Dacquisto Cast Lone Dissenting Vote Against Redding’s Secretive Bechelli Land Sale. Here’s What He Has To Say Now.

A civil lawsuit filed against the City of Redding by the Redding Rancheria was decided in the Tribe’s favor last week. That case relates to a small parcel of land that provides important road access for the site of the Rancheria’s proposed casino development. Back in 2020, Michael Dacquisto was the only city council member who voted against vacating, declaring surplus and selling the land. He spoke to Shasta Scout over the weekend about what drove his decision then, and how he sees things now.

5.24.22 9:01 update: We have updated the story to include a statement from the Redding Rancheria.

You can read our first story about the Bechelli land sale here.

An approximately .44 acre parcel of public land that provides important access for a planned Redding Rancheria casino development was sold by City of Redding officials in just eleven days in May of 2020. The Rancheria responded with a lawsuit. A court ruling released this past week indicated that the city’s land sale process broke both state laws and city policies. It’s not clear yet how the situation will be corrected. 

The court ruling is largely what Council member Michael Dacquisto warned could happen in 2020 when he cast the lone dissenting vote against the property sale. Council members discussed the sale during three consecutive closed session council meetings, then voted to vacate the land and declare it surplus as part of the consent calendar during an open council session. The consent calendar is a catch-all section of the Council agenda that contains a number of items that are believed to need little or no discussion by council and can be summarily passed by a single vote.

The public land was sold to Shasta Land Holdings, an LLC connected to Archie Aldis “Red” Emmerson, America’s largest landowner and the billionaire owner of lumber company, Sierra Pacific Industries. Emmerson has publicly expressed his opposition to the Redding Rancheria’s proposal to relocate their casino to a property known as Strawberry Fields. That property is wedged between the Sacramento River and I-5, just south of S. Bonnyview Street. Emmerson and his wife own a 500-acre ranch and Sacramento Riverfront home adjacent to the tribe’s land holding, according to the Record Searchlight.

During the May 19, 2020 Redding city council meeting, Dacquisto spoke up just prior to the council’s vote, to object to two items on the consent calendar that related to the land sale. He expressed his concerns to the public that the transaction was very likely to generate viable legal claims against the city, and that more information should be obtained before approving it, especially given the timing of the public debate about the casino re-location. 

Without responding to Dacquisto’s comments, council members Julie Winter, Adam McElvain, Kristin Schreder, and Erin Resner voted to approve the consent calendar, and with it the decision to vacate and declare the land surplus. McElvain, Schreder and Resner have not yet responded to Shasta Scout’s request for comment on the land sale and court ruling. Winter declined to comment about the land sale, citing the active legal case.

A portion of the May 19, 2020 Redding City Council meeting. Click to play.

During a phone interview Friday, Dacquisto told Shasta Scout “It doesn’t give me any pleasure to say ‘yeah I told you so,’ that doesn’t accomplish anything for the taxpayers. We have to figure out what the facts are now and what is in the best interest of citizens moving forward.”

He says he had no idea that there were potential legal and policy issues with how quickly the deal was being moved through, or how it was being accomplished, but saw immediately that it posed financial risks for the citizens he represents, saying he was concerned that the transaction placed the city between two powerful local interests, the Rancheria and Sierra Pacific’s owner, Emmerson. 

“The principal reason I pushed back,”  Dacquisto says now, “was that I didn’t think it was in the best interest of the taxpayers of Redding to get into the middle of a fight between two behemoths for no big benefit.”

“If this had been done as an auction for a lot of money that would be a different issue,” he continued. “By picking a side and selling the land you’re effectively getting in the middle of what is likely to be a long protracted legal dispute. And you can infer from the terms of this sale agreement that that was obvious to both sides, certainly obvious to the city.” 

In an interview on Free Fire Radio in May 2020 shortly after the land sale and resulting Tribal lawsuit, Dacquisto called the city’s decision to vacate, declare surplus and sell the land, “sleazy.” He says he continues to stand behind that description. 

