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Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022
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Simi Valley Auto Dealership Hits Rut in Road

Most developers and officials involved in local redevelopment projects are hoping to squeeze a little more money out of the state to fund a few last projects. But in Simi Valley, one beneficiary of funds decided last month to return $70,000 he received for replacing two run-down buildings on a dilapidated parcel of land. How’s that? Kelly Kolarek, owner of used-car dealership K&J Auto Exchange, says he returned the money to try and disentangle himself from a months-long battle involving local politicians and activists about the legality of the funding. In one of the stranger stories as redevelopment projects wind down across the region, Simi Valley is looking into allegations that a grant given to Kolarek was done so improperly. Kolarek became the subject of a Ventura County Grand Jury complaint at the behest of a local Tea Party official in a tangled story involving city council politics that has played out in Ventura County newspapers. “I wish I’d never put my business there now,” Kolarek said. “That money was a Trojan horse.” The tale began in 2009 when Kolarek, a Simi Valley resident who owns a Van Nuys auto auction company, met with city officials about redeveloping two adjacent lots on Tapo Street. Kolarek had leased the property from a Sherman Oaks family trust, and wanted to build an auto dealership on the property, the site of a defunct gas station and a building that had been home to a series of failed restaurants. Kolarek said he approached city officials simply to get approvals and was told about money available through the Tapo Street Facade Renovation Program, which assisted owners in fixing up their businesses. The construction was completed, and in 2011 his used car lot, K&J Auto Exchange, opened for business. “I turned in all my receipts, and was given the grant after everything was already done and paid for,” he said. “No one at the city had any questions. In fact, they said they wished everyone turned things in as organized as I did.” Political implications Then, late last summer, Kolarek wrote an open letter to the Ventura County Star criticizing Doug Crosse, a candidate for the Simi Valley City Council. Soon after, Crosse, executive director of the Simi Valley/Moorpark Tea Party, began questioning the grant money Kolarek received for renovations to his property. Crosse even initiated a grand jury complaint into the grant process. He publicly alleged a quid pro quo arrangement between Kolarek and Councilman Steve Sojka, a political rival who signed off on the project along with Councilman Glen Becerra. Crosse declined to be interviewed for this article, but his grand jury complaint alleges that Kolarek failed to provide proper documentation for the project, was ineligible because he tore down the two buildings rather than renovated them and that day laborers were used for the project, in violation of guidelines. Kolarek denies any wrongdoing and in turn alleges that after the allegations were made, his family was subjected to cyber-bullying and threatening text messages. Eventually, Kolarek says, the money just wasn’t worth the hassle. “It was never about the money, I never even wanted the money,” he said. “I was encouraged to apply for the grant by city officials.” But the return of the money hasn’t ended the fight. The city has now asked Kolarek to provide proof of his renovations in the form of cancelled checks for work that was done. Becerra, who was one of the officials who signed off on Kolarek’s initial application and who is still on the council, said the city had plenty of time to look into the legality of Kolarek’s application the first time around. “As far as I’m concerned, when city staff spends eight months reviewing documents, with the right to ask for more documentation, then that’s enough for me,” he said. Whose money? The facade renovation project was one of the city’s biggest redevelopment programs. It gave money to 44 local businesses, including Kolarek’s, for maintenance and improvement of their buildings along the thoroughfare. Here’s what ironic: as the city waits to find out from the state whether some remaining redevelopment projects will get funding, it won’t get to keep the $70,000 grant money Kolarek returned. Instead, it will be redistributed by the county, likely for redistribution to local school districts and housing agencies, said Assistant City Manager Brian Gabler. “It won’t go to the city or any other redevelopment,” he said. As for Kolarek, he said the Simi Valley expansion of his business had been going well until last quarter, which was tough. Perhaps it was the time of the year, but he didn’t rule out that negative publicity could have hurt him. He said his lawyer is pondering whether to cooperate with the request for his cancelled checks, but he – and his business – aren’t going anywhere. “They pushed me into a corner and I’m going to fight,” he said. “They aren’t pushing me out of town.”

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