writer, info-gatherer, spokesperson, sage, woman-about-town
Ann Erdman served as the City of Pasadena public information officer, also known as the Pasadena PIO, for 22 years and in that role strategically managed community outreach, media relations, social media and crisis communications. She served as the Palm Springs PIO before moving to Pasadena and began her career in the mid-1970s at a major advertising and public relations agency in San Diego. She retired in 2012 after a 38-year career and remains active in the Pasadena community.
Here are her thoughts on all things Pasadena and the state of local government today.
How would you define community? How is it strengthened?
Community is a place that is made dynamic by a diverse population motivated to grow, learn and solve issues together. Community is strengthened when the foundation and the voice are shared by everyone who wants to take part in this constantly evolving process. In Pasadena, this diversity is quite impressive and includes young and mature, haves and have-nots, public/private/nonprofit sectors and of course a variety of races and ethnicities. Great things can happen when people come together over shared issues, regardless of whether each person has the same opinion about an issue.
After many years of working city halls and sitting at the edge of decision-making, who really runs our government?
When it comes to state and federal government levels, the seats of decision making are far away from the populaces they serve. But local government truly can be a collaborative effort because seats of local government are always in the very same cities as the populaces they serve. Pasadena is so fortunate to have so many civically active residents who serve on commissions and tasks forces, are active in neighborhood associations, serve on nonprofit boards, come to town hall meetings and enjoy public events all over town.
With that said, local government in Pasadena is a partnership and a process that often begins with an issue that everybody, from elected officials to residents to business owners to city staff, have opportunities to weigh in on. It’s not always quick or simple or comfortable, but I think most Pasadenans see this as a good thing. Of course if there is an expected outcome of a policy change, new legislation or a code amendment, the final step in this process is a vote by city council members, which is always taken in open session after abundant public comment that often has been preceded by weeks, if not months, of community engagement. This process is a long-held tradition in Pasadena.
Have you witnessed examples of individuals and small groups of people who have managed to change public policy? If so what strategies did they use to be successful?
A change in public policy often begins with people and organizations in the community articulating needs, concerns, wishes and opinions to their respective council members or to the council as a whole. I have seen change occur in a variety of ways, and sometimes people are on opposite sides of the fence. This wouldn’t be Pasadena otherwise, right?!
There are plenty of day-to-day examples. One that was outside the traditional process is the Playhouse Plaza at the southeast corner of Colorado Boulevard and El Molino Avenue that began as a plan for an enormous commercial building that was wildly incompatible with surroundings in the Playhouse District in terms of height, mass and design. The proposed size outscaled the maximum square footage allowable in Pasadena for a structure of its type, and potential environmental impacts, including traffic, were very troubling to many. When a majority of the city council greenlighted the development, ignoring the Planning Commission’s recommendations, and certain zoning and design requirements were waived in what many considered a benefit to the developer’s interests, contentious discussions ensued at City Hall and in the community as everyone dug in their heels.
On one side were Pasadena Heritage and some citizens who expected new development would follow the rules of the Central District Specific Plan as well as the General Plan that the community had spent so much time and care helping to define and refine during a long-term, comprehensive community engagement process. On the other side was the developer IDS, the Playhouse District Association, the Chamber of Commerce, some city staff and some council members. The group Pasadenans for a Livable City was formed in 2009 and a lawsuit was filed, claiming in effect that in approving the project, the council had ignored rules governing downtown development. A judge agreed and a settlement was reached to downscale the project and bring an architect on board with expertise in historic-district compatibility. (Part of the settlement was a joint press release that can be found here http://www.cityofpasadena.net/EkContent.aspx?theme=Navy&id=8589935396&bid=2970&style=news ) Now the five-story complex features art deco-influenced architecture that complements its surroundings, a view corridor to the iconic Pasadena Playhouse on the El Molino side, appealing courtyards and open space.
