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Roseville school district’s soccer field agreement has tangled history

Use of fields at Eich Middle School has neighbors upset
By: Sena Christian, Staff Reporter
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During the past winter, bright stadium-like lights often shined into the master bedroom, living room and kitchen and onto the back yard of Linda Ennenga’s Roseville home.

“It’s so impacted my entire living environment — I can’t even tell you. (The lights) are blinding,” said Ennenga, who has lived in her house for 38 years.

The Roseville City School District school board unanimously approved the installation of light poles and construction of three soccer fields at Warren T. Eich Middle School (previously part of Sierra Gardens Elementary School) in January 2013 for free use by a for-profit business, GT Soccer, for 15 years.

A lawsuit filed against the district in January by Eric and Cheri Welty contends that they have been adversely affected by the noise levels and lights and that the district failed to notify the public of the project. After a preliminary hearing May 1, Judge Charles Wachob dismissed the couple’s allegations of a failure to provide public notice and granted them more time to get additional information for their claim alleging that a nuisance exists.

GT Soccer offers camps and clinics for youth and was founded by Gregg Thompson, a well-known figure in the local soccer scene and a former U.S. Olympian. GT Soccer is the fictitious business name for Thompson’s Ridge Park Enterprises, a real-estate corporation.

The fields at Eich are also used by players of the nonprofit Galaxy Blues Futboll Club (officially called California Blues Football Club), for which Thompson serves as director of coaching.

Superintendent Richard Pierucci previously told the Press Tribune that the district complied with all legal requirements in providing “the soccer club” the joint use of the field and installation of the lights — a statement that riled at least three neighbors of Eich Middle School, who point out that the original agreement wasn’t with a soccer club, but with a for-profit business.

Pierucci said the district was led to believe that its contract was with a nonprofit organization. He later clarified that the agreement was assigned by GT Soccer to Cal Blues in September 2013, which occurred several months after the execution of the contract and which may suggest an attempt to rectify defects with the original agreement.

School board members declined to answer questions regarding their approval of the contract and directed all questions to Pierucci. Current Trustee Susan Duane had not been appointed to the board at the time of the vote.

“It’s a benefit to the community in the sense that many of the players that make up the (club) are Roseville residents,” Pierucci said. “It’s a benefit to the district that we’re getting enhanced field usage.”

The Weltys think the district is being duped, and they point to a similar arrangement for the use of George Cirby Elementary School’s property as important.

“When you understand Cirby, what happened there, you understand what happened here,” Cheri Welty said.

A storied past

Eric and Cheri Welty said they first learned that light poles would go up in July 2013, after seeing concrete blocks on the grassy field and inquiring with the district.

The project had been underway long before that. In November 2012, the contract between the district and GT Soccer was considered by the school board, which postponed the item until a key piece of information — who would be responsible for paying for utilities — was supplied. In January 2013, the board approved the contract with GT Soccer.

Thompson has long been involved in the local soccer scene. He coached for the Placer United Soccer Club from 2004 to 2009, but was not rehired for the 2010 season. So Thompson founded his own nonprofit program in late 2009 called Placer Blues.

This new club attracted players away from the nonprofit Placer United Soccer Club, and the more-established group appears to have faced some financial challenges as a result. In 2010, Placer United’s income decreased from about $1.09 million to $1.02 million and its assets sank from $130,884 to $47,438, according to federal tax filings.

In September 2011, according to a lawsuit filed in 2013 by Jonna Ward, a prominent businesswoman and mother of a Placer Blues player, Placer United approached the Blues about a merger, which soon came to fruition. The combined group kept the name Placer United because of that club’s 30-year history — the nonprofit organization was founded in 1982 — and its history of fielding nationally ranked teams and winning State Cup championships, according to a “Frequently Asked Questions” flyer distributed by the club.

Blues’ financial assets transferred to Placer United, which included a contract with the Roseville City School District to develop and use soccer fields and install lights at Cirby Elementary School. Thompson had secured that agreement while he ran the Blues.

Tax filings indicate the merger was beneficial to Placer United, which started 2011 with $47,438 in assets and ended with $247,478. By the end of 2012, the organization’s assets were up to $477,270.

Thompson became Placer United’s executive director of coaching Jan. 1, 2012, and his wife became president of the organization.

Signs of unrest surfaced immediately after the merger. Ward’s lawsuit contends that during a closed session of the soccer board on July 17, 2012, a trustee disclosed that she had learned that Gregg Thompson instructed Ward, the treasurer, to use money raised for scholarships for Hispanic children to pay the dues of his own children.

By July 18, 2012, a Facebook page called “Placer United Memberz for Accountability” sprung up, with posts urging members to “Save Gregg.”

According to the lawsuit, a special committee formed by the board issued recommendations July 23, 2012, that included having Thompson pay $6,935 to cover the dues and registration fees for his children.

By July 25, 2012, a campaign launched on the Facebook page to “Remove Joanna Ward;” a petition circulated for this purpose referred to a board-issued letter to Placer United members that said a normal accounting review found “internal accounting errors that have now been rectified.” According to Ward’s lawsuit, those errors were the fees owed by Thompson.

