September 2, 2013

Stanislaus courthouse site negotiations continue, away from public scrutiny

The selection process for a new courthouse in Modesto has gotten an F for transparency so far, and things haven’t improved much as the city tries to acquire the privately owned parcels.

The selection process for a new courthouse in Modesto has gotten an F for transparency so far, and things haven’t improved much as the city tries to acquire the privately owned parcels in the block between Ninth and 10th streets and G and H streets.

Tonight’s City Council agenda contains a consent item to use Centerra Capital to help the city in negotiations with the landowners. Only it appears to be an after-the-fact rubber stamp, since the staff explanation states that Centerra is already assisting the city. Typically consent items get no council or public discussion unless someone asks for them to be discussed.

Later in the same agenda there’s a closed-door session indicating negotiations are under way and that Centerra Capital owner Paul Draper is representing the landowners, with Community Development Director representing the city. It’s at best confusing, but then there has been no public forum for citizens and taxpayers to learn and ask questions about how this will all come together.

The proposed pact with Centerra is a “consultant and confidentiality agreement,” suggesting that we will continue to learn little to nothing about this process. Earlier this summer, a city official indicated that the city hopes to break even on the deal in which the city puts together the multiple parcels and then sells them to the state in a single transaction.

While we recognize that property negotiations are a legitimate matter for discussion in closed session, we think that the city has an obligation to be more forthcoming about this process and especially about the cost.

There also has not been a full explanation of whether the city or the state court system would bear the cost of moving utilities on the block and the cost if soil contamination is found. The corner at 10th and G streets used to be the site of the Greyhound bus terminal, which has raised reasonable questions about the presence of fuel in the soil.

This is the same City Council that is asking voters to approve a 1cent (or 1percent) increase in the sales tax in order to pay for public safety and other city services. It is legitimate to want assurances that, if Measure X passes on Nov. 5, none of the revenue from it will be used for the courthouse deal. And if the city might use money for that purpose, then city leaders should be forthcoming about it now.

As we’ve said before, there’s no doubt about the need for a new courthouse to replace the aging Stanislaus structure, which is inadequate in size and almost every other regard. But the pattern that has emerged around the state is that the new courthouses have become tremendously expensive.

In May, a spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts told Bee reporter J.N. Sbranti that a public open house would be held in 2014 or 2015, when the project reached the design phase. We think that the public deserves to know more now, especially from the city officials who campaigned so persuasively behind closed doors for this site, arguing that it fits into the city’s long-term plans for 10th Street.

Congratulations and

good luck to the Nuts

Our home team, the Modesto Nuts, claimed the second half championship of the California League North and Wednesday begins the playoff series against Visalia. The team’s record was an impressive 42-26. Wednesday’s game will be in Visalia, but the Nuts return home to John Thurman Field for Thursday’s game at 7:05 p.m. We wish them good luck and congratulate the players and coaches on a successful second half of the 2013 season.

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