After the lawsuit, the contentious meetings and the struggle over the money, the issue of the city paying for a refurbished track and field at Turlock High School comes down to one question:
Does it help people?
"It's not exactly black and white," said John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Association, a nonprofit trade group.
Turlock's Redevelopment Agency has set aside $2.8 million for the project. Opponents say there are better uses for the money in the city's designated redevelopment area; Turlock High School sits outside that boundary.
But Shirey said the city's RDA can spend money outside the area if it can show that the expenditure benefits the area.
Lynn Sarialle, part of a group that sued the city and Turlock Unified School District, said putting in a synthetic turf field at Joe Debely Stadium doesn't meet the necessary conditions for such spending.
"The statute is very, very clear," said Peter Detwiler, director of the California Senate Committee on Local Government. "The key purposes are to eradicate blight, physical and economic, that's so severe and so pervasive that government acting without redevelopment can't cure those problems."
People who spoke against the project said the stadium isn't blight, and the money should go for sidewalks and road repair in areas that need it.
Proponents say the school district can't come up with the money for the stadium on its own, that the field as it is, at a school more than 100 years old, is dangerous for those who use it -- students from both Turlock high schools, other school groups, youth programs and the community at large.
"I would add that it's not unusual for agencies to spend money to help their schools," Shirey said. "Redevelopment agencies often try to help out their school districts."
Precedent in Santa Monica
That happened in Santa Monica in the fall.
That city's RDA has approved $57 million for an upgrade of facilities at Santa Monica High School, which lies in the city's redevelopment area. The project is part of a $235 million effort to improve the school and the city's civic center, adjacent to the campus.
Jan Maez, assistant superintendent for the Santa Monica Unified School District, said the plan has widespread support.
"Santa Monica High sits right in the downtown area, and the idea behind this is to encourage broader than just school district use," she said. "It is an improvement to the whole downtown area."
Turlock Councilman Ted Howze has cited what Santa Monica did as a model for that kind of spending.
The Santa Monica project, in the planning stages, includes a soccer field for the high school, which now uses a field on civic center property. It will be accompanied by improvements to instructional buildings, set in motion by a $268 million bond passed by voters in the Santa Monica district.
The city and the school district will have a joint-use policy for the new field; Santa Monica has such an agreement for its elementary schools, Maez said.
"The city basically takes over our fields at night," she said.
Turlock has a similar agreement with the city; those opposed to the stadium upgrade cite concerns that it will attract more use and bigger crowds to the residential area where the high school sits.
Howze pointed out that the field already is available for other groups to use, and that he has talked with people who live nearby about "how the stadium could be a better neighbor."
Howze said he is unwavering in his support for the project.
"The backlash is being driven by a very small number of people," he said. "I don't believe that this small number of people represent the community."
The city cut the check for the school district late last year; Turlock Unified will have to pitch in more to make the stadium compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district will be responsible for upkeep.
New state law tightens rules
The timing is important, because a state law that took effect Jan. 1 tightens the rules for spending RDA money.
Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, said she wrote the law to "fix and prohibit redevelopment agencies from spending redevelopment money far outside the project area without any direct linkage between the project and the elimination of blight from within the project area where the money was generated."
Kehoe said Turlock's proposal sounds like the kind of thing Senate Bill 93 was designed to stop.
"We shouldn't be spending money on public works outside the project area no matter how good they are unless it is directly linked to eliminating blight within the project area," she said.
Shirey said there isn't an automatic penalty for cities that spend RDA money inappropriately, and that a lawsuit such as the one filed here is the only recourse.
He said he's spoken with City Manager Roy Wasden and "he seems on top of it."
In Turlock, the question is larger than the spending on one project.
"Also, there's politics caught up in this," Shirey said. "There's more to the story than just whether or not an expenditure meets the test under law. That makes it all the more dicey for people."
Howze agreed on that point, calling the lawsuit a political move.
"They're trying to subvert the will of two political bodies," he said. "This is a setup, rigged by a small number of people."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.