Upland’s Park Land Giveaway Plan Reported To Have Failed With State’s Discovery Of Fraud In Grant Application

The City of Upland’s recreation manager abruptly departed the city last month, becoming the fourth casualty among Upland’s high-ranking municipal and institutional employees tripped up over what opponents of the city’s effort to reconstitute city parkland into a parking lot for San Antonio Hospital say is an unacceptable and illegally orchestrated disposition of city property.
In addition to those four departures, the parkland-to-parking lot debacle is widely perceived as having been a factor in the 2018 political demise of three of Upland’s former city council members.
Doug Story,  who began with the City of Upland in October 2015 as a development services specialist, remained in that capacity until September 2017, at which point he was provided with a promotion to the position of Upland’s recreation manager commencing in October 2017. A condition of that promotion was that Story had to do the bidding of a number of city higher-ups, which benefited the board of directors and president of the City of Upland’s major private sector entity, San Antonio Hospital. That task entailed a paradoxical giveaway of a portion of the city’s premier recreational amenity – Memorial Park – and the compromising of the function of the municipal division Story had been promoted to lead. Story gamely sought to carry out the assignment he had been given, boldly seeking to obtain an infusion of state money to offset the reduction in parkland the city was sustaining in its effort to provide the hospital with property for parking and future expansion. The hospital needs hundreds of more parking spaces than it currently has to accommodate the influx of patients it is experiencing following the 2017 conclusion of six years of construction on the hospital campus. That construction involved a series of planned expansion stages which increased the number of beds at the institution from 271 to over 400, saw the addition of the $160 million four-story Vineyard Tower at 999 San Bernardino Road, as well as another $30 million, 60,000-square-foot structure at 1100 San Bernardino Road, upped the number of stations in the hospital’s emergency room from 34 to 52, and created and outfitted 12 more intensive care units. Provision for parking was not included in the application/plans approved by the City of Upland for any of these projects as required by law.
Story applied for the maximum amount of money the city could get under Proposition 68, which was passed by the state’s voters in 2018 and reallocated a portion of California’s $7.545 billion in general obligation bonds for expanding and enhancing parks around the state. In his application, Story put together an energetic park makeover plan to utilize the $8.5 million Upland was requesting under Proposition 68 to refurbish or replace Memorial Park’s playground equipment, add a water feature splash pad, an amphitheater and an artificial turf multi-sports competition field, augment the park with walking and exercise trails, a basketball court and an intensified outdoor nature conservancy with trees and plants hospitable toward bees, hummingbirds and the like. In this way, Story hoped, Upland’s citizenry would ignore that accompanying the park enhancements would be the reduction of the 38.5 acre park by 4.631 acres.
Some five months after Story had been promoted to recreation manager, the Upland City Council as it was then composed on March 26, 2018, with 72 hours notice from city staff, was presented with a proposal that had emanated from Story’s immediate boss, then-Development Services Director Jeff Zwack, along with then-City Attorney Jim Markman and then-City Manager Bill Manis. The Zwack/Markman/Manis proposal called for the city selling 4.631 acres of the southwestern portion of Memorial Park, which contains a baseball field that is actively used by the city’s youth sports leagues. The main campus of the hospital immediately adjoins the park, and the hospital wanted to convert the baseball diamond and some of the greenland around it to a parking lot to accommodate the hospital’s burgeoning clientele.
In compliance with the recommendation by Manis, Zwack and Markman, the city council voted 3-to-1 to approve a purchase and sale agreement between the hospital and the city, with San Antonio Hospital committing to paying $906,931.55 per acre, or a total of $4.2 million, to acquire the 4.631 acres. 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, who normally voted in lockstep with Stone, Filippi and Timm, was not present at the meeting.
Manis, Zwack, Markman and the three prevailing members of the council, sensitive to San Antonio Hospital’s status as the city’s major institution and largest employer, considered accommodating its needs to be paramount.
In approving the sale, the city council also authorized City Attorney James Markman to undertake 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. A 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 those favoring the sale 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 and hospital officials, Marjorie Mikels, an attorney living in the city, as well as the Inland Oversight Committee represented by Cory Briggs, an attorney based in both Upland and San Diego, filed answers to the validation action. Those responses took issue with the sale on multiple grounds, among which was that the city selling off a slice of the park – in particular the one sold by the council on March 26, 2018, which included the 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.
