The husband of Downtown Inc. Executive Director Vicky Baxter has been receiving paychecks from her public agency as an independent contractor, records show.
Norm Baxter is paid $22 per hour for various tasks, including furniture setup, employee candidate interviews and computer troubleshooting, according to Downtown Inc. records. The total paid to Norm Baxter since 2009 is $43,934, according to the records.
Some property owners who have been fighting the special property tax district that funds Downtown Inc. say the payments to Norm Baxter don’t pass the smell test.
“It doesn’t sound right,” said Nina Jun, a vocal opponent of the tax district. “It seems like they [the Downtown Inc. Board of Directors] are giving a favor to Executive Director Vicky Baxter.”
Downtown Inc. is charged with promoting and securing Santa Ana’s downtown core. The organization has become one of the focal points of a gentrification debate in Santa Ana. A group of 56 property owners have signed a petition demanding the disestablishment of the special property tax district, arguing that they receive no benefit for their doubled, sometimes tripled, property tax bills.
Downtown Inc. supporters say that the organization’s services are vital to transforming the area into a vibrant downtown. Yet some merchants on heavily Latino Fourth Street say the organization’s aim is to push out Latino merchants.
The records showing Norm Baxter’s payments were attached to line-by-line itemized budgets and other financial records assembled by Downtown Inc. in response to Santa Ana Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, who lately has focused on the gentrification debate.
“How is it that the executive manager’s husband collects over $20,000 in work that was apparently provided, and how was that particular decision reached?” Alvarez said at the meeting.
Vicky Baxter said she did not hire her husband. He initially worked at the public agency as a volunteer, but because of the many hours he had been working, the Downtown Inc. board insisted that he be paid for his work, she said.
Downtown Inc. President Ryan Chase backs up Vicky Baxter’s assertion, saying that Norm Baxter’s volunteer work for the agency, which records show total 925 hours in recent years, amounts to a significant discount for the work.
“At a certain point he [Norm Baxter] was there working full time, and we said this isn’t right,” Chase said.
The issue could be coming to a head Wednesday night at the City Council meeting. Council members are scheduled to vote on shrinking the special tax district’s boundaries, essentially offering an olive branch to the tax district’s opponents. Under the new boundaries, many of the more vocal opponents, including Jun, would no longer be in the district.
Council members are also scheduled to consider setting a public hearing to disestablish the special tax district.
Other council members have expressed support for Downtown Inc. and say Norm Baxter working for Downtown Inc. won’t affect their decisions Wednesday night.
Councilman David Benavides said that the organization should be able to hire whoever management feels is most qualified for the job. If Norm Baxter was given a salary for doing nothing or for a sham top management position, there would be reason for alarm, Benavides said.
“I don’t really see a reason for concern, frankly,” Benavides said.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez said that although she is generally opposed to giving taxpayer-funded jobs to family members, she will be making a decision based on potential legal liabilities to the city.
Correction: Downtown Inc. Executive Director Vicky Baxter’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this post. We regret the error.
— ADAM ELMAHREK