2018 Elk Grove Year in Review

December 28, 2018 | 

As another year winds down, the time has come to take a stroll down memory lane and look back at some of the more interesting stories that might have slipped our mind.

Naturally, the big stories in Elk Grove 2018, were the reelection of all city council members on the ballot and the late-year announcement that a new teaching hospital valued at a whopping $750 million would be built by a relatively new for-profit medical school on the city's west side.

In the mayor's race, incumbent Steve Ly beat back challenges by Tracie Stafford and council member Darren Suen, while council incumbents Pat Hume and Stephanie Nguyen won four-year terms. The Cosumnes Community Services District has a new member in the unabashed progressive Democrat Jaclyn Moreno who came in first place among four candidates for two open seats.

As for the unnamed 250-bed proposed for-profit hospital, this is a story that will develop in the coming years. Aside from the planning process - make no mistake the city will happily give its approval notwithstanding some resistance from nearby neighborhoods - the more interesting story will be how and who is financing the facility.

So let's take a trip down memory lane.

Elk Grove civic center cement pond more of a money drain than thought 

Towards the end of the year, Elk Grove residents learned the problem-plagued and delayed aquatics center at the city's still unbranded civic center was $1.4 million over budget. The construction and tortured process on the cement pond remind us of a vacation planned by Clark W. Griswold where everything cost much more than expected.

Put this on top of the $695,000 squandered on the consulting contract a few years ago with P3 International, and taxpayers, especially those taxpayers with that special Mello Roos attached to their homes, are taking it on the chin for an extra $2 million, and that is before the facility opens for business with its budgeted operational losses. 

Speaking of squandered money

Some time ago, on September 14, 2014, to be exact, Elk Grove city attorney Jonathan Hobbs told the Elk Grove City Council the city could recover money from P3 International because they were in "material breach" of their contract with the city. P3 had won the fat contract to devise financing and construction plans for the swimmin' hole, which at that time included a water amusement park. 

Well, this year through the efforts of a plucky citizen we learned Hobbs' opinion was, well, worthless. Turns out after paying legal fees to Hobbs' old employer, Kronick, Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard, the city recovered about $4,000 of the $695,000 of taxpayers money in the lawsuit and settlement agreement with P3 International. 

Goodbye, Ms. Gill

In early May, city manager Laura Gill was fired. Even though she officially "resigned," make no mistake she was canned after being on the job for about 10 years. Don't feel too sorry for Ms. Gill though given she was shown the door with a golden parachute worth several hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.  

Hello Fresh Eyes

As soon as Gill was shown the door with her rich severance plan, her immediate assistant, Jason Behrmann was named interim city manager.

Even though Behrmann has been on the job for over six months, the city council has not yet named him manager even though odds are he will be the person selected.  

Anyone willing to bet against that? We didn't think so! 

City crowns Innovation Czar

Not long after Gill was canned, and Behrmann was named interim city manager, a new department was established at city hall. With the full-throated approval of the city council, Behrmann christened the new bureaucracy - the innovations and strategic planning department.

Interestingly, the head, or shall we say, Czar of the department, is Christopher Jordan, or CJ as he is called by his goombahs on the city council. Even though the department has no employees other than Czar Jordan, he was given a nice fat pay raise.

Chatter is that CJ, check, make that Innovations Czar Jordan, who was in line for assistant city manager once Behrmann is hired, could not be given the job because of political issues centered on the lack of diversity within the city's executive ranks. So instead of giving CJ the assistant city manager job, give him a raise - his pay range increased by about $44,000 -  and create some new department.

Even though we have not really seen or heard of any new innovation from the Czar's department, Behrmann said he will save taxpayers that amount and more as solutions to problems like the alleviations of traffic will be solved in the bowels of city hall.

Now that's what we call fresh eyes on bureaucracy!

Pothole shamed

While the city has dedicated extra resources - read cash and benefits to the innovations department - it seems the public works department and innovations couldn't conjure up a solution to fix the numerous potholes in the city, especially in the neighborhoods of  Old Elk Grove. 

Alas, leave it to the resourcefulness of one resident to come up with a unique way to handle the city's multimillion-dollar road maintenance shortage, and it did not involve raising taxes. The solution - apply for Dominos Pizzas Paving for Pizza promotion.  

Curiously, a few days after the city was asphalted shamed, the innovations and public works department miraculously teamed-up and fixed the errant pothole. Too bad they had to be shamed to take action! 

