On July 1, Turlock Air submitted its minimum annual payment to the city of Tracy for fuel operations at the Tracy Municipal Airport. Accompanying a hand-delivered letter to the city attorney’s office was a check for $50,000 written to the city by Surland, which had agreed to pay Turlock Air’s fee for 2013.
Councilman Robert Rickman said he found out about the payment during the regular council meeting Oct. 15. Tracy lawyer Steve Nicolaou, who procured a copy of the letter and check through a public records request of the city, presented them during a discussion of whether to change the length of the 12/30 runway at the airport from 4,002 feet to 3,996 feet.
“What got my attention that council meeting, I heard about the agreement and got a copy of the agreement from staff and it’s something I had never seen before,” Rickman said.
Rickman said in an interview Nov. 18 that when he went to public events after the Oct. 15 meeting, he faced questions from citizens who wondered whether the city had engaged in an unethical deal with Surland. The Ellis project, which Surland is developing, is northwest of runway 12/30 and might, according to city statements at previous council meetings, be allowed to add more homes if the runway were shortened.
“Some of the allegations were that it looked dirty. Even that night, someone mentioned the word ‘criminal,’” Rickman said.
At the next council meeting Nov. 5, Rickman used his time at the end of the agenda to publicly call for an independent investigation of the payment and events surrounding it.
“I have very little information on it and I’d like to put these accusations and stuff to rest,” Rickman said. “I don’t believe we have anything to hide, and if something questions our integrity, I take that stuff very, very seriously.”
City Manager Leon Churchill said he welcomed an investigation and flatly denied anything unethical.
“There is no agreement with the city,” Churchill said. “I cannot deny the possibility there is a third-party agreement. At least there is one to where Les (Serpa, president of Surland) paid Turlock Air’s minimum payment to the city for $50,000, and that’s what that check is.”
In fact, Serpa said the payment was one of several things Surland was asked to do this year to defuse tension about the Ellis project’s impact on the airport.
Serpa said Steve Stuhmer of Turlock Air approached Surland for help making the payment to the city. He said John Favors, then president of the Tracy Airport Association, also asked Surland to underwrite a celebration at the airport this past summer, and the former city community services director, Rod Buchanan, broached the topic of Surland paying for a $50,000 wash rack at the airport.
“We thought it was going to be peace. After talking to Favors and Stuhmer and the airport guys out there, we’re going to fund their summer event.” Serpa said. “So we gave (the TAA) $10,000. So we paid Stuhmer’s $50,000, and we really thought both of those things would bring us peace.”
Serpa denied any unethical behavior, adding that the payment to fund the TAA celebration was made with the full knowledge of the association board.
Churchill said city laws and policies do not prohibit any third party from paying someone else’s bill.
“As a general and a generic issue, that’s not a problem,” the city manager said, “Clearly, folks have a problem with Les Serpa. This is not about city policy. This is about, Should the city be doing business with Les Serpa?”
Rickman said in the Nov. 18 interview that he did not have a problem with Surland or Serpa but had yet to receive any further explanation from the city manager about the transaction.
“We have to govern by transparency,” Rickman said. “When you have accusations of this magnitude, dirty dealings, backroom deals, criminality, some of the things I’ve heard, it’s something that should make us stop and look.”
At least one other council member agrees with Rickman. Councilwoman Nancy Young echoed the need for transparency during an interview Nov. 19.
“The truth of the matter is, information is conflicting, and that’s frustrating,” Young said. “We could not do it behind closed doors; we have to do it in a public setting.”
Rickman has introduced an agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting to discuss whether to have the city staff hire an independent investigator. If a majority of the council approves, staff members will return at a later date for the council to approve the person or people selected.
“If there is something, then we have to hold someone accountable for that,” Rickman said. “If not, we can let the public know we did nothing wrong.”
• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at 830-4231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.