MODESTO — Opponents to building Modestos new courthouse on 10th Street waited a month for California officials to respond to their questions about that controversial site, and one of the answers they received shocked them.
Its absolutely mind-boggling, former Stanislaus County Supervisor Ray Simon said about the states contention that it doesnt have to reveal any details about the proposed land deal until after the purchase is complete.
Simon had asked the states Administrative Office of the Courts to disclose the terms of the deal it has made with the city of Modesto.
Pearl Freeman, the courthouse projects senior manager, acknowledged that the state and the city have a draft property acquisition agreement, but she would not divulge what it says.
The terms of the final agreement will be public information after close of escrow, Freeman wrote.
That means the public wont be told what the government is doing until it is too late to stop it, Simon charged.
Its the Obamacare deal all over again in a different form, said Simon, referring to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosis infamous comment about how Congress had to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.
Simons opposition group, called Citizens for I Street, wants the courthouse built on the block at I and 13th streets, rather than the states preferred site at H and 10th streets.
The I Street block is where The Bee leases office space, but the newspaper no longer owns that property.
The city of Modesto owns several of the parcels on that 10th Street block, and it has been conducting closed-door negotiations to buy the rest of the land there.
Though no public vote has been taken and details have not been disclosed, city officials have said they plan to move all utilities off that block and then resell the whole thing to the state for the courthouse.
Simon said Mayor Garrad Marsh had assured him everything was going to be transparent, and that details of the proposed land deal and utility line removal project would be disclosed and publicly discussed before any formal action was taken.
But Freemans comment to the contrary makes Simon fear the public will continue to be cut out of the process.
They just dont want this discussed, Simon said. Theyre afraid of it for some reason.
Neither the mayor nor Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff responded to repeated requests for comment by The Bee on Wednesday and Thursday.
City leaders previously had told The Bee that the City Council would put the land purchase and land sale proposals on its public agenda before voting on the deal.
So far, the council has discussed the courthouse proposal only during closed sessions where the public is not allowed.
Council members had best be careful what theyre discussing during those private meetings, cautioned Jim Ewert, the California Newspaper Publishers Associations general counsel.
Ewert said Californias open meeting law, known as the Brown Act, strictly limits what can be discussed during closed sessions.
While closed-door real estate negotiations are allowed, Ewert said, all they can talk about is the price and terms of payment.
Lateral discussions with respect to the removal of utility lines or how the city could fund the acquisition would be a Brown Act violation of the highest order, Ewert warned.
State law also requires the council to vote in public before buying or selling land.
But the Brown Act does not apply to the Administrative Office of the Courts, Ewert said. He agreed that agency operates under a different set of rules, and it is allowed to complete its real estate transactions before disclosing what it has done.
So, if the state buys land from a private property owner, it would not have to reveal any details until after the close of escrow.
But if the city wants to buy property from private landowners and then resell it to the state, Ewert said, that must be done in public.
In her written answers to Simons questions, Freeman said the state expects the purchase of the 10th Street block to be completed in the next few months.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.