The Tulare City Council behaved itself for an entire hour before the accusations and recriminations began at its November 21 meeting. At issue this time was an item seeking the removal of Councilman Jose Sigala from the board of the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA).
Sigala’s removal was placed on the agenda by City Manager Joe Carlini following a discussion with a second council member, later identified as Greg Nunley. But that wasn’t the first controversy of the night.
The wrangling for power began when Sigala, during discussion about the reappointment of Gregory Blevins and Howard Stoman to the Board of Public Utilities (BPU). BPU appointments have already been a hot issue for the council, which dissolved the previous BPU in order to create greater diversity on that board. During that fight, Sigala requested and the Council approved the appointment of Erica Cubas, who later resigned. Over Sigala’s objections, Cubas was replaced by Chris Soria at a later meeting.
Tulare’s City Charter gives the major the right to select members of the BPU, which must then be ratified by the Council. However, Sigala says he and Mayor Carlton Jones agreed to allow each council member their own selection.
“I know the Charter specifically talks about the appointment and the process and how this works,” Sigala said. “Earlier this year, there was what I thought was a gentlemen’s agreement that didn’t turn out to be a gentlemen’s agreement to ask each of the council district members to recommend someone to get appointed.”
Jones, however, citing the Charter, denied such an agreement exists. He also said Sigala was given the opportunity to nominate a candidate, but did not.
“First of all, it wasn’t a gentlemen’s agreement,” he said. “I did ask everyone in the recruiting process to bring forward anyone who they thought would want to serve on BPU, and I did honor your request. I think everyone had the same opportunity to recommend or bring forward. And, you didn’t, so that’s your fault.”
Eventually, the Council voted unanimously to reappoint Blevins and Stoman to the BPU.
The Council also voted to reduce membership of the Tulare Planning Commission from seven to five members. Shanelle Herrera will return to the Planning Commission; Jeff Killion and Linda Crase will not. The new membership becomes effective on January 1, 2018, the day after Killion and Crase’s terms expire.
Ellen Baker, Lisa Hollingshead and Michelle Lippincott will remain on the Library Board. Craig Hancock and Mike Jamaica will continue to sit on the Parks and Recreation Commission.
The Main Event
The evening’s battle royale, however, came when the Council took up the possibility of removing Sigala from his seat on the GSA. At its most recent meeting, the GSA’s board discussed how costs and benefits would be shared among the three participating agencies, Tulare, Visalia and the Tulare Irrigation District (TID).
During planning by staff at all three agencies, a recommendation was formulated for a split that would see Tulare participate at a 26% level, while the TID and Visalia would be in at 37% each. During the GSA meeting, Sigala offered a split that would see Tulare go in at a 30 percent participation after he said he learned TID representatives would not approve the 37-37-26 split.
All actions by the GSA must have unanimous approval.
The real mystery was how Sigala’s removal ended up on the Council’s agenda.
“I have just one basic question, how did this get on the agenda?” Sigala said. “I have two different stories here, where (Councilman Greg) Mr. Nunley is telling me he did talk to the city manager about concerns with GSA and what’s going on here. But, he’s standing two feet away from me, telling me in my face, saying, ‘I did not ask that you be … put on the agenda to be removed.’”
Who’s the Boss?
Sigala has attended all meetings of the GSA, arriving at one meeting late. The city’s other representative, Nunley, has missed several meetings and been late to several of those he has attended. Failure to attend meetings is the usual reason for such a removal.
Eventually, it emerged that City Manager Joe Carlini had placed the call for Sigala’s removal at his own initiative. He appeared to be reacting to Sigala’s decision not to present the staff recommendation on the share of costs and benefits before offering an alternative division.
“I put it on there,” Carlini said. “Staff recommendation never got to the table before a change was made and an offer was drawn at 35-35-30.”
Sigala said he overheard TID representatives declare they would not support the recommended split, a conversation Nunley missed because he was tardy, and decided to put forth a proposal they would acccept.
“I was sitting next to (David) Bixler (chair of the TID), and they weren’t supportive of the staff report,” Sigala said. “That’s why I offered a compromise.”
Carlini, however, said he did not agree with Sigala’s decision, prompting him to call for his removal.
“I still think you were supposed to do the staff recommendation,” Carlini said. “I did it three months ago.”
Staff recommendations, Sigala countered, are only advice to be taken into consideration by those elected to make the decisions.
“I understand that, Joe, but, you know what? You can do a year worth of work, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to support it,” Sigala said. “As a council member and as an elected, that’s my prerogative.”
The Council took no action on the item, and Sigala will remain on the GSA Board.
Sigala seemed dissatisfied with the notion Carlini acted alone to have him removed. Other members of the Council denied the accusation.
“I will say that during my agenda review, I read that item and I was fine with it,” Jones said, adding he was not responsible for it being on the agenda.
Councilwoman Maritza Castellanoz also denied foreknowledge of the action, and said Sigala was making unfair assumptions about the motives of his fellow council members.
“The first time I seen this was when I read it on the agenda,” Castellanoz said. “Your assumption was wrong. Your assumption was wrong to believe that this is retaliation on my part, and your assumption was wrong to think that the vote was here, because I’m not here to remove you.”
No final agreement for share of cost for the GSA has been reached, and the Council consensus is to discuss the matter only in closed session. Jones, who was the city’s original representative to the GSA, said it was important Tulare keep its cost at minimum.
“When we started this GSA and we started to talk about who’s going to pay what, we made it very clear that a city the size of Tulare is not going to pay the same as Visalia; and we are not going to pay the same as TID,” he said. “I hope that would be our message going forward.”
Cost Savings on Bonds
Before the fighting got underway, the Council approved a plan to refinance lease revenue bonds issued by the city in 2008. Under the scheme, the city will borrow $30 million to pay off the 2008 bond issue. The new, lower interest rate will allow the city to save appropriately $340,000 per year over the 20-year life of the loan.
The amount to be borrowed exceeds the cost of repaying the bonds by some $2.5 million, which will be used for street improvements.
“We found a way to utilize the refunding of the bonds, and this is really a tribute to (Finance Director) Darlene Thompson, to get money that really isn’t going to cost us anything in the long run, actually it’s going to save money, and we’re going to complete this project that is significant to us,” City Manger Carlini said.
The deal, which will not extend the length of loan repayment, should save the city $4.7 million overall. The additional $2.5 million will likely be used in the development of the Cartmill Project.
“We expect, and I imagine this council has bought in on the fact that, Cartmill is going to be the economic jewel of the city,” Carlini said.
Should alternative funding, such as a grant, be found to cover the cost of the Cartmill Project, the additional $2.5 million will be used for road projects elsewhere in the city.
“It could be any street project,” Thompson said.