Pacific Grove has denied a request to make public a full investigative report into complaints from city residents about alleged questionable activities over the doomed Project Bella resort hotel development.
Voices of Monterey Bay submitted a formal Public Records Act request for the report, which cost the city more than $31,000 and which was commissioned by the city after opponents of Project Bella raised concerns about possible misappropriation of funds. The report apparently clears city officials of wrong-doing.
Project Bella was a proposal to convert the American Tin Cannery building at 125 Ocean View Blvd. into a 160-suite luxury hotel. In the course of the 13 months following the announcement that the developer, Domaine Pacific Grove, was pursuing the project, considerable time, resources and even a ballot measure transpired. And then the developer pulled out of the project in September 2016.
In its own investigation into Project Bella, released last year, the county grand jury criticized city officials for its lack of transparency, for pushing the project through the process without much explanation to residents and for withholding information.
When some residents complained about possible conflicts of interest involving City Manager Ben Harvey and his shared membership in an air taxi service with an associate of the developer, the city commissioned the Jackson Lewis law firm of San Francisco to investigate the charges. Representatives from Jackson Lewis ultimately delivered a confidential report to the city, then presented a public PowerPoint presentation to the City Council in open session in July 2017. The law firm concluded that no laws were broken.
Voices of Monterey Bay sought access to the confidential report, reasoning that all documents in support of the city’s purported rationale to gain the trust of its residents should in fact be open to inspection by the public.
“The reason the investigation was initiated in the first place was to mitigate the concerns of a suspicious public,” said Joe Livernois, a Voices editor. “Denying the public the opportunity to see the report upon which the PowerPoint presentation was made only heightens the suspicion, especially since the city commissioned and paid for the investigation.”
City officials rejected the Public Records Act request. Because the investigation was conducted by a law firm, the city maintains that attorney-client privilege prevents the city from sharing “communications between a public agency and its attorneys.”
The editors at Voices of Monterey Bay are mulling their options.
The grand jury report makes mention of the Jackson Lewis reports, noting that the law firm was given a “narrow focus” of its investigation. “What was not addressed in the Jackson Lewis report were the causes that gave rise to the allegations, such as the sloppiness in the City’s systems and procedures, its mishandling of documents and checks, the lack of transparency on the part of City staff, and the cost that resulted from those shortcomings.”
According to city records, Jackson Lewis had been engaged to complete an “independent investigation into concerns expressed by members of the public regarding Project Bella reimbursement” in early 2017.
Several Pacific Grove residents had questioned a confusing — and seemingly unresolved — series of “reimbursement agreements” that were floating around City Hall. The understanding was that Domaine Pacific Grove was supposed to reimburse the city for its costs of ushering the development through the approval process, including the cost of a special election to approve zoning changes required for the property and the cost of completing a coastal plan the city needed to finish.
The reimbursement agreement for the coastal plan apparently never got approved and residents suspected that it was a willful act to benefit the developer.
While the final report of the Jackson Lewis investigation has not been released to the public, a representative for the law firm told the City Council during her PowerPoint presentation that the coastal-plan reimbursement agreement did not get signed due to “human error,” and not as a result of intentional wrongdoing.
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