Marco Mandri is an assessment district consultant who boasts having assisted in the formation of 59 improvement districts since 1995. And several years ago, Santa Ana officials sought his help when they were in the early stages of establishing a district for their city.
In 2006, Mandri, president of the consulting firm New City America, wrote a report detailing the advantages of having a community management district in the city’s urban core. But that was the end of Mandri’s involvement with Santa Ana, and in 2008 the city established its district with the help of two other consultants.
The district levies a special property tax throughout 66 blocks of the city’s downtown, funding Downtown Inc., the organization responsible for promoting and sprucing up the district area. A group of property owners say the city stripped them of their democratic rights and manipulated the rules in forming the district.
Mandri, after studying how the district was established, said he agrees with the disgruntled property owners.
“This pisses me off,” was his first reaction to hearing about the resistance to the district. “This is utilizing the weaknesses in the establishment process, that’s the most diplomatic way to say it.”
Mandri pointed to a couple of things about the district’s formation that he said he wouldn’t have supported had he been consulted.
First, he doesn’t like the level of participation in the vote among property owners on the establishment of the district.
When the city put the district to a vote, only 107 ballots of 421 total mailed were returned. The votes were weighed by the amount each property owner would pay, essentially a one-dollar-one-vote tallying method, which favored larger property owners because the larger properties are taxed more.
Mandri said that in an election to form the district, usually 50 to 60 percent of the ballots are returned. Mandri said the process of educating the property owners must be thorough enough so that all the property owners are engaged.
“By the time you get to the balloting, everybody’s pretty much aware of what’s going on,” Mandri said.
Mandri is also unhappy about the city of Santa Ana’s participation in the vote. According to a petition cover letter to dismantle the district, the city counted for more than one third of the votes in favor of the district. Without the city’s votes, the district would have failed to pass.
Mandri said that cities don’t usually use their vote weight to push a district through. He said the city of Thousand Oaks recently wanted to pass an assessment district, but was “adamant that they did not want to be the entity putting it over the top, because they don’t want to be accused of using their weight to do it.”
“It’s not uncommon for a city to have a lot of votes, but it is uncommon for a city to use its weight to establish the district,” Mandri said. “It’s not illegal, it’s just not typical.”
— ADAM ELMAHREK