SOUTH PASADENA – For 14 years, Lari Johnson and her husband traveled widely while living aboard their boat.
Then she worked in Washington, D.C., for five years as director of public relations for the Special Olympics, reporting to Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of the late president, John F. Kennedy.
Now, Johnson, 71, is back in the community where she grew up, asking the voters of South Pasadena, a city with population of 5,000 that covers less than a square mile, to re-elect her to the City Commission.
“I live for challenges,” she said.
She and three other candidates – Arthur Penny, Dan Calabria and Gail Neidinger – are running for two seats in the March 13 election.
“No other candidate has first-name relationships with our county leaders and regional officials,” she says in an advertisement. “I make sure your voice is heard. I make things happen for South Pasadena.”
In Pinellas, she has a public relations agency and has been a board member since 2002 for the Marine Exploration Center (formerly Secrets of the Seas), which expects to open soon at the Port of St. Petersburg.
She won her commission seat without opposition in 2015 and is one of 13 elected officials who serve on Forward Pinellas, the county’s land-use and transportation planning agency.
In her campaign, Johnson stresses her support of the proposed Bus Rapid Transit plan, which would connect downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach via Pasadena Avenue beginning in 2020.
Johnson, who was born in North Carolina, moved to St. Petersburg when she was 2. She went to St. Paul Catholic School and met her husband Charles on a blind date her senior year.
“I did not want to marry until I graduated,” she said.
She went to University of Florida to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism and Charles went to the University of South Florida for a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering.
When they married, she followed him as he pursued a career in the Navy. And when he retired they returned to Pinellas County, where he is president of JTB Marine in St. Petersburg.
South Pasadena is the only municipality in Florida that has a commission form of government. Its five elected commissioners manage the city’s departments.
Johnson says it’s time to explore running things the way most Florida municipalities do – with a city manager.
She wants the City Commission to research the city manager form of government. She says commissioners should seek the advice of retired city managers at no cost.
“We have to see South Pasadena as a $10 million business,” she said. “Someone (else) needs to make (the) small decisions because city commissioners should make (the big) decisions such as transportation or the (new) fire station and how to pay for it rather than to talk about the color of a shirt.”
SOUTH PASADENA – Gail Neidinger knows that being a city commissioner will not bring her fame (in a town of 5,000 people) or fortune (with a salary of $7,600.)
She says is running because she loves where she has lived in for 27 years and wants to see it prosper.
Neidinger does not stand out from her three opponents in the March 13 election by being loud or brash. She is generally low-key and likes to stress that success on the five-member commission comes from a dedication to teamwork.
“I feel it’s more important how you vote on issues that you discuss than whether or not you initiated it,” Neidinger said. “I think we all initiate things along the way and then we discuss it and vote on it.”
This is the first time that Neidinger, 66, a two-term commission veteran, has drawn opposition.
A graduate of Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., she worked at two telecommunications companies, Ascom Timeplex and Global Crossing, and the asset management firm T. Rowe Price.
Shortly after retiring, Neidinger became involved in city government six years ago when her neighbor, former Mayor Kathleen Peters, sold her on the idea of public service when a commissioner resigned in the middle of a term.
She had never worked for the government before, but she applied for the vacancy and was appointed.
“I really enjoy civil service, really giving back to the city that I live in,” said Neidinger. “I’ve learned a lot in the past six years.”
In her campaign, Neidinger cites her work supervising South Pasadena’s public safety department and her six years’ experience on the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
Last year she led a community group that helped select a new fire chief and director of public safety.
She is unofficially running in tandem with another candidate, Arthur Penny, because “we felt that it’s easier to run together since we have like issues.”
They both have been endorsed by the International Association of Firefighters.
Firefighters from the St. Petersburg Association, the IAFF Union Affiliate of firefighters from St. Petersburg, South Pasadena and Lealman have campaigned door to door for Neidinger.
“We worked with Gail over the last number of years and felt that she had the firefighters’ best interest,” said Rick Pauley, president of the IAFF Local 747.
“There are some things that need to be improved upon to improve the safety of the firefighters and also of the citizens.”
The current fire station is “out of whack,” said Neidinger and needs to be rebuilt.
She is active with the fire department. She attends their meetings and often goes to the station on weekends to talk with firefighters about their needs.
