The five-member council voted unanimously Tuesday, Dec. 3, to have the staff examine a memorandum from Surland to the city and determine whether the city implicitly agreed to any element of it without the knowledge of the council.
The memo, dated April 26, details a proposal by the development company to fund any financial shortfalls of Tracy Municipal Airport for five years in exchange for a percentage of fuel sales there and a change in the safety zone that affects Surland’s nearby Ellis development.
“When we first heard about this, it was from the public at a council meeting,” Rickman said during the council session. “We have no explanation from Mr. (Leon) Churchill (the city manager) or city staff, except that it wasn’t an agreement.”
Rickman called during the Nov. 5 council meeting for a possible third-party investigation into both the memo and Surland’s payment of a $50,000 minimum fee that airport fuel provider Turlock Air Center owed to the city. The councilman reiterated his desire for an inquiry Tuesday, wondering whether the memo would constitute an agreement between Surland and the city if any of the details of the proposal had been acted upon by city staff members.
Churchill said in an interview in his office Nov. 12 he was aware of Surland’s proposal but that it was rejected by the staff and that Surland owner Les Serpa was informed verbally by the city attorney’s office.
City attorney Daniel Sodergren said only the City Council can make agreements on behalf of Tracy.
“In this case, I don’t see a written agreement. I don’t see a written agreement that was approved by council,” Sodergren said. “So as far as using the term ‘agreement,’ I don’t believe there was an agreement in this instance, relying on the facts that I am aware of.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 4, the day after the meeting, Rickman said he needed more specific answers. “What I want to know is, when this came before the city, what did the city do? Did we meet some of the conditions? Did we not? Did we talk about it?”
Not everyone on the council was convinced the matter required external investigation. Councilman Michael Maciel debated with Rickman about whether any issue exists.
“It seems to boil down to two things that are not in dispute. One is a memorandum from Surland to the city proposing a deal. Also not in dispute is the fact that the city rejected that proposal,” Maciel said during Tuesday’s one-hour, eight-minute discussion of the agenda item. “The other document that is not in dispute is that Surland wrote a check to the city to cover Turlock Air’s financial obligation. That’s not in dispute. Whether or not the city had any involvement with that, there’s nothing to support that. If Surland and Turlock Air want to work out a deal, they can. That’s beyond the purview of the city. So what would we be investigating?”
Councilman Charles Manne said he supported a thorough discussion, but he added, “You’re going to have to help me find out what to investigate and who to investigate.”
Rickman said Wednesday that the other council members had fixated too much on the wording of the agenda item he introduced.
“When I use the term ‘investigation,’” Rickman said, “my purpose was a fact-gathering investigation.”
Rickman said he had not spoken about the matter with Churchill in the weeks since it was brought to the council’s attention Oct. 15 by Tracy lawyer Steve Nicolaou. Nicolaou procured a copy of the letter and the check through a public records request.
“This is the most frustrating thing,” Rickman said during the meeting. “It seems like people in the audience have more information than me as a council member.”
Rickman did say Wednesday that he had met with Serpa at the Surland offices Monday, Dec. 2, to get more information and told the developer his inquiry was not directed at him or his company.
Mayor Brent Ives warned council members Tuesday to consider the intentions of those who made allegations about wrongdoing by the city staff or Surland.
“When something like this comes up, I always look for the motive,” Ives said. “What is the real need for us to take the public business time to do this?”
Councilwoman Nancy Young said people with personal agendas who resort to vitriolic accusations of government corruption where none exists end up hurting Tracy residents.
“There needs to be a level of respect that’s given, because it puts all of us on defense instead of focusing on what’s best for our community,” she said.
Maciel warned about the outcome of an inquiry.
“There are things that are certain to result from an investigation. One of which, it will cost the city money,” he said. “Another of which is that if the people bringing up the complaints are not satisfied with the result, and we’ve seen a long history, they will bring into question the validity of the investigation.”
Maciel, a retired Tracy police officer, expressed one other concern.
“The other thing that will be certain is that any city staff members that are subject to this investigation will probably be damaged professionally,” he said. “I think, in some people’s minds, that is the goal.”
At the end of the discussion, the council voted unanimously to ask the city staff to produce details about what had been done in response to the Surland memo and to review those findings at an unspecified future council meeting.
• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at 830-4231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.