FPPC rejects councilman’s 400 block complaint against mayor

Artists drew on a chalkboard outside The Vault building next to the 400 block of San Benito Street grassy plot encouraging people to support the cause to prevent development there.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission has ruled against a Hollister councilman’s complaint about the mayor—and allegations of a conflict—regarding the city’s consideration to sell the 400 block of San Benito Street for development.
Hollister City Councilman Ray Friend filed a complaint against Mayor Ignacio Velazquez asking the FPPC to investigate whether he had a conflict of interest by speaking out on the possible sale of the cornerstone downtown lot. Velazquez has recused himself from all decisions regarding the city’s potential disposal of the property, but has been vocal on social media and elsewhere in his opposition of a development deal there.
Friend filed the complaint by email May 6, and a response from the FPPC noted that fellow Councilwoman Mickie Luna had signed on as a witness to report the mayor’s suspected impropriety.
A letter signed May 11 responding to Friend’s complaint, with a copy sent to the mayor as well, concluded that Velazquez’s communications “do not fall under the Political Reform Act’s conflict of interest prohibitions” and that the FPPC would not pursue the matter further. The FPPC is the state agency that addresses and enforces allegations of legal violations by public officials throughout California.
In his FPPC complaint, Friend asked for an investigation while noting he’s a council member here. He explained that the city is considering whether to support a condominium development, along with a new Community Foundation for San Benito County headquarters, on the grassy plot at Fourth and San Benito streets. Friend in the email went on to point out how Velazquez owns The Vault building that neighbors the 400 block property in question.
Friend wrote to the state in his complaint that before the vote, Velazquez went on his Facebook page, announced his opposition to the project and asked the public to sign his survey against it.
“the (sic) night of the vote he recluse (sic) himself from the discussion and went into the lobby of the city hall to talk to his people and guide them on the subject.”
Friend’s complaint went on to relay that Velazquez again went on Facebook and email after the council’s 4-0 decision to encourage a ballot initiative to reverse the vote.
“I think he has a conflict of interest on this and has used is (sic) influence as mayor for is (sic) on (sic) personal gain,” Friend wrote the FPPC.
Velazquez reacted to the FPPC ruling after receiving a copy of it May 19.
“I believe the public has a right to speak, as I do,” he told the Free Lance. “I feel if something is so wrong, I’m going to speak out against you.”
Friend when reached Monday reiterated his stance, calling the mayor’s actions a “chicken (expletive) little game.” Friend mentioned how the city manager and city attorney had told him to leave the meeting, and that Velazquez went in the city hall lobby to coordinate with opponents.
“He has nothing to say about it,” Friend said, calling the mayor’s involvement a “breech of ethics.”
Regarding the FPPC conclusion, Friend called it “typical” because the state doesn’t “want to get involved.”
Council members, without Velazquez, voted 4-0 on May 2 to move forward on exclusive negotiations with Del Curto Brothers Group on a possible sale that could lead to the condo and nonprofit development. It came after a wave of opposition mounted against the project, with opponents arguing in favor of keeping the space open to the public.
The state is requiring that the City of Hollister and more than 400 other municipalities dispose of remaining assets, like the 400 block of San Benito Street, owned by former redevelopment agencies that are now defunct.
Some city officials have argued that the state is requiring a mixed-use development at the site, because that’s what Hollister council members previously designated would go there in a long-range plan for former RDA assets, but Velazquez has remained insistent that it’s not too late to reconsider it.
Friend countered Monday that Velazquez previously OK’d the long-range plan for the RDA assets and that he didn’t believe the city can go back on that intended direction. Friend said if a public square was feasible, and there was financial backing for it, he would lean toward support for such a project.
Community Foundation Executive Director Gary Byrne has not responded to questions emailed April 30 from the Free Lance regarding the 400 block consideration.
Community Foundation Digital Marketing Specialist Raul Ceja also did not respond to queries as to why the nonprofit organization last week sent a press release promoting a council approval of the Philanthropic Center—when city officials merely OK’d exclusive negotiations on the lot, not a sale or any specific projects.
Developer documents included in the report prepared before the May 2 decision acknowledge a donor is putting up $900,000 toward the foundation’s Philanthropic Center. That developer is Randy Wolf, who has not responded to interview requests from the newspaper.

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