A year into his four-year term, [Pasadena Mayor Jeff] Wagner says he is focused on unifying a city whose ethnic and socioeconomic inequities were displayed before a national audience during the 2016 trial over a redistricting lawsuit. Current and former city officials say Wagner’s more conciliatory style serves him well in achieving this goal, but they differ on how much progress he’s made.
Pasadena, like Houston, has a strong-mayor system of government. Isbell, who led the city off-and-on from 1981 to 2017, came to symbolize its reputation for intolerance and inequity as witnesses in the redistricting trial testified that the city had systematically neglected the needs of its mostly Latino northside neighborhoods.
In January 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal found that a revised council district system, initiated by Isbell, intentionally diluted the influence of Latino voters. The city, under Isbell, promptly appealed.
Last September, in what was arguably the most consequential decision of his first year in office, Wagner dropped the appeal. The city agreed to continue electing all eight council members from districts, and to pay a $1 million settlement to the Latino plaintiffs.
Isbell, who left office because of term limits, criticized Wagner’s decision, saying he believed the city would have prevailed on appeal. In an interview last week, however, Wagner said ending the case was an essential step in bringing the city together.
“I didn’t feel that we (the city) had done anything wrong,” said Wagner, 54, a retired Houston police officer. “But I felt we had to get out of it as quickly as we did.”
Former Councilwoman Pat Van Houte, who continues to keep a close eye on city affairs, offered a mixed assessment of Wagner’s first year leading the city.
“This mayor started with certain promises and he has fulfilled some,” she said, among those dropping the redistricting lawsuit. “He has shown some leadership skills.”
Van Houte said she had been disappointed, however, with some of the administration’s priorities, including the golf course improvements rejected by the council last week.
“The city has been spending quite a bit of money on buildings, and not much in neighborhoods getting the streets and sidewalks done,” she said.
Cody Ray Wheeler, one of three Latinos now on the City Council, was one of Isbell’s harshest critics. On the day of Wagner’s inauguration, Wheeler expressed optimism that Wagner would be more attentive to the needs of northside residents.
It hasn’t worked out that way, Wheeler said last week.
“I went in optimistic, but it feels after a year that it’s the same old thing with a new, smiling face in front of it,” Wheeler said.
As an example of continued inequities, Wheeler offered data about the city’s neighborhood network program, which provides grants to community organizations for neighborhood improvements. During the trial of the redistricting case, witnesses testified that Isbell’s administration had used the program as a political tool, steering grants to groups that were then encouraged to help get out votes for initiatives the mayor favored.
Wheeler did not allege that the practice has continued under Wagner. He said, however, that wealthy, mostly Anglo neighborhoods south of Spencer Highway had received more than $65,000 in grants, while areas north of Spencer had received about $3,000.
“This is a huge disparity in the way the city is handing out grant funds,” Wheeler said during Tuesday’s council meeting.
Settling that redistricting lawsuit was a big deal, and Mayor Wagner deserves credit for that. Sounds like there’s still a lot of room for things to get better. Fulfilling the promise made about bringing transit to Pasadena would be a big step in that direction, but it’s not the only one that could be taken. Maybe Mayor Wagner will make some progress on that on his own, and maybe he’ll need a push from the voters next May.