SOUTH PASADENA — Robert Wagner, the focus of controversy in this city for the past four years as the "odd man out" on the City Council, has decided not to run for another term.
The 65-year-old first-term councilman says he will devote most of his time during the next year and a half to fund-raising for his alma mater, Georgetown University in Washington. The university, founded in 1789, will be celebrating its bicentennial.
Former Mayor Lee Prentiss, who, like Wagner, was elected to his first term in 1984, has reportedly told colleagues that he also has decided not to run for the council again. Prentiss could not be reached for comment. Both Prentiss' and Wagner's seats are up for grabs April 12.
Wagner, chairman of an alumni committee to raise money for new Georgetown scholarships, said he will make repeated trips to Washington in connection with his fund-raising activities. "Between next September and the end of 1989, I'll be going to at least a dozen functions on the East Coast," he said.
Because of his expected absences, Wagner said, he could not adequately fulfill his duties as a councilman. "After careful consideration, I've decided not to run for the City Council," he said.
Asked whether he might really be withdrawing from the council because of escalating criticism by his colleagues, Wagner shrugged. "I've learned what Will Rogers said: 'I don't care what you write about me as long as you spell my name right,' " he said.
Wagner, a self-styled fiscal conservative, has taken a brashly independent course during his almost four years on the council. He has frequently angered his colleagues, whom he sometimes refers to as "the gang of four," and stirred up the voters. Most recently, he led the successful opposition to a proposed 4% utility tax that the other four councilmen supported.
During the public debate, Wagner's colleagues censured him for eliciting an endorsement of the tax opponents' position for sample-ballot arguments from a former councilman who was recovering from brain surgery. The former councilman subsequently renounced the arguments, saying he had not realized that they would be published on the sample ballot.
The tax measure was soundly defeated by the voters last month, forcing the city into a hiring freeze and a cost-cutting blitz as it faced a $172,000 budget shortfall.
Wagner has been also attacked for allegedly having a conflict of interest in matters before the city's Redevelopment Commission because of his family's ownership of Squires Square, a shopping center near the Downtown Redevelopment Project, and for overstating the amount of money that the city could save by building its new civic center on Mission Street.
Wagner resigned from the Redevelopment Commission after he was criticized by Prentiss for having a potential conflict of interest. He has charged colleagues and city officials with "errors in judgment and poor management" in the construction of the civic center, which is six months behind schedule.
The South Pasadena Review, a weekly newspaper, generally carries an editorial in each issue lambasting Wagner.
Wagner, on the other hand, has frequently chided his colleagues on the council and other city officials for "waste and mismanagement," and he chides his newspaper critic as "the South Pasadena Weakly Review."
A fellow councilmen was restrained in his reaction to the news. "He has served four years," said Councilman Samuel Knowles. "That's a significant contribution of one's time and effort to the City Council. He certainly should be commended for that."
One city official, however, responded off the record with an exclamation: "Whoopee!"
"Bob's been a crusader for better or for worse," added Mayor James Hodge. "He's never been particularly daunted by what people had to say about him." Asked if council meetings would be more tranquil in Wagner's absence, Hodge replied, "That could very well be."
To date, no one has filed as a candidate for the two council seats that are up for election on April 12, said City Clerk Ruby Kerr. Because he is an incumbent, Wagner's decision will extend the filing deadline an extra five days, until Feb. 9, she added. The law provides for an automatic extension of the filing period when an incumbent does not file for reelection by the deadline.
Wagner acknowledged that family members were not as immune as he is to criticism. "Unfortunately, my family is not as insensitive to the innuendoes," he said. His three grown children, who own Squires Square and lease it back to their father, have grown especially uncomfortable because of frequent attacks in the South Pasadena Review, he added.
But Wagner insisted that his principal reason for withdrawing was to pursue other civic pursuits. "It's more important to do charity than to do politics," he said.