Hillcrest Business Association in election kerfuffleAround the City Thursday, September 26th, 2013
There are two classes of members in the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA): those who may pay dues, vote and run for office in the organization vs. those who may only pay dues and vote in the organization’s annual elections of officers and directors. The latter group may not run for office.
Mat Wahlstrom, general manager of Roberts Electric, a small, Hillcrest-based electrician-services company located and doing business in Hillcrest, found out he is an HBA member of the second class.
San Diego LGBT Weekly has confirmed that despite having been a dues-paying member in good standing for 14 years, neither he nor any of his colleagues at Roberts Electric are entitled to run for office at Hillcrest Business Association.
“It’s taxation without representation,” Wahlstrom told San Diego LGBT Weekly. “Taxation, because when you go to pay for your business tax certificate – your city business license, in fact – you don’t have a choice whether or not you want to pay the business improvement assessment which goes to fund the business improvement districts (BID).”
Wahlstrom believes he would be his own best representative on the HBA board of directors. But because he has to pay the BID assessment regardless of whether he remains a member of the association and cannot run for office, he says he is being taxed without the benefit of representation at HBA.
Nevertheless, the City of San Diego, whose interim mayor, Todd Gloria, also happens to be Wahlstrom’s and HBA’s representative on the City Council, says the HBA may be within its rights in excluding Roberts Electric from running for a seat on the HBA’s board of directors.
“The City recognizes that these non-profit associations are independent organizations who may have many interests beyond administering a BID,” Gloria’s office said in a written statement provided to LGBT Weekly. “The City has no specific requirements pertaining to the composition of the board and only seek that the businesses paying the BID assessment are fairly represented.”
That said, according to the interim mayor’s office, Wahlstrom should be allowed to make changes at the HBA if he feels he is not being properly represented.
“To the extent that businesses feel they are not represented, avenues must exist to change the organization’s rules,” the statement continues.
BIDs and the business improvement associations (BIAs) that service them emerged during the late twentieth century as quintessential public-private partnerships aimed at improving local economies by nurturing small business through civic events, street clean-ups and small capital-improvement projects at the neighborhood level. BIDs and the BIAs that administer them are partially funded by tax dollars.
“BIAs exist specifically to support and improve the businesses, business owners and to some degree the residents in a very well defined geographic area,” explained outgoing Hillcrest Business Association executive director, Benjamin Nichols. “For reasons that should be obvious we have bylaws that prevent those from outside the area from being elected to the board.”
What should be obvious according to Nichols is the potential for a company, contractor or other profit-making entity with no real ties to the neighborhood to take over Hillcrest Business Association’s board of directors for nefarious purposes, such as awarding lucrative contracts to itself.
But prior to new bylaws adopted by HBA late last year, a member who, for instance, operated a personal-organization company from her home office in Hillcrest, or a painting contractor who kept his truck and materials in his garage at his home in Hillcrest, or, an electrical contractor, such as Mat Wahlstrom with a home office and a UPS store mailbox both in Hillcrest could be a candidate for the HBA board as long as she or he was a member in good standing.
Wahlstrom believes that HBA’s bylaws were changed to prevent him from running for office after he brought a story to this publication in 2012 about how the HBA had awarded a substantial contract for canopy lighting on University Avenue to an Escondido-based electrical contractor. Local, HBA-member electricians had been effectively shut out of the bidding process for that contract. HBA ultimately rescinded that contract award.
“I think my bringing that story to light has a lot to do with why they don’t want me on the board this year,” Wahlstrom said.
Asked if the new policy was designed to single out Wahlstrom by preventing him from holding office at the HBA, Nichols scoffed at such a notion.
“That’s utterly ridiculous,” he said. “We value Mat as a member. If he only had an equipment yard or an office or some form of concrete presence in the community, he would be fully qualified and welcome to take a seat on the board as long as he had the votes to win.”
Still, Wahlstrom says having a home office inside HBA’s boundaries and a Hillcrest mailing address – not to mention, he says, hundreds of customers in Hillcrest – should be enough for any HBA member to run for a Hillcrest Business Association board seat.
“Taking someone’s dues for fourteen years, then saying they’re not qualified to serve is just not right.”
Yet, according to Wahlstrom, the new rules do allow anyone who simply owns a commercial property, regardless of whether that property is leased to a retail business or sits as a vacant lot, to run for a seat on the HBA board.
“Because they wrote in this exception, they’re not even living up to their own otherwise restrictive definition of ‘doing business in Hillcrest.”
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