Grand Jury Investigates City Staff Misinformation on Airport

tracy airportTracy, Ca. Grand Jury: City actions cost public credibility – A report from the San Joaquin County Grand Jury, released Monday, concluded that the city staff gave the Tracy City Council wrong information that may have jeopardized federal grants for the Tracy Airport.

The Grand Jury investigation focused on allegations of a secret and illegal business arrangement between the city and Surland Cos. LLC regarding the length of runway 12/30 and a $50,000 payment to the city made by Surland on behalf of the former airport fuel provider, Turlock Air.

The report found that a staff report presented to the council on June 18, which claimed that reducing the length of the runway by five feet would have no effect on future Federal Aviation Administration grants to the city, was inaccurate and incomplete.

In its opinion, the Grand Jury wrote that reducing the runway length would have benefited the Ellis project being developed by Surland, but there was no definitive proof that city staff members deliberately misled the council.

The jury recommended that the City Council instruct the city staff to make a comprehensive review of FAA and state safety zone requirements.

The Grand Jury examined whether there was any secret agreement between the city staff and Surland to reduce the length of runway 12/30 from 4,002 feet to 3,997 feet, which would allow Surland to build more homes at Ellis because of a reduced safety zone for landings and takeoffs at the airport. The jury looked at emails and staff reports from the city and Surland regarding a proposed amendment to the Ellis Specific Plan: Surland would fund airport fuel payments to the city and the city would reduce the runway length.

The Grand Jury found that the City Council did not enter into any written contractual agreement that would benefit Surland and did not approve an amendment that would have benefited the developer. (The city just codified the length of runway 12/30 at 4,001 feet.)

Though “the Grand Jury is not making a determination on the appropriateness of the actions,” it suggested that the council should adopt a policy requiring city staff members to disclose proposed substantial changes to any major developments in the city to avoid the perception of collusion.

The Grand Jury also recommended that the city adopt a policy governing third-party payments for contractual obligations to the city, after reviewing a $50,000 payment made by Surland to cover money owed to the city by Turlock Air, then the fuel provider at the airport. The report said there was no indication that the payment was illegal or inappropriate, but that a policy could alleviate the appearance of impropriety.

The Grand Jury also issued a recommendation about contractors with the city. The panel found that the city extended a contract with Turlock Air to provide fuel at the airport for 25 years without checking on the status of Turlock Air’s state license. The jury recommended that the city adopt a policy to review any contractor’s license before renewing or amending its contract with the city.

The Grand Jury also twice noted the existence of limited information — specifically, a lack of meeting minutes or notes from one meeting in the city attorney’s office and any meetings between city staff members and Surland representatives — but discovered no evidence to substantiate the complainant’s allegations of secret, illegal deals. The panel did write about an alarming number of actions taken by city staff members that gave cause for concern and jeopardized the city’s credibility with residents.

The public can read the entire report on the Grand Jury’s website.

Grand Jury interviews are secret and complainants’ identities hidden, but the Press is seeking comments from the city and council members who were interviewed by the Grand Jury. Read the full report Friday in the Press.