Whack a mole Elk Grove pothouses give way to international scheme

If there has been one constant in Elk Grove over the last dozen or so years, it has been the proliferation of pothouses. For Elk Grove Police busting the pothouses was like playing whack a mole - bust one and another pops up.

But this year there was a new wrinkle in the pothouse proliferation. This year the Feds busted about 75 pot houses in the region through their "Operations Lights Out" that were tied to an international scheme stemming largely from China.

The operation resulted in the filing of civil forfeiture proceeds against the houses of which 15 were in Elk Grove. The coordinated raids seized over 60,000 plants, and about 200 kilos of processed pot.

Quote of the year - honorable mention

This was from Elk Grove Council Member Darren Suen.

"Traffic. If we don't fix our congestion problem now - its never going to change."

City still undecided what to name Civic Center, even after spending $38,000!

Even though the plans have been on the books for years, and construction of several structures at the city's civic center are nearing completion, the city has not yet decided on a name for the area. 

One of the names being kicked around in The Grove, which we discovered, is a popular name at other developments around the country.  As they often do, the city also hired a consultant - no it was not P3 International again - and spent $38,000 on possible names.

Among the consultant's recommendations, they proposed The Pendulum and CNTR Point, a shortened version of Center. Other names considered were The Canopy, The Grove, The Silo, and The Point. 

For us, we are sticking with the recommendation of one of EGN's 11 readers who tapped their Ozark roots and suggested the Swimmin' Hole! 

If the city can't do it, leave it to the developers

If at first you don't succeed, get someone else to do it for you! That seems to be the philosophy of the city council when it comes to their blood thirst for expansion of Elk Grove city limits.
Home building consultants Brian "the $10,000 man" Cooley (left)
 and Jim "can we talk a minute" Gillum appearing before Sacramento LAFCO on behalf of
clients seeking to expand Elk Grove's city limits. |  

A few years ago, thanks to the persistence of some pesky citizen planners and an assortment of tree-huggers, the city's efforts to expand city boundaries by about 12 square miles was rejected by the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, or simply LAFCO. 

Well, never one to say die, the city council did the next best thing this year and got someone to do their bidding for them. Hence, private developers initiated private annexation plans, and thanks to a more developer friendly LAFCO board, voilà, the applications were approved early in 2018.  

Of course, it didn't hurt that developer-friendly Elk Grove Council Member Pat Hume was the LAFCO chair and cast the decisive vote in the 4-3 decision. 

Ironically, decades ago LAFCO's were formed to avoid piecemeal development and this annexation is nothing but piecemeal. Like they say, whatever it takes!  

Another Black Friday comes, goes at Lent Ranch Mall 
cum Elk Grove Promenade cum Outlet Collection at Elk Grove

The bad news keeps piling up for Elk Grove residents hoping to have a bigly shopping center in their own backyard. That was the continued emptiness of Elk Grove's unfinished shopping center now known as the Ghost Mall.

This summer marked the 10th year of the stop of construction of the shopping center that lies on the city's far south side. Had construction not stopped during the credit collapse and Great Recession of 2008, this year would likely have been the Ghost Mall's 9th Black Friday.

Naturally, Black Friday came and went, and aside from the shopping center's parking lot acting as a storage facility for the Elk Grove Auto Mall, there is no activity. To make matters worse the development agreement between the city and the property's owner, the Howard Hughes Company, expired.

Aside from waiting for the construction of the Wilton Rancheria's proposed $500 million gambling hall on the adjacent lot, purchased from Howard Hughes on the site of the unfinished shopping center, it is unlikely the facility will ever materialize as even envisioned just three years ago.

Shifting Sands of Economic Development

If there is one thing you can say about the city's economic development department, which like other city departments seems to be growing fatter with each passing month with no regard for any meaningful accomplishments, is they are never without some dog and pony show. 

For years the city's development directors starting with Randy Starbuck to the current person Darrell Doan were focused, or perhaps instructed to resurrect the unfinished shopping center currently known as the Outlet Collection at Elk Grove. That hasn't happened - see above!

The next charade was the Southeast Policy Area, you know, the 1,200-acre site that former Mayor Gary Davis said would generate 25,000 new jobs. Well, that whole project, especially after Fremont, California-based NRC Manufacturing failed to open in 2016 as promised by Davis, now seems to have been put up in the attic.

After that debacle, Doan and his crew shifted focus - again - and started preaching the gospel of high-end retailers coming to the city. While the city has not abandoned that one, yet - after all, we are getting an Olive Garden! Yippee Ki-Yay! - Doan and the council will likely revert to another of their past fancies - the medical mecca mantra.

