Monday, December 3, 2012

Councilman's role with 7-Eleven questioned

December 03, 2012, 05:00 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

A councilman's role in a controversial 7-Eleven set to open today in San Mateo is being questioned by Deputy Mayor David Lim, who supports an outside investigation into whether city staff was influenced to grant a building permit by Councilman Jack Matthews or staff from his architectural firm.

Matthews had involvement with Portfolio Development Partners and its project at 501 N. San Mateo Drive up until February of this year, shortly before city planners abruptly ended a public process for a zoning code amendment to allow a market use on land technically zoned residential.

City staff ended the zoning code amendment process shortly before a neighborhood meeting in February and granted a building permit to Portfolio, which set in motion the construction of a new 7-Eleven at the former Stangelini’s Italian Deli; Hilltop Market.

Phone logs released Friday by the city show a number of calls between Matthews and his staff to city planners in February that Lim is curious about.

The phone logs “raise legitimate questions about communication between city staff and members of the City Council that might be seen as having influenced the granting of the building permit,” Lim wrote in a statement.

Lim told the Daily Journal yesterday that Matthews has a “sterling” reputation but said “tough questions have to be made.”

The old deli on the property was considered a legal non-conforming use and the council is currently going through a series of public hearings to determine if the 7-Eleven is also a legal non-conforming use for the land.

Matthews’ firm had been beaten back repeatedly by city staff when making inquiries into whether a new market could replace the old market because the property had stood vacant for more than six months after Stangelini’s closed its doors for good in 2010.

Lim called the sudden change in land use for the property back in February, however, “very unusual.”

Matthews told the Daily Journal yesterday he had no clue that city planners were seeking a second opinion on city code and did not know a building permit was issued for the site until reading it in the newspaper.

He also said there was “no attempt on our part to influence the process.”

The second opinion given to city staff by an interim city attorney in February indicated that since the owners of the building had no intent of abandoning the market use for the site that it still maintained its legal non-conforming use status.

The controversy has caused the neighborhood to hire its own attorney to keep the 7-Eleven out of the San Mateo Heights Neighborhood and to raise myriad questions as to why the building permit was issued at all.

The phone logs, Matthews said, show that his firm made contact with the city on a variety of projects, including Mission Hospice and others.

“While there is most likely a reasonable explanation for what the phone logs appear to show, even the appearance of impropriety is unacceptable in serving the residents of San Mateo openly and honestly,” Lim wrote in the statement.

Matthews also wants the process to be as “open and transparent” as possible.

“I am fully in support of a transparent process. The public needs to have faith in this process and I have faith we behaved in an ethical manner,” Matthews said about his office.

Matthews has recused himself from hearings on the matter since his firmed did some work for the developer on the project.

Officials with 7-Eleven told the Daily Journal last week the store was scheduled to open today. Lim is also set to be sworn-in as mayor tonight.

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