In a time of crisis, City priorities change—or at least they should change.
By Sean McMorris
I guess some nonessential things are untouchable, even during a pandemic. That untouchable in Alhambra appears to be its Rose Parade float. If it weren’t so sad and consequential, one would think it was an April Fool’s joke. It wasn’t.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 1, the Alhambra City Council held a “special” city council meeting to take care of some mostly essential City business. I say mostly because four of the 5 items on the agenda could be considered appropriate matters for a special meeting of the City Council during the current emergency lockdown. Some matters just can’t wait until the next official City council meeting, such as Item #5 on the special meeting agenda pertaining to City staff pay during L.A. County’s stay at home order or an emergency moratorium on evictions, which the Council passed at a previous emergency special meeting.
Other matters should not be on the agenda of an emergency special meeting of the City Council, including initiating the process to commit the City to paying for a $100,000-plus per-year Rose Parade float for the next three years. Adding insult to injury is the lack of notice to the public about the meeting; because it was a “special” meeting City Hall was only required to give 24-hours notice, and the 1:00 pm meeting time effectively stifled public participation.
Current District 3 City Council candidate, Chris Olson, could not attend the 1:00 PM meeting via teleconference, but she submitted written public comments that conveyed her concerns about the City’s lack of public outreach for special meetings. “With only 24-hours notice of meetings,” wrote Ms. Olson, “citizens cannot properly study the issues to be addressed in order to be informed participants.” She added, “Going forward, I ask that the City use every means at its disposal to notify Alhambrans of Council meetings that have not been scheduled, including reaching out to local community groups and nonprofit organizations, as well as social media.”
But maybe that was the point.
By placing the funding of the City’s Rose Parade float on the consent agenda of a special emergency meeting of the city council with only 24-hours notice, City Hall was able to move forward a controversial item without substantive, and potentially contentious, public debate. Had more of the community been aware of the meeting and the contents of the agenda, it is likely that some residents would have questioned pursuing the funding of the Rose Parade float amidst a City and Statewide health emergency. This, in turn, may have induced at least some members of the City Council to question the placement of the item on the agenda and the potential reallocation of float funding for emergency resident relief. As it happened, the item passed by unanimous consent and without discussion.
While an entrenched point of civic pride for some, the City’s Rose Parade float has been a point of contention for others, including myself. Some Alhambrans simply do not believe that spending $100,000 on a superficial float is an appropriate use of City money—even/especially if the money is meant to promote art.
Ironically, the City’s current version of its Art in Public Places Program fund, which now funds the City’s Rose Parade float, was born out of a different crisis and just as sneakily passed.
Years ago, local organizations like the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce used fundraising to commission a float for Alhambra in the Tournament of Roses Parade. At some point, the City Council decided it was appropriate to spend taxpayer dollars on the Rose Parade float. However, after the 2008 financial crises, funds dried up to the point that the City’s subsidization of both the float and the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce nearly ended in 2011. Obviously, that did not happen. The City still funds both the Chamber and the Rose Parade float to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. But what the 2008 financial crisis did, besides lay bare the nonessential nature of the Rose Parade float, is force the City Council to get creative about how to fund it. Its answer was a one-sentence amendment to two clauses in the City’s “Art in Public Places Program” fund.
The Art in Public Places Program was created in 2001 with development impact fees to “promote the general welfare through balancing the community’s physical growth and revitalization and its cultural and artistic resources.” In other words, the spirit of the Art in Public Places Program is the subsidization and promotion of local art within the City of Alhambra, and by extension, local artists. It fulfilled that role from 2001 to 2011 by funding many of the City’s murals and statues as well as a local theater group.
But, in 2012, after it became increasingly more difficult for the City Council to justify using tax-payer dollars to pay for the float, the City Council amended the Art in Public Places ordinance to include two new sentences that would secure funding for the City’s Rose Parade float indefinitely:
- 23.81.010 PURPOSE. (C) Cultural and artistic resources are an important aspect of educating and enhancing the community of the City, and supporting outside art projects such as the Pasadena Rose Parade Float help to serve this goal;
- 23.81.020 CITY ART FUND CREATED. (2) To sponsor or support performing arts and/or outside art projects, including but not limited to the Pasadena Rose Parade Float;
Furthermore, because the Art in Public Places Program was funded by developer fees, not resident taxpayers through the City’s general fund, the Rose Parade float would essentially be untouchable during the next budget crisis.
So began the pilfering of the City’s art fund. An analysis of fund expenditures by Alhambra Arts and Cultural Events Committee Member, Michael Lawrence, revealed that most of the money in the fund since 2012 has gone to the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce to build the City’s Rose Parade float (see Michael’s PowerPoint here).
