Taxpayers Demand Sunshine in Little-Known Special District

The agenda promised talks about hall drapes and management contracts, check signings and wages—the kind of mundane orders of business that grease and grind the gears of local government. Nothing on the docket hinted at the drama to erupt that night.

Four elected board members, a bureaucrat under their charge and an attorney assigned to keep everyone on task sat to one side of a folding-table dais as a small but forceful audience lobbed claims of corruption, secrecy and self-dealing, among other varying degrees of wrongdoing.

“Don’t be a force of evil!” one woman implored the board.

“You’re completely racist,” another hissed. “Rude and racist.”

“You’re a shrew,” a trustee muttered at one point about a colleague.

Nancy Clark, the lawyer on loan for $250 an hour from the  Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office, tried to enforce parliamentary procedure to no avail. Repeatedly drowned out by crosstalk, she finally let out a heavy sigh, rested her chin on her palm and waited until the invectives gave way to bickering, eye-rolling and occasional lulls of civility.

The highs and lows of that the first leg of the first meeting of the year reflect something of a new normal for the Rancho Rinconada Recreation and Park District, a virtually unheard-of public agency struggling to adapt to a constituency that’s generations removed and a world apart from the one that spawned it.

“A lot of people had no idea this existed,” says Sophia Badillo, who recently became the newest, youngest and, as someone of Filipino-Chinese descent, only ethnic minority on the board after campaigning as a staunch reformer. “And they had no idea how much they were paying for it.”

Thus, the backlash.

Much of it flared up last summer once Badillo, 40, and septuagenarian board ally Sandy Yeaton began publicly lambasting the parks district—a largely seasonal operation that runs a swimming pool and rec hall with a bare-bones staff—which they said too many residents knew little to nothing about. And much of it centers on 34-year-old general manager Kevin Davis and long-serving trustees Miriam Salo and Steve Wesolowski.

Suddenly, everything became suspect.

Wesolowski’s solo after-hours pool visit on Christmas Eve sparked whispers of him using his public office for personal benefit. Davis’ burgeoning take-home pay became a bone of contention, as well as Salo’s and Wesolowski’s primary homes being outside the district, fellow board member Julie Jarvis’ sudden resignation, a staffer renting the facility to run private swim lessons and the pool’s insistence on staying an all-cash enterprise.

“They’re not interested in accountability,” Yeaton says. “You have all these people who want to use this public place for their own gain. They want to keep it their little secret.”

Like many of the 2,000-plus special districts throughout the state and some of the 20 or so in Santa Clara County, Rancho Rinconada faces mounting criticism that it outgrew its usefulness, and that, in the eyes of Badillo and Yeaton, it fails to connect enough with the rapidly changing population that funds it.

A vocal group of homeowners within the 0.4-square-mile district in Cupertino say they realized only recently that they shelled out a combined $2.5 million in property taxes in the past four years to fund the district or that it went the better part of several decades without an election because few knew enough to run for the five-seat board.

Some of the same residents who’ve been speaking out at recent board meetings say they had no idea that a greater share of their property tax bill went to the pool (about 4.6 percent) than their local library (2.4 percent), or that they bankrolled a $22,000 raise in the past several seasons for Rancho Rinco’s general manager, who’s potentially due for another $13,000 bump up to a $103,000 annual salary and a gradual hike from that to $123,000 in the next decade. That, per analysis he compiled by board request, would bring his pay in line with GMs of comparable special districts. (To be fair, Wesolowski offers, Davis has done a commendable job building up program revenue and professionalizing a previously part-time position).

Without more robust outreach from the district, critics like Badillo and Yeaton argue, how else would people know about their tax-paid entitlement to what they figured was just another neighborhood pool? The county assessor began bumping the Rancho Rinco allocation from itemized tax bills sometime in the 1980s when the list became too long to fit on a single page. Now, one has to go online to find it.

It’s a debate revived time and again by good-government advocates: Would services offered by these kinds of small, singular agencies, many of which fall under the public radar, be more effectively managed by overlapping counties and cities?

Special districts proliferated in California as public service delivery systems before cities developed the infrastructure to accommodate the post-WWII suburban boom. The state established Rancho Rinconada in 1955 to provide park services for what was then an unincorporated community and one of the most affordable places to live in the valley. For decades before its buildout as a neighborhood of 4,000 residents, it mostly comprised low-cost modular ranchos designed by architect Cliff May, built by Stern & Price and marketed to predominantly white buyers under the brand “Miracle House.”

As Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley, the blue-collar neighborhood underwent an attendant transformation. Multi-story McMansions supplanted cheaply built ranch homes. Cupertino annexed the ward in 1999, which helped standardize its loosely zoned hodgepodge aesthetic, and set it on course to becoming one of the priciest locales in the nation. The former white working-class community became a predominantly Asian-American enclave with a median home price of $1.1 million—more expensive than 82 percent of neighborhoods in California and 96 percent in the U.S.

As a result, Rancho Rinconada’s property tax revenue skyrocketed while many of the homeowners who knew about their stake in the district’s governance had long since moved away. Wesolowski is one of the holdouts. The second-longest-serving Rancho Rinco board member behind Yeaton, he bought his home for $23,500 on New Year’s Day 1973. “It was one of only a couple places in the valley I could afford to live,” he says.

In 1994, he joined the rec district’s board after he began using the pool for a water aerobics routine choreographed to treat a back injury. In his view, the board served the neighborhood to the best of its ability and hired a thoroughly competent manager in Davis, a mild-mannered former lifeguard who worked his way up to helm the agency in 2013. “The district’s been running so well for so many years that it seems nobody was interested in challenging us,” Wesolowski says.

Granted, the dearth of contenders might owe to a lack of marketing more than a lack of interest; Wesolowski acknowledges as much. So does Davis.

“Was there outreach? Yes. Was it enough? No,” Davis offers. “But we’re working on that.”

The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission—a regulatory body more commonly known as LAFCo that’s responsible for streamlining public services—leveled a similar critique about Rancho Rinconada’s impuissant outreach efforts when it last reviewed the district in 2013. In addition to advising ramped-up communications, LAFCo suggested drafting a long-term business plan to help justify whether it should continue as an independent entity or merge with Cupertino’s parks-and-rec division.

LAFCo planned to conduct a five-year review of Rancho Rinco again last year but has yet to follow up. (Incidentally, LAFCo itself came under the scrutiny of civil grand jurors some years back for its hands-off approach to regulating special districts.)

Davis agrees that there’s more work to be done on the kind of long-range planning prescribed all those years ago by LAFCo, and he’s confident new blood on the board will help Rancho Rinonada check that off the list.

Meanwhile, for the few people who work at the district office before it staffs up with dozens of temps during the warmer months, the recent controversy expressed in sometimes personal terms on NextDoor has taken a toll.

Davis, for his part, would rather not dwell on the negative. Instead, he says he’s determined to maintain composure, and that he’s committed to working with the board as it tries to regain the public trust. “I just want to do my job,” he says, sounding a bit world-weary, “and just take care of things at the district as much as possible.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

6 Comments

  1. Well done, Ms. Wadsworth! Although, perhaps I should I say, Ms. Wordsworth, for that use of “impuissant” in the article!

  2. Excellent article. If memory serves me correctly, the original homes — mock-Eichler design, circa 1957 — sold for $7,500.

  3. This illustrates one of the unfortunate outcomes of Prop 13. I live in a neighborhood that’s a little bigger than Rancho Rinconada. It was developed in the 1950s in an unincorporated area that’s now part of Fremont. The developers built two parks, with swimming pools, tennis courts, and playgrounds, and created a home-owners association to fund the ongoing operating costs. We have almost 1900 homes paying $150 per year in HOA fees, plus up to $250 for a family pool and tennis plan, which is waived for residents over 65. We get no tax support. The Rancho Rinconada Recreation and Park District does get local property taxes–$497,775 in 2018, which was just over half of their total budget of $923,681. The rest are “program fees, like facility rentals and such. After Prop 13, the 1% of allowed ad valorem property taxes collected by counties were allocated between the local governments that had already been collecting taxes (school shares have been changed since then). So the Rinconada district gets about $100 per year per capita, which would otherwise be going to the City and the County to cover general government expenses, such as public safety, street repairs, and the same recreation services that other residents have access to. This is, of course, totally unfair.

    Here’s the Rinconada audit, with the revenue and expense details:
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1LDOgzricjQLPyZj2fkHlASEY7i2TvVm4/view

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