“It is really important to get a good place for those guys to live,” said Neidinger. “We need something that’s really liveable and allows them to get rest and exercise in an air-conditioned area and not be subjected to diesel fumes while they are exercising out in the garage.”
Pouring money into fixing the outdated fire station is senseless, Neidinger said.
Another highlight of Neidinger’s platform is to fill vacant buildings around the city with restaurants, stores and medical offices.
All four candidates embrace this goal in their campaigns, and Neidinger stresses the teamwork aspect in this endeavor.
“It’s not any one person alone,” she said. “The realtors who own the buildings really want people in (them) so they do most of the work. If there’s a way that we can change legislation or do something to make it attractive for people to come into our city, I think that’s something we want to do.”
One of Neidinger’s opponents is Dan Calabria, who as mayor in 2013-2016 often clashed with Neidinger and other commissioners.
Working with Calabria was “brutal,” Neidinger said, and it would be difficult to work with him again if they both are elected.
“This is a really nice city and we don’t need that (conflict) in our little city,” she said. “We don’t have huge issues like the larger cities do, and there’s no need to have that kind of behavior.”
She says she wants to win, but if she doesn’t she’ll still be happy in her beautiful house on the water in South Pasadena.
“If I lose, I lose, but I will not run a nasty campaign, a contentious campaign,” she said. “It’s not worth it, it’s not who I am.”
SOUTH PASADENA – He grew up in a cold-water tenement in Manhattan, the youngest of four children, and lost his father – “my best friend” – when he was 11.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from St. John’s University but never worked a day in accounting. He was fired from his first job – selling canned tuna fish and mandarin oranges – a couple of days before he was set to get married.
Years later, he came up short in three campaigns for the South Pasadena City Commission, and his term as mayor in 2013-2016 was filled with tumult and controversy.
So why, after all that and three open-heart surgeries, is Dan Calabria, 82, running for the commission again? He is one of four candidates for two seats in the March 13 election.
Determination, he says, and a strong belief that voters should have choices on Election Day.
“I don’t create goals unless I’m serious about them,” said Calabria. “I focus attention on achieving the goal and I try not to let things get in the way, and sometimes it comes across as being rude or insensitive.”
He will get no argument about that from the four commissioners who served while he was mayor.
An outside attorney they hired concluded that Calabria “has a capacity to be snide, petty, condescending, sarcastic, belligerent and unnecessarily combative.”
To protest his raised voice and banging gavel, the commissioners walked out of several meetings. And for a time they considered trying to oust him for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence.”
Calabria, who responded by suing the city, was defeated when he ran for re-election as mayor in 2016.
Despite the controversy and bad blood, Calabria said, he made a vow to himself.
“After I was elected mayor and blown out of there, I vowed that I would run in every election for one primary purpose – to make sure that an election is held,” he said. “I am so tired of people just putting their name in, and because nobody runs against them they become a commissioner.”
In a campaign advertisement in a community newspaper, Calabria sounds like the Calabria of old.
“We can no longer afford to have commissioners who make false claims and take credit for things they had nothing to do with,” he said, mentioning no names. “We can do better.”
For Calabria, there is one big issue in South Pasadena: its form of government.
The tiny town (population 5,000) is the only municipality in the state that still leaves the daily operations of government in the hands of its elected commissioners.
Calabria calls that form of government “outdated” and speaks of the “desperate need for a (professional) city manager.”
According to him, a city administrator – a less powerful post that some current commissioners favor – just won’t cut it.
“We don’t need a city administrator. For our tiny little city? Come on, that’s nuts,” he said.
The secret, he says, is in finding out what other cities are doing so that South Pasadena can emulate their successes. He points to neighboring Gulfport as a prime example of a city that should be a model.
“You’ve got to find out what others are doing to make sure you’re at least close to doing the right thing,” said Calabria. “You shouldn’t be a standout or way, way, way back at the end of the line. You can’t make progress like that.”
City managers, he says, do one thing religiously: They compare notes with each other. He wants South Pasadena to be kept in the loop.
Although he was fired as a food salesman many years ago, Calabria went on to excel as a mutual fund executive.
He joined Dreyfus Funds as an assistant advertising manager before becoming the national sales manager and executive vice president of Oppenheimer Management in 1965.
In 1986, he moved to Pinellas County to become president and CEO of Templeton Funds Management Corp. Six years later, he ended up in South Pasadena, where he got involved with local government as founder of the South Pasadena Voters Watch.
