Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar denies influencing the Historic Downtown… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
A month ago, attorney Roberto Saldaña looked like a shoo-in to run the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District, a little-known group of property owners that pays extra taxes for such services as having sidewalks cleaned and litter picked up.
The group's board of directors voted unanimously to make Saldaña, 34, its executive director. Its chairman, Boris Mayzels, described Saldaña as "by far the most qualified" for the job.
Not long after they made their decision, however, Councilman Jose Huizar got involved, board members and business leaders said. What followed, critics assert, was an unusually public and petty use of City Hall power to punish an adversary's ally.
According to interviews and meeting records, Huizar and his aides made it clear they did not want the job to go to Saldaña, who had supported Huizar's opponent in an exceptionally bitter election fight earlier this year.
At a heated downtown meeting Wednesday, the business group voted to choose another candidate for the $78,000-per-year position — and defended its decision to dump Saldaña.
"I think there's no question that Roberto would have made the ideal candidate in a vacuum, where we weren't being pressured by Huizar's office," board member Josh Gray-Emmer told the audience. "Huizar's office blackballed Roberto, plain and simple. And we decided that we wanted to move forward."
Huizar, whose district includes part of the business group's territory, denied using his power to influence the board. "We did not get involved in any way or form in the selection … of the executive director," he said.
Board members tell it differently. After Saldaña was chosen, Huizar and his staff warned the board in person or in telephone calls that it had violated state law at a Sept. 15 meeting at which Saldaña was selected, by failing to post the agenda properly. Jessica Wethington McLean, who runs a Huizar initiative to improve downtown's Broadway business corridor, told board members that they were in danger of being investigated by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
She did not stop there. At the board's Sept. 23 meeting, Wethington McLean complained that Saldaña criticized Huizar during the election campaign. She read aloud from an LA Weekly article in which Saldaña accused the councilman of doing "nothing" to improve Broadway, according to a recording of the board's meeting.
"We would ... hope that your candidate would be able to develop and maintain strong relationships with the council office," she told the panel. "You can read into that whatever you like."
On Wednesday, real estate broker and board alternate Ed Rosenthal called Wethingon McLean's comments "outrageous." Boris Mayzels, who chairs the board, said he received a call from Huizar warning that hiring Saldaña would create a hurdle for the business group's relationship with the council office.
"He was not in support of hiring Roberto," said Mayzels, a chiropractor.
Mayzels said the conflict between Huizar and Saldaña doomed Saldaña's chances of getting the job. "He was familiar with the board and familiar with the neighborhood. These are all great pluses for him. Unfortunately, there was one big minus," he said.
During this year's contentious council race, Saldaña had walked door-to-door for Rudy Martinez, Huizar's opponent. He also worked for a Spring Street landlord, Joseph Hellen, who had an antagonistic relationship with Huizar and installed a billboard supporting Martinez in Huizar's district.
Huizar "definitely was not happy with my relationship with Rudy, and the things I did on the campaign," Saldaña said. "He expended a lot of effort to try to prevent me from getting this position," he said. "It's pretty petty."
Wednesday's vote also infuriated prominent downtown developer and former board member Tom Gilmore, who said afterward that he would pull five buildings out of the business improvement district and join another, adjacent organization. Gilmore accused board members of dropping Saldaña to avoid angering an elected official with influence over beer and wine permits and other decisions that could affect their bottom lines.
"This happened for one reason and one reason only: fear," he told the board.
Board member Michael Delijani, whose family owns historic theaters on Broadway, said Gilmore's comments were insulting and called his allegations of outside political influence a "hallucination." Another member businessman, Fred Afari, said he felt no pressure. But he also argued that good relations with the council office were paramount to the business organization.
"If I've got a tenant who wants to do … sidewalk seating or a new awning, it's going to be helpful to go to the council office to get their help," he said.