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Landfill Objections Become a Mute Point

Hearings: Agriculture commissioner says he was told not to speak against Toland dump expansion, but an official denies it. The project was approved.


Responding to allegations of improper interference, a top county official Wednesday said that no actions were taken to prevent the county agriculture commissioner from speaking out against the project during recent hearings on the expansion of the Toland Road Landfill.

Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Bert Bigler said he never told Earl McPhail to keep quiet about his opposition to the expansion of the landfill near Santa Paula. The project was approved last week on a 3-2 vote of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.

During a May 21 meeting with the agriculture commissioner, Bigler said he simply told McPhail that if he testified before the board on the landfill expansion he needed to differentiate his professional opinion from his comments as a private citizen.

McPhail could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But the agriculture commissioner, who lives in Santa Paula, complained in a recent letter to supervisors that Bigler had told him that some county officials would prefer that he not speak before the board during the landfill hearings. McPhail noted in the letter that Bigler was "just the messenger" and not the one requesting the action.

"I was . . . informed that it would probably be in my best interest, or at least I took it that way, that I should not testify," McPhail wrote in his letter to the supervisors.

McPhail contends in the letter that he was under the impression that some county staff members--and possibly "one or two board members"--had registered concern about comments he had made before the Planning Commission, which opposed the project in a May 9 advisory vote.

"I cannot be muzzled by appointed individuals just because I may not agree with their position," McPhail wrote in the letter the day after the expansion was approved. "This will never happen again, or if it does happen again, I will only have one alternative but to resign as your agricultural commissioner."

But Bigler had a different account of his conversation with McPhail.

"My discussion with him was that you need to be careful [and say], 'I'm saying this as a private citizen, not as agriculture commissioner.' "

In an earlier letter written to county supervisors, McPhail had expressed his professional and personal opposition to the Toland landfill expansion because he believed dust, water contamination and increased air pollution would hurt agriculture in the Santa Clara Valley.

In the same letter, he pointed out that increased traffic caused by the expansion would affect nearby Santa Clara Elementary School.

Maggie Kildee, who said publicly during the hearings that she wanted to know whether McPhail had been told not to talk, said Wednesday she thinks the whole issue may have been a misunderstanding and considers the matter closed.

"I suspect that what happened was that the message got garbled in translation," she said.

However, Kildee, who voted against the expansion, said she is concerned that the dispute makes it appear there was political pressure to approve the expansion.

"It leaves the impression that only one point of view is allowed to go forward. . . . I do not believe the county planning staff was of the opinion that at all costs we have to approve Toland," she said. "What I would be most concerned about is that department heads or managers have the freedom to speak before the board."

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