County accused of Public Records violation
According to one of the state's leading experts on the California Public Records Act, the County of Sonoma is in violation of that law by its refusal to name the buyer and the selling price of the Glenelly Inn in Glen Ellen.
The inn was seized from former owner Kristi Jeppesen by the county last November for failure to pay years of its own TOT (transient occupancy taxes) and property taxes, along with tens of thousands of
dollars in TOT collected but not paid on some 40 vacation rental homes managed by Jeppesen. Jeppesen has also failed to repay client homeowners for an estimated $100,000 or more in rental income and deposit money she collected but did not disburse.
When Sonoma County Tax Collector Rod Dole announced last Thursday that the county had reached an agreement with a buyer for the Glenelly Inn, he refused to give the buyer's name or the negotiated sale price. At the time of the announcement, Dole indicated the sale was at a delicate stage and that he could not provide any greater detail. But Dole also insisted that the sale had entered escrow and should close "in the next 45 to 60 days."
Dole's refusal to disclose the name and price is a violation of California state law, according to Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA).
Dole did refer to the selling price as "favorable" and said, "We're working toward assuring that all liabilities are extinguished. We think we have a pretty good chance of accomplishing that." But when asked again for the name of the buyer and the dollar figure in the deal, Dole again refused to disclose that information.
But Ewart, who serves the 841 newspaper members of the CNPA, is intimately familiar with California's public information laws. "It doesn't matter if the deal is in escrow, it is, by definition, an agreement, and under the California law, public entities, such as counties and cities, must disclose those kinds of deals," Ewert stated.
Dole had earlier stated that the minimum offer the county would consider on the Glenelly Inn was $1.25 million, and that it would take $1.8 million to cover all existing liabilities, including the independent vacation home owners whose TOT Jeppesen failed to pay. Asked if the buyer was offering enough to meet that threshold, Dole again refused to precisely say, although he repeated that "the deal is favorable to the property owners."
On Monday, county attorney Jackie Bird, in the office of Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein, said that while $1.8 million would satisfy all outstanding liens, some "prior lien holders" were being asked to reduce the amount of their claims. Bird argued that those delicate negotiations were in the public interest, that publicizing the buyer's name and the sale amount would jeopardize the sale and the lien holder negotiations, and that the public interest protected by confidentiality was therefore legal and overrode any public interest seved by revealing the buyer information.
But Tom Newton, immediate past general counsel of CNPA and now its executive director, responded on Monday that Bird's response was simply wrong, and would be a losing position in a court of law.
He pointed out that using government code section 6255, the "balancing test" for public disclosure, requires that there must exist a real risk to the public good, not a speculative one, such as fear that the buyer may back out if his/her name is disclosed."
Bird said protecting the public interest gave the county a window within which it can complete negotiations with the prior lien holders, and that the window closes at midnight on Thursday. By Friday morning, Bird, said, the buyer information will be disclosed.
"The primary purpose here," said Bird, "is to ensure that the private property owners who have been injured (by the financial collapse of Jeppesen's enterprise) are not injured any further."
The county's handling of the Glenelly Inn matter has been the subject of some criticism from many vacation property owners in Sonoma Valley, because they felt the county kept them in the dark about the extent of the delinquent TOT and their potential liability.
Asked why the county did not protect the vacation property owners by simply excusing unpaid TOT that Jeppesen collected but did not pay, Bird replied, "I can't comment on that."