Government / Politics

Hollister mayor continues campaign for referendum to force council to rescind approval to develop 400 Block

Velazquez maintains that his efforts to overturn council decision is permissible despite his recusal from discussing or voting on the matter in council meetings

As of Wednesday, July 5, Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez had obtained about 1,000 registered voters’ signatures on a petition to derail a development project on the 400 Block, the corner of San Benito and Fourth streets, which his fellow city council members had already approved June 5 to move forward.

The mayor said he has until July 11 to obtain 1,600 signatures for a referendum that would force the city council to rescind its decision to move forward in developing the property and begin the process anew. He said if the council chooses to ignore the “will of the people,” he would work to have it placed on the Nov. 2018 ballot for a citywide vote.

Velazquez said the rumor that he would attempt to launch a special election in 2017, which the county elections office said would cost around $140,000, was not true. Councilman Raymond Friend, as well as some other city staff, were under the impression that is exactly what the mayor was attempting to do.

“Where would the money come from?” Friend wondered. “Probably from roads.”

Friend and City Manager Bill Avera question Velazquez’s motives for his steadfast opposition to developing the 400 Block. Both think it might have something to do with the fact that the mayor owns two buildings on opposite corners of San Benito and Fifth streets, near the property in question. Friend said he didn’t know what the mayor’s motives might be, but Avera commented that should a philanthropic center—one of the two projects moving through the approval process—be built next to The Vault, which the mayor owns and rents out for events, the two would come in direct competition.

“The Community Foundation is building a philanthropic center that people or nonprofit agencies can use, that’s in direct competition with The Vault,” Avera said. “So, if you’re a nonprofit agency and you’re wanting to hold a fundraiser and the Community Foundation will let you use that building for free, what does that do to the mayor’s building? That’s just one example of potential conflicts.”

Velazquez said on June 28, while gathering signatures at the Farmers’ Market, that he had spent 20 years trying to make the 400 Block the heart of the city.

“I helped lay the sod there. I helped with different organizations to get studies done to figure out what the best use of it is, so we could have a thriving downtown,” he said. “That block will make or break our downtown. If we do it right, we’ll have hundreds of people downtown every day, we’ll finally have businesses opening up throughout downtown.”

He suggests it should be an open plaza where there would be entertainment, pop-up restaurants, a café, and concerts on weekends. He believes that 400 to 500 people would use it every day. Avera, Hollister Police Chief David Westrick, Friend, and others have said it is not a good spot on which to hold concerts and other events. Westrick said because it is located along two of the busiest streets in Hollister he does not have events there for safety concerns. Avera said that because of constant traffic, it’s also one of the noisiest locations in town, making concerts or movies-in-the-park events unrealistic.

Friend and Gordon Machado, founder of Hollister Downtown Association, said few organizations have taken advantage of holding events there since nearly 30 businesses were destroyed during the Loma Prieta earthquake 28 years ago. It remained a dirt lot for a number of years and then after sod was laid it became an expense for the city to maintain the lot  with no revenues to pay for the cost.

Velazquez said the city had plans to turn the block into a plaza in 2014.

“Somehow that got pulled and it became condos,” he said. “That’s misleading the public. The city was about to own it until somebody decided it was better to build condos than an open plaza.”

The mayor said he did not know who changed the direction for the land and claimed that documentation proves that it was once thought a plaza would be the best use for the land. He said the claim that the now defunct state Resource Management Agency mandated that the land be sold for development was also misleading. He said it also is not true that the land is supposed to generate income.

This directly contradicts what Mary Paxton, program manager of the Hollister Development Services Department, told the council June 5. She explained that the city could not leave the property empty because the California Department of Finance required Hollister to enter into a compensation agreement with all the taxing agencies that had not been receiving property tax revenues over the many years, and that the public had been allowed to use the block without cost.

“It’s absolutely false that there has to be a building there,” Velazquez insisted. “The city would make more money by leasing out spots on that block every year than by having that sale.”

He said if he gathers enough signatures, the petition would allow the council to start over by listening to the public or put it on the ballot in 2018. He estimates 80 percent of the public wants to keep the lot undeveloped.

“We just need to get the public involved,” he said. “We have a very short window and it’s tough to do this. We turn them into the city and it has to abide by this. It’s saying, ‘city council, you have to listen to the public now. We’re demanding it. You ignored us the first time. This time you’re going to listen.’”