Nowadays, he said, he feels like a native and gets cold in 50-degree weather.
He calls South Pasadena “the best kept secret in Pinellas County” and says he is committed to making it a “better, more friendly and vibrant city in the future.”
“Being a director of mutual funds is not unlike being a commissioner,” said Calabria. “It’s not unlike a municipality, except the corporate world is for-profit and municipality is for service, presumably.”
SOUTH PASADENA – Name any department at City Hall and chances are Arthur Penny has run it.
In seven and a half years as a city commissioner, he supervised the departments of finance, public works, community improvement and public safety. The only department he hasn’t directed – administration – is reserved for the mayor.
“I have the experience and experience matters,” said Penny, 59. “There is no one who knows the city better than I do.”
Penny stepped aside from city politics last year, but now he’s back – one of four candidates for two City Commission seats in the March 13 election.
All four candidates have served on the commission, but none longer than Penny. That’s something he touts as he ticks off his accomplishments as a commissioner in the tiny town (population 5,000).
Under his leadership, he said, the yellow lights on the town’s stoplights were lengthened from 3.6 seconds to 4.3 seconds (the longest allowed by law), a school bus stop was installed on Pasadena Isle and pedestrian crossing signage was erected near the entrance of Bay Island Condominiums.
In his first year in office, he said, he initiated a move to pay off the city’s debt on its reclaimed water system with money that “was just sitting there” in reserves.
Encouraging business development in South Pasadena has been a priority for Penny. In 2014, he said, he helped create a business revitalization committee that helped bring Ace Hardware, Taco Bell and Pet Supermarket to the city.
Those efforts need to continue, he said.
“I’d like to see the city open up for everyone, and instead of just being a pass-through on the way to St. Pete Beach it’ll be a place where people will want to stop for a while,” Penny said at a candidate forum last month.
One of Penny’s top priorities is building a new fire station in South Pasadena – a goal all four commission candidates have embraced.
“The building is falling apart, the roof leaks and our firefighters have to work out in an open garage,” said Penny. “It’s mandatory they have to work out every day, and you can imagine how hot it is in July and August.”
The fire station lacks bathrooms and sleeping quarters for women, he said, and that limits the opportunities for female firefighters in the city.
Penny and fellow candidate Gail Neidinger, who are unofficially running in tandem, have both been endorsed by the International Association of Firefighters.
In his campaign, Penny also cites his stint as president of the Suncoast League of Cities in 2016-2017 and his work at Pasadena Community Church.
Penny, a native of Chicago, moved to the Florida Panhandle in 1982. He attended Gulf Coast Community College and worked as a park ranger in Panama City from 1997 to 2001.
In Bay County, court records show, Penny had some brushes with the law – two misdemeanor convictions for possession of marijuana and two arrests for DUI. One DUI charge was dismissed, and the other resulted in a $1,899 fine, records show.
Penny also was charged with failure to appear on a misdemeanor battery charge that he said grew out of a dust-up after he was attacked at a hot dog stand he ran on Panama City Beach.
Penny said the judge dismissed the charges, but records indicate that he pleaded no contest and the judge withheld adjudication.
After 20 years in the Panhandle, Penny came to South Pasadena to pursue a condominium management license at the Bob Hogue School of Real Estate.
As a licensed community manager, he has run Sea Towers, a 55-plus high-rise complex northwest of St. Petersburg, since 2003.
Penny got into public service by chance and said he stayed out of determination.
In 2009, his neighbor, former Mayor Fred Held, recommended that he apply to become a city commissioner when two commissioners stepped down for personal reasons.
To his surprise, he was selected by the commission to fill one of the vacancies.
Tampa Bay Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
SOUTH PASADENA — Only one municipality in the state of Florida still leaves the daily nitty-gritty of government in the hands of elected city commissioners.
Is it time for a change in South Pasadena?
Lari Johnson, who as vice mayor oversees the city’s community improvement department, says it’s time to explore what the majority of municipalities in Florida do — hire a professional to run the day-to-day operations of the city.
“Something needs to happen,” agrees Gigi Esposito, the commissioner over the finance department. “There aren’t big problems, but we need to work more efficiently.”
