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April 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 08, 2005

Grand jury criticizes Palo Alto's land swap Grand jury criticizes Palo Alto's land swap (April 08, 2005)

City disagrees with assessment, plans rebuttal

by Bill D'Agostino

The Palo Alto City Council violated the city's charter when it traded parkland with the school district last summer, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury wrote in a report sent to the city this week.

The City Council agreed in July 2004 to trade equal-sized plots of nearby land with the school district, to rectify a gaffe -- the district had, years earlier, inadvertently placed portable buildings from Walter Hays Elementary School over the boundary of the city's Rinconada Park.

The size of the school district's encroachment, .193 acres, was small, but opponents of the swap said a charter amendment -- which city voters approved in 1965 -- made it illegal to transfer even tiny portions of city parkland without voter approval.

Under threat of a lawsuit, the council considered holding an election to modify the charter or to get the local electorate to sign off on the swap, but decided those options were too expensive and complex. Asking the school district to move the portable was also considered, but was estimated to cost $325,000. City Attorney Gary Baum advised the council that the swap was legal thanks to a state law regulating such transfers of land.

But the civil grand jury agreed with the opponents of the swap and decided the trade required an election. One of those parkland defenders complained about the city's decision to the grand jury last year, prompting this report.

Even with the grand jury's new assessment, though, council members continued to defend their action, saying they chose a common-sense approach over a strict interpretation of the law.

"There's a time to rise above the law," Mayor Jim Burch said. "Solomon did it a long time ago."

"They have a right to their opinion. I disagree with it," Councilman Vic Ojakian said of the grand jury members. "I think we did the right thing and we saved Palo Alto money in relation to an election."

The civil grand jury recommended that any future swaps with Palo Alto parkland be placed before voters. At a future meeting, the City Council will craft a response to the report, as required by law.

Another grand jury recommendation arose from a similar 2003 disagreement. That year, Terman Middle School reopened and the city agreed to allow the school to exclusively use tennis courts Terman Park during certain hours of the day, prompting an outcry from parkland advocates.

The civil grand jury recommended that the city create a new policy so that any new agreements for sharing parkland "explicitly specify the terms of use and the conditions for access by the general public."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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