JLife Magazine had the pleasure of interviewing the Mayor of Pasadena, Terry Tornek.
JLife: Does your Jewish identity impact your governance of the city of Pasadena and, if so, how?
Mayor Tornek: I don’t know that it was uniquely the Jewish aspect that had an impact on my governing style. I think that there are some universal themes that have to do with tzedakah. The whole attitude of being ethical, “golden rule” sort of basics, charitable giving. There are sort of Jewish versions of all these things and I think they are universal themes. We had a pushke in our home. And, I was taught tikkun olam by my father. The Yeshiva Flatbush also taught me about tikkun olam at an early age.
I always had a keen sense of social responsibility and ethical conduct. I’m not trying to disclaim the Jewish aspect of that, but as I have progressed through my life, I’ve come to understand that they are not uniquely Jewish things. Instead, they are universal themes that virtually every religion ascribes to and tries to promote.
JLife: They may not be unique to qualities to Judaism, but do you feel they are unique to politics?
M.T.: You mean that other people don’t practice them?
M.T.: No, I think that it’s like any other field of endeavor. My father and my mother had a small business and worked together and there were ethical people an unethical people in their business. I think that what happens with politics is that a bright like it shined on it so it’s more evident. And, sometimes the stakes are higher in that people have an expectation that elected officials will conduct themselves particularly ethically. Which is right. That’s correct. So, I think there are very ethical people at all levels of government and there are some that are “ganevs” (thieves)… but, that’s not unique to politics.
JLife: You began your political career in the late 1970s as a member of the city Council of Springfield Massachusetts. What was that like?
M.T.: Very different. Massachusetts politics is a blood sport. It is also very ethnic. So, it’s very different, although, I will say California politics is now turning more towards that direction both in terms of ethnic proclivities and level of intense conflict. When I first got here, I thought it was much more polite. I think it’s evolving now in a more eastern direction. Pasadena has real similarities with Springfield and dramatic differences as well, so I’ve had the benefit of being exposed to both and been able to compare and contrast.
In Springfield, of course, I was much younger man. I had small children. I had been contemplating a potential career in politics. Being in higher office in Pasadena, I’m in a much different place in my life. I have no political aspirations beyond being mayor. So, it’s a vastly different experience for me.
JLife: Speaking of different experiences… what was it like being from the East Coast and moving to Pasadena back in the early 80s?
M.T.: It was extraordinary, liberating… it was the best thing we ever did. My whole family reacted that way. We all flourished, and we’ve never had any regrets about having made the move. I can remember vividly when I first moved out here.
It was January 2, 1982 and my family didn’t join me until Valentine’s Day, 1982. I can remember coming in, and I had just talked with my wife Maria, about her difficulty with getting the sidewalk shoveled back in Springfield. I was walking into City Hall and it was a beautiful sunny January day. The birds were singing and the flowers were blooming. And, I remember thinking it was unbelievable that they’re paying me to be here. It’s really amazing. Pasadena has been extraordinarily good to my family. Now my son and his family live here in town. It’s just been a great place for a family to grow up.
JLife: What is your favorite part about Pasadena both back then and now?
M.T.: The reason that I chose Pasadena was because of how the environment felt comfortable to me unlike some other parts of Southern California that we looked at. Pasadena, I felt, had a real sense of place, the neighborhoods were very substantial, coherent. The architecture was varied. The people valued the historic fabric of the city unlike other parts of California where it seemed like they couldn’t tear things down fast enough. And of course, the open spaces in Pasadena, the proximity to the mountains, the Arroyo Seco, those things have always been a huge attraction and continue to be things that I love about the city.
JLife: You have past experience with the urban renewal department of development in New York City. Can you tell us more about your work there and did you bring any lessons from that job with you to your work as Mayor of Pasadena? For instance, the vitalization of Old Pasadena.
M.T.: Yes, I learned some very important lessons there. I was a trainee and I was an intern. When I got out of the Army, I took a job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD. It was in New York City, but I was assigned to communities in upstate New York. Communities like Buffalo, Tonawanda, Lancaster. Those communities were failing and the renewal process was designed to revitalize them, but in fact, as I quickly learned, it was more destructive than it was creative.
