This week it became public information that the lawyer for Vanir (a partner in Banning Office Ventures) sent a letter to the Banning City Attorney demanding that Jerry Westholder recuse himself from any further Council decisions on the Village at El Paseo San Gorgonio.
Their basis is that Jerry Westholder brought the facts to the public concerning AB109 and the transfer of state felons to the County probation departments as parolees, effectively making the probation department a parole department for convicted felons. They claim to feel that Jerry Westholder is biased because he declared that he will do everything he can possibly do to uphold the wishes of the Banning residents. The residents have been very vocal at Council meetings that they do not want the Parole/Probation department in this project.
Text of Jerry Westholder’s “Letter to Banning Citizens”:
Does this appear biased or is it a Council Member vowing to represent the residents?
The Real Issue
The real issue is that certain provisions of the contract the developer signed require any change in use from the original plan to be reviewed and put before the public for comment before approval. City staff and the developer did an end run around the Council and improperly gained approval that the developer then used to secure the Parole/Probation department lease from Riverside County. There are already discussions with the County to secure the District Attorney’s Office on the other floor of the building, thereby changing the “Retail/Multiple Office” parcel of the project into a single office on both floors – thereby removing any income or benefit to Banning from this parcel. In addition the developers obtained improper approval to change the “Hotel” parcel into another office complex, further reducing the financial benefit to the City which was supposed to exist. They are now working to try to get out of having to secure a high-quality restaurant from the “Restaurant” parcel. The entire project has been changed from the concept that was presented to the public and approved by the Council into a concept that benefits only the developer and removes the majority of the benefit to Banning City.
Legally the project cannot continue until those improper changes made by ex-City Manager Takata ( who was fired for that and other possible improprieties) are brought before the Council for proper approval. The majority of the City Council has invited public comment on this and have taken the stand that they represent the citizens and this is not a change that those citizens want approved. A minority of the Council is opposed to that and wants to rubber-stamp the changes and get something – anything – started under construction. The trouble is, that something is a Parole/Probation department which is mandated by the State to accept a large and soon to be increasing number of felony parolees.
Ed Miller, Don Peterson, and Jerry Westholder have all come out against making any change not acceptable to Banning residents. They have taken a position of asking for comments from citizens and representing those wishes in any vote they participate in.
Art Welch and Mayor Debbie Franklin hold the position that because the agreement was made with City staff, they need to let the developers proceed even though this is not acceptable to Banning residents and breaks the provisions of the contract. This is consistent with their position (on the former Council) of supporting the developer’s interests over the interests of the citizens.
So now the developer’s lawyers are going to work. First they forced Don Peterson to recuse himself because he owns a building within 500’ of the project. There went one advocate for the residents. Now they are “suggesting” (in actuality threatening legal action) if Jerry Westholder, another Council member who is an advocate for the public interest. This leaves only two members which have consistently sided with the developer and Ed Miller – a staunch defender of the rights of Banning residents – on the Council, and weights it in the developers favor.
This is blatant and unethical shady political manipulation. Jerry Westholder was correct to bring the hidden facts of AB109 to the attention of the public, and it is very commendable to him that he committed to keeping this unwanted change out of our community. That doesn’t make him biased – that makes him an objective participant on the Council committed to representing the interests of the citizens he represents. We can only hope that the two Council members siding with the developer will take a look at those AB109 facts and accept that the residents do not want this project to include a combined Parole/Probation department and remember their oath to represent the citizens when they took office. This shady plan by the developers to remove members of the Council opposed to their wishes is a slap in the face and a show of complete disrespect to Banning citizens and those Council members supporting the developer need to take a step back and remember who they work for – just as we will remember when election time comes.
A Suggestion for a Solution:
There has been a lot of agreement on the Council and among the residents on an alternative plan which would make complete sense for all parties. First off, a hotel probably isn’t the best use for one of the four parcels in that project, so that change – if another more beneficial use is proposed – could be accepted. Second, it is the perception of Parole/Probation departments in general by the public and by business owners that will turn the development into another sleazy area (no matter how beautiful the buildings are) for the next seven years. It will keep businesses out of the planned retail and customers will go to other areas where they don’t have to rub shoulders with felons. The developer knows that and this is why he is playing under the table – he makes a bundle off the Parole/Probation department all by itself, and doesn’t even have to complete the other 3 parcels to come out ahead.
The District Attorney’s Office is another thing. People’s perception of the DA is positive, and the proximity to the Courthouse is beneficial. If the DA was to lease the top floor of the “Retail/Office” parcel, other attorneys would follow in their steps and fill the other offices in the other “Retail/Office” parcel and the new one formed by the change of the “Hotel” parcel to another “Retail/Office” parcel. The bottom floors of these buildings would remain retail and be filled by businesses catering to Court traffic and attorney needs as well as retail for the public.
This Court traffic and attorney business would be very attractive to a restaurant such as Souplantation or Olive Garden, who love to place their businesses around Court centers, thus filling the “Restaurant” parcel with a quality restaurant.
The developer would benefit by placing the Parole/Probation department in a different location and turning this project into a “Justice Center” or “Justice Campus”. Conversations with people in the City indicate the City owns several unused parcels which could be given to the developer as an incentive to change the focus of the project. The “Justice Center” would be a complementary use of this property which would retain the retail the residents want and also be far easier for the developer to fill. The high-quality jobs attorney’s offices and the District Attorney would bring are the sort of thing Banning needs. The project could be built with fountains and green belt walkways and still be a showcase instead of being a place housing an unwanted tenant despised by a large portion of society.
One can only hope the remaining members of the Council decimated by the developers with shady legal tricks will listen to comments from the residents. Hopefully the 3 remaining can get together and present the developer with this new plan and bring peace to this whole situation between the residents and the developer, the Council and a City staff which overstepped it’s authority. With leadership like that, Banning will have a future. Without it, the residents will lose the “Jewel” this project was designed to be and be stuck with AB109 felons. If that happens, then we as residents will have to take our own action to change the make-up of the Council to insure we are never left unrepresented by some of our leaders again. We have a right to expect them ALL to make decisions according to the express direction of us as residents.
I personally will be disgusted if they all don’t deny the demand for Jerry Westholder to recuse himself and tell the developer’s lawyers to go pound sand and stop their intimidation tactics. Regardless of which side they are on, all of them should refuse to be manipulated in such a low-life manner. Such class and respect for us as residents these developers are showing!
Here is a link to Don Peterson’s letter to the citizens on AB109 (he was also forced to recuse himself by these shady lawyers):