Shop ’til you’re stopped

On Mayor Kevin Johnson’s handsy way with taxpayer money and the end of Downtown Plaza

It’s pretty half-assed, as far as embezzlement scandals go. Lisa Serna-Mayorga has already paid back the 9,000 bucks worth of charges, which she ought not have put on the city’s credit card but did anyway. Reportedly.

Still, the surprisingly dumb and unnecessary downfall of Serna—a longtime friend and helper to Mayor Kevin Johnson—reminds us again that Team K.J. has always been a little too handsy with taxpayer money.

Remember earlier this year when Johnson was busted by the media for using a police-department SUV and driver to shuttle the mayor to an Obama fundraiser in the Bay Area? Team K.J. promised to repay the city money. No harm done.

Serna-Mayorga, of course, worked for Johnson’s St. Hope organization before she joined him at City Hall. In 2008, around the time her boss was getting elected as mayor, the federal government slammed St. Hope for misusing about $800,000 in AmeriCorps money. It said AmeriCorps volunteers were used to chauffeur Johnson around and wash his car and to do political work for him. And it found federal grants were diverted to supplement St. Hope salaries.

Johnson ultimately settled with the feds. He never admitted to any wrongdoing but agreed to pay back about $400,000. See a pattern here?

Serna-Mayorga’s fuckup is small by comparison. Still, questions remain. Who knew what when?

How long did the mayor’s office know about the problem—and attempt to make it go away—before Serna had to walk? How did she get the money to repay the charges? Was it provided by the mayor or one of his many nonprofit organizations? Did Johnson’s then-chief of staff, Kunal Merchant, know what was going on? Why didn’t he stop it?

“Because this is a criminal investigation, we cannot discuss information that could affect the outcome of this case,” said mayoral spokesperson Joaquin McPeek in an email.

What about the city’s accounting people? Were they asking for receipts to go with these charges? Did they pay the charges when they should have known that something wasn’t kosher?

“Because of the criminal investigation, I cannot discuss or release information or facts that could negatively affect the outcome of this case,” said city spokesperson Amy Williams in an email.

The investigation will go on. Maybe some other people will get in trouble, too. But, most likely, the answers won’t be all that satisfying. Because they won’t tell us why stuff like this keeps happening.

There were cheers around town earlier this week on news that the long-neglected Downtown Plaza might finally be sold to new owners.

Bites has long argued that the whole suburban-style shopping Death Star be dynamited so we can start over with a blank grid.

But lately, it’s been fun to observe the mall as a sort of science project; weird and interesting things are growing in it.

There are all sorts of off-brand stores, and a Hyundai dealership, and a post office. And also a tattoo shop, and Zuhg Life, and that place where the guy is trying to win the Guinness world record for most assorted elephants ever assembled in one place? Are you kidding? That’s awesome.

The mall has become the retail version of one of those abandoned oil platforms—left to barnacle over and turn into artificial reefs and home for new thriving ecosystems. Given enough time, who knows what sort of neighborhood might begin to accrete there in the plaza, organically.

Alas, we’ll likely never know. The new owners will come in and give the place a power washing and plug in a few more bland tenants, and the mall will continue to limp along.

All this only three years after K.J. told the mall’s owners, Westfield, to sell and “not hold our city hostage anymore.” Keep up the pressure. It’s totally working.