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Alhambra City Council Approves Chamber of Commerce Contract During Contentious Meeting

Photo via Google Street View.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

During a meeting that started at 5:30 p.m. and lasted almost until midnight on Monday, Alhambra’s City Council voted four to one to renew the city’s contract with the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce to engage in promotional services for the city and its businesses, after extensive and at times contentious discussion over whether it was appropriate to fund the services of such business associations.

Council member Katherine Lee was the only one to vote against the contract, which would provide the Chamber of Commerce with up to $111,936 for the 2019 to 2020 fiscal year. According to a city staff report, these funds would be used to provide services like support to local businesses; provide information to businesses, tourists and residents on Alhambra as a destination; and to conduct outreach to businesses in Alhambra.

Lee expressed concern that part of the contract would cover payroll taxes and overhead costs for the Chamber of Commerce in support of activities that the organization would otherwise engage in, with the financial support of its members.

“Any city needs a strong Chamber of Commerce, that’s for certain,” Lee said. “For me tonight, it’s not about the Chamber of Commerce, how well they’re doing for the city, it’s about whether the city should use public money to fund a nonprofit organization that’s supposedly supported by membership.”

Council members David Mejia and Jeff Maloney praised the Chamber of Commerce for the work it does in promoting and supporting business in Alhambra, with Mejia calling the contract an investment in Alhambra that would yield more tax revenue for the city. Maloney said that the contract lays out a specific scope of work that the Chamber regularly fulfills, and that he would support the contract as long as it was carried out with sound financial oversight. He added that it’s smart for the Chamber to diversify its income stream, and not just rely on membership dues, to be able to carry out its services.

Alhambra Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler said she “wholeheartedly” supports the Chamber of Commerce. She also said that financial responsibility is important and asked the city manager to undertake an audit of the city’s contract with the Chamber. “I’m sure the Chamber will open their books to encourage a full, comprehensive audit, I think that is the best way to go,” she said.

City Manager Jessica Binnquist told the Alhambra Source that she had been planning on carrying out an audit of the Chamber of Commerce for some time “as a good business practice.” She added that her office would do this within the next few months, after they complete an audit on Almansor Court, the conference and event center.

The City of Alhambra has contracted with the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce since 1964 in a manner that would help the Chamber carry out various activities. A city staff report listed 11 activities that the Chamber performs including services that stimulate business and industrial opportunities; maintain a central information office about Alhambra as a destination; provide support for small businesses through workshops; and other opportunities, like pairing local businesses with young adults in an Alhambra Unified School District’s skills training program for students with disabilities. The contract also covers informational brochures about the Chamber of Commerce, excluding their monthly Around Alhambra newsletter.

The contract was placed on the Alhambra City Council’s consent agenda, where routine items are added and then approved as a group. Because multiple members of the public wanted to speak specifically about the contract, it was pulled from the consent agenda for a separate vote. Lee also requested that the item be pulled for separate consideration.

Three people questioned why the Chamber of Commerce was entitled to public funding for their activities. “The funds you will vote on today will be used for activities outlined in the contract that appear to fall within the category of things [a chamber of commerce] would likely do as its own, without city subsidization,” said Michael Lawrence, a member of the city’s Arts and Cultural Events Committee as well as Grassroots Alhambra.

Lawrence took issue in particular with this contract for public funding being used to cover payroll taxes and other operational costs for the Chamber of Commerce. He also said that the city should exercise more oversight over contracts through strong audit provisions.

Maloney asked City Manager Binnquist about how common it was for a city agency to help a contractor with their overhead costs. “The management portion of [the Chamber’s] operation is a very large portion, and that is something that we assist with in order to be able to offer the support to businesses that I think you’ve heard this evening,” Binnquist replied.

In comments to the Council, Alhambra Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sharon Gibbs listed the grand openings, business skills luncheons, events and other initiatives that the Chamber of Commerce undertakes on behalf of the city. “All cities recognize that a vibrant partnership between city and businesses yields a strong tax base, a source of employment for residents, and provides goods, services and amenities for our residents,” she said.

Seven other speakers also spoke in support of the Chamber of Commerce, with many identifying themselves as small business owners who count on the assistance of the Chamber to thrive. The City Council also received a number of letters from businesses and organizations in support of the Chamber.

Multiple Council members asked Andrade-Stadler what the audit would involve, who answered that she trusted Binnquist to determine how to undertake this action. Lee said that she would prefer the contract to be itemized, with the hours that the Chamber spends on each activity included, so that she could judge if this was the best use of public funds.

In the end, the Council only voted on whether to approve the Chamber contract, and did not vote on whether to conduct an audit. Binnquist said that one would be conducted anyway.

In other action, the City Council voted unanimously to again continue an appeal hearing on the denial of a planning permit to build a three-story four-unit condominium complex at 510 N. 3rd Street.

On March 25, several City Council members raised concerns that the new building would cause privacy concerns, with tenants in the upper stories possibly able to see into their neighbors’ homes and yards. They also asked the applicant, Eric Tsang, to conduct a shadow study to see if the project would cast a shadow onto neighboring properties, and to provide renderings that would demonstrate the project’s architectural compatibility with the other dwellings in the neighborhood.

Tsang went through a presentation showing that the line of sight of people living on the top floor and roof deck of the proposed building would mainly be on the roofs of the neighboring houses and apartment complexes, and that the neighbors’ yards were already visible from the street. He also said that the amount of shadow the new building casts would be minimal, except in winter, and that the neighbors’ own buildings already cast significant shadows onto their own yards. He concluded by saying that the neighborhood does not have a defined architectural style, and that the building’s contemporary design would improve the look of the neighborhood, as opposed to other houses and apartment complexes on the block.