The so-called pure commission form of government is a throwback to yesteryear, when the pace of local government was slower and less complicated. It made sense for the people who were elected to run things, especially in small towns.
That’s how South Pasadena, a city of 5,000 covering less than a square mile, ended up with five commissioners who each lead a department – administration, finance, public works, public safety and community improvement.
The commissioner elected as mayor now makes $10,000 a year; the other four, $7,600. Every March, commissioners vote to determine their assignments for the year.
The department directors they supervise have annual salaries from $89,682 to $103,530.
Today, fewer than 200 municipalities in the United States, mostly small towns like South Pasadena, still operate under this awkward form of government.
David Magenheimer, the commissioner over public works, says he has “not yet concluded that the benefits of changing the form of government outweigh the costs.”
Johnson wants the City Commission to investigate the city manager form of government, and he suggests meeting with retired city managers who provide guidance to local governments at no cost.
Judging by city manager salaries of other small Pinellas municipalities, hiring a city manager would probably cost at least $100,000 a year, not including benefits.
Esposito, who worked with a city manager for six years when she was a city commissioner in Largo, says it is “is a very effective way to run a city” but does “not want to be rushed.” She says she thinks “there are some different angles to explore” for improving efficiency in South Pasadena’s government.
Mayor Max Elson, who heads the administration department, and Gail Neidinger, the commissioner over public safety, say they lean toward a less expensive option – a “city administrator” with less responsibility and a smaller salary than a city manager.
“We (the commissioners) get along fine until we hit a small bump in the road,” said Elson at a workshop last month. “We don’t need a big payroll” for a solution.
Carley Lewis, 31, South Pasadena’s city clerk, is Elson and Neidinger’s answer.
To anyone carefully observing the commission’s meetings, it is clear that Lewis provides much of the glue holding together the daily operations of the city. She prepares the agendas. She knows project timeframes, contractual specifications and financial details. She is the city’s human resources manager. She helps keep the meetings on track, and she knows what’s coming around the bend.
Lewis’ importance was underscored last September when she returned to work part time about 10 days after the birth of her third child, Remy.
Department directors took turns holding Remy while her mom worked at her post during commission meetings. Neidinger called Remy “the city baby.”
Elson says he wants to increase Lewis’ salary – now about $89,000 a year – and enhance her responsibilities to work more closely with the department directors and “resolve differences” in weekly meetings instead of at the commissioners’ public workshops.
All five commissioners said they would like to spend more time on the big picture, like legislative issues affecting the city.
“We need to stop spending ad infinitum time (at commission meetings) on whether or not we are going to have a clown, a face painter or a puppeteer at our block party. That should never hit the table,” Elson says.
SOUTH PASADENA – A passing fire truck changed Dave Mixson’s life.
As a teenager, he had planned to be a math teacher and baseball coach. But a couple of tough math courses in community college and a stint as a part-time teacher changed his thinking.
Unsure what to do next, Mixson went to his father for advice. At that moment, a fire truck went by, sirens blaring.
“I asked him, how would one become a fireman?” said Mixson.
Eighteen months later, he was a paramedic – the first step in a 23 1/2-year career as a paramedic and firefighter in Largo.
On July 5, that career carried him to South Pasadena, where he was sworn in as fire chief and director of public safety.
Mixson, 47, says his years in Largo prepared him well.
“I’m most looking forward to the unknown and the challenges it’ll bring,” he said. “I think it’s a great organization that I get the chance to lead.”
As deputy fire chief in Largo (population 84,500), Mixson helped manage a department with six fire stations and 136 firefighters and emergency medical technicians. His salary was $99,455 a year.
In South Pasadena (population 5,100), he will lead a department with one station and 17 people, including himself, and make $96,776.
But Mixson doesn’t view his new position as a step down.
He said he has always admired the South Pasadena department and Dayton Saltsman, who recently retired as chief.
“Working in Pinellas for (almost) 25 years, you run calls with them and you hear about calls that they’re on,” he said. “You hear it’s a well-run organization.”
Mixson also notes that his St. Petersburg home is only 3 miles from the fire house in South Pasadena, a town he knows well.
All three of his children, now 18, 15 and 12, attended the preschool at Pasadena Community Church, where he and his family have been members for 15 years, he said.
“I have a connection with the community,” he said. “We eat there. We bowl at Ten Pin Lanes. It’s a community.”
