City Councilman invokes Iconic Village fire to justify unethical vote

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City Council
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Photo Courtesy of Cameron Hubbard
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City Council
Photo Courtesy of Cameron Hubbard

May Olvera

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After voting in favor of a program that uses taxpayer dollars to assist commercial property owners, City Council member Scott Gregson put himself in a morally questionable position.

As a notable landlord in San Marcos, Gregson’s properties are some of the largest beneficiaries of the Business Improvement & Growth Grant Program. Instead of admitting wrongful participation in the vote, he tactlessly justified his unethical involvement by invoking the recent Iconic Village fire that took five lives.

As reported in his 2017 financial disclosure form, Gregson conducts business under a number of entities; among them, East Hopkins, LLC. In the report, the council member’s share of the LLC is valued at $1.9 million. The other half is owned by Vance J. Elliot. Together, they have rented out properties to businesses in San Marcos since 2007.

According to the BIG Grant Program guidelines found on the city’s website, its purpose is to “increase the sales and/or revenue for the property owner or tenant” by providing them with technical and financial assistance to make improvements to the property.

Still, Gregson decided his potential conflict of interest as a landlord was not significant enough to recuse himself from the vote in April 2016.

Now, thanks to local activist and city council hopeful Jocabed Marquez, it has come to light that $24,075, or 29.3 percent of the program’s total funds allotted so far have gone to Gregson’s East Hopkins, LLC. According to city documents, Buzz Mill received $4,075 for a new sign and Blue Dahlia Bistro received $9,100 for “awning, glazing and historic feature restoration” as well as $10,900 for a fire suppression system.

Despite modifications immediately serving the current tenants, building renovations and sprinkler systems do not simply disappear when the occupants do. If Blue Dahlia Bistro decides to move locations, chances are they won’t take the sprinklers with them and East Hopkins, LLC can then take the publicly-funded investment into account when pricing the property for the next tenant.

Nonetheless, Gregson denied any wrongdoing in a written statement to Spectrum News. Instead, he bashed Marquez for bringing attention to the matter and used the Iconic Village fire to justify his actions.

“It’s clear election season is getting into gear and anti-small business activists are attacking an outgoing council member who is not running for re-election to attract attention,” Gregson wrote. “What’s not clear is why they would attack a program that helped a small business acquire fire sprinklers so soon after a deadly fire.”

However, the program itself is obviously not what is currently being called into question. With this statement, Gregson not only attempts to evade responsibility, but he unintentionally highlights another horrific injustice.

As a property owner, it should be Gregson’s responsibility – not a selective government program’s – to ensure the safety of every customer who sets foot in his buildings. Gregson’s 2017 financial disclosure lists his income as $300 thousand from the LLC and over $1 million in total from seven sources. Considering the cost of the fire suppression system (listed as $21,800), it is evident that the property owner himself could have and should have provided the small business the necessary equipment to avoid a deadly fire in his building.

Ultimately, it was the landlord’s responsibility to ensure their tenants’ safety whether or not the city government granted them the funds. Gregson’s statement excuses property owners’ negligence in cutting imperative corners that they could easily afford, instead passing the burden on to taxpayers.

Whether or not Gregson is seeking re-election, constituents have every right to be informed of the decisions made by their local representatives and to question whether their actions are principled or self-serving. Moreover, when there is evidence to suggest the latter, it is unbelievably offensive to invoke a recent tragedy to guilt people out of raising questions. At a time when trust for public officials is so fragile, the most meaningful action the councilman could take moving forward is simply to hold himself accountable.

– May Olvera is a journalism senior

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