The Incredible Expanding City
A mysterious consultant with a fat contract wants to quintuple tiny Greenfield. And no one wants to talk about it.
Thursday, May 30, 2002
Photo: City Hall watchdog John Brueggeman (right) says three men from Mendota are taking over his city.
A year ago, the Greenfield City Council abruptly fired the city attorney and city engineer. Bypassing the usual job-search and interview process, officials immediately hired two men, Ruben Moreno and Randy Risner, both of whom were from the small Central Valley city of Mendota. A month later, the council hired a consultant, Zak Gonzalez, to complete its General Plan Update; throughout the 1990s, Gonzalez had worked with Moreno and Risner in Mendota, where he was the city manager.
All three had been fired in February ''97 after charges of malfeasance. Gonzalez had recommended Mendota take part in two bond ventures in which the city and Indian tribes received cash fees to authorize tax-exempt bonds to be used in other parts of the state. The arrangement, which garnered Mendota $85,000, resulted in state and federal authorities investigating possible securities law violations, and the city council fired Gonzalez as well as Moreno and Risner, whose firm handled Mendota''s legal affairs.
Greenfield hired Gonzalez at an annual salary of $150,000-with $75,000 paid up front-plus $29,000 in approved expenses. By his own account, Gonzalez has been hard at work for a year. But he''s got nothing to show for his work except a big map (with a hand-drawn key in the upper right-hand corner) calling for explosive growth.
The plan was rejected by the City Council on May 21. There''s no General Plan Update draft on the table.
Inexplicably, city councilmembers don''t seem to care.
Mayor Mike Romo declined to return phone calls for two weeks. When the Weekly finally caught up with him, all he would say before hanging up is, "I don''t want to discuss that right now." None of the five members of the city council-including two who have criticized Gonzalez publicly-would discuss the deal on the record.
Gonzalez, who was hired in May, 2001, made his first appearance in Greenfield in January. For his first General Plan update meeting, he rode into town with the big map and a bigger vision.
Greenfield, in south Monterey County, has a population of 12,583. Vineyards and row crops grow a block away from downtown''s El Camino strip, where City Hall, the post office and First Assembly of God church sit between bakeries, liquor stores, cafes and tiny shops.
Gonzalez'' map painted a picture of Greenfield as a small city of 35,000 residents, living in an area five times the size of the existing city. He proposed a municipal airport-which, Greenfield residents pointed out, would be located in a floodplain near the Salinas River-as well as a railroad station and a city-run hospital. Gonzalez'' map showed two golf courses and vast housing developments and industrial parks on top of existing vineyards and agricultural lands.
And as a side note, he threw in one new K-12 school to accommodate the planned baby boom.
In an interview with the Weekly last month, Gonzalez said the proposed technology parks and industrial areas on his map will create more jobs and bring more money into Greenfield. He said the city''s tax base continues to move to Salinas and King City-although he did not present any documentation to back this claim.
"The residents of Greenfield have no hospital, no airport, no fast food, no bowling alley, no recreational activities for the youth to speak of," Gonzalez said. "Don''t they deserve to live in a city?"
Gonzalez rejects the concept, contained in the county''s draft General Plan, that farmland should be preserved and growth concentrated within the boundaries of existing cities.
"We need growth on both sides of Highway 101," he says. "Otherwise, you''re basically tying the city''s hands and saying there''s not going to be any economic growth in Greenfield."
But some Greenfield residents and council members say Gonzalez'' plan has no basis in reality.
"I was completely appalled by the lack of competence," says Carol Clyde, who is the city''s postmaster and unofficial watchdog of the city council. "It''s really nice to have visions and goals as to where we''re headed-I think that''s really important-but these were so far-fetched. He had not considered any of the existing land uses-where the vineyards are, where the permanent easements are. It was as if he wanted to plunk a new city down out of nowhere."
"The council is mad as hell," Mayor Romo told the Greenfield News in March. "We paid [Gonzalez] $75,000 in advance, and he comes back to us with an aerial photograph of the city painted with water colors as our update map."
After a brief interview last month, Gonzalez refused to return numerous phone calls.
The city''s original one-year contract with Gonzalez expired May 15. The city council recently renewed it for one year, even though nobody can show that he''s made any progress toward developing a usable plan.
Since the January meeting, Gonzalez has held one General Plan meeting and has attended only a few of the city''s bi-monthly council and planning commission meetings.
