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South Pasadena City Council Disbands Fiscal Ad Hoc Committee

By Eric Licas
The Review

The South Pasadena City Council dissolved a special committee that had been formed to help steer the city’s finances away from a projected $3.7 million budget deficit at the end of a contentious six-hour meeting last week.
The committee, which was set to meet on an informal basis, was created on Feb. 21 in light of recent analysis suggesting the city might deplete its reserve funds and become insolvent in three to six years. The committee consisted of two members of the South Pasadena Finance Commission, Chair Peter Giulioni and Vice Chair Sheila Rossi, as well as Mayor Evelyn Zneimer and Councilwoman Janet Braun.
“I just don’t understand why we are so afraid to let people look into the financials of this city,” Braun said during the City Council’s meeting on March 20. “I’m dumbfounded.”
The decision to disband the group comes two weeks after it proposed a temporary pause on nonessential hiring and spending. Discussion on the matter came up in response to complaints from a former member of the Finance Commission, Ed Elsner.
Elsner sent a letter to the city alleging that the committee may be in violation of the Brown Act because its members were acting city officials, and as such their meetings should have been held publicly. He also suggested that the group’s formation should have been subject to a vote by Council, rather than the result of a verbal agreement made during discussion.
Braun pointed out that Elsner himself was a member of a similar ad hoc committee when he was a finance commissioner in 2019. The group he was a part of was also tasked with straightening out South Pasadena’s budget, consisting of two Councilmembers alongside two commissioners, and held its meetings in informal closed sessions.
“It was the same composition,” Braun said. “So, under Mr. Elsner’s current line of reasoning, that (committee he was a part of) should have been a Brown Act body.” California’s 2003 Brown Act governs open meetings for local legislative bodies.
Rossi accused Elsner of attempting to undermine the new committee as it scrutinizes South Pasadena’s spending and revenue. She called his complaints a “targeted use of the Brown Act designed to prevent public review and discussion of the city’s current financial situation.”
City Attorney Roxanne Diaz described Elsner’s initial letter as “friendly.” She and Rossi replied after consulting with all of the budget advisory committee’s members, and told him they were all happy to conduct their meetings in public.
That exchange was followed by a formal request by Elsner for the city to rescind the special budget committee, and another demanding that the Council cease and desist from forming similar ad hoc groups without an official discussion and vote.
The Councilmembers who sat on the newest budget ad hoc committee, Braun and Zneimer, questioned the legitimacy of Elsner’s allegations. But in the interest of avoiding potentially costly litigation, and on the advice of city staff, they joined in a unanimous vote to rescind the group. The motion that passed also denied any violations of the Brown Act.
Afterward, Council debated whether they should reestablish the budget advisory committee as a formal body that would meet publicly. Braun and Zneimer suggested that doing so may be essential to staving off a financial disaster. The mayor said she was afraid “we will continue to spend money like water,” without the guidance of such a committee.
Councilman John Primuth opposed re-forming the committee. He said the group that was ultimately disbanded that evening had been unnecessarily delaying the approval of the city’s midyear budget. Primuth went on to accuse the committee of overstepping the scope of their mission and pursuing a “political agenda.”
He further alleged that Rossi had not been cooperative with city staff and misrepresented facts regarding the city’s hiring budget to Councilmembers.
Meanwhile, Braun countered by pointing out that adequate reporting on South Pasadena’s spending had not been performed in nine months. She suggested that any inaccuracies stated by the current Finance Commission vice chair were unintentional and due to the early developing nature of their investigation.
“I don’t know if that’s a misrepresentation,” Braun said. “I think it’s just confusing.”
Councilman Michael Cacciotti called the ad hoc committee a “duplicative body.” He said it was placing undue pressure on city staff with numerous requests for detailed financial information and hurting morale.
Cacciotti, Primuth and Mayor Pro Tem Jack Donovan voted against reestablishing the budget advisory committee. Further discussions on how to address a looming budget deficit may take place during formal Council meetings and study sessions.
“I agree with one thing that Sheila (Rossi) said, and that’s: let’s solve the problems together,” Primuth said. “Let’s look at the financial problems together. I’d rather the council, together, work on the budget, do the deep dives.”

First published in the March 29 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

Correction April 8: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rossi requested the city to rescind the special budget committee and demanded the Council to cease and desist from forming similar ad hoc groups without an official discussion and vote. Actually, it was Ed Elsner, a former member of the city’s finance commission, who made that request and demand.

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