By Royal Calkins
The longstanding legal skirmish surrounding the planned football stadium upgrade at Monterey High School now includes allegations that the Monterey Peninsula school district relied on falsified fire code paperwork and ignored state rules about fire department access to the campus.
A group of campus-area residents known as Taxpayers for MPUSD Accountability contends in a new lawsuit that state architecture officials accepted a faked-up record purportedly showing that some fire-safety provisions had been approved by the local fire marshal. The suit, filed by attorney Molly Erickson, also contends that the latest plans related to the stadium project don’t contain enough fire access points to satisfy state law and that proposed fire lanes on campus aren’t wide enough to accommodate fire trucks.
District officials have said privately that there was no attempt to trick the state agency, but PK Diffenbaugh, superintendent of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, would only say this week that “MPUSD does not comment on active litigation against the district.” Voices asked if Diffenbaugh might be able to refer us to someone who could speak for the district, such as legal counsel, a consultant or architect, and also submitted to him a California Public Records Act request for any documents, memos or emails that might include the district’s position. Diffenbaugh didn’t reply.
The district has until the end of the month to file a formal response in court but most early responses in such litigation usually consist mostly of generalized denials.
The lawsuit alleges that when district officials provided the Division of State Architect with required project plans in 2022, they attempted to mislead by attaching an approval page that had been signed by the fire marshal two years earlier.
“The school district had altered the signed life safety record because the DSA had consented to the ‘swapping’ of signature pages by the school district to insert a 2020 city fire marshal signature onto 2022 project plans that the fire marshal had never seen and could not have seen because by 2022 the fire marshal had left the city,” the lawsuit alleges. “The altered documents are invalid and unreliable.”
The lawsuit says the state agency initially found that several aspects of the construction plans clashed with fire codes but that Diffenbaugh made repeated calls to the state agency and sent several emails, eventually causing the state to reverse itself.
“The DSA-approved plans do not comply in material ways with California Fire code, California Building Code, and accessibility requirements,” according to the court filing.
Erickson wrote that the state agency approved two incongruous sets of plans “absent any query as to how a fire marshal signature with the identical date, minute, hour and second could be used on two different forms that stated materially different information for two different projects.”
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of actions meant to end or amend what is called the Dan Albert Stadium Improvement Project, which passed a large legal hurdle in June when Monterey Superior Court Judge Tom Wills ruled that most of the district’s environmental studies passed legal muster. Ruling on earlier litigation by the school neighbors, Wills found that only some easily solved environmental issues remained.
The district lost considerable time launching the project when it hired a firm headed by the Monterey High baseball coach to conduct the initial environmental review, which downplayed a number of issues that were later validated.
Public opinion about the project has been mixed in the hilly neighborhood surrounding the high school. The strongest objections have focused on plans to light the field for nighttime games, which many in the neighborhood fear will prove disruptive.
The project also includes converting a dirt parking lot into a softball and multi-use field, adding a 2,000-square-foot workout center, installing visitor bleachers, replacing the outdated press box, improving the track and track infield, and improving access for the disabled.
To ease the concerns about lighting, the school board formally agreed that the four new light towers would be used only on weeknights from October through March, and only until 8 p.m. except on five game nights each year.
Though the district calls those provisions, along with limitations on use of the public address system, “legally binding,” project opponents argue that legal bonds can be broken. District officials acknowledge there will likely be significant community pressure for more night-time events.
For some district officials, particularly Diffenbaugh, the stadium project has almost amounted to a crusade, partly because the school’s athletic facilities have been overtaxed for years, limiting student participation in some sports, and partly because the stadium is to be named after Albert, who is both a former Monterey High School football coach and beloved former Monterey mayor. District officials have spent incalculable hours on the venture, considerable fees for architects and consultants and large chunks of taxpayer money on legal fees.
Much of the legal expense has gone toward fighting lawsuits filed by Erickson, one of the region’s leading land-use and environmental lawyers. Other avoidable legal expenses stem from the district’s sometimes extreme reluctance to turn over public records to Erickson and her client. The district’s legal counsel, the firm of Lozano Smith, has racked up impressive sums unsuccessfully resisting her requests in court and spending long hours meticulously indexing mostly routine and legally disclosable records.
In the past six years, the Fresno-based law firm has billed MPUSD more than $3.4 million. The most lucrative year was 2022 when the billings topped more than $1 million. SEE: Taxpayers Pay Big to Keep Public Records Private.
Erickson and others have complained that district officials embarked on the stadium project just months after voters approved a $213 million bond measure touted as a fix for academic and classroom issues districtwide.
“The stadium and field project was not on the master plan that the MPUSD board of trustees in 2018 had adopted for the high school,” the lawsuit says. “That master plan lists more than $95 million of unmet facilities needs as priorities. No other large project was presented to the board for Monterey High School.”
District officials and the school board, which has been almost unanimously supportive of Diffenbaugh’s aspirations, largely ignored those complaints, arguing that the field improvements are long overdue.
“MHS soccer programs will no longer have to end practices and games due to darkness,” Monterey High Principal Tom Newton said in a news release this summer following the judge’s ruling on the environmental review.
“Girls’ softball will no longer have to miss class to travel to Jacks Park for practices and games, and students will have the opportunity to play in front of a home crowd instead of traveling off campus to the Monterey Peninsula College’s lighted athletic field for football games.
“Planned improvements to the stadium and lower field will also help ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX and, most importantly, ensure safety for student athletes.”
The new lawsuit contends the district’s current plans misinterpret some federal accessibility standards.
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