Campaign spawns $25 million suit

Campaign spawns $25 million suit
Criticism of the design team in negotiations to redevelop the train station, and accusations made against a city councilman and one of his former colleagues on the dais, have resulted in lawsuits filed against four Solana Beach residents. Courtesy rendering

SOLANA BEACH — A city councilman, one of his former colleagues and a member of the team negotiating to develop the train station property are suing one former and three longtime Solana Beach residents for a combined total of at least $25 million for comments made and disseminated during the 2016 election.

Mike Nichols, Lesa Heebner and Joe Balla filed lawsuits against Edward Siegel, M.D., Mary Jane Boyd, Sandy Parrish and Brian Hall for defamation and invasion of privacy. Also named is Andrew Jones, a fictitious character whose name was attached to letters and emails that sparked the litigation.

Siegel, a longtime Solana Beach resident, is a psychiatrist who co-authored the city’s official song that was adopted in 2006. In 1987, one year after the city was incorporated, he started a weekly singalong now considered the city’s oldest ongoing community event.

With urging from Hall, he said he decided to run for one of three available council seats in 2016 to promote civic pride, which he said could be done by singing “Solana Beach, Our City Proud” at appropriate community events, changing Lomas Santa Fe Drive to Solana Beach Drive and being an ambassador for his town.

He also would like the mayor to be elected to a four-year term rather than appointed annually, as is the practice now.

“I told him if he didn’t like some things, run for office,” said Hall, a real estate broker who maintains a Solana Beach office but moved out of the city recently. “Take a stand and do something. Don’t complain about it. He said he didn’t really want to run but I told him I’d be his campaign manager.”

“I trusted him to run the campaign,” said Siegel, who came in last with 734 votes. “I thought he knew what he was doing.”

Things got contentious, he added, when Hall told him it appeared his opponents were “running a smear campaign.”

After 12 years on City Council, Heebner did not seek re-election in 2016. That year, at the August Democratic Central Committee meeting to discuss endorsement recommendations, she described Siegel as “not electable.”

“As a council member I will tell you that unfortunately we have had to allocate city resources having guards and sheriffs come to our public gatherings to prevent Dr. Siegel from storming the stage in order to force the public gathering to sing the city song that he wrote,” she said.

Siegel, 76 at the time, was out of town and could not attend the meeting.

In an email dated Oct. 24, 2016, and a letter sent to residents, Heebner criticized the other two candidates for their lack of experience and city involvement. She also stated she did not consider Siegel “a serious candidate” and did not believe he had “the temperament or judgment to hold this office.”

In response to those “statements made by Lesa Heebner … defaming Ed publically,” Hall said, the campaign sent a letter to the editor titled “Shady business on the Solana Beach Train tracks” that ran in the Oct. 28, 2016, issue of The Coast News.

In it Siegel, who stated in an email to the paper, “it’s okay to use my letter,” wrote that according to rumors, Heebner resigned from City Council and Nichols would not seek re-election in 2018 to take design and landscaping jobs for the train station redevelopment.

He also stated he “and many others find it particularly odd that a less qualified person, with little experience, and no contractor’s license beat-out a very well-respected developer. … This was a backdoor deal.”

North County Transit District, which owns the train station property, has for years been trying to develop the site to make it financially feasible for transit operations. Four developers submitted plans in response to a 2015 request for proposals.

A source selection committee comprising Solana Beach residents Gary Martin and Tim Coughlin and two NCTD representatives ranked each one.

RhodesMoore LLC, which Balla was part of, received the highest ranking, and in May 2017 the NCTD board of directors agreed to enter into an exclusive negotiation agreement.

City Councilwoman Jewel Edson, Solana Beach’s representative on the board, recused herself from the vote.

Final approval is pending as a joint development agreement and ground lease are being negotiated, according to Tracey Foster, NCTD’s chief development officer. The two sides have until March 2019 to work out the details.

To give Heebner, Nichols and Balla a chance to respond to Siegel’s accusations, The Coast News ran a story Nov. 6, 2016, in which the three said that his claims were unfounded.

“The whole thing is just totally fabricated,” said Nichols, a landscape architect. “It’s an attack on my professional livelihood. It’s just disappointing when someone blatantly makes up something that can be harmful to (someone else’s) professional life with absolutely no proof.”

Heebner called the allegations “baseless” since her expertise is in residential kitchen design, not commercial.

Balla said RhodesMoore “has substantial experience and success” and “will not hire” Heebner or Nichols.

In October 2016, “Jones” sent an email to the NCTD board of directors titled “All roads lead to Harbaugh,” that made accusations similar to those in the letter to the editor, which had 361 views between Oct. 27, 2016, when it was posted online, and Jan. 2, 2018.

The email to NCTD also claimed Balla used funds from The George & Betty Harbaugh Foundation, which Balla controlled after George Harbaugh’s death in 2012, to make a donation to help pay off a loan used to ensure a vacant parcel in the north end of Solana Beach would remain open space.

Balla “bought himself a train ticket to conduct the NCTD Solana Beach Redevelopment Project,” the email states.

Boyd said she believes she is being sued because she received the “Shady business” and “All roads” emails and forwarded them to some friends, including Parrish, who is also named in the lawsuit for doing the same thing.

Both women said they would prefer not to comment at this time.

Keith Rutman, the attorney for Heebner and Nichols, said Heebner is also suing Siegel for invasion of privacy, and portrayal in false light for a campaign ad that ran in the Solana Beach Sun.

It features a quote from a 2007 certificate of appreciation given to Siegel for his volunteer service as a member of the Public Arts Advisory Commission. It was signed by then-Mayor Heebner.

“Your time, energy and level of commitment have greatly enhanced the quality of life in the City of Solana Beach,” the certificate and ad state.

Also included in the ad is the phrase, “A special ‘thank you’ to Lesa Heebner.”   

Heebner claims the ad suggests her endorsement of Siegel, who said he ran the ad “just to show she gave me the certificate.” Heebner said resolutions such as the one given to Siegel are “what the mayor signs for every commissioner who retires or resigns.”

“It’s not like I singled Ed out to give him this for some unique contribution,” she added.

“The complaint speaks for itself,” Nichols said.

Beyond that, he and Heebner said they had no further comments at this time.

Rutman said Heebner and Nichols decided to take legal action because they were accused of specific crimes.

“My clients take this seriously,” he said. “They take their public service seriously.”

Balla and his attorney could not be reached at press time.

Hall has filed an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion asking to strike the complaint. The hearing is scheduled in May.

As for the fictitious character behind many of the emails, Hall said, “No one is Andrew Jones because he doesn’t exist. Andrew Jones is a pseudonym. Ed Siegel City Council 2016 used this entity to the candidate’s benefit.”

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