The Turlock Citizens Coalition, a group opposing the installation of a new synthetic turf track and all-weather field at Turlock High School’s Joe Debely Stadium, has dropped its lawsuit against the City of Turlock, the Turlock City Council, the Turlock Redevelopment Agency, and the three individual council members who voted in favor of the project — Ted Howze, Amy Bublak and Kurt Spycher.
But the suit will continue on. Portions of the lawsuit alleging impropriety on the behalf of the Turlock Unified School District and six individual district trustees were not dropped, and will continue to be litigated.
“I never like to dismiss a lawsuit, but I think in this case, after I read through the record, it was clear to me we had to go ahead and dismiss,” said Turlock Citizens Coalition attorney Richard Harriman.
The lawsuit had alleged that the City acted improperly in allocating $2.8 million of Redevelopment Agency funds for the Debely renovation. The suit had claimed the use of such funds was not consistent with RDA guidelines, as the project is outside of the city’s RDA boundaries and RDA funds are intended to eliminate blight.
“This dismissal with prejudice is viewed by the City as validation of the actions taken by a majority of the Council,” a press release from the office of Roy Wasden, Turlock city manager, read. “… It is unfortunate that precious human and fiscal Redevelopment resources were expended fighting this frivolous lawsuit.”
According to the City of Turlock, $26,241 had been spent fighting the lawsuit as of March 31, in addition to countless hours of staff time.
Harriman said the suit against the City was dropped, in part, due to a Turlock Citizens Coalition effort to save the City of Turlock money. Given the recent State action to raid local RDA funds, even if the group was victorious in the lawsuit they believed the State might steal whatever money the school district returned, Harriman said.
“My clients and I don’t believe it’s appropriate to challenge and spend money from the City where the result would not benefit the City,” Harriman said.
Howze, Jackson trade barbs over lawsuit
Harriman also said the suit was dropped because the argument hinged, in large part, on an allegation that Howze acted improperly by voting in the 3-1 decision to fund the Joe Debely renovation.
Howze sits on the board of Turlock Youth Football, which plays its games on the Joe Debely field. That relationship creates an illegal Common Law Conflict of Interest in Harriman’s opinion.
But even if Howze’s vote had been overturned, Harriman learned the decision would have stood with a 2-1 vote. Agreeing to a contract requires only a simple majority of votes.
Howze claims Harriman knew about the contract law and filed the politically motivated lawsuit due to Turlock Citizens Coalition fears the $2.8 million project would jeopardize plans for the Carnegie Arts Center reconstruction.
“It’s ironic that three weeks after we approve moving forward with the (Carnegie Arts Center) project they would drop their lawsuit,” Howze said. “The timing is not a coincidence.”
Howze also claims he had no conflict of interest in voting on the matter.
Howze, of his own accord, obtained a letter from the Fair Political Practices Committee. The FPPC found Howze had no financial involvement in the Joe Debely renovation and cleared him to participate in the vote. The FPPC does not rule on Common Law Conflicts of Interest, however, which are conflicts of personal interest but not financial interests.
“They’re making excuses to get out from under a frivolous, politically motivated lawsuit being driven by Councilmember (Mary) Jackson and her close political supporters on the Democratic Central Committee,” Howze said.
Michael Burtch, a member of the Turlock Citizens Coalition named in the lawsuit, is the chairman of the Stanislaus County Democratic Central Committee.
Jackson, who was the only member of council to vote against the Joe Debely renovation, denied the allegations.
"Once again Councilmember Howze speaks out before getting his facts straight,” Jackson said. “I believe in November the good citizens in Turlock will decide what's the best use of their money."
Howze also claimed that Jackson obtained an outside legal opinion that allowed her to sit in on closed session discussions of the Turlock Citizens Coalition lawsuit.
“We didn’t want her in the room,” Howze said. “We knew these were her friends she put up to this.”
Jackson said she does not comment about discussions that occur in closed session meetings.
Lawsuit continues against TUSD
While the lawsuit against the City of Turlock and related entities was dropped, the Turlock Unified School District will continue to defend against the Turlock Citizens Coalition suit.
The lawsuit argues that the new track and field will increase usage of the field, resulting in environmentally deleterious conditions to the surrounding neighborhoods. Harriman believes the District should conduct a full Environmental Impact Report, with 20 days of public review, which completely examines the effects of the stadium improvement.
In March the TUSD Board of Trustees found the project was categorically exempt to the California Environmental Quality Act, arguing the new field would not cause a great change in usage. The renovated Joe Debely would have just 68 more wheelchair accessible seats than the current stadium, and would attract largely the same level of use — other than higher use by existing THS physical education classes — the District found.
TUSD Superintendent Sonny Da Marto was out of the office on Tuesday afternoon and unable to comment on the ongoing lawsuit before the Journal’s deadline.
Even though ground was broken on the Debely renovation late last month, Harriman remains confident the Turlock Citizens Coalition will be able to affect change through its lawsuit.
“It does affect (our lawsuit) in that it limits our remedies a little bit, but the main part about the lawsuit is that we need to get control on the level of use at the facility,” Harriman said.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail email@example.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.