It's 7:27 a.m. and the locked front doors of San Luis Obispo's City Hall are glowing in the morning sunlight. Two local citizens--including this reporter--are waiting to get inside. Behind the doors, an influential city advisory group is gathering to make decisions that shape the city's downtown.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MEETING TIME : The Downtown Association's board of directors meets at City Hall in San Luis Obispo on the second Tuesday of the month at 7:30 a.m.
# The 7:30 a.m. meeting of the Downtown Association's board of directors is technically open to the public--in spite of the locked doors. The agenda is posted outside for all to see. As a city agency, the group is subject to California's open meeting requirement known as the Brown Act, which guarantees the public's right to attend and participate in its meetings.
In a few months, though, the Downtown Association plans to sever its ties to the city, throw away the office copy of the Brown Act, and strike out on its own. The City Council has already tentatively approved the change. If it becomes official--a final decision is expected in April--the association's directors will have the power to make their own decisions about whether to meet behind open--or closed--doors.
The group oversees the successful Thursday night Farmers' Market and the popular Concerts in the Plaza series, brings Santa's House to Mission Plaza, and organizes the annual holiday parade, among other prominent downtown events. But who are these decision makers? And what do they decide? New Times set out to find some answers while the doors are still open.
But first we have to get inside City Hall. Two Criterium bike race supporters who show up to speak at the meeting have learned the obscure entry point, leading the way in through the basement, then up the stairs and down the hallway to the meeting.
Sipping coffee and munching maple bars, the directors take their seats around the table. There's downtown developer Tom Copeland, three real estate agents, husband-and-wife owners of a hair salon, and a few other business owners. On the back of their tabletop nametags is a reminder of their mission statement: "The San Luis Obispo Downtown Association is a partnership of members working through programs and services for the economic, social, cultural, and economic vitality and beautification of downtown."
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- WHEEL DREAMS : Representatives of the Criterium bike race (Shaba Mohseni is pictured) faced disappointment when the Downtown Association directors voted not to write the event a letter of support, citing street closures that restrict access to businesses.
# The Criterium representatives are here for the second time, asking for a letter of support for next year's bike race event, set for July 5 and 6. Some Downtown Association directors are less than enthusiastic about closing downtown streets to car traffic during the event.
"Closing the streets closes downtown," says Copeland, to a few nods of agreement, while Sanctuary Tobacco Shop owner Doug Shaw worries aloud about the impacts on his business if his customers can't park out front.
The "no" votes outweigh the few "yes" votes, and the dejected Criterium organizers depart.
Since 1975, the Downtown Association--formerly known as the Business Improvement Association--has worked to promote downtown businesses.
More than 650 businesses in the downtown core pay double business license fees, with the extra money--$164,000 this year--helping to fund the organization. Its half-million-dollar budget is augmented by profits from the concert series and Farmers' Market, as well as other fundraisers, such as Santa's House.
Administrator Deborah Cash's $75,000 annual salary is paid for by the association, under contract with the city. The city covers the costs of all the accounting and legal services required. As a city advisory body, the association's financial records, meeting minutes, and other documents are considered public records and are open for inspection. There's even an official form to request these documents.
A check of the records at the Downtown Association's Garden Street office shows that various documents were requested earlier this year by attorneys for farmer/developer Ernie Dalidio, who is suing the association for allegedly using public funds for lobbying on a ballot measure.
The city is paying the group's legal bills. Christine Dietrick of the city attorney's office provided an update on the litigation at the early morning meeting, telling directors that a court hearing is set for Jan. 14.
It could be the last time the association is criticized for suspected lobbying. Its upcoming new structure as a 501(c)6 nonprofit organization--separate from the city--will allow "unlimited lobbying," the City Council was told Oct. 2 by the association's Berkeley-based consultant Jeffrey Eichenfield. Another benefit, Eichenfield noted in a PowerPoint presentation, is "tax-deductible contributions."
An examination of the association's recent documents provides some indication of what they might want to lobby for. Alongside their new goal to "advocate for development," the newly adopted Downtown Strategic Business Plan seems to reflect more of a pro-development stance than the original version from 2001.
The earlier plan, prepared with the help of the National Historic
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- OPEN DOORS : "There's nothing we discuss that we don't want people to know about," said Deborah Cash, the Downtown Association's administrator.
Cash maintains that the change is simply "semantics." Protecting historic character, she said, gives developers "a broader brush" than a goal of preserving historic buildings.
"You can't save 'em all. You have to pick the ones that are important," Cash added.
"Encourage housing and hotel developments downtown" is another new goal for 2007, along with a new strategy that calls for support of "improvements that will appeal to overnight visitors and hotel developers."
Minutes on file at the association's office show that downtown hotel developer Copeland played an important role in the changes. He co-chairs the economic committee that was responsible for the new plan, and made the motion to approve the pro-development changes. He or his representatives also pushed for greater flexibility in downtown height regulations, while minutes show that co-chair Alex Gough of Adobe Realty abstained from voting on the issue "because he is directly affected"--presumably a reference to the fact that the multi-story Chinatown project would tower over his Chorro Street office building.
