At a Solvang City Council meeting in July, Councilmember Chris Djernaes cast the lone vote against renewing the Solvang Trolley’s five-year operating license. While he understood the cultural attachment many felt to the trolley — which has operated since 1973 — Djernaes expressed concerns that the business didn’t contribute enough revenue to the city to merit a renewed license.
His manner of conveying that concern, however, left a bitter taste in many residents’ mouths.
“This is a business decision, and I will not pander to the mob,” Djernaes stated. “Apparently everybody’s all excited, and they feel warm and wet because, ‘Wow, they’re so great, they’ve got horses.’ I don’t care about that.” The meeting devolved thereafter, with Mayor Ryan Toussaint motioning to limit discussion, then banging his gavel and shouting “Chris!” when Djernaes continued to speak over him. Once the council approved the renewal, Djernaes gathered his belongings and exited the meeting early.
This instance, among others, explains why Solvang residents are finding an unusual item on their ballots: a recall election for Djernaes’s council seat. Led by Solvang resident Lammy Johnstone, the recall notice cites Djernaes’s “failures to be respectful and civil … disdain of constituents; mockery of speakers at City Council meetings; blatant disregard for the wishes of the voters … and bullying and harassment of a number employees of the city.”
Djernaes, who has served half of his four-year term, has taken criticism in the past for seeking the source of an anonymous complaint against the City Council and for being subject to an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission. Some have also worried that Djernaes’s vision of “Solvang 2.0” might jeopardize the town’s character by inviting new developments and businesses — for instance, a now-revised proposal that originally sought to replace the Solvang Veterans’ Hall with a European-style plaza. “I love the purity of Solvang,” says Johnstone. “We don’t need someone who’s trying to degrade the roots of this city.”
Djernaes, who grew up in Solvang and attended Santa Ynez High School, does not feel he has spoken or acted inappropriately, describing the recall’s grievances as “malarkey.” “The slander, the crap that they put in the newspapers — the only thing they got right was my name,” he said.
As for Solvang 2.0, Djernaes could spend hours listing the benefits he envisions. The initiative aims to boost the city’s economy to $300 million annually by attracting tourists who stay longer and spend more, and by increasing sales and hotel taxes paid by those tourists. The resulting $6 million increase in tax revenues would fund updates to Solvang’s infrastructure and tax cuts for resident households. The plan would also enhance the town’s Danish theme in architecture, food, retail, and events. Solvang today, in Djernaes’s opinion, “is a very poor fictional idea of a late 19th century southern Danish border village. There is virtually nothing authentically Danish about Solvang.”
Enhancing the aesthetic and attracting new tourism, he says, will require replacing the current proliferation of small businesses that close early in the day with new hotels, retailers, and restaurants that cater to a wider age range. “Parts of the city will survive and other parts [will be] left behind,” he says. “The community majority will decide.”
This is where Djernaes clashes with long-standing Solvang residents, some of whom own or have nostalgic connections to those old small businesses. Djernaes believes this conflict lies at the heart of the recall, flat-out denying that it has anything to do with his behavior. “It’s a front,” he says. “They’re trying to turn this into a referendum on my personality.” In his mind, the recall represents a power grab by a group of wealthy, old-time Solvang families, which he refers to as “the Old Guard” and “The Danish Mafia.”
“Solvang has been run by a political machine,” Djernaes says. “They own the land, they own the businesses, and they owned city hall until 2018,” when he and Mayor Ryan Toussaint took office with sights on Solvang 2.0. “We were given a mandate” — by the community, he says — “to clean house, to get rid of it. And we did.”
Djernaes feels his role has been to root out nepotism and corruption, which he says has ranged from multiple married couples occupying various branches of Solvang’s government to abuse of the 501c6 status of the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau and the Solvang Chamber of Commerce to promote “Old Guard” political campaigns using taxpayer dollars. “They had weaponized different government divisions to favor their businesses, to favor their friends,” he says. “It was our version of a deep state.”
