SOUTH PASADENA — Sentiment favoring a special election to fill the vacancy left by the death last month of Councilman Joseph Crosby appears to be growing among civic leaders, despite some support for the appointment of an unsuccessful candidate in last year's election.
The four remaining members of the council must, by May 19, appoint someone to fill Crosby's seat for the next three years, set an election date for the seat or appoint a temporary council member until an election can be held.
Crosby, 69, died of cancer on April 19. According to City Manager John Bernardi, his death came just as his council colleagues were meeting to select a new leadership team. Crosby was selected by his colleagues to be mayor pro tem. Longtime council member Sam Knowles was selected as mayor.
According to city officials, supporters of retired contractor Frank Novarro's council candidacy last year are militating for his appointment to fill Crosby's seat. Novarro came in third in the election, in which Crosby and Evelyn Fierro were elected to fill two vacancies.
Novarro ran on a pro-business platform, suggesting that South Pasadena should seek to attract revenue-producing businesses as a long-range solution for the city's fiscal problems.
But others, such as former Councilwoman Helen Simmons, are pressing for an election. Simmons said the new council member should reflect a burgeoning slow-growth sentiment in the city. "I want somebody in there who's representative of the current feelings of the voters of this city," Simmons said. "I think that over the past year feelings have been changing."
The election option appears to have significant support among council members. "I think we've informally agreed that an appointee would have to be someone all four of us can live with," Fierro said. "I just don't see four votes there for Novarro. I think ultimately we'll have a special election."
Knowles said there were "pluses and minuses" for all options. "If we wait for an election, we'll be operating essentially short-handed for a period of time," he said.
City Clerk Ruby Kerr said the earliest that a special election could be scheduled would be in the middle of July. A June election on an education bond issue is too close to include a vote on the vacant council seat, she said. The next regularly scheduled election after that is a school board election set for November, Kerr added.
A major concern about scheduling a special election is the cost to the city. "The last general municipal election we held cost $14,000," Kerr said. "Everything seems to be going up (in cost) very fast." She estimated that a special election, before the school board election, could cost the city more than $15,000.
The State Government Code requires that the council decide how a seat will be filled within 30 days of the vacancy having occurred. The council has placed the matter on the agenda for its regularly scheduled meeting on May 17.
The sudden vacancy may signal the emergence of controversial former Councilman Robert Wagner, largely absent from the South Pasadena scene in the past year, as a force in city politics.
A letter published in The Times on Thursday urged the council to hold an election rather than make an appointment, claiming that such a choice would "adhere to the democratic process." The letter was signed by former Mayor John L. Sullivan, former council members L. L. Balk and Helen E. Simmons, and former Planning Commission Chairman Alfred Chaix Sr.
Balk said this week that it was his understanding that Wagner, who did not sign the letter, had written much of it. "I think he didn't sign it because he eventually wants to run again himself," Balk said.
Wagner denied that he had written the letter and that he was interested in filling Crosby's seat. "Somebody who was circulating the letter asked me to get Balk's support," he said.
He said that he was not interested in running again for the council, unless there were a draft from "prominent citizens."
Out of Local Politics
Wagner, 66, is a senior senator representing Los Angeles County in the California Senior Legislature, an advocacy group that meets annually in Sacramento to draft bills on behalf of senior citizens, and a leader in celebrations marking the Georgetown University bicentennial. Wagner said he had been too busy recently to concern himself with local politics. "I haven't given it a thought," he said.
Since Wagner declined to run for a second term last April, the council has operated harmoniously, closing ranks against state plans to complete the Long Beach Freeway along a downtown corridor.
Crosby had lived in South Pasadena for more than 50 years. He had served for nine years on the Planning Commission. He had recently retired as president of the California Liquid Fertilizer Co. in Pasadena and was a director of First American Bank.
"Joe was a very dedicated councilman, a political volunteer for many years, and he was a close and cherished friend," said Knowles. "He certainly will be missed."