Board to Reconsider Conaway Deal As Criticism Mounts About the Lack of Transparency in the Process

Sacramento-River-stockBack in December, one of the more complex agreements about local water issues was literally rammed through by the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, literally at the last minute.  According to the County Counsel’s office, however, they complied with Brown Act in noticing requirements.

However, Supervisor Jim Provenza did not agree.  Supervisor Provenza told the Enterprise that he had received notice of the meeting at 4:52 p.m. Thursday, which the Enterprise reported was “the same time the county e-mailed The Davis Enterprise an agenda. Friday’s meeting started 20 1/2 hours later, at 1:30 p.m.”

Mr. Provenza told the Enterprise he was  “just looking into that at this point,” because he was not sure if a Brown Act violation occurred. According to the article, “The board met three days before the special meeting, on Tuesday, Dec. 14, and recessed that meeting until Friday.  But, Provenza said, the docket did not call the board to take a vote on Tuesday, which means carrying over the meeting doesn’t pass legal muster.”

A group calling themselves Citizens Alliance for Regional Environmental Sustainability (CARES), which is apparently a new grassroots organization formed to oppose the Tsakopoulos-County water agreements, hired local environmental attorney Don Mooney who wrote a letter alleging that “the notice for the December 17, 2010, Special Meeting violated the requirements of the Brown Act, Government Code, section 54956.”

According to Mr. Mooney, “The Brown Act mandates written notice must be sent to each member of the legislative body (unless waived in writing by that member) and to each local newspaper of general circulation, and radio or television station that has requested such notice in writing. (Gov’t Code, § 54956.) This notice must be delivered by personal delivery or any other means that ensures receipt, at least 24 hours before the time of the meeting.”

The County failed to provide the mandated 24 hours of notice to Board members or the media, the group charges, citing the December 22, 2010 article in the Davis Enterprise where Supervisor Jim Provenza charged that he had not received notice of the meeting until roughly 4:52 pm on Thursday, about 20 and a half hours prior to the meeting.

Mr. Mooney’s letter becomes key in this dispute, because County Counsel Robyn Drivon said, “Provenza had raised an issue and absent an external prompting, which Mooney’s letter now is, there wasn’t a reason to do anything about it than simply review it.”

So now, erring on the side of caution, the board is rescinding their action and reconsidering it.

The vote wound up 3-2 last time, with Duane Chamberlain joining Mr. Provenza in opposition.  Not much figures to change this time even with Don Saylor replacing Helen Thomson as the fifth member of the board.

Supervisor Matt Rexroad, who will chair the meeting, told the Sacramento Bee this weekend as he had previously told the Vanguard, that he believes meeting and vote were legal.

Indeed, the county’s spokesperson Beth Gabor said specifically that the meeting was “not to correct a legal problem, but to address a public perception that the Board of Supervisors acted too quickly in approving the agreement on December 17.”

Supervisor Rexroad told the Bee, “I’m very comfortable with my vote on this, and I think we’re fine procedurally.”

However, for those who complained that they lacked time to prepare and attend, this is their chance.  Members of various groups may attend and speak.  Will the Board simply ignore new information?

We shall find out.

From the start, our biggest concern is not with the outcome, but the process.  The fact is that Angelo Tsakopoulos, whose company purchased the controlling interest at Conaway Ranch, has been more than a bit dodgy as to why the deadline needed to occur as it did, forcing not only the Yolo County Board of Supervisors into a mid-December vote, but Davis and Woodland into late December votes on their part of the water deal.

On Sunday, Stuart Leavenworth of the Bee called out Tsakopoulos for not only being “too clever by half” but also with respect to his dealings on the Conaway Ranch, for being “less than forthcoming about crucial details that should be made public.”

Indeed, as Mr. Leavenworth wrote, “Questions abound on his plans to sell water to Southern California, manage the sprawling 17,300-acre ranch and make good on philanthropic pledges.”

The question is why is it that the public and the Bee are far more skeptical about this deal than our own elected officials?

One of the big questions involves how it is that Mr. Tsakopoulos needed money from Woodland and Davis and also Southern California to bankroll his venture.

