Sonoma city officials question barrage of legal threats
In a case of what one Sonoma City Council member has described as “tactics of intimidation and bullying,” attorneys for Sonoma developer Ed Routhier and his company Caymus Capital have over the course of the last 18 months sent multiple letters to various city commissioners and council members charging them with bias against their client and demanding that some recuse themselves from future decisions about his projects.
The run of letters stretches back at least to June 2016, when attorneys from the Santa Rosa law offices of Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller and Moskowitz sent then-Mayor Laurie Gallian a letter alleging then-Planning Commissioner Bill Willers was biased against Routhier’s mixed-use development proposal along First Street East.
The letter alleged Willers had a “predetermined opinion” to oppose the project, which proposed to build a hotel, apartments, café and spa. Known as the First Street East Project, it faced stiff opposition from a neighborhood group called Protect Sonoma and was eventually withdrawn in September of 2017. The letter demanded Willers’ recusal from any decisions on the project.
Since 2016, Routhier’s attorneys have sent at least three more letters to city officials alleging bias against their client, including letters to or about City Councilmember Rachel Hundley, Planning Commissioner Kelso Barnett and Planning Commissioner James Bohar.
Over that period of time, Routhier’s attorneys have also sent at least three other letters threatening litigation to various residents or businesses over their public communications regarding Caymus’s business interests.
The letter to Hundley, dated Jan. 3, 2018, also demanded that she recuse herself from voting on any of Routhier’s or Caymus’s projects in her role as a member of the city council. It requested she issue Routhier a personal apology and promise to stay out of his business affairs.
The letter alleges Hundley had made public comments that Routhier had “broken criminal laws about price gouging on rents” at one of Caymus Capital’s apartment buildings following the October fires.
According to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, price gouging allegations dating from November against Caymus are “still being actively investigated,” as of Feb. 13.
The Jan. 3 letter to Hundley says the price-gouging allegation is “absolutely false” and says further legal action can be avoided if Hundley were to “identify who made such statements (about price gouging)” to Routhier and his attorneys.
Prior to sending the letter to Hundley, attorneys for Routhier on Dec. 14, 2017 issued a public information request to the City Clerk asking for “any and all records regarding communications with Protect Sonoma and any of the following individuals,” a list of 13 names that includes Hundley as well as Planning Commission members Bohar and Barnett, along with supporters of Protect Sonoma.
In an email to the Index-Tribune, Hundley called the letter sent to her “baseless,” adding, “even developers that resort to tactics of intimidation and bullying are entitled to due process and a fair hearing on the merits of their projects.” She said she intended to participate in all hearings on upcoming developments, including those of Routhier and Caymus Capital.
Last week, following inquiries about the letter from the Index-Tribune, Routhier’s attorneys “formally rescind(ed)” the letter to Hundley and apologized to the councilwoman.
As to the other public officials being asked to recuse themselves from projects, former Planning Commissioner Willers said he did not want to recuse himself from voting last year on the First Street East Project, though he was absent from the meeting when the vote took place. Planning Commissioner Kelso Barnett owns property near the downtown, which would force his recusal on projects in that area according to city policy.