At the City Council''s May 21 meeting, council members, apparently ignoring the work of the city''s recently re-hired $150,000-a-year consultant, approved its city planners'' own set of recommendations for the General Plan Update. The map accompanying this plan outlined the existing city, showing where the agricultural land and vineyards are, and calling for a city significantly smaller than the one envisioned in Gonzalez''s plan. Gonzalez wasn''t at the meeting.
Back in March, Gary Patton of LandWatch Monterey County sent a letter to Mayor Romo and city council members outlining concerns about the city''s general plan process.
"Typically, an ''Existing Conditions'' report is prepared as the first step in the process," Patton wrote. "This report then provides a good basis for discussing possible changes." That is, in fact, the way the update process has transpired throughout the county. And after getting public comments, the city council usually adopts a Preferred Alternative and produces a draft General Plan Update and Environmental Impact Report.
"Unfortunately," Patton''s letter continued, "it does not appear that the Greenfield General Plan Update process is currently following standard planning procedures."
"I am really concerned," Patton says in a phone interview. "Normally, it''s a much more formal process in which you really get to look at things in black and white. Salinas did that; Monterey County did that; the city of Monterey is currently doing that. Greenfield isn''t."
"[Gonzalez] has had a number of things he calls ''workshops,'' but there''s been no written material, no documentation saying where is the city, what are the growth trends, et cetera, et cetera."
Patton, who served in various elected offices in Santa Cruz for two decades before coming to LandWatch, calls Gonzalez'' contract "a rather unusual arrangement, to say the least.
"I have never seen anything like that in my personal experience," he says.
One year before Patton sent his letter, on March 6, 2001, Mayor Mike Romo and Councilmember Art Salvagno stormed out of a closed meeting of the Greenfield City Council. Later, they told reporters they were sick. Stephanie Atigh, who was then the city attorney and was at the meeting, says that the remaining councilmembers-John Huerta, Jr., Zeke Banales and Yolanda Teneyuque, who typically vote as a bloc- decided to terminate Atigh''s contract, as well as that of the city engineer.
"There was no reason given. They basically said ''you''re fired,''" Atigh says, adding she can''t give details as to what went on in closed session because of attorney-client rules. "But I can tell you what they did-they fired me without cause."
When the council returned to open session, Atigh saw Randy Risner sitting in the audience. After the meeting, Risner came over to talk to Councilmember John Huerta, Jr., she says.
Risner and Moreno were hired at the next stormy council meeting by a 3-2 vote, with Romo and Salvagno dissenting. The two made a motion to go through the official request-for-proposal process-the typical route cities take to hire new employees. That motion, too, was defeated by a 3-2 vote.
In May, the same three councilmembers who voted to hire Risner and Moreno voted to hire Gonzalez.
John Brueggeman, a local business owner and council-watcher, believes the Mendota Three were hand-picked by Councilmember Huerta.
"John Huerta, Jr., wanted an engineer and an attorney that would do what he wanted to have done," says Brueggeman, who admits has no idea what Huerta''s motives might be. Huerta did not return numerous phone calls.
Four consulting firms had applied to update Greenfield''s General Plan. Gonzalez'' Fresno-based firm was the only out-of-county applicant. The other three were based on the Monterey Peninsula, and all have previous experience writing general plans in Monterey County. One of the three had done previous work with the Greenfield Planning Department.
Gonzalez had never written a general plan update before.
The council rejected the planning staff''s recommendation and did not seek input from the planning commission.
"Even though the other three bids came in at or below the city''s budgeted amount, the final decision was to go with the most expensive firm, the one that has to travel the furthest and has the least experience," Brueggeman says.
After receiving a citizen''s complaint last year, a Monterey County Grand Jury looked into the firing and hiring of the city''s attorneys and engineers and found no significant problems. The 2001 Grand Jury Report does say, however, that "the process used to replace the City Attorney and the City Engineer is contrary to the standards used by similar cities ... and leaves the Council open to the perception of impropriety."
During the Grand Jury''s investigation, the process used to hire Gonzalez also came under scrutiny. According to its report: "The process used to select [Gonzalez] to update the General Plan gives the appearance that the decision was not carefully considered."
The city council recently extended Gonzalez'' contract until May 2003.
Robert Cervantes, who works for Gonzalez, says, "We haven''t finished our initial study." In other words, they''re a long ways from drafting a General Plan Update.