Two former Placentia city officials in charge of an ambitious project to lower a five-mile rail corridor have been indicted by an Orange County grand jury. The panel indicted former Public Works Director and city consultant Christopher Becker and retired City Administrator Robert D’Amato on two counts of conflict of interest. The charges stem from a city contract with Becker, whom the city hired as a consultant for the rail corridor project at the same time he was the public works director.

Six years ago, the city created the Orange North-American Trade Rail Access Corridor (OnTrac) as a joint powers authority between the city and its redevelopment agency. OnTrac was charged with solving the circulation problem created by the increasingly busy railroad tracks, which cut across every north-south thoroughfare in town. OnTrac chose to pursue a project of placing the rail lines in a 35-foot-deep trench for nearly the length of the city (see CP&DR Public Development, February 2005). The agency completed one railroad overpass, but the city finally abandoned the proposed trench in late 2005, by which time the estimated cost of the trench had doubled to about $600 million.

When the city created OnTrac, it signed Becker to a 10-year, $4.5 million consulting contract to serve as OnTrac’s executive director. Becker remained a city employee for another two years. Eventually, the city reworked Becker’s consulting contract at a lower rate, and the city cancelled his contract in November 2005. The grand jury alleged that Becker’s arrangement with the city violated conflict of interest laws.

The grand jury alleged that D’Amato, who retired as city administrator in December 2003, violated conflict of interest laws by helping in the formation of the contract with Becker and by not investigating when informed of a potential conflict.

Becker has been under fire from project opponents for years and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. In asserting his client’s innocence, D’Amato’s attorney, Ron Brower, told the Orange County Register, “Everything was done in public. If there was a crime, then the $64 question is, ‘Why wasn’t the entire City Council indicted?’ They knew everything he knew.”

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors is scheduled this month to begin formulating a response to a county grand jury report that was highly critical of the county Planning Commission and an individual commissioner. Supervisors, who have had little good to say about the 13-page report, scheduled a hearing on the matter for this month.

In a report released in late March, the grand jury concluded, “It appears that the Planning Commission has attempted to interject itself into matters over which it has no authority and, in the grand jury’s opinion, has become a vehicle for pursuing the personal agenda of some of its members. Further, decisions often do not appear to be made in a fair, consistent and impartial manner and appear to reflect personal bias rather than a fair and impartial review of the facts.”

The panel was particularly critical of Commissioner Sarah Christie, a legislative liaison for the Coastal Commission. The grand jury suggested that Christie got the Coastal Commission involved in the county’s Cambria/San Simeon community plan update. The panel recommended that a commissioner abstain on issue when the same issue “is subject to authority or other direct interest of the commissioner’s employer.”

The grand jury also recommended that when the Planning Commission denies projects recommended for approval by the Planning Department, appeals to the Board of Supervisors should be free of charge and the Planning Department ought not prepare findings to support the Planning Commission’s decision. The grand jury, which reportedly did not interview planning commissioners, also said the planning director should be able to appeal Planning Commission denials.

A number of people have come to the defense of Christie and the Planning Commission. County Administrator David Edge urged supervisors to reject four of the grand jury’s five recommendations, and he said a fifth recommendation — regarding consideration of other commissioners’ opinions — is already policy. In a separate report, County Planning Director Vic Holanda also dismissed many of the panel’s findings and recommendations.

San Luis Obispo County has levied a $900,000 “mitigation fee” on a developer who graded the remains of a dormitory at Mission San Miguel while preparing to build a 59-unit housing project.

Developer Gordon Marshall bulldozed the site in 2003 in anticipation of developing the housing project. The earthwork, which extended beyond Marshall’s property to the grounds of Mission San Miguel, damaged a site that was home to Salinan Indians during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

County supervisors, who had earlier supported a $225,000 mitigation fee for the grading, upped the amount to $900,000 in April after hearing testimony from archaeologists about the damage caused and the amount of money needed to complete a scientific excavation of the site.

All it took was money to settle lawsuits involving the City of San Jose and Santa Clara County. In April, the city agreed to pay the county $36.5 million and to annex some islands of unincorporated land that the county is eager to surrender.

The settlements end litigation — the city had already lost two suits in Superior Court — involving a proposed concert hall the county wants to build and a new city plan for North San Jose. Under the agreement, the city will pay the county $7.5 million annually for three years to help build a new crime lab and seismically retrofit county buildings. The city also will provide $11 million for improvements to Montague Expressway and at least $3 million for other traffic projects.

The city had sued the county to halt development of a 7,000-seat concert hall at the county-controlled fairgrounds (see CP&DR In Brief, April 2006; Public Development, December 2004). The city, which proposed its own concert hall downtown, contended the project violated a city-county pact that prohibits the county from developing anything other than county government facilities. The city lost the lawsuit. The county had counter-sued the city, arguing that the city’s litigation hindered the project’s financing. As part of the settlement, the county dropped that lawsuit. The settlement does not address the proposed concert hall. County officials may soon decide whether to move forward on the project.

In an unrelated case, the county sued the city over the North San Jose plan, which would permit up to 32,000 housing units and 27 million square feet of office space in a 5,000-acre district (see CP&DR Local Watch, September 2005). The county claimed the city was not mitigating traffic impacts outside the city. Again, the county won in court. In that case, the settlement does address the issue at hand by providing at least $14 million for traffic improvements.

Housing development in San Francisco’s eastern neighborhoods could slow dramatically, as the city’s supervisors are refusing to approve projects without an analysis of how market-rate housing projects affect affordable housing and industrial jobs. The requirement could slow approximately 50 proposed housing projects totaling about 4,600 units in the Soma, Mission, Showplace Square and Potrero Hill districts.

Civic activists contend the housing development — primarily in the form of upper-end condominiums and lofts — is displacing low-income residents and blue-collar workers from working-class and industrial areas. City planners are conducting a comprehensive review, which is expected to take about a year. A number of project proponents are preparing their own individual studies in hopes of winning approval before the city completes its review.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy has released a draft strategic plan that is intended the guide the agency — which covers one-quarter of the state — for the next five years. The plan is quite general, and the only identified goals are those that were contained in the legislation creating the conservancy, such as increasing tourism and recreation, conserving physical and cultural resources, and improving water quality.

The plan does lay out a number of institutional and resources challenges, including “a lack of knowledge about the importance of the Sierra Nevada region by a majority of Californians living outside of the area.” The plan also lists action steps.

The plan is available on the conservancy’s website:

A comprehensive, annotated glossary of statutes for local government operations has been compiled by the state Senate Local Government Committee. The “Quick List” also contains instructions for retrieving official documents and a list of relevant public agency and private enterprise websites. The Quick List is available at the committee’s website, under reference materials,