The market wasn’t there for redevelopment so after the Feds paid the money to clear the land, relocate the people and disrupt what they called “blighted neighborhoods.” Nothing got built. They created vacant lots that just sat there so I quickly concluded that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the program. I went back to school at that point because I felt that I had to have a more sophisticated understanding of urban “stuff.”
So, I went back to Columbia’s School of Architecture and got a degree in Planning. I became the Planning Director in Springfield and historic preservation became my real strength, which helped get me hired in Pasadena. So, it is really the sequence of being disenchanted with that sort of a clearance version of urban renewal, learning about the value of preserving neighborhoods and individual structures and historic preservation. I got hired in Pasadena because of that expertise.
The premier project that I got hired to do was Old Pasadena, but what I brought in terms of my early experience was from the familiarity of knowing how to use financing tools of redevelopment. I created a redevelopment plan for Old Pasadena which was unique–in the sense that it didn’t provide for any demolition at all–but instead used the tax increment financing strategy, which is how we got the ball rolling. We were able to build the parking structures and begin to really get that revitalization happening in a historically sensitive way.
JLife: Pasadena has been very welcoming as far as wanting to preserve historic sites You previously served on the Pasadena City Council, is that a value that you felt was shared across the board?
M.T.: On the City Council (laughs) there are always varied points of view. But, I think in Pasadena there are certain well-established, sort of fundamental beliefs and preserving historic buildings and the fabric of neighborhoods is important. That’s a generally shared principle. Within that view I think there are nuances in terms of what’s really important to preserve and what provisions need to be made for new development. There is a constant tug-of-war in the city about what kind of new developments we should have. What the city should look like and how dense thing should be, etc. But, the basic idea of historic preservation and being mindful of preserving neighborhoods is sort of universally subscribed to in this city.
JLife: How do you see your role as Mayor and what parts of the job take up the most time, worry you the most, give you the most joy…?
M.T.: Well, the job of mayor in Pasadena is not as a “strong” mayor. It’s not a strong mayor form of government, because it’s a city manager/council form of government. So, the closest analogy would be a corporate board of directors where the city manager is the chief executive officer and the city council is the Board of Directors, the mayor is the chairman of the board.
So, the mayor doesn’t really have the level of authority and discretion that some people think. It is more of a bully pulpit. There are some specific things the mayor gets to do. The mayor gets to give a state of the city address, the mayor gets the first crack at the budget and the mayor has more appointments than individual council members do. The mayor also gets to set the agenda of the city council meetings. And, the mayor is usually viewed as the spokesperson for the city (even more than the city manager).
There are real limitations and I think there’s some misunderstanding about what the role of the mayor is compared to the city manager and the other council members. The mayor only has one vote of eight on the city council. So, I think it’s a balancing act. The thing that I like the best and one of the most enjoyable parts of being mayor is that I get to go to a lot of events.
We are blessed in this city with 1,100 nonprofits. It’s really the nonprofits that do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of making things happen in Pasadena. In particular, when it comes to supporting people who may need a helping hand. A lot of them have been around for a long time. Some have been in Pasadena for 90 or one hundred years. It’s quite extraordinary. I get to attend a lot of their meetings, banquets and fundraisers. I also get to meet really remarkable people who are donating their time and their money to do selfless things and are really making a difference in the city.
I also enjoy going to the schools. I go to as many schools as I can. That is obviously disrupted now, but ordinarily every two weeks or so I’m in a classroom or an assembly in a Pasadena school and the kids, particularly the little kids, really think the mayor coming to their classroom is a super big deal. They all want to have “selfies” and they ask a lot of questions.
Actually, I combine those two topics because I always urge the kids to find some interest, something that they really care about and volunteer. Join one of these 1,100 organizations. It can be through their church, their scouts or the things their parents are doing. Find a way to give back to the community and I assure them that they will get more out of it than they put it. So that kind of mentoring role and being involved with the nonprofits is very satisfying.
Part of the reason I’m running for reelection is that there are some legacy projects that I’m working on. Some really long-term projects that I’m not going to be able to see the end of that I’d really like to get well-established and well-launched before I step down.
