By Joe Livernois
If the intent of an investigation commissioned by the city of Pacific Grove into allegations of conflicts was to reassure the public with transparency, it may have missed the mark.
The city earlier rejected a request by Voices of Monterey Bay to make public the full investigative report into complaints by city residents about alleged questionable activities over the doomed Project Bella resort hotel development.
And last week the city, through its city clerk, elaborated on why the City Council only released selected parts of the report during a public presentation in 2017. “The Council felt it was important to withhold the entirety of the report as there are privacy interests involved,” according to Sandra Kandell, the city clerk, in an email to Voices.
Voices had asked for an explanation of the city’s refusal to make public a report by the Jackson Lewis law firm of San Francisco. The city had commissioned the investigation after Pacific Grove residents questioned the propriety of the City Manager’s relationship with a representative of the Project Bella developer.
But the full report was never made public, and instead an attorney with Jackson Lewis delivered a PowerPoint presentation to the City Council that summarized findings in the report. The investigation concluded that no laws were broken, according to Jackson Lewis.
Initially, the city rejected Voices’ request to see the full report, citing “attorney-client privilege.” But Voices argued that because the public PowerPoint presentation was based on that report, the report ought to be exempt from the attorney-client privilege.
In her response, Kandell said the City Council “holds the privilege, and authorized a limited disclosure of key point for purposes of the presentation.” She then cited the “privacy interests.”
The Jackson Lewis report cost the city more than $31,000 and came in the midst of public concern over Project Bella, which would have been a 160-suite luxury hotel at what is now the American Tin Cannery building at 125 Ocean View Blvd. The developer, Domaine Pacific Grove, pulled out of the project in September 2016.
The county grand jury did its own investigation, and it criticized city officials last year for its lack of transparency, for pushing the project through the process without much explanation to residents and for withholding information.
The grand jury also noted that Jackson Lewis was given a “narrow focus” of investigation by the city council. “What was not addressed in the Jackson Lewis report were the causes that gave rise to the allegations,” according to the grand jury, “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.”
While the developer was working with the city, several Pacific Grove residents had questioned a confusing series of “reimbursement agreements.” between the city and Domaine. The idea was that Domaine was supposed to reimburse the city for its costs of the government 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 critics suspected that it was a willful act to benefit the developer. During the PowerPoint presentation, a representative for Jackson Lewis acknowledged that the coastal-plan reimbursement agreement did not get signed, but attributed it to “human error” and not intentional wrongdoing.
Pacific Grove attorney Jane Haines, who has actively been trying to learn more about the issues surrounding the Project Bella, said she agrees that “important privacy issues are involved, because non-transparency in P.G. government is an important issue. Public funds paid for the investigation into why the city failed to collect tens of thousands of dollars as reimbursement for Project Bella expenses, and the public has an important interest in learning why the city keeps that investigation private.”
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