Writes Mr. Leavenworth, “In taking control of Conaway in December, Tsakopoulos agreed to sell the two cities 10,000 acre-feet of water from the Sacramento River  annually – enough for 20,000 homes. Tsakopoulos and his family would bank $79 million for selling those rights, but they wouldn’t earn that sum immediately. The water and money wouldn’t start flowing until 2016.”

He continues, “That time gap presented a problem for Tsakopoulos. Although he is one of the region’s wealthiest men, he has told Yolo officials that he is cash poor.”

Mr. Tsakopoulos would get about $20 million from the proceeds from selling 80,000 acre-feet of Conaway water to Southern California over 25 to 30 years.

However, Mr. Leavenworth suggests that Mr. Tsakopoulos was not as honest as one might hope.

He continues, “As it turns out, Tsakopoulos wasn’t as cash poor in December as he once suggested. At the same time he was negotiating this water sale, he was also in the process of selling most of his stake in Greenbriar, a 3,500-home project in North Natomas.”

But there’s more.

He goes on to cite Robert Lewis’ report from Thursday, “Tsakopoulos had pledged, in obtaining approvals for Greenbriar, to donate as much as $20 million to the Crocker Art Museum and the University of California, Davis, Medical School. Now he says he can’t immediately follow through. “Values have shrunk and real estate is in shambles at the moment,” he told Lewis.”

Writes Mr. Leavenworth, “No doubt, the real estate market is in the tank, but Tsakopoulos needs to be more candid about why he can’t meet his commitment to the Crocker and UC Davis. In all likelihood, he is using proceeds from the Greenbriar sale to help purchase Conaway Ranch.”

When Stuart Leavenworth attempted to talk to Mr. Tsakopoulos about this issue, he was told that he was unavailable and Mr. Leavenworth notes he has been dodging these questions for several months.

He cites several of the biggest questions that remain:

• What is the source of the water Tsakopoulos plans to sell to Southern California? If it is groundwater, where will the wells be located? And how will the public be assured that such groundwater is not hydrologically connected to the Sacramento River? (Such a connection would result in Tsakopoulos selling a resource that isn’t his.)

• What happens if the Metropolitan Water District fronts money to Tsakopoulos for the water deal, but the water transfer is blocked by regulatory hurdles or other problems? In such a circumstance, would MWD take partial ownership of Conaway Ranch?

• What happens to farming and bird habitat at the ranch? Under the deal, some 4,000 acres would be transferred to the state of California so it could be seasonally flooded, for salmon habitat. That’s a positive step. But how would that conversion affect current agriculture at the ranch, including farm practices favorable to Swainson’s hawks and other birds?

“Tsakopoulos and his team probably have answers that could address these and other concerns. In the final analysis, Tsakopoulos’ purchase of the ranch could be a win for Yolo County cities, fish and fowl. Maybe even the Crocker and UC Davis would benefit, Mr. Leavenworth adds.  “But by being so coy and quiet, Tsakopoulos isn’t helping matters. It also doesn’t help that the Yolo County Board of Supervisors rushed approval of the project in a way that caused critics to claim it violated the state’s open meetings law.”

“Although the Yolo County counsel has disputed those claims, the supervisors plan to meet again Tuesday for a possible revote on the Conaway deal. It promises to be a contentious meeting,” he continues.  “Some of this could have been avoided with more transparency on the part of Tsakopoulos.”

This is the frustrating part for many Yolo County citizens.  They have been asked to trust the process and accept the fact that there are aspects that only the elected officials and their staff knows.  That is a difficult explanation to accept, even under the best of terms.

However, it becomes all the more difficult when you have an individual like Tsakopoulos who needs to be more forthcoming, particularly when he makes public deals.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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34 thoughts on “Board to Reconsider Conaway Deal As Criticism Mounts About the Lack of Transparency in the Process”

  1. Barbara King

    The “support for fluoridation” equipment clause is still in there, and I am still trying to get it out. Here is my latest communication with the board on this matter:

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Dear Yolo County Supervisor,

    I an writing to repeat my request, first made in December 2010, that you delete the “support for fluoridation equipment” clause from Yolo County’s water agreement with Conaway Ranch.

    It has no place in a water rights contract, and will likely trigger the state requirement to fluoridate water in systems with one source for more 10,000 people when outside money is offered. ( CALIFORNIA HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE SECTION 116409-116415:

    The fluoridation equipment referenced in the agreement will be at the future water treatment plant just east of Woodland–nowhere near the Conaway Ranch property–so there is no logical reason anyone needs Conaway Ranch’s permission to install this equipment.