Yes, the process to get to this result was long, messy, uncomfortable and controversial, but now everyone on both sides agrees the new project is a win-win in every respect. And from a policy standpoint, rules for downtown development will be followed in the future.
What are some common mistakes community members make that weaken or undermine their efforts to influence decision-makers?
Pasadena would not be the remarkable city it is without community participation in decision-making processes. It never happens in a vacuum in this town. Our local environment ordinarily fosters respect when people of all viewpoints come to the table, but there occasionally are some who simply do not want to — or for some reason cannot — work well in that milieu.
I have seen it all, including people who go into relentless, nagging complain-a-thons instead of initiating two-way conversations, as well as people who incessantly bang the drum of conspiracy theory. Believe me when I say these are exceptions in Pasadena and certainly not the rule, but it does happen.
People will always disempower themselves when they focus solely on what is wrong and whose fault it is instead of focusing on what can be done collaboratively to make things right.
The recent embezzlement in our city severely damaged the public’s trust in City staff members. How could such a large sum of money go unnoticed for so many years?
It went unnoticed for two reasons. One or more people in the review and approval pipeline in two departments at City Hall looked the other way over a number of years, whether intentionally or not, when nearly 300 fraudulent check requests allegedly were submitted by a management analyst in the Public Works Department for payments of about $6.4 million, and nearly every one of the check requests should have been a red flag. Second, the fund from which the payments were made was somewhat obscure in the greater scheme of things and for whatever reason was not audited in a meaningful or regularly scheduled manner. The money in the fund had been deposited from the underground surtax paid by electric customers in Pasadena. There was complicity among three or four key people and it was evil.
Local government in Pasadena works very hard to be transparent in all of its business practices, and this scheme was the worst possible breach of the public trust.
What must government do to rebuild the public’s trust?
It’s already happening. Once the criminal actions were suspected in May 2014, a subsequent forensic audit revealed serious irregularities in the fund, and four people were arrested once the District Attorney’s Office developed an iron-clad case. Those people are in the process of being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and the City of Pasadena recently launched a civil lawsuit seeking return of the money embezzled from the fund. Some employees were put on administrative leave pending the results of a thorough investigation that is ongoing, and some people, including two department directors, were dismissed. A special task force made up of local experts in our community, such as attorneys, accountants and business executives, has been conducting public meetings monthly (the next meeting is Tuesday, July 7, at 5 p.m. in the Grand Conference Room at City Hall) and when their work is complete later this summer they will provide a report with recommendations for strengthening City Hall’s financial administration and internal controls as well as minimizing future risk.
Another indication of that mistrust is low voter turnouts. Other democratic countries have much higher rates of participation in elections. What would you suggest to improve our voter participation?
For some reason people turn out for national elections in much greater numbers nationwide than for local elections, even though decisions that directly affect their lives and their communities are usually made at the local level.
How to convince more people in Pasadena to vote? That is a very good question. I have heard suggestions ranging from legally requiring everyone to vote to initiating public shaming for those who don’t. I would not be in favor of either.
The dichotomy between Pasadena’s civically active populace and low voter turnout is a hard one to reconcile. Despite registered voters receiving door-to-door contacts, direct mailers, phone calls, reminders in traditional media and on social media, etc., the response was negligible in Pasadena in the most recent election.
I wish I had an answer to this dilemma.
What was your favorite part of serving as a Public Information Officer? What about this position is so critical to the public’s awareness of how local government operates?
A lot of my job involved writing and participating in day-to-day meetings, but my favorite part of being the Pasadena PIO was interacting with the many sectors of the community. I enjoyed being present at community events, interacting with constituents at City Hall, on the phone, via email and social media. Pasadena is my city too, and I always considered it an honor to be a public servant and meet a community need for outreach and communications.
What was the most challenging story you covered as a PIO and why?
I could relay so many examples of challenges and controversies. One that has always stood out in my mind is when former mayor Bill Paparian and his family went to Cuba for a week in 1996 as guests of Fidel Castro’s communist government. I had my orders not to send anything out to media until their plane departed from Mexico City to Havana. Once the wheels were in the air, I faxed out a brief news release that had been reviewed and approved by Phil Hawkey, the city manager at the time. I knew there would be a firestorm.
