Elk Grove erupts

Citizen rebellions, internal strife, a mall-backed lawsuit and unprecedented state opposition—how did things go so wrong for Sacramento County’s newest city?

Photo by Larry Dalton

Democracy in action, suburban style. A woman in a peach-colored blouse and cream slacks is leading a sort of pep rally inside City Hall, urging her mayor, councilmembers and fellow citizens to keep up the good fight, to battle back against the forces that are trying to keep her community down.

“My name is Sara Wildermuth. I’m a concerned citizen, a mom and a shopper.”

Citizen-shopper Wildermuth is outraged at the “outsiders,” the environmentalists, the democratic governor and the shadowy cartel of Australian business interests that have conspired to deny the citizens of her town what is rightfully theirs.

“Why is the state trying to dictate what is best for Elk Grove when they don’t even live here?”

Welcome to Elk Grove Incorporated where, from the parking lot of City Hall, neither elk nor groves are visible anywhere. Far from the historic heart of old town Elk Grove, this City Hall is part of today’s Elk Grove, nestled in the fast-growing Laguna area between Highway 99 and a shiny new subdivision, with a great view of Home Depot, Old Navy and a new Holiday Inn.

Even the City Hall building itself seems to be the ideal edifice for those who represent this new breed of citizen-shoppers. It looks like an office building in an office park—which, in fact, it is. Only the “City Hall” sign lets you know that this isn’t real estate office or a software company. An identically boxy office building is under construction right next door.

Inside the chambers of the Elk Grove City Council, the citizen-shoppers have packed the house, offering a lesson in the short civic history of Elk Grove, which became a city in large part because of the proposed Lent Ranch Mall: a rallying point for those who wanted local control and the biggest source of funding for the cityhood campaign itself.

The mall’s first phase would be 1.3 million square feet, slightly larger than either the Galleria at Roseville or Arden Fair. The mall will ultimately spread over 3.3 million square feet when the second phase is completed after 15 to 20 years.

“We voted not only for cityhood,” explained Wildermuth. “We voted for that project.”

Jake Rambo, a big man in a black suit with a short spiky hairdo lays it out, reminding the councilmembers why they are here: “We all know that we had an election that many considered a referendum on Lent Ranch Mall. And we elected five pro-Lent Ranch councilmembers.”

The mall is what the people want, he said, and it’s what the people deserve, no matter what the whiners in town say, no matter what the competing Australian mall developers are trying to pull, no matter what the governor and those bureaucrats up in Sacramento throw at this up-and-coming city.

“I urge you not to back down,” Rambo said. “Fight this with all that you have.”

All the while the councilmembers smiled beatifically on their constituents, nodding their heads in agreement, resolved to fight the state of California and its unprecedented effort to quash the citizen-shoppers’ dream.

Suburban separatists
It was just over a year ago that Elk Grove incorporated by an overwhelming vote of its citizens, carving out one of the county’s fastest-growing areas, and one whose property and sales tax potential could make it one of the wealthiest.

Mayor Michael Leary leads Elk Grove’s pro-mall agenda.

Photo by Larry Dalton

The vote capped off a decade-long fight for self-determination that had seen three ballot measures fail by narrow margins. The slogans for cityhood have always been more police, local control and no new taxes—yet in the earlier campaigns, there was nothing around which these ideas could crystallize. They didn’t yet resonate with a majority of voters.

In this burgeoning suburb, whose growth had caught fire during the economic boom of the late ’90s, “local control” over land use came to have the deepest implications. The very same people who moved to Elk Grove in droves for good schools and a semi-rural atmosphere later complained that the county had forced too much growth—particularly low-income housing—into their community.

They longed for a city that would resemble Folsom and Roseville, with their high property values, large job-producing corporate campuses and, most important, more local retail and services. Elk Grove’s citizen-shoppers wanted to break out of Sacramento’s shadow, not help it find housing for the working poor.

Folks began to look around and realize that there was really nothing in Elk Grove other than a lot of people living in subdivisions like their own, usually across the street from some pastures and farms that were quickly giving way to more houses. Elk Grove needed more.

So in 1999, when developers came along with an idea to develop a massive regional mall that would bring high-end shopping closer to home, the project seemed to many something that would help the community define itself and stand on its own.

But the Sacramento County Planning Commission rejected the mall as too large and too close to the county’s Urban Services Boundary, the line that prevents development from creeping onto prime agricultural land. Planners feared the project could break open the entire south county to unchecked development.

