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Business Improvement District Topic Of City Council Debate
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The Oakdale Tourism Business Improvement District (BID) was the topic of lengthy debate at Monday night’s Oakdale City Council meeting. New potential appointments, the lack of a spending report, and confusion over BID funds were all hotly debated in the public meeting.
The longest part of the Dec. 19 meeting, with the most public comment, was a discussion of the proposed appointment of Ramona Howard to the Oakdale Tourism Business Improvement District Advisory Board. The discussion was continued from the Dec. 5 council meeting, where two other people were appointed to the board.
“We are dealing with the perception of conflict, and I think Ramona should have the opportunity to speak for herself,” council member Katherine Morgan said at the Dec. 5 meeting.
Howard was not in attendance at the previous session.
Members of the public made accusations of a perceived conflict of interest after the council announced plans to appoint Ramona Howard, mother of council member Jason Howard, to the BID board. Jason Howard has recused himself from all council decisions regarding Ramona Howard’s interview, appointment, or public criticism.
Council member Tom Dunlop said that Jason Howard’s exclusion from every BID decision made by the Oakdale City Council would make an even number of council members voting on the issues. Tie votes on the Oakdale City Council automatically go to whichever decision does not make a change in current practices.
“There is a reason we don’t have a four member group,” Dunlop said.
Ramona Howard addressed the council and audience at Monday night’s meeting, explaining that her interest in the BID board was based on a need she saw in the Oakdale community. She explained that she has no business interest in being on the BID board, and would not profit professionally from involvement with the board. She said that the Fair Political Practices Board defines a conflict of interest as one or both parties gaining financially from an appointment. Howard said that her interest in the BID board does not meet any applicable legal definition of a conflict of interest.
“That is correct,” confirmed Oakdale City Attorney Tom Hallinan.
Council members, excluding Jason Howard, voted two “yes” and two “no” on appointing Ramona Howard to the Oakdale Tourism Business Improvement District Advisory Board. Per city council rules, the tie vote is considered a “no.” Mayor Pat Paul and councilman Mike Brennan voted in favor of the appointment, council members Dunlop and Morgan voted against it.
Other members of the Oakdale Tourism Business Improvement District board include hotel owners, restaurant owners, and other local business owners. They are appointed to administer and oversee funds from a two percent tax on hotel stays in Oakdale.
A review of the Oakdale Tourism Business Improvement District revenues and expenditure report was on the council meeting agenda. However, City Manager Gregory Wellman and council members were not satisfied with the expenditure report they received. Wellman said it lacked specifics, and there was no accounting for how exactly the money was spent.
“It seems unusual that this basic information is not available,” Wellman said.
BID board member Virginia Camacho asked council to review the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce’s spending of BID funds, and requested a refund to the BID for all funds spent since 2008. Camacho said that the City of Oakdale was collecting the hotel tax money and distributing it to the chamber of commerce, who spent it on promotion of business in Oakdale. But Camacho has never seen a specific budget for BID funds or an accounting of how the money was spent.
“This information did not go through the BID board,” Camacho said.
Council directed staff to ask the Chamber of Commerce for a line-item expenditure report going back to the founding of the BID tax in 2008. Mayor Pat Paul said that a refund would not be out of the question, depending on how the money was spent.