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Monday, July 30, 2007

Shriner's Article in Enterprise Raises Suspicions and Questions About Process Involving Land Acquisition Issue

On Sunday the Davis Enterprise ran a front page, above-the-fold story on Councilmember Stephen Souza's proposal for the city council to acquire a 228-acre property north of Covell Blvd known as the Shriners property. In my now year of covering local issues on the Vanguard, I am not certain that there has been any issue that has more outraged a segment of the population than this one.

I received a number of calls and emails regarding this particular article, all of them focusing less on the proposal itself and more on the process by which this proposal has come forward. I will stress this point--the objections raised were not about the specifics of the proposal. The objections and questions all focused on the issue of proper process. Is this proposal coming to the council in a proper manner or is there something unseemly about it?

The gist of the problem stems from the nature in which this issue has been brought forward--not from the planning staff and the normal planning process--but rather as an agenda item placed by a councilmember. As one former member of the council told me, the fact that such a complex proposal would be brought forward by a councilmember rather than fully analyzed by the staff and the planning commission is utterly irresponsible.

There were also expressed concerns that it was inappropriate for a councilmember, Stephen Souza, to enter into negotiations with a property owner and developer, without prior direction from the council to begin with.

As Mr. Souza puts it: "I'm a shrewd negotiator."

Again, the statement itself seems ludicrous but it raises a number of issues about the propriety of such an arrangement. It also raises questions about the article itself which is very positive and does not quote anyone other than Councilmember Souza, it does not attempt to balance the issue out. Councilmembers when this issue was raised at last week's city council meeting, raised vehement objections to the way in which this issue was brought forward, and yet the Davis Enterprise prints nary a word in opposition. The Enterprise does not interview anyone on the other side. It is simply a positive piece about the issue, quoting only Councilmember Souza and no one else.

That issue alone should raise the caution flags, but there are other problems with the story. The background in the story about Steve Gidaro and his role in the 2004 council elections is very misleading.

The story says:
"In 2004, Gidaro's flared along Davis political circuits when he paid for telephone push polls for council candidates Stan Forbes, Mike Harrington, and Don Saylor... Gidaro legally reported large amounts of funding for the three candidates at the last minute, touching off a flurry of distrust and disappointment, not only from the voters but from the three candidates, who expressed anger at the unwanted donations."
This statement is misleading for Mr. Gidaro's campaign was aimed not at supporting Stan Forbes and Mike Harrington, but rather at destroying them. The paid push polls were not "for" Stan Forbes and Mike Harrington, they were aimed at destroying Mr. Forbes and Mr. Harrington. Moreover while he also spent money on the poll using Don Saylor's name, he spent a merely few thousand dollars on Mr. Saylor while spending tens of thousands on the other two. In other words, article made it seem like the three expenditures were identical and they were anything but. The intent was to cripple the former two candidates and the intent of including Mr. Saylor in the expenditure was to confuse the voters about the intention of the expenditure.

The beneficiaries of the expenditure were Don Saylor who was elected and Stephen Souza, who had twice before run and lost, and may have suffered the same fate were it not for the fact that Gidaro's expenditure crippled the chances of sitting Councilmember Mike Harrington from winning re-election.

The article cites anger by Mr. Souza directed at Mr. Gidaro, but in all likelihood Mr. Souza would not have been elected without that last second push, as Souza finished third, just slightly ahead of the damaged Michael Harrington. Maybe Souza has a sense for justice, but it seems odd that he would feel that strongly about tactics that clearly were aimed at getting him elected.

It is difficult to evaluate whether the emotions expressed in the article are genuine by Mr. Souza, however, when he discusses "good faith promises" and "good faith discussions about preserving this land" it rings hollow and casts severe doubt about what is being proposed. As even this favorable article makes clear there have been efforts over and over again at developing this land. Why would Mr. Gidaro abandon the land at the same time the city had specifically exempted adjacent mitigation along the Horse Ranch property that abuts Mr. Gidaro's property?

There are also Measure J questions that come up. Will th acquisition of this land require a Measure J vote? Is the county involved in these talks since this is county land right now? Would an acquisition of this land as organic farms and sports fields mean that a Measure J vote would not be needed in the future for development?

Mr. Souza may say "there isn't a catch" and "there's no quid pro quo," but given Gidaro's history and the way this land deal is coming about, he will have to forgive those of us who are suspicious of both from thinking otherwise.

Finally, Mr. Souza says, "Maybe he really does have a conservation streak... His attorney said this isn't unique for him; he's done it in other locales."

And maybe Tsakopoulos was really going to develop along the I-80 corridor just to finance a stem cell research center.

I do not know the motives of either Mr. Gidaro or Mr. Souza, but this whole issue is suspicious from the way in which the proposal was brought forward to the council last week, the fact that this is not going through the normal planning process, the fact that Mr. Souza was negotiating without council authorization, the fact that this involves Steve Gidaro, one of the more infamous figures in recent Davis history, and the fact that the council election is approaching.

Maybe this is on the level, but my thinking is that it should have gone through the planning department not Councilmember Souza to get here.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting