Business / Economy

Mayor continues to use social media to solicit support against council’s decision to develop 400 block

The debate continues over Mayor Ignacio Velazquez' use of Facebook to address issues on which he recuses himself during city council meetings
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez left the chambers as the other council members discussed and voted on the development of the 400 block. Photos by John Chadwell
Councilman Jim Gillio declined to comment for this story, while Councilman Karson Klauer said the mayor plays politics differently than the rest of the council.

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez has yet again taken to Facebook to make his case in a very public way about the development of the 400 block, the grassy lot on the downtown corner of San Benito and Fourth streets, after recusing himself from commenting or voting on the matter during the May 5 Hollister City Council meeting. 

As he has done regarding marijuana and the housing boom, Velazquez again posted his disdain and encouraged residents to sign a “Control Our Growth” petition to put a measure on the 2018 ballot to reverse his council colleagues’ decision.

His June 7 post from his “Hollister Mayor-Ignacio Velazquez” Facebook account reads: “Unfortunately, on Monday night city council members sided with developers rather than the public to keep an open space for our community to enjoy and hold events in the Heart of Our Downtown. I’m as frustrated as all of you about the aggressive path to growth that we are currently taking. I don’t want this post to be about attacking council members, I want this post to be about all of you stepping up to have your voice heard. As an individual, I am passionate about saving our 400 Block and controlling growth, but I need your help by signing a petition to put this to a vote of the people. If you are willing to sign the petition, please respond with “I’m In” and fill out the form below.”

While on his way to a COG meeting June 8 in Sacramento to discuss roads, Velazquez said via cell phone to BenitoLink that he has the same rights of freedom of speech as any other citizen. 

“As an individual, I absolutely have the right to speak out against it,” he said of the 400 block development project. “This is a good example of the continuing effort to keep me quiet, which several individuals have tried multiple times to do.” 

While he wouldn’t name anyone in particular whom he claimed was trying to keep him quiet, he did say several members of the city council were among those who have “told me to shut my mouth.” 

Velazquez said that if he were able to speak his mind officially at the council meetings, his anger would have been obvious to everyone. He said he will continue to speak out as a private individual against issues that he deems not to be in the best interest of the community. 

“I think the residents of Hollister expect me to do what’s right, whether I’m doing it as the mayor or as an individual,” he said. 

When he previously recused himself at council meetings, it was typically because of his ownership of The Vault, which is adjacent to the 400 block plot. He said it was made clear to him in the past that he could vote on an issue, the rally in particular, but he would be limited as to how much money he could make from the event. So, in order to be able to vote on the rally, he chose not to open for business. He said that even though Roadshows Inc., the promoter of the rally, uses The Vault as its headquarters, he does not charge rent for its use. 

“It’s important to keep people coming to our community, so I’m willing to make zero dollars, and whether I own The Vault or not, my opinions remain the same,” he said. “If I put on my mayor’s hat, what we need to do is understand long-term consequences, and we’re very bad at that. So, I switch back to my individual hat and say ‘my kids are going to grow up here and what I want to see is a thriving community and not just a bunch of deals made for people to profit.’” 

He went on to say the 400 block development is a foolish move that came about “based on friendships.” 

Councilman Karson Klauer was hesitant to take a stand on the mayor’s use of social media to air his differences of opinion with other council members, and said he did not want to rebuke Velazquez in order to “lose another eight months like we did last year.” 

Klauer was referring to the strained relationships between council members that began with the same debate on the 400 block that continued for eight months, “because we couldn’t get along.” 

“It was pretty clear that there were some serious issues between the council and the mayor,” Klauer said. “It was a very vitriolic situation for a while for several council members. Not everybody has to like each other, but we’re here to work for the public, and that’s what I like to focus on.”

The issue Klauer has with Velazquez’s brand of politics is based on training that Klauer received during a new councilmembers and mayors class in Sacramento shortly after he was elected.

“One of the major themes is that it is very difficult for people to tell the difference between a person acting as a council member and acting as a private citizen,” he said. “Attorneys have told me that when you’re elected, you give up a lot of the rights that you have to speak on items as a private citizen.”

Klauer said the mayor’s latest foray into social media didn’t bother him as much this time as it did last year, simply because he’s gotten used to it. As for Velazquez criticizing his fellow council members on Facebook, Klauer said in the past few years since he entered politics he has learned that “people in Hollister play by different rules.” 

“I’m not going to go out and criticize my fellow council members,” he said. “I believe when a decision is made, whether you’re on the winning or losing side, you take the will of the council and you move on. I understand this is a controversial topic, and I don’t expect it to go away, but when I think about the rest of the council, who have all been on the losing side of issues, I haven’t seen the hubbub created by any other council member. He just plays the game differently than everybody else. There’s nothing wrong with that and I’ve come to terms with ‘it’s just politics.’” 

This is not the first time Mayor Velazquez’s motives have been questioned, though. In 2015, his apparent conflict of interest as the owner of The Vault while voting on the rally was brought to the attention of the Fair Political Practices Commission. But on Aug. 18, 2015, the commission officially closed the file on the matter. In its letter to the mayor, the commission’s legal division determine that “your business interest in The Vault would not cause a conflict of interest if you made decisions involving the motorcycle rally so long as The Vault did not realize an increase or decrease of $20,000 or more in the business’s assets or gross revenues for the year as a result of the rally.” 

Even though the commission found no fault in his actions, it indicated that the mayor should beware of any possibility of the appearance of future conflicts of interest in its warning: “Please be advised of the conflict of interest provisions of the Act in any future actions you may take as a government official. You should take particular care in decisions involving portions of the city near real property that you own.” 

One legal expert, who spoke on anonymity, said that when speaking as a private individual after the council vote, Velazquez would not be guilty of a conflict of interest. However, because he has done so continuously over a period of months, it might be determined that he has tried to influence the vote, and he could possibly find himself under investigation once again. 

While his fellow council members may or may not have issues with Velazquez’ Facebook tactics to possibly sway residents, some of those very same residents, or at least those who responded to his postings, would seem to support the mayor. Out of the 137 responses to his latest posting, just a handful supported development at the 400 block:

“Sorry but the empty lot needs to be developed. I love the mixed use concept, finally, of business and upstairs residential!! Yea, stop urban sprawl and redevelop what already exists!!” wrote Stacy McGrady. 

Roberta Sopka Daniel agreed: “I also think that the space should be developed, but I think it should be more of an event space. I also agree with stopping the urban sprawl.” 

And Matt Fruits responded: “I remember when there was a building there with a variety of businesses. A coffee shop, music store, Bill’s Bullpen, a bar, etc. Then the Loma Prieta earthquake in ’89 happened and shortly after it was all torn down. I’d really like to see something similar be rebuilt there. On the other hand, I really like the open grassy area that is now where people can meet, hang out, have events, etc.” 

Bill Mifsud, whose Bill’s Bullpen family business used to be located at the 400 block prior to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, added to the mayor’s post: “Too bad unfortunately saw it coming. The majority of the council is pro-growth. On growth issues they only know how to answer yes.”

Councilwoman Mickie Luna did not return calls before publication. Councilman Jim Gillio declined to give a comment on this topic, and Councilman Ray Friend was out of town and unavailable for comment.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]