What goes around comes around, or so goes the oft-quoted
Then there’s the belief that the more things change the more
they stay the same.
And this: The longer you hang around in a given place, the
greater the chance of seeing everything and everyone once, maybe even twice.
Certainly all of these old clichés possess some kernels of
truth for many people, including me, a firm believer that things you don’t know
do hurt you — sometimes a lot. And that realization never seemed more
profound than the other day while I was casually perusing issues of the
Pasadena Weekly from 1997.
Not only has the Weekly changed again, again, again and
again since then, but many pounds of karmic justice have been meted out, just
as many people and issues have come full circle, not the least of them me and
the place where I now find myself after a 25-plus-year career in journalism,
with most of that time spent in Pasadena.
More on that later. As you’ll see, my personal and
professional lives are at times one and the same. For right now, though, let’s
look at 1997, a year just chock-full of political intrigue and high-level shenanigans;
a time in which the groundwork was laid for some of the issues that we face
today, and a year featuring many of the same public figures, political leaders
and journalists who continue making waves and creating local headlines.
Of course, I haven’t changed, or at least I don’t think I
have in how I look at these people and events, and that’s in much the same way
that I saw them back then: through the nearsighted, sometimes bloodshot, often
jaundiced though not-yet-entirely cynical eyes of a crusty but still
enterprising journalist just trying to make a living by telling interesting
and, dare I say, important stories.
Past is prologue
It would be unfair to readers for me to
reminisce about 1997 without throwing a shout-out to the previous year, when I
first bumbled into the offices of the Pasadena Weekly.
By that time I had been a daily reporter for nearly nine
years, the last four with the Pasadena Star-News. After leaving that paper in
‘94, I worked a brief time for the LA Times’ San Gabriel Valley edition. Along
with that, I freelanced news and feature stories for a number of other
publications, among them Pasadena Magazine (no, not the glitzy but still
largely undefined publication that launched here a few weeks back), and the
now-defunct LA Reader, which in the summer of ‘96 was sold to now long-gone New
Also around that time, I did a stint with an alternative
music magazine in West LA, for a time serving (fittingly enough) as its Bad
Advice columnist, and even worked as an editor with City News Service, CNS,
pushing out cop stories and overnight headlines to news-starved radio deejays
and TV reporters.
Remember this? “It was a bloody night in Los Angeles … Three
alleged gang members are killed in a running gun battle on the 10 freeway.” Say
that out loud in your best faux newscaster voice. I did. I had to. It was
actually part of the job. Or this: “Judge Lance Ito today ruled lawyers for OJ
Simpson must …” (fill in the blank).
It’s funny; CNS brass didn’t want headlines containing so much
gore that it made people throw up in their breakfast — the Cornflake
Effect, as it came to be called. But it was actually a requirement to run two
headlines every half-hour about the OJ murders — crimes that featured a
near-beheading of one of the victims. Go figure.
In any case, I actually wrote those and many, many other
drive-time headers for your early morning information and enjoyment, then
reveled in a sleepy stupor as I heard those lines played back verbatim on my
car radio while riding home from Hollywood just after sunrise Monday through
Friday. What a rush, better than any drug.
To be honest, I never really gave much thought to working
for the Pasadena Weekly, even though it was close to home in Glendale. That is
until former Editor Bill Evans gave me a call, telling me our mutual friend
Chris Bray was quitting and asking if I wanted to take Bray’s place covering
I liked Chris a lot. He was a candidate for City Council in
1993 before coming to the Pasadena Weekly, and then he went into the Army soon
after leaving the paper. The last I heard, he was serving in Iraq. But back in
‘96 I had to face facts: the pay sucked. Still, I was warm to the idea.
So after getting the always nettlesome money issues worked
out to some satisfaction, I took the job in late July that year, beginning with
a story that I knew a bit about from my Star-News days: The city’s
five-year-old lawsuit against the owners of the King’s Villages 313-unit
HUD-subsidized housing complex at the corner of Washington Boulevard and North
Fair Oaks Avenue.
My old gang
Although state and federal investigators
could find no evidence of wrongdoing, Pasadena officials continued to allege
the owners of King’s Villages discriminated against black tenants in favor of
Latinos who purportedly didn’t complain as much as African Americans, thus
making Latinos ostensibly better, easier, customers.
A federal court special master didn’t see things quite that
way, however, and after the city called a handful of witnesses — a woman
who was illiterate in her own language and signed her sworn statements on the
case with an X; youth counselor and former acting police Chief Bruce Philpott,
who worked with kids at King’s Villages; and then-Pasadena ACLU head and former
private investigator Jim Lomako, who was working for the city’s contract civil
rights attorney Dale Gronemeier — retired US District Judge Jack Goertsen
tossed the case on its ear following it’s first formal hearing.
