17 News Special Report: City in the Hills

Published 08/13 2014 09:58PM

Updated 08/14 2014 11:56AM

Are campaign contributions affecting the Bakersfield City Council's decisions for a proposed park in City in the Hills? That's the question some residents have as council members are set to vote Wednesday to eliminate the park once and for all.

Back in 2009 City in the Hills was a mess.

"We've never seen anything quite like this before," said Public Works director Raul Rojas in 2009.

Streets, sidewalks, and two parks left unfinished when the master developer, Mountain View Bravo LLC up and left. Although there is no record of bankruptcy the city says the company ran out of money.

"At that time they had abandoned the project. They were nowhere to be found," said Vice Mayor Ken Weir who was a Bakersfield City Councilmember at the time.

So in April of 2009 the city council unanimously voted to finish the project obsolving Mountain View of their responsibility to finish the job.

"In the end, we did the right thing. We used that bond money for its intended purpose," said Weir.

But to some residents like Krystina Steed the vote wasn't common sense, it was quid-pro-quo.

"I think they are standing there smiling while someone's stuffing money in their back pockets," said Steed.

That's because of the six city council members who voted to bail out Mountain View four received campaign contributions from the company. The most, nearly $12,000, went to Vice Mayor Ken Weir representing the third ward, which encompasses City in the Hills. But under city and state laws, every dollar in donations was all perfectly legal.

"They give me money because they think I am the best candidate for the job and under those conditions I accept money under no other conditions," said Weir.

Court records show the contributions continued even as Mountain View Bravo began defaulting on payments to local contractors.

"People in our community who had already fulfilled their obligations were not getting paid yet our council members were and that's a big area of concern," said Steed.

"I had no idea. I had not a clue," said Weir.

Now fast forward five years later. The roads are finished and one park has been built but the lot the developer promised would be a second park sits vacant.

"It doesn't make good planning sense to go in and build another park of roughly 11 acres about a block away from a fully-amenitied 10 acre park down the street," said Steve Teglia, Asst. to the City Manager for Bakersfield.

That's why Councilman Weir suggested a swap of the 11 acre piece of park land for 20 acres across Highway 178 near the Mesa Marin Sport Complex, land that would be used to expand the city's popular softball facility.

"We have a chance to put a fabulous facility basically in the heart of all that's going to go on there," said Vice Mayor Weir.

But to some resident's it's not a benefit it's another buy off.

"The money is there they are just choosing to spend it someplace else," said Steed.

That place is with major Los Angeles based campaign contributor Aaron Rivani who owns the land the city wants to trade for. According to city campaign statements, Rivani and his companies have donated money to every current city council member except Bob Smith.

"It's never been based on, 'this person gave me money I am going to go out and fight for them.' It's not that way at all," said Terry Maxwell, City Councilmember for Ward 1.

"I can tell you I never ever had a conversation with Aaron about buying that land ever," said Vice Mayor Weir.

Rivani and his companies stand to make a good deal of money off the swap. County records show Rivani bought this property back in 2008 for nearly $1 million. According to city records between two city purchases he stands get back his money and then some, a $215,000 profit not counting the value of the park land.

"In order for a deal like this to work it has to be advantageous to both parties," said Steve Teglia, Assistant City Manager. 

But Steed wonders is her council voting for her or Aaron Rivani?

"Our council members are for sale. It's fair game if you want something done and you've got enough money to do it you know who to see," said Steed.

But Vice Mayor Weir said that's completely untrue noting that he's voting for the greater good not the greatest contributor.

"I think I have a vision. I've been working on this for six years and it's finally coming together and it's unfortunate some people have to give up something they were promised but for the greater good and for the future of the community out there I totally believe this is the right thing to do," said Weir.

A half dozen calls to Aaron Rivani and Mountain View Bravo attorney's went unanswered. The city currently has no set limits for campaign contributions. The county limits personal and company donations to $500 dollars.

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