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The exchange, during debate over a tax collection contract, crystallized an election season in which representatives of the predominantly Hispanic north side, who feel long neglected by city government, are pushing for change. Isbell’s comment was especially jaw-dropping in the context of a federal voting rights lawsuit in which one judge has already found that the mayor-backed change to voting districts in 2015 discriminated against Hispanics.
Isbell was rushing to take a vote on the contract when Wheeler interjected: “I haven’t had an opportunity to speak yet.”
“Well, you better speak up, boy,” Isbell replied.
When Wheeler took offense, saying he should be addressed respectfully as a member of the council, Isbell didn’t back down.
“Well, act like it,” Isbell said.
After Wheeler finished his comments about the contract, Isbell seemed to relent, saying, “You’re right, council member, and that was a slip of the tongue on the ‘boy.’ “
Wheeler later said the mayor had not apologized since the meeting. Isbell did not respond to messages seeking comment.
It was no mere slip of the tongue to Pat Gonzales, who said she and other Hispanics had been insulted by the mayor on numerous occasions. She harkened back to a 2014 council meeting when she said Isbell forced a north-side constituent to deliver a grievance about flooding in broken English rather than let her translate for him. Councilman Ornaldo Ybarra recalled the episode, too.
The “boy” comment “was him being racist, being bold and being cocky,” Gonzales said. “And he doesn’t care.”
She is among the plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit.
The term “boy” has been used historically to diminish the status of minorities, especially African Americans.
“There’s some overtones there of an ugly past when you use that type of language,” Wheeler said in an interview. “This is a mayor who has … pushed through discriminatory voting practices and now is using condescending language to minority council members. I don’t know how else you take it, when you put it in context.”
He added, “I’m sure he didn’t mean to say it. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel it.”
Ybarra said after the meeting that Isbell came across as dictatorial.
“I never want to say someone meant it in a racial manner, because I don’t know what their intent was,” Ybarra said. “It’s probably best that you apologize.”
The meeting laid bare other troubles at City Hall, including a tax collection contract that presents, at the least, the appearance of conflicts of interest, and a growing void of legal advice.
Lawyer Roy D. Mease, a longtime friend of Isbell’s, has held the city’s contract for delinquent tax collections for about a decade. He’s also the board chair of the city’s economic development agency, the Pasadena Second Century Corp., which is funded by sales tax revenue.
Wheeler and council members Pat Van Houte, Sammy Casados and Ybarra have repeatedly asked for more information about the law firm’s qualifications and collection rate, and wanted Isbell to consider other firms. They’ve questioned why Mease, as PSCC board chair, was allowed to have the contract, which says he can’t be both a contractor and an agent of the city. The contract also says the work can’t be assigned to anyone else, but Mease has employed the services of Linebarger, a national tax collection firm.
When Isbell brought the contract back to council Monday, both of those rules had been cut out with no explanation. It was approved on a split vote.
Ybarra voted for it, saying the city couldn’t afford to skip any more tax collections. Isbell is term-limited, and the next mayor can cancel the contract, Ybarra said.
“They wait until the last minute to do things and then put council members in the position of are you going to shut the government down, or are you going to pass it,” Wheeler said.
That was the sentiment with the other vote on Monday’s agenda, for appointments to the PSCC board, Wheeler said. All seven board members’ terms lapsed in early March. With the terms expired, the city had halted work on about a dozen projects funded by PSCC.
The same bloc of council members that questioned the tax contract also wanted to see new blood on the board. Isbell rushed to a vote on that item, too, quashing motions by Wheeler and Van Houte to change two of the mayor’s appointments, who were incumbents. Then a dispute arose over conflicts between state law, the PSCC bylaws and city charter, which appear to differ on whether the mayor or council has the power of appointment to the PSCC.
City Attorney Lee Clark wasn’t in the room, though Ybarra said he’d seen Clark in the building.
For several meetings now, the council has muddled through legal questions with no counsel. Ybarra called it an ongoing problem and said council members can never get Clark to give them a legal opinion in writing.
“It’s as if we operate without a legal department,” Wheeler said.
Clark, whose offices are behind locked doors in City Hall, did not respond to a request for comment.
Wheeler said the meeting was a symbol of widespread mismanagement at City Hall.
“We’re the 16th largest city in the state,” he said. “We have over a $100 million budget. And it’s run like I don’t even know what, a Boy Scouts meeting or something.”
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