FAC sues Sonoma County to unlock secret Super Bowl promo deal

News and views from FAC's Executive Director.The First Amendment Coalition today filed suit to make public the terms of a Sonoma County agency’s contract to promote county wines to football  fans visiting the Bay Area for the February 7 Super Bowl.

FAC filed a public records request for the contract, under which the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, together with organizations representing vineyards and wine growers, reportedly committed as much as $1 million to  its deal with Super Bowl 50 Host Committee. The Bureau denied the request, claiming the contract is confidential because it contains “trade secrets.”

FAC’s suit under the California Public Records Act seeks a court order to disclose the full contract and all attachments. The suit claims that the public has a right to know how public funds are being spent, and that any rationale for secrecy is greatly outweighed by the public interest in disclosure.

FAC is represented in the case by Karl Olson, San Francisco attorney with the  law firm of Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski

“How a government agency spends public funds cannot be private, proprietary information,” said Peter Scheer, FAC’s executive director. “Stamping the word ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ across the top of a public document doesn’t make it so.”

FAC learned of the  contract from a journalist who had asked the county bureau for a copy—without success. FAC subsequently filed its own PRA request in hopes of persuading the tourism bureau to change its mind. But the bureau denied FAC’s request, which led to the filing of the lawsuit.

Although the CPRA  provides an exemption for bona fide, legally enforceable “trade secrets,” the information in Sonoma County’s Super Bowl contract can’t  meet the legal standard, according to FAC.

“What could possibly be so sensitive about information in a contract of this kind?” said Scheer. “The promotional opportunities, the amount of cash changing hands, the costs for the wines, the Super Bowl tickets—these things aren’t sensitive business secrets that must be kept under wraps,” Scheer continued. “It may be convenient to keep this stuff secret, but convenience doesn’t justify leaving the people in the dark.”

The tourist bureau, according to its website, receives most of its funding from a 2 percent assessment on hotel rooms in the county. Other parties to the Super Bowl contract include Sonoma County Winegrowers, which represents over 1,000 grape growers, and the Sonoma County Vintners, representing several hundred wineries and related businesses.

FAC’s  PRA request, the bureau’s denial, and FAC’s petition to the Superior Court are available here.
Peter Scheer

Karl Olson