Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens because that’s is all it takes for change to happen.
In the past several months, South Pasadena’s city government has been engulfed in controversy concerning budgetary errors to fake email accounts. Also, two city officials, former City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe and former Councilwoman Marina Khubeserian retired or resigned in the past two months. Khubeserian became the first South Pasadena councilmember to resign since the 1950s.
While there had been distrust building within the community, the follies of the city government would not have been revealed if it weren’t for a sewage spill in a resident’s backyard.
Alison Smith lives in her quaint two-story home with a canyon view off Hanscom Drive in South Pasadena. Since trees surround most of the home, her three kids decided to nickname their mother’s home the “magic treehouse.”
Smith has called South Pasadena her home for nine years. She’s built a reputation for being a dedicated dance and musical theater teacher, as well as a loving mother. A couple of times a year she dresses up in her old cheerleading outfit, gets up on stage and leads her child’s elementary school in their pep rallies during Red Ribbon Week.
She was a model citizen, never causing trouble for the city until the sewage spill.
“I went down there to pick up the landing pad and I noticed the ground was wet,” Smith recalled about the morning of the spill. “I came around the corner because I didn’t know where the water was coming from. I knew that I hadn’t left a hose on or it hadn’t rained or anything.”
In January 2018, after Smith dropped off her kids at school, Smith walked down to her yard to find gray water overflowing onto the artificial turf she had installed for her children’s play area.
“I came around and there was water, just gray water at the time, just spilling, coming out of my cleanout, the lid of the cleanout had been popped off,” Smith said. “I immediately called my plumber and my plumber said that’s not a job for me.”
After calling her plumber, Smith called a roto-rooter company to have her pipes snaked. Within a few hours, the roto-rooters arrived however Smith and the others began to notice other items leaking into the yard.
“We noticed clumps of toilet paper, tampons, wipes and all kinds of stuff coming out of the pipe itself,” said Smith. “That’s when the odor began.”
The roto-rooters explained to Smith that as more people use their toilets the more items would be spilled onto her yard.
“Within a couple of hours after that, then the feces started,” said Smith. “Around 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. is when more and more excrement was coming out.”
As the roto-rooters snaked her pipes and drains, they realized that the excrement, toilet paper and everything else spewing from the pipes were not coming from Smith’s home.
“He was like, ‘This is not coming from your pipes. This is coming from someplace else,’” said Smith.
The rooters and Smith walked door to door to tell her neighbors about the situation and to see if the problem was with other surrounding pipes.
“We were knocking on all of the surrounding areas,” said Smith. “They had to snake my neighbors’ houses as well. It was not connected to my neighbors. It was not in a lateral line. They said this is coming from something bigger.”
According to Smith, after hearing the news that it was something else causing the spill, she called the city for help but to no avail. According to Smith, since it was a holiday weekend during the spill the city had no resources to help her until later in the week.
According to Smith, the city asked her to go to her neighbors’ homes and ask them to stop using their toilets or anything related to the plumbing while they gathered people to clean the spill.
This newsgroup tried to have the city confirm Smith’s statement, however, did not receive an answer as of the writing of this story.
After getting off the phone with the city, feeling that there was no help coming soon, Smith decided she was going to try to clean up the sewage herself. She strapped on her rain boots, grabbed a broom and started to vigorously sweep the spill off of her children’s’ play area.
“I was very upset because all over the turf, so I got a broom and started vigorously sweeping it off because I felt helpless and nobody in the city was coming to help,” she said. “At one point I swept it so hard that the feces actually came up and hit me in the face.”
With feces covering her face and no help coming, Smith stood there, motionless for a second, in disbelief.
“At that point, I just stopped everything. I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she said. “I just kind of numbly walked upstairs, took off my rain boots and right into the shower… It was that moment where I just felt so alone. I felt so alone in that moment because the city had not helped…”
The next day the city arrived and abated the spill—30 hours after it happened. While the sewage was abated, the spill yet to be completely had cleaned leaving Smith with a backyard she still cannot use to this day.
The home once known to her kids as the “magic tree house” now had a new nickname, the “poop yard.”
“All I wanted was a peaceful resolution,” Smith said.
In the months following the spill, Smith filed a $1.2 million lawsuit against the city, hoping to get at least some restitution for the spill.
While the actual money Smith paid for the plumbers and roto-rooters was substantially lower, her lawyer at the time explained that it was just how it works.
“My attorney said ‘Oh, you’re not going to get that, you just got to start way up here and by the time you finish you’re just going to get your basic expenses covered,” Smith recalled.
Within the calendar year, as the settlement number dropped substantially, Smith was visiting her friends at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri when she decided to speak in front of the city council to plead for a resolution, tired of the back and forth between lawyers. In August 2019, Smith stood in front of her city council members and delivered a three-minute speech.
“[I decided] when I go back to South Pasadena I am going to speak at the city council meeting,” said Smith. I’m going to speak and say my words and they’re my council members, they’ll help me out. We’ll just forget about all this lawyer back and forth and I will plead for them a resolution in all of this.”
Feeling good about her three-minute speech to her city council, Smith hoped that her plea would finally bring an end to the back and forth. In October 2019 after retrieving her mail, she noticed a letter from the Code Enforcement Department of South Pasadena.
“We have received complaints regarding the interior and exterior modifications to your house and we are requesting an immediate code inspection of your home,” Smith said recalling the letter she received.