That vote took on symbolic importance to many in Elk Grove. It was emblematic of the county’s callousness, and of outsiders, particularly environmental groups, who thought they knew what was best for Elk Grove. The denial of the project was the heel of the county planted firmly on the neck of Elk Grove’s citizens and shoppers.

“That really brought home the message. We were sick and tired of people 15 miles away in downtown telling us what we should and shouldn’t do,” said Councilmember Rick Soares. Why should citizens of Elk Grove drive miles away to Arden Fair or Downtown Plaza? Don’t they have a right to their very own mall?

Although the massive mall plan never seemed to have a good chance of being approved by the county, the nascent cityhood movement gave new life to the developers’ dreams. And the developers were well-positioned to give aid and comfort to the would-be suburban separatists.

One mall developer, M&H Realty Partners, spread money around to nearly all of the City Council candidates, typically a couple of thousand dollars apiece. M&H also pitched in significant chunks for the incorporation effort itself, making the developer the single largest contributor to the cityhood campaign.

The contributions helped pay for the services of the consulting firm Pacific Municipal Consultants (PMC), which was hired to run the cityhood campaign. The entire incorporation effort was run out of an old convenience store on Elk Grove Boulevard, lending a grass-roots feel to the corporate-sponsored campaign.

In the heat of the campaign, Lent Ranch Mall became a central rallying point in the war for incorporation. To many residents, the vote for incorporation had as much to do with the mall, and perhaps more, than simply having local representation.

“It was the number one question that I got asked when I ran,” said Elk Grove Planning Commissioner Gary Winuk, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council during the incorporation. He explained that many voters asked candidates about their support for Lent Ranch and nothing more.

Although cityhood had failed three times in the past, this latest push turned out to be easy. There was no organized opposition and about 70 percent of the citizens voted to break away from the county. The convenience store became Elk Grove’s first city hall.

The new city government then proceeded to push the mall through where the county had failed. Elk Grove officially became a city on July 1, 2000, and less than a year later, the zoning change Lent Ranch Mall needed was approved. It all seemed so easy, but as the citizen-shoppers and their leaders would soon discover, cityhood isn’t a wall that can keep the “outsiders” out.

Joey Tomko has dogged the council’s every step.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Controlling the locals
As Joey Tomko addresses the Elk Grove City Council, none of the members are smiling, none of them are nodding their heads. Some look away, others just stare at him, eyes glazed over. He stands alone against a council that is hostile to his perspective.

“Nice City Hall guys,” Tomko, begins in a loud voice. “Too bad the citizens can’t be proud of it.”

Tomko is in his early 40s, wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt and shorts. He has reddish-blond hair and a scruffy reddish-blond beard that carpets his cheeks and his throat.

“Too bad you purchased it illegally,” he continues, but as he speaks, his voice begins to waver slightly with nervousness. It’s obvious in Tomko’s voice that he has made up his mind to give the City Council hell, but his body still isn’t comfortable with confrontation.

His voice climbs an octave and his face turns red, but Tomko pushes on, launching into a litany on how the council has abused its authority and betrayed the public trust. The council shut the public out of choosing its own city hall. The council fritters away tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees to benefit friends and friends of friends.

“Now, if you’re done paying off your buddies and paying off the people who paid for your campaigns,” he concludes, “could you please, please get around to the business of running this city?”

None on the council even bat an eye, with the exception of the Mayor Mike Leary, who tells Tomko as he is leaving, “I’m putting you on notice Mr. Tomko. Some of the things you said are not accurate. I’m putting you on notice for next time.”

“That’s great!” Tomko shoots back, then scoops up his two small children and heads out the door.

Tomko was one of nearly two dozen candidates who ran for council during the incorporation drive. Yet unlike most of the candidates, Tomko ran on a platform of controlled growth and opposition to the mall project. The city wasn’t ready, he said. The infrastructure costs to the city alone would make it a losing proposition. There weren’t enough citizens to support such a massive regional mall. And there wouldn’t be for years, even at the current breakneck pace of development.

“You just can’t plan your city around a mall,” he would later say.

Tomko didn’t take any developer money, and he got stomped. Since then, he’s been a thorn in the side of councilmembers, who resent his public broadsides. Mayor Leary said Tomko has nothing productive to offer: “He’s kind of a fanatic. He just shows up and gives his two-minute barrage of bullcrap and leaves.”

