Behind the Supes’ Door
A big campaign contributor with a lawsuit against the County shares some private words with his…er, our supervisors.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
What is happening behind those closed doors, wonders the girl reporter?
First there was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent comment about wife Maria Shriver’s Lysistrata-esque punishment following his speech at the Republican National Convention. Then, the big news story became San Francisco First Lady Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom’s eating-a-banana-or-whatever pantomime at a gay rights gala in New York. All of which makes the girl reporter wonder what does occur behind closed bedroom—er, boardroom—doors, especially when those doors shut the public out of anything having to do with Rancho San Juan.
(As a courtesy to those readers who have been stranded on a tropical-yet-possibly-haunted island for the past 20 or so years, Rancho San Juan is a huge development of 4,000 homes, five schools, a “town center” with 373,000 square feet of retail space, an employment center with more than 2.4 million square feet of light industrial and business park use, and nearly 243,000 square feet of office development, proposed to be built on 2,581 acres between Salinas and Prunedale. This new mini-city would be developed over a 20-year period. The first piece of the Rancho San Juan puzzle slated to be built is the so-called Butterfly Village—which includes 739 single family homes, 338 multi-family units, 141 guest villas or time shares, commercial use, and an 18-hole golf course—proposed by the HYH Corporation.)
Last week, on Oct. 18, the Board of Supervisors called a special meeting. The Supes designated the entire meeting as a “closed session,” and the only item on the agenda was “HYH Corporation v. County of Monterey,” a lawsuit filed a half-dozen years ago after county planners tried to put a specific plan for Rancho San Juan on hold until the General Plan Update was completed.
At that time, HYH Corp., one of the property owners, accused the County of illegally stalling the project, and a Court Order forced the County to start the process again.
Now, the Court didn’t force the County to champion the huge proposal—or even approve the plan. It simply ordered the County to process a Rancho San Juan specific plan. But sometimes, it appears that the Supes forget this minor detail.
The final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project isn’t finished. The Planning Commission is scheduled to hold two public hearings: one on the Rancho San Juan Specific Plan and one on Butterfly Village, Nov. 4 and Nov. 6, from 6-9pm. And then the Board of Supervisors will approve—or deny—the development at the end of November.
Sure, the city of Salinas doesn’t like the project. Its officials say the subdivisions will overburden Salinas’ roads and other services. And they’ve threatened to sue to stop the development.
Naturally conservation groups and environmentalists oppose the project, and both District 4 Supervisorial candidates, Jane Parker and Jerry Smith, say they are anti-Rancho San Juan, citing traffic problems and excessive water use. Even Cal-Trans voiced its concerns about the draft EIR.
One would think Supervisor Lou Calcagno would oppose the huge development too, especially considering his vocal Prunedale constituents who don’t want to see Rancho San Juan ever come to fruition.
But Calcagno says he supports the development because Monterey County needs new homes.
And at least until July, according to Calcagno’s calendar—the girl reporter hasn’t seen it since—Calcagno met regularly with HYH President Moe Nobari for lunch. Five times in three months, actually.
Hmmm, more private meetings with a developer who sued the County which Calcagno represents. It does pay to have rich friends; in ‘98, Nobari, in various corporate forms, made contributions to Calcagno in the amount of $13,500.
But back to the present and the Oct. 18 closed meeting. It likely would have gone unnoticed—after all, the Supes meet in closed session about HYH Corp. v. County of Monterey all the time—if it weren’t for LandWatch watchdog Gary Patton.
“I note that the Board has called a special meeting for Monday, Oct. 18, 2004, and that the entire meting is to be a ‘closed session,’ he writes in a letter to Chairman Calcagno and the other Board members. “The agenda further states that the closed session will be held pursuant to Government Code Section 54956.9(a). This section of law provides a very narrow and limited exception to the open meeting required of the Brown Act, and allows the Board to met in a closed session for certain deliberations related to ‘pending litigation.’
“Unless new litigation has been filed of which I am not aware, then the case referred to in the agenda is the case that challenged the County decision to suspend processing of the Rancho San Juan Specific Plan. That lawsuit was filed a number of years ago, and it is not active at this time…I do not believe that rationale would allow the Board to hold a closed session.
“Finally, I would note that the ‘closed session; exception to the Brown Act’s open meeting requirement is only for the Board to confer with its legal counsel,” Patton’s letter continues. “It is not proper for any planning department or other staff to confer with the Board in a closed session.”
Patton’s talking about Alana Knaster and other planning department staff who attended the closed session meeting.
A couple days later, the girl reporter got Patton on the phone. He says the timing smells fishy.
On Oct. 14, the county subdivisions committee adopted the staff recommendation for “certification of the environmental impact report with the mitigation monitoring plan, and approval of Butterfly Village.”
That happened on a Thursday. The following Monday, the Board of Supervisors holds a special meeting in closed session to talk pending litigation from HYH Corporation—with Rancho San Juan planning staff at the meeting.
“What the hell are they doing back there?” Patton says. “It sounds to me that they are making planning decisions on Rancho San Juan. If that’s what they are doing, then I think they are breaking the law.”
“No,” says County Counsel Charles McKee, in response. They weren’t breaking the law. Nor does he want to challenge Patton to a duel (the girl reporter’s words, not McKee’s suggestion, although the girl reporter can’t help but think it would make for a great episode).
But back to the real story line: “The Board was not discussing how to approve the project or not to approve the project,” McKee says.
In his reply e-mail to Patton, McKee says, “It is a pending cause of action in a case easily reset for trial on damages.”
“My advice to the Board in closed session is confidential,” McKee says. He’s on his cell phone, running an errand. “But,” McKee continues, “I would never advise the Board to make planning decisions in closed session, especially decisions that are legislative—as to whether or not to approve a development—and should be made in open session.”
Damn. So much for excitement behind closed doors.