The Ventura County Board of Supervisors, which is reviewing two large and controversial development proposals, learned of a potential conflict of interest involving the projects' environmental studies only after a half-million-dollar contract for the studies had been awarded.
County officials ultimately determined that the potential conflict was inconsequential, but two of five county supervisors and a lawyer for one of the developers said they would have liked to know about it earlier.
The Board of Supervisors awarded the contract for an environmental impact report on the Ahmanson Ranch and Jordan Ranch developments to McClelland Consultants (West) on Sept. 5, 1989, at a fee not to exceed $447,582. The contract was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Supervisors Susan Lacey and John Flynn opposed to the study.
Several county officials and a spokesman for the consultant said the study's integrity was not compromised by the relationship of John Crowley, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works, and his wife, Julie Bulla, McClelland's project manager. They said that Crowley would not review McClelland's work and that they saw no conflict because Bulla's firm had been hired by the county and not the developers.
A month after the contract was awarded, Bulla's and Crowley's relationship was noted in a memo from Robert Braitman, county manager of government organizations, to Richard Wittenberg, county chief administrator.
The supervisors were subsequently told about the matter in individual memos. A majority, including eastern Ventura County representative Madge Schaefer, said they were not concerned. They said they considered both Crowley and Bulla, a former county employee, to be well-respected professionals.
Supervisor James Dougherty said he didn't like the lack of immediate disclosure, although he was unconcerned about the spouses themselves. He attributed the late disclosure to "bureaucracy," not "mischievousness."
Some community activists criticized the lack of public disclosure.
"In view of the obvious controversy involved in this project, any such action not reviewed in public assumes an influence-peddling kind of situation," said Margot Feuer of the Save the Mountain Park Coalition.
Stanley Cohen, an Oxnard attorney representing the Jordan Ranch developers, said the public's perception was precisely what concerned his client, Potomac Investment Associates.
Tom Berg, county director of resource management, and Arthur Goulet, public works director, said Crowley's staff would review the EIR, not Crowley himself. They also said they considered the issue moot because Bulla was recently replaced as supervisor of the study, although she is still working on the project.
Under current plans, the developments would add more than 4,000 homes, two golf courses and two commercial centers to the largely undeveloped eastern end of the county.
The projects have generated concern in both Ventura and Los Angeles counties because of their anticipated effects on traffic, wildlife and municipal services.
Because of their size and proximity, the projects' environmental effects are being studied together. The environmental impact report is expected to be available for public review sometime this spring.