A group of Solvang residents has initiated a recall effort to remove Councilman Chris Djernaes from office, citing his alleged disdain for constituents, disrespect to city staff and disregard for state open meeting laws.
Djernaes, whose term expires in 2022, was presented with the recall notice on Tuesday night, according to organizer Lammy Johnstone. City Manager Xenia Bradford, who also serves as city clerk, was presented with the paperwork on Wednesday afternoon, Johnstone added.
Serving the paperwork is the first step of the process, which includes collecting signatures of registered voters in order to qualify the recall measure for the November ballot.
“I’m going to try my darnedest,” Johnstone said. “I don’t see why it’s not possible. I have never seen this place so angry. I mean, they’re fed up.”
Djernaes did not respond to a request for comment about the recall effort as of Thursday.
There are about 3,700 registered voters in Solvang, and recall supporters need signatures from roughly 25 percent of them.
Johnstone said they are aiming for the November ballot, when other City Council seats are up for election, since it would avoid a costly special election.
Former Sheriff Jim Thomas has already tossed his hat into the ring as a possible replacement for Djernaes, if the recall measure gets onto the ballot.
The official recall notice alleges that Djernaes’ actions and statements have shown “a blatant disregard for the Ralph M. Brown (Open Meetings) Act and the council’s protocols regarding simple rules of common courtesy.”
“Djernaes’ failures to be respectful and civil include, but are not limited to, his obvious disdain of constituents; mockery of speakers at City Council meetings; blatant disregard for the wishes of the voters; disrespectful remarks directed toward both current and former City Council members; frequent defamation of organizations and individuals; and bullying and harassment of a number employees of the city of Solvang both inside and outside of City Council meetings,” the notice of recall states.
During public meetings, Djernaes frequently derides former council members, previous city managers and city staff, despite a nondisparagement clause in at least one contract, potentially leaving Solvang at risk of litigation over the matter.
At a May meeting, where multiple residents opposed a commercial development project that would demolish the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building, one speaker noted that Djernaes did not appear to be paying attention to public comment and was openly laughing.
At the same meeting, he could be heard apparently referring to the residents’ comments as “nonsense.”
Solvang Mayor Ryan Toussaint has tried to limit Djernaes’ comments at several recent meetings, saying more than once, “Chris, stop.”
At a June meeting, when Djernaes tried to argue with a speaker during public comment, Toussaint asked him to stop. When Djernaes kept talking, Toussaint added, “No, you need to stop.” The resident responded, “See, that’s why you’re getting recalled.”
When City Council actions led to allegations of Brown Act violations and an investigation by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, Djernaes pressed prosecutors about who had reported the alleged violations, prompting a warning from the office.
In a letter to Solvang officials, Deputy District Attorney Casey Nelson said people have “a fundamental right to complain about, and to, their government. They also have a right to be free from reprisals for doing so.”
FPPC Review of Loan
Djernaes is being investigated by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for allegedly failing to report a personal loan in his campaign-related forms.
He has claimed multiple times that the FPPC completed its review and found no wrongdoing.
“It simply required me to amend my Form 700 because they themselves weren’t clear on the rules,” Djernaes said at the end of a June meeting. “Ironically enough, my case helped the FPPC clarify their own rules, and that’s now put to bed.”
Jay Wierenga, the FPPC’s communications director, told Noozhawk this week that the case remains open.
“Generally speaking, if someone updates, corrects and/or provides the information requested, that is a good thing as compliance is our main goal, which gives the public the information they deserve,” Wierenga said, adding that he could not comment on what the Enforcement Division would do in a specific case.
As Noozhawk and the Santa Ynez Valley Star reported in January, Djernaes, whose full name is Niels Christian Djernaes, failed to report a personal loan on paperwork he submitted to the FPPC.
Details of the loan became public when a former friend, Meghan McCarthy, now of Yuba City, filed a small-claims case in November in Santa Maria Superior Court after Djernaes allegedly stopped making payments on the loan.
A conditional settlement agreement, filed with the court and signed by both McCarthy and Djernaes, says the defendant agreed to pay it back, including $3,800 “to honor extra money borrowed over 10,000,” since $10,000 is the cap for small-claims court awards.
While court documents indicate the loan was more than $10,000, on the FPPC forms, Djernaes checked a box claiming the loan amount was between $1,000 and $10,000 for both 2018 and 2019.
In February, Djernaes filed an amended form, saying the personal loans totaled $9,000 and were used for campaign-related expenses from his campaign account. He also claimed that he “did not know and did not believe I had to report these funds.”
“To be clear, at no time did I attempt to circumvent the law. As a first-time filer of Form 700, I was simply ignorant of the process,” he wrote.
Form 700 spells out that public officials do not have to report credit card transactions, but states, “Personal loans and loans received not in a lender’s regular course of business must be disclosed as follows” with slots for identifying the lender, amount and terms.