The group ultimately supported loosening the requirements for developers wanting to build taller buildings downtown, but the different responses of the two co-chairmen on the development and height issues--one abstaining and the other making a motion--illustrate the confusion surrounding the Downtown Association's status as a city advisory body and the rules that govern its board members' actions.
It's clear, however, that administrator Cash has rules to follow. Her employment contract with the city states that she "shall comply with all local and state requirements regarding conflicts-of-interest."
Cash said in an interview that she doesn't see any conflicts on the part of Downtown Association directors, whether they're real estate agents, developers, or mom-and-pop business owners.
"Our board members are sophisticated enough to know that they serve the entire membership. Everyone [in the association] is eligible to run. We've had four jewelers on the board at one time before," she noted.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- BIG NAMES : The Downtown Association is made up of local business owners, including developer Tom Copeland.
# In addition to pushing for hotel development and new housing downtown, the group is also advocating for construction of a new multi-million-dollar parking building on Nipomo and Palm. It's calling for surface parking lots to be put to "better and higher use," such as commercial development. Other goals include promoting cleanliness and safety downtown.
One issue the Downtown Association won't be tackling on behalf of its members is the increasing rents for downtown business space.
"There's nothing the Downtown Association can do to stop the marketplace--not the Marketplace development," she clarified, referencing Dalidio's original name for his proposed shopping center.
"The seismic retrofit is also driving rents up. It has to pencil out for the property owners. That's why a lot of property is changing hands. It will level out, and the moms-and-pops will figure out a way to stay downtown. They're not being run out of town," said Cash, adding that success relies on having a business plan.
The City Council seems willing to support the decisions of the Downtown Association. On the height issue, for example, the council overturned the recommendations of its Planning Commission and instead supported the Downtown Association's recommendation for loosening development requirements.
When the association's board of directors attended a City Council meeting last month, councilmembers agreed to their last-minute request to move their item up on the agenda by an hour.
The idea of breaking away from the city to form an autonomous organization for the Downtown Association has "been fomenting a long time," Cash said.
"It's been confusing over the years. Over and over this comes up. 'Are we or aren't we' [a city agency]? It became more important to have that defined," she said, adding that the timing of the change, in conjunction with the Dalidio lawsuit, is "coincidental."
"We've reached a maturity level where 'loosey-goosey' just doesn't work," Cash said.
Without access to city coffers, the association will have to raise more of its own revenue. Its business-owning members will likely be tapped for higher fees--the first increase since 1975.
Around 200 downtown business owners, one-third of the total membership, pay $25 a year for the association, the minimum currently required. It's up to the city to collect the payments, according to Cash, who said she doesn't know how much each business pays or whether they're paid up.
"That's all private tax information," she stated.
Even once it's independent from the city, the Downtown Association will still rely on city officials to collect the fees.
"We'd contract with the city to do that. A private agency can't collect tax," Cash said.
It will also be up to the City Council to approve any fee hike, she said.
Records show that a survey of downtown businesses conducted by the Downtown Association found that a majority of those who responded don't want to see their fees increase.
But Cash thinks they just need education about the value of the Downtown Association and its hardworking staff.
"It's a matter of financial life. You have to be realistic. The base rate [of $25] has never increased even once since 1975. If we had [consumer price index] increases built in, they'd probably be paying $75 by now," she said. "I'm hoping it won't be an issue once I get out and talk to them, especially when we give them an overview of what they get."
As a self-governing nonprofit organization, the Downtown Association would no longer be subsidized by the city for its legal and accounting services.
"We'll have to provide for ourselves. We'll be on our own," Cash said.
The group has already raised the fees it charges to vendors at Farmers' Market, and has opened the Thursday night event to non-downtown businesses to increase the cash flow.
Can music fans at next summer's Concerts in the Plaza expect to pay $6 for a glass of beer? Cash said she doesn't know.
"We serve the best beers. We're not a drunk fest. Keeping it a little on the high side is not a bad idea. The brand of our event is that everything is really first class," she said.
Once the change to an independent nonprofit agency is finalized, as is expected on July 1 next year, "The public won't notice a thing," Cash said. "All of our programs will still be ongoing. All of us will be sitting at our desks. But we won't be an advisory body, and we won't be subject to the Brown Act."
Under the new structure, the Downtown Association's administrative decisions would no longer be able to be appealed to the City Council.
And would the meetings of the board of directors and the various committees be open to the public?
"Probably not," Cash said during an initial interview. "Our meetings typically aren't that riveting. People don't like to get up that early."
But the following day, after talking with the city attorney, she said, "We haven't determined what we'll do yet. We expect our meetings will remain open. As we formulate our policies and procedures--and our new contract with the city--it will become clear."
A check of the minutes of the meetings of the last couple of years indicates little or no public involvement. "No public comment at this time" appears on most of the minutes. Just one comment from the public is recorded: local activist Pete Evans, who gave a presentation about wasted energy when air-conditioned business doors are left open. Evans was backed up by a letter from the mayor in his request that businesses close their doors.
It remains to be seen whether a newly structured Downtown Association would keep its own doors open in the absence of any requirement to do so. As Cash pointed out, "We're so not there yet. This is Month One of a long process.
"The key thing is we don't want to put out the message that people won't be able to attend," she concluded. "There's nothing we discuss that we don't want people to know about."
New Times contributor Kathy Johnston may be reached at email@example.com.