Arroyo Grande mayor faces criticism for letter to FTC



Friction between the Mayor of Arroyo Grande and a City Council member has once again spilled out into the open.

An email from Mayor Pro-Tem Barbara Harmon raised concerns after Mayor Jim Hill sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission regarding a vacant Haggen grocery store location in the city without notifying the council. In her email, Harmon expressed disappointment that Hill sent the letter without the council’s knowledge.

“It would be helpful to know why you did not inform the council, even with a courtesy notification, that you would be contacting the Federal Trade Commission on the City’s behalf,” Harmon wrote. “You and I made a commitment to promote transparency in our city government, yet your actions are contrary to this commitment.”

Hill’s letter, sent to an FTC official in February, expressed concerns that the location’s pre-Haggen tenant, Albertsons, was looking to re-acquire the store after the Washington-based Haggen went bankrupt. Hill argued that giving the location to Albertsons would violate a previous FTC order, and noted that a local company, Spencer’s Fresh Markets, was trying to lease the location.

In her email to Hill, Harmon wrote that Spencer’s was a well-known supporter of Hill’s campaign for mayor, and worried that the letter gave the appearance of favoritism.

“I’m concerned that the appearance of supporting one business over others could place the city in a position of an unfriendly business environment,” Harmon wrote. “A position opposite of what you and I have been striving to remedy.”

Speaking to New Times, Harmon said that she sent the email to Hill, and that it was not intended for public release. She characterized the email as a person-to-person communication between herself and mayor.

“I just wanted to know what he was thinking,” Harmon said.

Hill sent Harmon’s email and his response to New Times via Arroyo Grande resident and Spencer’s Fresh Market co-owner Beatrice Spencer. In his response, Hill admitted that Spencer’s supported his mayoral campaign, but characterized Harmon’s letter as an attack against him in an election year (Hill is up for reelection in 2016). He characterized his contact with the FTC as advocating for a competitive grocery store to set up shop in the vacant location.

“My disappointment and disbelief has been the total lack of economic development initiative and business recruitment and retention effort on the part of the city,” Hill wrote. “That is what has to change. I would encourage [Harmon] to try to become part of the solution.”

Harmon said that her email to Hill was not sent on behalf of the entire council.

“Does this mean that every time you question the mayor, it will end up in the press?” she asked.

This isn’t the first time Hill publically butted heads with some members of the council. Harmon and Councilmember Jim Guthrie both raised concerns in January when the city’s insurer warned that comments made by Hill and Councilmember Tim Brown about city staff could result in lawsuits. In the wake of the dust up, some members suggested hosting workshops on council communication, but no action was taken.

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