By Raiza Giorgi

The Solvang City Council’s decision on July 8 to abruptly cut off city funding and cancel the contracts of two local agencies that promote local tourism and businesses likely violated the Brown Act, according to an attorney for the California News Publishers Association (CNPA).

That makes the decision subject to legal challenge unless the City Council starts the discussion again, this time in a public meeting, according to Staff Attorney Whitney Prout of the CNPA.

Interim City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt disagreed with that opinion, saying in an email message to The Star that there had been no Brown Act violation, and he said the City Council would eventually place “updated draft contracts” on a public meeting agenda.

Council members emerged from a closed session just before their public meeting on July 8 and announced that the city contracts with the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau (SCVB) and the Solvang Chamber of Commerce had been canceled, with 30 days’ notice. 

Both organizations were scheduled to give presentations during the public meeting, but the council announced the cancellation of the contracts at the beginning of the public session and said it would not hear the scheduled presentations. 

Wullbrandt said in an email July 15 that when the City Council set 2019-20 funding levels on June 24 for both organizations ($600,000 for the visitors bureau’s services and $150,000 for the chamber’s services), that it was only for the purpose of drafting the city’s 2019-20 budget. That night, council members also expressed dissatisfaction with the city’s contracts with the two groups.

The purpose of the closed session July 8 was listed as a discussion of threatened litigation, and it was unclear how that allowed private discussion and action on the two contracts. 

“Following the June 24 meeting, the City Manager was trying to work out some way for interim funding to continue while new contracts were prepared, but unfortunately immediately prior to the 4th of July holiday he was contacted by a representative of the Chamber with a threat of potential litigation related to this matter,” Wullbrandt said in his email. “This resulted in an advisory from the City Manager to the City Attorney of his belief that there was a serious risk of litigation, as I explained before the Council adjourned to Closed Session at the start of its July 8 meeting.”

“In the Closed Session I was authorized to give formal “notice of termination” of the old contracts … . In addition, the Mayor and I were authorized to negotiate new interim contracts with SCVB and the Chamber, including with at least two best practices previously missing — that the agencies won’t use the City funds for political campaign purposes and that they will not sue the City.”

Members of the audience for the public session July 8 expressed shock and anger about the cancellations and criticized the council for de-funding the two organizations, saying the chamber was effective in helping local businesses and the visitors bureau was essential in attracting tourists who provide more than half of the city’s discretionary budget through sales tax and hotel “bed tax” revenue.

Other residents have expressed similar concerns by commenting on the Valley Star’s social media posts, asking what the “threatened litigation” meant and questioning the validity of the council decision.

Prout, the CNPA attorney, noted that the Brown Act requires meetings of the council to be open and public unless the law expressly authorizes a closed session.  It also limits the council’s ability to take action on items that are not listed on the agenda.

In this case, the agenda stated that the council would meet in closed session to confer with legal counsel regarding one case of threatened legal action.

According to Prout, the council’s action to terminate the chamber contract during the closed session was “questionable,” and the action to terminate the SCVB contract and authorize negotiation of new interim contracts was “well beyond the scope of the item listed on the agenda and not appropriate for closed session discussion.” 

 “There has been no Brown Act violation,” Wullbrandt wrote in his July 15 email. “We expect a follow up public meeting discussion when we have updated draft contracts for the Council to consider. This is intentionally a legal and business-like approach to what has unfortunately been instead an emotion charged issue.” 

He also said that negotiations on new contracts were beginning.

“The Mayor and I have a meeting scheduled tomorrow (July 16) with the SCVB subcommittee. I have received a letter from the Chamber confirming the desire for similar negotiations which I will also try to set up for this week,” Wullbrandt wrote.

On July 12, the Star filed a public records request with the city asking for any written communication it received from a potential plaintiff threatening litigation.

The city has 10 days from July 12, the date of the Star’s public records request, to respond to the request.

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