Developer-to-council pipeline

Aaron Ralls thought his legal battle with the California corrections department was ugly. That was before he decided to politically question developers.

Aaron Ralls, a former sergeant at Folsom State Prison, stands in front of his business, Lucky’s Barbershop. Local developers are spending big to keep Ralls off the city council.

Aaron Ralls, a former sergeant at Folsom State Prison, stands in front of his business, Lucky’s Barbershop. Local developers are spending big to keep Ralls off the city council.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the October 18, 2018, issue.

Aaron Ralls says when you’ve worn a badge in a prison yard alongside the Mexican Mafia, the last things you’re afraid of are developers and the Folsom Chamber of Commerce. Now, as the former correctional sergeant makes a bid for Folsom City Council, he’s starting to rethink that premise.

Ralls is one of three planning commissioners at loggerheads with the council’s pro-development majority. Ralls and fellow commissioner Jenifer Lane are running for a trio of at-large council seats, and both say that rampant over-building and growing traffic issues are the reasons.

“What’s happened to the traffic here is disgusting,” Ralls said. “I’ve lived in Folsom for 30 years, and I’m really worried it’s losing its character.”

The chamber’s political action committee, meanwhile, is once again spending to keep longtime Councilwoman Kerri Howell behind the dais, as well as elect two other builder-friendly candidates. North State Building Industry Association is following suit, spending tens of thousands of dollars on the chamber-endorsed hopefuls—and putting Ralls directly in their sightline.

The chamber’s political action committee, Jobs PAC (formerly BIZ PAC), has long acted as a financial conduit between council members Howell, Steve Miklos and Andy Morin, and the owners of an embattled series of housing developments known as Folsom Ranch.

Between 2013 and 2016, developers involved with Folsom Ranch gave more than $20,000 to the chamber’s PAC, which in turn spent three times that amount toward keeping Howell, Miklos and Morin in office. All three council members voted to grant the land entitlements that made Folsom Ranch a reality. Howell, the only incumbent now running for reelection, also accepted an additional $5,500 from Folsom Ranch developers in her failed run for county supervisor two years ago.

Ralls says he wasn’t surprised that the chamber-Folsom Ranch alliance was against his campaign. Ralls and Lane have both raised alarm bells from their seats on the planning commission about the 2,600-acre Folsom Ranch, citing reports from state agencies questioning its water supply and wondering how incumbents could exempt it from regular traffic standards while downgrading the city’s overall traffic flow. While Ralls didn’t expect the chamber’s support, he says he was blindsided by North State Building Industry Association spending $34,154 in attack ads on him. The barrage came in the form of mailers and sponsored Facebook posts claiming Ralls didn’t vote in 21 of the last 26 elections.

Ralls has also been dealing with social media buzz about his departure from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation more than a decade ago.

Ralls’ version of events is that a correctional officer he wrote up for misconduct retaliated with accusations of unnecessary violence by him and other officers, including during an incident when he was stopping an inmate from swallowing contraband. Ralls says he was cleared of wrongdoing by the prison’s use of force review committee, but was fired in 2007 anyway. He filed a wrongful termination suit against CDCR. Sacramento County court records show that the case was settled four years later. Ralls says CDCR was forced to grant him full back pay with 7 percent interest. Ralls says there was also a separate financial settlement in which he agreed not to share video surveillance and other evidence in the case.

SN&R was unable to independently verify the terms of the settlement and CDCR declined to comment on it.

Ralls addressed the rumors about his legal beef with CDCR in a video posted on Vimeo. He’s since been posting a series of videos to Facebook about who’s paying for the attack adds against him.

“The developers, and the chamber, which is in the developers’ pocket, obviously think I have a chance of winning,” Ralls said. “And they’re terrified of that.”

Folsom Ranch developers have reason to be nervous about the upcoming election. In addition to Ralls and Lane, Barbara Leary, a smart growth advocate and member of the Sierra Club’s executive committee, is also running. While four-fifths of the current city council granted land entitlements for Folsom Ranch, most of the project’s developers still need to go through the final permitting and mapping process. The election of Ralls, Lane and Leary could swing the council’s balance of power away from the developers. That matters, says Leary, because the city of Folsom has a long history of letting developers out of agreements when the economy tanks. Leary doesn’t think Folsom Ranch’s current park and open-space commitments are guaranteed unless the culture changes at City Hall.

“During a downturn, you don’t know what kind of plans will come forward,” Leary stressed.

Campaign finance disclosures reveal the chamber’s PAC has continued to accept money from developers and companies involved with Folsom Ranch. The PAC has given money to three candidates the chamber has endorsed: Howell, Sarah Aquino and Mike Kozlowski. North State BIA is spending far more to support the trio, having already dropped $19,575 on positive ads for the chamber’s picks, in addition to the 30 grand it’s spent attacking Ralls.

Howell has consistently said that Folsom Ranch’s developers don’t carry undue influence with her. This week, Howell told SN&R she’s had no communication with the chamber’s PAC or North State BIA about how they’re spending their election money. Howell added that the city’s working on a plan to address traffic congestion.

“My platform is what it’s always been—making sure that we remain one of the best places to live in Northern California,” Howell said.

Aquino is the former chair of the chamber’s board of directors and previously served as president of its PAC. Aquino declined to be interviewed for this story.

Kozlowski appears less embedded in the chamber, though he has well-documented financial ties to developers. When Kozlowski ran for county supervisor in 2016, the PAC for Region Builders spent more than $130,000 trying to elect him.

Both Leary and Lane told SN&R they’re concerned about the relationship between the chamber and Folsom Ranch. The chamber’s CEO, Joe Gagliardi, wrote in an email that while a number of the Folsom Ranch developers are members of his organization, they’re not steering the chamber’s political agenda. Gagliardi also wrote that he doesn’t see a conflict with his PAC supporting Aquino, the person who’d previously run it.

For Mark Moore, a retired firefighter who’s running for city council on a controlled-growth platform, those are claims that should give Folsom voters pause.

“The chamber doesn’t even try to pretend they’re not running this town,” Moore said. “It’s turned into an acceptable corruption, because it’s so obvious to see.”