By Raiza Giorgi  

The Solvang City Council has rescinded a controversial decision made in closed session on July 8 to cancel the city’s contracts with the Solvang Chamber of Commerce and the Solvang Conference and Visitor’s Bureau. 

At a regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 12, the council voted 5 – 0 to rescind the decision and continue negotiations with the tourism and chamber agencies. 

“Rescinding the decision is a formality as the new contracts supersede any prior agreements,” according to Interim City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt. 

The Santa Ynez Valley Star and had questioned the July 8 decision as a violation of the Brown Act and therefore subject to legal challenge if the council did not bring it back for public reconsideration, saying the decision was inappropriate for a closed session. 

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office was also investigating the action, according to an Aug. 2 email response to the Star’s questions.

“We are actively investigating the allegations and therefore must refrain from responding to any questions, at this time, relating to this matter,” said Chief Investigator Patrick Clouse for the DA’s office. 

Wullbrandt said he had heard from Special City Auditor Thomas Widroe that “they’ve heard a bunch of public stir out there. It’s the same public stir I mentioned when you’re reducing funding to an entity that has a lot of public relations and advertising people and support in the community. Change is difficult, and this is change,” Wullbrandt said.

He added that the District Attorney’s office has offered Brown Act training, and he welcomes that.

Council member Chris Djernaes said he had contacted the District Attorney’s office and they told him there was nothing on the council. 

During public comment regarding the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau (SCVB) and Solvang Chamber of Commerce contracts, Charles Werner, board president of the chamber, quoted Rodney King, “Why can’t we just all get along?”

He also said the situation began when Djernaes made comments to another area chamber of commerce that Solvang Chamber Executive Director Tracy Beard felt were derogatory and demeaning toward her and the chamber. 

Werner said Djernaes was on the phone with the other chamber executive and said in that conversation that the Solvang chamber is corrupt and fraudulent and working for “Danish Mafia.”

“I told (City Manager) David Gassaway that those comments were actionable defamation, and when I talked later with another city attorney he said in fact they weren’t because of ‘qualified privilege,’ so I was wrong. I do not believe it should have rose to the threat of litigation, we simply wanted this behavior to stop,” Werner said. 

He continued that the chamber hoped to further negotiations with Wullbrandt since their current contract is for only three months, and upcoming events should have already have contracts started. 

“This is the time that we usually already have contracts done with vendors for the fall events like Scarecrow Fest, Jazz in the Park and others,” Werner said. 

Werner said the chamber has always been forthcoming with how they spend the money they receive from the city. 

“You know down to the penny how we spend our money when we submit our quarterly financials. The chamber board and other volunteers provide hours of free service, and the city gets a lot of bang for its buck,” Werner added. 

Former SCVB employee Brenda Ball gave a list of some of the SCVB’s successes, such as the agency’s employees increasing the number of visitors who return. 

Recent Candlelight Tours of town were extremely successful with 125 people going to just one of the tours, Ball added. 

“We get more than 1,400 inquiries a year just through the website. (CVB employee) Daniel Lahr uses his considerable talent for videography for reports, social media and advertising and as the film liaison and group sales. The website has an average of 1,850 visitors every single day last year, more than twice any other tourism website in the valley,” Ball said. 

“Time doesn’t allow me to mention other successes but you can review annual reports. In my humble opinion, consider keep funding with an organization already proven it can do the job, rather someone who has not proven they can do it better,” Ball added. 

Solvang resident Elizabeth Breen said that she personally supports the council looking outside the box on effective marketing and clearly Solvang has financial issues that have to be addressed. 

“I would encourage ways to look at how to partner with other entities instead of replicating effort and get people with history here to learn how funding changed. There are quite a few of us to provide historical data to help the council,” Breen said. 

Resident Nancy Emerson supported the council by explaining that it is never a good time to propose inefficiencies.  

“I agree there needed to be an evaluation, and in hindsight can see better ways for this process to occur,” she said, referring to the council’s previous requests for the special city auditor to review current marketing efforts. 

Former councilman Neil Zimmerman said this was the best council he’s ever seen and gave his full support for their decisions. 

“We are all grown-ups here, and the actions as a board have direct action on individuals on this town from residents to workers and cause a reaction. The reaction is not positive … pull back and let funding remain for one year and figure it out over that year,” resident and business owner Rich Condit said. 

Hank Homburg said voters elected the council to change the way things were in Solvang.

“Today we find out we have a crumbling infrastructure, that is our priority. We need to take priority in that, not subsidizing funds for businesses. TOT goes into the general fund. Let it supplement infrastructure,” Homburg said. 

Kim Jensen, president of the SCVB, then expressed the desire to continue to negotiate as early as the following day, when the SCVB was holding its board of directors meeting.  

“It’s been heated and all over the place. I would like to find a way we can at least finish the year,” Jensen said. 

He said the CVB is requesting a four-month contract for $50,000 to manage Julefest, the Visitors Center and key services while the council works on a request for proposals to provide visitor and marketing services.

Should the council decide to go with another entity to fulfill marketing services, the SCVB would return all money to the city, he said. Jensen also showed his support for passing along the Solvang Stomp event to Visit the Santa Ynez Valley. 

“I would like to move on and get done with this and find way,” Jensen said. 

The council voted 5- 0 to schedule a future item for the chamber to present their funding requests and defer action on the SCVB contract in light of Jensen’s public comment.  The motion was also approved to continue negotiations with the CVB.