    A nearby jurisdiction has already received inquires from Woodland/Davis water people about how it does its fluoridation, so this is clearly what is being contemplated. And this nearby jurisdiction is not informing parents of the ADA recommendation not to use fluoridated water to mix infant formula because the state does not require it to inform the parents. Would the county like to take on that expense when this clause forces Davis and Woodland to fluoridate?

    Also, not being near the top of the state’s fluoridation priority list buys us no time. Watsonville has been forced (though a $200 a day fine) to accept outside fluoridation money after a 5-year battle, even though they were not near the top of the list and did not want to fluoridate.

    I ask the county to please keep its nose out of Davis’ business, especially in light of the city’s several rejections of fluoridation. Please do not readopt the Conaway Ranch agreement with the “’support for fluoridation” clause still in there.

    Thank you,
    Barbara King, Davis, CA “WATSONVILLE — State public health officials have stepped up the pressure on the city to fluoridate the public water supply, fining Watsonville $200 a day for failing to commit to the project.”
    “WATSONVILLE — Watsonville residents will be the first in Santa Cruz County to receive fluoride in their tap water.
    In a 4-3 vote, the City Council approved a contract for a $1.6 million grant from the California Dental Association Foundation to design and build a fluoridation system and operate it for two years.”

  2. David M. Greenwald

    The issue is now whether the county will listen to Senator Wolk who is also speaking on behalf of Assemblymember Yamada on changes that should be made. It was disconcerting to hear her say she tried to meet with county staff only to be told this was a formality for brown act, not about making substantive changes.

  3. davisite2

    It is claimed that TSK’s plan to sell water to Southern CA is not “signed on the dotted line” so there is no requirement for an environmental impact study. This is clearly bogus since TSK’s purchase, as he himself claims, hinges on the revenue that he will accrue from the sale of water to the Metropolitan Water District in Southern CA. A study would be required by the State Water Board when this selling of Yolo water to Southern CA is formally signed but then,and here is the origin of TSK’s( and the 3 Yolo BOS) gambit, the Water Board evaluates it on a STATE LEVEL and not its impact on Yolo County. The Water Board is also much more influenced by State political pressures.

  4. davisite2

    My understanding is that there is newly enacted “point of origin” water legislation that deals with control of the sale/transfer of water. This legislation has not been seriously tested/interpreted in the courts where challenges will hold up this deal.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “The issue is now whether the county will listen to Senator Wolk who is also speaking on behalf of Assemblymember Yamada on changes that should be made. It was disconcerting to hear her say she tried to meet with county staff only to be told this was a formality for brown act, not about making substantive changes.”

    Shame on the majority of County Supervisors who voted in favor of this project to have such a closed mind. At least listen to what the opposition has to say as objectively as you can. You owe that much to your constituency. And thanks to Jim Provenza for having the courage to speak out about the corrupted process, which gave the public a chance to at least have their say …. altho it looks like the majority on the BoS are contemptuous of what the public has to say…

  6. David M. Greenwald

    I had been under the impression that it is considered a brown act violation to go into a mtg knowing that you will vote one way; moreover, maintaining that this is a formality for brown act purposes actually defeats the point of having the brown act in the first place.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    Jim Provenza asks good questions of one member of the public with critical knowledge. Don Saylor tries to shut down questions. Rexroad leaves the process open to the discretion of process.

  8. Barbara King

    Is there any live feed of Yolo County Board of Supervisors meetings for folks in Davis. All I know of is an after-the-fact video playback. Might there be a live audio feed somewhere?

  9. Rifkin

    What confuses me most about the position of the Board of Supervisors is the unexplained flip in their position from last summer, when Gidaro et al announced they were going to sell Conaway Ranch.

    My recollection–please correct me if I have this wrong–is that the Board declared something like, “The most important thing is to keep the buyer from taking farmland on Conaway Ranch out of production by flooding it in exchange for environmental easements.” That, I believe, was their big objection to Tsakopoulos entering the picture.

