Money and politics: Santa Clara mayor’s family empire
Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor is pictured in this file photo.

Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor might represent a smaller Bay Area city, but there’s nothing small about her business empire.

Gillmor, who is up for reelection in 2022, controls a sprawling real estate portfolio that includes strip malls in Santa Clara, swaths of undeveloped land near Gilroy and a small plot in San Bernardino County. Her property management company oversees lease agreements for surplus land in Bay Area school districts and manages a rental property for teachers.

It’s not unprecedented for Bay Area lawmakers to be wealthy or have real estate holdings. Political consultant Rich Robinson noted former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery had tremendous real estate holdings in downtown San Jose during his tenure. But it is uncommon. In a comparatively smaller city such as Santa Clara, with a population of 127,647, Gillmor’s wealth and unusually large real estate portfolio make her a powerful figure. At times her governing decisions appear to bleed into her business holdings.

“At the end of the day, the Gillmors own a lot of things,” Robinson said.

By comparison, her counterpart in San Jose—Mayor Sam Liccardo—leads a city nearly 10 times the size of Santa Clara, with a population of more than one million, and has a number of stock investments, but he doesn’t report any real estate holdings on his financial disclosures.

Elected officials are not required to report their personal residence.

According to San José Spotlight’s analysis, the Santa Clara mayor’s stake in real estate ventures is worth more than $5 million, based on her financial disclosures. Last year, three of her companies reported more than $300,000 in income, while a subsidiary took in between $10,000 and $100,000. Her husband reported receiving $100,000 or more from one of the companies.

This large a portfolio also has besieged the mayor with legal troubles. Her companies have been involved in at least 11 lawsuits with tenants since 2003, including a complaint filed by the owner of a computer repair shop who claimed one of her companies failed to fix a leaky roof that sparked an electrical fire.

San José Spotlight reviewed records from the Santa Clara County Assessor's Office and Gillmor’s most recent statement of economic interest from March 2021.

"My real estate experience is helpful as land use, development and financing are major responsibilities of city government," Gillmor told San José Spotlight in response to a list of questions. Asked if she intends to run for mayor again in 2022, she said, "stay tuned."

What the Gillmors own

Gillmor is a managing partner in Gillmor Properties, LLC, a real estate company founded in 1999 by her father, Gary Gillmor—also a former city mayor.

Gillmor Properties is invested heavily in a number of Santa Clara properties, but one of the most notable is Franklin Square, a mall where the company owns 10,150 square feet of real estate. Gillmor Properties' real estate holdings in the mall exceed $1 million, according to Gillmor's financial disclosure. The company reported income from two businesses at the mall: Da Silva’s Broncos and Jasmine Thai Cuisine. It owns a space that once housed a restaurant, Wong’s Kitchen, which appears to have closed several years ago. The company also owns spaces occupied by a UPS store, an eyebrow salon and an acupuncture studio, but no income is disclosed.

The Gillmor family’s involvement in the mall dates back to the 1970s. Gary Gillmor owned properties in the mall while he was mayor, which he transferred to Gillmor Properties in 1999, according to public records. In 1997, Lisa Gillmor, who sat on the City Council, voted to create a task force to study revitalizing the mall. The following year the council unanimously voted to appoint Gillmor to the task force, where she voted to spend thousands of city dollars renovating the mall and set aside $4 million in additional funding from the $36 million sale of a city-owned property called Techmart—a transaction Gillmor also voted on. She did not recuse herself, which could be considered a conflict of interest because her father owned the mall.

The city pays to maintain a parking structure at the mall and Gillmor typically abstains from these votes, although she did vote to approve the fees in 2014.

According to assessor records, Gillmor’s niece, Brittany Puccinelli, co-owns the Franklin Mall property where Da Silva’s Broncos is located.

Gillmor Properties also owns properties in a small Santa Clara strip mall on Washington Street called Normandy Center. Merry Mart—a school uniform retailer—is the sole source of income Gillmor reported from the mall. Gillmor Properties owns three other spaces in the mall, including a postal service shop, beauty salon and collectibles store that's now vacant.

When asked why the other businesses' incomes were not reported she said, "I am required to disclose the names of tenants when my income exceeds the threshold required for the Form 700. Since I own in partnership with others, those are the only tenants that exceeded that threshold."

Form 700 is a political form that elected officials and government employees are required to complete to disclose possible conflicts of interest.

Assessor records show Gillmor Properties also owns 69 Washington St. in the mall, which appears to be occupied by a financial advisor firm. Gillmor said this property is included in her financial disclosure, but the address does not appear on the form.

According to assessor records, Gillmor’s brother David and her sister, Rene Gillmor-Coleman, are among a handful of people who appear to own two retail spaces on Washington Street, which currently house Crepes Bistro and Ad West Mail Center. Gillmor said she has recused herself on past votes that would affect her siblings' properties.