With their December announcement by the for-profit California Northstate College that they intend to open a 250-bed $750 million teaching hospital, you can bet this will be the focus of Doan and crew for years to come. Talk about that city department getting saved by the bell!

While we hope the med school crew can establish the financing to get the project off the ground, which would appear to a big if,  given the mixed history of major projects in Elk Grove, this will be the tallest order so far to fill.


Not such a good year for Region Business in Elk Grove politics:
 Felix, Rockbottom and The Professor! 

Over the last several years, Sacramento-based Region Business has established itself as a potent potable in Sacramento politics. Seeking to expand its influence, the advocacy group set its sites on Sacramento suburbs including Elk Grove during the recent election cycle.

On the plus side, they endorsed eventual winners in the Elk Grove city council race, incumbents Pat Hume and Stephanie Nguyen. Of course, that was roughly the same as betting for the Harlem Globetrotters over the Washington Generals! 

In the other more significant bet, Region Business and executive director Joshua Wood were all in for then Elk Grove Vice Mayor Darren Suen over Mayor Steve Ly. Unfortunately for Region Business and Wood - The Professor, Ly played Felix the Cat to Suen's Rockbottom and pulled another another victory out of his bag of magic tricks!  

Meanwhile, the city gets a tortilla factory

While the biggest economic development announcement was the $750 million hospital, the city did score a victory this summer. San Leandro-based tortilla manufacturer Mi Rancho announced they would be opening operations in the city and when they reach full production in about two years, there would be 250 jobs at the factory.  

Interestingly, a review of public documents revealed that the move by Mi Rancho was based primarily on the work of a hustling Bay Area real estate broker, not the city's economic development department.   

Just a reminder - Wilton Rancheria MOU money 'no windfall' for city taxpayers

Lest a dead horse be beaten, Elk Grove taxpayers were reminded by city staff that in spite of the rosy pictures painted by Wilton Rancheria casino proponents, the $120 million or so promised by the casino over the 30-year life of the agreement between the city and tribe, it is not a panacea to city finances

Those were the words uttered by Innovation Czar Christopher Jordan last February.

Malibu attorney threaten the city with a lawsuit - Not some Lionel Hutz

Both sides have dug in their heels and at some point, the city of El Grove will be sued for civil rights violations. At issue is the Elk Grove city council's insistence on maintaining the undemocratic from-district form of representation.

This spring, Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman informed the city that unless the city switches from their current from-district representation, which he contends violated the California Voters Rights Act, to by-district elections, a lawsuit against the city will be filed.

While Shenkman to date has not followed through on this threat, it is not for the lack of activity. Shenkman has successfully sued, or even just threatened to sue other California city's compelling them to voluntarily switch.

Lest the Elk Grove city council think Shenkman is some Simpsons-like attorney Lionel Hutz - he's argued in front of every judge in this state, often as a lawyer - Shenkman has been awarded millions of dollars in legal fees after successfully challenging numerous cities on the issue.

Memo to city council members - heed the advice of Amar Shergill - see the Speaking of squandered money category above -  and take note when city attorney Jonathan Hobbs tells you defense of the current from-district is a slam dunk!   

Elk Grove city employees to vendors - Brother can you spare some NFL tickets, dinners etc?

Who doesn't like a freebie? Well, it seems freebie are especially popular at city hall, especially with some of the highest paid employees on the city's executive team. 

Some of the more interesting gift recipients were legal department employees Jennifer A. Alves and Suzanne E. Kennedy; garbage department's Heather Lee Neff; and from the public works department, Brian J. Fragiao. In 2016 Neff enjoyed a total compensation package of $173,642; Kennedy was $178,876; Alves was $222,614; and Fragiao was $151,452. 

Even though each of these employees makes far more than the average Elk Grovian, it seems they are not above taking a freebie from a vendor with whom they have business relations on behalf of the city.

Is the ghost of Robert Rizzo lurching around city hall? Anyone recall Bell, California?

Cubicle Study for only a cool $400,000

One of the more curious budget requests came from then-assistant city manager Jason Behrmann who sought and was granted $400,000 to commision a study on how many more cubicles are needed at city hall.

Bill Lundberg would be proud, Really! See video below.

Reminder - Junk bonds likely financing source for casino

Another spoke in Elk Grove economic development is the proposed $500 million Wilton Rancheria planned for on a portion of the former Outlet Collection at Elk Grove. Even though casino proponents have expressed confidence that groundbreaking could be as early as 2019, several hurdles stand in front of the development.

