In a final opportunity to offer their reflections on the overall condition of Pasadena and what they would do to improve the city, the four men running for mayor met Sunday at historic Friendship Baptist Church in Old Pasadena for the last debate before the March 3 election.
Tackling a host of issues ranging from immigration, education, transportation and police oversight to affordable housing, homelessness, cannabis sales, traffic and employee privacy, the debate, presented by the Pasadena Community Coalition, Conversations Live and the Pasadena Star-News, started out with questions regarding Fire Chief Bertral Washington, who was reassigned recently to work in the City Manager’s Office while remaining on the city payroll.
Although it’s been speculated that Washington was reassigned due pressure from the politically powerful Pasadena Firefighters Association, which criticized Washington’s decision to ban the wearing of mourning bands in honor of fallen Northern California firefighters in 2018, that has not been confirmed.
Although people at a council meeting two weeks ago demanded answers as to what led to the reassignment of Washington to work in City Manager’s Office, council members, including mayoral candidate Councilman Victor Gordo and incumbent Mayor Terry Tornek, explained that they were unable to speak about what they may know. City Manager Steve Mermell has also refused to speak publicly about Washington’s reassignment, like the elected officials also citing the chief’s right to privacy.
But those legal proprieties did not stop candidates Jason Hardin and Major Williams from speaking their minds about the controversy.
“Personally, I think the matter was handled improperly,” said Hardin, a self-described entrepreneur and publisher of Dena Magazine. At the Feb. 10 City Council members, community members blasted Mermell and the council for reassigning Washington, saying he is being targeted because he is African American. “What I would suggest is a leave of absence for Steve Mermell until there is an investigation and we get to the bottom of what happened,”Hardin said.
“I personally feel it was mishandled, but I do understand the procedural matter of how they conduct business and this is something we have to revisit as leadership, as a council, as mayor,” said Williams.
“We have to look at the mechanics we have in place that this kind of situation continues to happen here in the city,” Williams said.
The dynamic shifted slightly over the question of what to do with local schools that have been closed due to declining enrollment: whether those buildings should be preserved in hopes of using them for future students, with only Gordo advocating keeping the properties as schools, while the other candidates, including Tornek, supported plans to sell the properties and develop the campuses into affordable housing.
“I think we need to be careful when discussing the disposal of school sites. It’s our infrastructure for providing schools of the future and I’m very concerned with disposing of any properties,” Gordo said. “That sends the message Pasadena has given up on education.”
However, Hardin agreed with Tornek, saying, “Housing is a logical use both as workforce housing for teachers and affordable housing for families … [It’s] a great opportunity for generating income and housing.”
“I too see school closures as tragic, but I also see them as opportunities to explore supportive housing, transitional housing and affordable housing, to take advantage of that and exploit those opportunities,” said Hardin.
On the issue of immigration and Pasadena being a sanctuary city, Williams, who supports President Trump, stood alone in opposition to that designation.
“If we are a sanctuary city, as mayor I would not stand by that, and I don’t think anyone should support that if they want to be mayor of Pasadena,” Williams said.
To that, Gordo explained that he is an immigrant, having come from Mexico with his parents at the age of 4.
“I understand well the need to protect our families. I understand well not working with the federal government to enforce immigration law because that is the role of the federal government and police resources in Pasadena should be used to address local issues.”
On the issue of homelessness, Williams seemed to suggest that city leaders are mostly talk when it comes to addressing the problem. But Tornek was quick to point out that is not the case.
“I just wanted to make clear that we haven’t just been about ideas. We’ve been taking serious action on the homeless front and that is why Pasadena is one of two of 88 cities in the county that’s had a reduction in homelessness,” said the mayor.
While all four candidates were supportive of strengthening tenant rights, only Hardin was in favor of rent control.
“I’m for it,” Hardin said, “because if the next 20 years are like the past 20 years a lot of us are going to become homeless.”
On the issue police oversight, Hardin said he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s against public safety. In fact, this is his second time running for mayor, and during both campaigns friends have been shot.
“I do take it seriously. We need oversight. We need compete reformation. We need to cut police spending and turn it over to Vision 20/20 (a reintegration program for recently released prisoners run by the Flintridge Center to create preventative measures to fight recidivism and street violence).
Williams agreed that there should be a police review board, but said its members should be elected.
But both Gordo and Tornek disagreed with both ideas, with Tornek saying there already is a body that oversees police, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, on which council members sit, among them Tornek and Council members Steve Madison, Tyron Hampton and John Kennedy, who chairs the committee.
“I think having elected (members) in that role is entirely appropriate,” said the mayor.
“I was originally much interested in having a civilian oversight component, but a I began to look at the various models, and many of them have not lived up to expectations,” Tornek said.
“I think the department is doing a good job. I think use of force is way down. We had 6,300 arrests last year, and 34 use-of-force (incidents). So I don’t think at this time I would support civilian oversight.”
“I support strong police oversight, but by people who are elected and accountable to the voters, the residents of the city,” Gordo weighed in.
In rebuttal, Hardin asked: “Out of those uses of force, how many were black and brown?” None of the candidates responded.
On a separate topic, the candidates were asked about the amount of money paid out in settlements or judgments in relation to cases involving police, to which Tornek said the city has paid “significant settlements.“ Neither the mayor nor Gordo explained how many many such cases were being considered, how many were settled out of court or how much money was paid.
Williams offered his thoughts, which boiled down to supervisors ensuring that police act professionally.
“In any job there are always improvements we can make,” Williams said. “It really comes down to making sure the leadership is in tune with the chief of the Police Department and really making sure protocols are in place and making sure the officers out there are acting in a professional manner,” Williams said.