A bizarre occurrence flew under the radar at last week’s City Council meeting, as Councilmember Johnny Khamis was forced to recuse himself from a vote on his own memo. The matter itself—the rezoning of a property on Blossom Hill Avenue that includes San Jose Skate rink—appears relatively mundane, but the chain of events that led to Khamis’ abstention raises a number of questions about potential conflicts of interest.
On Monday, March 10, Khamis authored a memo requesting that a discussion on rezoning the property be deferred to the April 15 evening session for more community input. He noted that the 37-year-old, wood-floored San Jose Skate is an institution, and the “item should be heard at an evening meeting so that interested members of the public may attend after work hours and offer input on this agenda item."
What Khamis failed to mention in his memo is that just a week earlier he was inquiring about leasing the roller rink with family members. When twice reached for comment last week about his interest in the property, Khamis’ story changed several times in regards to when he made inquiries.
On Thursday, Khamis told San Jose Inside that he took an interest in leasing and renovating San Jose Skate back in mid-February. “My sisters and I and a few other investors were looking at it, thinking a few weeks ago, ‘Wow, this place has really gotten run down from when we were kids,’” he said.
Khamis reached out to the owner on Friday, Feb. 28, and they talked about the monthly rent price. “He said he’s already had five offers,” Khamis said, adding that the current rate is about $7,000 a month, but one offer went as high as $70,000 if the owner allowed the space to be converted into a fitness center. “As soon as the guy told me $70,000, I left it at that.”
Except he didn’t.
Khamis continued to inquire about the property, and on Sunday, March 2, he called fellow Councilmember Ash Kalra. The property, previously owned by the Health Trust, is located in Kalra’s district. The two then exchanged text messages. On Monday, March 3, Khamis stopped by Kalra’s office to follow up about the property, the latter said. A Khamis staffer then followed up again with Kalra’s office on Wednesday, March 5.
Khamis said his office experienced some miscommunication and a staffer did not realize he was no longer interested in the property. But this doesn’t explain why he would ask Kalra for the owner’s contact info—and follow up in person—after he had already found out the space was too expensive to rent.
“As far as everything that was said, I’m operating off of what I recall,” Khamis said. “I don’t even remember texting [Kalra] to be honest.”
Coincidentally, or not, just a week after Khamis expressed interest in leasing the space, the property’s zoning designation was up for consideration on the March 11 council agenda. Changing from a “planned zoning development” to a “neighborhood/community commerical zoning district” would bring the property in line with the 2040 General Plan, according to a staff memo. It could also result in the skate rink being converted into a health club.
Khamis said the item was “mysteriously snuck in” and he first became aware of it while reading his council agenda over the weekend of March 8-9.
“Usually on a controversial issue, people give me a warning in advance; even lobbyists come talk to me, citizens come talk to me. And I was reading my agenda and I was wondering why this is being rezoned,” he said.
But in the same interview, conducted at the end of Friday last week, Khamis told San Jose Inside that he first became aware of the agenda item on March 6 or 7.
“In the beginning there were only two people who talked to me, one on Friday and one on Thursday,” Khamis recalled. “And I said, ‘Why don’t you write me a letter?’”
Khamis’ memo to defer action on the item was filed on Monday, March 10 at 4:32pm, according to the City Clerk’s office, and both he and his chief of staff claimed substantial community concern motivated the deferral request. But resident emails reviewed by San Jose Inside show that only one came in before Khamis filed his memo. More than a dozen emails then followed after the fact.
“What’s bizarre to me is he expressed private interest in the property, then made a request to defer, and then came all these emails from the community,’” Kalra said. “Any controversy surrounding the issue was precipitated by his actions.
“If constituents had asked me to defer the issue, I would have done it in a heartbeat. But I never heard anything until Johnny put out his memo.”
Following a closed session meeting the following morning, Tuesday, March 11, Kalra approached City Attorney Richard Doyle with concerns that Khamis authored a memo about a property he had wanted to lease just a week earlier. Khamis initially told San Jose Inside that he sought out “the lawyer,” which is how he referred to Doyle, following closed session on March 11. But in a second interview, Khamis admitted that Doyle approached him about the matter.
“He told me it’s not a major conflict of interest, because I didn’t make an offer,” Khamis said.
Doyle could not be immediately reached, but Kalra said his conversation with the city attorney went a little differently.
“I just know when I talked to Rick, he seemed pretty clear that [Khamis] needed to abstain,” he said.
“There’s nothing wrong if someone has a private interest in something going before the council,” Kalra added, “but if you’re a councilmember there should be no doubt you should recuse yourself. In this case, I was just shocked that he talked about investing in it and then, without letting me know or the planning department know, he asked for a deferral. Once there’s even a hint of interest in a potential item coming before the council, that should be a clear sign that you back off and take no involvement in the item.”
When asked if he or his business partners still had an interest in the skate rink or property, Khamis said, “Absolutely not.” He added that he believes the skate rink will be eliminated if rezoned.
“I don’t like people sneaking stuff in, that’s all—especially a controversial issue like this, our heritage,” Khamis said. “I think Ash kind of made a big deal that I had talked to the owner about leasing the property, and then I talked to the lawyer, and the lawyer said that although I don’t have a conflict of interest—because I did not make an offer—I should abstain just to squelch any naysayers.”
“The implication that anyone is hiding something is ludicrous,” Kalra countered. “This is a standard rezoning. All we’re doing is conforming the zoning for what it’s used for now and in the future. Maybe he just needs to learn more about the planning process.”
Khamis said he will be meeting with Doyle today to determine whether or not he should vote on the matter, which is back on this week’s agenda.
As an additional coincidence, Kalra and Khamis will travel together to Washington D.C. next week as part of a delegation for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
UPDATE: The property in question is no longer owned by the Health Trust, as stated by the staff memo. Don Imwalle Jr., who disputed the city's living wage policy in December, owns the skate rink, while the medical facility is now owned by Barry Swenson.