Claremont Insider: Claremont's $1,000,000 Mistake

Monday, September 17, 2007

Claremont's $1,000,000 Mistake

Friend, some of your folding money has come unstowed.
---from the movie, "Brother, Where Art Thou?".
As first made public in a late-Friday news release by the City of Claremont that attempted to surf the end of the news cycle, and as picked up by Will Bigham in Saturday's Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, the City had to scurry late last week to find $1,000,000 to put into escrow in order to close on the 183-acre Johnson's Pasture property.

The story in Bigham's article is that the money came from the City general fund reserves. The reason was that the City and property owners had written and agreed to deed language that lowered the market value of the property below what it had been. Basically, the owners were selling a piece of property that could not be developed, according to the language. Therefore, the State withdrew its grant offer of $1,000,000 since the land was already protected by the deed.

This appallingly expensive fiasco is due to monumental incompetence on the part of City staff and the City Council.

One would think that after the months-long set-piece battle over a previous appraisal of the property with the State Wildlife Conservation Board--the State agency with millions to hand out--the City would be sensitive to factors that reduce the value of the property such as access and deed restrictions. But no.

It is a little murky how the deed language came about. The most believable scenario is that Claremont 2007 Honored Citizen Suzanne Thompson (head of the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy) pushed for this language and got part-owner Deborah Lynn Robinson to put the language in the deed.

But where is the adult supervision? Where is the cracker-jack and highly-paid staff? Shouldn't staff had known that such language would put the $1,000,000 state grant at risk? Was this part of the discussion councilmembers Linda Elderkin and Ellen Taylor had with owner Deborah Robinson last June?--the quiet negotiations.

Fast-forward to September. The $9.75 million in bonds were sold last month. With the quarter-million from the CWC and a half-million from Los Angeles County, plus a bit from the Claremont Colleges also in escrow, the City was relying on the $1,000,000 State grant to complete the $11.5 million funding. Bad news from Sacramento: the land you are purchasing has a deed restriction that makes it less valuable. The former appraisal is no longer any good. The State can't participate in a deal that pays above market for property.

We hear from our sources up north that there was a lot of visiting of legislative and agency offices by City Staff last week in Sacramento, when they were all up there for the League of Cities Expo, but they couldn't get anyone interested in helping. The Wildlife Conservation Board was right; no one wanted to die on that hill.

Now the interesting part. You'd think that this whole issue would merit mention at September 11th's City Council meeting. If you thought that, you'd be wrong. Nary a word. The City Manager, "Mr. Transparency" Jeff Parker pointedly said he had nothing to report. Come on, escrow is about to close in two or three days, we are a million dollars short, and there is no public discussion of it?

Now we read in the City press release that
the City used $1 million from the general fund to complete the purchase.
What's that all about??? What is the legal basis for going into the general fund to the tune of $1,000,000???? Doesn't that require some public discussion, and maybe a vote of the governing body (City Council)????? Can Matt Hawkesworth or Jeff Parker just write a check for $1,000,000 with no action by Council??????

We don't see any emergency here. We don't see any proper closed session issue; in any event, the one closed session since this issue broke did NOT have this on the agenda. We don't see any reason to play hide-the-ball with this issue. We do know that the Johnson's Pasture funding discussion for two years did NOT include general fund monies, and now, in the last two weeks, in apparently unilateral and secret decisions by--whom?--Peter Yao, Jeff Parker, Matt Hawkesworth, Linda Elderkin, Ellen Taylor, The general fund is a million bucks lighter.

What's going on here? Has incompetence morphed into illegality?