By any measure, Philip
Putnam is one of the most striking figures on the South Pasadena City Council.
Articulate, assertive and self-assured, he comes across as someone who clearly
thrives in a position of leadership. A lawyer and accountant who specializes in
corporate tax and real estate, Putnam has served twice as mayor. If he’s
reelected on Nov. 5, he would be serving his third—and final—term. That’s
because although the South Pasadena City Council does not have any term limits,
“my wife has imposed term limits,” says Putnam. She wants him to spend more
time at home and less pursuing city council work.
Putnam sat down with South Pasadena Patch this past week at his law office downtown to talk about his reelection. Excerpts from the interview:
South Pasadena Patch: It takes a lot of time to serve on the city council, doesn’t it?
Philip Putnam: Yes. You don’t realize how much time it takes until you start as a council member. From the outside looking in, it doesn’t look that time-consuming. The council only meets twice a month. But you’re assigned to three or four city commissions as a liaison, and a number of outside groups. Like I’m the liaison to the L.A. County Sanitation District—I have a meeting [there] this afternoon. And then there are all types of meetings and events that you have to go to also. Probably, it takes at least two to three evenings each week.
Patch: What’s in it for you, then, to be on the city council?
Putnam: I believe that if you do the job correctly, you have plenty of time to work and to do your job as a city council member. I do many other things. I’m on the Pasadena Tournament of Roses—and relatively senior in that organization. I’m the chairman at my congregation, Our Savior Lutheran Church in Arcadia, which has about 2,000 members, so it’s a fairly good size church. I’m the president of the Trojan Coaches Club. I’m on several committees of the L.A. County Bar Association. I’m the president of the Rose Bowl Foundation.
The biggest mistake people make in looking at the city council or running for it is that they assume it’s a job of micromanagement. It’s not. It’s a job of setting policy. It’s like the board of directors of a large company. The law specifically prevents you from being a micromanager. It requires you to not contact department heads directly—you’re supposed to go through the city manager. There have been people at our city council in the past who have gotten themselves in trouble by trying to micromanage.
Patch: You must have a very busy schedule.
Putnam: It’s a very busy schedule. I have three children, and a wife. It probably takes away from a few dinners with the family, but I try to not let it interfere too much with family matters.
Patch: Why did you run for the city council the first time around?
Putnam: I ran not to become a leader but to reflect certain views of the community—not necessarily my views—on the city council. I didn’t run on any single issue or group of issues. I kind of ran on a platform of focus—I thought our city had gotten away from making sound financial decisions. In fact, they had made very poor financial decisions leading up to the time that I ran. It was probably lack of sophistication than anything else. I’m a CPA as well as a lawyer. So I bring a relatively strong financial background to the city council. And I’m the only person on the council—or among any of the candidates—who brings that financial acumen to the city council.
And I think it’s been a big benefit to our city. We’ve saved hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars in various ways since I’ve been on the council. And we’re refocused our spending. We had spent on programs that looked objectively meritorious. But when you looked at how many people they were serving—which was very few—and the cost involved, it was not city money well spent and we could put it in other places.
Patch: You’re an advocate for a strong reserve fund.
Putnam: Yes. And I disagree with the other two candidates [Alan Reynolds and Diana Mahmud] who think we should reduce our reserve fund. I believe at the debate [candidates forum sponsored by the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce] they said that the reserve fund should be spent down. I disagree for a couple of reasons. One is that I believe the reserve fund is at a good level for our city—it’s about 50 percent of our general fund budget. I’d like to maybe get it to a point that’s a bit higher, but I’m comfortable with 50 percent. You never know when you’re going to have a significant circumstance, whether it’s a natural disaster, labor issues. You need a strong reserve fund for unimagined problems or things that you’re not thinking of as you sit here today and want to make happen.
The other thing is that we’re pretty maxed out with our city staff right now. One of the candidates said that she thought we should take some of our reserve funds and put it back into the streets. But we’ve already been told by our city manager and public works director and others on our city staff that we don’t have any more people available to oversee the projects. Some of the inspection work we do contract out but somebody needs to oversee the overseers. We couldn’t take on new projects without hiring more people and incurring a substantial additional expense in doing that. I don’t think that’s a prudent financial decision.
