Solvang Mayor Ryan Toussaint, left, and interim city attorney Chip Wullbrandt.
Solvang Mayor Ryan Toussaint, left, and interim city attorney Chip Wullbrandt listen to a speaker during this week’s City Council meeting. The council voted to end ties with the Solvang Conference and Visitor’s Bureau. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Amid suggestions of improprieties and uncooperation, the Solvang City Council voted this week to cut ties with its long-time tourism group, choosing instead to hire a staffing agency to run the visitor’s center and to seek another organizer for the Christmas season celebration. 

Additionally, the City Council motion approved on a 3-2 vote called for negotiations with the Solvang Conference and Visitor’s Bureau to hand over digital and other assets.

It’s not clear whether Solvang has any claim to the website, email lists or other assets held by the bureau.

To keep the Visitor’s Information Center operating beyond Aug. 31, the city will look to an employment agency, paying $8,500 a month to keep the facility operating, and seek another organizer for the month-long Julefest celebration in December.

On Monday night, Mayor Ryan Toussaint and councilmen Daniel Johnson and Chris Djernaes voted for the motion, while council members Robert Clarke and Karen Waite voted against it.

The decision came amid financial questions, including whether city money funds the nonprofit group’s attorney, and what happened to money allegedly “left over” at the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Interim City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt said a recent financial statement had numbers inconsistent with a budget presented in late July.

“I just end up with more questions than I have answers,” Wullbrandt said. 

Djernaes asked if there was a problem with the organization’s accounting for how it spent city funds.

“The answer is yes there might be a problem,” said Tom Widroe, special city auditor. “Some of the accounting is unclear as to how those monies were spent.”

“I think in reality we just don’t know. The reality is we haven’t received answers to questions,” Johnson added. 

SCVB President Kim Jensen said audit statements and checks routinely have been submitted to the city for review and blamed the change of city staff for the confusion. 

“So you see everything and we try to be transparent,” he said.

Jensen added that he resents the inference “that we’re trying to hide something from any of you because we haven’t been.”

Widroe told the council the organization failed to provide information so he could assess the spending, including details about $823,000 paid to the second largest vendor per a list provided to the city.

“Once again I’m not casting aspersions on the folks that are working so hard as volunteers in the SCVB,” Widroe said. “It is frustrating, though, that the history of the organization didn’t think enough to specify that large expenditure, so that’s a concern.” 

But Jensen said the city initially requested names of vendors paid over $10,000 each for the past six years. 

Individuals and other vendors paid less than $10,000 by the SCVB add up to more than $800,000, Jensen said in explaining the number city representatives had questioned.

“A lot of people who did do stuff, it was small amounts…and that wasn’t part of the request,” Jensen said. 

Widroe’s email shows the original request on July 26 sought vendors paid more than $10,000. On Aug. 21, he asked for the specified list amid a longer request for assorted financial information. 

“I guess my question, as a responsible auditor, I would just like to know how that money was spent,” Widroe said. 

Council members Robert Clarke and Karen Waite voted against the motion after instead favoring funding the SCVB through December to ensure Julefest continues and the Visitor’s Information Center remains staffed while the city solicits requests for proposals to handle tourism services. 

Waite said she wanted to moved forward with the SCVB at least for now, calling the organization’s services “very valuable to the city of Solvang.”

Clarke added that he didn’t want to be accused of voting to kill tourism.

“I’m getting really tired of hearing that, because what we want to do is promote Solvang in the best possible way with the right amount of money and the right people,” Clarke said.

But Johnson said the organization had rejected the latest contract proposal.

“I’m really not sure what the issue is. I’m just sick and tired of spending time, city time, council time, discussing this,” Johnson said.

Council members said they SCVB is not prohibited from submitting a proposal for tourism-related activities when the city begins soliciting for a new provider.

In early July, the City Council abruptly canceled the contract with the SCVB, leading Solvang representatives to scramble to avoid interrupting tourism-related services. With the funding uncertainty, the SCVB laid off key staff members, adding to the turmoil and prompting multiple rounds of negotiations. 

Johnson’s motion included a request to find another organizer for the annual Julefest celebration, and to start negotiations for the SCVB to hand over what some believe were city-funded assets. 

Those include the website, props used for events and more, but ownership questions could spark another battle.

“That is among the asset questions that I’ve not yet researched,” Wullbrandt said. “We were hoping that we were going to be able to — I’m going to call it on a friendly basis — avoid having to do additional research and demands about things like that.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.