Up to this point, the city had already spent $3 million, and
that was just for five years worth of Gronemeier and company’s fees. Now we had
to pay for King’s Villages owner Thomas Pottmeyer’s attorneys, plus court
costs, and then Pottmeyer, who settled for $850,000 to forgive and forget.
Well, maybe just forget. Oddly enough, during all of this, not one black
“victim” was ever called to testify.
A couple of these names should sound familiar. Philpott, who
was retired from the force at the time of the case, is in the news again, this
time publicly criticizing response times by firefighters in his hometown of
Glendale. Lomako also stayed in the public eye, serving on city commissions and
earlier this year unsuccessfully running for the District 2 City Council seat
vacated by former Councilman Paul Little, who in 1996 was in the middle of the
first of three four-year terms.
The cool thing about all this — for me, at least
— was that just as I was starting out with this Weekly, I was writing for
the other weekly, the LA Weekly, which used to be the chief competitor of the
I suppose we all have our little vanities, and one of the
bigger disappointments of my professional life was being unable to pull off a
once-in-a-lifetime hat trick of stories in August of that year during the
Republican National Convention in San Diego. With a story on GOP presidential
candidate Pat Buchanan planned for the Reader — it’s last issue before
being absorbed by the New Times chain — and an interview with vice
presidential candidate and Occidental College alum Jack Kemp lined up for this
Weekly, the LA Weekly assigned me to cover restoration efforts then underway on
the LA River.
Due largely to the crazy logistics involved with driving and
phones (remember, cell phones weren’t as prevalent back then), there was just
no way to adequately report the river story from a bayside hotel room in San
Diego. Oh, well. Two out of three — one of them a contribution to the
historic last issue of a Los Angeles journalistic institution — wasn’t
such a bad week’s work.
Over the next several months, other people, many of them
still civic players, were making news: another former police chief, Philpott’s
successor Jerry Oliver, who found himself fending off accusations that he had
assaulted his former girlfriend. This was the second time around for Oliver, who
had been accused by his ex-wife in 1992 of much the same thing; former Fire
Chief Kaya Pekerol was suing the city after being unceremoniously fired the
previous year; a possible Pasadena link surfaced to the CIA-crack cocaine
conspiracy that was first alleged by investigative reporter Gary Webb; and
then-Councilman Bill Paparian’s visits to communist Cuba were getting local
— mostly negative — reactions.
This was also the year that California voters passed
Proposition 209, which prohibited preferential treatment for women and
minorities in government hiring and education. For a place like Pasadena, which
had its own affirmative action program and was cited in the ACLU et al.’s suit
against the measure as a city that had made exemplary strides in hiring and
contracting minorities and women, these were tough new rules to adjust to.
Despite 209’s win on the state level, it was thoroughly trounced by Pasadena
voters, restoring some faith in at least the local electorate.
By 1997, the city went about trying to
adjust to the new hiring and contracting rules under 209, the ironically named
Civil Rights Initiative. Webb was demoted that year by the San Jose Mercury
News where the CIA-cocaine stories first broke, then fell into a deep
depression over his career slide and committed suicide three years ago.
Although some things coincided, nothing much ever really came of all the
shadowy Pasadena connections to some of his stories
on the CIA allegedly helping former Nicaraguan Contras
funnel drugs into Southern California. Naturally, stories that I had written
about those tenuous ties first appeared in the LA Weekly, the city where most
of this nefarious activity was allegedly occurring. Then that story started
appearing in different forms in the Pasadena Weekly, again, sometimes on the
same week, and nobody at either paper ever really cared very much as long as
they were different stories, which they were.
Pekerol, who a few years later won a $100,000 “go away”
out-of-court settlement with the city, and Oliver, who fell into disgrace every
place he went after Pasadena (among them Detroit, where officers there set up a
Web site devoted exclusively to dumping their boss) have both fallen off the
public radar for the time being.
Not Paparian, who actually initiated the Pasadena/
CIA-crack probe back when he was a city councilman. Paparian
ran for Congress last year as a Green Party candidate and continues to be
active on a number of important national issues. He also still publicly opposes
the United States’ 45-year economic embargo of Cuba.