Faced with not one but two challenges to the sale he had not anticipated, City Attorney Markman sought to convince Judge Cohn that the city council, acting on its own authority, was within its rights to sell off city land. In response to 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 city’s filing, dismissed its petition for validation. Judge Cohn’s ruling cleared the way for anyone with standing – meaning essentially any city resident – to file a lawsuit challenging the sale.
Penultimately, hospital officials have resigned themselves to the necessity of subjecting the sale of the property to a citywide vote. It earlier appeared that balloting would take place in conjunction with the March 2020 California Primary election. Now, however, it appears that the vote, if it is to take place at all, will not come until the November 2020 general election.
Before 2018 had fully run, the fallout from the move to sell the city park property was settling hard. In June of that year, Zwack abruptly retired as the city’s development services director. In September, Manis resigned as city manager, effective November 1, 2018. Councilman Sid Robinson, whose status in Upland had largely been based upon his involvement in the city’s youth sports leagues, suddenly found his position as a member of the city council whose voting record was virtually indistinguishable from those of Mayor Stone and council members Filippi and Timm untenable, given Stone’s, Filippi’s and Timm’s support of eradicating one of the city’s baseball diamonds. He announced he would not seek election that November. When that election was held, Filippi and Timm, who had become the object of a large number of voters’ wrath in part due to their March 28 vote to sell off 12 percent of Memorial Park, were voted out of office, while Councilwoman Janice Elliott, who had opposed the parkland sale, emerged victorious in her effort to gain election in the city’s newly created Second District, as the city held its first by-district election.
City Attorney Jim Markman, the other architect of the parkland sale, managed to survive the close of 2018. But with Judge Cohn’s ruling in May of last year dismissing the validation action the city had filed to keep the sale of the park property from being challenged, Markman found himself under siege. Not only was his legal expertise and judgment subject to question, it was painfully obvious that his militating on behalf of the hospital in its effort to obtain the park property for a parking lot was out of step with a sizable cross section of the most civically-active residents of the city. In October, as the city council was making preparations to terminate him, he resigned as city attorney.
A month before Markman’s forced departure, San Antonio Hospital CEO and President Harris Koenig had been fired by the San Antonio Hospital Board of Directors. Koening had been named the president and CEO of San Antonio Hospital in June 2011 and, using financing that consisted in large measure of $125,000,000 in certificates of participation issued using the City of Upland’s bonding authority, immediately thereafter embarked on the earlier-described six-year-long series of planned expansion stages intended to transform San Antonio into a regional hospital.  Among the board’s concerns that had brought about Koenig’s termination was the hospital’s continuing lack of profitability two years after the expansion had been completed in 2017.
The hospital’s parking lot is no longer able to accommodate the number of people seeking care who check in to the hospital, either on an in-patient or out-patient basis, to say nothing of those accompanying or visiting the hospital’s patients. Consequently, some individuals who have been treated at the hospital over the last several years, reluctant to have to deal with the torturous effort to find a place to park, are now going elsewhere in search of medical care. With adequate parking being the one element of the hospital’s expansion that had been overlooked by Koenig and others, the situation had grown acute by the spring of 2018, resulting in city officials undertaking the park property sale in an effort to mitigate the hospital’s problem.
After Judge Cohn’s ruling in May 2019, those yet hoping that the city might be prevailed upon to let go of some of the park acreage so the parking structure could be built turned to Story in a last ditch effort to formulate some way to have the city’s residents hold still for a reduction in the footprint of Memorial Park. That is when Story threw together the application for the Proposition 68 grant money.
The hope was that the community, aware of how Memorial Park for more than a decade had been neglected in its upkeep because of dwindling municipal financial resources, would be enthusiastic about the upgrades Story’s Proposition 68 application would provide – the playground equipment, the amphitheater, the splash pad, the artificial turf multi-sports competition field, the walking and exercise trails, the basketball court and the outdoor nature conservancy. The calculation was that the enthusiasm to be created by the upgrades would be so great that a critical majority of city’s residents would be willing to accept the loss of the 4.631 acres.
