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Conflicts of Interest Surround Olson Housing Project in Downey

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May 14, 2024

By Brian Hews • [email protected]

In October 2020, a Los Cerritos Community News investigation revealed that former Downey Mayor Mario Guerra sold a condominium he owned in the city, at a reduced price according to comparable properties, to Eric Pierce. Pierce was running for Downey City Council, was endorsed by Guerra, and was editor of the local newspaper, the Downey Patriot.

The Patriot publisher, Jennifer DeKay, ignored the obvious ethical implications and turned a deaf ear to the fact that Pierce was getting a great deal from Guerra, who was (and currently is) an influential political operative in Downey, including for many on the Downey City Council.

The condominium Pierce bought from Guerra was located at the Village Walk,  just one block away from Downtown Downey at Firestone and Downey Ave., one of the busiest areas in the city; Village Walk was built in 2018 by Olson Homes after Guerra left the Downey City Council due to term limits.

Property records from O.C. Title at the time of sale to Pierce showed that Guerra and his wife owned the Olson-built condo, and no other property records were available for the house.

Guerra never contacted LCCN for a retraction on the story related to the ownership of the condominium.

Document from O.C. Title showing Guerra and his wife Ann selling the Olson condo to Eric Pierce. Click to view a larger document. Click again to return to story

Fast-forward to early 2024, when Olson proposed another controversial development on what is known as The Island in Downey. The condominium development will be built at 7360 Foster Bridge Blvd. Olson plans to build 33 units ranging from 1,200 to 1,800 square feet, with three units designated as affordable. 

For months, residents have spoken out against the proposed project, fearing that it would bring major problems to the area, including increased traffic and density.

Guerra has placed himself in the middle of the fray, flexing his political muscle as Vice-Chair of the Downey Planning Commission (DPC) while residents cry foul, demanding he recuse himself from voting on the Olson project due to the Village Walk condominium purchase.

Guerra has denied any financial connection to Olson,  telling everybody his daughter bought and eventually sold the property.

In an email obtained by LCCN, Guerra stated, “I am not a customer of Olson homes. My daughter bought a condo at the Village Walk when they were for sale in Downtown Downey many years ago and sold it the next year to buy a bigger home….it was bought for the market price and it was sold for market price.” 

When LCCN presented Guerra with title documents showing he owned the condominium, he responded, “I stand by my comments, I am not a customer of Olson Homes and do not have any conflict in voting on this [Island] project.” 

Guerra kept up his shaky defense despite LCCN presenting additional documentation showing a Grant Deed signed by Guerra and his wife Ann transferring the property out of their trust to Pierce, saying, “As I said, we lent her (my daughter) the money, she bought it, it was hers, I did not stay a night in the condo.”

Grant Deed that clearly shows Guerra and his wife transferring the condo to Pierce. The signatures were slightly whited out by LCCN. Click to view a larger document click again to return to story.

The April 17 DPC meeting began with Guerra absent, attending an event in Kentucky. The DPC authorized the meeting, knowing only four members would be present and that the only agenda item was the Olson project.

With Olson representative Brian Heyman present, the Commission voted 2-2 on the item, with Commissioners Hector Lujan and Elias Saikaly voting yes, and Chair Carrie Uva and Louis Morales voting no.

A discussion ensued, then about five minutes later Uva asked the commissioners if “it was okay to re-open public comment;” Commissioner Lujan said “yes.”

In direct violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, Chair Uva re-opened public comment and allowed Heyman to speak. Heyman did not mince words when asking that the entire Commission be present, so it was  “at full strength.” 

That clearly meant that Olson wanted Guerra, who was in Kentucky, to be present for another vote.

Heyman doubled down on his demand for Guerra to be present and to conduct a new vote, “We (Olson) were fully aware that the Commission would not be at full strength tonight and we ask that you continue the item until May 1 when you will be at full strength.” 

The City Attorney then chimed in, saying, “Chair [Uva], items are usually continued before they are acted upon, before they are voted upon, and the vote has been cast, so this item is not eligible to be continued.” 

Uva responded, “Yeah, I agree,” then ignored the City Attorney, declared public comment re-opened, and allowed another resident to speak on Olson’s behalf for the full allotted time of three minutes and another resident who was against the project to speak. 

After allowing the resident and a pro-Olson speaker all of their time, the City Attorney prevented the anti-Olson speaker from finishing his three minutes, cutting him off a little over one minute into his comment.

Seeing a potential Brown Act violation, the City Attorney rebuked the speaker, “Public comment has been done, the commission has deliberated on this item, now it’s closed.”

The meeting ended, with the Olson project facing a 2-2 vote, at 9:45 p.m. 

The next day, April 18, the city received a letter from John Reekskin, SVP of Olson, asking for a continuance and for the Olson item to be placed on the May 1 agenda. 

The Reekstin letter was not time-stamped or stamped “Received” per city policy.

Letter from Olson asking for their project to be placed on the May 1 agenda

The 2-2 vote should have been the final vote sent to the Downey City Council for consideration. The item cannot return unless it is amended in some way. Instead, the city allowed the original continuance and placed Olson on the May 1 Planning Commission agenda. 

But even that process of scheduling the May 1 meeting was extremely questionable.

By law, when the DPC meets, a notice must be published in a newspaper of general circulation 72 hours prior to the meeting to give residents notification and a chance to attend. The Downey Patriot is a newspaper of general circulation that publishes late on Thursdays.

Since the DPC meets on Wednesdays, and the Patriot publishes late Thursday, the meeting notice must publish in the Patriot two Thursdays before the meeting to satisfy the 72-hour notice.

The April 18 Downey Planning Commission meeting ended at 9:45 p.m. 

In less than one day, lightning fast for a city publishing a legal notice, Downey Staff was able to compose the notice – that only included the Olson project – get it through a legal review, and deliver to the Patriot for publishing, satisfying the 72-hour notice for the May 1 DPC meeting.

Highly unusual given that the Patriot was on a tight deadline to deliver newspaper files to its printer that night. 

With the Olson notice published, the May 1 meeting rolled around; this time Chair Carrie Uva was absent, attending a realtors conference in Sacramento. 

It is a well-known fact that conferences that large are scheduled months in advance of the event, but the DPC scheduled the meeting anyway knowing Uva would be absent.

Unlike the April 17 meeting, Olson representatives did not object to Uva’s absence; Vice-Chair Mario Guerra would now conduct the meeting.

After nearly four hours, the vote was called and ended at 3-1, with Guerra, Sakaily, and Lujan voting yes and Morales voting no.

The project now moves to tonight’s City Council meeting for consideration; the first item on the agenda is the Olson project.

Editor’s note: The article mis-identified Brian Heyman as a speaker at the 4/17/24 meeting, it has been corrected.

  • Greta Campbell says:

    Excellent reporting. I’ve always known that the Downey Patriot was little more than a mouth piece for Mario Guerra. And I can’t help but note the self righteous indignation that Guerra and his political hit squad put on Catherine Alvarez after she beat his proxy fairly.

  • Katherine says:

    Great article, but I do know for a fact that Guerra’s daughter did live there with her husband and son and sold the place to upgrade to a bigger home. Guerra never lived there himself. I believe it may have been a gift for her and her son. Facts that may not be known to you. But other than the above information and the reply about Catherine Alvarez, pretty fair…

    • Brian Hews says:

      The title docs showed he owned it….the daughter lived there but did not own it, Guerra bought it from Olson then voted yes for the Island project…