The Solvang City Council was scolded for trying to uncover who complained that the panel had violated the state law regarding open meetings.
In September, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office sent a letter to the City Council and City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt regarding allegations that they violated the state’s Ralph M. Brown (Open Meetings) Act.
The letter and complaint stem from a July 8 meeting when the City Council held a closed-session discussion regarding threatened litigation, but abruptly voted to terminate contracts with the two nonprofit organizations — the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau and the Solvang Chamber of Commerce.
City councils and other agencies operate under the Brown Act, which seeks to ensure that governing bodies are transparent while conducting business.
The agenda also included presentations from both organizations, but the council canceled those.
“There is no reading of the Brown Act that would allow the council to cite Cal. Gov. Code § 54956.9, go into closed session, and come out to vote to terminate the contracts with the chamber and visitors bureau. On its face, the action taken during the closed session and the ensuing vote was a violation of the Brown Act,” Deputy District Attorney Casey Nelson wrote.
After trying to downplay allegations of violating the Brown Act, Wullbrandt chalked it up to a public relations fight, not a violation of a law aimed at transparency when the council rescinded the illegal action. The city attorney also dismissed concerns about being found in violation of the state, saying the punishment would mean free training about the Brown Act.
The DA’s Office halted its investigation when the council on Aug. 12 remedied the violation by voting to rescind the action at the heart of the allegation.
“Typically, that would be the end of the matter from this office’s perspective. However, the District Attorney’s Office has received multiple requests to release the name or names of the person or people who made the Brown Act complaint,” Nelson wrote. “Although it is not entirely clear, this request appears to be made on behalf of the council. The implication of the request is that the council plans on using the information to take retaliatory action against the person, or people, who made the complaint.”
Nelson noted that his office does not release details about who filed complaints and that records related to law enforcement investigations are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
Attempts to get the names prompted Nelson to chastise Solvang officials.
“Second, as a reminder to all involved, witnesses to crimes are protected by both state and federal law,” Nelson said, citing California Penal Code and state labor laws.
In response to a public record request from the Star and Noozhawk, the District Attorney’s Office confirmed who sought the names.
On Aug. 28, Councilman Chris Djernaes first called the District Attorney’s Office seeking confirmation of names of people he suspected of reporting the Brown Act violations and later emailed, using his city account, to press for identities and claiming they were public record.
Nelson pointed out that law enforcement investigations were exempt for disclosure, something Djernaes said he found “amazing.”
“I thought this is the bedrock of our justice system,” Djernaes wrote in an Aug. 29 email, adding that he asked the investigator “to tell you to expedite and conclude your investigation in September.”
Days later, Nelson sent the letter via email and regular mail reminding Solvang officials that both the Brown Act and Public Records Act “are not mere trifles.” The foundation for both laws includes the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which protect the people’s rights to “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“Less eloquently stated, the people have fundamental right to complain about, and to, their government,” Nelson said. “They also have a right to be free from reprisals for doing so.”
The Solvang City Council has continued to struggle with the provisions of the Brown Act.
At the Nov. 25 meeting, Mayor Ryan Toussaint prevented Renaissance Antiques co-owner Julie Palladino from speaking during public comment because her husband and business partner, Ron Palladino, had already spoken about the recent Solvang Fall Festival.
Toussaint said that since they represented the same business, she didn’t need to speak, although the California News Publishers Association said the action violated Julie Palladino’s First Amendment rights as well as the Brown Act.