Johnstone, who Djernaes considers part of the “Old Guard,” denies these accusations. “There was a time when people said, ‘my daughter or my son wants to be on it, they’d be good,’” she says. “But I wouldn’t call it nepotism.”
If Solvang residents asked Djernaes to “clean house” in 2018, as he says, enough seem dissatisfied with his methods to initiate a recall. For Johnstone, early efforts in June to get the recall on the ballot struggled, failing to gather either support from other councilmembers or enough signatures to officially start the process. Eventually, however, Johnstone’s group amassed 1,156 valid signatures — well over 25 percent of Solvang’s voting population, the threshold for placement on the ballot. Since Mayor Toussaint — who did not respond in time to the Independent’s requests for comment — is not running for reelection, only one councilmember, Robert Clarke, will carry on the torch of Solvang 2.0 if the recall prevails.
A successful recall would immediately replace Djernaes with a new councilmember, to be elected simultaneously. Two candidates are on the ballot: Former county sheriff Jim Thomas and local business owner Jamie Baker.
Recall campaigns are nothing new for Jim Thomas: In 2002, he ran to replace 3rd District supervisor Gail Marshall. Feelings among North County residents that Marshall’s politics skewed toward South County interests boiled over at a Santa Ynez Valley General Plan Advisory Committee meeting in late 2001, during which committee chairman Joe Olla led an unplanned recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance that elicited shouts for order from Marshall (who fired Olla shortly afterward). The event triggered a recall for Marshall’s seat, during which Thomas gained over 9,000 votes as the lone replacement candidate.
That recall, which failed to unseat Marshall, was also led by Lammy Johnstone. While Thomas says this is coincidental, he certainly has a supporter in Johnstone, who describes him as an honest individual with a strong resume. “He has the business acumen, having headed up two big departments in this county,” Johnstone says. “The city council needs that experience, no question about it.”
While Thomas harbors misgivings about Solvang 2.0, his main concern lies with Djernaes’s behavior: “The condescending tone and expression is just so unbecoming.” He hopes to offer greater decorum and feels his experience — as county sheriff from 1990-2002, as a member of the Vikings of Solvang, and as a Solvang resident for the past 18 years — qualifies him for the job. “I’ve had an interest in the city for a long time,” he explains, “but I was not in a position where I was able to do anything about it.” That’s because, for the past five years, Thomas has worked as a consultant for the energy company AERA on its now-defunct East Cat Canyon Oil Field Redevelopment Project, a position that precluded the possibility of political candidacy.
That position is part of why many in the environmental community, which drew attention to the project’s potential impacts on climate and groundwater, oppose Thomas’s candidacy. His involvement with AERA, combined with his outspoken opposition to 2014’s Measure P (a county-level initiative to ban high-intensity oil extraction operations that failed to pass), has led environmentalists like Seth Steiner of Los Alamos to view him as “a fervent supporter of oil drilling at the expense of the environment and of renewable energy jobs” whose “position is to ignore the science.” Environmentalists worry electing Thomas might adversely impact City Council decisions on potential environmental and climate-related action plans, resolutions, and infrastructure updates — as well as publicly validate pro-oil sentiments with a successful campaign.
While Thomas remains the favorite to replace Djernaes, he doesn’t run unopposed. The other hat in the ring belongs to Jamie Baker, who runs the virtual reality arcade Space VR, serves on the board of directors for the Solvang Chamber of Commerce, and brings over 40 years of familiarity with the city.
Baker’s reasons for running mirror Thomas’s. “Even though I witnessed some good ideas … being discussed by our current council on issues I believe are important, I also witnessed a downward spiral in civility,” he says. Baker’s platform focuses on issues of health, safety, and revenue generation. “For a city that is heavily dependent on visitor spending, I believe we are ignoring core revenue opportunities,” he said in an email to the Independent, though he did not elaborate on what those opportunities were.
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