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Ballot may contain 'hot potatoes'

South Pasadena voters may be asked about extending term limits and increasing salaries of city commissioners.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

SOUTH PASADENA -- When voters decide next spring whether to revise the city charter, they could be determining if longtime Mayor Fred Held runs for another three years.

Extending the term limits for elected officials in South Pasadena is among the recommendations a Charter Review Committee has suggested the City Commission place on the March ballot.

Another proposal would increase commissioners' salaries by a modest amount each year. Together, the two items, described by members of the committee that recommended them as "hot potatoes" or "lightning rods," would make for a controversial ballot.

The idea of longer term limits is guaranteed to draw criticism from political foes who protested Held's election in March, believing he already had served the three terms now allowed by the city charter.

The recommendation was the most controversial of the suggestions presented Tuesday to the City Commission by the Charter Review Committee, composed of six city residents, one former city commissioner, one current elected official and one city staffer.

The elected official on the committee was Held, and the city staff member was City Clerk Diane Orloff, whose department answers directly to Held in South Pasadena's form of government, which does not include a city manager. Both Held and Orloff voted for the recommendation extending term limits, though Orloff, who said she favors term limits, only voted for it as a compromise.

Their selection months ago as members of the committee frustrated Commissioner Dick Holmes, who chaired the last Charter Review Committee six years ago and has made no secret of his plans to run for mayor once Held's terms expire.

Committee members said their decision on term limits was a compromise. Originally, some members wanted to lift term limits altogether; some wanted to cap term limits at three, which is what the current charter calls for; and some were undecided.

"The vote was split pretty much," said Harry Winning, a member of the committee who made the motion to recommend increasing the number of term limits for mayors and commissioners to four. "Some wanted term limits, some wanted no term limits. So this was pretty much a compromise."

The compromise was not without controversy. Dan Calabria, a frequent critic of the mayor's who held one of the review committee's slots for city residents, resigned after the mayor refused to recuse himself from voting on the term limit question.

"The reason for my resignation was, I felt and I feel, that when a person is financially involved in an issue, they should not vote on the subject," Calabria said. "What we're doing here is making a single exception that affects one person, and that is wrong."

Held would not speculate on whether he might run again in three years if voters approve such a change.

"I'm 74 years old," Held said. "Who's to say what my health will be in three years?"

The committee's recommendation comes two months after the city election, when Held was elected to a third -- or fourth -- term, depending on one's perspective. Held was first elected city commissioner in 1981 and, except for 1983-1985, served continuously until 1994, when the charter provision allowing officials to serve only three continuous three-year terms prevented him from running again.

But just two days after the 1994 city election, then-Mayor Barbara Gilberg resigned, saying she could not work with the new elected officials. Commissioners appointed Held to be mayor, and he was re-elected to new terms in 1995, 1998 and 2001.

This year, one opponent ran simply because he believed Held was running illegally; the other opponent originally ran in case Held was disqualified from the race.

Another recommendation from the Charter Review Committee would clear up the confusion that generated this year's election controversy. The revision would change the word "elected" to "appointed," which committee members believe would have clarified that Held's first appointed term as mayor should not be counted toward his term limits.

"That needs to be changed," Orloff said. "We cannot take any chances with that not being changed, or we're dead in the water."

Commissioners now will decide which of the recommendations they will pass on to voters, though most commissioners have expressed an interest in keeping the ballot questions similar to the committee's recommendations.

They also will decide whether to break the ballot initiatives into several questions or present them as one set of changes voters can accept or reject.

Other recommendations from the Charter Review Committee include:

Allowing the mayor to appoint a vice mayor from among the city commissioners without approval by the rest of the City Commission.

Increasing the salaries of the mayor, who now receives $625 a month, and commissioners, who receive $475 a month, every year, based on the annual Social Security adjustment.

"We didn't feel it was fair to put the burden on the commission to pass the salary adjustment," said Mike Cuomo, chairman of the Charter Review Committee. "We hope that the commission of South Pasadena agrees with our changes and allows the citizens of South Pasadena to vote on our recommendations."

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