SGV Connect 109: Damien Newton Interviews Rick Cole
DN: So we’re here on Zen caster recording with Rick Cole. Rick, thank you for being with us today. RC: Glad to be here, Damien. DN: As we touched on in the preview, Rick is a former mayor and council member for the city of Pasadena. And he’s been writing a series in Pasadena Now that you can read either at Pasadenanow.com, or you if you’re a subscriber to our newsletter, we’ve been highlighting these every week as they’ve been running about things the city of Pasadena can do to get ready for the future. As I look at your resume, you’ve been city manager at Santa Monica, Ventura and Azusa. But Pasadena must be nearest and dearest to your heart. Because this is a pretty massive undertaking. Again, these are like 600-700 word columns publishing every week. RC: I’m enjoying the opportunity, and particularly enjoying the feedback that I’ve been getting. When I moved back to Pasadena after being gone for 21 years. On the one hand, it was great to see, the town felt very much at home for me. Returning -- I always knew I would at some point. On the other hand, I frankly found myself frustrated that the city hasn’t changed more. In the 21 years that I’ve been gone, I felt a little bit like a reverse Rip Van Winkle that I woke up and 21 years had elapsed and not much had changed in Pasadena. The are things that I hope never change about Pasadena. Diversity is one of the things that is frankly, under some siege. The black population has been dramatically reduced in my lifetime. And that goes directly to the issue of high home prices. But Pasadena, when I was on the city council, was a leader in environmental issues and social justice issues and economic issues and affordable housing. And I think we no longer aspire to leadership, I think there’s a level of complacency. And what I’ve tried to do with this series of columns is ground them in the vitality that that leads to so much that’s great about Pasadena today. My mantra is “we can’t sit on our assets.” The reality is that the generations that came before us built the Pasadena that we now take for granted and enjoy. Cal Tech was started as Throop Technical Institute. You know, 100 years ago, the Rose Bowl was built. 100 years ago, the City Hall and the Civic Center and the Central Library were built. 100 years ago, the Pacific Asia museum started out. 100 years ago. The Norton Simon, 60 years ago. The generations of the past, made their mistakes, had their blind spots. But they were they were creators. They were innovators, they were leaders. And I think that Pasadena should continue to be creative and innovative and, be a leader in Southern California. DN: Now, what of course, first caught my eye, as we were covering the series was you were talking about how Pasadena could grow into a 15 minute city, which is become you know, it’s actually become more of a loaded term since the piece published, I think back in January. It has become sort of this, you know, bete noir of the people that are more conservative is wildly misunderstanding it. But you focused in that piece on some specific things the city could do to modernize and improve its transportation systems and make it really a place where people don’t need a car, to get the things that they need to survive and the things that make living in a small southern California city very attractive to people. RC: Back in 1992, when I was mayor, we were going through the process of completely rewriting our general plan, which is really the strategic blueprint for future growth. The planners were petrified about public engagement because their view --having been through lots of gruesome public hearings -- was that the people were really deeply wedded to their cars and wedded to ample free parking and wedded to the suburban “get in your car to do everything” lifestyle. And having knocked on the doors of hundreds of homes and having talked face to face with 1000 voters in my district in order to get elected, I had a different view. I think that people rely on their cars because they don’t have other choices. And they don’t like paying high insurance rates. They don’t like having to have a car with transportation costs second only to housing in terms of the family budget, and they don’t like putting up the traffic, etc, etc. The general plan was based on seven principles. And one of the principles was radical at the time, but I think is the foundation for how we are planning our future, which is “Pasadena should be a city where people can circulate without cars.” And if you parse that it doesn’t say, “Pasadena should be a city without cars.” But it should be a city where people that works for those who are too old to drive are too young to drive or who are disabled or who are too poor to afford one, or people who choose not to have to get in their car to go get a quart of milk, or get in the car to go meet their friends for coffee, or get in the car to enjoy the great outdoors at the nearest park. So, there ought to be choices. There ought to be bikes and pedestrian ways that are safe, bikeways that are safe. There ought to be ample public transit. And we ought to be open to new technology like scooters. Those are the things that that could make Pasadena a 15 minute city, along with the natural land use changes that can come with that. When I was growing up, there was a grocery store in the Linda Vista neighborhood. There isn’t one today. And I think if you proposed the grocery store in Linda Vista now, a certain section of that community would come unglued. And yet for generations, it was just a daily part of life. I think that again, my series is grounded in Pasadena’s heritage, Pasadena has a heritage of doing great