The committee formed to advise Los Angeles County supervisors on alternative sewer systems for Malibu was blasted this week by community residents who claim that the county has "stacked the deck" by not including enough homeowners or technical consultants.
The group's makeup was challenged by a member of another committee set up by local activists who have led the fight against the county's proposed $86-million regional sewer system in Malibu. The 11-member county advisory panel held its initial meeting in Malibu this week and is scheduled to deliver a preliminary report of its findings to supervisors Dec. 29.
Although members of the two groups clashed publicly for the first time Monday, the stage for conflict was set weeks before when opponents of the costly sewer system proposal formed the Malibu Community Coalition, preempting the selection of the county panel.
The county committee contains two members of the other panel but is chaired by Tom Tidemanson, county public works director. Tidemanson, at a public hearing last month, asked supervisors to approve the regional sewer system to maintain public health and protect against landslides by keeping overflow water out of soil in the unstable hillsides around Malibu.
"I'm concerned about the committee's ability to function properly, considering that the Public Works Department was behind the regional sewer system in the first place, and yet the director of public works is chairing this committee," said Barry Haldeman, a Malibu Community Coalition member.
"The only way this can possibly work is to get the two groups merged together," he said.
However, several members of the county committee said that such a merger would hamper their ability to reach recommendations on alternative sewer plans.
Panel member Andy Benton, vice president for administration at Pepperdine University, said he wanted to avoid a scenario "where we have two groups working along parallel paths only to have one of us break off at the last minute."
Committee Will Be Responsive
Tidemanson assured the 20 people attending the committee meeting that the county panel will be responsive to Malibu residents and invited members of the other sewer group to bring in outside consultants to present proposals to the county panel.
The county committee was created at the behest of supervisors, who yielded to more than 1,000 angry Malibu residents at an Oct. 22 public hearing and put off voting on the $86-million regional sewer plan until they could examine scaled-down alternatives.
The supervisors questioned the credibility of their own staff's findings on the extent of the health hazard created by the overflows from the 2,419 private septic tanks in Malibu.
The premise that a public health hazard exists in Malibu was attacked by several committee members, who insisted that county staff present new evidence of problems created by the septic tanks.
Tidemanson, repeating that he believes that there is a health hazard in Malibu, said the committee would ask public health officials to present their findings to the group to determine the extent of the problem and the best ways to solve them.
Not Isolated Events
"This is not a series of isolated events," Tidemanson said. "We need to deal with a system that can correct the health and geological problems for all of Malibu. I perceive that the health issue is a much greater problem than the rest of the community, and I stand behind the county's conclusions and statistics that I've seen."
About the only thing a majority of the committee members agreed upon was that they needed funding to hire experts to help them come up with alternative sewer plans for the county. The committee is not funded and Tidemanson said he has been unable to obtain any money from the county to assist it with its research.
The committee agreed to review alternative proposals rejected by the county's consultant, James M. Montgomery Consulting Engineers, in favor of a regional system. The panel also will seek other consultants who have worked on a mix of septic tanks and small-package plants in similar coastal communities in northern California.
The committee's next meeting will be held Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. at Pepperdine University's Helen Field Heritage Hall.