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Council Refuses To Sign PBID Petition
LA MESA -- In a tortuous meeting with more twists and turns than the road to Julian, the City Council refused to sign the Property Based Improvement District petition but voted 3 to 1 to put a July deadline on the whole issue.
The actions, which followed a majority of speakers asking council members to show leadership and sign the petition, left much of the downtown Village leadership confused and bewildered.
"Frankly I am very disappointed," said Lynn McRea, the accountant who led the PBID Steering Committee. "Basically we were asked by the council to pursue this, we worked for two years and now where is their leadership?"
Other committee members complained the council was rolling over to a vocal minority.
"You saw it,'' said local business owner Jim Wieboldt. "They heard from one business leader after another saying this was good for a community and instead they backed a bankrupt book store owner and a 2 percent margin chocolate bar salesman.''
Mayor Art Madrid, who by any analysis had one of the worst political nights of his 20-year-mayoralty, said at meeting's end that he believes the PBID proposal is dead.
"They killed it tonight,'' Madrid said. "They had people out here who spent two years working for us on this thing, spending thousands of their own dollars and when they asked for our support, we told them no.''
Madrid said he had personally talked to a number of property owners who were waiting for the City Council to commit to the plan before lending their support and he believes they will remain on the sidelines after the council's decision Tuesday night.
"They were waiting to see what we'd do and we didn't do anything,'' Madrid said.
Council member Ernie Ewin said he was less certain than Madrid of the PBID's demise. Ewin opposed signing the petition "at this time'' but thought members of McRea's Steering Committee might be able to modify the plan, perhaps lower the overall cost and bring it back to win his vote.
"I'm not saying any absolute that I'd support it then,'' Ewin said, "but that's what I was looking for. Some movement.''
Ewin said he has always been concerned about a process in which a small number of large property owners can impose fees on a part of a city, but he hoped that overwhelming support for a PBID would overcome these concerns. However, the PBID effort didn't race through the petition phase and it appeared without the city's support, it might founder.
"I had hoped there would have been a better response from the property owners without having the city force the issue with its vote,'' Ewin said. "That hasn't happened yet.''
Ewin and Councilman Dave Allan voted against Madrid's effort to sign the petition. Madrid won the support of Ruth Sterling. That left council member Mark Arapostathis as the deciding vote, but he had recused himself temporarily because of a possible conflict of interest.
Arapostathis, who is also an employee of the La Mesa Spring Valley School District, said concerns ostensibly by local residents had forced him to seek a legal opinion from state officials of whether his employment represented a conflict on this issue. School officials have spoken against using school funds to pay a PBID assessments on its district offices.
The effort to establish a Property Based Improvement District was based on similar efforts that have been used to lead the revival of Adams Avenue, Little Italy, the Gaslamp District and another dozen commercial districts in San Diego County. If a majority of property owners representing more than 50 percent of the value of an area agree, their properties are assessed to raise money to improve services, security and marketing.
Efforts to achieve something similar for La Mesa's iconic downtown Village, however, have struggled for reasons that can seem driven as much by personalities as politics. While a small, but vocal number of Village merchants opposed the effort because of the added costs to their operation, many more, including the Merchant's Association leadership, had supported the PBID.
Speaker after speaker at Tuesday night's meeting extolled the need for better, more consistent leadership among Village property owners and pointed to the success of PBIDs in surrounding communities. Many were property owners and business operators who were willing to pay the assessments.
Bill Jaynes, a business owner, and Deena While, whose bookstore Readers Inc. is closing, spoke against the PBID as they have at many meetings. They were also joined by local attorney Scott McMillan.
But if the proponents and opponents in the audience were clear, the council members' own positions were harder to decipher. After all, this council, at the request of merchants, had voted to spend the money to hire the consultant who led the PBID process. It also had consistently in its policies and practices raised questions about the commitment and professionalism of the Merchants Association in handling Village development issues.
But politics can be as fluid as mercury and this council, particularly, has been undergoing changes lately.
Madrid managed to win re-election two years ago, but there has been much speculation about whether he would run again or whether he could maintain his hegemony in local politics as he moved toward his 80s. Allan, a pretty consistent Madrid ally in recent years, has announced he would not seek re-election in November and as Ewin and Arapostathis position themselves for a possible mayoral run, they have been more than willing to part ways with the mayor.
It was telling that after spanking the mayor with the PBID vote, Ewin, Arapostathis and Allan handed the mayor two other defeats in rapid succession. The trio refused a Madrid effort to further restrict parking fund money and then agreed to spend some of that parking money to power wash the Village streets -- a request Madrid had consistently opposed as a divergence from council policy for the use of that money.
Amid these plate tectonics of local politics, it is possible that the facts of the subjects at hand can be lost -- or at least evaluated on a different scale. At this point, only one thing is clear. The council voted 3-1 to give the PBID Steering Committee until the second meeting in July to produce enough signed petitions to convince Ewin, Allan and perhaps Arapostathis they should join Madrid and Sterling in supporting an effort the council voted to fund years ago.
The future of La Mesa's downtown Village may or may not hang in the balance, but those who were supporting Tuesday said without a PBID you can expect the continued decline of retail and the increased conversion of Village stores into real estate, legal and accounting offices.