The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau has filed a lawsuit against the Sonora Union High School District to nullify the sale of 112 acres of the Wildcat Ranch to a Sonora nonprofit, The Park Foundation.
“They didn't follow the law, and they didn't do this in a transparent way. That's what needs to be fixed,” said the bureau’s attorney, Kelly Aviles.
The bureau alleges that the district violated the Brown Act, a California law that guarantees public participation in local government meetings by exceeding the scope of discussion allowed in closed session meetings regarding the property sale and allowing members of The Park Foundation to sit in on a closed session that the public was barred from attending.
Aviles further alleged that the board inaccurately declared the 137-acre ranch as surplus property and failed to comply with a public records request related to correspondence between district trustees and foundation representatives.
The lawsuit demanded that the district not only nullify the sale of the ranch, but also the process that preceded it, Aviles said.
“For the sake of transparency, the public really needs to be given all the information of what's taken place here. This process needs to start again, so the public has a meaningful opportunity to participate in it,” she said.
The district has previously denied any wrongdoing in Wildcat Ranch negotiations, because they said no actions were taken following closed session negotiations over the property until it was sold.
Superintendent Dr. Mark Miller on Wednesday said he had not been notified by his counsel or served papers regarding the litigation.
“Until I see exactly what was filed and give it to counsel, I can’t comment,” he said.
The district approved the sale of 112 acres of the Wildcat Ranch to The Park Foundation, which plans to build a community park on the site, for $1 million on Dec. 4, one week before three newly elected trustees of the five-member board were seated.
Park Foundation President Ron Jacobs could not be reached for comment.
The Farm Bureau submitted a cure-and-correct letter to the district on Jan. 3 alleging closed-session negotiations on Oct. 23 and on Nov. 6 regarding the terms of the sale of the ranch constituted an illegal violation of the Brown Act.
The district rejected the demand to nullify the sale in a letter sent to the bureau on Jan. 25.
“The District appreciates your concern with respect to the importance of public access and meaningful participation in open government as provided by the Brown Act. However, you letter is riddled with factual inaccuracies and provides no basis or showing of any violation of the Brown Act,” it said.
The district claimed it cured allegations with unconditional commitment letters to no longer allow representatives in closed session meetings, and that the Nov. 6 closed session was within a confidentiality exception that allowed discussion on the price of the property.
The unconditional commitment letters were sent to Chinese Camp rancher Dick Gaiser and Shaun Crook, a Tuolumne County Farm Bureau board member, who claimed the district violated the Brown act by allowing Park Foundation representatives into an Oct. 23 closed session.
Aviles said the sale process, which originated with the establishment of a district advisory committee in May 2017 to advise the board on whether the ranch was surplus property, barred public input from the start.
The advisory committee recommended in September 2017 that the ranch was not surplus property. The board declared a portion of the property surplus on July 18, 2018.
“It's clear that the district does not understand their obligation to include the public in all decisions,” she said. “Not just the portion they want the public to know about.”
The district claimed in its letter to Aviles that public input was allowed because the Wildcat Ranch property was agendized at least 21 times, and eight times involved the interest of the Park Foundation.
Aviles said a portion of those meetings occurred before the ranch was declared surplus property and the district decided to sell it.
“The policy decisions about district property, a.k.a. the public property, in deciding those kind of matters have to happen in public,” she said.
Aviles said the district had not provided any communications (including on personal devices) regarding the sale of the ranch and correspondence between district officials and Park Foundation representatives requested in the cure-and-correct letter.
“To this date they have provided absolutely none of that,” she said. “I can only assume there is information there that would support our position.”
The lawsuit also includes a stipulation that the district will pay attorney fees incurred by the Farm Bureau if the board is found to have violated the Brown Act.
The Tuolumne County Superior Court confirmed the lawsuit was filed on Monday. There were no court dates scheduled for the civil case as of Wednesday.
In a statement released by the Farm Bureau, president Ken Fleming said the district sold the property under value and disavowed its commitment to the student body by not supporting the agriculture program.
“The school district made a conscious decision to sacrifice land and the district’s own long-term security for a short-term cash infusion,” Fleming said in the statement.
The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau is the local imprint of a California nonprofit and non-governmental agricultural advocacy group.
Portions of the Wildcat Ranch are currently utilized by the Sonora High School agriculture program, and a cross country course built by students winds around the perimeter of the property.
Sonora High School agriculture teacher Stacey Ingalls could not be reached for comment.
At a board meeting Tuesday night, the district forged ahead with a discussion item about the “next steps” with the Wildcat Ranch.
Board President Dr. Jim Riggs said the item would be recurring while Miller oversaw the transition of 112 acres to the ownership of The Park Foundation.
“We want to make sure that all roadblocks are out of the way and all the stakeholders are able to work together as we go forward with the sale and essentially the multiple use of that property,” Riggs said.
The sale of the property is currently in escrow. An escrow deadline is set for March 31, 2019, when $500,000 is due from the foundation. The phased payment process is set to last until March 31, 2020.
Miller said he had not yet met with ranch stakeholders under the direction of the board to assess their interests in the ranch property.
“That’s further down the road,” he said.
Riggs said the board took no action on a closed-session agenda item related to anticipated litigation. He said he could not share details of what was discussed.
The agreement between the district and the foundation includes a joint-use stipulation where the district would have access to tennis courts expected to be built on the 112 acres and for district and public use of a cross-country course that weaves through both parcels.
The foundation committed to developing water, sewer, electrical and roads infrastructure accessible to the 25-acre parcel remaining under district ownership.
The district proposed using the $1 million payment and approximately $400,000 in a district capital outlay fund to build a barn on the remaining 25 acres.