[Note from BenIndy: Plan now to attend Flannery’s Benicia town hall meeting, next Thursday, December 14, 6 – 8pm at the Benicia Historical Museum, 2060 Camel Road, Benicia.]
Sued farmers speak up at California Forever town hall
Crowd of more than 100 attend relatively orderly Rio Vista event
Vallejo Times-Herald, by Daniel Egitto and Nick McConnell, December 6, 2023
The audience gathered for California Forever’s town hall in Rio Vista fell silent for a moment, as Jan Sramek considered an answer during the question-and-answer portion of the event. Then, a single voice rose.
“Good neighbors don’t sue their neighbors,” they said, eliciting a cheer from audience members.
The accusation that California Forever has been less than neighborly to the community of just over 10,000 people – which is now partly surrounded by the company’s land purchases – was a recurring theme Tuesday evening.
Rio Vista residents seized the chance to let CEO Jan Sramek know how they feel about California Forever’s attempts to build a new city in southeastern Solano County – including its decision to pursue legal action against area farmers.
The event struck a less combative tone than a similar town hall in Vallejo last week. But questions and skepticism abounded in the packed audience of well over 100 people.
Neighbors vs. neighbors
California Forever sued a group of local farmers earlier this year alleging that they illegally colluded to increase the price of their land.
Maryn Johnson, whose family is among those named in the lawsuit, asked Sramek in the middle of the meeting to drop the litigation as a gesture of goodwill toward farmers who have been in the area for generations. He declined, after alleging that Johnson asked to settle the lawsuit previously.
Johnson denies this and said she only invited Sramek over for Easter dinner with her family.
“I expected Jan not to commit to dropping the lawsuit,” she said in an interview. “But I think you need to ask these questions and put powerful entities in the position of stating before the public whether they will or will not act with common decency.”
Johnson said it is “patently false” that farmers colluded to fix the price of their properties, but rather that friendly conversation occurred.
“Of course we talk to each other,” she said. “Of course we have interacted with each other. The people that are named in this lawsuit are family even though we share different last names.”
Johnson, who is a teacher, said her brother continues the family tradition of farming and their family has no intention of selling the property – which is why they and others set prices so high.
“I think when you look at it from their business perspective, they did what they needed to do to acquire the land,” she said. “It wasn’t done in a trustworthy manner but I can see from their perspective why they chose to acquire land in the way that they did.”
Sramek said the lawsuit involves a small fraction of the people California Forever has done business with, and he claimed it’s evident that they broke the law.
“I think it’s quite clear,” Sramek said. “There are hundreds of people here who didn’t sell and they are not getting sued, and there are 600 people who we bought from and we are not suing them. So, it’s a small group; we’ve settled with half of them. You heard me say today ‘Hey, if you want to discuss a settlement, we can talk.’”
As in Vallejo, Sramek focused much of his presentation Tuesday on ways a new city could benefit Rio Vista’s economy, potentially bringing more jobs, restaurants and tourism to the town. He also noted California Forever’s interest in community benefits including down-payment assistance for home buyers and investments in Solano County’s existing downtowns.
The businessman highlighted his own “blue-collar” background as the son of a mechanic and a schoolteacher in a small Czech Republic town. Having left Goldman Sachs for an education company before moving on to this current project, Sramek said he doesn’t get into business ventures purely for profit.
”If I wanted to do it just to make money, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.
Attendees, however, had many questions about Sramek’s approach and what a new city would mean for Rio Vista.
Rio Vista resident Kenny Paul said he has a “laundry list” of concerns about the proposed development. He accused California Forever and its investors of sewing divisiveness, characterizing its opponents as “a fringe element” and “ignorant hicks.”
“In light of all this behavior, how do you expect anyone in this room or the county to believe what you’re saying?” he asked Sramek.
The CEO responded that California Forever will be placing its project in the hands of Solano County voters as a ballot initiative next November.
“Other than doing what anyone doing a project like this would do, which is buy the property, then announce it – we haven’t done anything else,” Sramek said.
Kathy Wright, superintendent of the New River Delta Unified School District, asked what this development would mean for the school district, given the district’s finite resources. Sramek said the ballot initiative would require California Forever to pay for all new students in the area, but he acknowledged that the area is currently in that school district.
One attendee noted that, although Sramek pledged there would be no development to the Sacramento River waterfront, there are renderings in California Forever promotional material that depict waterfront development. Sramek denied this, saying the company is interested in possibly building a man-made lake.
Sramek promised to return to Rio Vista for another town hall after his company announces its ballot initiative in January.
“I’ll be standing here, having people yell at me, calling me names,” he said, “but I’ll still be here talking about it.”
‘The nicest people’
Despite residents’ concerns, responses to Sramek’s presentation were more moderate than those at an explosive town hall hosted in Vallejo just days before.
Scattered claps came from the Rio Vista audience as Sramek introduced himself. Joe Scholtes of Vacaville, who moderated the event, drew chuckles as he noted local residents’ reputation for being “the nicest people.”
In Vallejo, Sramek gave attendees no formal opportunity to ask questions in a public setting, instead encouraging them to speak to company representatives at the end of the night.
Audience members in that city disregarded this request. They interrupted the meeting midway through, pelting the CEO with outbursts and accusations and arguing with his responses.
In Rio Vista, by contrast, California Forever set aside 45 minutes of the two-hour town hall for public discussion. Scholtes called on people to speak and an employee in blue jeans and a Yin Ranch baseball cap brought them a microphone.
Boos and cries of dismay erupted as Scholtes repeatedly attempted to end questions at the end of the allotted period. He closed out audience comments amid heated discussions about California Forever’s pending lawsuits.
A small handful of attendees lingered to speak one-on-one with company representatives for the last hour of the evening.
Sramek said he felt the town hall served its purpose well. He said time in these meetings has to be balanced between question-and-answer time and breakout sessions.
Town halls so far have not been livestreamed. Sramek said the company wants to maintain a more intimate feel.
“We wanted them to feel more like a neighborly event where people can ask questions,” he said.
Despite the city’s relative size, more people attended the Rio Vista town hall than the Vallejo one. California Forever required people in Vallejo to sign up for that meeting in advance. The company lifted that requirement for Rio Vista and all future town halls.
After hosting a Vacaville town hall Wednesday evening, California Forever is scheduled to hold another meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. in Willow Hall at The Fairfield Community Center.
This month’s final town halls will take place Dec. 14 at the Charles P. Stone Hall and Spenger Memorial Garden at the Benicia Historical Museum, as well as Dec. 18 in Dixon Town Hall at Dixon Olde Vets Hall. Both events will start at 6 p.m.