bigger picture," he said diplomatically.

"It's a joke," added Bud Hagemeyer, manager of Balk's Hardware Store. "They just can't seem to get their act together."

At the eye of the South Pasadena storm for the past four years has been Wagner, a short, bald man who, at recent council meetings, has sat in his chair on the right side of the dais with the pained look of an indigestion sufferer.

Wagner, a first-term councilman who was elected in 1984 after three unsuccessful tries, claims that he has been "ostracized" by the city's political Establishment. The "good old boys," as he refers to the politicians and businessmen who have run the city in recent years, turned against him because he raised questions about fiscal policy, he contends.

"When I was elected, I started doing what was considered unholy," said Wagner, who faces reelection next year. "I asked questions regarding finances. That automatically put me at odds with the good old boys. The rule of thumb around here is that you never ask questions. You just go along."

Wagner, who has been on the short end of a series of 4-1 council votes, is the chief spokesman for a group of dissidents who portray themselves as South Pasadena's true fiscal conservatives and slow-growth advocates. In recent years, Wagner and his associates have led the fight to maintain the city's civic center on Mission Street rather than relocate it to El Centro Street. They have supported restrictions on high-rise commercial buildings and mini-malls.

Now they are leading the opposition to the proposed utility tax. They acknowledge that the city needs it but say the tax rate requested is too high.

"All the acrimony started because there has never been a 100% businessman on the council before," said Wagner, 65, a wine merchant who parlayed real estate holdings on Fair Oaks Avenue into the lucrative Squires Square shopping center, site of the Vons supermarket, now owned by his three children.

But Wagner's council colleagues, including a policeman, a dentist, an engineer and a retired insurance executive, say his contributions have been far from constructive. They say Wagner has been an obstructionist who "weighs the mail before he weighs the issues," as one put it.

"I call it DWP," said Councilman Lee Prentiss. "Deceptive Wagner politics. He wants it both ways. Just prior to our putting the utility tax on the ballot, he's gathering signatures against it while he's saying he supports it. DWP. The whole thing is a power trip to run the city."

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