- Q&A: Tammy Silver. Heat Wave Retail Politics
- Q&A: Sasha Renée Pérez. Looking At and Beyond the Immediate
- Q&A: Rick Cole. Aspiration / Inspiration
- Q&A: Ryan Liu. From PCC to Yale, Oxford & Back Again
- Q&A: Kathryn Barger. Making Progress on Homelessness Despite Legal Handcuffs
- Q&A: Elizabeth Wong Ahlers. Sacramento can Keep Families in California
- Q&A: Judy Chu. Best Intentions, Meet Political Reality
- Q&A: John Doyle. Energy, Housing & the PPD
- Q&A: Ben Savage. Real Consequences, Close to Home
- Q&A: Jonathan Horton. All About Community
- Q&A: Jed Leano. Social Change, at Scale
- Q&A: Phlunté Riddle. Perspective is Everything
- Q&A: Brandon Lamar. Build-in Diversity Through City Processes
- Q&A: Laura Friedman. Reject Polarization, Hold Government Accountable
Rick Cole is running for Pasadena City Council District 2. Cole previously represented District 2 on the Council and has been Mayor of Pasadena. He currently is the Chief Deputy Controller for the City of Los Angeles. He has been the City Manager of Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica. Cole is a graduate of Occidental College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and was one of the founders of Pasadena Weekly.
Q. Most people seeking office are aspirational. This is what I plan to do or what I want to do. But you’ve already done a lot. So what can you do to inspire the community, the City Council and the City Manager?
A. Yeah, so that, in fact, is a foundational reason for my running at this point in my life.
I think for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the individuals involved, City Hall has become insulated from truly partnering with the community. We have a lot of consultative processes, but those processes are often lengthy, bureaucratic and don’t seem to lead to meaningful outcomes.
I think it goes to my having been on the staff side of the equation, having been on the citizen and the Commissioner side of the equation. I understand why the staff sometimes feels misunderstood and beleaguered and resistant to the meddling from people who are not professionals. On the Planning Commission I think we’ve made a lot of progress capitalizing on the strengths of City Hall and the citizens.
“City Hall has become insulated from truly partnering with the community. We have a lot of consultative processes, but those processes are often lengthy, bureaucratic and don’t seem to lead to meaningful outcomes.”
This staff have professional expertise and knowledge and they work all day every day in their jobs. Community members have enormous first-hand knowledge and experience with the challenges and the resources in our community. So the best combination is not each fighting over the other’s strengths, but where they recognize and capitalize on those strengths.
So that means I make a distinction between input and participation. Input is when you say, as we did in junior high school, “Let’s elect the person who promises longer recesses, and Coke in the drinking fountains.” Because who wouldn’t want longer recess? And so people express their opinion.
And one way that manifests in the adult world is, “I want traffic to go more slowly down my street.” And, “I want to be able to get where I want to go as fast as possible.” And that’s input. That’s valid under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Everybody has a right to their free speech.
Participation is when you sit people down and say, okay, you don’t want fast traffic on your street. But you want to get as quickly as possible to the places you need to go. So how are we going to figure that out together? And that’s where the staff can contribute their expertise and their professionalism. Not by having all the answers but by helping the community actually work out sensible answers that provide the greatest good.
And I’ve seen that work time and time again. When we just ask people to spell out their opinions for three minutes, it’s no wonder that those opinions get ignored because they’re often simple answers to complicated problems.
“Participation is when you sit people down and say, okay, you don’t want fast traffic on your street. But you want to get as quickly as possible to the places you need to go. So how are we going to figure that out together?”
But when people have the opportunity to share opinions, or in town hall meetings to have a meaningful conversation to hear all sides and look for common ground, you have far better outcomes.
So the difference between input and participation is the difference between expressing your opinion, expecting government to do exactly what you want…and sharing your concerns and figuring out what’s best for your whole community.
Q. So the reason you decided to try to get on the City Council again is because…
A. I don’t have any illusions that just electing one person to the city council is going to work miracles. But I do think that my experience and my passion for partnering with the community will help mobilize a much broader commitment by citizens to help improve their government and the outcomes that we all care about, like reducing homelessness, moving to renewable energy, calming dangerous conditions on our streets and roads. These are things that people care about and they find it frustrating that they either don’t get what they want out of government or it takes forever to get it, or both.
Q. One of the questions I had for you was about outreach to the community. We believe saving local news is key. So as a founder of the Pasadena Weekly what insight do you have about local news and its importance?
A. You know, I think it goes both ways. One of the things I’ve learned is that until people own the problem, they’re not particularly interested in buying the solution.
