Response to City Manager Steve Mermell’s resignation annoucement began pouring in early Tuesday morning and continued throughout the day.
Pasadena Now first reported late Monday night that Mermell announced his Dec. 2 retirement to city employees in an email shortly after a closed session meeting of the City Council.
“Steve Mermell has served Pasadena for more than 30 years with distinction, during a period of great challenge and change,” said former Mayor Bill Bogaard. “As City Manager, he offered strong and steady leadership on the many difficult issues facing the city, including housing and homelessness, public safety, fiscal management, planning and economic development. He is entitled to take pride, as a partner with the city’s Public Health officer, in the city’s response to the pandemic and its high level of COVID vaccination. I wish him well in all the future holds for him.”
Mermell came to Pasadena in 1989. He began his career as an administrative analyst with the Pasadena Water and Power Department. In the Finance Department, he served as purchasing administrator, budget administrator, and deputy director of finance before being promoted to assistant city manager.
“We have been exceptionally fortunate to have highly capable and highly tenured staff in the city of Pasadena,” said Vice Mayor Andy Wilson. “Running a city is never an easy job but has been especially arduous these last few years given the challenges of the pandemic, racial awakening, police reform, climate change, homelessness, just to mention a few.
“We are always sad to see key leaders retire but understand how exhausting their roles have been, especially recently. We are grateful for the many decades of fine service and are now faced with bringing in a new generation of capable leadership who have the skills and stamina to drive this fine city forward.”
The City Council hires the city manager who enforces policy and compiles the city budget every year.
“It will always be a great source of pride for me to have served as your City Manager,” Mermell said in Monday’s email. Mermell said he has committed to assisting in the transition to a new city manager.
The city manager oversees 14 departments and is one of just three city employees, along with the city clerk and the city attorney, to answer to the City Council.
Mermell made headlines earlier this year when he announced the city would require all employees to be vaccinated or receive weekly testing.
Last year, he made headlines when he called out CalPERS for its lack of transparency on questionable investments.
Mermell drew the ire of some local residents when he refused to give them an explanation after he reassigned then-Fire Chief Bertral Washington to the City Manager’s Office.
Washington had several battles with the firefighters association and eventually left the city. Some contended Washington was targeted for demotion because he is African American, something Mermell strongly denied publicly.
“Steve did very well over a very difficult period of time for the city,” said local Attorney Richard McDonald. “Whether confronting the challenges of the pandemic, the city’s budget, development, crime, and the ever-increasing number of state mandates, Steve served the City Council diligently and in good faith, tirelessly implementing their visions and desires. I will miss him but am happy for him as he moves on to the next chapter in his life. Hopefully, it will be a more relaxing one.”
So far, it is not known who will serve as interim city manager or how the search and selection process to replace Mermell will be conducted.
“I wish Steve well and appreciate his deep knowledge of the city along with his balanced and non-political style focused on solving problems,” said Councilmember Felicia Williams. “It may be challenging to recruit more high-quality staff with the toxic environment at City Hall due to incivility and unjustified attacks on staff. I understand there is anger and frustration out there, but we can’t reduce ourselves to the very thing we are condemning.”
In 2016, the city hired an executive search company to find other qualified candidates for the permanent position through a nationwide search. However, that search appeared to be moot as Mermell, who was serving as interim city manager had already announced publicly that he wanted the position and several council members openly supported him.
That may have been the most transparent selection process for the position in decades.
A nationwide search was also conducted in 2008. As part of that search, then-Mayor Bogaard tasked three council members with site visits of the top candidates for the job — Jacque Robinson, Sid Tyler, and Margaret McAustin.
During that process, only two of the 60 candidates were identified — interim City Manager Bernard Melekian and San Diego Chief Financial Officer and former Pasadena Director of Finance Jay Goldstone.
In 1991, when City Manager Don McIntyre was resigning, City Council members identified two highly qualified African-American candidates from North Carolina and Richmond, Ca. That resulted in public rancor when it was announced that Phil Hawkey, who is white, was chosen.
Seven years later, Cynthia Kurtz became the city’s chief executive with little fanfare. Melekian, the city’s former police chief, served as the interim city manager after Kurtz stepped down.
Critics of Mermell took a victory lap on Tuesday.
Those critics have been calling on the City Council to fire Mermell for his refusal to get rid of Police Chief John Perez and officers involved in the Aug. 15, 2020 shooting of Anthony McClain.
On Aug. 15, 2020, McClain was a passenger in a car that was pulled over by police on North Raymond Avenue near La Pintoresca Park for failing to display a front license plate.
After the driver and McClain were asked to step out of the car, McClain ran from the officers. Police say McClain removed a handgun from his waistband as he fled, prompting Officer Edwin Dumaguindin to open fire. McClain continued running a short distance before tossing the weapon across the street and collapsing, according to police.
Some local residents say they do not see a gun in video footage of the event. Police say a gun was found at the scene.
Investigators say McClain’s DNA was recovered from the weapon.
Perez, who will retire and leave the city early next year, praised Mermell on Tuesday.
“I’m very happy and excited for our city manager in choosing his retirement date,” Perez told Pasadena Now. “We could not have achieved the police reorganization or the difficult reform changes without his insight and guidance. Based on my travels around the state as a police chief, Steve is highly respected and measurably one of the best city managers in the nation.”
However, bringing in a new city manager does not guarantee more transparency or the firing of those officers.
It took a court order to force the release of the report in the officer-involved shooting death of Kendrec McDade. Although the city changed its tune in court and claimed it supported releasing the documents, then-City Manager Michael Beck initially refused to release the report, something his predecessors had done during officer-involved shootings.
“The current city manager receives high marks in my class on his report card. He was a pretty good student of Pasadena,” said Councilmember John Kennedy. “He has made his decision to retire and now the City Council must pivot a measure to conduct a search for City Manager Steve Mermell’s replacement.”
“These are exciting and challenging times for our City.”
“It would be wise for the Council to have a national search. The compensation package will be as attractive as almost any city in America can offer.
My hope is that the Council will retain a well-known executive search firm to assist in filling the vacancy.”
“The residents, business leaders, ecumenical community and internal employees must have a seat at the table in the selection process. No question, this time around, the community must be engaged at every step of the way.”
“So an ‘assessment center’ process is one model that would be a smart way go.”
The person will have to deal with some difficult and daunting issues.”
Kennedy listed the Rose Bowl debt, the city budget, police reform and oversight, aging infrastructure, building affordable housing, reclaiming the 710 stub, retrofitting the Central Library, making safe the Colorado Street Bridge and ensuring that the city of Pasadena enjoys safe, clean and affordable drinking water.
“So here you have it,” Kennedy said. “Pasadena is in need of a consummate highly-qualified and trained professional who operates within a cocoon of good government, promotion of diversity, love for people and sound fiscal responsibility. … someone who smiles on occasion.”