But while Tomko does little to hide his contempt for the council’s actions, he is just one of many citizens who have become increasingly frustrated with a City Council that, because of inexperience or political ambition, has shown a reluctance to share power with its constituents.

“They just make us feel like it’s us against them,” said old-town resident and activist Sarah Johnson.

It turns out that “local control” was far more complicated than just wresting power from the county. Local control meant a lot of different things to a lot of people. To a core group of citizen-activists—the kind of people who spend their free time going to meetings and pouring over city documents instead of shopping—local control didn’t have much to do with shopping malls and had everything to do with small “d” democracy: with citizens having a say in every decision.

And these locals would have no problem eventually accepting the state’s help to enforce their vision of local control. But that would come later, after they at first tried to influence city decisions themselves.

Outgoing City Manager David Jinkens boxes up his office.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Fighting City Hall
While the citizen-shoppers were content with how Elk Grove was progressing, it wasn’t long into the new city’s life that a power struggle broke out between the City Council and their activist constituents over City Hall itself, that office building on the edge of the subdivision.

You see, the council decided to purchase this building without any input from the citizens. Nobody asked citizens where City Hall should be, what it should look like, how much should be spent. There were no public hearings, no attempt to poll the citizens. The council late one evening simply announced that it had, after several closed-session negotiations with the land owner, purchased the building.

That infuriated residents who said that the council had denied them any kind of input on their own City Hall. Some even accused the council of violating the state open-meeting laws known as the Brown Act, because they say the purchase of City Hall was never discussed in an open session.

“Not once prior to the final decision to purchase the building were citizens ever involved,” said resident Danetta Garcia.

Councilmember Soares said he appreciates the citizens’ frustration, but he and the other councilmembers are unapologetic about not giving the citizens a say in their City Hall: “While it might have been interesting to hear from them, the reality was that we were literally bursting at the seams in the old City Hall.”

For nearly a year after incorporation, Soares noted, the city had been run on a provisional basis out of an old convenience store—the same storefront that had served as the headquarters for the cityhood campaign the year before. City officials insist approving the new City Hall was done legally, and the city got a bargain in the process. But many citizens remain unimpressed.

“Even if they followed the letter of the law, they didn’t follow the spirit of the law. That isn’t what we want in our community,” Johnson said. “The people are saying ‘you violated our trust.’ And the council is saying, ‘but we didn’t violate the Brown Act, so fuck you!’ ”

Danetta Garcia agreed. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, not the other way around,” said Garcia. “So when the city government doesn’t take into consideration the public’s input, in whose best interest is it?”

Yet the council isn’t budging, and in fact is in the process of negotiating another public building, in the same office complex, and is taking a similarly hard line against public input. As Councilmember Sophia Scherman said, “People elected us to make the decisions that the public isn’t able to.”

Internal strife
There was also internal trouble brewing at City Hall. Elk Grove’s original city manager, David Jinkens, quickly got into disagreement with the council over how to contract for the city’s services.

“Certain” councilmembers, he said, began lobbying Jinkens to give over the lion’s share of city contracts, including the planning and public works departments, to Pacific Municipal Consultants, the same consulting firm that ran Elk Grove’s incorporation campaign.

Jinkens won’t say who pressured him, but PMC officials acknowledged that Councilmember Dan Briggs, who worked closely with the firm during incorporation, was a strong advocate of giving PMC the franchise.

“I had to ask him to stop saying nice things about us. It was getting embarrassing,” recalled Phil Carter, one of the principal consultants with PMC. (Incidentally, PMC is also active in the incorporation effort now ongoing in Rancho Cordova.)

But Jinkens had concerns about PMC and the close relationship that had developed between the consultant and the elected members of Elk Grove’s City Council: “I believe that large-scale public contracts need to be managed by full-time city employees whose only incentive is to protect the public interest.”

The complicated and expensive process of incorporation, said Jinkens, made the city founders reliant on consultants to run the campaign and attend to all the details of incorporation.

Councilmember Rick Soares defends the lack of citizen participation in city decisions.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“The consultants may do good technical work, but they can become more than consultants,” said this veteran city manager. “They can become political lobbyists, organizers, advisers and too much a part of the political process after incorporation.”

And he was reluctant to put all of the city’s eggs in one basket, especially with a firm that had limited experience in some areas of city government. But Jinkens had to choose between what would most please his bosses, and what he felt was best for the city.

