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South county plan delivered, but in what condition?

The good news is that a draft of the long-pending Big Oak Flat-Groveland Community Plan is finally in the hands of Tuolumne County planners.

But there is far more bad news:

• The Sierra Business Council, hired with more than $30,000 in grant funds to prepare the plan, filed it three- and-a-half months late.

• The tardy arrival means the draft will go through a hurried review process aimed at getting it to the California Department of Housing and Community Development before the end of March. If this deadline is blown, present and future grants to the county could be put in jeopardy.

• The SBC's once-exemplary reputation has taken a hit with its sub-par performance on this contact.

• And, although bureaucrats and county officials have brought the plan problems to the public's attention, it will be the people of Groveland and Big Oak Flat who will pay for any corners trimmed or shortcuts taken.

How bad has SBC's performance been?

Terry Cox, who is administering the planning grant for the county, said that in 25 years she has never encountered a contractor so difficult to deal with. "That would be an understatement," added Cox when asked if she would recommend against hiring SBC again.

This story began innocently enough, when Tuolumne County more than a year ago accepted the Business Council's proposal to write the Groveland plan.

SBC's interest in the job may have surprised some.

The 12-county, Truckee-based nonprofit began its life as confederation of mountain and foothill businesses advocating smart growth, open space preservation, downtown revitalization and the like. Its Wealth Index, a glossy report on the strengths and weaknesses of the region, was issued amid fanfare as a guideline for county planners. It annually honored like-minded merchants and politicians with award dinners at places like Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel.

But the open-ended foundation grants that SBC depended on for many of its activities have become scarce, said Kate Segerstrom, a Sonora attorney who served on the council board for 10 years. So the nonprofit was forced to look for jobs like Tuolumne County's.

Council staff member Steve Frisch conducted four meetings in Groveland last summer and fall before the troubles began.

First, SBC's president, David Mattocks, resigned in late July, and Frisch got the job, multiplying his duties and, he said, "diminishing our capacity." And in November, Frisch said, a virus hit the council's computers and it took a "forensic recovery specialist" weeks to get the Groveland work back.

"But that's no excuse," Segerstrom rightfully observed.

"We take full responsibility," agreed Frisch, admitting SBC "should have had more backup" for its computers.

A collective sigh of relief has echoed through the county halls since the draft was delivered.

But Mike Laird, principal county planner in charge of the Groveland, Big Oak Flat project, said the draft "needs a lot of work to make it something that the public can review." Although Frisch vows that the plan reflects the community input and meets its needs, those are questions only Big Oak Flat and Groveland residents can answer.

That Tuolumne County made a mistake in hiring SBC is now clear, and that it won't repeat that mistake seems certain.

But the key priority now should be giving those living south of the Tuolumne River as much chance for input as possible in the weeks to come. They are the ones who will live with the plan and they must not be shortchanged to make up for county mistakes or meet state deadlines.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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