    Fast forward 4-5 months and the same Board of Supervisors enthusiastically supports an agreement with Tsakopoulos which effectively takes out almost 38% of the farmland on Conaway Ranch from production. There is something mighty fishy about that rapid change in position by this Board. I really have to wonder if some of our supervisors are not financially corrupt? If they are not, then they might just be stupid and not understand that this deal reverses what they declared to be their great interest in Conaway Ranch? [quote]The sale of a conservation easement of not more than 4,000 acres to the State of California or other third party in approximately the location shown on Exhibit A. Presently, the parties expect that most of the land included within the easement will eventually be restored to seasonal floodplain habitat within the Yolo Bypass in connection with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan or similar proposals.[/quote] Conaway Ranch is roughly 17,300 acres. Of that, 15,900 acres is actively farmed. So removing 4,000 acres of productive ag land for fish is 25.16% by itself. But that is not all: [quote]The sale of additional conservation easement acreage to the State of California or other third party in other locations on the Conaway Ranch (as yet undetermined), not to exceed 1,000 acres for giant garter snake and another 1,000 acres for the Swainson’s hawk.[/quote] So Conaway farmland will shrink by 6,000 acres total: 4,000 for fish; 1,000 for snakes; and 1,000 more for birds. That is 37.74% of the current farmland.

  10. David M. Greenwald

    Provenza now doing a powerpoint where he is laying out the impacts. Points out over $50 million in rice business per year and yet we are doing this to get a few million. This was a point that Chamberlain made earlier.

  11. Rifkin

    DON SHOR: Please take out this post if it screws up this page. I never can tell in advance if that is going to happen, even when I “preview” what I post.

    Here is a map of Conaway Ranch, showing the 4,000 acres which will be removed from farming operations. It is not shown where the other 2,000 acres which will become snake and bird habitat:


    Jim Provenza claimed that removing this land will result in the loss of $50 million in economic activity. If that is so, I think the Board of Supes should have an analysis done to see how that affects Yolo County’s long-term revenue stream and how much it affects the private economy in Yolo County.

  12. Rifkin

    [quote]I ask the county to please keep its nose out of Davis’ business, especially in light of the city’s several rejections of fluoridation. Please do not readopt the Conaway Ranch agreement with the “’support for fluoridation” clause still in there. [/quote] Out of curiosity, Barbara, are you a Christian Scientist?

  13. Rifkin

    [i]”Where did you get that map, Rich?”[/i]

    I copied it from Page 2 of this document ([url][/url]), which is “Exhibit A” of the “Agreement Between the County of Yolo and Tri-City Water and Farm, LLC Regarding Conaway Ranch.”

  14. davisite2

    “I really have to wonder if some of our supervisors are not financially corrupt…..”

    TSK’s financial backing is the “pot of gold” available to any of our current Yolo Board of Supervisors who plan to run for State Assembly. I think that we can identify one for certain and most probably another in this category.

  15. Rifkin

    [i]My recollection–please correct me if I have this wrong–is that the Board declared something like, “The most important thing is to keep the buyer from taking farmland on Conaway Ranch out of production by flooding it in exchange for environmental easements.” That, I believe, was their big objection to Tsakopoulos entering the picture. [/i]

    After looking for some time, I found a reference to this in the October 13, 2010 Davis Enterprise. That was when the Board of Supervisors, so concerned about the loss of productive farmland, unanimously issued a 45-day moratorium on “habitat restoration projects,” such as the three [i]habitat restoration projects[/i] they approved just 60 days later: [quote]Purchases like Tsakopoulos’ led the supervisors on Tuesday to unanimously impose a 45-day moratorium on all habitat restoration projects, like rebuilding wetlands.

    County officials plan to ask supervisors for an extension at their Nov. 9 meeting, enough time for Phil Pogledich, senior deputy county counsel, to draft an ordinance that would permanently bar outside interests from buying up Yolo land, taking it out of farming and turning it into a floodplain for endangered fish, or wetlands for threatened waterfowl.

    Outsiders see turning Yolo County farmland into habitat as a perfect way of satisfying their legal duty to offset the harm they inflict by developing elsewhere, said Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis. …

    Yolo County isn’t opposed to helping the environment. However, supervisors don’t want to see farmland taken out of productive agriculture, particularly when it puts property tax dollars in city and county coffers. …

    A big chunk of that (farmland on Conaway) is planted in rice, a $53.5 million industry in Yolo County and of particular concern to supervisors. If developers like Tsakopoulos take land out of rice production or make farming it impossible by flooding the land, (Yolo Count Ag Commissioner) Young fears that could take away the critical mass required for infrastructure, forcing area rice processors to close. …

    Supervisors worry that flooding the bypass each year — from Dec. 1 to March 31, and even to May 15 — could bankrupt rice farming, weaken levees and reduce the area’s flood protection.

