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Water Board Fight Spills Into All of Las Virgenes

September 07, 1986|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

James E. Colbaugh got a jolt when he went to court last year to defend his employers at Small Claims Court.

One of the employers was there--waiting to testify against Colbaugh.

Colbaugh is director of operations for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which was fighting a $1,208 damage claim arising from a car's striking a fire-hydrant valve cover. Such valves, resembling small manhole covers, are in the street close to the fire hydrants.

The man standing in front of the judge with sketches and diagrams showing how the water district was at fault was Tad Mattock, the maverick member of the water district's five-member governing board of directors.

The scene was unusual, even for Small Claims Court, where oddball suits and offbeat arguments are the norm.

"The judge had a hard time trying to understand why Las Virgenes was against Las Virgenes," Colbaugh said.

Dispute Illustrated

But the unusual courtroom confrontation illustrates how a personality dispute among water district officials has spilled out of the board room and splashed sloppily across the Las Virgenes area.

The hostility reached a peak last week when district directors took their feud to Los Angeles County officials--who reacted by disqualifying half the candidates in this fall's water board election and canceling two of the three board races.

As a result, portions of Agoura, Calabasas and Agoura Hills for the next four years will be represented on the water board by appointees selected by the county Board of Supervisors instead of by local voters.

That's no small matter for the booming Las Virgenes district, where water board members have the power to control growth by regulating placement of water and sewer lines and allocation of water and sanitation services.

Nor is the nasty public squabbling a minor matter to Las Virgenes administrators, who have literally spent millions of dollars in the past five years to repair their agency's public image.

Pivotal Figure

Pivotal in the controversy is Mattock, a 71-year-old retired aerospace tool designer and standards writer who lives in a rural area of Calabasas. Mattock was elected to the water board in 1982, at a low point in the water district's relations with the public.

At the time, the district was under fire from environmentalists, Malibu residents and state water quality officials because of frequent sewage spills at its Tapia Sewage Treatment Plant at the upper end of Malibu Canyon.

The district was also caught in a tug of war between Agoura and Calabasas homeowners anxious to control growth by limiting new hookups for sewers and water, and developers who were taking out construction permits as fast as they could.

Mattock campaigned as a no-nonsense, reform-minded candidate. He pledged to help steer the water district away from any action that would reinforce its reputation as a clumsy, out-of-control bureaucracy caught up in land-use disputes. He defeated opponent Glen Peterson by 39 votes.

Mattock's stance at once irritated district administrators and directors who had already set out to modernize Las Virgenes' operations.

They had begun recruiting specialists to help run the rapidly expanding district and were planning a computer system that would streamline their billing and engineering operations. More significantly, they had embarked on a $55-million upgrading project at their beleaguered Tapia Sewage Plant.

The renovations included equipment to guard against spills of raw sewage and a sophisticated tertiary filtration system designed to cleanse treated effluent sometimes dumped into Malibu Canyon Creek.

A network of pipes to pump effluent from the Tapia plant to Agoura Hills and Westlake Village, where the waste water could be used to cheaply irrigate greenbelts, parkland and golf courses, had also been started.

Directors' Perks Attacked

Mattock further angered the board of directors by making an issue of the $100 payments each director receives for attending board meetings and for outside seminars and conferences.

"I think as directors we should be protectors of the public purse," Mattock said shortly after taking office. He suggested that some of his colleagues were doing needless junketeering.

Like many of Mattock's subsequent complaints and suggestions, that one fell on deaf ears. Last year, one Las Virgenes director was paid $6,838 for going to meetings; this year, the board budgeted itself $43,500 for fees.

After two years on the losing side of frequent 4-1 board votes, Mattock did something unforgivable in the eyes of his Las Virgenes colleagues: He openly campaigned for a candidate trying to unseat 18-year-veteran George Long of Westlake Village.

The 1984 campaign reached a low point when Mattock accused Long of trying to run him down in a Westlake Village supermarket parking lot as he handed out leaflets for Long's challenger. Long angrily denied the charge.

Board relations have not improved since then.

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