You get buried in the immediate crisis management, and obviously there is a lot of that going on right now, but I try to think about the long game of this city being around for a long time. I’d like to be able to at least participate in some of those longer-term projects.
JLife: You mentioned how much you enjoy going to the schools. Is that one of the highlights of being Mayor?
M.T.: Oh yes absolutely. The kids ask the darndest questions… the little kids ask how old you are and how much money you make. Completely inappropriate things (laughs). The older kids have sophisticated questions. They want to know about homelessness, social and environmental issues… they are hard. They ask hard questions and sometimes I don’t necessarily have satisfactory answers. I don’t pretend to have them. I try to give them some information and let them know the kinds of things that we are doing and the kinds of things we need to figure out before we can make as much progress as they would like. I really like that part.
Another thing, of course, is riding down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day with my whole family. They always have to get us a special rig because we have such a big group with seven grandkids. That is always fun.
And, I’m just proud to be associated with the community. When I travel outside and I am identified as the Mayor of Pasadena, inevitably people assume that it is a much bigger city than we are. The city is only comprised of 140,000 people, but when I’m traveling people always assume it is a city of 500,000 or so because our footprint is bigger.
We play big because of the New Year’s festivities and football game. Also because of Caltech and the Art Center College of Design. The people who have visited always talk about the tree-lined streets and historic neighborhoods. It’s really interesting to hear what people take away from Pasadena… all the restaurants. It’s fascinating. It’s a privilege to be the mayor of this city. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly and I hope to keep enjoying it for another four years.
JLife: You mentioned that Pasadena has roughly 1,100 nonprofits, making it home to one of the largest number of nonprofits per capita in the entire US. How have you and the city supported them during the COVID-19 pandemic?
M.T.: Well, the truth is I think they’ve been supporting us more than we’ve been supporting them. We have relied on them even more so than usual and we have been working hand-in-glove with the nonprofits, particularly within the capacity of the Pasadena Community Foundation (PCF).
More specifically, in the area of food insecurity. In getting funding we were cooperative; PCF had their own fundraising for the COVID- emergency so we partnered with them and really leveraged that money to provide the maximum amount of service to try to mitigate food insecurity.
We’ve also been working with PCF on the small business assistance program where the city funded $500,000 and then another $250,000 match for whatever PCF was able to raise to support small businesses. We’ve also funneled a lot of money to nonprofits.
We’ve received extra money from the Feds for some housing programs and we worked with a number of nonprofits in that area. We also worked with a number of existing pantries and organizations to get food to the community. To make sure that nobody starves in Pasadena. We have relied on and worked heavily with the nonprofits.
And on the other crisis, the post-George Floyd unrest and regarding the concerns that people have… we’ve worked closely with a number of area churches to support efforts to communicate with the community, deal with community unrest and dissatisfaction, and to provide us with guidance on how we might proceed in terms of developing a more trusting relationship between the minority communities and the Pasadena Police Department.
The well-established relationships we have with nonprofits have continued at pace and really been intensified during the multiple crises that we are confronted with now.
JLife: With acts of hate rising across America–including those that target the Jewish community–what has the response of the City of Pasadena been to acts of hate within the city?
M.T.: I’m not aware of a rise in the number of acts of hate in the city of Pasadena. I think there’s been a lot of intense development, I think there has been some loud voices raised, but Pasadena has really been quite remarkable in terms of the dialogue that has happened. That that’s not to say there hasn’t been any intense reaction and loud voices, but we haven’t had that kind of violence. We haven’t had arrests; we haven’t had any looting and there’s been none of that kind of lawless behavior. I don’t think there have been, apart from an anti-Asian slogan painted on one bus shelter early on in the virus, I’m not aware of any acts of hate or what I would characterize as acts of hate being perpetrated against Jews or anybody else in Pasadena.
JLife: Do you anticipate a problem like they had in Fairfax coming into your neighborhood?
M.T.: What problem are you referencing?
JLife: In the protests following the murder of George Floyd some of the people who infiltrated the protests specifically targeted Jewish businesses in the Fairfax district. Several of them were destroyed and there was graffiti painted on the synagogues there.