In the coming year, there would be no shortage of other
great stories. There were the sexual harassment lawsuits filed against the city
and a number of its male employees, among them were some of City Hall’s top
officials. One was Dave Jacobs, then head of the Rose Bowl and the city’s
former risk manager, of all things. Another was Henry Lee, an executive with
the city’s Water and Power Department, whose wife, Jane, worked as the
comptroller of the Star-News. Although it couldn’t be proven, that pretty much
explained for me why the daily paper didn’t cover that case until it absolutely
The city settled out of court for more than $346,000 with
Lee’s accuser, but poured millions into lawyer fees to go to trial for Jacobs,
keeper of the Rose Bowl goodie bag who was found guilty in an internal
investigation of claims of ass-grabbing and telling off-color jokes at work. He
was eventually exonerated by a jury in Alhambra, where he grew up and went to
high school. Believe it or not, the courthouse where his trial was held in
summer 1998 is right across the street from his alma mater, Alhambra High. I
had to wonder how many jurors remembered Dave playing ball on those sports
fields that you can see clearly from the courthouse’s second-floor windows.
Outside of City Hall, the community was abuzz with news that
a popular minister, the Rev. Lee May of the First AME Church, had mortgaged
church property without permission twice, once for $56,000 and again for
$112,000. May was forced from the pulpit, chased out of Pasadena and then sued
by leaders of the flock he had shamelessly fleeced.
Then there was Cheryl Ward, a city attorney candidate who
had to withdraw her application after it was learned that she had filed for
bankruptcy four separate times since leaving Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. She was a
good lawyer, apparently, only she was terrible with finances. Just what you
want in a city attorney, right?
But none of that bankruptcy business mattered much. Ward was
a friend of Councilman Chris Holden, who is still in office, now serving his
Ward was actually an assistant city attorney in LA, head of
their sexual harassment unit under City Attorney and mayor-to-be Jimmy Hahn. In
a weird twist, Ward was also a tenant of Chris’ dad, Nate, who started his
political career working for Hahn’s dad, former county Supervisor Kenny Hahn.
In ‘97, Nate, an LA councilman and perhaps the worst sexual harassment offender
in all of LA City Hall, owned lots of rental properties around Los Angeles
County, including some in Pasadena. I wrote many stories for the Reader about
Nate and his sexual escapades, and then wrote about Ward and her connections
with the Holden clan for this paper and the LA Weekly, sometimes in the same
Ten years ago also saw the beginnings of city government
reforms — first proposed by the younger Holden when he stepped in as the
city’s last rotating mayor — that would lead to better pay for council
members and the creation of the first elected mayor’s spot in decades. Two
years later, Chris Holden would lose the elected mayor’s seat that he helped
create, and I can’t help but think the Ward episode had something to with his
loss to current Mayor Bill Bogaard, who went on to win in 1999 and two more
four-year terms after that.
By mid-year, a former police officer who was arrested after
abducting the child she had with another higher ranking officer was set for a
trial that would eventually land her a three-year prison term. Police
investigators also had their hands full with more sexual indiscretions after
another high-ranking City Hall official, again
with the Water and Power Department, was accused of raping a
The victim had apparently waited too long to complain, but
current police Chief Bernard Melekian, who had plenty of cleaning up to do for
his predecessor, Jerry Oliver, let it be known that his detectives were taking
it seriously. The employee was never charged, but he soon quietly disappeared
from the city’s employee roster.
By December, City Manager Phil Hawkey had suffered nearly a
year’s worth of sniping, second-guessing and performance evaluations and ended
his tumultuous seven-year career at City Hall. At first, Hawkey was given a
two-year contract extension. But in a surprise vote, Holden, Paparian,
Councilwoman Joyce Streator and Councilman Sid Tyler joined together to finally
fire the city’s chief executive. The cheerful and relentlessly mild-mannered
Hawkey left quietly, but he and his incredibly supportive wife, Deena,
eventually had the last laugh, with a bearded and even more relaxed looking
Phil landing a job as executive vice president of University of La Verne School
of Law, where he works today.
Cynthia Kurtz, who had served as Public Works director and
later assistant city manager, filled in for Hawkey, later replacing him full
time, and just last week announced she was retiring from that position after 10
relatively calm years at the helm.
Then there was Isaac Richard, a former councilman who found
himself at odds with the law more often than not while he was in elected office
from 1991 to 1995. By ‘97, Isaac was off the council, but not out of trouble.
That year, he was arrested in his own home after getting physical with people
who said they were renters there and he said were squatters. Isaac seemed to
think he was a private citizen at that point in his life, and he demanded
I told him that even though he was a private citizen —
for which many people were very happy — he was still not only a public
figure, but a neon public figure, and that I was going to do a story. To this
he said over the phone that he would like to see happen to me what was done
back then to a man by New York police, which was to be sodomized with a plunger
handle. Of course, that didn’t happen to me, but Isaac did eventually calm down
and he even rode his motorcycle over to my home for coffee and cigarettes after
the story ran and the whole thing blew over.