Patch: What’s the plan for fixing the streets of South Pasadena?
Putnam: The theoretical plan is this: We need to redo our water lines, our sewer lines and our streets. So what we’re working on and have been working on as a city is outlining a plan for rebuilding our water and sewer lines and repaving our streets. What you don’t want to do is repave a street and then next year go back and trench the street up for a water line or sewer line and have a patch in the middle of it if you can avoid it. So we’re working on coordinating our work so that we can do the underground work and then do the streets.
Patch: The advocates for fixing the streets by using money from the reserve fund argue that if it’s not done now the cost is going to double in 10 years.
Putnam: That’s always been the case. But then again, the question is can you do it efficiently? That’s the problem we’ve gotten into with the water rates. It’s these same people serving on commissions who proposed a $40 million bond issue to redo our water system all at one time when we did not have the people available to do $40 million worth of projects. So we sold $40 million worth of bonds, put the money in the bank—by law we’re restricted in where we can put the money, so we’re getting less than 1 percent interest. But the interest rate on our bonds is between 3 and 4 percent. So we have spent millions of dollars in interest costs because we floated too many bonds too fast.
Patch: It would seem pretty simple to foresee something like that, wouldn’t it?
Putnam: One would think so. But again, it’s a question of whether you’re financially sophisticated or not financially sophisticated.
Patch: Didn’t the city manager at the time point out that there wasn’t enough staff to oversee the work?
Putnam: The staff at the time said that they did have the staff available to oversee the work. And I questioned it at that time because when we were talking about street improvements we were told that we were contracting out our inspection services. People were always complaining about staffing levels, and yet when it came time to float the bonds, they said, Oh no, we’ve got enough people in the water department to oversee the rehab of the water facilities. Again, I questioned it and was told that the opposite was the case.
I always have a questioning view of everything because accountability in government is a very difficult thing. If you’ve ever watched me at a city council meeting, you will see that people talk frequently—people from staff or even from the public—that We need to do this or They need to do that. And my point always is, I don’t want to hear We. I don’t want to hear They. I want to hear a name. I want to know who is going to be accountable for this.
Patch: How would you describe your political persuasion?
Putnam: I can tell you how others have described me: Someone with liberal leanings and conservative tendencies.
Patch: Do you think that’s accurate?
Putnam: I thin that’s pretty accurate. I think most people know that I look at each issue on its own merits and then try to reach a good decision for the city based on that issue. People like to predict where a person’s going to come out. They say this person is a liberal democrat or that person is a conservative republican or middle-of-the-road. I think I’m not as predictable as many other people not because I’m haphazard but because I’m analytical.
Patch: What would you say is the Number One issue before South Pasadena today and what would you do to address it if you’re reelected?
Putnam: The most important issue in my mind is always the 710. The surface route may be dead but the project is not dead and we have a lot of work do to in the years to come. We now know our city is not going to be torn in half. What we’re looking at now is the possibility of something underground and all of the different issues that that entails. So we have a lot of issues to look at and a lot of issues to do deal with.
And the 710, by the way, I don’t see it raising its ugly head until 2014 or 2015. Probably 2014—they (Caltrans) are supposed to finish the environmental impact statement next year. But since they always run behind, we never know when that’s going to be. But that’s going to be a significant step coming up.
Other than that, I’d say the most problematic thing facing the city is infrastructure and how to pay for it. Everybody agrees there is a need [for infrastructure]—there are differences in view about how to pay for it. We’re going to have to explore a number of alternatives in the next few years because the revenue options are very limited. The thing I see as being the most significant is what hard choices we’re going to be willing to make as a city. Because just like a family, you can’t have everything. If you want to have Direct TV with HBO and Showtime, you may have to give up eating out once or twice a month.
Our city is going to have to make those same choices. If we’re going to decide that we’re going to fix our ailing infrastructure, which I think we have to do, we’re going to have to look at where that money can come from.
