The Sonora Union High School District may have violated the Brown Act by allowing members of The Park Foundation to sit in on a “semi-closed session” negotiation during a special meeting Oct. 23 regarding the sale of the Wildcat Ranch.
Additionally, the board may also be in violation of state law if it does not pursue an environmental review of the property governed by the California Environmental Quality Act before it is sold.
No action was taken by the board Tuesday night regarding a potential sale of the 137-acre ranch, but Superintendent Mark Miller said lawyers for both parties were getting closer and that they are still in contact.
Miller said the district would refer both potential violations to counsel to determine whether the district was vulnerable to litigation. An announcement on the allegations would be made during the next board meeting, which is scheduled for Nov. 27.
“The fact is this is America, and anybody can sue anybody, and anytime the dollars are this large and the passion is this deep the potential of litigation is always there. And I think everybody, including this board, is fully aware of that,” Miller said.
Dick Gaiser, a Chinese Camp rancher and a member of the district advisory committee on the ranch and Sonora Dome properties who has opposed the sale of the Wildcat Ranch, called on the board to address the violation before they entered into an closed-session meeting during the meeting on Tuesday night.
“Members of the Park Foundation were allowed to enter into the closed session, however members of the public were not allowed to enter. The problem lies within this act,” he said.
Board president Jeanie Smith said during the meeting that the board would respond in writing to Gaiser’s letter, and said the board would discuss the potential sale of the ranch without representatives of the Park Foundation on Tuesday.
Park Foundation representatives, including president Ron Jacobs, were present with others members of the public and were not in the closed session on Tuesday.
Shaun Crook of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau said the district could be subject to legal action as a result of allowing “semi-closed session,” which is explicitly forbidden by the California Attorney General’s Brown Act guidebook, he said.
“Any shred of public trust that was in this process has been completely removed at this point,” Crook said. “You need to put the brakes on this process.”
Closed sessions may allow the board, board staff, an attorney, and the board’s negotiator, but not a negotiator for an “adverse party,” he said.
Miller said an unconditional commitment letter, or a response to the allegation, would be on the next meeting agenda.
Sharon Marovich, representing the Tuolumne Heritage Committee, also said the sale of any public property was subject to a review by California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and because potential cultural resources or wildlife was involved in the property, the district could not pursue an exemption.
“This sale is subject. We only ask that the district follow that California law,” Marovich said.
Marovich said the sale of the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch qualified as a project undertaken by a public agency, and therefore was subject to a review conducted by the district in compliance with CEQA.
There could be “significant historical resources” at the site because the region was near Standard Road was near a “major Native American village,” Marovich said. A review by a “qualified archaeologist” could determine if there were any items of cultural value at the site, she added.
Failure to comply with CEQA, could “expose the district to legal action,” Marovich said.
During the closed session, board secretary Cindy Costello asked Marovich for a copy of her prepared statement to make a copy.
“This is the first we have really hear of that so we will be discussing that as well,” Miller said.