Sale talk of 400 block stirs social grips

With voting conflict on 400 block, mayor uses online platforms

A day before Hollister council members sold the open 400 block of San Benito Street for development, Mayor Ignacio Velazquez issued a call to action against the sale on social media.

He announced that the following day, June 5, the city council would decide on the sale of the “only green open space” in downtown.

“I’m as frustrated as many of you about growth, but unless you are willing to help nothing will change,” Velazquez wrote.

In that June 5 meeting, council members unanimously approved selling the open space next to The Vault and Briggs Building. The proposed purchase price for the 400 block property is $390,000 and it’s based off a 2015 appraisal, according to city officials. Total estimated project costs are estimated at about $4.5 million.

In May 2016, the city council approved going forward in exclusive talks with Del Curto Brothers Group and the Community Foundation for San Benito County to sell the city’s property in the 400 block of San Benito Street for a multi-use development. The city owns the plot through the dissolution of the former Hollister Redevelopment Agency, which purchased the property following damage to structures on the lot during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez didn’t participate in the June 5 vote due to a financial conflict of interest as owner of The Vault.

But that didn’t stop Velazquez from sharing his feelings on social media.

Call to Action

On June 4, the day before the council approved the 400 block proposal, Velazquez posted a call to action in the Facebook group “Hollister Mayor Velazquez, Team Hollister.”

In the post, Velazquez asked residents to contact the other council members to ask them to save the 400 block for open space.

When Velazquez recused himself during last Monday’s vote, he left Vice Mayor Karson Klauer holding the gavel.

In an interview with the Free Lance, Klauer said he had no personal opinion on what Velazquez said online.

“It’s very difficult for people to see the difference between elected officials and someone acting as a private citizen and property owner,” Klauer said.

In a phone interview Monday, Velazquez said he’s “very opposed” to the 400 block proposal and that he was speaking as an individual.

“I always speak as an individual,” Velazquez said. “I always make that clear. I make that clear all the time. In this case, I think I do speak more as an individual. Because as an individual I was involved in planning for the future of downtown.”

Velazquez referred to his time as president of the Hollister Downtown Association in the early 2000s.

“I was part of the volunteer group that helped lay the sod on the 400 block,” he said. ““I can tell you exactly why I’m opposed,” he said. “I’ve spent 20 years working, trying to make downtown vibrant. The key has always been that we need an anchor that’s going to bring large volumes of people to downtown. If we don’t do this right, downtown will always be closed for business.”

The original proposal included four mixed-use buildings with commercial uses on the ground floors and 16 condominiums on the upper floors. At the June 5 meeting, council members were presented with a different layout and design concept featuring two buildings instead of four. One would be a two-story “philanthropic center” proposed by the Community Foundation with a $900,000 donation from private donors Randy and Rebecca Wolf. The other building would be mixed use with commercial on the ground floor and 14 to 22 condos split between a third and second floor.

Final design is pending site and architectural review by the planning commission.

“To go back to the idea of building a building that’s not going to bring any foot traffic, it’s one of the biggest mistakes we could be making as a community,” Velazquez said. “That’s why I’m opposed to it.”

Klauer said he thinks people will come around to the 400 block proposal.

“As people get more information and as the project continues to change and progress, I think some people will come around to it,” he said. “I don’t think everyone’s going to. I don’t expect that to happen. My hope is if people end up being okay with the project, that they attend the planning commission meetings and help the planning commission and developer mold it into something to be proud of.”

“I have a right to speak”

This isn’t the first time Velazquez has been outspoken on the 400 block project.

On May 6, 2016, Councilman Ray Friend filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission against Velazquez. The complaint asked the FPPC to investigate whether Velazquez had a conflict of interest by speaking out on the possible sale of the 400 block open space. Velazquez had recused himself from those decisions regarding the city’s potential sale of the property, but was vocal on social media and elsewhere in opposition of the sale.

A letter signed May 11, 2016 responding to Friend’s complaint 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. A copy was sent to the mayor as well.

“What I see happen constantly is people trying to quiet me, keep me from using my voice,” Velazquez said early this week. “It’s been made clear I have a right to speak. It’s been made clear through the (Fair Political Practices Commission). I live here, my family lives here and I want to see the best thing for it.”

Klauer said that he went to training for new councilmen back in Jan. 2015 when he was elected, which touched on the difficulty of separating between acting as an elected official and as a private citizen.

“Anything you say is likely to be looked at from your official capacity,” he said. “It’s difficult.”

Klauer that said most of the times he’s had to recuse himself it was because his personal residence was too close to a proposed development.

“A lot of the times when you have a conflict of interest, the decision being made could affect something you have a financial interest in,” Klauer said. “When the Saddlebrook subdivision was approved, the mayor and I recused ourselves because we lived about a block and a half from the subdivision.”

Klauer, a Realtor for Nino Real Estate, said he has no conflict of interest in the 400 block sale. He referred to Regulation 18701.1 of the California Code of Regulations, which reads:

“Possession of a real estate sales or brokerage license, or any other professional license, without regard to the official’s business activity or likely business activity, does not in itself make a material financial effect on the official’s economic interest reasonably foreseeable.”

Then there’s KNS Market Inc., which owns numerous downtown properties close to the 400 block of San Benito Street. Klauer said the company is run by his great aunt and cousins and that he has no financial interests in any of the businesses or property they own.

“I don’t have anything to do with representing them or any ownership of it,” Klauer said. “I know that company owns a number of buildings in town, but I don’t have anything to do with it financially.”

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