“I believe the city is misusing the fund and by doing so has undermined the purpose and structure of the Arts Committee,” said Lawrence, who has been vocal about the misuse of the Arts Committee as a rubber stamp for the Rose Parade float. “As an Art Committee member, I have seen that most of the meetings over the last two years have been canceled due to a lack of agenda except when a token vote to recommend a proposal be submitted to the council for approval of the Rose Parade float,” lamented Lawrence. “We have been told repeatedly there is no money to engage artists or projects that would provide public art for the community.”
The Art in Public Places Program was amended and purloined amidst a crisis—the 2008 financial crisis—and under the false pretense that the fund would promote local art within Alhambra. Similarly, the City’s Rose Parade float will be funded for 3 years amidst a crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic—and under false pretenses—a special emergency meeting to deal with “essential” City business because of the pandemic.
The words corrupt, insensitive, and out of touch come to mind.
Can the funds be reallocated for emergency relief?
Under normal circumstances, state law protects funding for the City’s Rose Parade float now that it is financed through development impact fees from the Art in Public Places fund. However, these are not normal circumstances. The City has declared a state of emergency and the City’s charter and recent resolution declaring a state of emergency clearly state that all resources during a state of emergency are subject to use in addressing that emergency.
The Emergency Procedures Handbook for City Attorney’s Office states ”The [California] Emergency [Services] Act [CESA]confers special powers on state and local governments during an emergency.” Under CESA, local governments “…have full power to provide mutual aid to any affected area in accordance with local ordinances, resolutions, emergency plans, or agreements therefor,” and “… may promulgate orders and regulations necessary for the protection of life and property….” In addition, Alhambra City Charter, Section 2.20.110 (Emergency Plan), states that the “City of Alhambra Multi-Hazard Functional Plan… shall provide for the effective mobilization of all of the resources of this city, both public and private, to meet any condition constituting a local emergency, state of emergency, or state of war emergency…” Finally, the City of Alhambra’s March 16, 2020 declaration of emergency (Section 2) states, “It is hereby proclaimed and ordered that during the existence of said local emergency the powers, functions, and duties of the emergency organization of the City shall be those prescribed by State law, by local ordinances and resolutions.” The City’s declaration of emergency also gives authority to the Director of Emergency Services, who is the City Manager, to ”take the necessary steps for the protection of life, health and safety in the City of Alhambra.”
UCLA Professor of Law Emeritus, Gary Blasai, told ColoradoBoulevard.net that “the reallocation of funds in an emergency is a relatively trivial matter in the context of the exercise of the emergency police power [in Alhambra’s emergency ordinance]. I cannot envision any court finding otherwise.” UCLA’s Robert Henigson Professor of Legal Ethics, Scott Cummings, was less certain. ”If pursuant to a plan created by the Disaster Council, I would agree that the charter permits mobilization of earmarked funds for disaster relief.” However, he noted that ” the default is typically state law overrides local law unless there is a clear carve-out.” He acknowledged that it would require some study.
How Could $100,000 help Alhambrans during the pandemic?
Consider for a moment the implications of what City Hall did by elevating the Rose Parade float to essential-item status during a pandemic in which 22 Alhambra residents are confirmed to have Coronavirus, (as of noon on April 6), and numbers of people have lost their jobs and are unable to pay rent. How else could the City Council use the hundreds of thousands of dollars it’s about to commit to three Rose Parade floats?
How about reallocating that money to rental assistance for those who have lost income due to the pandemic? Granting $500 in rental assistance per household in need from the $100,000-plus the City will allocate to next year’s Rose Parade float would help at least 200 Alhambra families. What about a food pantry? $100,000 would buy a lot of food for Alhambra’s vulnerable. Free delivery of essentials to the elderly and those without private transportation?
One thing is for certain, $100,000 for a float that will get 10 seconds of air-time could be better spent on Alhambrans who are bearing the brunt of this life-altering pandemic.
Smacks of insensitivity and disconnect
Regardless of whether or not funds earmarked for the City’s Rose Parade float can be reallocated legally for emergency use during the pandemic, the fact that City Hall would place such an item on the agenda of a special meeting of the City Council during a pandemic is uncaring and pernicious.
Now is not the time to be discussing superficial expenditures at special meetings when lives are in limbo. Alhambra’s City Council did not serve its residents well on April 1 by making its Rose Parade float a priority at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe the Council will correct its error in judgment at the next special city council meeting by revisiting the matter. I’m not holding my breath.
>The Alhambra Mayor and City Council declined to comment for this article.
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