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Barney’s On the Beat


Wendy Ups Ante to $25 Mil: First, News-Press owner Wendy McCaw filed a $500,000 arbitration claim against former editor Jerry Roberts, claiming breach of contract and that he somehow damaged the paper. Then, it was revealed earlier this week, Roberts filed a $10 million counterclaim, presumably alleging that her statements and actions put a multimillion-dollar dent in his reputation. Now, I’ve learned that McCaw has trumped that by upping her demand to (are you ready?) a cool $25 million.

So what’s next? Roberts raising her to $30 million? Probably not, but who knows where this will end? And who will get what out of this besides headaches, except the lawyers? After Roberts resigned July 6 and was speedily ushered out of the building, McCaw filed the arbitration action, the details of which are supposed to be as top secret as the A-bomb formula.

Yet here was NP attorney David Millstein telling New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman about Roberts’s counterclaim, as reported in Monday’s paper and my online column in The Independent. Choice line from Waxman’s story: “When asked why Mrs. McCaw has consistently chosen legal action when she has felt wronged, rather than engaging in dialogue with readers or her news staff, [Millstein] said, ‘A cease-and-desist letter is a form of dialogue.’”

And when I phoned Roberts’s attorney, Andrine Smith, to confirm the $10 million story, Smith said that since Millstein spilled the beans she felt free to tell me about McCaw’s $25 million upgrade. Meanwhile, no replacement for Roberts has been hired, despite reports of News-Press offers to well-known names, dangling annual salaries beyond the two hundred grand mark.

Pep Boys Staying: Contrary to unfounded speculation, Pep Boys auto store in the 400 block of State is not moving, the landlord assured me. Pep Boys, a fixture there for at least three decades, sold the building a few months ago but has a lease and plans to remain. More Mesa for Sale: The 265-acre More Mesa is the last large undeveloped coastal property in the Santa Barbara area and also may be the next battleground. The property, reportedly with six lots of varying size, is being advertised at $110 million. Preservationists are watching.

Levy Out of Levytown: So what’s the future, if any, of Bill Levy’s time-share commercial project at the foot of State Street? He’s out of it and so local investors and creditors are left “holding an empty bag of $90 million worth of promises,” as my fellow Indy columnist Nick Welsh put it. Will they now file a blizzard of suits against Levy, asking questions such as why he spent $11 million of investors’ funds without permission over the years, including a $60,000 monthly management fee? Or was it mismanagement? And will Levytown-La Entrada-Ritz-Carlton ever be built, at least according to the approved plans? Some say that estimated construction costs of $140 million are too high for the project to pay for itself and that the City Council would have to okay more rooms. Highly unlikely.

War Is Hell: Even if you’re horrified by McCaw’s management of the paper, you’ve got to respect her taking a strong editorial stance against the Iraq war. Over the years, whenever an anti-war editorial appeared, cancellations came flying in from North County archconservatives. In this era of melting circulation among most papers around the country, when owners are struggling for every subscription, it takes courage to take a controversial position.

$140 Million for What? An L.A.-based investor group has paid a reported $140 million for 25,000 undeveloped coastal acres of the Bixby Ranch in North County. Beyond continuing cattle ranching for the time being, the new owners “have no preconceived plans” for the prime property. Hmm. Let’s see. A bunch of investors toss $140 million into the pot and then decide to take a look at what the heck to do with it?

Shut Up: After my interview with former News-Press financial honcho Randy Alcorn appeared in The Independent, he got a billet doux from the NP. As a former company officer, he dare not reveal inside dope, or suffer the consequences, NP lawyer David Millstein warned. So Randy isn’t giving any more interviews, innocuous or otherwise. Many people in and out of town are fearful of getting hit with one of Wendy McCaw’s legal actions, and she has deeper pockets and more lawyers on her speed dial than practically anyone outside the White House.

Barry, Barry: Contrary to NP attorney Barry Cappello’s claim in an Independent letter to the editor that the News-Press was losing money and facing “insolvency” when McCaw “saved it,” blogger Craig Smith has a different story. According to a “bid book” provided by the New York Times when it was selling the paper in 2000, the NP was making 11 percent profit, “higher than most Fortune 500 companies” and was “enjoying record profits,” Craig said.

You can reach Barney at 965-5205 or via barney@independent.com. He also writes a Tuesday online column at independent.com and Barney’s Weekend Picks on Fridays.

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