    Water in the bypass until mid-May would push rice planting back to mid-June after the fields had a chance to dry out. That’s well past the window farmers are comfortable with, or insurance companies for that matter, which means farmers would be planting without the safety net of crop insurance.

    More risk triggers a tipping point for farmers, who could no longer justify growing rice.

    “All these factors weigh upon those growers,” Young said. “At some point, they decide the game’s changed, the equation’s changed, the risks are high, the revenues are decreased, and it’s no longer feasible. And we no longer grow rice in the bypass.”

    [b]The economic impact of losing the county’s rice industry could be as much as $100 million, Provenza said. [/b]

    “That’s going to affect the entire economy,” Young said. “Those are jobs.”

    Also on Sept. 28, County Administrator Patrick Blacklock pushed supervisors to do something, because “absent some sort of a habitat ordinance or some sort of community oversight and ability to regulate a project, it enables out-of-site interests to come in and develop their mitigation projects at the expense of Yolo County and Yolo County agriculture.” [/quote]

  16. Roger Rabbit

    Well I’m shocked, Yolo elected officials make a fast back door deal, vote on it and when they get caught and challenged, they have circus tent show only to say, who cares what you peasants think, we made our decision, now only to comply with Brown Act, we will meet again do what we want, screw all you dumb voters who put us here. lol

    In a weeks time, this will be old news and before the next election, the BOS will nice to get votes for another term, and the cycle continues.

  17. davisite2

    This issue will now be argued in court. The attempt of a BOS majority, with the complicity of our Council majority, to slip this deal past significant voter scrutiny has essentially failed. As more comes out in the upcoming court case involving the tortured logic that, on a legal technicality,claims to exempt this deal from a thorough environmental analysis for Yolo county(isn’t this obviously what our local Supervisor representatives should be asking for?) rather than leaving it to the State Water Board where our local interests carry little political weight.

  18. Don Shor

    The only reason I can think of for taking it to court would be to try to stall the project in the hopes that the deal will collapse. I doubt if even the opponents think they have a legal basis to proceed.

  19. E Roberts Musser

    Court case is about failure to do a CEQA inquiry – not necessarily an EIR, just an initial inquiry. According the the attorney in opposition to the contract a CEQA inquiry is required at a minimum.

    Jim Provenza did an excellent job pointing out the problems w this contract:
    1) Language is vague and not firm enough. It does not give the county any more rights than we already have through the state.
    2) Rice farming, a $50 million dollar a year industry may be at risk, and the jobs that go along w it may also be at risk.
    3) Flooding could be a real possibility if the county does not guarantee through this contract that this consideration must be taken into account.
    4) It is not clear what the state is going to do in the Delta by-pass area, yet the contract makes certain assumptions about what the state or owners of the ranch may do that may never come to pass.

    As far as I am concerned, the majority already had their minds made up, and only held this special meeting bc they previously violated the Brown Act in not giving proper public notice. They had no intention of doing anything but voting to approve this contract no matter what was said by the public.

    Lois Wolk put forward some very reasonable suggestions on how to possibly cure the contract – to no avail. The majority just were not listening. My hope is their arrogance does not come back to Yolo Countians and bite them in the rearend when all is said and done…

  20. E Roberts Musser

    PS Rifkin’s point is well taken about the county’s sudden 180 degree turnaround in position, and was also essentially pointed out by Supervisor Provenza.

  21. davisite2

    “It is not clear what the state is going to do in the Delta by-pass area, yet the contract makes certain assumptions about what the state or owners of the ranch may do that may never come to pass.”

    Excellent analysis, EMR. This “contract” appears to be based upon future assumptions,that may never materialize , without sufficient safeguards to the interests of Yolo County. Is this to be a replay of of the CA energy deregulation negotiations with the City Council and BOS being outclassed and outfoxed by TSK’s undoubtedly extremely well-paid, world-class people on the other side of the negotiating table?

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