I’m knocking on doors and talking to voters, and most of them are admittedly poorly informed about what’s going on at their local City Hall. I think that people actually want to be informed. Then the question is, well, why would you care about local government? Why is that important? So I think the first thing is what happens around people has to become more real.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that until people own the problem, they’re not particularly interested in buying the solution.”
I think there’s a role for elected officials in actually helping people see the stakes they have in their community. There’s a tendency on the part of elected officials to assure the public that we don’t need you. We’re doing fine. Just elect me. But I don’t think that democracy is a spectator sport.
So if people saw themselves as authentic participants in self government at the local level, and that their participation is needed, their participation would improve not only their lives but the lives of their neighbors and people less fortunate. Then I think people would say, well, I want to know more about what’s going on.
There was a time in which there were newspapers that covered every government in America and could afford to put a reporter in virtually every public meeting from little towns to big cities, from a transit agency to vacation district. That has just evaporated.
So there has to be a new economic model. That’s not a problem the government has to solve, but I think the demand for local news is something that elected officials actually can play a policy role in, by reconnecting people with their government and helping people see the enormous value of paying attention to what’s going on in their lives.
Q. We’re trying to find that sweet spot where we’re producing things that people are interested in, and that they can take an active part in.
A. And you just put your finger on the right words, which is taking an active part.
I was thrust into all this, what turned into lifelong public service, because what was happening in schools when I was a student was hugely contentious and impactful. The integration of schools thrust me and my fellow students into a cauldron of controversy, and it empowered us to stand up for what we saw was working, which is people of different races going to school together and learning from each other. And I was one of those who stood up for that.
“The integration of schools thrust me and my fellow students into a cauldron of controversy, and it empowered us to stand up for what we saw was working, which is people of different races going to school together and learning from each other.”
I was elected student body president, because people saw that I could champion on their behalf and the cause of us all getting along together could be an example for Pasadena. Integration could work. It was exposure to the tremendous diversity in our community that happened through that whole experience.
Then my high school government teacher got elected to the City Council. Seeing him on the City Council, I was thinking, well, you know, I could be on the City Council…and then I found myself running against an incumbent and winning and then being reelected two more times.
I never set out to be a politician. I’ve only run for office three times in my life and it’s the one I’m running for now.
Q. I’d like you to talk about something that you think is important or that is part of your platform.
A. The issue that I stress the most is one that I think is a legitimate emergency in our city, homelessness. And it’s absolutely true that Pasadena does a better job and is in better condition than the City of Los Angeles.
But to me, City Hall is failing to recognize that we are on the road to the situation in Los Angeles, that the homelessness issue is getting worse and will continue to get worse unless we mobilize all the resources in the community to tackle it. That includes the business community, faith community, civic community and individuals in our in our city who have a desire to prevent the scourge of hundreds of people wandering the streets of Pasadena at night looking for a place to sleep.
What we see in Los Angeles is just how much of a human catastrophe and how much of a community catastrophe it is to allow homelessness to become embedded as just another ongoing challenge to be managed, rather than a problem to be solved.
The fact is that folks who are unhoused are incredibly diverse, and how we deal with the problem needs to be incredibly nuanced.
“What we see in Los Angeles is just how much of a human catastrophe and how much of a community catastrophe it is to allow homelessness to become embedded as just another ongoing challenge to be managed, rather than a problem to be solved.”
Folks who are veterans need to get connected with Veterans Administration resources. For folks who are mentally ill, we need to work with the county to improve and expand the services that can help people get off the street. We need to help young families that are living in their cars to have a safe place to park until they get back on their feet and maybe help with the first and last month’s rent. Other people simply need an opportunity to work, and that will be transformative…whether it’s a job or its job training in order to be ready for a job. Those are things that can be done on an individual basis.
How do you get 300 people off the streets? It’s one at a time. But we need to be accelerating that one at a time because the problem is growing and not shrinking.
I have a lot of a lot of experience with finding ways to make government work better and cost less. But when the government spends money and doesn’t achieve results, then people are frankly, understandably reluctant to part with more money for the government. So if we can maximize the resources we have already then we can make a much stronger case for additional investment.
We’ve been able to do that with our libraries in Pasadena. When I was Mayor, we went to the voters when we asked them for a special tax because we needed a very robust library system. People were willing to pay for it because they saw the value. But if people don’t see the value, they’re not gonna pay for it. And so we need to be increasing the value to the community and making it visible and tangible every day.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Call it a crusade, or call it a jihad, or a cause or a mission, but thank God you’re doing it.”
Q. Well, I think that’s a wonderful note to end on.
A. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Call it a crusade, or call it a jihad, or a cause or a mission, but thank God you’re doing it.