The Hillcrest Business Association's job as administrator of the local business improvement district is clear: improve the business district. In order to continue to do so, staff is proposing to change the bylaws.
The proposed changes are twofold. The first change allows all businesses, even those without active storefronts, to become a member…if they pay the assessment, of course. The other bylaw prohibits those businesses — ones that are based in Hillcrest and pay the assessment but have no need for a storefront — from getting elected to the board.
The latter change has some business owners concerned.
Mat Wahlstrom, a longtime critic of the business association's handling of the district, believes the reason for the changes is not to be more inclusive but to keep the status quo and prevent critics (such as him) from gaining access to the board.
As previously reported in the Reader, Meredith Dibden Brown, one of the people in charge of overseeing business improvement districts for the city, commented on the proposed changes in a March 28 email to board president Johnathan Hale. In her email, Dibden Brown rebuked a previous effort by the district to ban any businesses without active storefronts from participating. She didn’t, however, say there was a need to include them on the board.
"There are no specifics in the [business improvement district] Management Agreement regarding board makeup but the city council policy on business improvement districts requires the (business) association to take affirmative measures so that board reflects the ethnic and business diversity of the community."
Ben Nicholls, Hillcrest Business Association's executive director, says there is no hidden agenda.
"The proposed bylaw tweaks are designed to address concerns raised by community folks and the city, while preserving the representative nature of the board of the Hillcrest Business Association. The new bylaws welcome members of the organization whether they locate their business in Hillcrest or simply have a PO Box in the neighborhood."
As for disqualifying those businesses from sitting on the board, Nicholls says, "These revisions ensure that people from outside Hillcrest can't take over or have undue influence on the organization. For example, this would prohibit someone who had a political agenda from simply opening a PO Box at the FedEx store on Washington Street in order to join the board. I wouldn't prohibit them from being a member or voting in the elections for the leadership, so they'd still have influence in that way.
"These bylaw changes reward business owners who locate their businesses in the neighborhood. That is the entire point of the Business Association."
Wahlstrom of Roberts Electric Services disagrees that the proposed changes are meant to keep outsiders from gaining access. They only want to keep him, and people like him, from making a fuss on the board.
"The fact is, we have been a valid member of the HBIA since 1999, and the city has told them this again and again," says Wahlstrom.
"Since we've identified over 40 other businesses in Hillcrest that are in the same position we are, the current leadership's attempt to get back at us would wipe out a quorum of its membership.
"No one ever questioned our rights until we started calling attention to the shady contracts and personal enrichment by persons on the board during Nicholls’s first term. This entire fiasco began when Nicholls told us that he didn't have to answer our questions, as he only had to answer to the board. Since even without this exclusionary bylaw he has stonewalled for two years, it's clear how much 'influence' we and the other 1300 other members who aren't on the board don't have."
City-council president Todd Gloria has also weighed in. In a September 8 statement, Gloria's deputy chief of staff Katie Keach confirmed the need to have a diverse board.
"As long as the business is within the district, holding current tax certificates, and paying assessments, then council president Gloria believes it is reasonable that they are eligible to sit on the board."
The board will consider the proposal tonight, September 9, at its monthly meeting held at the Joyce Beers Community Center at 5 p.m.