JLife: Do you feel that way because Pasadena doesn’t have all the localized businesses in a way that Fairfax does or is there anything else you would attribute that to?
M.T.: Well, I think Pasadena is a pretty benign environment and people here tend to be pretty respectful of other cultures. We have an extraordinarily diverse community here. Ethnically, economically and racially and I think that there’s always been a pretty active & open discussion among and between various groups in Pasadena. We have ongoing interfaith activities at every level. At the church, synagogue, mosque and interfaith establishments and cooperation between schools of various faiths.
I think Pasadena is pretty enlightened in that way. Not that we are immune to it or that hate, and bigotry don’t exist, I’m not naïve. But, I think that it’s not in the Pasadena culture to lash out in that way.
But, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. It’s not a target-rich opportunity in the way that Fairfax may be in terms of a concentration of an identifiable number of businesses of a particular type. You can never be sure who can show up from the outside. I mean this isn’t an island and we are in a metropolitan area where there are all kinds of nasty people who have various agendas that they would like to push forward.
So, some of it is good luck and part of it, frankly, is part of active and very effective police work. The police have come under a lot of scrutiny and criticism. Pasadena has had its history of use of force instances and a police shooting that has been called into question. They are still the source of a lot of debate and discussion.
However, our police department is quite remarkable in a lot of ways. In ways that people are only now beginning to discover. We have a department that is reflective of the community in that its racial composition makes it a majority minority department. We also have a police department that is extraordinarily competent in terms of developing intelligence and tracking trouble before it gets started.
In the midst of the pandemic and the George Floyd inspired unrest we’ve also had an incipient gang war going on, which happens periodically. We have a long-term gang issue in Pasadena. It has been much diminished since I got here 40 years ago, but it still exists, and we had a couple of gang related shootings.
The police department is in the midst of everything that’s going on with the demonstrations, having officers that are being quarantined and everything else stressful that you can think about… it is also dealing with gang shootings.
The department has been under a huge amount of stress and has performed great and has actually been able to anticipate some efforts on the part of some people to escalate demonstrations. They have been able to control that very well without being overly aggressive. They haven’t had to line up with batons and facemasks and all that business. I think that we’re blessed with both the culture and a city that is quite tolerant along with a very effective police force.
JLife: As mayor how important is it to you to support your police force?
M.T.: Very important. But, it’s even more important that they support us. Watching departments that have failed across the country—and I know some of them from my experience in those cities—it’s really a death spiral when the citizens lose faith in the police. And, then when the police lose faith in the community, you’re really in a bad place.
We had some significant departure of officers some years ago, mostly because of salary issues, but also because they didn’t feel supported by elected officials and that was not a positive thing.
Although it did give us the opportunity to do a bunch of new hiring and to shift the patterns in hiring and training practices for the new officers.
So every cloud does have a silver lining, but I think I’m keenly aware that I need to be responsive to those who don’t have faith, or don’t have as much faith as they should, or enough trust in our police department. At the same time, I need to try not to be so inflammatory in my rhetoric that it makes the police officers feel that the government and city government officials don’t have confidence in them.
I do have confidence in them and yet I know we can always do a better job. That’s the reality. You can always do a better job.
That’s why I committed to adopt a proposal for civilian oversight, which is something we’ve been talking about for years and years. I am bringing a proposal for police oversight to the City Council on August 24 for a vote, after two months of hard work and intense community discussion.
I recognize that in spite of the fact that our police department does a really good job, if people in the community are still not trusting enough in law enforcement, then we have work to do and we need to address it.
However, the way to do that is not to throw the police department overboard and talk about stripping them down, hollowing them out or getting rid of them entirely. That just doesn’t make sense to me. But, there are modifications that should be made, and it is something that can be a positive discussion.
It doesn’t have to all be adversarial and the police chief John Perez is an extraordinary guy who has both the street cred—based on his 30 years as a police officer—and the intellectual capacity as a guy who holds a PhD. He understands what the best practices are in policing. What we can and we cannot do. I have every confidence in him.
