A local alcohol use permit has been given the go-ahead in Sebastopol. While that's not typically controversial, this heavily-scrutinized saga played out in an unlikely arena - the city's planning commission.
First denied an alcohol use permit by Sebastopol's planning director, well-known Sebastopol restaurateur Lowell Sheldon successfully appealed that decision at Tuesday's commission meeting.
Sheldon’s newest venture, Piala Georgian Cuisine, now has conditional approval from the city to serve beer and wine, which Sheldon calls essential to the business’ survival. His state-issued permit is now pending final approval.
Sheldon was originally denied the alcohol permit following public testimony over his alleged behavior, including sexual assault and inappropriate workplace conduct.
At a June 28th planning commission meeting, former employee Jesse Hom-Dawson described during public comment the alleged behavior she said Sheldon subjected her and others to.
"I was the victim of his sexual harassment, an incident that can be confirmed by a formal investigation from an outside HR firm." Hom-Dawson said. "Many of Sheldon's letters of support mentioned making mistakes and how people deserve second chances harassing and assaulting women is more than a mistake. This is behavior that goes back over 13 years. When Sheldon tells you the problem is three disgruntled, former employees, not the consequences of his own actions. He does not understand the harm he has caused and has demonstrated no meaningful change."
As part of approving the permit the commission mandated conditions. That includes switching the application to Sheldon’s business partner at Piala, Jeffrey Berlin. Restricting Sheldon from exercising direct managerial oversight of employees. Prohibiting him from serving or consuming alcohol on the premises and retaining an independent HR firm.
Hom-Dawson said she believes the attached strings won't make a difference.
"The proposed conditions would not have prevented any of Sheldon's more serious past transgressions as they occurred after hours, when the restaurant was closed." Hom-Dawson said.
The commissioners spoke about the uncomfortable position they faced.
"We are not here to deliberate or decide any factual evidence to the allegations." Paul Fritz said. "But we do have a responsibility as a planning commission, and this is very unusual terrain for us. I don't really feel fully qualified to be making this decision."
Commissioner Paul Fritz said the commission’s aim is to do what’s best for the community.
"We're all just doing the best we can." Fritz said. "I think we have given this a lot of thought and are trying to make the best decision for the community, which is what we are tasked with. I'm comfortable with these conditions as they've been proposed."
Sheldon affirmed his and Berlin’s commitment to the conditions.
"We take this very seriously." Sheldon said. "And we have every intention of making sure that we follow every one of the conditions as they're laid out. And I know that myself and Jeff, we understand the risk to our livelihoods should we not meet any of these conditions. So we're a hundred percent behind them."
Commissioner Linda Kelley echoed the sentiments of both Sheldon’s detractors and supporters, but Kelley said her trust in Sheldon’s ability to change spurred her approval of the permit.
"I am very uncomfortable in approving this alcohol use permit, but I am going to, and I'm hoping that we can believe Mr. Sheldon in terms of his change of heart, and also understanding his part in these complaints." Kelley said. "It's just not people picking on you. Women have not been believed and are still not believed including this whole hearing."