By Raiza Giorgi
The Solvang City Council continues to struggle with the provisions of the Brown Act, California’s law that governs public meetings, as two concerns were raised at its most recent meeting on Dec. 9.
During public comment, former Councilman Ed Skytt brought up the Nov. 25 meeting when Mayor Ryan Toussaint prevented Renaissance Antiques co-owner Julie Palladino from speaking, because her husband and business partner Ron Palladino had already spoken about the recent Solvang Fall Festival.
Toussaint said since they represented the same business, she didn’t need to speak, although the California News Publishers Association said the action violated Julie Palladino’s First Amendment rights as well as the Brown Act.
“Ms. Palladino should have had the right to speak at the meeting. Just because her husband and business partner spoke doesn’t mean she has the same opinion. The only way the council could have limited her from speaking is if she were to read the same exact statement as her husband or someone else in the crowd, but the council wouldn’t have known that until she started speaking,” said Jim Ewert, attorney for the CNPA.
After Skytt spoke on Dec. 9, Toussaint asked City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt whether his prior act had been a Brown Act violation, and Wullbrandt said he didn’t believe so. The Star has asked Wullbrandt to clarify his reasoning but has received no response. Toussaint replied by email.
“I’m really trying my best and am always trying to improve, but I’m not perfect so if I made a mistake then I wholeheartedly apologize to Julie,” Toussaint wrote. “She is also more than welcome to come speak at any council meeting or workshops as I highly encouraged that engagement several times that night and always encourage it. We want to make our events better for everyone and constantly improve,” he said.
He did say he has reached out to Ms. Palladino to meet with her.
Toussaint explained he had two speaker slips from Kenny “Esko” Lama and he pulled one of his as well. He also noted that Julie Palladino had written her opinions in a letter that had been published in several newspapers and received by the city.
The second issue of a potential Brown Act violation came during the City Manager’s report on Dec. 9, when acting City Manager Xenia Bradford sought the council’s direction on asking Cinderella Carriages of Riverside to come to Solvang for a trial run this weekend.
Councilman Chris Djernaes said he had contacted the carriage company personally after Lama brought it to his attention. Djernaes said he wanted to use the company’s carriages during Julefest as a “cost-neutral” addition, with the carriage company returning ticket proceeds to the city as reimbursement for up-front costs.
“It wouldn’t cost the city a thing, but the risk to them is not free. Who would compensate them for this risk?” Djernaes said.
As soon as Djernaes stated figures near $30,000 for the carriages for the month, Wullbrandt chimed in and said he was on the edge of violating the Brown Act.
“In the low thousands, this is within the city manager’s authority to say yes or no, but approval of this item is not an agenda item,” Wullbrandt said. “I am a little worried when you start getting into great detail about cost, including numbers like $30,000. I hadn’t heard that number.”
Djernaes again kept speaking, saying it was a “bizarre situation” that he was trying to get discussed as quickly as possible.
“And I’m trying to keep you from violating the Brown Act,” Wullbrandt retorted.
Toussaint said he was fine with looking into something new, and didn’t think anyone would be upset with Bradford later.
This discussion came just two months after the council grilled the Orona family, owners of the Solvang Trolley, also known as The Honen, on their business model and whether it was the right fit for the city.
The Honen has a special license to operate within city limits, and each year the council must hold a public hearing before renewing the license in June. This year, the hearing was delayed until Sept. 23, when the Honen owners were asked very detailed questions about their operations and Djernaes asked to see their books.
“I am not fond of the Honen. It looks 1960-ish,” Djernaes said at that meeting.
He said he was in favor of helping the Oronas expand their business if that meant updating city code to allow for a multi-year contract.
He also asked Clau Orona if she had data on who rides the Honen and whether the company keeps of where they come from.
Orona said she has 12 years of logs on the number of riders each day, the daily temperatures and anything that happened of note.
Djernaes said he wanted to take a look on a spreadsheet.
He was repeatedly rebuked by Councilwoman Karen Waite, who said it was not appropriate to ask for a private business entity’s books. She also scolded him for presuming that he knew how to run someone else’s business.
The Honen’s license was renewed until June 30, 2020.
On the SYV Chat room on Facebook this week, Orona posted a Santa Ynez Valley News story about the council’s discussion of the Cinderella Carriages, and people chimed in about the council not supporting local business or following their own ordinances.
The current ordinance (Ord. 85-23, 11-7-1985) states, ”It shall be unlawful for any person to operate any type of conveyance for hire for which any animal or animals is or are the primary motive power, on any streets or roads owned and/or maintained by the city, without first obtaining, and thereafter maintaining in good standing, a license permitting such activities.”
“Cinderella Carriages have been contracted specifically for the Julefest event by the City directly” Bradford noted in an email to the Star. “Such service performed on behalf of the City is not subject to the license you are referring to.”
In the same email, Bradford wrote, “Solvang Trolley is required to annually apply for a license to operate their business on the streets of Solvang subject to Council approval. Any such business would be required to apply for the license to independently operate their business.”
The Cinderella Carriages are set to arrive and be part of the new St. Lucia Parade tonight, Dec. 13, Bradford confirmed. It wasn’t confirmed if the carriages will be at more events through the end of the month, and that question has yet to be answered by Bradford.
“We operate at a loss most of the year and count on events like Julefest and the summer season to make up for that revenue. If the city is just going to hire out of towners every high season to compete with us without even giving a chance to the public to comment on the issue, what is preventing them from taking similar measures to push their own agendas?” Orona said.
She stated in the Facebook discussion that the company was never asked whether they had other carriages available, even though they have several options.
“We have horse and carriage rigs/drivers here in the valley plus our long time LOCAL horse trolley people! With a little thought and carefully supervised local resources this could be turned into a nifty fundraiser, no need to import out-of-towners,” wrote Nancy Hunsicker.
Orona said she has been trying to contact the city to see if they can provide an option and they have yet to hear back.
To see the entire council meeting and past meetings, visit www.YouTube.com and search City of Solvang.
The St. Lucia parade begins at 6:30 p.m. on Alisal Road and will go down Copenhagen to Solvang Park. For more details visit www.solvangjulefest.org.
Check www.santaynezvalleystar.com for updates to this story.