“It was clear to me that if I didn’t recommend PMC getting all of the work, or at least being in charge of development services, my job as a city manager would be more complicated,” Jinkens said.

He attempted a compromise, recommending planning services go to PMC, and public works go to the county. And although the council went along with the recommendation on a 3-2 vote, some may have held a grudge. After all, the county was an “outsider,” maybe still perceived as the enemy so soon after incorporation. And PMC was a friend that deserved to be paid back for its role in winning cityhood.

Jinkens said his fears of a backlash from the council were soon confirmed: “After that, life was more difficult, but that was the hand that was dealt.”

That difficulty for Jinkens was compounded on July 17 when the council realized, to its astonishment and embarrassment, that the city’s liability insurance was going to expire, and that the insurer, Farmers Insurance, had suddenly refused to renew the city’s coverage.

Jinkens had arranged for coverage with another provider, but the council was confused and irritated with the sudden change of plans. Some lashed out at Jinkens. Although he said the city was never in danger of being uninsured, Jinkens had been publicly made a scapegoat for the insurance debacle.

It was around this time that Jinkens and his family were coming very close to buying a new house, just a few blocks from City Hall in that new subdivision. Jinkens dropped those plans when, on July 23, he was called into a closed-session meeting and told that the council was considering firing him. Although the council did not fire him that day, Jinkens tendered his resignation within two weeks, and the council accepted it.

On September 15, Jinkens’ last day on the job, he packed up his office. “I brought this plant. This is my plant,” he joked. But other than that, Jinkens has only a couple of boxes to pack. Mostly, the boxes are full of various plaques for professional recognition that once nearly covered an entire wall. They are the kudos that Jinkens has received during a 28-year career running cities in California: Morgan Hill, Manteca, Oroville, Fremont, Soledad, Avenal.

Jinkens says he isn’t bitter about his departure from Elk Grove. Like most veteran municipal professionals, he can play the ever-gracious fall guy, understanding how susceptible city managers are to the prevailing political winds. “I’m not blaming anyone about this situation,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Residents have demanded an explanation for the loss of the city’s top bureaucrat, by far the most experienced individual in the Elk Grove administration. But councilmembers have refused to offer any explanation whatsoever, other than to say that Jinkens did a great job and it was time for him to go.

Of the four councilmembers interviewed for this story (Briggs did not grant an interview) many said simply that the council and the city manager were going in different directions. None would elaborate on what different directions meant.

Yet to some, the cozy relationship between PMC and the council smacks of political patronage, and that Jinkens’ concerns about that relationship could have cost him his job.

“It’s pretty clear that people’s buddies are getting contracts,” said Tomko. “Carter’s group does a good job. But with the mall, there was some pretty obvious persuasion. In certain circumstances they are being swayed to use a little less judgment than they should.”

Good judgment and experience by city planners are perhaps more important now than ever, as Elk Grove rushes to meet a December 2002 deadline for developing its General Plan—the document that guides growth and dictates development standards—and pushes an aggressive “sphere of influence” proposal that could ultimately give Elk Grove a territory almost as large as that of the city of Sacramento.

Citizen Sarah Johnson wants people power for Elk Grove.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Still in its infancy, Elk Grove might have been able to weather its citizen rebellions, internal strife, inexperience and single-minded devotion to Lent Ranch Mall. But then came the biggest blow of all: an unexpected, unprecedented broadside from the state of California.

State steps in
Tom Mahon can see the site of the Lent Ranch Mall from his own farm, just a mile or so to the northwest. The Mahons have been on this property for over a hundred years, and have been neighbors of the Lents for decades.

While he sits in his pickup truck as dusk approaches, owls suddenly fill the sky, hunting for rodents in the fields. On the southern part of the Mahons’ property, one of the last pristine parcels of dense riparian forest grows along the Cosumnes River.

Wildlife is abundant on Mahon ranch, not just birds and mice: coyotes, raccoons, deer and bobcats make their homes here as well, along with Mahon, his wife and two sons, his father, and his two brothers and their families. Mahon says the occasional mountain lion has been spotted too, for the first time in many years, in the nearby Cosumnes River Preserve. It’s hard to imagine, sitting there at the end of the day, a whole new town springing up in the field just over the highway.

“This is not just some strip mall we’re talking about,” explains Mahon. “Those fields just over the line will be gone, just like that. It would destroy all of the agriculture around here. It would be like building a whole new city, South Elk Grove.”

