The Sonora Union High School District and the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau are close to settling a lawsuit brought against the district for its handling of the sale of a portion of the Wildcat Ranch property to The Park Foundation, a Sonora non-profit.
Kelly Aviles, the La Verne-based attorney representing the non-profit agriculture advocacy group Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, said the general terms of the settlement were agreed upon before a case management conference was held Tuesday morning in the Tuolumne County Superior Court.
“We have the big terms set out,” Aviles said. “We would like to resolve this as quickly as possible.”
Aviles identified the settlement terms in three main parts: the district would pay the farm bureau’s attorney fees; provide records related to the negotiation process with The Park Foundation; and commit to compliance with the Brown Act on further surplus property negotiations.
The farm bureau’s central grievance — that the sale of 112 acres of the 137-acre Wildcat Ranch to the The Park Foundation for $1 million be rescinded because it violated the Brown Act and surplus property notice requirements — was concluded when the board of trustees canceled the sale on May 14, Aviles said.
Aviles and Anne Collins, a partner at the Sacramento-based firm Lozano Smith which represents the district, spoke with Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Kevin Seibert Tuesday morning before 10 a.m.
Aviles and Collins said the parties were in the process of concluding settlement discussions, but the agreements were still pending the approval of their respective organizations.
Collins said the settlement terms would be presented to the Sonora Union High School District board of trustees at their meeting on Tuesday night.
“While we discussed all of these things, it really is subject to board approval,” Aviles said after the hearing.
Collins did not return requests for comment on Tuesday.
Superintendent Mark Miller said he had been in contact with district counsel regarding the ongoing negotiations, but he could not comment on the details because it was still considered pending litigation.
Aviles said the farm bureau had agreed to the general concept behind the settlement, but they would also have to give approval and sign a final agreement.
No one representing either party was present in the courtroom Tuesday morning.
Aviles said there were outlying issues that were still undetermined, including an agreed-upon total for the attorney’s fees and deciding on a date for when the records would be turned over to the farm bureau.
Aviles said the district was conducting another search through counsel records to locate correspondence leading up to when the sale was announced on Dec. 4, 2018. The farm bureau requested all correspondence between board members and district employees related to negotiations over the Wildcat Ranch as a part of the lawsuit.
Aviles said the Brown Act component of the settlement would reiterate the farm bureau position that only “price and terms of payment” could be discussed in closed session negotiations of surplus property. The district previously identified “price and terms of sale” in public agendas announcing the negotiations.
“[The settlement] goes through a short analysis of what that encompasses,” Aviles said. “It's an agreement about what the law requires and what it prohibits.”
Aviles said settlement discussions began almost immediately after the Tuolumne County Superior Court issued the preliminary injunction.
“We’ve been going back and forth for some time on this,” she said.
The sale of the Wildcat Ranch, located at the corner of Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road in Sonora, was approved by three former trustees at their last meeting and two current trustees during the meeting on that date.
In a 3-1 vote on May 14, the district board voted to cancel the purchase and sale agreement, citing mounting legal costs related to the lawsuit.
The district has estimated legal costs to equal $200,000 by the conclusion of the lawsuit. The final budget for the 2018-19 school year would include approximately $94,000 in litigation costs incurred by the district this year, Chief Business Official Dana Vaccarezza said on June 11.
The district approved transfers from district funds designated for technology curriculum expenditures and improvements at the Wildcat Ranch in order to cover the legal costs and approximately $180,000 in employee raises approved June 11.
The Park Foundation on June 4 issued an open letter to the district, calling the decision to rescind the sale illegal.
Park Foundation President Ron Jacobs said in an email on Tuesday morning the organization had no further comment regarding the rescinding of the agreement or if they planned legal action against the district because they were still awaiting a response to their open letter.
A temporary restraining order issued by Seibert on March 28 and a temporary injunction on April 12 effectively blocked the sale of the Wildcat Ranch to The Park Foundation, pending the conclusion of the lawsuit.
In his decision to temporarily block the sale, Seibert said the district did not comply with the proper public notice requirements required to sell surplus property.
The Park Foundation planned to build a community park on 112 acres and deposited $500,000 in an escrow account. Escrow never closed on the property per the court order and the district did not receive the payment.
Officials with the Park Foundation said the money is still in the account.
Seibert set the next case management conference for August 13 at 9:30 a.m. He said no appearance would be required by the attorneys if a dismissal motion was on file.
Aviles said a dismissal motion would be filed when the records were turned over and the agreed-upon fees were paid, presuming the respective boards for each organization finalized the settlement.