Ex-mayor mounts comeback for commission seat

Commissioners are “relentless in trying to destroy me,” says former Mayor Dan Calabria.

USFSP Student Reporters  

SOUTH PASADENA – For months, the tension had been building between South Pasadena city commissioners and Mayor Dan Calabria.

They bristled at the way he treated them and the city clerk.

They hired an outside attorney whose investigation concluded that the mayor “has a capacity to be snide, petty, condescending, sarcastic, belligerent and unnecessarily combative.”

And several times they walked out of meetings to protest his interruptions, raised voice and banging gavel.

In March 2015, the four exasperated commissioners even considered, then dropped, an attempt to oust Calabria for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence.” But the voters sent him packing when he ran for re-election a year later.

End of story? Hardly.

Now Calabria, 81, is mounting a comeback as one of three candidates for two City Commission seats on the March 14 ballot.

The former mutual fund executive said he would bring budget vigilance and professionalism to the tiny town of 5,000 and stay above the “petty politics” of other commissioners, whom he calls a “social group.”

He chided the commissioners for excessive spending and said the city should consider hiring a part-time city manager and giving tax breaks for five to 10 years to businesses that move to South Pasadena.

If he wins, Calabria would serve with three of the commissioners who clashed with him – a prospect he said he does not relish.

Although the commissioners are “relentless in trying to destroy me,” he said, he would not change a thing about his style if he wins.

“I have a job; I do it,” he said. “I’m not in a popularity contest. If you want me to be Mr. Smiley Face all the time, you’re out of luck.”

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A “constructive environment” is important, David Magenheimer says.

Calabria’s attempted comeback overshadows the campaigns of the two other candidates – one a veteran of local government, the other a novice.

David Magenheimer, 44, is a rarity in a town where the median age is about 70. He grew up in South Pasadena and lives there now with his wife and three teenage children.

He is new to politics, but says that his love for the city and his business experience in insurance auditing work make him a strong candidate. He stresses the importance of public safety, low taxes, business development and common sense.

In a candidate forum Feb. 8, Magenheimer said he would bring fresh ideas and an open mind to the commission.

“I think it’s important that the commission gets along with each other and that it is a constructive environment rather than a negative environment,” he said.

Gigi Arntzen served six years on the Largo City Commission.

Gigi Esposito, 67, worked in secretarial, office manager and administrative positions for Pinellas County government for 30 years and – as Gigi Arntzen – served on the Largo City Commission from 2006 to 2012. She remarried and moved to South Pasadena in 2015.

“Government is in my blood,” she said. “I’ve missed it.”

At the candidate forum, she said that South Pasadena needs to market itself better to attract “vital businesses” that would make the city more than “a pass-through point” between the beaches and St. Petersburg.

Esposito also said the commission must stress public safety, “work as hard as we can” to maintain services while holding down taxes, and improve the city website to make government more transparent.

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Nancy McCann | USFSP
A sheriff’s deputy attended commission meetings because of Calabria’s “combative personality,” says current Mayor Max Elson.

Unlike most of Pinellas County’s smaller towns, South Pasadena does not have a professional manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city.

Instead, those duties fall to the mayor and four commissioners, who each oversee a city department. The commissioners make $7,599 a year. The mayor, who makes $10,000 a year, presides over commission meetings and serves as the city’s official representative.

Calabria has lived in South Pasadena since 1992, six years after he moved to Pinellas County as president and CEO of Templeton Funds Management Corp. in St. Petersburg.

Calabria left Templeton after it merged with Franklin Resources, then sparred in court with the merged company over the size of his severance. In 2009 the self-styled industry maverick published a book on mutual funds that offers a “less-than-charitable description” of industry practices, according to one review.
Meanwhile, Calabria got active in South Pasadena politics as a gadfly and occasional candidate for office.

He ran unsuccessfully for the City Commission in 1996, then in 2000 founded the South Pasadena Voters Watch, which he calls “a nonpartisan citizens’ organization … that focuses on what is best for all residents.”

He lost another campaign for a commission seat in 2011 but was elected to a three-year term as mayor in 2013.

It was during his time as a citizen activist that things first got prickly between Calabria and the South Pasadena government.

