Stadium renovation sparks suit

TURLOCK — A citizens group is suing the city and the school district over the project to improve Turlock High School's Joe Debely Stadium.

A group of neighbors represented by Modesto attorney Richard Harriman filed the lawsuit in Stanislaus County Superior Court last week.

Council members, acting as the Redevelopment Agency, voted last month to give the Turlock Unified School District $2.8 million to install an all-weather track and field at the high school. Several residents spoke for and against the proposal at a variety of public meetings.

The lawsuit, brought by the Turlock Citizens Coalition — Dana Vaughan, Lynn Gaiser-Sarraille and Michael Burtch — names council members Amy Bublak, Ted Howze and Kurt Spycher as defendants. It does not name Mayor John Lazar and Councilwoman Mary Jackson; the lawsuit erroneously says Lazar voted against the project. Lazar recused himself from considering the proposal because he owns property nearby; Jackson was the lone vote against it.

The lawsuit accuses council members of "failing to proceed in a manner according to law" and says their findings in approving the project "were not supported by substantial credible evidence."

City Attorney Phaedra Norton said she is reviewing the complaint.

Deputy Superintendent Ed Felt said Wednesday the district got the money from the city Dec. 18 and put it into a district account Dec. 21.

"We've had some design work and some survey work completed for the stadium project that will be billed against that $2.8 million," Felt said.

A city's redevelopment money typically is spent on efforts to increase affordable housing, ease blight or raise tax income. However, it's not unprecedented to spend money on projects like the Turlock proposal: the city of Santa Monica this year started a joint civic center project with a school district that includes a stadium upgrade.

The state has threatened to take money from cities' redevelopment funds to balance its budget; an earlier try failed.

Project called a rush job

Harriman called the Debely project a rush job, aimed at avoiding a law taking effect today requiring that RDA money be spent within a city's redevelopment area. Turlock High is outside the city's designated redevelopment area.

"The way it looks to me after looking at the documents and the like is that the city of Turlock and the RDA and the school district are being driven by this rush to get the money transferred and earmarked and allocated ... to circumvent the (new law's) prohibition against spending the money the way they're doing it," Harriman said.

Howze, a proponent of the project, denied that was the case, saying the effort was 16 months in the making.

"When I was first approached about this project I told (constituents) to their faces I didn't think it was a project that could be done with RDA money," he said. "I did what you should do for any constituent; I came back and engaged city staff on it."

Attorney calls for study

Howze said he got on board after then-City Manager Tim Kerr said it was a feasible use of the money, and that it passed further reviews by outside attorneys and the state board that oversees redevelopment spending.

Harriman argues that the project requires a study on the impact it will have on the neighborhood — including parking, noise and traffic — because more groups will use the upgraded stadium.

Howze and Spycher said the city and school district didn't skip any steps, and that more extensive environmental reviews are not necessary.

Both cited another RDA project, the installation of a water feature at Columbia Park, that hasn't raised any community ire.

"That was my No. 1 RDA project," Spycher said. "We had to make the same set of findings."

The water feature will bring more traffic and use to Columbia Park, but it didn't need an environmental report, Howze said. Neither did the Carnegie Arts Center, which will be three times larger when it's rebuilt.

Suit seen as a political move

Howze said the lawsuit is politically motivated.

"I think it's clear to everyone involved that council member Jackson along with her best friend Dana Vaughan and Democratic Central Committee Chair Michael Burtch are trying to subvert the legal authority of two elected bodies by corruptly using the courts system for purely political motives," he said. As for what those motives are, "I can't speak to what drives them."

Jackson refuted Howze's claim.

"I disagree with council member Howze's comments, as do most of my constituents," she said. "This is a matter for the courts to decide and I wish Howze would get his facts straight before he speaks out."

The lawsuit seeks an administrative stay to prevent the district from spending the money.

Harriman said the next step is a settlement meeting to take place between 20 and 45 days from Wednesday, when he served the district and the city with the lawsuit.

"We can sit down and see if there's something we can hammer out," he said.

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.