Quietly, he’s completely reorganized the department and changed the hiring practices, recruitment and training. I think we’re really blessed to have him in the key job at this moment. And, I think the people are ready to engage in a constructive dialogue. That’s why I made this commitment to develop a civilian oversight capacity very swiftly.
JLife: Well, you have answered my next question, which was going to be… how do you make these reforms without throwing the police department under the bus?
M.T.: Well, that’s right. You can’t throw the police department under the bus. Look, there have been so many dramatic changes. We adopted the body-worn cameras before most departments ever did and we did it with the cooperation of the union. It was one of the first things I worked on as mayor because I was convinced that the body-worn cameras would change the culture, not single-handedly, but it would have a huge impact.
It actually benefited the police officers because I felt that for the vast majority of instances, having photographic and verbal evidence of what actually happened would benefit the officers. Not that they behave necessarily perfect in every instance, but in the vast majority of cases, if you actually have evidence of what happened in the moment and in real time that benefits the officers and they agreed.
That was a huge breakthrough and it has changed everything. It has changed individual behavior. I know it has changed investigations and training because if there is a use of force issue they immediately go to the camera footage. Senior command then reviews the footage and meets with the officer to talk about it. So even if it’s not a controversial public case they’re still using it on a day-to-day basis to improve themselves.
Think about it for a minute. If someone said to you, “I want you to wear a camera hanging around your neck all day long and transcribe everything you did during your business day.” I mean, think about that.
Who would you ask to do that?
It’s kind of stunning right? You’d feel constrained and you might feel somewhat threatened and embarrassed. I think it is sort of remarkable that the only reason that we have the “chutzpah” to ask police officers to do that is because they are armed. They are given the authority to take people’s lives if they have to in extreme circumstances, so they have to expect to be held to vastly different standards than say a journalist or a mayor, right?
This is a really fraught area of discussion and I have learned a lot about it over the last few years. I appointed myself to the public safety committee because previously it really wasn’t in my wheelhouse. I’m still not an expert, but I’m learning and it’s what people care about, so I care about it too.
All I can say is that it’s a work in progress and I have confidence in that we have a really good department and the officers are well motivated and well-trained. But, we can get better and we will.
JLife: It sounds like the city of Pasadena is actually pretty well situated to take on this new wave of focus and calls for reforms and changes to police departments. They’ve already put a lot into practice and are ready to go. Would you agree or disagree?
M.T.: Well, I think so, but I’m not sure if everyone would agree (laughs). If you’ve attended one of the demonstrations over the past couple months, as I have, and have been yelled at, you would understand that not everybody agrees. But, that’s what is great about a democratic society where we do cherish free speech. We’ve got a lot of different opinions and depending on the person that you are viewing things through, the results can come out very differently.
JLife: But you’re maintaining open dialogue between the citizens and the police department, etc.?
M.T.: Yes. And, that work has been one of the hallmarks during Chief Perez’ tenure. He has worked very hard to maintain it. He didn’t start it, but he’s really been working hard at activating it. And, he has worked hard to make people feel comfortable by doing some different things. He had his younger officers meet with some of the young people in the community, so they get to know each other. That way they don’t meet each other for the first time when it is a potentially adversarial situation. He has tried to get young people from Northwest Pasadena and police officers involved in a dialogue and exchange of ideas because he thinks that can be beneficial for both the police and for the young people.
This is hard work. This is not something that you just have some rugelach and coffee, and everybody comes out happy. It doesn’t work that way. There is suspicion on both sides, but the only way to begin to deal with that is to deal with it. Bring good people together and talk it out. This is happening on a much larger scale now.
One of the positive things about young people participating in the recent demonstrations is that they have really been at the forefront of this. I haven’t seen that kind of useful participation since the 60s in the civil rights or the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, which is something that I’m very familiar with.
A lot of the youthful enthusiasm is a little scatter-shot and some of them are not super well-informed yet, but they will be if they stay with it. It will really be a positive for all of us.
JLife: On a lighter note, you are a grandfather to seven grandkids. What do you like best about being a grandpa?
