Richard Tree, Porterville management respond to TCRTA

(Rigo Moran)

Porterville officials refute TCRTA chair Jose Sigala’s conflict of interest accusations against Transit Director Richard Tree, while also restarting the city’s transit services over concerns financial transparency

EDITORS NOTES: This story is a followup to last week’s Tulare County Regional Transit Authority piece titled, Porterville clashes with TCRTA over transit provider, where letters revealed a growing rift between the two entities over concerns of conflict of interest claims.

PORTERVILLE – Porterville officials stood with Richard Tree as they denied TCRTA’s conflict of interest accusations, citing transparency while unveiling the relaunch of in-house transit services.

Current Porterville Transit Director Richard Tree and city management responded to TCRTA chair Jose Sigala’s accusation of a failure to disclose a conflict of interest in a letter to the Mayor of Porterville in March of this year. Tree, Deputy City Manager Jason Ridenour and Assistant City Manager Mike Knight noted that staff reports from the TCRTA’s May 25, 2022 meeting explain that Tree disclosed his family involvement with two subcontractors under Transdev’s bid to provide services for the agency.

“Mr. Tree disclosed that three Transdev contracts with two local companies that were owned by two of his family members, however he had no part in the procurement process and does not have any financial investment or gain in those businesses,” according to a TCRTA staff report from the May 25, 2022 meeting.

This contradicts the allegation made in Sigala’s letter which states that Tree did not relay to the board SM Transit would be a subcontractor and that there was a potential conflict of interest. 

“A lot of the things that are quoted in that letter are accusations that are baseless and without fact,” Ridenour said.

Another point which Tree and Porterville city management addressed was that Tree was the Transit Director of Porterville while having a blood relative at SM transit. According to the city of Porterville, they were aware of Tree’s relationship with SM Transit the whole time.

“Mr. Tree has always been transparent and fully disclosed his relationship with Sierra Management (SM Transit). This was evident when he was with the city prior than when he was employed by the TCRTA,” Ridenour said.

Tree noted that the city put in certain checks and balances to ensure that there was no conflict of interest while working with SM Transit as well as explained that he took no part in the decision making process of which bid the TCRTA contracted with.

“What are the checks and balances that are put into place? The city has done that. They’ve shown financial statements from form 700s (a form meant to provide transparency and accountability for public officials), from myself, they looked at the corporate documents for SM transit to ensure that there was no financial interest,” Tree said. “they had vetted that over and over again.”

Ridenour continued to reiterate Mayor Martha Flores’ concerns regarding transparency, explaining that they have had two meetings with the new director, Abul Hassan, since he was appointed in December. 

According to Ridenour, the city has still not been provided with the financial information which they requested in those meetings.

“In a nutshell, the transparency (that we are looking for) is, the agency provides everything in a transparent way up front, attach budgets, have a staff report, that’s reflective of what that budget is and what those budget change requests are. That’s what we are asking for,” Ridenour said.

Porterville has stated that it was concerns regarding financial transparency with the TCRTA which led them to withdraw in the first place. Now the city of Porterville says they are still trying to figure out how they can best serve their city and partner with TCRTA to ensure that everyone’s transportation needs are met.

According to a press release from the city of Porterville, they will be relaunching their in-house transit services on July 1.

“We are committed to providing efficient and sustainable public transportation that meets the needs of our community,” Porterville’s City Manager, Patrice Hildreth stated via press release. “Our skilled staff, including Richard Tree… will lead the department.”

The TCRTA also released an official statement explaining that their services to Porterville will end as of July 1. The TCRTA services ending include, but are not limited to Fixed Route, Dial-a-Ride and Microtransit/On-Demand. There will be no disruptions to intracity commuter routes.

Porterville stated that they helped establish TCRTA in 2020, expecting that doing so would offer a more efficient and cost-effective regional transportation infrastructure. In 2022, Tree left the city of Porterville to become the TCRTA director and help start their services. 

However, Tree’s separation from the city was short-lived. Porterville claims that they gave their initial intent to leave the agency in April of 2023, around the same time that Tree left the TCRTA.

In spite of their differences, they stayed in the agency another six months to try and work through their issues with the agency before officially withdrawing on Jan 2.

Porterville stated that the TCRTA’s new leadership stopped sharing necessary financial and operational information with member municipalities while increasing administrative costs more than expected for the services provided.

“After exhausting efforts to uncover the reasons for the exponential rise in membership fees, Porterville notified the agency a year ago of its intentions to leave and submitted a second formal declaration per the established procedures in January. TCRTA’s leadership still refuses to engage the city in a formal exit plan,” the press release from Porterville stated.

Any questions, concerns, or complaints related to the provision of services beginning July 1, 2024 may be directed to the City of Porterville either by phone at 559-782-7499 or by email to: [email protected].

Inquiries prior to July 1, 2024, may be directed to the TCRTA Customer Service line at 559-372-2290 or by email to: [email protected].

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