Thursday, March 06, 2008

With McCaw, It's Never About the Money

In my 30 or so years of having practiced law I've learned one thing. When people say "it's not about the money," it's usually about the money.

However, I must say, one glaring exception to the above-stated generalization is News-Press owner Wendy McCaw.

When it comes to litigating, McCaw seems to be oblivious to any cost/benefit analysis. Rather than being about the money it's about whatever Wendy wants.

Take the News-Press' recently filed lawsuit against the City of Santa Barbara and its Transportation and Circulation Committee (TCC). The suit was filed last week in Santa Barbara Superior Court and seeks a declaration that the TCC violated the Brown Act.

In its broadest form the Brown Act prevents public agencies from holding secret meetings. It also prohibits agencies from discussing matters in public meetings which weren't placed on the agenda with advance notice that the matter would be discussed.

The News-Press is alleging that back on November 8 of last year the TCC violated the Act by discussing a non-agenda item, the proposed redesign of De la Guerra Plaza, at its meeting that day.

The redesign of the Plaza has become something of a turf war for Wendy's News-Press. One of the redesign proposals calls for the elimination of parking along the street that loops around the grassy area in the middle of the Plaza.

The News-Press appears to be touchy about loss of parking in the Plaza because presumably, the parking spots along the Plaza makes it easy for customers to come to the News-Press to do things like place classified ads.

According to one attorney in town, who prefers not to be named, it won't be surprising if the News-Press can prove a technical violation of the Brown Act.

If it can be shown that more than one member knew the subject of the Plaza would be discussed under that agenda item that may be enough. Of course the amount and substance of the discussion will also be at issue . . . The Brown Act allows off agenda reports by members but there is supposed to be only very limited discussion between and among members on the subjects reported on. If the members want to further discuss the matter, they are supposed to put it on a future agenda with clear notice.

My source also pointed out that since the TCC has no legal authority to take action on the Plaza redesign (they ultimately can only make a recommendation to the city council) if the News-Press prevails in the lawsuit the result will simply be a declaration that a violation of the Brown Act took place. There is no other available remedy although the News-Press could recover it's attorneys fees and costs.

If this is all out litigation then that declaration of wrongdoing could easily cost well in excess of $100,000 in attorney's fees. The Brown Act is clear that the costs and fees must be paid by the agency and not by any individual commission members who may have violated the Act, so those costs and fees will ultimately paid by taxpayers like you and me. But then again, it's not about the money.

* * *

Speaking of money, Wendy's ex, Craig McCaw, has once again made the Forbes list of the world's richest people. He checks in at number 462 with a cool $2.5 billion in assets.

And no, Wendy didn't make the list this year. But given the way she likes to spend money on lawyers, Barry Cappello soon will.

* * *

An observer of City Hall wrote me to point out that News-Press editorial editor Travis Armstrong now makes the news, reports the news that he made, and then comments on the news report.

On Tuesday, March 4, Armstrong's lead editorial in the News-Press deplored the new buildings on Chapala Street, and predicted the situation would become worse "unless Santa Barbarans stand up and say 'no more.'"

That same day, at 4 pm, a Santa Barbaran stood before the City Council, waved a copy of the newspaper and said, "As the editorial put it this morning, 'no more.'"

The next morning, Travis' lead editorial proudly trumpeted the news: ". . . as one Santa Barbaran at yesterday's City Council hearing on the proposal said, 'no more.'" But the editorial omitted an inconvenient fact: the comment offered at the City Council meeting and quoted with approval in the editorial had been written by the editorial writer, Armstrong himself.

If this were the Academy Awards, Armstrong would be presenting the Oscar for best screenplay to . . . Travis Armstrong.

I'd hate to try to imagine that acceptance speech.

* * *

Yesterday, in reporting on the progress (or lack thereof) with respect to bargaining between the News-Press and the Teamsters Union I described the two sides as being at an "impasse" on a particular point. It turns out that "impasse" is a term of art in labor relations indicating that the parties are done negotiating on the subject.

Nick Caruso, the Union Spokesperson contacted me to clarify that the parties are not at impasse and the Union did not use that term.

Indeed they didn't, it was my term.

* * *

Finally, has it occurred to anybody else out there that the producers of Citizen McCaw were able to sell out their premiere four days in advance without the benefit of advertising or any advance publicity articles in the area's "largest daily newspaper?"