SP Denies ‘Bullying’

City Attorney Teresa Highsmith, Mayor Marina Khubesrian (holding up a phone with City Manager Stephane De Wolfe on the line) and city spokesman John Pope (left to right) speak with the media Friday at the South Pasadena firehouse. Photo by Skye Hannah

By Skye Hannah/Senior Reporter and Kevin Kenney/Review Editor

Breaking from the city’s usual policy of public silence on matters where there is pending litigation, officials invited local media to a meeting last Friday at which they defended South Pasadena’s actions in regard to the recent inspection of Alison Smith’s home on Hanscom Drive, and in regard to the city’s actions in the aftermath of the January 2018 sewage backup at the Smith property that the ignited the controversy.

The dispute began in January 2018, when a pipe, apparently owned by the city, clogged and flooded Smith’s hillside backyard with sewage from what she said was 17 neighboring homes. Smith says the city initially took responsibility for the “toxic” mess but then backed away. She also says her backyard remains unusable — one of the points the city disputed during Friday’s meeting.

“The city has little choice but to respond when the facts are ignored or misrepresented as they have been in regard to the 1726 Hanscom Drive property. And the community has expressed an interest in hearing the city’s side of the story,” spokesman John Pope said in a prepared statement during the gathering, which also included Mayor Marina Khubesrian, City Attorney Teresa Highsmith and, by telephone, City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe.

With City Hall closed on Fridays under the city’s new four-day work schedule, the impromptu gathering was held in a meeting room at the adjacent firehouse.

The officials, spurred by an explosion of comments on local social media that attacked the city’s actions in the Smith case, stressed a number of points during the 90-plus-minute meeting. Among them:

• That the inspection — conducted by city building officials after the city obtained a court order allowing them access to the property — was not in retaliation for Smith filing a lawsuit in which she is seeking recovery of cleanup costs as well as additional money for what she says is emotional distress.

• That the cause of the sewage spill remains in dispute — with Smith saying the city is responsible, while the city says that unpermitted plumbing work, contracted by Smith, caused the backup.

• That the city did not, as Smith claims, accept responsibility for the spill, “which we believe was caused by a clog in Ms. Smith’s own sewer lateral.” (In interviews, Smith said that two city workers, during separate visits to her home after the backup, told her the city was to blame.)

• That, when Smith said she could not afford initial cleanup costs, the city paid some $7,000 for a “full cleanup” of the sewage-contaminated parts of her backyard. Further, the city said it responded quickly after the initial report of the sewage backup — and that, contrary to what Smith says, the backyard is not unusable.

• That “Ms. Smith has repeatedly refused multiple offers by the city to mediate the dispute to avoid costly litigation, including an offer by the city to pay the full cost of the mediator.”

“That’s how willing we are to stop the madness and get a reasonable settlement, but the longer this all goes on and the more information we have, the more we are convinced that we are not liable, the city is not liable, but we would still like to sit down and discuss this with her,” said Highsmith.

• That, while Smith and her attorney have stated they wish only for the city to pay for cleanup costs, Smith is actually “seeking $260,000 based on a proposal she got for a completely new landscape plus damages for emotional distress.’’ Further, the city says, her original claim was for more than $1 million while a second amended complaint sought some $500,000 before the latest claim put the figure at $260,000.

• That the city — which on Nov. 15, 2018, offered Smith a $15,000 settlement — is still willing to mediate.

“It’s always better to stay out of the courts and mediate,” Khubesrian said.

“In this situation, because I’m very motivated to move forward with a peaceful process as much as possible and make this as easy as possible for everyone, there’s no intention to hurt Alison or anyone else, so we are making this as easy as possible for her.”

Alison Smith stands in the backyard of her 1726 Hanscom Drive home on Friday. Photo by Skye Hannah

All this came in the immediate aftermath of an Oct. 18 inspection at the Smith home by city building officials that left Smith — a single mother of three who earns about $25,000 a year as a part-time teacher in the South Pas schools — feeling “sick to my stomach’’ and saying, “I feel this is an intimidation tactic. … They’re being bullies, and I feel I am being bullied.”

Smith and her lawyer, James T. Perez of Calabasas, say the search was in retaliation for the lawsuit, and for Smith going public with her complaints during an Aug. 21 City Council meeting.

The city, however, says the search was “for violations of the South Pasadena Municipal Code,’’ which officials were alerted to via an anonymous tip.

Among the multitude of documents the city officials distributed during Friday’s meeting with reporters was a memo from building official Craig Melicher — who led the Oct. 18 inspection at Smith’s property. It detailed 29 alleged improvements done without proper city permits, covering a wide range of roofing, plumbing, electrical, landscaping and handrail areas.

Highsmith said the city was willing to not include those issues in any litigation with Smith, and is willing to work out a compliance schedule with Smith to get them tended to.

The city, meanwhile, has also filed a cross-complaint against Smith — though Highsmith again stressed during the meeting that the city wants to settle the matter through mediation, before it reaches the courts.

Highsmith also addressed the matter of three South Pasadena police officers serving a warrant on Smith on Oct. 17, a day before the inspection — a show of force that Smith as well as numerous social-media commentators described as overkill. Highsmith said it was a simple matter of the three officers agreeing to serve the warrant while on their way to another meeting, the specifics of which she did not know.

Pope said the city only sought the court-ordered inspection after its initial request in writing on Oct. 10 was “refused” by Smith through her attorney.

“Let us state clearly that none of the city’s code enforcement actions have been done in ‘retaliation’ for either the lawsuit or Ms. Smith’s public comments,’’ said Pope.

“Unpermitted work can present health and safety issues for the occupants of a home or building as well as neighboring properties.

“Ms. Smith has chosen to knowingly perform substantial work inside and outside her home and on her property without any building permits, electric permits, plumbing permits, mechanical permits or grading permits.

“This work includes an entire kitchen remodel, a new bathroom installed in the basement area, new skylights, windows and French doors, raising the interior ceiling and changing structural support beams for the ceiling and roof, new lighting throughout the property, new plumbing, new electric subpanels and wiring, new exterior stairs, decking retaining walls, grading and new exterior siding. …

“Prior to the Oct. 18 inspection of Smith property, the city was aware of the unpermitted and uncapped sewer cleanout (the point where her sewage backed up onto a portion of her backyard) and was already in the process of preparing a cross-complaint regarding that matter, as it is a causation issue in the lawsuit.”

Perez, Smith’s attorney, did not immediately reply to a request by the Review for his comments on the city’s response.