I wonder if Isaac, who has since changed his last name to
Haqq, will be so understanding now that he’s back in the news, this time for
running afoul of state and local education officials over a charter school that
he and longtime confidante and former Pasadena Board of Education member
Prentice Deadrick — who 10 years ago was rising through the managerial
ranks at City Hall as a mid-level bureaucrat — set up in Oakland.
Important as all those stories were, they shriveled in
comparison to the as yet unwritten yarn of the year which was — at least
in my own self-centered view — the sale of the Pasadena Weekly by former
owner and publisher Jim Laris.
The handwriting was on the wall, or more accurately in the
paper in a little shaded box on page 2 of the Oct. 31 edition. Like the Reader
before it, would this be the end of the line for the old P-Dub?
A new day
I often tell reporters to look at Pasadena as they might the
very hub of the universe: If anything can happen in New York or LA or Paris or
London, it can happen here and does every day. The key is actually recognizing
the story when they see it.
In the hub of my universe, it wasn’t difficult to see that
major changes were afoot in the local journalism industry, changes that would
play a major role in shaping the media landscape we see today. But it wasn’t
all that easy to see back then that Jim’s little three-paragraph note calling
for possible buyers would trigger industry shifts that are still occurring.
After a year’s search for a buyer — one that wouldn’t
close the paper after purchasing it — Jim decided to sell the Weekly to
the LA Times. Jim never divulged the price, but sources say the Times paid the
princely sum of $1.4 million for the paper the following year, 1998.
The Times, which operated the paper for nearly two years
with an exclusively editorial approach to running things that almost destroyed
its advertising component, resold the Weekly two years later, when the Times
itself was bought by Tribune Co., owners of the Chicago Tribune.
Still, people seemed to despise the “new” Pasadena Weekly
that was created by the “real” journalists at the Times. Their people adhered
to strict standards of journalism, which ultimately had a professionalizing
effect on writers and editors. And that was good, perhaps long overdue. Only
all that journalistic goose-stepping came at the expense of the Weekly’s
identity under Laris as an always fun, sometimes hard-hitting and often
freewheeling publication that people couldn’t wait to read every Thursday.
With the Times’ restrictions on language and content, we
could never compete against the LA Weekly, which I was still writing for, or
New Times LA, which was trying to get a foothold in Pasadena. Truthfully, much
as people hated what the Times had done to Jim’s beloved oracle of the people,
I’m amazed we survived the Tribune Co.’s purchase of the Times. Thank goodness
Jim is writing again for us now. Like so many others, even he’s come back to
the paper, this time as a regular columnist, as is longtime senior and
affordable housing advocate Marvin Schachter, who owned the paper before Laris.
We managed to live through all the trauma that the Times and
the Tribune Co. put us through, though, at least long enough to be bought by
entrepreneur David Comden, publisher of the Ventura County Reporter, who
converted the paper into what it is now, a community paper with a strong
alternative edge — the very thing it started out as in the beginning.
Of course, while we were caught in a state of suspended
animation, the rest of the world kept turning. Over the next few years, New
Times LA would fold, then return in 2005 to take over the LA Weekly, trading
that paper’s once-strong politically progressive identity for a non-political
libertarian (some say neocon) bent that old-time fans find particularly
objectionable and infuriating. If this story does nothing else, I hope it shows
just how inexorably linked journalism and politics really are, a fact that New
Times, er, the LA Weekly, refuses to believe.
Incidentally, Jill Stewart, who used to work for the “old”
New Times and then for a while wrote a column for this paper, is now an editor
at the “new” LA Weekly. And James Vowell, former owner of the old Reader, used
to be the editor of the Pasadena Weekly — my job — back when
Schachter owned it along with attorney Pierce O’Donnell. In fact, my longtime
friend Steve Appleford, who was my editor at the Reader, is now the editor of
LA CityBeat. It doesn’t get much more incestuous than that, does it?
Back here in Pasadena, we would soon become part of the
company that Comden helped found, Southland Publishing, which today publishes four
other weekly newspapers, among them LA CityBeat, and five direct-mail monthly
magazines, including Life After 50. Two of those magazines, Arroyo and Verdugo,
are actually produced each month right here in the Weekly’s offices.
Today, Southland Publishing puts out roughly 1.5 million
newspapers and magazines a month. Who would have ever thought?
I guess that’s what finally struck me while I was reading
those old papers: There sure have been a lot of changes around this place over
the years. Just look at those papers and magazines stacked up against the wall.
I’m still not sure exactly how it happened so quickly. I’m glad my tired, old,
bloodshot eyes didn’t blink. Well, not that much.
Surely many things went around and came around. And I, for
one, have seen everything once, twice, and in some cases three times.
But all of that only reminds me of yet another old but
important cliché, one to which we should all pay some heed: Those who don’t
know or remember history are doomed to repeat it. For me, that’s a pretty scary