First, there is the on-going litigation in the U.S. District Court in Washington DC initiated by casino watchdog group Stand Up For California. The litigation is still in the District Court, and regardless of the outcome there, both sides are expected to appeal the decision. This alone could tie up any movement for months, if not years.

Beyond that - make no mistake - this gambling venue will eventually be built because there is too much cash for too many entities involved - there is the little matter of who and how will the resort be financed. Boyd Gaming, who is slated to manage the Wilton operation, already spend about $35 million for the 35-acres they purchased at the Ghost Mall site.

Curiously, in the recent months, Boyd announced they will not be providing the direct financing as originally planned. As a result, the Rancheria will need to secure alternate financing, and if the experience of other Indian casinos offers any guidance - and they do - the tribe will likely be paying junk bond rates for their funds.

Put another way, don't be surprised if the project is scaled-down, especially with a softening economy and rising interest rates.   

Being a politician has travel perks, especially for Assemblymembers 

There is an old saw about never seeing a politician retire as a poor person. We might add that its hard to meet a California Assemblymember who is not well traveled, or at least the assembly person representing Elk Grove. 

That was certainly the case for Assemblymember Jim Cooper who earlier reported his 2017 travels. 

Among his junkets Cooper took accepted a 12-day visit to United Kingdom, Ireland and Finland from the California Foundation on the Environment and Economy; a seven day trip to Maui, Hawaii from the Independent Voter Project with a value of $3,199; and a three day visit to Pebble Beach, California funded by the California Legislative Black Caucus with a reported value of $3,365. 

Cooper's travels took him to Napa, California on four occasions and Las Vegas three times during the year. The most frequent interest groups paying for Cooper's trips included the four from California Issues Forum, valued at $2,277; and three trips with a value of $13,800 from the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy. 

Meanwhile, last spring Mayor Steve Ly also reported a trip to Israel valued at over $14,000. Like we said, have you ever seen a poor retired politician?  

Albuquerque had crooked lawyer Sol Goodman, Elk Grove has a crooked - 
allegedly - realtor Heidi Phong

It might not exactly be life imitating art, but for Elk Grove, it ain't half bad. If Albuquerque can be the meth hub for the Southwest, why can't Elk Grove be the pothouse hub for the West Coast?

Fans of the groundbreaking TV series Breaking Bad will fondly recall the sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman, who was a crucial cog in Walter White's crystal blue meth empire. If Elk Grove had the equivalent, Elk Grove realtor Heidi Phung might be our very own Saul Goodman.

Phong was arrested as part of "Operation Lights Out" (see above) earlier this month. She is alleged to have acted as a conduit in a few transactions that funneled money into the country from China for the purpose of establishing pothouses and illegal marijuana distribution channels. 

Maybe the city's economic development department can catch a Southwest flight to Burbank, rent a car and make a pitch to Vince Gilligan or other suits in Hollywood for another spinoff of Breaking Bad in Elk Grove. After all, if Elk Grove is known for nothing else, it is our pothouses! 

Now that will make us a tourist hot spot!

PS - Maybe the showrunner can work in a tie-in to Siskiyou County! 

Woes for Elk Grove Unified School continue unabated  

2018 was not a good year for Elk Grove Unified School District.

First, early in the year, the district held a well-attended community meeting regarding racial bias in the district following an incident with one of its students that gained nationwide attention in late 2017.

During the course of the year, trustees regularly heard from parents of students who alleged racial bias at district schools, aimed mostly at African American students. On top of that, trustees were also accused of ignoring failing facilities in lower income areas.

Trustees and administrators seem to be coasting on their reputation from 25-plus years ago when the district was considered to be cutting-edge and innovative. Perhaps it is a case of institutional malaise or something worse. 

They better get it together lest the developers start breathing down their necks once the glow of being an upstanding district burns off and the attractiveness of the district from Bay Area transplants is upended!

Legends of the Falls

No, we aren't talking about the Brad Pitt movie, but Elk Grove's Falls Event Center.

Even though the city has included the event facility as part of their earnest but futile tourism push, the Elk Grove Boulevard venue has not been without its shortcomings, The biggest shortcoming was the announcement the parent company was declaring bankruptcy.

Adding insult to injury, the Securities Exchange Commission also filed a complaint the parent company's CEO, Steven l. Down. 

The event center continues to operate, but as sure as the sun rises in the east, Elk Grove city council members will probably abandon the facility for their fundraising activities once the city's unnamed civic center opens. 

