SOUTH PASADENA — By his account, Mayor Dan Calabria is unfailingly honest and would do anything to make his city a better place. Others on the five-person City Commission describe a vindictive grouch who could do well for South Pasadena by just vacating his office in City Hall.
On Monday, they will vote on whether to fire him.
Calabria has presided over a tense work environment that leaves the government in the city of 5,000 at risk of a lawsuit, his critics say.
He “has a capacity to be snide, petty, condescending, sarcastic, belligerent and unnecessarily combative, and has what seems to be an almost manic need to pursue personal vendettas,” a lawyer hired by the commission to investigate Calabria’s work wrote in a report this month. (The city has not received the lawyer’s bill, but one commissioner said his services came at a cost to taxpayers of $225 an hour).
Calabria, 79, describes himself as a man, fresh out of open-heart surgery, who has tried to keep the city within budget and has supported the growth of local businesses — all while responding to attacks from the commission.
“I don’t know what it is they’re talking about,” he said in a phone interview.
The tension between Calabria and the commissioners has simmered since September, when his colleagues put him on notice that they might eventually vote to remove him from his elected position ( tbtim.es/f6o).
South Pasadena has a weak-mayor form of government — Calabria’s power is little more than ceremonial. Each member of the commission oversees a city department — Calabria is in charge of the administration division. The commissioners have an equal vote and make $511 a month.
On Monday, Calabria will have a chance to defend himself before his peers decide his future. According to the city charter, the other four commissioners must vote unanimously to oust him. The mayor is accused of malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence.
“We didn’t do this lightly, and we’ve been struggling with this guy for two years,” Commissioner Gail Neidinger said.
In a three-page document listing “reasons for suspension or removal” of Calabria, Neidinger accused him of refusing to sign meeting minutes and contracts because he disagreed with the commission’s vote, of not being a team player and believing he has more power than he actually does, and of being disrespectful toward city employees.
The independent investigator hired by the city, W. Russell Hamilton III of Port St. Lucie, used much of his 15-page report to describe Calabria’s disrespectful and combative attitude toward City Clerk Carley Lewis, who works under him in the administration department. Hamilton found that as mayor, Calabria has overburdened the department with public records requests, filing more than all other residents of the city combined.
“In a word, the mayor’s treatment of the city clerk has been inexcusable, unprofessional, demeaning and possibly discriminatory,” Hamilton wrote. Employees in the clerk’s office declined to comment.
“If we would not have taken action, the city clerk or anyone on her staff could have sued the city,” Vice Mayor Arthur Penny said.
Last year, Penny filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, alleging that Calabria used his position as mayor to coerce a liquor store owner into removing a marquee sign during election season. The mayor also appeared this week before an administrative law judge on that charge.
Calabria disputed that he has created a hostile work environment, saying Lewis does not like him and Penny and Neidinger have a vendetta against him. The mayor questioned Hamilton’s independence, saying the lawyer “did what he was hired to do.” He said a number of the records requests were for commission meeting minutes needed to refute colleagues’ allegations about his coarse language and rude behavior.
“I’m surprised they didn’t say, ‘He picked his nose in public,’ ” Calabria said.
Commissioner Max Elson said he remains reluctant to oust an elected official and will wait to hear Calabria’s argument before deciding his vote.
Incoming Commissioner Lari Johnson will take office just before the meeting on the mayor’s removal. She too said she has not decided how to vote.
The infighting in South Pasadena is not without precedent for small towns in Florida. Last year, commissioners in St. Pete Beach voted to fire the city manager and some residents asked the mayor to step down.
Calabria rose to office two years ago after nurturing a reputation as one of the city’s most politically engaged citizens. To some he was a contrarian, to others he was an advocate who checked city leaders on issues such as the potential narrowing of Pasadena Avenue. He has one year left in his term.
If he is ousted Monday, Calabria said he will “run for office again next December.” But not before challenging the vote first.
“That’s what circuit courts are for,” he said.
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804.