Patch: What would you say is the biggest source of waste in city spending?
Putnam: Well, hopefully we’ve gotten rid of what I thought were the biggest sources of waste over the last eight years or so. If there’s waste, it’s small. In some ways, we try to do too much for too many people. I don’t want to go into all the individual programs that I think are wasteful. I’ve been a big advocate since the beginning of zero-based budgeting, and we haven’t really done it. I don’t know why—maybe it’s been the turnover in finance directors. I think we’ve had four finance directors since I’ve been on city council, and that’s not a good thing because you can never get going with any one project. If you zero-base budgets you get rid of the small sources of waste, which add up.
Patch: What sources of waste have we gotten rid of?
Putnam: One of them was the Gold Link, the shuttle bus. We received a grant from the federal or state government, before I came onto the city council, to operate a shuttle bus service that ran around the city to take people from various shuttle stops to the Gold Line station. We got a grant for the buses, but the city was obligated to staff the service out of its own pocket. We were spending—depending on how you do the costing—anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 a year on running this Gold Link service.
So I decided to look at the ridership because every time I looked at the bus there was nobody on it. Plus, it took the bus away from services for seniors and the disabled, which I thought would be a better use for that [the bus]. We had parking at Mission Meridian Village, which we still do for people who want to take the Gold Line—they can park for free. So why were we running a shuttle bus service? It turned out that the average daily ridership was under 30 people. So you divide that if half because you figure that people who are riding it to the station in the morning are riding it back at night. So that was 15 people a day that w were providing eight or nine hours of shuttle bus service for. It was costing us about $18 a ride for each person. So I said, Why don’t we just give them a $4 taxi voucher and let them ride the taxi? It’ll save us a whole lot of money just doing that.
Despite the numbers being out there, it took me three or four years to finally convince the council to eliminate that service. It [the general reaction from the city council] was always the same thing: Why don’t we advertise it more—maybe we’ll get more ridership. The other thing about the ridership was that about half of them were from out of the city. What they would do is park in outlying areas, neighborhoods of the city where there’s all-day parking, ride the shuttle bus in, ride it back to their car and then drive home. They weren’t even South Pasadena residents we were serving.
Patch: Looks like it sounded like a good idea but didn’t go anywhere.
Putnam: There are a lot of things that sound like good ideas. If you read the paper today [Oct. 23] you’ll see that the federal government spent $297 million on a dirigible—a blimp—to be used in Afghanistan because it could sit up in the sky indefinitely and provide intelligence. And they found out that it was not particularly useful, and they sold it back to the builder for $300,000. There are so many examples of government waste that it’s very frustrating. And we operate very thinly as a city—city money is local property tax money for the most part. We can’t afford to waste money on silly programs.
Patch: What would your goals be if you’re reelected and what steps would you take to achieve them?
Putnam: I’ll have a lot of the same goals because we have many of the same issues: Making sure that we have a well-planned program for infrastructure repair is my primary goal. Working to fight the 710 is another one of my primary goals. One of my goals, that we haven’t spent a lot of time on, is to make sure that our fire department and our police department are adequately compensated and that we have the right staffing levels.
Patch: Give us an example, if you will, of how you’ve worked with somebody whose views were divergent from yours.
Putnam: (Laughs). Well, that’s almost everyone else on the city council! Not quite. It depends on the issue. I work well with anybody. I seek out groups of not like-minded people. I think generally people as people are nice, well-intentioned, and I generally think that people are good. There are always a few who would rather lie than tell the truth—they’d rather do something by a devious method rather than an honest, upright method. I don’t work well with those people. If I have a drawback as a politician it’s probably that I tell the truth too easily.
Patch: Who are your personal heroes—which presidents, for example, do you admire?
Putnam: Again, people who watch the council would know, I’m a huge Abraham Lincoln fan. I’ve always brought a lot of Abraham Lincoln history into our council meetings. He’s probably one of my favorites.
Tomorrow: Q&A with election incumbent Councilmember Michael Cacciotti.