Jane van Praag resigned from the Covenant Design Review Committee at the end of an April 1 Rancho Santa Fe Association board hearing for her removal. The Covenant Design Review Committee (CDRC) had requested van Praag’s dismissal from the volunteer board and the Association had offered van Praag the opportunity to resign or hold a hearing.
The board was set to enter into executive session to deliberate and decide on her removal on the basis of malfeasance, however, van Praag concluded the hearing by formally handing over her resignation written on her “treasured, dog-eared” copy of the Covenant. She read aloud as she dated and signed it “Jane Van Praag, nobody’s fool.”
“It’s your responsibility now to see if you can resurrect the Covenant from its tattered condition left by years of neglect,” van Praag said. “The burden has shifted, it’s all yours.”
van Praag said her purpose in agreeing to the public session was to make it clear publicly that she did nothing wrong and that none of the allegations against her rose to the level of malfeasance. She said she wanted to make it known that the board coerced her into resigning. “I would never wilfully abandon my commitments to the community to complete the term my service,” van Praag said.
According to the Covenant, any member of the “Art Jury” (now named the CDRC) may be removed from office for reasons of malfeasance and/or absence from meetings. The member may be removed from office by an affirmative vote of at least four-fifths of the Association board after a hearing.
RSF Association President Ken Markstein said the board was mindful of the “unprecedented” nature of the hearing and that it was not their intent to publicly embarrass or ostracize van Praag. Per the Covenant and Corporations Code, she was given the option of a public or private hearing— she chose to have it in public and the board honored that request.
“This is a sad day for all of us, one that I wish had never come,” said RSF Association Vice President Allen Finkelson.
van Praag sat alone at a table on one side of the room at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club while the board and staff sat facing her on the other side.
Markstein said the board’s potential action to remove van Praag was not based on philosophical or aesthetic differences of opinion nor was it based on disputes regarding interpretation of the Covenant or regulatory code. He said differing viewpoints are always welcome, however, “for any organization to function effectively, those in governance positions must operate within accepted processes and treat others in a professional way.”
Markstein said the board received complaints that van Praag’s conduct has been “disruptive, distracting and harmful” to the CDRC and staff, and despite efforts to resolve the issues, the situation has only gotten worse.
“The board is concerned about the negative and hostile environment you’ve created,” Markstein said. “Of additional concern is your repeated refusal to work within accepted procedures and processes and to publicly characterize the CDRC process as failing.”
Markstein said van Praag’s characterization of the failures of the CDRC is inaccurate, does a disservice to the membership and exposes the Association to liability.
The process for van Praag’s removal was set in motion on Feb. 20, when the Association board received a memorandum signed by the four other members of the CDRC (Shaunna Salzetti-Kahn, Sandra Johnson, Janet McVeigh and Tim Parillo) detailing their concerns about van Praag and requesting her removal.
The CDRC provided the Association with examples of its allegations against her that included mistreatment of employees, insulting applicants, being disrespectful to fellow CDRC members and undermining the CDRC by disclosing confidential and preliminary discussions.
“Private appeals and public rebukes to get her to improve her behavior, not change the content of her arguments have been unsuccessful” the CDRC memo stated, noting that members had been seeking to remove her since August 2017 and that the Association met with her at least monthly in attempts to “curtail her behavior.”
van Praag was not present at the February meeting and the CDRC members wrote that there was a difference in quality and tone of the meeting.
“Despite some split votes and debate, the four members worked through the agenda efficiently and discussed the issues with the applicants without any conflicts, demeaning remarks or contentious behavior,” the memo stated. “Most telling of all, one respected architect who regularly presents projects at the CDRC said, ‘No one waved the Protective Covenant in my face today.’”
On March 15, van Praag was asked to meet with Markstein and Finkelson, receiving a 60-page document outlining the reasons for her requested resignation or removal, including complaints over the course of the last two years from CDRC members and past staff members.
van Praag said she was given until March 19 to decide whether to submit her resignation or ask for the hearing. On March 19, van Praag requested an extension of 30 days—“I need equal time to review and prepare for a hearing with the severity of a claim of malfeasance because I have not breached public trust or used my position for personal gain,” she said.
van Praag said her request for an extension was denied but she was then given until March 27 to make her decision—the hearing was set for April 1.
van Praag said the Association board failed to provide sufficient notice of the hearing (15 days is required) and asked the board to provide a legal opinion of the adequacy of the posting—the hearing notice was posted on March 29, van Praag said. However, RSF Association Manager Christy Whalen said the hearing notice was posted on the Association’s website and bulletin boards March 27. Whalen said it also appeared in the Association’s newsletter which was mailed March 29. Markstein said the Association believes that the appropriate notice requirements were followed.
