In its first meeting in a month, the Santa Clara City Council finally discussed selling its Loyalton Ranch property; however, legal risks expressed by the city attorney stalled any Council decision.
Due to other Council priorities and lengthy meeting run times, the item had been repeatedly continued dating back to May. The City purchased the 10,000-acre property in 1977 for $1.7 million and has been leasing it for grazing since.
Gary Gillmor, Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s father, was the sellers’ realtor for the deal.
The property is 25 miles from Reno. In 2014, part of the land was sold for a landfill, and in 2017, it was deemed surplus. Since then, the City agreed to a new grazing contract for $21,000 a year. In 2019, a massive fire razed all the buildings on the property, burning 90% of the land.
Although the City was offered $10 million for the property in 2017, it has since been assessed to be worth $4.1 million.
Council Member Suds Jain urged the Council to sell the property, calling it a “terrible investment.” By his calculations, Jain said the employee time used to maintain the property and the property tax it yields result in roughly only about the value of the grazing contract, meaning the City basically generates no money from it.
Gillmor opposed the sale, saying it is the “lowest possible time” to sell property.
“You will be leaving millions on the table. If you put this out now, it would be like selling your house in the worst possible market after it caught on fire,” she said.
City Attorney Brian Doyle said he had legal concerns related to selling the property, which he would like to detail in a confidential memo. Since the City has no offer for the property, the Council cannot hold a closed session to discuss the sale.
Council Member Kathy Watanabe called the area “booming,” despite its moniker “the loneliest town in America,” saying the property has “a lot of potential.” Further, in a classic appeal to tradition fallacy, she said Santa Clara has a “history of holding onto property.”
The Council voted unanimously to defer the item until Doyle could prepare a memo stating the legal risks. The item is set to return to the Council before the end of October.
Meeting Efficiency Discussed
The Council also set aside time to hear from Shawn Spano, a communication consultant, on how to better improve the efficiency of its meetings.
Since the election of a new Council majority, a shift that has left former majority members Mayor Lisa Gillmor and her political ally Council Member Kathy Watanabe in the minority, Council meetings have run roughly eight hours long. Items have frequently been deferred, sometimes, as in the case of discussion of the sale of the Loyalton Ranch property, for months.
In an attempt to get through City business, the Council opted to enlist Spano to spitball ideas as to how best to return to reasonable meeting run times. Those ideas involved not only policies that increase efficiency but also sets of norms that allow for more civil discourse and less infighting.
While all the Council Members agreed that the Council has done well navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, they had differing views on what has caused log-jammed discussion.
Vice Mayor Raj Chahal and Jain pointed to a lack of being able to have questions answered prior to meetings in a timely manner. They both suggested a return to a policy that allowed the Council to have access to the meeting packet earlier so as to be able to have questions answered prior to, instead of during, the meeting.
However, City Manager Deanna Santana said the previous policy that enabled Council Members to do that did not have the intended effect of shortening meetings. Instead, she said, it overloaded City employees the day before the meeting.
On the flip side of the coin, Watanabe and Gillmor emphasized “trusting staff” instead of, as Watanabe put it, “constantly second guessing” them.
“People think they know more than our professional staff members,” Gillmor said.
Gillmor said the Council has begun to “blur the line” between policy decisions, which are the purview of the Council, and City operations, which are supposed to be left to its employees.
On a similar note, Santana said being “criticized” erodes employee morale, affecting how they interact with the Council while presenting.
Council Member Anthony Becker said most of the problem is with Council Members “grand-standing,” “finger-pointing” and dragging out “long-winded conversations” where Council members iterate their points ad nauseam.
To ameliorate the problem, the Council opted to try a new protocol that limits how many times Council Members can speak on a topic. The vote to have City Attorney Doyle return with a resolution codifying the new interim policy was unanimous. A more solidified City policy will go to the Governance Committee.
In the interest of promoting civility and efficiency, Sparo suggested the Council Members exercise self-editing, which included not needing to speak on every topic and not assuming bad intent on the part of those with whom they disagree.
The meeting lasted eight hours.
Council Reflects On Priorities
The Council also reflected on how its priorities from the previous year are coming along. In October, it will hear about setting a penalty for curfew violation that aims to better deter violation. In late September or early October, it will discuss modernization of the business employee tax, and later this month it will hold a study session centered on affordable housing.
In the wake of the pandemic, Kenn Lee, the City’s Finance Director, detailed some of the City financial woes, specifically as it relates to infrastructure. Lee said the capital improvement plan (CIP) has $300 million in unfunded needs, with that number soaring to more than $1 billion outside the CIP.
While the City has considered a general obligation bond to help fund the need, Lee said the proposal for such a bond was unable to garner the public support it needed for City employees to have confidence in putting it on ballot measure.
The next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 24 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara.
Members of the public can participate in the City Council meetings on Zoom at https://santaclaraca.zoom.us/j/99706759306; Meeting ID: 997-0675-9306 or call 1(669) 900-6833, via the City’s eComment (available during the meeting) or by email to PublicComment@santaclaraca.gov