Calabria was a frequent email and letter writer to city officials and a regular at City Commission meetings. He had a reputation for being tenacious.

In 2010, the city’s director of public safety requested that a sheriff’s deputy be assigned to commission meetings because of “a citizen” who used “language that can be interpreted as containing some vague threats … and has caused concern to our attorney and City Hall staff.”

The citizen was Dan Calabria.

The language that concerned city officials came in an email to the city complaining about the city attorney.

“If you do not take appropriate steps to correct this error, then you must accept full responsibility for whatever happens in the future,” Calabria wrote. “Thank you for your time and attention and I again urge that you read the foregoing for your own personal protection – because you can no longer claim ignorance of the facts.”

“It’s common knowledge that a sheriff’s deputy sat in on all meetings of the commission because of concern about Dan’s combative personality,” said Max Elson, a veteran commissioner who became mayor after defeating Calabria last year. “This started well before he was elected and continued through the time he was mayor.”

Calabria had been mayor for 19 months when his peeved commission colleagues hired an independent attorney – W. Russell Hamilton III of Port St. Lucie – to investigate whether he was abusing his office and mistreating city staff members.

In his report, Hamilton called Calabria’s treatment of the city clerk “inexcusable, unprofessional, demeaning and possibly discriminatory.”

The mayor is “a very bright well-educated individual with abundant business and management experience,” Hamilton wrote, but he could also be difficult and argumentative, with “an almost manic need to pursue personal vendettas.”

In Calabria’s view, “anyone perceiving his conduct and actions as being inappropriate or unacceptable is … either a fool or out to get him,” Hamilton wrote.

In an interview last month, Hamilton said he saw another side of Calabria. “Away from that (the tense relationship with commissioners), Dan’s a good guy,” he said. “I could have enjoyed sitting down and having a beer with him.”

Oddly, Calabria had joined in the vote to hire Hamilton. He did it “so that the truth could come out,” Calabria said last month, “but that didn’t happen – it was a setup from day one.”

Citing Hamilton’s report, which cost the city about $11,500, the four commissioners met on March 16, 2015, to decide whether to try to remove Calabria from office.

After two hours’ debate, they stopped short, opting instead to consider mediation with the mayor.

That fell apart, however, and the often-fractious relationship continued.

Calabria sued the city, seeking to block future recall efforts and recoup nearly $22,000 in legal fees. The city refused to pay his fees, and the suit was dismissed by a circuit judge. The litigation cost the city at least $30,000, according to two commissioners.

The tension between Calabria and the commissioners came to a head again during a meeting on Nov. 15, 2015.

A video of the meeting shows that Calabria would not shift gears when commissioners repeatedly asked him to stop talking about an invoice for attorney services that Calabria thought was inflated.

One by one, the commissioners told him the item was not on the agenda, the bill had already been approved, the correct staff people weren’t there to address his concerns, and it was time to return to the day’s business.

Commission meetings “were like the Jerry Springer Show,” says commissioner Gail Neidinger.

When Calabria persisted, three of the commissioners abruptly walked out, ending the meeting.

“Our meetings with Dan (as mayor) were like the Jerry Springer Show,” said commissioner Gail Neidinger, who used an open hand to fiercely pound the table when Calabria got going with his gavel. “You couldn’t believe it unless you experienced it yourself.”

Lari Johnson, who was then vice mayor, wrote a memo after the walkout, saying Calabria’s comments “quickly escalated to a tirade against our city attorney … and our law firm … with unsubstantiated accusations of fraud, double billing (and) lack of objectivity.”

When Calabria objected to what was being said, Johnson said in a recent interview, he would repeatedly bang his gavel.

“He used his gavel as a device to make it impossible to have a responsible and educated conversation,” she said. “He behaved like a child when he wasn’t getting his way.”

When Elson defeated Calabria in 2016, his campaign slogan was “leadership, not controversy.”

“Dan can be pleasant as long as you don’t disagree with him,” said Elson, “but when you did he would bang his gavel, not follow Roberts Rules of Order, and sometimes raise his voice.”

Some of the commissioners would raise their voices as well, Elson acknowledged. And sometimes they would try to find humor in the situation.

For Christmas one year, one commissioner gave each fellow commissioner a red-and-blue toy gavel.

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