“This entire matter, start to finish, is about ignoring the PC (Protective Covenant),” Van Praag said. “This hearing is a metaphor for acts circumventing the PC, bootstrapping a claim by a disgruntled former employee to a charge of malfeasance so the board could remove me, the unintentional whistleblower.”
van Praag has been vocal about the CDRC’s application of the Covenant and has also written about her experiences in an editorial column on the RSF Post website.
A retired attorney and Covenant resident for over 20 years, van Praag said she joined the CDRC with a goal to “meet new people, help them build their dream homes and protect the unique Covenant brand.”
Her position has always been that the CDRC has “reasonable discretion, but not unfettered or unlimited interpretation” of the Covenant. She said she clashed with other CDRC appointees, staff and consultants who thought the CDRC had full discretion, including the right to add style and materials.
“The community is well aware of flaws in the process,” van Praag said. “A stroll around the golf course or a drive down our streets reveals it.”
van Praag said none of the allegations against her rose to the level of malfeasance and that she performed her responsibilities in accordance with the Covenant. She said the 60-page document included “lopsided claims in a contrived effort to establish a pattern.”
“Being stern or sarcastic in a four-to-one defense is not a breach of trust,” van Praag said. “My behavior may be passionate, or brusque, but does not rise to a breach of public trust or wrongdoing. I have consistently tried to prevent breach of contract.”
The rules of the hearing allowed for no public comment from the about 30 people in attendance. van Praag was allowed an hour to speak and in that time she could call witnesses that she could ask questions of. She called three witnesses: realtor K. Ann Brizolis, neighbor Rory Kendall and Association board member and CDRC liaison Steve Dunn.
In her answers, Brizolis said that there are some concerns that the CDRC is not enforcing the rules and that it has had an impact on property values and the Covenant brand. Kendall said he supported van Praag as there have been many violations of the Covenant in the past decades. He said in their neighborhood alone there is a home that was built on excessive grading, small size split lots and non-conforming homes in the English Tudor, Cape Cod and Hampton’s styles.
“I appreciate Jane’s very strict adherence to the Covenant,” he said.
In the last two months, the RSF Association board has taken action on some of the concerns that have been raised by van Praag regarding oversight and new construction.
On Feb. 7, the board unanimously approved sending an oversight letter to the CDRC to ensure the board is enforcing the Covenant in a fair and efficient manner.
“Members of the board and our community have noted excessive grading projects with unrestrained mass and scale and buildings that are inconsistent with the Latin-style design,” the letter stated. “The CDRC should give great care when considering grading, mass, scale and type of design. These decisions made by the CDRC are not temporary and leave a lasting mark on the rural community.”
Following the board’s oversight letter, van Praag said she was not popular among her fellow CDRC members. She said the other members and the staff believed that their actions did not warrant any oversight and insisted they were in compliance.
“The CDRC were angry with me and retaliated,” van Praag said.
The CDRC’s memo regarding van Praag’s removal was sent to the board on Feb. 20.
The memo stated that their request to remove van Praag was “unrelated to any view she had of the Covenant or architectural requirements for homes”.
At the Association board’s next meeting on March 7, they approved a resolution that made determinations on the “California Ranch” type and the use of wood, while not preferred, being consistent with the Covenant. Support for the resolution was not unanimous, as it passed with a 4-3 vote.
While van Praag thought the oversight letter was well-thought out and composed, she believed that the resolution was “hastily written,” added a new architectural style and “substantially weakens” the Covenant.
“This resolution was the culmination of organized and relentless efforts over the last few years to add new design styles and materials without getting the members’ approval,” van Praag said.
Several times during the hearing van Praag accused Markstein of having an agenda to “relax” the Covenant rules and to make changes without a member vote.
“You have made statements about my goals for the future and the CDRC and I just want to say that’s a fabrication,” said Markstein in response. “It’s not fact-based and totally wrong.”
At the hearing, van Praag said she was launching a defense of not just herself but of the Covenant.
“Cast in the unlikely role of whistleblower, I realize my removal dooms the Protective Covenant because no one who thinks they should adhere to the PC will ever apply, to suffer as I have,” van Praag said.
van Praag said she believes that her removal from the CDRC will have the consequence of weakening the Covenant or its demise. “Allowing that to happen is the ultimate act of malfeasance,” van Praag said.