DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Under mounting pressure from the local City Council office, the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District backpedaled this week on its controversial decision to fire its longtime executive director.
On Tuesday, the BID voted to nullify its Sept. 15 decision to fire Russell Brown and replace him with Roberto Saldaña, a lawyer who formerly worked for Broadway property owner Joseph Hellen, a noted foe of 14th District City Councilman José Huizar.
The board also formed a search committee, which pledged to present three candidates to the full panel by Oct. 19. Brown remains the executive director, but has expressed a desire to leave as soon as possible, said board president Boris Mayzels. The board hopes to have a new director in place by Nov. 1, Mayzels said.
The board's decision to essentially hit the reset button comes as it takes fire from Huizar's office and a few BID members for potential violations of state open meetings laws. The decision to oust Brown and hire Saldaña was made in a special, closed session meeting. As a group that collects and spends tax dollars, the board is required to post notice of such sessions 24 hours before they happen. It's unclear whether such notice was ever posted.
Board member Fred Afari, who was not present for the closed session, also alleged last week that several board members had orchestrated a coup to fire Brown in multiple secret meetings before Sept. 15. Huizar representatives echoed concerns about unofficial meetings, which are prohibited by the state's Brown Act because they can be fertile ground for collusion.
The simmering dispute came to a boil on Friday, Sept. 23, in a meeting with board members, area stakeholders and council representatives that frequently devolved into shouting matches. Four days later, board members nullified the Sept. 15 vote to protect the panel from any lawsuits.
Although the board has halted the change, resolution still appears far off, mostly because Huizar's office staunchly opposes the hiring of Saldaña - legal or not.
At the Sept. 23 meeting, Jessica Wethington McLean, executive director of Huizar's Bringing Back Broadway initiative, read aloud from an article in the L.A. Weekly in which Saldaña said Huizar had "done nothing" on Broadway - evidence, she said, that Saldaña dismissed all the hard work property owners had undertaken to improve the street.
Wethington McLean urged the board to pick a director with a proven dedication to historic preservation and said that Huizar refuses to meet with Saldaña because they believe he was hired illegally. Asked whether Huizar would meet with Saldaña if he were properly hired, she declined to comment.
"We would... also hope that your candidate would be able to develop and maintain strong relationships with the council office," Wethington McLean said. "You can read into that whatever you like. It doesn't exist with some people. It exists with others and I would encourage you to consider that in whoever you choose."
Board members who voted for Saldaña said his previous comments, including questioning the funding mechanism for Huizar's proposed streetcar, were really the position of his boss. Hellen makes no attempt to shield his disapproval of Huizar: The Australia-based investor erected a billboard on Broadway supporting Huizar's recent failed City Council challenger, Rudy Martinez.
Still, members of the BID board, even those who voted to hire Saldaña, may be reconsidering.
"All these people on the board have a lot of money invested into their projects and they don't want any impediments to their further development," said Mayzels. "So folks are concerned and they don't want to have any other obstacles other than things that already exist. When Huizar's office says something, definitely folks pay attention."
Developer and property owner Tom Gilmore, who is not a board member, said the council office's involvement amounts to an "inappropriate intervention." He urged the board not to let it influence their choice of a director.
"If all of the legal mumbo jumbo here to set this up for the next meeting is just duck and cover to create a new vote to undo what you did, you have lost your soul," Gilmore said. "The politics here are [expletive], I assure you.... No one will support a board that can't make a real decision. I certainly won't."
The BID, which recently failed in an attempt to expand its borders to add a few residential properties, expires in December 2013. Part of the board's motivation to hire a new executive director was to ensure a successful campaign for renewal.
The group is slated to meet on Oct. 19, at which point the search committee plans to present at least three candidates for the executive director position. Mayzels said Saldaña will likely be among them.
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at email@example.com.
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