Like years past, we looked forward to working with the Pasadena Museum of History on celebrating the anniversary of Pasadena’s incorporation as a city in 1886. But, like every business since the onset of COVID-19, the museum was closed, its staff sent home and events canceled, including the annual “Happy Birthday, Pasadena!” celebration.

Undaunted, executives with the Pasadena Weekly decided to solider on, but instead of simply focusing on events of the past, decided to look at how the past can inform the future.

Following are the fruits of those efforts.

—Kevin Uhrich


Before it became the City Council in 1992, Pasadena’s top governing board called itself the Board of City Directors, a name rightly indicating city officials would function much as leaders of a major corporation might — making decisions without public scrutiny and answering to few, practices that some came to call “The Pasadena Way.”    

Throughout the city’s early years, many city directors were businessmen who became proud members of the Tournament of Roses, as well as trade groups, such as the chamber of commerce. Beginning at the time of Pasadena’s incorporation as a city in 1886, the relationships that local politicians and business people shared with civic and social associations played key roles in the creation of the Rose Parade in 1890, and through the 1920s some of the most notable landmarks in the country. They also led to Pasadena gaining a reputation as a prosperous, business friendly community.

Most of these organizations have evolved and changed over the years, and for the most part they have stood the test of time, with those remaining staying active to varying degrees in civic affairs.

But then along came COVID-19.

Since February, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 121,000 Americans and shuttered millions of small businesses across the country. And Pasadena has been no exception, with hundreds of restaurants and retailers taking a beating over the past four months.

“Until there is some kind of control (of the novel coronavirus), our behavior is going to change,” says Pasadena Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Paul Little. In the meantime, says Little, “We’re going to get used to wearing masks in public, and we will get used to not mingling with people we don’t know, and at the office… who knows? A year from now it will be interesting to see what has changed and what hasn’t.”

Credit Earned

When it comes to connections with the city’s elected and appointed “powers that be,” perhaps no one in the city’s modern era better exemplifies this once strong relationship than Little, a three-term City Council member from Pasadena’s District 2.

Like most people, Little, whose background is in pubic relations and current link to local business something of throwback to decades past, and his staff have been forced to work from their homes. There they’ve used their time to lobby City Hall contacts, inform the media and members about the dreadful circumstances facing the local economy, and alert clients and others to federal, state and local economic relief opportunities.

Last week, Little saw some of those efforts pay off, with the council going into partnership with the nonprofit Pasadena Community Foundation (PCF) and the chamber in allocating and distributing, respectively, $500,000 to local small businesses in the form of grants up to $10,000. The PCF will also be allocated another $250,000 from the city, which will be used to match with private donors.

Little was quick to point out, “It’s not inexpensive to operate a business in Pasadena,” adding that he actually wanted $1 million for the program.

While the two men have had their differences on certain issues, Mayor Terry Tornek jumped at the opportunity to laud Little for the financial relief plan passed by the council last week.

“He really stepped up, and was really a tireless advocate for the plan,” Tornek says of Little. “The inspiration and the genesis of that came from him. You have to give credit where credit is due.”

Part of the Job

Although most council members over the past few decades have not been business people, Little is not the only council member to also serve as a leader of Pasadena’s business community. Far from it.

Amos G. Throop, for instance, Pasadena’s third mayor in 1888, was a staunch abolitionist prior to the Civil War and as a businessman helped rebuild Chicago after that city’s Great Fire in 1871. In Pasadena, Throop started the Unitarian Universalist Church. He also founded Throop University, Throop Polytechnic Institute, and Throop College of Technology, better known since 1920 as the California Institute of Technology, Caltech.

Theodore Lukens, known as the Father of Forestry and Pasadena’s fourth mayor, was a real estate investor and in 1888 a charter member of the recently organized Board of Trade, an early day chamber of commerce.

Pasadena’s 10th mayor, Horace M. Dobbins was from Philadelphia and served in 1900. He was a businessman who created an elevated cycling route from the Green Hotel through the city’s southern end which eventually became what is now the Pasadena Freeway.

Decades later, few were as civically involved as Pasadena’s “Boy Mayor,” Warren Dorn. A Pasadena native who taught school and worked as a Realtor, Dorn was elected to the Board of City Directors in 1949. In 1956, Dorn not only became the city’s youngest mayor at age 37, but he also won a seat on the county Board of Supervisors, which he held until 1972, according to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times. According to the website, Dorn was also a member of the Salvation Army, the Pasadena Elks, the Pasadena Rotary Club, the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce and the Tournament of Roses.

“I don’t think there ever stopped being a relationship with business in town,” Tornek said, pointing out that he once owned his own firm, just as other modern-day council members have business experience in their backgrounds.

But, the mayor maintains, “The city can’t be run like a business. They are vastly different.” However, Tornek said, “That doesn’t mean good business practices are irrelevant to city government. I think the relationship between the city and businesses has always been solid.”

Times Change

According to former Mayor Bill Paparian, “The Pasadena Way” was synonymous with political leaders conducting city business behind closed doors, without the public’s involvement.

“By the time I joined the Board of Directors in 1987, the Pasadena Way had evolved into a more sophisticated form. The luncheons gave way to private meetings after staff reports, and agenda packets were dropped off to Directors’ homes the Friday evening before a public meeting early the following week. Because the Board of Directors consisted of seven members, these meetings involved only three Directors so as not to trigger the Brown Act’s public notice requirements,” Paparian wrote. The Ralph M. Brown Act is the state’s open meeting law, enacted in 1953.

“The three would forge a consensus on each item, and one of them would call to find a fourth vote for a majority, thus settling the matter before the public had a clue,” Paparian wrote in a column for Colorado Boulevard, a local weekly newspaper.

It was on a motion by Paparian in 1992 that the Board of City Directors became the City Council. At that time, the council consisted of two social activists, a retired architect, a retired teacher (former Mayor Jess Hughston, an ardent Tournament booster), one businessman and two lawyers (Paparian being one).

Today, Paparian fears televised internet Zoom meetings of the council prompted by threats posed by COVID-19 will give way to less attention being paid by the public and similar behavior to that of the current council’s predecessors.

“Using the coronavirus emergency to suspend the rules, City Hall leadership has reverted to those old corporate mentality ways, seizing control of the public agenda and shutting out our city’s elected representatives from even routine business,” Paparian wrote.

Tornek disputes that. In fact, he said, if anything the public appears to be more engaged than ever.

“Because of this confluence of the pandemic and the social justice demands that are being generated by the shootings (of African Americans by police)… I think there are more people engaged in city government and paying attention to city government. Even though they can’t necessarily go to the (council) chamber, the number of people sending in comments on the council meetings and the committee meetings is probably higher than ever,” says Tornek.

The pandemic has forced the council since March to meet online, using Zoom. Still, “I think there is tremendous engagement. It’s just taken a different form,” says Tornek. “It’s depersonalized, which is not great, and it’s awkward. It’s not the same as in person. I don’t particularly like it, but I think particularly younger people are quite comfortable operating in virtual space, and that combined with the in-person demonstration activity has made them quite engaged… Obviously we will be meeting in person again, but I think some aspects of this will continue.”

Regarding the city’s business community, “The future is undefined,” says Little.

“I think everybody’s behavior as individuals will determine which way it is going. How comfortable will be people be going back to restaurants? How comfortable will they be anywhere there is a crowd? How comfortable are they going to the store? I have no idea… The question is how many small businesses will be left. It’s going to be a very different landscape.” n