Like a person aggrieved, Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek is now playing the victim as he fights for his political life.
The reason: Criticism by his mayoral opponent about why Tornek decided to take a ceremonial Sister City visit in March, leaving his colleagues scrambling to protect the rest of us during the onset of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Tornek was marked “absent” for a critical March 17 special Council meeting to approve a citywide declaration of emergency. Unlike his colleagues, Tornek never even phoned in.
Now Tornek wants us to believe he was on top of things 6,000 miles away and that he’s the target of a political “smear campaign.” His chief supporter, John Kennedy, who was on part of the trip, has denounced the criticism as an “evil, unworthy and unmerited campaign distraction.”
As veteran politicians, they know better. This is no hit job. This is an accountability moment for an incumbent who is asking for another term.
Tornek should have known he was tempting fate when he insisted on going through with the non-essential goodwill mission to Senegal March 10.
By then, the World Health Organization, State of California and Los Angeles County had declared health emergencies. Hours before he boarded a jet, Tornek himself had presided over a City Council meeting in which he voted to do the same in Pasadena.
What most people don’t know, however, is that Tornek also ignored other warnings and requests to delay the trip from key people involved.
These warnings, revealed in city emails released under the Public Records Act, came weeks before Tornek left.
On February 5, Tornek’s official host, Dakar-Plateau Mayor Alioune Ndoye, asked for a two-week delay because he would be away on government business when Pasadena’s 12-person delegation arrived.
“Too late; tickets purchased & council agendas set,” Tornek texted. “Sorry we’ll miss him.”
Then, as COVID-19 became a looming threat, others tried to convince Tornek to push the trip back.
Boualem Bousselem, chair of the Sister City’s Senegal Committee, sent an urgent email February 27 asking to meet with Tornek and Kennedy about rethinking the excursion.
“We need to discuss the possible impact of the coronavirus epidemic on our trip and probably set up a Plan B,” wrote Bousselem, who had invested months on arranging the privately paid mission.
Records show they met twice, but no Plan B.
Even a local news editor tried and failed to discourage Tornek.
“Since I cannot talk you out of going, can you give me a point person here in Pasadena that I can communicate with in your absence?” the editor wrote March 9.
The next day, March 10, the editor sent an interview request with an ominous postscript.
“Just as an FYI, as of today, Senegal now has 4 reported cases of the COVID-19 virus.”
Too late. Tornek was on a jet to Senegal, where emails show he began having immediate regrets.
Tornek exchanged a flurry of emails and texts with his Pasadena travel agent, who spent hours on the phone trying to cobble together a return flight for everyone that avoided fast-moving international travel bans.
Curiously, Tornek was not as communicative when his colleagues asked for a special meeting to declare a citywide emergency.
When the preferred dates of March 14 and 16 were floated, Tornek texted: “Not available.”
He’s never explained why. But emails show around that time, Tornek and crew were scheduled for five days of heavy sight-seeing.
Highlights included an overnight in the old colonial capital, a wetland for birdwatchers, a canoe ride, a train ride, a beach picnic of Mar Lodj Island, and a tour of a large mosque.
The documents don’t say how many tourist spots they actually reached or, more importantly, enjoyed. Emails reflect a rising anxiety among Tornek’s troops.
Until March 17, when everyone caught a flight home through Dubai.
Tornek admitted in a debate Saturday he missed the special meeting because he was herding the delegation onto the flight.
He’s been less forthcoming on other questions, including the most important: Why were you so hellbent on leaving in the first place?
Emails suggest it might have been the lure of a vacation in Portugal.
After Senegal, the Torneks were booked to fly into the popular European country – where, in a sad twist, some of their luggage sat unclaimed in the Lisbon airport as their travel plans blew up.
We are grateful the delegation got back safely.
But make no mistake, they were at risk in the first place because of Tornek’s astounding lapse in judgment. He was MIA during the crucial days of a civic crisis because of a stubborn refusal to heed those around him, a common complaint about his leadership style.
It’s altogether fair and proper he be held accountable for it.