Jeff Chandler with South County Citizens for Responsible Growth (SCCRG) says that he has compiled market research that shows the city of Elk Grove, even at its current torrid rate of growth, will not have enough shoppers to support such a massive regional mall. To make the mall profitable, he says, another 99,000 households, beyond the current “built-out” scenario, would have to move in. By contrast, Elk Grove currently has fewer than 80,000 people living there.

“The city will be obliged to see that development accelerates even faster than today’s blazing pace in an attempt to provide the 500,000 to 600,000 people needed to support that project,” said Chandler.

If Chandler is right, Lent Ranch will truly be the mall that built itself a city. But that’s not how things are supposed to work in California, so on July 26, Chandler’s group, along with the Environmental Council of Sacramento, filed a lawsuit to stop Lent Ranch Mall, on the grounds that the city mishandled the environmental review of the project, ignoring the project’s potential to set off an explosion of growth in the south county’s farming community. The suit also alleges that the environmental impact report ignored another potential explosion: the danger of putting the mall less than a mile from a Suburban Propane facility, a pair of 12 million gallon propane storage tanks that were targeted in a terrorist plot in April 2000.

The group has offered an alternative plan for a mall location, one that would be about half the size of Lent Ranch, and far closer to the center of the city. The SCCRG lawsuit didn’t raise too many eyebrows. Environmental groups sue local governments over development projects regularly enough.

But what came next took Elk Grove by surprise. On August 6, the California Department of Conservation took the unprecedented step of bringing its own lawsuit against the Lent Ranch project, on the same grounds as the SCCRG suit, pitting the full weight and resources of the world’s fifth-largest economy against tiny Elk Grove.

The state is being tight-lipped about the suit pending trial. Department of Conservation spokesman Don Drysdale said only that, “The suit speaks for itself.”

But opponents of Lent Ranch say the state action shows how far Elk Grove has crossed the line. “It’s just such a blatant abuse by the city,” said Genelle Treaster with SCCRG. “It’s a joke.”

This is the first time the state has sued a city over a development project. Traditionally, cities have had a fairly free hand in pushing new development. Perhaps the state is looking to use a firmer hand in controlling sprawl generally, or it sees Lent Ranch as a particularly odious project.

The case will take months to work through the courts. City officials are quick to point out that no public money is being spent defending against the lawsuit. All legal costs are being borne by the developers, M&H Realty, which started the project, and the ominously named General Growth Properties, which owns and operates hundreds of shopping malls nationwide.

If the city loses the lawsuit, the court will have found that the City Council basically broke the law in order to accomplish a political objective, to deliver on a promise to build a regional shopping mall.

From the vantage point inside City Hall, the outsiders seem to be closing in, usurping the “local control” that the citizen-shoppers are trying to exercise. And these outsiders aren’t just the county and state, or the environmentalists, but even outsider shopping malls.

Supporters of the Lent Ranch Mall note that some of the money for the South County Citizens lawsuit comes from Westfield Corp., an Australian mall developer that owns Downtown Plaza, a competitor of any future mall. They also say that the Department of Conservation is acting with the implicit consent of Governor Gray Davis, who received campaign contributions from Westfield.

“This community knows what it needs,” said Mayor Leary. “Why are all these outsiders coming around telling us what to do? It’s absolute bullcrap.”

The citizen-shoppers of Elk Grove voted for cityhood and, in their own words, voted for a mall: their mall, in their community. In doing so, they tried to draw an imaginary line around themselves, within which only they, through their elected officials (in theory), could decide what was best for them. That line turned out to be terribly permeable to outsiders who would seek to undo the will of Elk Grove.

But when the mall in question is a regional mall, is there any such thing as an outsider? A regional mall, by definition, draws in shoppers from outside the community, who then leave their tax dollars behind. But a regional mall has other regional impacts. The people in downtown Sacramento breathe the same air as those in Elk Grove. People throughout the state have the same claim to universal resources like healthy agricultural land, and pristine natural habitat, as those in Elk Grove.

But where does that leave citizens who wanted local control? If the city loses its lawsuits, surely many will say that the city lost a major battle in the war for local control. Yet even if the city wins the lawsuits, has it won local control? When a major mall developer co-opts popular discontent, stacks a local government with people who support it, and then proceeds to build not only a mall, but a city to feed that mall, who really has control?