Tony Vazquez

Interacting with small businesses owners in Santa Monica inspired City Councilmember Tony Vazquez to seek higher office.

Vazquez, who first served on Council in the early 1990s before being elected again in 2012, will resign Jan. 7 to take a seat on the California State Board of Equalization (BOE), which is responsible for administering various taxes and overseeing county property tax assessments. The BOE is the only elected tax board in the country and Vazquez will represent Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties.

He won the seat with 67.9 percent of the vote, defeating Republican G. Rick Marshall to become the BOE’s first Latino member.

Vazquez was also the first Latino mayor of Santa Monica. He said he thinks his presence on Council and as Mayor have the city’s Latino population more of a voice and an incentive to participate in local politics, and hopes to have a similar impact on the BOE.

He first considered running for the seat, he said, after speaking with local small businesses, many of them Mexican restaurants, who were being squeezed by back taxes. BOE staff had visited the restaurants during their peak hours and overestimated the amount of revenue they were pulling in. The BOE asked for tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes that the business owners couldn’t afford.

Vazquez said he found that many of the owners, particularly Latino owners, didn’t realize they could appeal the decision to the BOE and found the body inaccessible overall. At the same time, he saw that local hotels were able to hire expensive lawyers to pay less in taxes. He’s aiming to make the BOE more responsive to small businesses and assess them more fairly.

“We need to figure out how these corporations are able to navigate these loopholes they currently use that’s not making it an even playing field for all,” he said. “The second piece would be setting up workshops to get this information out to the small businesses, so they understand what they’re responsible in terms of taxes and how they can negotiate.”

The state gutted the BOE’s powers in mid-2017 after several members found themselves in hot water over campaign finance scandals. It reassigned most of the BOE’s duties, including its role as a court for taxpayers to dispute assessments, to two appointed boards.

Vazquez said he thinks appointed officials will be less responsive to taxpayers and plans to advocate to Governor-elect Gavin Newsom that the BOE’s powers be reinstated.

Now that all four of us (BOE members) are new and we have a new governor, it allows us to start on a clean slate and figure out what needs to be tweaked or modified rather than eliminate those responsibilities,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re an elected body and if taxpayers don’t have access to us, we’re stripping them of a service we should be providing.”

While Vazquez said he appreciates the chance to represent a wider area on a state board, he will miss the more hands-on nature of City Council work.

He said is most proud of Council’s moves to expand affordable housing across Santa Monica since he started his first term in 1990. Back then, people he grew up with in the Pico neighborhood, then an overwhelmingly Latino area, told him they resented that most of the city’s affordable housing clustered there.

Since then, affordable housing can be found in most areas of Santa Monica, which Vazquez said he associates with the expansion of the Latino community past the borders of Pico.

He is also proud that, while Mayor from 2015 to 2016, he cut the ribbon on several mobility projects, including the terminus of the Expo Line, the reconstruction of the California Incline that included pedestrian and bicycle paths and the Colorado Esplanade promenade that connects the Expo Line to the Santa Monica Pier.

“I like to think my impact was to say that that those who have been disenfranchised over the years, many of them now feel a little more empowered because of my time on Council,” Vazquez said. “I hope I created some access to those folks and was able to distribute some of the resources and benefits the city has to offer.”

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