Saturday, August 5, 2017

[Santa Clara County] City, LAFCO spar over grand jury report

Entities respond to SEQ investigation

The City of Morgan Hill and the Santa Clara County Local Agency Formation Commission still don’t see eye to eye on an unsuccessful effort more than a year ago to annex hundreds of acres of farmland from the Southeast Quadrant into the city limits.
The vast difference of perspective is illustrated in the two agencies’ responses to a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report, published June 5, titled “LAFCO Denials: A high school caught in the middle.” The two parties can’t even agree, as the grand jury found, that there is a “strained relationship” between city staff and LAFCO staff.
LAFCO’s response to the grand jury—posted to the commission’s website earlier this week and scheduled for discussion and approval at the Aug. 2 LAFCO states there is “no evidence” for this claim.
“LAFCO staff has a professional working relationship with the City of Morgan Hill staff and has worked with city staff on a variety of matters during the city’s (SEQ annexation) application and following LAFCO’s denial of the proposal,” reads part of the response compiled by LAFCO staff. It adds that LAFCO staff is always willing to meet with city staff to discuss General Plan and other service boundary concerns.
However, the Morgan Hill City Council’s response, presented at the July 26 meeting, agrees that there is tension between the staffs of the two agencies.
“Morgan Hill staff are eager to work collaboratively and proactively with LAFCO for the benefit of our region and community,” reads the council’s response. It adds that the council and city staff are “eager to take immediate steps to improve our working relationship with LAFCO commissioners and staff.”
The grand jury report investigated the city’s proposal to LAFCO in 2016 to extend its Urban Service Area around 229 acres of the Southeast Quadrant, in order to develop sports fields/facilities, as well as commercial projects, while preserving farmland through a new agricultural mitigation policy. The SEQ proposal, which also included a private Catholic high school near Tennant and Murphy avenues, was denied by the seven-member LAFCO board in March 2016 on a 6-1 vote.
The city has put its SEQ plans on hold while it awaits a broader, regional effort by the county to implement an agricultural preservation strategy.
The June 5 grand jury report’s list of 10 findings took LAFCO to task for what its panel perceived as inconsistently and subjectively enforcing its guidelines and applying undefined terminology to their annexation criteria. It also criticized the City of Morgan Hill for not including enough public participation in the SEQ process and ineffective communication with LAFCO staff.
By state law, the city and LAFCO are required to respond to the grand jury’s findings that relate to them, and both agencies did so in recent days. The city council responded to and agreed with four of the grand jury’s 10 findings, while LAFCO disagrees with most of the findings and claims the June 5 report is “filled with numerous factual errors.”
In addition to the claim of a strained relationship, the council agreed that the city’s ag mitigation program is in need of more funding for the purchase of agricultural easements; the city’s update of the 2016 General Plan, developed separately from the SEQ plans, “gave the appearance of special consideration for the property owners;” and that LAFCO deviated from the commission’s ag preservation policies when evaluating the Catholic high school proposal.
The council’s response clarified that despite the appearance, the General Plan update did not give special preference to the property owners. Their letter to the grand jury argues that the city had an “obligation” to process the General Plan amendments and other requests related to the SEQ that dated back to 2008.
LAFCO ‘disagrees wholly’
LAFCO’s response to the grand jury states, “many allegations (in the June 5 report) are not appropriately substantiated by facts or details.” It further accuses the grand jury of failing to understand how LAFCO operates and what its responsibilities are.
In fact, of the nine findings LAFCO responds to, it “disagrees wholly” with seven. The commission further responds that many of the grand jury’s recommendations, listed as a way to remedy the findings, are “not warranted or reasonable.”
For example, the grand jury’s “Finding 5” states that LAFCO gained “the appearance of bias” by including incorrect information about the Catholic Diocese' previous plan to develop a private high school in Morgan Hill in 2002.
LAFCO replied that the grand jury was suggesting the incorrect historical info was “deliberately or negligently misreported.” But in fact, according to the LAFCO response, nobody stepped forward to correct the error—which falsely stated the Diocese' ownership stake in a former prospective high school site—until the March 2016 LAFCO meeting on the SEQ.
“The South County Catholic High School (SCCHS) representative provided testimony at the public hearing on March 11, 2016 about the inaccuracy of the ownership information, which was heard by the Commission prior to the vote being taken, and was documented subsequently in LAFCO’s minutes for the public hearing,” LAFCO’s response states.
The grand jury report has drawn fire in recent weeks due to its own perception of bias, and a list of factual errors and omissions. A group of private, nonprofit environmental organizations that argued against the city’s SEQ annexation proposal sent a letter to the LAFCO board July 17 spelling out their “grave concerns” with the June 5 grand jury report. Topping their list is the “appearance of (grand jury) foreperson’s conflict of interest.”
The foreman, Wayne Tanda, has been a Morgan Hill planning commissioner for several years, and was chair of the city commission in 2016. He made a motion to recommend submitting the city’s SEQ plans to LAFCO at the June 23, 2015 planning commission meeting, according to the July 17 letter signed by representatives of the Committee For Green Foothills, Greenbelt Alliance, American Farmland Trust, Thrive! Morgan Hill, Sierra Club and others.
The LAFCO board will discuss the draft response to the grand jury at its Aug. 2 meeting.
The grand jury report, along with its findings and recommendations, is not legally binding toward the city or LAFCO.
August 1, 2017
The Morgan Hill Times
By Michael Moore

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