According to Smith, she has not remodeled her house in the three years before receiving the letter. Also, she claims that the exterior or interior of her house is not visible from the streets.
“There’s no way you could see my house exterior-wise or interior-wise unless you walk down five flights of stairs and look into my windows,” Smith said.
Smith’s attorney at the time advised her to not allow an inspection of her house as her lawsuit against the city was still active.
“My attorney’s final word was ‘She will comply with this request after litigation is over. While litigation is going on she will not comply with a walk through of her home,’” said Smith.
Following her attorney’s final correspondence with the city, Smith was greeted by three South Pasadena police officers as she was ushering her kids to the car for school.
“I was greeted by three police officers who had their cars all parked in front of my house at 8 a.m. with my neighbors in their driveways, watching my children not knowing what was going on,” said Smith.
The officers served her with papers for an inspection of her home. If she did not comply, the officers would do a forced inspection and entry if necessary.
“I said, is there any way they can move it next week because I’m supposed to be the chaperone for my daughter’s school trip,” said Smith.
In response, the officers said that the warrant allowed them to enter her home with or without her permission, and would break her windows to get in if they had to.
“I wiped off the tears, got in the car and I got my kids to school,” Smith said about what she did after the police left. “I came home and I called my friends Steve and Sheila Rossi and I told them what was happening.”
From the investigation, the city reported that they had found 29 code violations within Smith’s home. The city claimed that based on their findings that Smith was at fault for the spill.
Stephen and Sheila Rossi have known Smith for 10 years after their children attended the same kindergarten.
After they received the call from Smith, they felt obligated to help her after they believed the complaint was falsified.
“You’re supposed to have some sort of visible work done, it has to be visible from the streets, and it needs to be specific for what they’re looking for,” said Sheila Rossi. “This is like a blanket [search]… It was like a fishing expedition.”
Feeling distraught for her friend, Rossi and her husband began to help Smith dig for information.
“We’ve been friends for years, but the biggest issue for me was that it was falsified,” said Rossi. “I knew without a shadow of a doubt that they falsified this.”
The couple began with the affidavit submitting public record requests trying to find the paper trail that led to the warrant issued for the forced inspection. While the requests were either delayed or withheld, they continued to look for any evidence they could find.
In their search, they had found the information provided to the judge misrepresented Smith’s home.
According to Rossi, the city submitted two pictures — a before-and-after picture of Smith’s home. The before picture showed Smith’s 1000-foot home while the after picture showed her neighbor’s 3000-foot home.
“They did not provide documentation of a complaint and provided an after photo that represented [Smith’s] neighbor’s house as Smith’s [own] house,” Rossi wrote in an email. “Her house is in the picture, but it is hidden in the lower right-hand corner.”
In addition, Rossi and her husband found that “there was no complaint recorded in the city’s complaint log and the complaint was not investigated by the city’s regular code enforcement officer, but rather a senior contract planning official from Transtech.”
In addition, they found that the cured-in-place process which was used to repair 60 percent of the city’s sewage lines has a known defect which may cause blockages in sewage mainlines.
After helping Smith, Rossi and her husband both financial consultants, decided to dive into the finances of the city.
“We were already a little bit frustrated with the city and know that they are not being truthful and honest,” said Rossi. “We saw the action with the Alison [Smith] situation.”
Once Rossi and her husband heard about irregularities in the finances from a social media post, they decided to investigate the city’s financial record as well.
“I started noticing some irregularities in the numbers,” said Rossi. “I was like this is strange.”
Rossi noticed that while the city had both a general fund and special fund, only information on the general fund was provided. In addition, she noticed that the “transferred out” numbers did not match. They discovered that there were two significantly different budgets; one approved by the finance commission and one submitted to the city council.
Realizing something was wrong, Rossi and her husband placed the two budgets into a spread sheet and analyzed the two figures.
“[The analysis] showed that they had made $14 million of changes between the two budgets in three days with $4 million just to the beginning balances,” said Rossi.
In conjunction to the report submitted by the city’s former financial director Josh Betta, the budgetary woes of South Pasadena displayed a cause for concern that many in the community demanded answers for.
“I don’t know if we would have been paying close attention to what the city was doing if we hadn’t seen them do something that seems so wrong in the first place,” Rossi said about delving into the city’s finances after witnessing the ordeal Smith endured.
“We knew that people weren’t happy and knew that there was a lot of criticism of the current city manager and everything, but it wasn’t until that instance where [we said] ‘Oh my gosh , they’re willing to completely lie and do anything it takes, this is a such an egregious act. I think that’s when we started digging.”
Since the resignation of Khubesarian and the retirement of DeWolfe, Stephen Rossi, Sheila’s husband was voted into the city council, filling the vacant seat. In order to stay unbiased while fixing the city’s financial situation, he recused himself from speaking on the Smith case.
In the almost three years since the spill, Smith continues to be in litigation with the city, also filing a claim for her civil rights being infringed after the forced house search following her plea to city council.
“The city attorney has charged the city $158,000 for my case alone. They could have had this all taken care of for under $30,000 if they had just taken care of it,” said Smith. “The three years that has almost taken place, the stress, the loss of use of my backyard the almost complete defamation of my character and reputation in a town that I have worked really hard to build one in… No one should have to go through that. [However,] it’s made me stronger. There’s always a gift and there’s always a reason behind every dark cloud.”