City leaders certified the petition to reconsider development of the vacant 400 block of San Benito Street on Monday. No decision was made on whether to take the issue to Hollister voters, leaving the future of the city-owned parcel in limbo.
“I think that’s disappointing,” said Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, who led the petition drive and recused himself from all council actions and discussions on the 400 block because he owns the neighboring Vault. “The attitude is ‘yes, they got the signatures, but we’re going to find a way to void this whole referendum.’ I don’t think the voters will be happy about that. I think [the council] needs to listen to the voters and go from there, rather than try to cancel them out.”
Because the petition reached its signature goal, the city council could have decided to rescind their previous plan to sell the parcel. Alternatively, they could have taken steps to hold an election.
The council did neither. Instead they chose to wait until they received an opinion from the state attorney general on whether the mayor’s petition was even valid. The city has, so far, been waiting for nearly two months.
“There’s an issue as to whether the referendum in this particular instance addresses a legislative act as opposed to an administrative act,” said city attorney Soren Diaz. “We anticipate receiving an opinion, a formal opinion which is citable in court, from the attorney general’s office within the next 30 days. Hopefully.”
Said councilwoman Mickie Luna: “That’s the top cop in California. No matter what we do in San Benito County or the City of Hollister, if the attorney general says this is the way it’s going to go, that’s the way it’s going to go.”
The council decided to take the issue up again at their meeting in October.
Bob Tiffany, owner of Tiffany Motor Company and a board director at the Community Foundation for San Benito County, which currently has an agreement with the city to purchase the vacant downtown plot for its new offices, said: “After a very long wait, we have an outstanding project built by local builders that will both revitalize and help those with the greatest need in our community. In any other city this project would be fully embraced.”
The nonprofit organization and the Del Curto Brothers Group, a developer behind a block of townhomes near the San Benito Foods cannery in downtown Hollister, entered into an agreement to purchase the 400 block parcel for $390,000.
Next to the foundation’s new offices, the developers would build shopfronts and condominiums.
Because Velazquez’s petition garnered 1,660 signatures, sixty more than was required to force the council to revisit its decision to sell, that vision is on shaky ground.
Council members had mixed feelings about the 400 block petition.
Councilman Ray Friend called it illegal and voted down every action except its certification.
“It was spearheaded by somebody who has to recuse himself because he has a conflict of interest both financially and he lives close to it,” Friend said.
If the council does not withdraw its resolution to sell the parcel to the two parties, the city must call for a referendum and let the voters decide at either the next regular municipal election in November 2018 or hold a special election as required by California elections code.
Calling for an election is not cheap. If the council decides to take the issue to city voters, staff recommended doing so at next year’s general election when the cost would be least at $25,000 to $30,000. A special election could cost the city between $40,000 to $50,000 if held during the statewide primary on June 5 and more than $200,000 if held on April 10, both of next year.
To date, the city has already spent $3,168.79 verifying the petition signatures through the San Benito County Registrar of Voters.
An election would be paid with money from the city’s general fund reserves, which stands at about $5 million, according to city manager Bill Avera.
Councilman Jim Gillio wanted to know how rescinding the sale agreement would impact city partners who stand to benefit from the land purchase.
“This is obviously something that hasn’t been litigated yet,” Gillio said. “I think we’re going to end up in court over this if we decide not to give those agencies those property tax dollars. I don’t know how that’s going to shake out.”
Gillio, however, leaned towards handing the decision to Hollister voters.
“I think that there’s a valid project down there, I know there’s a lot of support in the community for this. I think that we ought to consider pushing this out to an election,” he said. “I understand the cost is great, $25,000 to $30,000 is nothing to sneeze at. That’s a ton of money. But because of the situation we’re in, that’s the route I think we ought to go.”
Resident Rolan Resendiz, during public comment, suggested the city bypass a costly election and take back the resolution to sell the parcel to the Del Curto Brothers and Community Foundation.
“You can listen to the constituents, to the people that signed that petition, and you can rescind the decision,” said Resendiz. “That’s why those processes are in place and that allows for everyday citizens like myself to take part in this type of government agency. Listen to the people’s voices, listen to the action taken.”
Vice mayor Karson Klauer thanked everyone involved in the process, including those who signed the 400 block petition.
“This is a grand opportunity to deal with the process and figure it out as a community,” said Klauer. “Thirty thousand dollars is a lot, but I think it’s not a lot when it comes to hopefully instilling some trust back into the system.”