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Reggae River Rising 

Severe split over annual SoHum festival moves into court.

click to enlarge ROTR wristbands. Photo by Bob Doran.
  • ROTR wristbands. Photo by Bob Doran.

The battle over the future of the multi-million dollar Reggae on the River music festival down Southern Humboldt way rages on. After devolving into a nasty war of words in the blogosphere, with commenters taking pot shots under the cloak of anonymity, flames rose high last week with a pair of announcements that came almost at once.

Late last week the Mateel Community Center, the nonprofit that holds the trademark on Reggae on the River, filed a lawsuit against People Productions, its head Carol Bruno and Tom Dimmick, who controls the property where the festival was held last year. The immediate intent of the "complaint for damages for breach of contract, interference with prospective economic advantage, misappropriation of trade secrets, infringement of trademark, unfair business practices, conspiracy conversion [and] accounting" is for a judge to grant a preliminary injunction, also known as a temporary restraining order (TRO), on Bruno and Dimmick's previously hinted at plan to run their own reggae festival without the Mateel.

The same day the suit was filed, a website popped up promoting something called "Reggae Rising." A press release announced that: "People Productions and the Dimmick Ranch are pleased to announce a summer Reggae festival, benefiting the community, in the Southern Humboldt tradition" with three days of camping, music on "the beautiful Eel River," on the first weekend in August, the same time as Reggae on the River.

And thus the gauntlet is thrown. Which side will get to produce a reggae concert on that idyllic bend in the Eel remains to be seen, and will likely be decided in the first week of March in the Humboldt County Courthouse, either in the courtroom of Judge Bruce Watson, who will hear the Mateel's request for a restraining order on March 5, or the week prior on March 1, when the permit to run the festival comes up for review by the Planning Commission.

Bruno, who did not respond to questions posed by the Journal by press time is quoted in her press release as saying, "We are saddened that our attempts to resolve our differences with the Mateel Community Center - attempts that have included two mediation sessions and three multi-million dollar offers with the potential to preserve the fiscal health of the MCC - have not produced a reasonable solution for all. However, the South Humboldt community deserves its annual reggae festival and the proceeds from this annual fundraiser, which support many of our region's non-profits. People Productions, Dimmick Ranch and our many local supporters are committed to maintaining this tradition through the Reggae Rising benefit."

The Mateel board and its executive director, Taunya Stapp, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but Boots Hughston, the producer the Mateel has hired to run Reggae on the River in People Productions' place, was more than happy to talk about the obstacles he's facing trying to book a festival while the company that produced Reggae for over two decades is promoting a counter-festival.

"We have confirmed somewhere between 22 and 23 out of 27 acts I'm planning to book," said Hughston, noting that contracts and deposits are pending. He added: "I don't really want to say exactly who the acts are at the moment, because I don't want to give the other side a pecking list to bump our acts. It's already happened a little bit already."

Specifically, Hughston said he believes that several top reggae acts, including Ziggy Marley and Burning Spear, have been "pulled off of our side" due to long-term relationships with Bruno.

One of the causes listed in the Mateel's lawsuit alleges "intentional interference with prospective economic advantage" in that the Mateel "reasonably expected to continue hosting future [Reggae] events and derive economic benefit therefrom."

"Despite such knowledge, defendant and/or its agents interfered with plaintiff's business by promoting a Reggae event at the same time and same place as ROR; conspiring with the landowner, defendant Dimmick, to terminate Mateel's lease of his property; contacting prior ROR employees, contractors, coordinators, and performers in an effort to dissuade them from working for Mateel and the new producer..."

As a result of this "intentional conduct," Dimmick has terminated the Mateel's rental agreement and "many employees, coordinators and volunteers have informed [the] Mateel they will not work for the new producer," Hughston, which will ultimately lead to "lost profits and loss of prospective future revenues in an amount as of yet unascertained."

The suit further asks declaratory relief against Dimmick for canceling the Mateel's lease, stating that "[a]n actual controversy has arisen and now exists between plaintiff and defendant concerning their respective rights and duties" regarding the lease. The "controversy" concerns a clause in the rental agreement regarding who produces Reggae, and also touches on the question of who holds the permit to run the festival.

Dimmick contends that his lease agreement with the Mateel is no longer valid since the Mateel breached its contract when they fired Bruno. The Mateel says that Bruno quit, which activates a clause regarding the need for a replacement producer.

A statement from Tom Dimmick and his associate Meeka Feretta in response to e-mailed questions states: "When the [Mateel] improperly purported to terminate [People Productions'] contract, we carefully considered our options and decided that the safest thing to do to protect our personal liability and ensure the ongoing southern Humboldt community reggae fundraising tradition was to terminate the lease with the [Mateel] and move forward with our own event partnering with the production team that has been doing this event for the past two decades."

The Mateel asks the judge to sort out "its rights and duties," and to declare "whether the lease requires defendant People to be the exclusive producer." Again, the Mateel "suffered damages in the form of lost profits in an amount as of yet unascertained but within the jurisdiction of the Court."

In Hughston's opinion, "There's a binding contract with Dimmick and he can't just say it's breached; he has to prove that breach, so there is a venue [for the Mateel's show]. That's the first thing that needs to be proven in a court of law. If he wants to prove that the lease is breached, more power to him, but I don't think he can do it before August 3 comes around."

The other bone of contention my prove even more crucial, the question of who controls the permit from the Planning Department to run the festival.

Hughston states: "There's a history of 24 years of the Mateel having the permits." But Michael Richardson, designated county planner for the festival, sees the permits as going with the property and thus with Dimmick the property owner.

Hughston counters: "Just because a [Planning Dept.] employee working out of Eureka sees a different interpretation doesn't really mean that's the way it is. The permit is in the Mateel's name on Dimmick's property. It's not the landlord's permit; it's the Mateel's permit. We have the permit hearing March 1, where we'll be discussing mitigation on the CUP filed."

In Richardson's analysis, the primary issue that the planning board will have to address is not who holds the permit - rather, it will be setting the attendance level for this year's event.

"Tentatively I'm suggesting that they not increase attendance," he said, explaining that the 10-year permit covering the annual concert "ranges from a low of 8,500 ticket sales plus 2,000 personnel to a maximum of 14,500 ticket sales plus 2,400 personnel."

Last year's Reggae was approved for 10,500 ticket sales and 2,400 personnel, which includes all employees, volunteers, vendors, performers and complimentary tickets.

"We're recommending no increase," said Richardson, in part because the year-end report submitted by Bruno for the 2006 festival showed that the 12,900 total attendance was exceeded most days. According to Richardson, an "independent audit" showed that the numbers ranged from 13,618 on Friday to 15,888 on Saturday and back to 13,451 on Sunday.

"I think the planning commission will have a hard time approving an increase in attendance, especially given that there's no explanation offered as to why the levels exceeded what was approved,"' he said.

The lawsuit against Bruno and People Productions also notes that the Mateel "believes that defendants collected revenues from the sale of wristbands which were not reported as ROR revenues."

Where the extra people and wristbands came from and who got the money will undoubtedly become a hot issue next week as the future of Reggae, be it "... on the River" or "... Rising," is decided in Eureka.

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Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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Contributing photographer.

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