Sonoma County tourism agency sued over Super Bowl contract

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The First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit against the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau on Thursday, challenging a decision by the agency to withhold a copy of its contract with the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee.

The coalition wants the contract released and to make public the amount of money and other forms of compensation the tourism agency provided to promote the county and local wines at official Super Bowl events around the Bay Area.

The tourism bureau teamed up with Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Winegrowers to become a partner with the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, the regional nonprofit group tasked with organizing the events leading up to Sunday’s game. The three groups pledged nearly $1 million in funding, wine and other services to the Super Bowl committee, tourism agency CEO Ken Fischang said in a previous interview.

However, the tourism agency declined to release a copy of the contract, arguing that it contained trade secrets.

In its suit filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, the First Amendment Coalition argued that the tourism agency’s reasons for withholding the document “do not hold water” and that the contract and all related material must be disclosed under the state Public Records Act.

Sonoma County Tourism is a nonprofit agency that has contracted with the Board of Supervisors to promote tourism in the county, serving as the official destination marketing organization. It had a $7.2 million budget for 2015, with $2.7 million coming from county hotel taxes and $4.3 million from assessments on hotels, which are typically passed on to visitors on their bill. The Super Bowl initiative was funded with money from the assessments on hotels, not hotel taxes collected by the county, Fischang told The Press Democrat in a previous interview.

Peter Scheer, the coalition’s executive director, said he learned about the contract from a Press Democrat reporter who requested a copy of the contract. The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau declined to release the contract to The Press Democrat, but Fischang described portions of it in an interview.

Scheer then emailed the tourism agency with a similar request Jan. 15. The Tourism Bureau denied the request Jan. 20. In its response, attorney William Arnone argued the documents were exempt from public records laws because they contained trade secrets and proprietary information about the bureau’s partners in the project.

Scheer challenged the determination in an email later that day, arguing that the information he was requesting was not a trade secret. He also argued that if there were any trade secrets in the contract, those details ought to be redacted and the document then released to the public.

“They claim that the public can’t know about it. It just rubs me the wrong way,” Scheer said. “I’m extremely skeptical that the contents are bona fide trade secrets.”

Arnone and Sonoma County Tourism Bureau officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

While there might be information that could be “inconvenient” to reveal, Scheer said that doesn’t justify withholding the contract. He said residents have a right to know how public funds are being spent.

“There is public money involved. These are decisions that are being made by public officials under the supervision of elected officials,” he said.

Scheer added, “You can’t have meaningful democracy if you don’t know what it is that your elected representatives have done or are doing.”

The First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit public interest organization formed to promote freedom of expression and the public’s right to know. The Press Democrat is a member of the coalition and has a representative on its board of directors.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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