The next order of business for me was to begin anticipating questions from local, national and international media. Although Mayor Paparian had called me the night before he and his family flew from LAX to Mexico City to let me know he had received the OK from the U.S. State Department to make the trip, I didn’t have much detailed information. There is no Cuban Embassy in the U.S., so Jose Luis Ponce, an official with the Cuban Interest Section of the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C., became my go-to guy for day-to-day information. Daily media inquiries came from as far away as Spain, Russia and Israel, and of course local, regional and national media were all over this story as well.
One day I learned from a reporter in London that Mayor Paparian had been a guest speaker at the Politburo (Cuba’s Congress) and made some remarks that were perceived, according to the reporter, as critical of the U.S. When asked to comment, all I could say was I had not seen the speech and Mayor Paparian was representing himself and not the City of Pasadena.
In the meantime, Cuban immigrants in the U.S., from Florida to L.A., were hopping mad about all of this and filled the council chamber when Mayor Paparian returned. The testimony carried on until the wee hours of the morning, and print and broadcast media packed the chamber as well.
I don’t know of another PIO in the U.S. who has ever dealt with this kind of issue, and it certainly was a learning experience that kept me on my toes every minute of every day and night for a week and beyond.
Was it difficult to maintain confidentiality on some issues that you felt the public should know more about or are the filters that are in place appropriate for what is disseminated to the community? If so, please explain how you responded to that challenge.
First, the Pasadena PIO is a confidential employee of the city manager and, as such, is privy to information that may not yet be public record or part of a public process. Second, the California Public Records Act allows clearly defined exemptions to information that is allowed to be disseminated to the public, and the Ralph M. Brown Act allows narrow exemptions to public participation in government meetings. I realize this is not always what people want to hear, and certainly transparency is the best practice, but there are exceptions that pass the legal litmus test. When it came to withholding information, it was never my style to be a rigid stonewaller. Whenever there was information that was not yet public, I did my best to provide as much background information as possible for context without revealing information that was protected under the CPRA or the Brown Act.
One example was a community panel appointed by City Manager Michael Beck to interview semi-finalist candidates for the position of chief of police in 2010. The national search had been an open and transparent process for months, but of course that process was closed to the public during actual interviews with candidates. In addition, the names of panelists were kept confidential until their work was completed to protect them from being influenced by people who otherwise may have lobbied for their favorite candidates.
In the meantime, some community members and a certain local daily newspaper editor cried foul, insisting that the public had a right to know the names of the panelists in advance. There was also misinformation on the community grapevine that this was a selection panel, which it absolutely was not. It was an interview and review panel that provided their recommendations to the city manager for bringing the list of semi-finalist candidates down to a manageable number of finalists for his one-on-one interviews.
When their day-long work was complete, the panelists’ names and affiliations were posted on the city website that afternoon and I sent out a news release to media and community.
So often we hear the term ‘transparency in government’ and we expect to hear the truth as taxpayers and members of the community. How would you define this phrase and how does it play out in your experience?
Transparency and accountability in local government are critical in Pasadena and every city. With the rare exception of information that is not yet public, anyone can find just about everything related to the business of the City of Pasadena on the city website (www.cityofpasadena.net) — from decisions at council meetings to compensation of city employees to every aspect of the investigation related to the embezzlement, and thousands of other pages of information.
What was your most rewarding moment as a PIO?
Boy, that is a difficult question to answer because every day of my 22 years as the Pasadena PIO was rewarding. I very much appreciated it when someone would take time out of their day to send me a thank you note for a particular article in “Pasadena In Focus,” a show on KPAS or simply walking them through an issue over the phone.
I would not trade my time as the Pasadena PIO for anything. It is gratifying to me that some people refer to me as the Pasadena PIO emeritus.