Former city executive admits to bungling paperwork in depositions

In what can only be characterized as a moment of honesty, a former Elk Grove planning department executive did what few bureaucrats dare to do - tell the truth. It didn't hurt that it was in a deposition under threat of perjury.

That person confessing a big boo-boo was former Elk Grove Planning Director Tarro Echiburo. As reported last summer, "Echiburo admitted that he and the city bungled paperwork." 

It makes you wonder how much paperwork is "bungled," unintentional or not, at city hall? 

The most overused phrase from Elk Grove City Council dais

"That being the case." 

In God We Trust

In one of the more curious events this year at the Elk Grove City Council, with no deliberation the city council decided to wade into controversy this summer when they agreed to consider placing an "In God We Trust Plaque" in the city council chambers. That request came from a Sacramento resident representing the In God We Trust-America organization.

Perhaps after realizing the Constitutional challenges, and not to mention campaign year politics it could confront the city with, Council Member Pat Hume asked to have the item removed from any further council deliberation, for the time being anyway. 

It's coming out of their hide, but at least they can get in the cement pond for a discount

Even though the city's swimmin' hole, check, make that the aquatics center is over budget, the bulk of the construction financing is coming from residents in the city's Laguna Ridge neighborhood who are paying Mello Roos fees other homeowners in the city are avoiding. It's through their generosity that the pool is being built.

In recognition of that fact, the city council voted unanimously - do they vote any other way? - to give Laguna Ridge residents a 20-percent discount on user fees.

"I appreciate the discounted rate for Laguna Ridge residents given that they are, visa via their Mello Roos fees, paying for a good portion of this facility," council member Pat Hume said. 

Whiskey is for drinkin', Elk Grove Water is for jacking up rates

Although it is a relatively obscure governmental entity, the Elk Grove Water District has managed to put itself in the spotlight this year by the actions of its board of directors. The EGWD  provides water service to about half of Elk Grove and is owned by the Florin Resources Conservation District.

This year not only did the five-member board of directors grant themselves access to a generous benefits package, but they also put it to customers by hiking rates. By one analysis, district customers are paying among the highest rates in the Sacramento area - even before jacking ratepayers!

Runner-up quote of the year  

"So I commend you... you've taken the brains of this horse and been running full speed ever since." 
Council member Steve Detrick praising interim city manager upon the development of the city hall's new innovations department

The most overused word from Elk Grove City Council dais 2018


Mayor Steve Ly called out for perceived anti-women bias

During one if its October meetings, Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly was called-out for showing an anti-women bias. The comments came after Ly let one public speaker go on for about 30 minutes.

Conversely, Ly, the speaker said, gave women short shrift when they were speaking during public comment.

Quote of the year

This year's quote of the year comes from veteran Elk Grove Council Member Pat Hume. The following quote was reported in the Sacramento Bee in regards to termination of Laura Gill as city manager and the appointment of Jason Behrmann as interim city manager. 

"The majority of the council felt it was time to get fresh eyes." 

Forget passing the baton, Davis goes full frontal with a stab in Ly's chest 

Perhaps the most stunning political development of the year was Gary Davis's betrayal of his former political protege, Mayor Steve Ly.

Davis mentored Ly's political career and was instrumental in his 2016 ascension to the mayor's seat after Davis vacated the position under still murky circumstances. The former Mayor and council member was so fully behind his proteges that he gave him large monetary donations, campaigned for him and appeared in countless mailers.

Then on the weekend before election day, Davis, on behalf of Region Business, voiced a robocall to Elk Grove voters endorsing Darren Suen as well as  Stephanie Nguyen and Pat Hume. 

Why Davis gave his former political partner and protege a metaphorical kick-in-the-crotch are still something of a mystery. Perhaps it was nothing more than pure parochial interest that motivated Davis thinking Suen had the race in the bag. 

Regardless, with Ly's victory over Suen and Stafford, Davis' reputation as a trustworthy ally - if he ever had that reputation to start with - was damaged, perhaps beyond repair should he again seek political office.  

Hear the robocall below.

Best Peaches and Cream Reunited and it feels so good imitation!

At the last regular city council meeting of 2018, after a 12-year plus breakup, Vice Mayor Pat Hume, announced that yes, The City of Elk Grove and Sacramento Regional Transit might just be reunited next year.  

One last note  - for the prediction category...

2018 elections are in the book, and the 2020 year race is less than 23 months from now...Pat Hume for Elk Grove Mayor 2020? Don't be dismissive!


See you in 2019! 


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1 comment

D.J. Blutarsky said...

EGN needs to back off! You give us the impression that the city is run by a bunch of clowns...

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