Grand jury report critical of Kings County's suits against bullet train draws fire

A grand jury report that criticized the Kings County Board of Supervisors for its lawsuits against the California bullet-train project is drawing fire in the sparsely populated Central Valley farming community.

County Supervisor Doug Verboon, a walnut farmer who testified on the matter, said grand jurors misjudged public sentiment about the rail project.

"They were all nice people," Verboon said. "But I don't think their views represent the thoughts of the community."

The grand jury's annual report, issued in June, concluded that supervisors should not have approved public funding for litigation involving privately owned land that the state high-speed rail project is seeking for the right of way.

The grand jury, a panel of 19 citizens, issued a 167-page report on a range of county issues, including litter on school playgrounds and repairs to fire hydrants. But the finding on high-speed rail, titled "The Train Has Already Left the Station," was what drew the attention of officials in Sacramento.

"Kings County has been one of our largest opponents," said Lisa Marie Alley, spokeswoman for the California High Speed Rail Authority. "The question is why is the county opposing the project."

The grand jury raised the same issue, asserting that the rail line would not take any county-owned land, except for where it crosses public roads. And it questioned the expenditure of $150,000 in county funds on the legal battle.

Verboon said the county elected to fight the project when the state in 2011 refused to provide a detailed plan for taking property, choosing to put the line through the middle of farm fields rather than along existing highways.

"I am not going to let somebody come in here and destroy taxpayers' property," Verboon said. The high-speed rail authority has said it conducted extensive outreach in the Central Valley to address local concerns.

The county is involved in two lawsuits. One alleges that the state will fail to comply with a 2008 bond act that requires the system to operate without subsidies and to have trains designed to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes. It has also filed a suit that asserts the project failed to comply with state environmental laws.

Verboon said the county's attorney, Michael Brady, is taking on the case pro bono. The $150,000 authorized by supervisors is paying for Brady's direct costs only, and is just half of the total amount for the suit. The other half is being paid by private citizens.

The grand jury said supervisors had failed to solicit public input before filing those lawsuits. It also said the supervisors declined to apply for grants that the rail authority was offering to offset displacement costs from the program, allegedly because the supervisors did not want to give any indication of support for the project.

After the findings were released, the board issued a rebuttal to Kings County Superior Court Judge Thomas DeSantos. In a letter to the judge, the supervisors said the county held at least eight public meetings with state officials to discuss their concerns from 2011 to 2013, before filing the suits.

As far as declining to seek the grant, the county said it was the state's job to administer compensation for damages, not the county's.

In addition to Kings County, the high-speed rail authority has been sued by Madera County, Kern County, the cities of Chowchilla, Atherton and Bakersfield and various other agencies, groups and private citizens.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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Grand jury report critical of Kings County's suits against bullet train draws fire

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