By Jonathan Goetz
Photo: Rich Riel announced settlement in lawsuit over violations of open government laws by Downtown El Cajon Business Partners
January 25, 2023 (El Cajon) – Downtown El Cajon Business Partner is settling a lawsuit over Brown Act violations, according to testimony presented at Tuesday’s El Cajon City Council meeting. But complaints remain over no-bid contracts for downtown events. The City Council also heard plans to bring back Foodie Fest during the America on Main festival, expand a tiny homes program for the homeless, and build a veterans’ memorial.
PBID report and controversies
In 2011, the City approved a partnership with the Downtown El Cajon Business Partners, a planned business improvement district (PBID) governed by a board of directors. The city provides public funds overseen by the business group for events such as car shows and concerts, as well as keeping the downtown area clean.
Kathy Zeman, chief financial officer for the PBID, presented the annual report. “One of our biggest achievements was getting a permanent stage built last year,” she said, adding that a night security patrol is helping to keep private property clear. Car shows will start April 12 and concerts on the first Friday in May, she said, then asked Council to accept the report.
But Rich Riel urged Council to reject the report. A Chamber member and previous subcontractor for music at downtown events, he complained that the PBID has had the same leadership for years, no term limits for its board of directors, and is awarding no-bid contracts. “They use it as a piggy bank and reward their friends,” he said.
Riel also announced a victory in court against the PBID group. Riel had accused the Downtown El Cajon Business Partners of violating the Brown Act by excluding public input at meetings for the past 10 years. Since the group takes taxpayer money from the city, it is required to follow state open government laws. Riel told Council that after local heavyweight attorney Cory Briggs filed a lawsuit, “We are in the process of settling. They’ve acknowledged they have violated the Brown Act and will assure that they will no longer violate it,” he said, calling this “a small victory for the people.”
He said that during a deposition in the lawsuit, Zeman acknowledged she had not read the financial statements. "The deposition itself is an embarrassment," he said. As for the board, he stated, “Because they're in there, they never change," Riel wants term limits for board members on the PBID and open bids. “The Chamber would be a much better fit for running the PBID,” he contended.
Mayor Bill Wells acknowledged he has no jurisdiction to enforce proposed Brown Act violations, but agrees that the PBID is subject to the open meeting laws. "I don't want to give the impression we're ignoring something but we just don't have the authority to enforce any of this," said the Mayor.
City Manager Graham Mitchell told Council that the city has put out a request for proposal (RFP) and received two responses and that one firm is working on an analysis of the PBID, which should be available for Council to review in a couple of months.
Councilman Phil Ortiz asked if others had voiced complaints over the PBID and Riel said some Chaldeans have come to him with concerns.
Councilman Steve Goble motioned to receive the PBID report, without voting to approve it since he said he has concerns. The motion passed 4-0, with Councilman Gary Kendrick absent.
Foodie Fest to return – during America on Main Street
On a more positive note, the Council heard a staff report about America on Main Street, which will be held Saturday May 20 from 3 p.m. to 8 pm. This year it will have a patriotic theme since it coincides with Armed Forces Day.
As always, rides and activities will be free, with charges only for food and drinks.
New this year will be inclusion of Foodie Fest, which was previously held separately from America on Main. This year, it will be held as an optional paid part of America on Main from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. A maximum of 800 tickets will be sold.
America on Main will include multiple entertainers, large-scale amusement rides such as potentially a giant slide and Ferris wheel, face panging, and more. There will also be food sold along Main Street separate from Foodie Fest, for those who aren’t able to afford admission.
Councilman Ortiz said, “Naturalization is my favorite part,’ referencing a ceremony at the event where new citizens are sworn in. Councilmember Michelle Metschel asked if there will be a cooking contest again, promising to bring “cowboy cookies.”
Veterans memorial moves forward
In other business, the Council voted 4-0 to accept the Veterans Memorial report and keep it near the public safety building. Organizers vision is for the memorial to look like “Venice.”
Councilman Goble asked that the memorial be "serene, sobering and respectful," like a cemetery, he added.
More tiny homes for the homeless
El Cajon’s housing manager gave a report on housing for the homeless and was directed by Councilman Goble to look into the model created by Meridian Baptist Church, which has a half dozen tiny homes (photo, left). Goble wants El Cajon and the County of San Diego to commit to funding more tiny homes and vouchers, enabling other properties to earn $1,000 a month per cabin leased on their land. He estimates 1,000 of these vouchers would cost the County $12 million a year.
"Imagine if the County offered $1,000 a month per cabin to potential landlords. You'd have a LOT more places say they'd help," says Goble.
Pension liability decreases
The City's unfunded portion of the pension liability significantly decreased over the last two years, thanks to well performing funds that only lost 6.3% over their value in the recent market drop, along with a different formula given by CALPERS. Estimates vary from 73% to 96% of the obligation is held in asset, well on the high range of the last decade.
Hail to the Chief – and the wellness dog helping first responders
Heartland Fire Department welcomed a new fire Chief, Bent Koch. He has served both El Cajon and La Mesa, two of the three cities that comprise Heartland Fire and Rescue Department.
Those present and tuning in at home were also able to see the El Cajon Wellness Dog, who helps first responders after they return from stressful incidents.