When the Palo Alto City Council established the Downtown Business Improvement District in 2004, city officials envisioned the new assessment district as a tool to nurture existing businesses, support new ones and enhance the variety of commerce around University Avenue.
Today, the organization that oversees the district and charges the roughly 750 merchants in the district between $50 and $500 in annual assessments has no leadership and little accountability. Several downtown merchants said they haven't seen any "business improvements" in downtown in years, and one of the group's own board members told the Weekly that the group no longer represents the interests of local businesspeople.
"It's designed to be a bureaucracy, not to represent business people," said Abraham Khalil, owner of A.K. Insurance Services and board member at the Palo Alto Business and Professionals Association, which has a 2010-11 budget of $131,390. "If it doesn't represent business people, it shouldn't exist."
Khalil joined the board last year and said he has become disenchanted with how little say board members have in organization decisions. On May 21, four days after the Palo Alto City Council voted to keep the assessment district in place for another year, two members of the board's executive committee ousted the group's president and executive director, Sherry Bijan, who had led the organization since 2006. Khalil said the other nine board members had no input in the decision, which seemed to have been made behind the scenes.
The majority of board members declined to speak to the Weekly about the organization's future or its leadership change, an unusual position for a group governed by the Brown Act. (The Brown Act is a state law that ensures the openness of government-related meetings.)
They referred all questions to the board chair, Anne Senti-Willis, an attorney at the downtown firm Thoits, Love, Hershberger & McLean. She did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, save to send a brief e-mail.
Officially, at least, Bijan was asked to step down because of philosophical differences over ways to revitalize downtown. Senti-Willis and Deborah Pappas, the group's vice chair who works at Borel Bank, told Bijan the board wants to "take things in a different direction," according to a letter Bijan sent to the City Council, announcing her forced resignation.
Senti-Willis specifically told Bijan that she wanted the group to become more "events-driven," said Bijan, who was earning $66,000 a year.
Board member Jeff Selzer, general manager at Palo Alto Bicycles, said he "had no say" in the leadership change. Stacey Yates, owner of SkinSpirit and the third member of the executive committee, said she "had not been as involved in the past six months as I would've liked to be" and declined to discuss the group's future.
Her claim of non-involvement seems plausible for board members. On Feb. 24, only three out of 13 members were present at the start of the meeting and two came in later, according to the group's minutes. At more recent meetings, at least half the board was absent, the minutes indicate.
Even Palo Alto's liaisons to the business group were out of the loop when it came to Bijan's ouster. Steve Emslie, Palo Alto's deputy city manager, who heads the city's new Office of Economic Development, said he hadn't heard anything about the leadership change until it was announced publicly in late May.
Councilman Greg Scharff, the council's liaison to the business association, said he learned about it from Bijan's public announcement.
In response to inquiries, Senti-Willis directed the Weekly to a two-paragraph posting on the group's website announcing that Bijan has "stepped down." She said in the e-mail that the group plans to advertise for a new executive director on its website this week, but did not specify how long she expects the search to take place.
"We plan to complete the hiring process as soon as we can," Senti-Willis wrote.
The high level of secrecy may be considered unusual for a committee whose goals for the current year include "create visibility within the business community," according to its annual report. In fact, Santish Sandadi, owner of Hyderabad House, told the Weekly that he hasn't received a visit from anyone in the group in years. He's stopped paying his assessed dues and so have most of his neighbors, he said.
"Most of the money is used to pay the salary of a person whom I haven't seen in two years," Sandadi said.
Chris Oh, who owns Han Korean & More on University Avenue, said he hasn't seen any recent improvements around University Avenue, which in his opinion lags behind Mountain View's Castro Street.
"There's been no business improvement here," Oh said.
Both Oh and Sandadi said holding more downtown events could attract more people and aid local businesses, but other business proprietors were more skeptical. Alaina Munoz, store manager at Chico's, said events tend to kill the store's business, though she said she enjoys the city's annual Art and Wine Festival.
Maureen Brylkos, store manager at Restoration Hardware, said events tend to bring "a lot of lookers but not too many shoppers."
But Michael Godfrey, a salesperson at Restoration Hardware, sees a brighter side: Events bring in people who otherwise wouldn't visit University. Even when they don't buy anything, at times they leave the store with a catalogue.
Emslie said the benefits of events could depend on the activity and the type of business. Events with food vendors, for instance, could take away patrons from local restaurants. But businesses that don't sell food could benefit from the increased exposure, he said.
"In general, events are important to building a community, promoting downtown and getting people to visit businesses," Emslie said. "But it depends on how the events are made."
Bijan did not elaborate on why the board chose to shift its focus to more events, but she told the Weekly she was worried for downtown's future.
"I'm deeply concerned at the moment about the stability of the business district," Bijan said.