things. And I think we should be doing great things in in today’s world. DN: Now, a lot of what what you’re talking about in this series also, it’s again, you can you can find it in Pasadena. Now there’s usually one or two right at the front of their webpage, as they circulate through news stories and opinion pieces, these ones have been pretty regularly highlighted or you can subscribe to our newsletter. As I read them, too, there’s said each piece is focused on something very specific. I think the last one that I read, which will give people an idea of what it is we recorded this, was actually about the public library and ways to improve the library system. Is there anything a lot of it is I don’t want to say big changes, but they’re sort of of big, visionary items that can be done. Is there something that could be done right now pretty quickly. RC: Well, that’s what I’m going to write about next. So this will also anchor the time in which we record this podcast. I’m writing about the current effort on being undertaken by the planning department to write objective standards for new high density housing in the city. People complain, and I understand those complaints, about the appearance and the scale and the way in which these new five and six story apartment and condo projects don’t seem to fit in as well to the fabric of Pasadena. And I think that we’re going to see a lot more of that. We have to see a lot more of that both because the state will make us do that. But also because I think it’s good for the city. But we should do it well, because these buildings will be around for decades. Ironically, growing up again in Pasadena, right across from a junior high school,(which also dates me because nowadays we call the middle schools) was a four story apartment building right across the street. It stood the test of time. It’s still there and people still live there. But it’s built 100 years ago, and nobody says “oh, look at that ugly building. It doesn’t fit into the neighborhood.” It predates 100% of the neighbors who live there in the Madison Heights and central Pasadena. So, you can do a four and five story buildings well. They can they can be handsome additions to the streetscape. They can be livable for the people who occupy those apartments for generations, or condos. And that comes down to design and design is not so much aesthetics of whether you like metal roofs or whether you like modern architecture. It really comes to whether there’s windows and doors on the street, or whether there’s an ugly parking structure. Whether the design of the building is meant to catch your eye to somehow stand out in sort of bizarre ways, or whether it’s designed to fit into the fabric of the neighborhood. And those standards can be objective. And the great thing about objective design standards is then you don’t have to argue about them endlessly. You either meet them, and then you get a permit, or you don’t meet them and you don’t get a permit. I think that gives some security to neighbors about what can happen in their neighborhood. So that’s something that’s happening right now. And people who are listening to the podcast and people who are reading the columns can weigh in on what those standards ought to be, that we ought to have standards, that we ought to enforce those standards, and we ought to insist on high quality. I think if we had a higher quality construction and design, there wouldn’t be quite so much resistance to the evolution of some of our neighborhoods. DN: You’re working with the City Comptroller of Los Angeles, right now. As a candidate I was extremely enthusiastic about him during the primary. There, I even tell people, there was one time where he was doing a push up for every dollar raised over a certain amount of time. And not only did I donate during that time I did, I sent him a video of me doing the push ups because I think he was getting more money than he was expecting. And even though he’s in phenomenal physical shape, I was gonna spare him the 20 or 25, whatever it was push ups that he would have owed me. But he got he’s gotten a lot of attention, because he really ran a very different campaign. And he’s running a very different office, at least publicly. So what is like one good take away that sort of I think your standard political leader can take from, from Kenneth, whether it’s something about his campaign or something about how he runs his office. If you were to pick one, or maybe two, just easy things that a political leader could pick up on. RC: I appreciate the question. And I’ll give you two, but neither of them are easy. The first is, our informal motto is “bring the government to the people and bring the people to the government.” First, for too long, we treated local government as too complicated, too sophisticated, for the average person to pay much attention and to understand. So it’s become increasingly an opaque black box. We don’t understand how the budget works. We don’t understand how the operations work. We have they talk in their own language, they have lots of acronyms that no one can understand. And we basically say, “This is too complicated. Just vote for good people every two or four years, and everything will be fine.” I think that’s fundamentally flawed. And what Kenneth did, which attracted me to his campaign, a year before the election, was he made government a lot more transparent. He put the city budget on a billboard, with a bar chart that said, “This is how your money is being spent. Is this how you want your money to be spent?” I think bringing the government to the people and bringing the people to the government is the essence of leadership. Leadership is not figuring out what the people