“I’ve been a lawyer for a lot of years, almost forty years,” Dacquisto explained. “I’ve smelled a lot of deals. . . I certainly had no idea that there were three things that were going to be found wrong by a judge. I’m not an expert in those little areas of the law, but I would expect the city attorney and the city manager to have some knowledge of that.”

Both City Manager Barry Tippin and City Attorney Barry DeWalt declined Shasta Scout’s request for comment late last week, citing the ongoing nature of the court case. 

Negotiations for the land sale are hidden from the public’s view because they occurred as part of three closed session council meetings. Under the rules of the Brown Act, Dacquisto and other Council members are largely unable to discuss what occurred during those discussions. The Brown Act stipulates that the City Council may, but not must, meet in private for real property negotiations, but only to discuss the price and terms of sale of a proposed land sale. The rule is intended to protect city interests during a negotiating process. 

However, in order to discuss a proposed sale like this in private, the negotiation must not move outside of the Brown Act’s narrowly defined parameters of price and terms of payment, according to David Snyder, Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition and an attorney who specializes in Brown Act violations.

City Manager Barry Tippin told Shasta Scout last fall that the city’s policy and past practice dictates that the discussion of how public land will be sold are always placed on a closed session agenda. But Snyder says that the city’s current policy is “way broader than what the Brown Act allows them to do in closed session and inconsistent with state law.”

A section of the City of Redding policy manual addressing disposition of city property.

“Starting with first principles,” Snyder told Shasta Scout last fall, “the city ordinance cannot override the Brown Act . . . all they can talk about in respect to a real estate transaction is price and terms of payment.”

“I think a lot of agencies read the Brown Act limitations very loosely,” Snyder continued, “and think it means they can talk about a whole range of topics as long as it’s connected to real estate negotiations. That is not the case.”

While Dacquisto can’t discuss specifics of the city’s closed sessions meetings he says throughout the negotiation process he advocated for the city to include full indemnity as part of the land sale contract. The contract that was eventually approved indemnifies the city up to $100,000, meaning Shasta Land Holdings has agreed to pay up to that amount in legal fees or judgments faced by the city due to the sale. 

The Redding Rancheria’s lawsuit against the city included a request for legal fees but focused on asking the city to vacate, or undo, its previous declaration of surplus and sale of the land, although it’s not yet clear if that will occur.

In a press release issued May 23, the Tribe expressed dissatisfaction with the the facts of the land sale process, and particularly the city’s lack of transparency, as revealed by the ruling, expressing that the city’s conduct “was reminiscent of the historic mistreatment of tribes by federal, state, and local governments.”

Mentioning that their relationship with the city has been mutually beneficial for decades, the Rancheria explained that to repair that relationship “the Tribe and City must work together on a government-to-government basis for the good of the community.” The Redding Rancheria has the status of a sovereign tribal nation with a right to economic self-determination, according to federal and international law.

According to Rancheria’s web site, the proposed new casino project on the 232-acre Strawberry Fields property, which is located outside city limits, would lead to 2,120 construction jobs and provide $99.1 million in construction wages. It would also add 550 full-time jobs resulting in $12.2 million in new wages as well as extensive new tax revenues to the county. In her ruling, Judge Wood noted that the City of Redding should have notified the county as well as the Tribe  about the potential sale to Shasta Land Holdings because the profound potential tax revenue of the project represented a significant public interest. 

Dacquisto says he now wishes he had done more, to ensure that the land sale process was handled transparently. “In hindsight,” Dacquisto said, “which is always 20/20, I probably should have pushed to have the Bechelli sale discussed more in open session . . . . even if that discussion was going to be limited due to (previous) closed session discussion restraints.” 

He notes that the 2020 land sale bears important similarities to a recent proposal by developers to buy prime public riverfront land in the fall. Both, he emphasized, involved important public land and powerful private interests. 

Asked what he would say to the Redding community as they absorb the news of the recent court ruling, Dacquisto said “Be careful what you vote for.”

“You get what you vote for,” Dacquisto said. “And it’s hard to know how someone is going to vote and perform in office.” 

Marc Dadigan contributed to this story. 

Annelise Pierce is Shasta Scout’s Editor and Community Reporter covering government accountability, civic engagement, and local religious and political movements. You can contact her at [email protected] 

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