Emails to Ward and her attorney were not returned. Thompson declined to comment, citing legal concerns.

The conflict among board members led to the withdrawal of a sponsorship by California Family Fitness co-founder Larry Gury, who said in documents that appear to be email correspondence with Placer United board President Jeff Flint that he was discontinuing his support because of what he considered the board’s mistreatment of Thompson.

Flint did not return an email seeking confirmation of the sponsorship withdrawal.

Gury is Thompson’s employer at Fit Development Co., a real-estate company where Thompson is president of commercial properties. And GT Soccer hosts its Futsal (a type of indoor soccer) clinics at California Family Fitness in Rocklin.

In December 2012, about a year after Thompson was hired by Placer United, the board dismissed him.

Angry neighbors

Thompson soon joined another nonprofit competitive soccer club, called Cal Blues — now called Galaxy Blues Futbol Club to indicate an affiliation with the MLS L.A. Galaxy team — and got right to work.

One order of business was to secure practice fields. Thompson began this effort while still employed with Placer United, when he negotiated a field development project at then-called Sierra Gardens Elementary School between the Roseville City School District and GT Soccer. That was the contract presented to the school board in November 2012 and approved in January 2013 after utility costs were resolved.

District administrators indicated to the Press Tribune that they thought the Eich agreement was basically a replica of the Cirby agreement.

Roseville resident Linda Ennenga was away on a trip and returned in August 2013 to the news from the Weltys about the construction of the lights at Eich.

“It felt like this had been going on very quietly,” she said.

And it had. Neither the district nor GT Soccer attempted to inform neighbors of the project.

Thompson said they did not reach out to neighbors because they didn’t expect the project to affect residents, as the field sits down below the houses in a wooded area and because the project at Cirby improved an unmanicured area.

“We cleaned everything up (at Cirby) and got rid of all those problems,” Thompson said.

Judge Wachob dismissed the Weltys’ claim that the district should have conducted an environmental review, and his ruling states that the district fulfilled the requirements of the Brown Act by posting its school board agenda, on which the soccer field agreement was listed, on its website at least 72 hours before the meeting.

Emails obtained through a public records request by the Weltys show that the district didn’t intend to notify neighbors beyond that posting.

“Our understanding is the soccer folks would inform them of the field lights,” Pierucci said. “They did not do it at the time we thought they were going to.”

GT Soccer representatives and Pierucci agreed to meet with neighbors Aug. 14, 2013, at which time some compromises were offered, such as turning the lights off earlier each evening.

“No meeting took place until we made a stink,” Cheri Welty said.

According to the neighbors, the promises have been repeatedly broken. Thompson pointed out that the lights are needed only in winter months.

“It’s very seasonal,” he said.

Per the contract, the maximum number of days GT Soccer is not allowed to use the fields is 10 days each year.

What documentation?

A section of the California Education Code regarding joint use of school facilities states that before entering into a lease or agreement, the district should determine that the use will not “unduly disrupt the residents in the surrounding neighborhood.”

District officials said that, because there haven’t been complaints about the Cirby Elementary soccer fields, they figured the Eich fields wouldn’t bother neighbors, either.

Pierucci and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Dennis Snelling said the district enters into these types of joint-use agreements to fulfill its obligations under the education code’s Civic Center Act, which ensures that school facilities are made available to the public at a reasonable price.

On Sept. 5, 2013, the Weltys and Ennenga spoke during the public-comment period at a school board meeting, asking the trustees to reconsider the contract. They were told no, according to the neighbors. The minutes from the meeting do not reflect any response by the board.

An email sent by Pierucci to trustees a week before advised the group to “familiarize” themselves with the lights and field situation at Eich, and noted, “the soccer people are anxious to have the lights installed.” He included what he called documentation of the impact of the lights.

That document came directly from Cal Blues President Dominick DeRosa. The Weltys wonder why this seemed to be the first time board members saw documentation about a project they had approved several months earlier. On what had they based their approval?

The document says dense tree cover between the field and nearby houses minimizes the impact of the lights, which they describe as “dim.”

“The leaves fall off the trees in the winter when the lights are being used,” Cheri Welty said.

On Sept. 20, 2013, Ridge Park Enterprises Inc. assigned its Eich use agreement to Cal Blues. This agreement states that Ridge Park does business as GT Soccer.

When asked about this arrangement, Thompson said, “I have nothing to do with the lease to Cal Blues.”

But, according to public records, GT Soccer does not appear to have been filed as a fictitious business name for "Ridge Park Enterprises, Inc." until July 2013 — six months after the contract with GT Soccer and Roseville City School District was executed. In March 2008, GT Soccer Schools filed as a fictitious business name for Ridge Park Enterprises.

This assignment arrangement doesn’t sit well with James Edwards, a Placer County attorney whose children have played for local soccer clubs.

“A school district can’t grant the free use of public property for 15 years to a private individual, nor to his for-profit real-estate corporation,” Edwards said. “These deals are regulated by state law. If the deal violates the law, the district can’t make that go away by waiting (for) Mr. Welty to complain about all the construction, letting Mr. Thompson sell his alleged business interest in the deal to his nonprofit, second employer, and then pretending as if the district had always been in business with a nonprofit.”