Jeff Lee, representative of the LLC developing the property, said that his team had considered subterranean parking, but that building this would cost a lot more money that would have to be passed on to the future owners, making the condos unaffordable. Subterranean parking would also lengthen the construction timeline.

Overall, the City Council did not seem persuaded by the presentation, with Council member Mejia accusing the developers of not doing enough to ensure the privacy of people who would be living next to the building from their upstairs neighbors. Councilmember Maloney expressed concern that the new building would still cast too much shadow, especially when one neighbor, Susan Saunders said that it would block the sun from the gardens of those living next to the proposed project, which provides fruit and other food for those tenants. Sauders spoke on behalf of five next door neighbors, who speak limited English, and said that living in the shadow of a three-story building would affect their quality of life, which she said was an “adverse impact.”

Maloney also asked why the developer didn’t consider below-grade parking, like some of the existing two-story apartment buildings, so that the project’s height wouldn’t create such an impact. He and Mejia took issue with Lee calling the project “affordable housing” because it didn’t include a more expensive construction option for parking.

Andrade-Stadler also took issue with the height and asked the applicant to engage more with the neighbors in redesigning the project.

Vice Mayor Ross Maza said that while the existing homes vary in terms of architecture, the design of the project still stuck out too much compared to the rest of the neighborhood. “I think you can do a lot better to make it more conducive to the area,” he said.

After Council comments on this topic, Special Counsel Laurence Wiener said that the City Council couldn’t deny a permit for the project unless they found “specific adverse objective criteria” to do so, in accordance with the state Housing Accountability Act. He recommended that the City Council let Tsang and Lee address their concerns again, and the Council granted him until May 28 to do so. Lee said that they would explore more measures to ensure the privacy of their neighbors, and that they would take the neighbors’ concerns into account about the building’s shadow impacting the growth of food in their gardens.

This adverse impacts would have to be related to health and safety, said Director of Community Development Marc Castagnola.

The Council also considered two other consent agenda items separately. They unanimously approved a city contract with Alhambra’s Central Business District Association, which has been in place since 1974. Under this contract, the city is authorized to give up to 90 percent of funds they receive from a license assessment on businesses located in downtown Alhambra to the association for services and events that promote the downtown area, like the St. Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl and Taste of Alhambra restaurant week.

Sean McMorris, a member of Grassroots Alhambra, spoke out against this contract, saying that most of the assessed fees given to the ACBDA is then given to the Chamber of Commerce for advertising and for management services, rather than outside contractors. Chamber of Commerce President Gibbs said that this contract involves administration, use of Chamber facilities and assistance on events, since the ACBDA doesn’t have its own employees or office. The Chamber receives $850 a month from the ACBDA for these services, she added.

The other consent agenda item considered separately was the award of an engineering contract to GRFCO Inc. for the Wastewater Lift Station No. 4 Replacement Project. A representative of another firm that bid for the contract, MMC Inc., opposed the award to GRFCO by saying that the firm was improperly seeking a subcontractor for electrical services for this project. City Attorney Joseph Montes said that contractors were allowed to switch out their subcontractors under limited circumstances after the award of a contract, however, and the City Council unanimously approved the contract.

There was also debate during a public hearing for the annual action plan for the Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnership programs, which are funded by an allocation from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and are intended for affordable housing and other services for low and moderate income residents. The proposed plan would use $978,673 in CDBG funding for fair housing services, housing rehabilitation, code enforcement, public services for seniors and program administration during the 2019 fiscal year. HOME funds amounting to $529,955 would be divided between administration, new construction, and first time home buyer program and housing rehabilitation.

Alhambra’s HCDA Advisory Committee recommended adoption of the plan in an 8 to 1 vote during their April 2, 2019 meeting, and went through a 30-day public review period, according to a staff report. No comments were received during the review period, but a few residents spoke out against the proposed budget on Monday night, taking issue with so much of the money going towards administration and code enforcement. They suggested that more of these funds go to assisting renters who face difficulty with high housing prices in Alhambra.

Eric Sunada*, president of Grassroots Alhambra, said that the annual action plan should also have more input from the HCDA, which has only met a couple of times this year. Sunada is a member of the HCDA committee.

When Mayor Andrade-Stadler asked if the city could rethink these programs, the city’s CDBG consultant said that doing so would trigger another 30-day public review period, and would possibly result in the city missing its June 14 submission deadline to HUD. She suggested that the city make major changes next fiscal year, when Alhambra has to submit a new five-year action plan to HUD. The City Council voted four to one to approve the plan, with Andrade-Stadler voting no.

Several residents living by the controversial development at 801 E. Main Street spoke at the end of the meeting in opposition to this project in the event that the Planning Commission, which is currently considering the project, approves a permit and the project goes before the City Council as an appeal.

The project was first continued during the Planning Commission’s April 15 hearing due to a microphone malfunction. During another hearing on April 29, residents were upset to find out that they wouldn’t be able to speak during the meeting, since the Planning Commission closed public comment on April 15, before the malfunction occurred. The Planning Commission continued the hearing again, to allow the developer on this project to meet with two residents in a meeting moderated by the City of Alhambra to see if any negotiations on the project can occur. Residents mainly oppose the project’s four-story height, as well as the height of a three-story parking structure that would be built near the residential neighborhood behind the project site.

A few residents criticized the conduct of the Planning Commission for not reopening public comment to let residents speak on April 29. The project is expected to be brought back to the Planning Commission on June 3.

*Full disclosure: Eric Sunada is a member of the Alhambra Source advisory board. Advisory board members have no editorial control or access to stories before publication.

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