Solvang Visitor Center
Negotiations will resume to assess who will operate the Solvang Visitors Center after August. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

With fall events weeks away, talks will resume with a group that has handled Solvang’s tourism marketing and event planning for decades in hopes of getting at least a temporary deal.

On Monday night, the City Council agreed to continue negotiating with representatives of the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau and to look to another group, Visit Santa Ynez Valley, to potentially handle some duties.

After a July 8 closed session about “threatened litigation,” the City Council terminated the contract, leading city representatives to scramble to get an interim agreement in place to avoid shutting down the Visitors Information Center at the start of August.

The canceled contract also placed in doubt several key upcoming events, including the Solvang Stomp grape harvest and the Julefest Christmas celebrations.

Interim City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt said Monday that he wanted the council’s re-authorization to continue negotiations with the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau.

“I now hear that there may be a path forward, so I’d like to continue those discussions on that potential path forward,” Wullbrandt said.

He added that he was concerned with keeping the Visitors Information Center open with a possibly expanded mission to include the entire Santa Ynez Valley, ensuring that the Solvang Stomp happens without losing public money already spent and making sure that Julefest takes place.

Visit Santa Ynez Valley may be willing to take over Stomp to ensure that it occurs as planned in mid-October, Wullbrandt added.

Mayor Ryan Toussaint did not participate in the discussion or vote because of a potential conflict of interest involving a business deal exceeding $500 with Visit Santa Ynez Valley this year.

On Monday night, Kim Jensen, SCVB president, urged the council to fund the organization for the remainder of 2019 since the group has already started planning for events. However, he suggested that Visit SYV handle the Solvang Grape Stomp. 

“Let’s move on. Let’s get done with this,” Jensen said.

The organization sought $150,000 for the four months. 

The SCVB’s future has been up in the air since the council reduced its proposed funding allotment and then abruptly canceled the contract after a closed session was challenged as a violation of a state law regarding conducting City Council business in public. 

Additionally, a visitor’s guide, distributed by the SCVB, has not been sent out because of the turmoil.

On Monday, Solvang officials again suggested financial improprieties involving the SCVB, citing a vendor list of expenses with $822,000 in unspecified funding.

Tom Widroe, the special city auditor, said the organization also paid $8,000 for an attorney to represent the group in the battle with the city and $14,000 in severance pay for Tracy Farhad, the former executive director recently laid off by the group. Both of those items were not authorized under the city contract, Widroe said. 

“As special city auditor, I’m concerned about the taxpayers’ dollars just as much as you,” Widroe added. 

He also said that he has asked for details about the SCVB’s tax-filing history to ensure that the city doesn’t face any additional liability. Widroe agreed that he may look into hiring an accountant to help him assess the SCVB’s handling of city funds.

“It’s outside my realm of expertise and, according to my contract with the city, I can bring on someone with some specialized help to dive into some of this stuff and give you a more broad and detailed report and also look at asset recovery should you not carry on that relationship,” he said.

The attorney said that if his budget allows, Widroe can hire a subconsultant with some confirmation from the city.

“And actually what that confirmation is is not particularly clear, so I would suggest on this one, if this is something that is needed for us to continue our negotiations, which I think it is, I think you could get that approval for example from Daniel and I,” Wullbrandt said. 

“I would agree. I can’t approve anything going toward until these questions are figured out,” Councilman Chris Djernaes said. 

However, Councilman Daniel Johnson said it appeared that some of the questions raised by the vendor list may be related to the financial software used by the SCVB, and something that could be cleared up by a different report.

“There may be a perfect explanation for it. We would just like to know where the taxpayers’ money goes,” Councilman Robert Clarke said. 

Jensen said he didn’t want any lingering allegations that the organization was hiding financial information.

“We are willing to give you anything and everything for whatever Mr. Auditor Tom wants,” Jensen said.

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