In what some are calling an example of the system working, with others questioning the oversight of such purchases, Santa Clarita City Council members approved a fund switch with a 5-0 vote to fix an improper land buy made last year.
The city purchased hundreds of acres with Open Space Preservation District dollars that were directed for land that must be within a 3-mile radius of the city.
“Upon further review, it has been determined that the benefit area does not extend with additional open space acquisitions,” said City Manager Ken Striplin at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, reading a staff report. “Consequently, only a portion of the Nominn property is included within the boundary, and the Williams property is entirely outside.”
The solution? City staffers recommending that City Council members approve a dollar-for-dollar exchange of OSPD district funds that are considered “restrictive,” with general fund dollars that lack those restrictions, said Darren Hernandez, director of Administrative Services for the city.
“Typically with each (OSPD purchase), we’ve used a blend of funds,” Hernandez said, naming several sources for grant money.
“The way the issue is being remedied is to exchange funds – the OSPD funds that were used to purchase the Williams parcel and the Nominn parcel that were too far away with unrestricted funds that were used to finance OSPD (purchases),” Hernandez said.
James Farley, a member of the Financial Audit Panel that provides oversight for city the purchases for the Open Space Preservation District, caught the mistake and brought it to the panel’s attention.
The Rio Dulce Ranch, also known as the Nominn parcel – east of the city starting at about Agua Dulce Canyon Road — is about a 1,000-acre contiguous parcel of land about 3.5 miles outside of city limits. The Williams parcel was about 50 acres located about 4.5 miles outside of city limits.
Originally, about $1.4 million of restricted OSPD dollars were used for the Nominn parcel, and that figure is now $55,482, about 2.5 percent of the OSPD allocation, because that was deemed the amount of land in the three-mile zone authorized for OSPD purchases.
The Williams parcel was purchased for $178,582, most of which, about $161,084, was used from OSPD dollars.
Farley said he originally became involved in the Open Space Preservation District oversight panel because he didn’t like the idea of the OSPD but, despite the mistake, he has since changed his mind.
“This was an honest mistake on the part of the city in its zealous attempt to preserve this land,” Farley said. “The bottom line is that the system works — the panel brought up the issue and the city made the right decision.”
City Councilwoman Laurene Weste noted the city purchased had lots of valuable natural resources, and while it might have been outside of the three-mile zone, preserving it was an important task.
Part of the Nominn property is also on the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a nationally used hiking trail, Weste added.
“I was really refreshed by the response of the city,” said Wendy Langhans, a member of the FAAP that reviewed the mistake. “Compare the response of the city to what’s going on in Washington right now. It was not something that had to be dragged out of them kicking and screaming.”
Langhans also noted that in the future, she would like to see a preventive measure being taken, although the FAAP only acts in an advisory capacity.
To that end, City Councilman TimBen Boydston said he was glad opposition to the city was brought into the mix of the decision-making process. It resulted in a more informed government.
Boydston also questioned City Attorney Joe Montes as to whether the city’s legal counsel should be reviewing the legality of such purchases.
Montes responded that the purchase documents were reviewed, but not the location or the restriction on the use of funds.
“(City staffers) OK purchases all the time,” Montes said. “It’s not typical for us to look at the funds or the use of funds. We usually constrain the scope of our view to the request for services made.”
Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar said he was happy with the outcome.
“I’m proud of staff,” Kellar said. “They came up with a very responsible solution.”