should get and then forcing it on them. Government should be -- in a democracy -- that leaders should be more courageous and more visionary than the average person. But they should be in dialogue with all aspects of the community. That’s a tall order. It’s not easy. But I think that Kenneth has demonstrated the remarkable potential of that because as a result of running a completely unconventional campaign, and not simply breaking all of the conventional rules of politics, simply ignoring all the conventional rules and just running a completely different approach. He got more votes than any candidate for any office in the history of Los Angeles: over half a million votes, more votes than Karen Bass got to be elected mayor. So to say, “Oh, well, that’s very idealistic,” “That’s very pie in the sky,” or “All that stuff will never work.” Well, you know, a year before the election, I didn’t give much hope that Kenneth would prevail. Not because I didn’t think he had a good message, not because I didn’t think he was would be a great office holder, but the city has 4 million people and the way you get elected is you raise a whole ton of money from special interests and you send out a lot of propaganda and people vote for you. As I said, he completely ignored that approach, and instead ran his own kind of campaign, appealing to the intelligence of the voters. And they responded. The second thing, which is even harder, is I think it all comes down to character. You know, I was on a political action committee advisory group when I was in Ventura; the group basically wanted to support progressive candidates for local office on the Central Coast and in Santa Barbara, and Ventura. My colleagues who I shared a political philosophy with, they were very interested in people’s answers to questionnaires -- right, down to the semicolon and the comma. Do you support this? Do you oppose that? How much do you support this? How much do you oppose that? And the purer they were on answering those questions, the more enthusiastic people were about supporting them. And I said, “What about character? What about what they bring to the job? Because over the four years or eight years, or, you know, in the case of some career politicians 30 or 40 years, they have to make a lot of independent decisions that have nothing to do with the questionnaire answers when they first run for for election. Kenneth shows remarkable character. He was completely smeared by his hack, establishment politician opponent -- that Kenneth was “out of control” and a completely irresponsible choice. That he would wreck not only the controller’s office, but City Hall. And You get away with that stuff in politics. You can call someone a liar, a thief, a pedophile. And everybody says, “Well, you know, that’s just politics.” Kenneth ran a positive campaign, he ran on what he believed he should do, and that’s how he’s operating in office. He’s not a saint, I’m not a saint. We don’t need saints in office. But I think there are certain basic standards of character, of honesty, that should apply even in political campaigns. We shouldn’t give people a pass to get down in the mud and throw dirt. I think what happens is that, after a certain point in time, the voters believe, the politicians who go back and forth saying, “you’re a dog, no, you’re you’re a skunk.” They begin to think, well, they’re all just dogs and skunks. It’ll be interesting to see when the state chooses the next senator, to follow in the footsteps of Dianne Feinstein (who, despite my political differences with her, is a person of remarkable character). We have three candidates on the Democratic side who were pretty close in their answers to newsletters, right? They’re all 100% pro- choice, they’re all 100% this and 100% that. But if they get down in the gutter and start calling each other names, that’ll show a lot about their character. If they think, “Well, that’s how you win elections” that shows if you’re they’re willing to take shortcuts in the election, you’re going to elect someone who’s going to take shortcuts after they’re elected. Character counts. And I know, that’s not something we talk about much. But I think that’s the most important dimension of leadership in politics is character. I have strong political views. But there are people on complete other side of the aisle that I respect, that I’ve worked with, that I will continue to work with, and who’ve worked with me. I think that the voters deserve that. They don’t deserve people home throwing dead cats at each other. DN: I like the “throwing dead cats.” That’s a good way for us to end the podcast. So hey, thank you so much for your time today. And again, you can continue to read I think your columns running through April, right. Do I have that? RC: I have three more. I’m writing this week about the objective standards for high density housing, then I have one on building affordable housing locally. The last one is on the 710 Stub. Huge opportunity for Pasadena. I might write one more simply on the topic of what does it take to get the first 10 right. Part of that goes to my sense about, about city government about what kind of leadership is needed in city government. DN: Great. Well, thank you so much for your time and we’ll we’ll check back in with you and good luck. Good luck bringing government to us in Los Angeles. It’s been it’s I’ll tell you some of the tools that are online have actually make our jobs as reporters easier. So it’s been it’s been appreciated. RC: Well, it can happen in Alhambra. It can happen in San Marino. It can happen in Pasadena. Los Angeles is an important and significant bellwether for the region. But this is stuff that people can do right in their hometown.