Events were a significant part of the operation at SMO. Courtesy photos.

Local artist Yossi Govrin filed a lawsuit on Nov. 17 against the City of Santa Monica and Mayor Kevin McKeown alleging that his studios and artist community were seized through a corrupt bidding process.

Govrin leased a hangar in the Santa Monica Airport from 2002 to 2018 to operate Santa Monica Art Studios, which sub-leased studios to artists and hosted gallery events. In 2017, a consent decree between the City and Federal Aviation Administration eliminated sub-leases in favor of leasing to artists directly. In 2018, the City opened a bidding process for management of the studio space, which was awarded to 18th Street Art Center.

Govrin claims the request for proposal (RFP) process was a sham designed to hand over management of the airport studio to Jan Williamson, director of 18th Street Art Center, who Govrin alleges is a close friend of Mayor Kevin McKeown.

Following his non-selection, Govrin submitted a letter of complaint regarding conflicts of interest and abuse of power by City officials, which was dismissed by Finance Director Gigi Decavalles-Hughes as without merit.

Govrin is now suing the defendants for theft of trade secrets and breach of contract implied in fact; defamation; intentional interference with prospective economic advantage; conversion; fraud and deceit; and violation of the Public Records Act.

“The City of Santa Monica pulled out all the stops to keep Mr. Govrin from winning the contract to manage the arts studios,” said Govrin’s attorney, Eva Plaza. “They staffed the selection panel with friends and colleagues of the mayor and the successful contractor; they took Mr. Govrin’s trade secrets without compensation; they gave the successful contractor authority to pick the selection panel; and they violated the Public Records Act to conceal detrimental documents from Mr. Govrin.”

The defendants deny all allegations and intend on participating in court proceedings.

“The City of Santa Monica does not believe that Mr. Govrin’s allegations have merit, and will be defending against them in the pending litigation,” said City Attorney, George Cardona.

Govrin first identified the hangar as a studio space in 1999 and won an RFP in 2002 to build the Santa Monica Fine Art Studios and agreed to support the City’s goal to assist low income artists. Govrin alleges that McKeown tried to award the contract to Williamson in 2002.

Govrin’s studio management came under question in 2015 when it was revealed that he had been renting out the studios for three times the cost per square foot that he leased them from the City. The City leased the space to Govrin at a subsidized rate to keep the studios affordable.

Govrin ran a self-sufficient business and received no City funding. Artists now lease their studios directly from the airport at market rates and the City pays 18th Street Art approximately $250,000 a year to manage the space.

Govrin claims he spent $750,000 of his own money to renovate the hangar and build the studios. As part of the RFP process Govrin submitted complex details of his business operation which he claims became information later available to 18th Street Art.

“The winning bidder, 18th Street, was given the keys to the artist community assembled by Yossi Govrin over many years, and all of Mr. Govrin’s contracts, trade secrets, intellectual property, programming, and business without offering any form of compensation,” states the complaint. “Further, the city took plaintiff’s renovations of the property at the airport hangar without offering any compensation.”

Govrin also alleges that a Public Record Request revealed that Williamson participated in selecting the five panelists that reviewed the bid proposals. Govrin claims all panelists had personal and professional relationships with Williamson.

Only two panelists attended the interview meeting with RFP proposers and one joined via video conference. Govrin claims that Cultural Affairs Manager Shannon Daut gave panelists misinformation to improve the chance for the 18th Street Art to be selected during this meeting.

City Council voted 6-1 to award a five-year lease to 18th Street Art Center on Dec. 18, 2018. 18th Street’s proposal was the only proposal on the Council’s agenda.

Dozens of artists voiced support for Govrin’s proposal during the meeting. A petition to keep Govrin as manager of the studio space was signed by 2,233 individuals. Additionally, 31 out 35 artists who had a residence at Santa Monica Art Studios signed a petition in support of Govrin.

“This scenario not only affected and damaged my life and work of 33 years, but also affected in the same way my 35 artist and community of 10,000 art lovers who attended my programs yearly,” said Govrin.

Govrin seeks compensatory, special, general, exemplary and punitive damages; restitution of all amounts by which defendants were enriched as a result of wrongdoing; disgorgement of all profits and gains defendants obtained from wrongdoing; attorney costs and equitable relief.

Clara@smdp.com