The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau demanded that the Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees rescind the sale of 112 acres of the Wildcat Ranch property to the The Park Foundation, a Sonora-area nonprofit, in a cease-and-desist letter issued to the district on Jan. 3.
The letter said “actions taken” during closed session negotiations on Oct. 23 (where members of the Park Foundation were allowed to sit in on a closed session) and on Nov. 6 regarding the terms of the sale of the ranch constituted an illegal violation of the Brown Act.
“The Board’s approval of the Purchase and Sale Agreement was nothing more than a rubber stamp of the terms which had been illegally discussed and agreed upon in two illegal closed sessions. Therefore, this action must be rescinded,” the letter said.
The district approved the $1 million sale on Dec. 4, one week before three newly elected trustees of the five-member board were seated. The new board reviewed the sale during a special meeting Dec. 17 and expressed no plans to nullify the deal.
Superintendent Dr. Mark Miller said the letter used “misinformation” and contended that no action was taken during the closed session meetings.
“The only agreement we made is when we did the open session and we voted on it,” he said after the Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday night.
Miller said the letter appeared to be similar in scope to Brown Act violation allegations issued to the district by Chinese Camp rancher Dick Gaiser and Shaun Crook, a Tuolumne County Farm Bureau board member, over the Oct. 23 closed session.
The district issued an unconditional commitment letter to the parties on Dec. 4 to absolve the district from potential legal action.
Crook, who is also a second vice president of the California Farm Bureau, declined to provide additional information on the legal authorities cited in the letter and said it would be the decision of the entire Tuolumne County Farm Bureau to release additional information.
Crook was not in attendance at the meeting on Tuesday.
The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau is represented by Kelly Aviles, an attorney from La Verne specializing in first amendment rights.
Aviles could not immediately be reached for comment.
Crook said that there was a deadline to submit the cease-and-desist letter to the board, and he believed it was submitted to the district within time.
While also calling for the agreement to be nullified, the letter calls for the release of the “contents of the illegal discussions and decisions” made during the Oct. 23 and Nov. 6 meetings and for those decisions to also be rescinded.
“The secrecy with which this transaction was conducted flies in the face of the spirit of the Brown Act. Not only were the actions illegal, but they deprived members of the public and my client a meaningful opportunity to participate in this important decision and the discussions and the actions leading up to it,” the letter said.
The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau issued a letter to the district seeking to open negotiations on the property on Dec. 4.
The letter also calls for the release of all communications (including on personal devices) regarding the sale of the ranch and communications between district officials and Park Foundation officials.
A response is required within 30 days, or the the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau can seek “judicial invalidation” of the sale.
A special meeting was scheduled for Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. in the district meeting room to address the letter.
Miller said the district had to communicate with counsel before any additional details could be released regarding a response to the cease-and-desist letter.
Trustee Jeanie Smith also noted that the letter included a public records request, and Miller said the district only needed to acknowledge the public records request within 10 days of its submission rather than send out all the documents.
The sale of the property is currently in escrow.
An escrow deadline was set for March 31, 2019, when $500,000 is due from the foundation. The phased payment process will last until March 31, 2020.
The Park Foundation has proposed a regional park on the 112 acres. The agreement also includes a joint-use stipulation for district use of tennis courts expected to be built on The Park Foundation property and for district and public use of a cross-country course that weaves through both parcels. The foundation will also develop infrastructure developments accessible to the 25-acre parcel owned by the district, which include water, sewer, electrical, parking and roads, could amount to as much as $2 million.
The district proposed using the $1 million and approximately $400,000 in a district capital outlay fund to build a barn on the remaining 25 acres.
Board President Dr. Jim Riggs was absent from the meeting and about a dozen members of the public were present.
Also during the meeting, Sonora High School Principal Ben Howell thanked the Chicken Ranch Tribal Council for a $26,033.73 donation to the school football program to purchase new uniforms.
The district also approved a grant agreement with the Tuolumne County Air Pollution Control District for a new bus that meets fuel emission standards. Chief Business Official Dana Vaccarezza said the district would spend approximately $20,000 to $30,000 out of the district budget for the bus, which costs about $130,000 total. As a requirement of the grant, the bus it will replace will be destroyed instead of being designated surplus property and sold, she said.