First published in the Jan. 21 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
South Pasadena Mayor Michael Cacciotti walks the walk when it comes to talking about the environment.
He also pedals the talk and light rails when he can’t walk.
“It’s exciting stuff,” said Cacciotti, who officially took the city’s reins last month. “I sometimes feel like a prophet — spreading the gospel of caring about your neighbor.”
One of his personal heroes happens to be St. Francis, widely considered the patron saint of animals and the natural environment, and he often walks or rides his bicycle through the city spreading the word about new ways to preserve the planet. It’s a driving force in his life.
He moved from northern New York to Florida as a youngster and he felt close to the Catholic church — working there in his youth — and at one time imaging himself becoming a priest.
But during his time teaching, he discovered he loved coaching youth sports — in particular, soccer — and he’s been involved in the sport for more than 40 years.
Cacciotti then moved west, got a law degree at Whittier College and became an attorney, working first for the California Department of Transportation and then as a deputy attorney general with the state’s Department of Justice.
It was while working in the attorney general’s office in 2001 that he had an environmental epiphany. He was prosecuting a case involving fraudulent air emission tests when someone showed him the amount of carbon that was emitted into the air.
The confluence of that information paired with the fresh memory of several of his soccer players suffering from asthma caused him to see what dirty air could do to a person.
So, he traded in his sports car and bought a Toyota Prius in 2002 — a car he still owns. “I thought, ‘How can I drive a gas car and treat people with respect?’’’ Cacciotti said.
The environment became an important source for the homily of his life. Cacciotti is the city’s representative on the Gold Line light rail Foothill Construction Authority and has served on the South Coast Air Quality Management District, representing 34 eastern cities of Los Angeles County, in an elected capacity, since 2008. He has also been on the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy as an advisory board member.
In 2015, Cacciotti was instrumental in changing the city’s landscaping techniques at Garfield Park, which was touted as the first municipal park in the country to be maintained entirely by gas-free, commercial lawn equipment. In September 2016, South Pasadena was cited for maintaining all city-owned properties by advancing non-polluting, commercial electric lawn equipment.
Cacciotti often walks or rides his bicycle around town, and even took his bike on the Gold Line to work downtown where he was a deputy attorney general, a position he retired from after 20 years to devote more time to his love for South Pasadena and other causes.
He makes it a point to show up at schools, parks and organizations to push forward ways of making South Pasadena a cleaner and safer place to live.
I’ve seen him show up at meetings right after a gig coaching youth soccer, but if he’s not wearing a tie, believe me he’s got a lot of experience in helping to run the city. He’s been a council member since 2001, and now represents District 4.
Cacciotti, who has served as mayor for the 2011-12 and 2016-17 terms before being mayor pro tem last year, is excited about the electrification of city hall, the purchase of all electric cars for the city and police department, as well as electric charging stations, and eventually an electric fire truck.
He is also excited about budgeting for 75,000 additional trees to be planted in the city to preserve and protect the tree canopy.
Several of these projects are scheduled to go into effect this year, including one to eliminate gas lawn mowers and leaf blowers and another to initiate a new trash separation and composting system.
But like many programs, things don’t always go according to schedule. The gas lawn mower and leaf blower exchange has been moved back to October, while city government tries to get money to ease the financial pain on local gardeners.
I asked Cacciotti about the new trash collecting system, and suggested that many people either had not heard about it or understood the program. He told me that he had asked his trash collectors if he had done things correctly when the program officially kicked off earlier this month, and he said they hadn’t even heard about the program. Don’t fret. This program is being phased in and there will be lots of opportunity to learn more about it.
In the meantime, he’s going out to schools and scout troops and telling them to spread the word about the benefits of such programs and how they will improve the environment. He’s been out in the Arroyo Park area with the Boy Scouts to pick up debris in the nature park.
“I’m motivated by this passion,” he said, “and I can’t stop. And it can’t just be in South Pasadena, it has to be done in other cities as well.”
One issue the mayor wants to work on is dealing with those experiencing homelessness. He’s waiting on two additional cities to sign on to a program that would create a mobile crisis program, which would not only work with homeless people in the city, but also help in other emergency situations.
“[Homelessness] is getting to be more of a problem than ever before,” he said.
But even Cacciotti’s passion for new ideas can’t drown out the drumbeat of the pandemic, which has pounded the growth of ideas and the realities of personal and small business fortunes.
He’s hopeful that he can bring back a bimonthly program giving local businesses a chance to put a spotlight on their establishments.
“The pandemic has made a big impact on our city,” Cacciotti said. “It’s hurt businesses, driven up costs for the city and delayed the start of programs.”
Cacciotti noted that South Pasadena, like the rest of the country, has been impacted now, more than ever, by the politicization of issues. With many new issues and concerns at stake, there are bound to be more differing views. Change at any time is controversial.
“We’re getting more emails both ways than ever before,” he said. “Some people think we are being too strict and other people think we aren’t being strict enough.”
Cacciotti still uses that Toyota Prius. He’s leased or borrowed a number of electric cars over the years, but after 20 years next month, he’s still driving the old faithful. He proudly notes that “I have not spent one penny on my brakes.” If I didn’t know he doesn’t drive a lot, I might worry.
“I’m just waiting for the right electric car,” he said, “but I’m not sure I will even purchase a car, depending on what the future brings in terms of technology and [transportation] services available.”
For now, the future calls and Cacciotti is prepared to spread the word on sustainability.
Columnist’s note: In last week’s column about the Adobe Flores, I said that Felix Gutierrez’s mother moved to South Pasadena in 1956. It was 1955. Also, it was Jose Jesus Pico who carried a message from then Lt. Col. (and later General) John Fremont to the Californios, which they deliberated at the Adobe Flores on Jan. 11, 1847, before agreeing to sign a peace treaty. I apologize for the errors.