Mall votes

Gillmor routinely recuses herself from votes when it comes to Santa Clara’s downtown area, Councilmember Anthony Becker told San José Spotlight, but the sum total of her holdings is a mystery.

“A lot of us are very curious about how much land she does own,” Becker said, adding he’d like to have a list of all property owned by councilmembers and their families to see if any conflicts exist.

Gillmor Properties also owns a nine-unit triplex building on Lewis Street in Santa Clara. According to assessor records, the company also owns a multi-family home on Lewis Street.

Gillmor reported more than $100,000 in income from a real estate company called Gillmor Childrens’ LLC, which owns property in unincorporated Gilroy. Her disclosure lists real property at “Burchill & Day Road,” misspelling Burchell. These roads are approximately one mile apart and both intersect with Watsonville Road.

The land between these two roads contains a substantial portion of Lucky Day Ranch—a 2,050-acre plot of land owned by Gary Gillmor. Earlier this year, Gary Gillmor set up a website to sell the ranch, which he is pitching as an ideal site for a housing development. Gillmor said the Gillmor Childrens' company is one of many partners that owns land in the Lucky Day Ranch property.

Outside investments

This isn’t the only property the Gillmors own outside of Santa Clara. Lisa and Gary Gillmor are also listed as the owners of a 10-acre vacant parcel of residential land just outside of Victorville in San Bernardino County. Lisa Gillmor did not disclose this property in her most recent financial disclosure. Asked why, she said the property isn't anywhere near Santa Clara and does not produce income.

Gillmor and her father work together through Gillmor & Associates, Inc., a property management company based in Santa Clara. According to her disclosures, Gillmor & Associates received more than $100,000 last year in income from property management fees. A subsidiary of this company, Public Property Advisors, reported receiving between $10,000 to $100,000 in real estate leasing fees from Union School District.

Santa Clara lawmakers don't work full-time in government, so it's not unusual or wrong for them to have private businesses or real estate investments. But the key is disclosing them and not voting on policies or items in which elected officials have a financial stake.

"It's important for those elected officials to recuse themselves and not make any public statements in support of a public policy matter that would impact in any way their business," said John Pelissero, senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

It's also important for lawmakers to consider how transparency—or lack of transparency—around their business interests may affect their credibility.

"They have to possess that kind of ethical awareness," Pelissero said. "Because when they fail to protect perceptions of how they're managing the public's interest it can erode trust the public has in that official."

Legal troubles

In recent years Gillmor was sued for failing to disclose income from her real estate and property management businesses.

A Santa Clara law school student sued Gillmor in 2018 for allegedly violating California public disclosure laws by not reporting her interest in Public Property Advisors for several years. Public Property Advisors advises school districts in the Bay Area on land/facility leases and helps them dispose of surplus land. Gillmor allegedly failed to disclose $780,000 her company received from 2011 to 2016 from Alum Rock Union School District, San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, Gilroy Unified and Pleasanton Unified. The court ruled in Gillmor's favor.

Gillmor & Associates serves as the the property manager for Casa del Maestro, an affordable housing complex for teachers. Although the company has managed the property since 2002, Gillmor failed to disclose income for collecting rent and doing repairs until 2019.

Gillmor's real estate business has racked up a significant number of lawsuits over the years, including eviction cases against struggling tenants and one who lost his business in a fire.

In 2014, a former tenant at the Normandy Center, Zach Abedali, sued Gillmor Properties for allegedly failing to repair a leak in the roof, which he claimed caused an electrical fire that destroyed his computer repair business and injured his wife. The company denied liability and succeeded in dismissing Abedali’s suit in 2016. Gillmor Properties also sued Abedali for unpaid rent the same month the fire occurred. It’s unclear whether this case was resolved.

In 2011, Gillmor Properties and tenant Avalon Nightclub Inc. sued each other for breach of contract after Gillmor terminated the lease at 777 Lawrence Expressway. Gillmor wanted to evict Avalon for allegedly subleasing the property.

According to deposition records, Gillmor Properties was aware of the subtenant and received rental payments from them. The case settled, and the family that owned Avalon sued Gillmor unsuccessfully in 2013 for allegedly giving a negative reference to a prospective landlord.

It appears Gillmor Properties wanted to evict Avalon because it had received an offer on the property. It sold the property in 2012 for $5.75 million.

Gillmor Properties sued the tenant who preceded Avalon at the 777 Lawrence Expressway property. In 2004, the company filed a complaint against Inner Circle Entertainment Inc. for nearly $31,000 in unpaid rent. Gillmor Properties won a default judgment against the company.

The Gillmor family has been part of the Santa Clara Valley fabric for decades. Gary Gillmor carved out his financial wealth through real estate and his political influence in his hometown of Santa Clara.

From there, he passed the reins onto his daughter who governs the same city and has amassed her own real estate wealth.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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