San Antonio Hospital Now Wants Vote On Memorial Park Land Sale

More than 16 months after Upland city officials sought to bypass the city’s residents and sell more than four-and-a-half acres of Memorial Park to San Antonio Community Hospital, they have relented in the face of potential legal challenges and will allow the matter to go to a vote during the 2020 California Primary, the Sentinel has learned.
The hospital wants to use the property in question to construct a multistory parking structure to alleviate the increased flow of patients following the hospital’s expansion and its partnership with the City of Hope to establish an oncology facility on the hospital’s campus.
On March 26, 2018, with 72 hours notice, the Upland City Council as it was then composed voted 3-to-1 to reduce the grounds of historic Upland Memorial Park by more than four-and-one-half acres, handing the difference off to San Antonio Regional Hospital to be used for the parking structure.
That came after months of quiet, indeed private and secret, discussions between the city’s senior staff and the management of the San Antonio Regional Hospital. At the March 26, 2018 meeting, after the city council adjourned into a closed door session with then-City Manager Bill Manis, then-Development Services Director Jeff Zwack and City Attorney James Markman, the final terms of the sale of the park property were explicated to the council. At the council’s open public session for its regularly scheduled meeting that took place later that night, the council approved selling 4.631 acres of park property to the hospital, the primary grounds of which adjoin the 38.5 acre park.
In approving the purchase and sale agreement, the council authorized Manis to execute all necessary documents to approve the sale, with San Antonio Hospital paying $906,931.55 per acre, or a total of $4.2 million to acquire the property.
While Mayor Debbie Stone and then-council members Gino Filippi and Carol Timm went along with making the sale, Councilwoman Janice Elliott opposed it. Then-Councilman Sid Robinson was not present at the meeting.
Because it was anticipated that the sale would raise the hackles of the community, the council followed City Attorney James Markman’s recommendation to authorize him to file a so-called validation proceeding intended to foreclose any procedural or future legal challenge to the sale. In its validation action filed with the court, the city invited anyone opposed to the sale to lodge a protest, which would then be heard by a judge rather than being subjected to a vote. The challenge to the validation had to be filed within 60 days. Once the court validated the sale, any future lawsuits contesting the sale would be barred. The calculation by Markman and of the city council majority and senior city staff, which then included Manis and Zwack, was that no one would go to the expense of hiring an attorney to make an answer to the validation petition.
The validation procedure was directed to the courtroom of Superior Court Judge David Cohn in San Bernardino. To the chagrin of city officials, Marjorie Mikels, an attorney living in the city, as well as Cory Briggs, an attorney based in both Upland and San Diego, filed answers to the validation action. Mikels did so on behalf of herself and some of her sister and fellow residents. Briggs did so as an attorney retained by other Upland residents.
Those responses took issue with the sale on multiple grounds. Among those was that the city selling off a slice of the park – in particular the one sold by the council on March 26, 2018, which includes a long extant and actively used baseball field – is tantamount to abandoning public property. Such abandonments, under state law, cannot be effectuated without a vote of the citizens residing in the jurisdiction that owns that property.
Having miscalculated in his assumption that no one would come forward to contest the sale in the course of the validation proceeding, Markman was obliged in the face of Briggs’ and Mikels’ filings to make a convincing case to Cohn that the city council, acting on its own authority, was within its rights to sell off city land. Faced with the argument that a municipality’s abandonment of property it owned and was putting to beneficial public use had to be subjected to a vote, Markman asserted that selling the property did not constitute an abandonment.
Ultimately, some 14 months after the sale of the park property was approved by the city council, on May 29, 2019, Judge Cohn, after hearing the responses to the validation action, dismissed the city’s petition for validation. In effect, anyone with standing – meaning essentially any city resident – was yet at liberty to file a lawsuit challenging the sale.
Meanwhile, in the November 2018 Upland Municipal Election, both Councilman Gino Filippi and Councilwoman Carol Timm were turned out of office, at least in part as a consequence of city resident outrage over the sale of the park property. In addition, Councilman Sid Robinson, who had not been present for the March 2018 vote to sell the park property but who was politically aligned with Filippi and Timm and could generally be counted upon to support them, had not chosen to run in the election.  Councilwoman Janice Elliott, who had opposed the sale, had gained election at the same time by competing in the race as a candidate in the city’s newly created District 2 in accordance with Upland’s switch to an electoral ward system. Replacing Timm on the council was Rudy Zuniga, who viewed the sale of the park property unfavorably. The two other replacements on the council – Ricky Felix and Billy Velto – were either not strongly or in any way supportive of the parkland sale.
At its July 8, 2019 meeting, the Upland City Council considered whether the city should appeal Cohn’s decision. The council, with Elliott, Zuniga and Velto prevailing, voted 3-1 against doing so, with Mayor Stone dissenting and Councilman Felix abstaining.
Thus, were San Antonio Regional Hospital to proceed with the purchase of the 4.631 acres under the terms approved by the city council in March 2019, it would do so at its own peril, since a legal challenge to that action would likely occur.
The Sentinel is reliably informed that San Antonio Hospital’s corporate officers have resigned themselves to the need to obtain city voter approval of the purchase for them to proceed. They have made a request of the city that the city council use its authority to request of the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters that it schedule a vote on the matter at the next logical occasion for such a vote to take place, that being next March.
Confirmation that such an election will be held emerged this week in a staff report from City Manager Rosemary Hoerning to the council prepared by the city’s recreational services manager, Doug Story, in conjunction with the presentation of the conceptual master plan for Memorial Park being previewed to the city council at its meeting on Monday, August 12. Contained on page 32 of that report is the following statement, “San Antonio Regional Hospital is interested in acquiring the existing southwest quadrant of Memorial Park for a potential joint-use parking lot sponsored by San Antonio Regional Hospital per an agreement with the City of Upland. This acquisition and agreement is subject to voter approval of a ballot initiative scheduled for the March 2020 election.”
While there are elements of the Upland community who are opposed to any reduction of the footprint of Memorial Park, the Sentinel has learned that San Antonio Regional Hospital officials and their advisors are confident that opposition can be overcome by an energetic informational campaign just ahead of the election targeting the city’s high propensity voters explaining the value the hospital represents to Upland as well as the West San Bernardino County community in general, and that enhancing the availability of parking facilities at the hospital is a key component of delivering the services the hospital has to offer.
-Mark Gutglueck

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