Over the years, Mixson earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at St. Leo University in Pasco County and a master’s in emergency management through an online program at Eastern Kentucky University.
He holds local or state certifications in special weapons and tactics, the management of both hazardous materials and brush fires, and emergency management coordination.
According to Pinellas court records, he was cited for speeding four times and careless driving once between 1986 and 2007. He also got a citation for a watering violation in 2004.
He acknowledges the driving citations, four of which came more than 20 years ago. The watering violation happened because he misunderstood the municipal ordinance, said Mixson, whose personnel file in Largo is brimming with commendations and positive evaluations.
Mixson was one of 23 applicants for the South Pasadena job, according to Gail Neidinger, the city commissioner who oversees the fire department. A community group narrowed the field to six candidates, she said, then selected Mixson after two interviews.
As he gets started, Mixson said, he plans to do a lot of teaching about fall prevention and hurricane safety in a city where the median age is about 70.
The high-rise Fountains retirement facility at 1255 South Pasadena Blvd. is the No. 1 EMS address in the county because of the number of falls there, according to deputy fire chief Emery Culverhouse.
Because most of the city is in a Level A hurricane evacuation zone, “it is that much more important to prepare for,” said Mixson. “An educated public has a better chance of being a prepared public.”
SOUTH PASADENA – When city commissioner Gail Neidinger wants to know something about Shakespeare, she knows where to turn.
Dayton Saltsman, who just retired as the city’s fire chief and director of public safety, has a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in philosophy, a master’s degree that included study abroad at the University of Oxford, and a passion for the bard and his plays.
So when Neidinger asked Saltsman when Ophelia dies, a question from her crossword puzzle, he had a quick, correct answer: “Hamlet, Act 4.”
And when she pointed to figures on the box top of a puzzle on Shakespearean characters, he correctly identified every one of them.
“I am drawn to Shakespeare because he has insight into human behavior and all its manifest ways,” said Saltsman.
As something of a Renaissance man, Saltsman, 68, might seem out of place in a firehouse. But when he retired May 31, he had spent 36 years in fire service in Pinellas County, the last 10 as chief in South Pasadena.
“I didn’t think I would have a long career in fire service,” he said. “I thought I would eventually be teaching philosophy.”
Saltsman grew up in St. Petersburg. After graduating from the University of South Florida, he became a firefighter and paramedic and worked in intensive care at Palms of Pasadena Hospital while earning an associate degree in nursing. He also led tours at the Salvador Dali Museum.
In 2014, he earned a master’s in liberal studies through the online program at Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y. His studies took him to England for short courses on Shakespeare and novelist Jane Austen at Exeter College at the University of Oxford.
His master’s thesis was titled “The Tragedy of Hamlet: Shakespeare’s Response to Plato.”
In South Pasadena, a city of 5,000, the fire chief is also the director of public safety. In addition to fire protection and emergency medical services, the department is responsible for hurricane preparedness, various safety programs for residents, and coordination with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, which handles policing inside the city.
The firefighters, who are also paramedics or emergency medical technicians, responded to an average of 277 calls a month during fiscal year 2016, including some from outside the city limits when aid was needed by other fire departments. About three-fourths were EMS calls, mostly for falls.
“My job has been challenging because there is more to handle with less resources and more cross responsibilities in a small city,” said Saltsman. “We have fewer people to accomplish a task and fewer people with a wider range of responsibilities.”
Twenty-three applicants made the deadline to be considered as Saltsman’s replacement.
Emery Culverhouse, the deputy fire chief for the last two years, will be acting chief until the position is filled. Culverhouse did not apply to be chief because he thinks he needs more experience, said Neidinger, the city commissioner who oversees the fire and public safety department.
One of the new chief’s biggest tasks, she said, will be exploring the construction of a new fire station. The department’s longtime home at 911 Oleander Way was not built to accommodate female firefighters, and its exercise area is not air-conditioned.
“We don’t want to throw money into an old building,” said Neidinger. “We have to start making plans.”
The outgoing chief, meanwhile, said he has “no concrete plans for retirement.”
Saltsman said he will spend more time with his two daughters and his fiancée.
He will be playing a new Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone – a throwback to his teenage years, when he played sax and keyboard in a rock band called The Rhodes VI.
By NANCY McCANN and EVY GUERRA 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.”
* * * * * * * * *
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 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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
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.