City Council Considers Another Attempt to Stop Liquor License for Lowell Sheldon’s New Sebastopol Restaurant

Ex-employee appeal is latest snag in permit process bogged down by allegations of workplace sexual harassment and community divide

Months of heated debate continue to unfold over the opening of Piala Georgian Cuisine, a new Sevastopol wine bar and restaurant by local restaurateur Lowell Sheldon, who is accused of sexual harassment.

At a special meeting on August 31, the Sevastopol City Council will consider an appeal filed by a group of former employees protesting city planning officials’ approval of the company’s liquor license based on Sheldon’s alleged history of inappropriate behavior in the workplace and his response to the accusations. .

“We only seek to keep our community safe and prevent future harm,” the appeal said.

Piala Permit Approval Appeal Statement.pdf

On Tuesday morning, Sheldon sent a 2,200-word statement to the city of Sevastopol and its mailing list, detailing his “side of the story,” he wrote in a preface.

In May, the planning department initially denied Piala’s liquor license after former employees and others raised concerns about risks to the health, safety and well-being of the community – factors considered in licensing – given allegations against co-owner Sheldon, which allegedly often involved alcohol.

Ultimately, after hours of moving testimony, hundreds of written pages of community support and opposition, and weeks of back-and-forth negotiations at public hearings and among themselves, in July, the Commissioners for planning and staff reversed course and approved the liquor license.

There was one condition: Sheldon would be banned from managing employees and serving or consuming alcohol at Piala for at least a year.

The restaurant will also use an external human resources company to handle all worker complaints.

One of the main reasons for its detractors’ appeal is skepticism about the enforceability of the terms, since reporting transgressions would primarily be left to Sheldon and his business partners, employees and customers. These people, the call noted, are unlikely to be “the community that would be willing to monitor this.”

“When the provisions are viewed realistically, it is clear that they place an unfair burden on the community,” the appeal said. “It is not the responsibility of the community or the offender or their business partner to enforce these provisions, it is the responsibility of the city. And if they can’t enforce those provisions, then the first approval should be revoked.

Last September, 11 of Sheldon’s former staffers came forward with allegations, first detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle, ranging from promoting a toxic work environment to sexual harassment. Another woman alleged that Sheldon sexually assaulted her, as reported by The Bohemian.

In the past, Sheldon has apologized and admitted limited wrongdoing while denying most of the charges. In his statement Tuesday, he took a tougher stance: “I am innocent of all charges of sexual harassment and assault,” he wrote.

He described being “trapped” in a societal moment “where the court of public opinion is the only one that matters”.

“If I didn’t deny the allegations, I was damned because I would agree I was guilty, and if I denied them, equally damned, because it would imply that I thought these women were lying – the most unacceptable and morally reprehensible something to think about at the time,” he wrote.

In his letter, Sheldon disputed, explained away, or downplayed various interactions and dynamics with his accusers, ultimately blaming a “cultural paradigm” where “having ‘power’ alone equals an indictment.”

“Have I always been a big boss, every day, for 12 years? No,” he wrote. “But my shortcomings as a boss never overlapped with my abuse of power.”

He also pointed to an affair with an employee, who broke up his family, which he says got carried away and fueled the allegations against him.

“MeToo has become a catch-all term for ‘men doing bad things to women,’ whether that bad thing is sexual assault or making someone slightly uncomfortable or having an affair,” he said. he declares.

In the message to his mailing list subscribers preceding the statement, Sheldon described the path to Piala’s liquor license approval so far, including “appeasement of the city’s biased concerns.”

He portrayed his accusers as a select few “militants” “fighting to tear (him) down” having “felt his vulnerability”.

Jesse Hom-Dawson, 34, one of the former employees involved in the appeal, explained that the motivation for going ahead with the appeal was not to “make his life miserable”, but because “I don’t think I would be okay with myself if something happened to anyone,” she said.

“I absolutely believe that people can change and we should have forgiveness,” Hom-Dawson said in an interview the day before the letter aired. “It should be conditional on Lowell showing he’s done the job,” she added.

The limited time between when the allegations became public, leading to Sheldon’s split from his three restaurants and his work on other new ventures like Piala and the Freestone Hotel, for example, shows why Hom-Dawson doesn’t think let it be, she said.

Instead of granting the conditional liquor license, the appeal to the Sevastopol City Council offered alternatives, including denying the license for a year to give Sheldon more time to demonstrate reform, with Sheldon stepping back from ownership or banning Sheldon from the premises.

After reading Sheldon’s statement, Hom-Dawson said she was even less convinced of his willingness to take responsibility despite multiple allegations against him verified by the media and a human resources investigation which confirmed that his conduct violated labor policies.

“It felt like the whole letter said ‘fake news,’ which I think is what people say when they want to put their heads in the sand,” she said Tuesday. “It only exacerbates our request asking him to wait a year, but also, part of me wonders if there’s anything that will make it work.”

Council will hold a special Zoom meeting at 9:30 a.m. on August 31 to discuss and consider the appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision, related staff reports, public comments and other materials.

Information will be posted on the meeting event page at https://ci.sebastopol.ca.us/Meeting-Event/City-Council/2022/City-Council-Special-Meeting-August-31-2022 .

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Milton S. Rodgers