Some residents, astutely, questioned how it was that Story could be so confident that the city was going to receive any grant money at all based on Upland proving the Memorial Park environs was an “economically disadvantaged” area and other competitive criteria, let alone the entirety of the $8.5 million that had been applied for to ensure the Memorial Park makeover was to take place as he said it would. Story would brook no suggestion that the state would turn the city’s supplication for the grant down, and he was equally dismissive of suggestions that the city might get less than $8.5 million, which was the maximum amount a municipality could receive. He indicated that he had been assured by state officials the city would be informed of the grant reception by last month.
Word has now come that Story has left the city. Unbeknownst to Upland’s citizenry, some time ago he had applied for a position with the City of Beaumont. Beaumont’s human services director, Kari Mendoza, this week confirmed to the Sentinel that Story will begin as an employee with Beaumont on January 6.
According to a source the Sentinel deems reliable, Upland city officials were informed last month that Upland will not receive any of the Proposition 68 grant money it applied for. The Sentinel is told that an Upland resident upon review of the city’s submitted grant application determined that some of the data forwarded to the state by the city as part of the application process had been falsified and notified Proposition 68 application review staff. Furthermore, several residents over multiple council meetings asked interim City Manager Rosemary Hoerning to officially disclose this misinformation in the application to the state. It is not clear whether the city accordingly amended its application.
Specifically, according to this account of events, two criteria are applied by the state in releasing Proposition 68 money. One test pertains to an applicant demonstrating that it has a “deficit” of parkland throughout its jurisdiction such that its park area is less than three acres per 1,000 people in the city overall. A second test relates not to the entire city but to the specific park for which a grant is being sought. That test uses a factor of determination in which the park is considered as providing recreational opportunities for a specific “service area” within the city, county or jurisdictional entity making the application. If those living within that service area can be demonstrated as having an average per-household annual income of less than $51,000, the state considers that park to be eligible for improvements a Proposition 68 grant could provide, the Sentinel was told. Apparently what occurred was that the Upland resident who had access to both the grant application and city demographic data provided that data to the state to either demonstrate or convincingly allege that the city has park acreage or public recreational amenities in excess of three acres per 1,000 population and that in the neighborhood surrounding Memorial Park the average gross annual household income exceeds $51,000. Accordingly, the Sentinel is told, the state denied Upland’s grant application.
Lois Sicking-Dieter, who has been among the forefront of a contingent of city residents resisting the city’s sale of the park property to the hospital, told the Sentinel that Upland city officials’ faith that the Proposition 68 grant money would become available was an example of unjustifiable overconfidence. “Throughout California there is a lot of competition for that grant money,” she said. “For Doug Story to think the city would get any money, let alone $8.5 million, was very ambitious on his part.”
Sicking-Dieter said it was at least possible that the failure of the city to get the grant money “is the reason he [Story] no longer works for the city. Rumor is we are getting no Proposition 68 money and now, he’s off to Beaumont. He was gaining momentum in support of the changes to the park and then it all fell apart. It started to become clear, I think, when [James] Markman, who crafted a lot of the park sale, left before he got fired.”
John Chapman, who has succeeded Koenig as CEO and president of San Antonio Regional Hospital, is making the same mistake as his predecessor, Sicking-Dieter said. “At the hospital, they still believe the parkland sale is going through,” she said. “A group of us met with John Chapman, who was thinking he would convince us the hospital needs all 4.6 acres of the park property. Then, Chapman admitted that he was hoping that park supporters like us would be satisfied with the possibility of the hospital taking a smaller portion of the property instead of the original 4.631 acres. When one of our members told him that we would not give up one square inch of the park, he told us that the hospital was not going to abandon its plans to purchase some portion of Memorial Park and until our position changed future discussions would need to involve other items.”
Councilwoman Janice Elliott yesterday, January 2, indicated that it was yet the city’s official position that the Proposition 68 grant may come through. “I asked [interim City Manager] Rosemary [Hoerning] on Monday about this grant and she told me that we have not yet been informed about the grant but we should hear about it soon,” Elliott said.
Thus, the assumption that the city will not obtain the grant is premature, Elliott suggested, and attributing Story’s departure to the city’s failure to obtain the money he was seeking to wrest from the state to carry out the promised improvements at Memorial Park was not based in fact.
“Doug was offered a new position in Beaumont that he accepted,” she said. “He told me it was a significant promotion.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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