Velazquez said, as he has many times before, that he is acting as a private citizen in opposing the block’s development. He said he cannot participate during council meetings when the block is the topic, nor can he try to lobby council members in his role as the mayor. But he says that as an individual, he can speak to those very same council members, as well as in public venues and on his “Hollister Mayor-Ignacio Velazquez” Facebook page. While he admits he is trying to change the city council’s vote, he does not agree that he is walking a nearly invisible line between being a public representative and a private citizen. The fact that he is trying to force the other four council members to change their votes, yet he cannot vote himself, is not a contradiction or conflict of interest, he claims.

“I’m absolutely on firm legal ground,” Velazquez insisted. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t sure.”

He said a number of times that “they” tried to stop him. When asked who “they” were, he replied that there were three attempts to keep him silent through accusations of a conflict of interest filed with a state agency. He would only say “they” were “fellow council members and others.” He said the agency would not tell him who filed the complaints until the case was closed, and after he made a request to reveal their names through the Freedom of Information Act.  

Velazquez said he has been directly approached in an attempt to silence him, but would not identify  who those individuals were, but then referred to the council.

“What I don’t want this to be about is me and the city council,” he maintained. “I made it clear to all of them that I’m speaking as an individual. I respect what they’re doing and ask that they respect my rights, and let’s go through the process.”

The mayor said he believes the majority of downtown businesses favor keeping the site as open space. Gordon Machado, however, who is both a business owner and still active in managing and marketing the image of downtown Hollister, disagreed.

Machado said from the very beginning that once the land was cleared of debris from the 1989 earthquake, the intent was to re-build businesses there. He said it is unfortunate that the land has remained empty for so long due to economic downturns and failed proposals.

“I’m excited that we have something that’s firm and well presented,” he said. “From the day of the earthquake, I’ve been involved with the 400 Block. Why all of a sudden is it so important that it wasn’t for 28 years?”  

Avera said the current status of the 400 Block is that the city does still own it, but on June 5 it entered into a development and disposition agreement that requires the developer to obtain Planning Commission approval for the plans and financing before the project can move forward. He added that he does not believe the council’s decision is open to a referendum and that the petition itself may not hold up due to its language.

“The language that’s on a petition has to come from the city attorney,” he said. “I believe all the energy he’s expended is probably all for naught because he never got official language from the city attorney to have people sign. You can’t just get a bunch of signatures on a piece of paper that says ‘save the 400 Block.’”

Velazquez said on July 5 that he did go through the proper channels to develop the proper wording for the petition, but city staff did what he expected and “dragged their feet,” taking almost a week to get back to him. As a result, he said, he went to his own lawyers to have the petition drawn up, claiming he had to because “they” were trying to slow things down.

Avera said that if the mayor insists on going through the motions that he does so appropriately.

“I don’t need him going on Facebook and saying, ‘Oh, the city did it to me again,’” Avera said. “About the referendum, I’ve talked to a few attorneys and one says it is (subject to a referendum), and one says it isn’t. It’s uncharted territory. One person might say it’s a development agreement, which is subject to a referendum, but in this particular case, because it’s implementing a deal we have with the State of California, I don’t think it is.”

Avera maintained that state law mandated the city had to sell the property, but Velazquez continued to say that is not true.

“I think he is misinformed,” Avera said. “Or, he’s hearing what he wants to hear.”

Avera said that in order to clarify things, the city is attempting to get the State Department of Finance and the State Attorney General’s office to write an opinion letter.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the Attorney General’s office whether or not this is subject to a referendum,” he said. “The State Department of Finance wants its money. We also have to consider the other taxing agencies who share in the property tax dollars and agreed that it could be used as open space, but it has to be developed. They’re counting on those tax dollars on perhaps a $10 million building, which would be shared every year by all the other agencies. That’s what they rely on to conduct their businesses. It’s not just the city that’s involved. It’s all the taxing agencies, and the biggest one is the State of California.”

Avera said the state is not asking the city to “have a fire sale and be done with it.” He said early on after the elimination of redevelopment agencies that the state did just that, telling cities and counties to get rid of certain properties.

“It was nothing else except about money,” he said. “In 2012, though, prices were so depressed coming out of the recession land wasn’t worth much. They said they didn’t want cities and counties to just dump the properties, but to try to get the most money and best use out of them.”

For those who would like to find out more information about the 400 Block, Councilman Jim Gillio is inviting the public to come to City Hall on Friday, July 7, at 6 p.m. when city staff and RDA/successor agency representatives will make a presentation about the property. 

See the attached Q-and-A document about the 400 Block project, below.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: johnchadwell@benitolink.com.