M.T.: What I don’t like is not being able to hug them now, I’ll tell you that. What I like the best is when they challenge me. My oldest granddaughters are not kids. I mean, my oldest is 23 years old. They have become political critics and advisors. They live in Pasadena and they tell me all the time and even lecture me—and don’t tell them, keep this between us—I really enjoy that (laughs).
I’m lucky because I have the whole range in age from 23 to 6 so I’ve still got what we call “The Littles” who interact with me in a completely different way. They are all within spoiling distance and all live in Southern California, so I get to see them all the time. I get to be part of their lives.
We took a family trip to Israel last year with everybody. We had the practice of taking the kids and grandkids to Israel for their bar and bat mitzvahs. We had one coming up and it occurred to me that by the time the six-year-old was ready, I might be too old to travel. So I said let’s just take everybody at once. We all went… we had a bus; we did the whole thing and it was fantastic! It was a great family experience and being in Israel is really stunning.
It was pretty obvious what I was trying to do. The reason why we take the kids there for their bar and bat mitzvahs is that I want them to understand their place in history and the cultural antecedents of what they’re going through. They’re being punishing with all this extra learning and all this bat mitzvah preparation… why are they doing that and why is it important?
We emphasized the archaeological sites and, of course, Jerusalem. We emphasized that more than the natural beauty, although we did have time for that. We went up to the Golan because I knew how beautiful it is. And, we made sure that they were in Tel Aviv so they could splash around. However, it was not so much a natural wonder trip as it was a sort of the historic emphasis trip.
JLife: How do you plan to continue to make Pasadena one of the most beautiful places to live?
M.T.: One of the critical things, in addition to my planning background, is that I have a business background as well. We have to be fiscally strong. There are a lot of different components to it, but the way for Pasadena to continue to be a great place, and to support the kind of programs we want, and to provide the level of services the people demand and expect here, you have to have the money to pay for that.
In this time of COVID-19, well, that has blown a $30 million dollar hole in our budget. It’s an ongoing challenge. The good news is that because we were prepared, and because I had worked so hard to build the financial reserves… we’re not broke. We had the money.
We went to the voters a couple years ago and we asked them to increase their sales tax, which they did. That generates $21 million a year. We give some of that to the school district—they needed help—so that additional $7 million a year goes a long way. That is the reason why we aren’t in desperate shape going forward and while we are catching up from the damage done by COVID-19-related business closures.
Pasadena needs to be financially strong and needs to provide a certain level of service so that people want to live here. Because ultimately… it is the people who make the city right?
I mean, it’s great that we have 60,000 street trees and 40 historic districts and all the metrics that I can rattle off to you… like 600 restaurants. But, ultimately what makes the community is the people.
As a person who’s done multiple door-to-door campaigns and as a person who normally meets people on their porches, I can tell you what an extraordinarily diverse and talented group of people we have here. As long as we continue to attract those people and are attractive to new young people we will continue to be a great place to live.
It doesn’t happen automatically. It takes hard work and it takes doing some work that is not obvious. We have an amazing staff and we have 2,000 people that work for the city (most of them for a long time). They are very devoted, they’re reasonably well-paid and we expect a lot of them.
Part of it is the people that we hire and also the nonprofits. We would never be able to do all the stuff that we do without them. You name an issue, whether it’s environmental protection, historic preservation, homelessness… Any of these things, they are a success because of them, and we could not do it if it was exclusively the city government working on these issues. The government doesn’t have the capacity, the resources or the nimbleness to be able to do all the stuff that really goes into making a great city.
However, these organizations do and that brings us back to the people. Frankly, a lot of the people in these organizations don’t necessarily live in Pasadena; I mean some of them might live in La Canada, San Marino or Arcadia, but they still make a contribution to the welfare of the city in some capacity. I’m grateful for that.
JLife: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?
M.T.: Well, I wasn’t trying to emphasize Jewish content per se. I don’t view myself particularly as a “Jewish Mayor.” I see myself as a mayor who happens to be Jewish. It’s never been a big issue in Pasadena, but I am proud of my heritage and I’m glad that my parents decided I should get a Jewish education. It has always served me well and I’m glad that my grandchildren continue to practice Judaism and identify as Jews. That is a triumph particularly since all three of my children married non-Jewish people. It’s really sort of the American story, right?