La Jolla business district gets new life

La Jolla’s business improvement district appears to have another shot at life, but in a form administered by the city’s staff.

In an e-mail sent late Oct. 27 to Promote La Jolla board members and other community leaders, 1st District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner outlined a plan that would enable the city to reinstate services to the nearly 1,200 Village merchants who are in what’s known as the BID.

“Our goal is to make sure the process is open and transparent, and all interested community members have an opportunity to participate,” the councilwoman wrote on Oct. 28 in response to questions.

Until June, the district had been run under a contract with the city by PLJ, a 501(c)6 nonprofit. But after a city auditor’s report that “found duplicate billings and misuse of city funds totaling $112,070, " the contract was not renewed.

Since then, the PLJ board has been trying to clear up its accounting records and get audits of its books completed. President Rick Wildman appealed to the City Council on Sept. 22 for help in getting some direction about the organization’s future.

Finding a solution

After that, Lightner met with Wally Hill, the city’s assistant chief operating officer, and Meredith Dibden-Brown of the city’s Office of Small Business to find a solution.

Hill said, “Because of the uncertainties about the Promote La Jolla situation, it was necessary to find an alternative arrangement to manage” La Jolla’s business district.

The proposal requires the City Council to direct the staff to administer La Jolla’s district through June, approve a budget and hold a public hearing before operations can resume. The process could begin by Nov. 17, when Hill said he hopes the item will be on the council agenda.

A role for PLJ

He added that because there is no existing contract, the action “does not require (Promote La Jolla’s) concurrence.”

If approved, the city would look to PLJ to advise the staff and to select, organize and promote events in the community, Hill said, adding that the city would control the funds and pay the vendors.

Lightner said it would be up to the PLJ board to “make a determination on how they would interact with city staff.”

PLJ’s Wildman, in a note to Lightner thanking her for her efforts, wrote that if the plan is approved, it “would ensure that the basic local business services of the ongoing work of community beautification, clean-up, events, and projects that benefit all the businesses of the La Jolla Business Improvement District will be able to continue unabated despite the troubles encountered by Promote La Jolla, Inc. ...”

A fresh start

When the city auditor issued its report on PLJ, it also called on the city to establish new procedures in adding oversight to the BIDs and other entities receiving city funds.

Of the 18 or so business improvement districts, four have had their contracts held up this year, Hill said.

Two were matters involving accounting audits that hadn’t been completed that have since been reinstated. PLJ and the Diamond Business Improvement District in southeast San Diego have both been the subjects of police investigations yet to be completed, he added.

Because the investigations are “active,” he said he couldn’t comment further.

‘Hard-earned lesson’

Hill said he believes that the proposal is a step in the right direction in a situation that has taught the city “a hard-earned lesson.”

He added that he hopes the proposal for the La Jolla district gives “a better definition of internal controls and oversight and mechanisms” for working with the districts.

Since June, no fees have been collected from merchants and PLJ has not received any funds from the city, so it has been operating on a shoestring, holding off vendors and paying only what is needed for rent, basic operating expenses and to put on the Nov. 5 Gallery Wine Walk & Taste.

Jan. 1 restart?

If approved, fees could be assessed retroactive to July 1, Lightner’s e-mail said. The goal would be to get it all done before Jan. 1, she added.

“This is going to be great,” Wildman said on Oct. 28. “There is no BID contract, but there is a La Jolla Business Improvement District.”

He added, “Sherri (Lightner) has been instrumental, along with Meredith Dibden-Brown and the whole community, in making sure the La Jolla Business Improvement District continues to be supported by BID funds.”

Since there won’t be a new contract with Promote La Jolla or money from the city, the organization will operate as a nonprofit, planning events that benefit the community and raising funds on its own, Wildman said.

In her e-mail on Oct. 27, Lightner suggested a second option: for the PLJ board to vote to formally oppose the city’s proposed action.

But Wildman said he thought the first option was the only sensible solution.

Lighter said on Oct. 28 that if PLJ didn’t want to go along with the first option, “we would ask the community and city staff ... to come up with other potential options to carry on the work that has been performed by the BID in the past.”