Solvang bucks guidelines, votes to reopen city parks, urges local control of phased reopenings
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Solvang bucks guidelines, votes to reopen city parks, urges local control of phased reopenings

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With Council Member Karen Waite strongly dissenting, Solvang City Council members voted 4-1 Monday to reopen city parks and to urge county and state officials to turn over phased reopening decisions to local jurisdictions.

“No. Two exclamation marks,” Waite said, while attending the meeting remotely via internet.

Throughout the state’s shelter-at-home order, Waite has attended council meetings remotely while the remainder of the council has sat on the dais, an issue she raised in no uncertain terms at the council’s April 13 meeting and again Monday.

The meetings have been closed to in-person, public participation, but the city has provided avenues for remote participation including streaming the meetings live online, via conference call or via online video conferencing, and reading aloud public comments e-mailed in advance to city staff.

With three cases of COVID-19 in the Santa Ynez Valley at its peak, Mayor Pro Tem Robert Clarke noted there “hasn’t been a single case” in the valley in three weeks. Council Member Chris Djernaes noted the state-mandated closures were supposed to flatten the curve.

“We’ve done that,” Djernaes said, saying that hospitals have had time to prepare.

With a city budget largely funded by tourism dollars, the near total shutdown of the tourism industry comes as a brutal hit for Solvang, but council members also expressed concern for citizens struggling to cope financially as job losses due to the state shutdown hit home.

“I’d like to see the council take the lead in breaking this psychology of fear that’s literally destroying us. This disease is manageable,” Djernaes said.

Council members said citizens are ignoring the shelter-at-home order, that the closures of businesses “are arbitrary,” and that reopening certain public spaces, and eventually businesses, doesn’t mean citizens will have to take advantage of the openings.

“No one’s forcing anyone to go out. We’re just saying we’re moving in this direction, and by opening the parks that’s a definite signal we’re trying to do what we can as a city to bring this economy back for the future for our kids, for everyone, to avoid this huge depression that we’re digging ourselves into,” said Council Member Daniel Johnson.

Clarke questioned the logic behind which businesses are open and which have been shuttered. He noted, for instance, Zaca Creek Golf Course in Buellton was open while Solvang’s Alisal was closed.

“You can buy liquor and Lotto tickets, but you can’t go to church,” he continued.

“It’s totally arbitrary. That’s the point,” Djernaes said.

Council members voiced liability concerns in taking any steps in opposition to county or state direction.

“Of course doing anything different than everyone else is doing raises the possibility that somebody is going to sue you for having done something different than everyone else is. For certain things, it’s certainly just a matter of: are you willing to take that risk,” said City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt.

Djernaes requested that the city consider reopening “those places that have wide open spaces like a golf course or a car wash apparently or storage facilities. There’s no reason why those things can’t be open.”

“If we’re going to get sued, then we need to think twice about that particular business. If we’re not going to get sued, then just open it up,” he continued. “And here’s the reality: Have you noticed the streets of Solvang? People aren’t paying attention to the governor’s orders anymore. They’re going out. They’re done. So either we lead or we follow like Santa Barbara County.”

Acting City Manager Xenia Bradford said city staff is working toward a phased reopening following the state and county leads. In addition, the city’s tourism marketing contractor, IDK Events, is preparing a “Crawl, Walk, Run” marketing plan to develop a safe return to business and the tourism market that feeds the city’s coffer.

In addition, the steering committee on tourism and marketing has been created to advise and assist the city in its reopening strategy. Committee members include: John Martino; Kathleen Cochran, Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort; David Brents, Succulent Café; Barry Prescott, Landsby Hotel; Max Hamberg, Solvang Shoe Store; Esther Bates, Everhøj Museum; Dana Volk, winery; Aaron Petersen, Chomps and Petersen Properties; Tracy Beard, Solvang Chamber of Commerce; Jonathan Rosenson, Mirabelle Hotel; Scott Gold, Hotel Corque; Kenny Esko, gift shops; and Renee Kaerskov, Copenhagen House; Solvang Mayor Ryan Toussaint; Solvang Acting City Manager Xenia Bradford.

“The steering committee is working to identify ways we can safely drive business when it’s appropriate to open and ways we can safely provide tourism activity when its safe to do so. It’s not my intent or opinion that this group try to define what that ‘safe to do’ would be. I think that’s ultimately a city, county or state job,” said IDK Events President Scott Shuemake.

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The City of Solvang took its first step Monday toward changing its at-large elections to a by-district system after a Malibu-based law firm claimed Solvang’s system excluded Latinos “from meaningful participation in the City’s governance” and threatened to sue.

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