Our View: Finally, a public discussion on courthouse site in Modesto

October 23, 2013 

Better late than never – but probably too late to the influence the outcome – Modestans finally were given a chance Tuesday night to comment on where the new courthouse should be built.

It’s doubtful that the two-hour discussion changed any minds, and no action was expected or taken by the council. But it was a long overdue opportunity. We’re not sure whether Mayor Garrad Marsh put it on the agenda as a last-ditch effort toward transparency or because of the powerful people who have lined up in favor of the 13th and I Street location. The state court system has ranked the 10th and H street property as first choice, and the city is promoting that site.

There’s agreement on the most basic element: Stanislaus County needs a new courthouse and it needs to be in downtown Modesto. Beyond that, there’s disagreement in fact and philosophy on three areas:

What is and should be the main corridor of downtown Modesto?

Planning staff and city officials say the 10th Street location fits in ideally with their plans for 10th and 11th Streets to be the main commercial corridors. I Street, they acknowledge, is the “ceremonial street,” but boosting 10th Street is a higher priority, in part because it is more blighted and in part because of the really long-term vision for 10th Street to be the city’s premier boulevard, stretching from Modesto Centre Plaza into the Gateway Parcel of Tuolumne River Regional Park.

Others argue that I Street is not just good for parades and events but is the civic and cultural center of the city and should be kept that way. Another layer of this argument is whether a courthouse is a civic building or an anchor for economic development. Two related questions were raised at Tuesday’s meeting: Does the city have a vision for preserving I Street? And what will become of the current courthouse property?

These are the kinds of the questions that should have been discussed over the last two years.

Has the public had input in this process?

We will argue, along with many others, that until this week they haven’t.

In two columns that we’ve run on the Opinions pages in recent weeks and again with comments Tuesday night, Stanislaus County Superior Court judges disagree on that point. Their perspective is that the process has been public because news announcements were issued at various steps over the last two years. Also, they claim, the names of the Project Advisory Group were announced, so interested citizens should have contacted them.

We note that 16 of the 19 members of that advisory group are employees of a government agency and one of the other three is a retired city planner. The Bar Association had a member, as did the Chamber of Commerce. But this group never had a public meeting, didn’t have a website and didn’t invite public comment by email, letter or phone. That does not constitute public input.

Finally, what local money may be spent on the new courthouse?

On this aspect, the public has been totally shut out. If the state courts were negotiating with two private landowners, this would not be surprising because. But the city will be spending public money – or at the very minimum putting publicly owned land in the package – for the 10th and I street location. Modestans have every reason to be concerned about whether the price the state courts system is willing to pay for that site would be fully covered by state money – most of it collected from add-on fees to fines for traffic tickets and other penalties. Or will the city bear some of the cost from one of its funds? That is a timely question given that the city is asking voters for a 1 percent increase in the sales tax because its budget is awash in red ink.

City Manager Greg Nyhoff says the city hopes to negotiate with the six private-property owners and have a deal to take to the council by the end of December. At that time, Nyhoff and the mayor promise that the public will get to comment. So the cap will be off the pen and the tip will be on the signature line, and citizens will finally be asked, what do you think? The council is discussing this issue a lot – always in closed session.

We think the council members need to have a public discussion and make a public commitment as to what amount of city money, if any, they are willing to commit to see that the project goes on the site they prefer? If the answer is zero, then say so publicly. If the council thinks it is worth an investment of local money, then make that argument and give Modestans a chance to respond.

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