Shadow of Pandemic Darkens Year

Photos by Zane Hill / The Review
Protesters began to gather at Fair Oaks Avenue and Mission Street in June to demand a national reckoning with what they say is the systemic racism that plagues the nation’s institutions and criminal justice culture.

For many, today represents a long-overdue turn of the page from a year that lived up to no one’s expectations.
From the beginning of 2020, news trickled into American airwaves and newsprint that a mysterious virus had secretly wreaked havoc throughout much of China and had begun spreading at uncontrolled levels through South Korea, Iran, Italy and Spain. Reports of overwhelmed hospitals, mass graves and widespread lockdowns also spread.
And then the accounts started coming out of New York City. And Seattle. And a well-known pork processing plant in South Dakota.

By March 11, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was declared to be a global pandemic. Locally, by March 13 — auspicious, indeed, as a Friday the 13th — school districts were closing, cities were declaring states of emergency and officials were openly discussing what would become the Safer at Home orders. Restaurants were limited to takeout or delivery. Personal care services, entertainment venues and bars closed. Nonessential retailers had to close. The NBA suspended its season.
Confusion reigned as public officials struggled to keep up with a rapidly changing situation, as hospitals filled with patients and struggled to track down protective equipment, and panicked people emptied grocery stores with months’ supplies of essentials and disrupted the supply chain in doing so. Disjointed federal leadership didn’t help, although Congress ultimately did pass an enormous relief package that bolstered unemployment insurance while also providing a lifeline to businesses and those whose work hours were scaled back.
After the initial surge, California’s case rate stabilized and fell in the summer months, enough so that outdoor dining became permitted and retailers and service providers could open doors again, with restrictions. The state hit its 1 millionth case since March in mid-November.
Six weeks later, California passed 2 million cases, curtailing much of the reopening efforts. Hospitals remain more overwhelmed than they were before, and residents seeking emergency treatment for other ailments are finding themselves turned away at the door. Two vaccines are being distributed, with others well on their way to approval, but it will be many more months before the nation can begin a return to normalcy.
In the meantime — outside of the pandemic, but perhaps related to it — these are South Pasadena’s biggest stories from a year that, for better or worse, tested our resolve and character.
After admitting to using a pseudonymous email address to submit critical public comments at City Council meetings, Councilwoman Marina Khubesrian first pulled out of her reelection bid in August and then resigned from the panel altogether.
The saga was part of a several-month period that was tumultuous for the city even by coronavirus-era standards. The first domino seemed to tip in early June, when the publication of two proposed 2020-21 budgets that differed significantly provoked scrutiny from a handful of community members that had Khubesrian, among others, on the defensive as Finance Director Karen Aceves and City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe were put on hot seats.
Josh Betta, a former city finance director, lobbed intense criticism of the budget in an unsolicited report while resident Chris Bray voiced displeasure with, among other issues, the fact that the prior year’s audit had yet to be completed. In response, email exchanges and public comments made under the name “Emily Diaz-Vines” cast aspersions and serious accusations against the two men while expressing support for city officials.
Another persona, “Mel Trom,” also sent a reply and, it transpired, had contacted Councilman Michael Cacciotti the prior year after a contentious discussion.
Weeks passed before Bray next contacted the city, this time to file an ethics complaint against Khubesrian after using a two-factor authentication portal to determine that the recovery information for the email addresses belonged to the councilwoman. Khubesrian first denied and then admitted to fabricating the personas.
In her resignation, Khubesrian highlighted the abuse she said she’d largely received via emailed correspondence — mostly anonymous itself — that had exacerbated stress and anxiety related to a serious health issue and, more recently, the pandemic. She apologized to the community for her actions.
The council ultimately appointed Stephen Rossi — another resident who publicly critiqued the city’s budgeting process in June — to fill in for Khubesrian’s remaining three months. He later failed to win a full term on the seat through a write-in campaign.
As a follow-up to the fake email saga, the blossoming scandal also counts DeWolfe and Aceves among its casualties.
The city manager, who was hired in 2017, announced her retirement in September shortly after a special closed-session meeting with council members concerning her employment. This was Rossi’s first meeting as a councilman in Khubesrian’s former seat.
A report on the closed session subsequently indicated that the council voted to terminate DeWolfe’s contract.
Prior to the budget-related controversy, DeWolfe had faced routine public criticism about a lack of City Hall access by the public, a reliance on outsourcing work or utilizing consultants and generally high turnover among city workers and administrators.
Aceves, who was hired as the full-time finance director only this year after holding the interim role, resigned suddenly in October.
Sean Joyce, who was city manager for South Pasadena for a time in the 1990s, was tabbed as the interim city manager shortly afterward, while Elaine Aguilar, a former assistant city manager, was brought back to run the finance operations temporarily.
In an odd twist, the 2018-19 audit report whose delay helped mire the departed administrators in controversy finally was presented to the council two weeks later.
Except for accounting errors that were attributable to low staff levels, it was generally clean and reflected that finances were in “good financial shape.”
The four corners of Mission Street and Fair Oaks Avenue became known for much of the year for the group of sign-holding protesters spread out at the intersection.
Since June, the group — primarily organized initially by local resident London Lang — has called out to passing motorists, urging reform of the criminal justice system and a reckoning with what the protesters see as systemic racism within the nation’s institutions. Lang said he endeavored to keep the gatherings here respectful and nonviolent after initially participating in protests that devolved into rioting elsewhere in Los Angeles.
The group became a familiar sight at the intersection. It also hosted supply drives in Garfield Park and coalesced into a large gathering outside of City Hall that demanded localized reforms and insisted the city address what it said were numerous attacks or instances of intimidation against the protesters or the Black Lives Matter movement.
One alleged incident included another protest. A crowd swelled at the same intersection in November, ahead of Election Day, in support of President Donald Trump. That group largely carried the familiar trappings of other pro-Trump rallies — flags, shirts and banners with the Trump name or face emblazoned upon them. It also included some members sporting other iconography typically associated with more hard-line Trump supporters: the Blue Lives Matter flag, the Three Percenters and QAnon.
The South Pasadena Unified School District was among the first districts in Southern California to close its doors once the pandemic was declared.
Since then, it has committed to continuing distance learning for the fall semester. It also has provided to-go meals for all children within the district who want them and is currently working out possible limited-reopening plans for its elementary schools with the county. Meanwhile, it is striving to find common ground with teachers and parents when it comes to that reopening — assuming the district does reopen schools this spring.
On the city side, this past fall the council unveiled an al fresco program along Mission Street that, in conjunction with the South Pasadena Arts Council, utilized K-rail barriers that were decorated with vinyl art prints. The program ran until the current surge of COVID-19 cases forced the closure of in-person dining again.
The council also has imposed moratoriums on evictions and used a Community Development Block Grant to fund a rent relief program for a number of residents.
Jon Primuth prevailed against two opponents in capturing the open District 3 seat on the City Council, while Evelyn Zneimer defeated incumbent Bob Joe by a razor-thin margin in District 1 and Jack Donovan survived a foe’s write-in campaign in his bid for office in District 2.
On the school board, Suzie Abajian won a second term, while Patricia Martinez-Miller is back after previously serving from 1989-2001. They overcame two other challengers for the at-large seats. Martinez-Miller took the seat previously occupied by Primuth.
Measure U, a utility users tax, was decisively renewed by voters as well.
In one of the few moments not tinged by the pandemic this year, Police Chief Ortiz held a press conference in February announcing that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office found no wrongdoing in the department’s response that resulted in the fatal shooting of actress Vanessa Marquez in 2018.
Ortiz, who was not with the department at the time of the killing, included body camera footage in his presentation. Investigators determined that officers, who were assisting in a wellness check on Marquez, were justified in the shooting because the actress was wielding a BB gun that resembled a lethal weapon.
Local activists decried the conclusion and use the incident as an example of why law enforcement should be less involved in medical or mental health calls.
Former mayor and longtime civic leader Ted Shaw, widely known as “Mr. South Pasadena,” died in February. He was 75.
The outpouring of admiration for Shaw that followed illustrated why he earned the nickname. Well known for his community service, Shaw was involved with bringing a Tournament of Roses group to town, restoring the landscaping at Oaklawn Park, pioneering the 4th of July Festival of Balloons parade, creating the South Pasadena Senior Center and much more.
His funeral was held at his beloved Holy Family Church.
The SPUSD is ready to move into new offices, just across the street from its current headquarters.
However, it must sell its current historic site first. The district is hoping that the third time is the charm now — one sale agreement made in July fell through and a second agreement made in November fizzled weeks later.
The eventual buyer is expected to redevelop portions of the lot as part of the city’s Mission Street Specific Plan, while also restoring and preserving the historic structure currently there.
In November, the SPPD investigated the city’s sole homicide of the year after a man was fatally stabbed while attacking an
ex-girlfriend, the department said.
Officers were called to a home in the 500 block of Five Oaks Drive on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 28, on a report of domestic violence. Upon arriving, police said, they found a window had been broken and there was screaming inside the home.
According to the officials, Justin Goss, a 40-year-old Glendale man, was choking the woman when her mother and sister came to her defense. Goss was attacked with a golf club and stabbed, police said.
A onetime nurse at the South Pasadena Care Center filed a lawsuit against her former employer in November, alleging that the nursing home failed to seriously respond to the pandemic in its early stages.
The woman claims the Care Center wrongfully terminated her after she raised concerns about management conduct. She is alleging that the nursing home put profits over safety and that some supervisors filmed joke videos for social media using personal protective equipment — a hot commodity at the time.
The facility was a hot spot of coronavirus infections early in the pandemic and represented the bulk of South Pasadena’s infections and deaths at that time. The plaintiff says she contracted the disease while working there, in part because of what she claims was the facility’s lax management.
The Care Center, which ultimately brought its initial outbreak under control, did not comment on the filing.