Hopes that elected officials could accelerate the public’s enjoyment of Bellosguardo, the 23-acre estate off Cabrillo Boulevard once belonging to reclusive mining heiress Huguette Clark, were dashed Tuesday in a Santa Barbara courtroom.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle ruled that such authority rests with the foundation that owns the property and not the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors or Santa Barbara City Council.
The decision came in response to a request for an order forcing elected officials take action by local artist John De Herrera. He claimed The Bellosguardo Foundation is “mismanaging” the $95 million estate, including artwork and other items, “by not taking the necessary steps to open the property to the public.”
Mr. de Herrera asked the court to order the foundation to open the estate’s upper lawn, on a limited basis, until public hearings can be held and order the mayor and City Council along with the Board of Supervisors “to hold public hearings regarding the status of the Bellosguardo property.”
According to court records, Mr. de Herrera asserts the elected bodies are “duty-bound to hold public hearings” because the foundation has allegedly “mismanaged the Bellosguardo Estate and failed to open it to the public as legally mandated.”
Philanthropist Ms. Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104. She never lived at Bellosguardo, spent the last 20 years of her life in a New York City hospital and counted the Santa Barbara mansion among several left unoccupied.
It was her wish that the property be preserved, along with its artwork, and transformed into a public museum for the visual arts.
Incorporated in 2014, the nonprofit foundation, through its board of directors, elected Jeremy Lindaman as president and Dick Wolf as board chair.
In its response to the request for a writ of mandate, the foundation argued Mr. de Herrera failed to demonstrate the Board of Supervisors “has a clear and present ministerial duty” to do anything regarding the estate.
The foundation also claimed the de Herrera request is defective because it left out “a necessary and indispensable party,” the state attorney general.
To prevail, Judge Anderle states in his ruling, petitioner Mr. de Herrera must allege the respondents have a mandatory duty imposed by law, that they failed to perform that duty and that the petitioner has no plain, speedy and adequate way to compel the respondent to perform that duty.
Mr. de Herrera alleges the foundation, “as the result of incompetence or malfeasance, has mismanaged the estate by not taking the necessary steps to open the estate to the public” and that Mr. Lindaman and Mr. Wolf have “an unspoken agenda to run the clock on Bellosguardo so that it never opens to the public.”
As such, the judge writes, Mr. de Herrera contends the council and supervisors “have a legal obligation to do something about this.”
The judge, however, found two flaws in the artist’s argument.
First, Mr. de Herrera failed to identify how the supervisors have the power to hold public hearings on Bellosguardo or to enforce the terms of a bequest to a private organization. “Petitioner argues that the oath of office imposes a duty on (the Board of Supervisors) to take action on Bellosguardo, but he provides no authority for this argument. Petitioner also provides no authority for his contention that Board can open Bellosguardo to the public because the dispute involves land use issues,” Judge Anderle writes.
Second, assuming that it can be shown that Ms. Clark’s will or the foundation’s articles of incorporation or bylaws mandate that Bellosguardo be open to the public, the Attorney General’s Office is authorized to investigate and determine whether the purposes of the corporation or trust “are being carried out in accordance with the terms and provisions of the articles of incorporation or other instrument.”
Judge Anderle notes that the attorneys general of California and New York, the state where the foundation is incorporated, provide forms for the public to file complaints regarding the misuse of charitable assets by an organization.
Mr. de Herrera will not have another chance to amend his complaint.