Opinion: City vs. Tinhorn Flats Fiasco: In All Transparency, Burbank Taxpayers are the Real Losers

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It’s just my opinion…

Transparency.

It’s the word that every politician loves to throw around when they bring up a subject that they want to talk about. Yet when the word is brought up by somebody else, it has little meaning.

Spinning.

Once again, this is something that is used by politicians to try and sway the public’s opinion of something, sometimes leaving out important information. While what it said may be true, it is not always the full story.

This brings us to the saga of Tinhorn Flats and the City’s transparency during the last month. Well, they were able to spin information in their favor.

myBurbank has been following the case closely since it started in 2020 during the pandemic. One of our reporters, Doug Weiskopf, even went to the hearing on November 6 to observe pretrial activities. At the end of the hearing, it was decided to go to jury trial in January. Weiskopf tried to talk to one of Burbank’s attorneys, but she would not comment then.

Imagine our surprise a couple of days later when the city put out a press release saying how they defeated the First Amendment retaliation claim made by Tinhorn Flats. This finding was made after the hearing (on November 7) and sent to both parties. The judge actually ruled there were no grounds for the Tinhorn Flats case to proceed against the city and also said the City’s case against Tinhorn Flats was moot and was also being thrown out. It did say, however, that the city could collect costs that were to be determined later.

In other words, the case was over, and the claims made by both sides were thrown out of court, except the judge ruled in favor of Burbank to recover their ‘costs’.

We wanted to know what the costs were and what was being asked for by the City. We emailed the City’s Public Information Office to ask the City Attorney’s office, and they refused to answer the question. We also asked how much had been spent by the City Attorney’s office. They also refused to answer. How’s that transparency working out now?

We then filed a Public Records Act request and asked for the total amount spent by the city attorney’s office in the City versus Barfly case, including any outside expenses to any consultants or outside law firms and an itemized amount that the city attorney’s office filed for in the Tinhorn Flats versus the City of Burbank court filing that was to be filed.

The reply we got from the City stated, “…following a diligent search, has determined that it does not possess responsive non-exempt records related to your Public Records Act requests received.” We also received a reply to another email that stated, “The City Attorney’s Office did not hire outside counsel for this matter.”

Frustrating.

On December 8, I asked the City for the amount that they were asking for in the costs that were to be filed with the court by November 17. Once again, the response I got through the Public Information Office from the city attorney’s office would have no further comment. All we were asking for was the amount the City was asking for in papers that were filed publicly, and they refused to tell us. How’s that transparency working out?

So, once again, we filed another Public Records Act request to get the amount that was filed. This time, the City sent us a copy of the filing document and gave the total amount the City asked for in a December 13 filing at $17,894.44. Now I’m figuring out why nobody wants to talk about it.

We thought by ‘costs’ it would mean all the costs the City was out in this entire prolonged fiasco. Turns out, the City never even brought it up.

The City is out hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all that they want to collect is $17,893.44.

So now my question became, why is the City not trying to recoup all of the money spent by taxpayers in having to shut down Tinhorn Flats?

I directed my question through our Public Information Office to our new mayor, Nick Schultz, who has been on the council the entire time this case has been proceeding, and his only comment was, “City Council and staff have extensively discussed legal strategy in dealing with Tinhorn Flats. However, any discussion or decision as to what costs the City may or may not recover is an element of the City’s legal strategy. The City Council does not comment on legal strategy.”

Does this mean the council did not want to ask for the money, or if they did, did the city attorney’s office talk them out of it? We acted like the Big Bad Wolf when the process began and wound up looking like Mary’s Little Lamb in the end.

And what were those costs?

We reported back on September 16, 2021, that the City had already spent over $287,000 of taxpayer money during the Tinhorn Flats fiasco. At that time, we documented that Burbank Water and Power showed expenses of $3,693.90 and Public Works had expenses of $31,486.77.

Besides the expenses of the city attorney, Burbank police have expenses of $227,539.60 from April 18 to August 24. And what were the city attorney’s expenses to that point? They told us through documentation it was $21,663.13, which, for some reason, is not even being asked for at this point.

So let’s just call it a lowball estimate of over $300,000 that the City of Burbank taxpayers have put out to shut down Tinhorn Flats and enforce a lawful decision by Los Angeles County Health to pull their health permit.

And all we are asking for is $17,894.44? Guess who’s getting the last laugh now?

Baret Lepejian, the owner of Barfly Incorporated, which did business as Tinhorn Flats, repeatedly mocked the City in social media posts and videos while remaining outside of the country in Thailand and had his son, Lucas, operate the business. Lucas was arrested on three occasions and given 40 hours of community service as part of his misdemeanor conviction.

Tinhorn Flats did very well during the ordeal. Number one, they remained open and brought in money through customer support. They also applied for a PPP loan and were granted $65,118, but they have yet to complete any paperwork to have the loan forgiven. At the time, they claimed the money was to be used for 19 employees. Since the restaurant never shut down, it is assumed the employees were still being paid even though the money was supposed to go to restaurant employees who could not work per the paperwork they filed with the government.

Besides that, Lucas also started a legal defense fund on GoFundMe and raised $94,096, bringing the total amount raised to close to $160,000. I would call that a nice little severance package. If Burbank’s cost was $17,894.44, you could even double that for their cost, and they would still net over $100,000.

We, along with most other people who lived in Burbank, were completely supportive of the actions taken by the City, and every indication was made that we would recoup our costs. Evidently, something changed, and this was quietly being brushed under the rug by our city leaders. No mention was ever made at a council meeting, and the only media release basically said the City won the battle.

But did Burbank really win the battle?

So, Burbank taxpayers lost about $300,000, with the City showing no intention of reclaiming that money. It also sends a message to other businesses who defy the City that Burbank will not come after you financially unless it’s an easy case. Not to mention the nationwide negative public relations fiasco that it became.

You may even say they did not go after the money because the owners would declare bankruptcy and never pay anyway. That’s not the point. Sometimes, it is the principle of letting people know that Burbank will not put up with willfully disobeying laws and regulations.

But the most concerning part is the lack of transparency in putting the truth out to the citizens. When the City of Burbank is the plaintiff, the citizens of Burbank are also the plaintiffs and should be informed on every step.

Now, that would be transparency.

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