THOUSAND OAKS — With the city standing to lose $12.5 million if it does not begin to upgrade its sewage treatment plant by year's end, Councilwoman Judy Lazar asked Tuesday whether the city can take legal action against the person blocking the project: Councilwoman Elois Zeanah.
City Atty. Mark Sellers advised council members that they probably have no power to force Zeanah's hand, but that the federal Environmental Protection Agency could take her to court to force the city to uphold old water quality agreements.
"Those council members who cannot or aren't willing to take action can and have been held in contempt [of court]," Sellers told the council at a meeting Tuesday.
The council voted 3 to 1, with Zeanah dissenting, to bring the issue up again in December after a new member is elected next month.
Lazar's request came in response to a letter from the State Water Resources Control Board warning Thousand Oaks that if a timetable for the $75-million waste-water expansion is not approved by Dec. 31, the city will have to repay $12.5 million in federal and state grants.
Moreover, the letter said that Thousand Oaks is not meeting federal Clean Water Grant regulations, and may not be able to receive similar waste-water grants in the future if it does not approve the upgrade.
"The chickens have come home to roost," Lazar said of the threat. And at Tuesday evening's session, she added: "If we cannot get four members to vote on this, we could be putting the entire city in jeopardy financially."
For more than a year, council members have been engaged in a bitter stalemate over the proposed expansion of the Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant, which requires a 4-1 vote for approval.
Zeanah and former Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski repeatedly voted against the rate increases needed to fund the expansion because they consider the project larger than necessary and too much of a burden on existing residents compared to future homeowners. Zukowski resigned in August to move to Colorado, so Zeanah is now the only council member blocking the project.
Zeanah said before Tuesday's council meeting that the letter has been taken out of context by Public Works Director Don Nelson, and has done nothing to change her mind. She charged Nelson and Lazar with trying to intimidate her with legal threats and force her to change her vote.
"It's going to be a new council that deals with the issue," Zeanah said, noting that the makeup of the City Council will change after the November elections. "I've already checked with an attorney, and there is nothing they can make me do. I'm exercising due diligence, and they are using scare tactics.
"They're trying to sensationalize this issue to use this letter as a hammer against me," she added. "I deeply resent that."
Mayor Andy Fox said the letter makes the issue very clear: Thousand Oaks stands to lose millions of dollars if it does not do something to improve its waste-water system soon.
"This almost sounds like a tape recording of what the city staff has been warning us about all along," Fox said. "To say that this is scare tactics at this point is ridiculous.
"It's time for Mrs. Zeanah to explain to the public why she is willing to put the city in danger of losing federal grants," he added. "I would also like to hear her explain how we are going to pay this $12.5 million, which is roughly our annual budget for police."
In July, Thousand Oaks was notified by the Water Resources Control Board that it had been randomly selected for a review of $12.5 million in federal and state grants that the city accepted between 1975 and 1979.
The state regulatory agency conducted an on-site check of the Hill Canyon plant and its finances a month later, and determined that although Thousand Oaks had a plan to upgrade the aging facility, the city had not approved the new sewer rate structure needed to implement it.
That has placed Thousand Oaks in violation or potential violation of several regulations, according to the letter:
* The waste-water plant is now at 83% capacity, and the city's permit with the Water Resources Control Board requires it to prepare a plan of action to ensure that expanded facilities are in place before capacity is exceeded.
* The permit also contains tough new limits on waste water that the plant cannot now meet. And it requires emergency backup waste-water facilities that the plant does not have.
* Because Thousand Oaks has not replaced some of its deteriorated waste-water facilities as required by federal Clean Water Grant regulations, the city may have to repay the $12.5 million in grant money that it accepted.
* Thousand Oaks may also be ineligible for similar federal assistance in the future because the city failed to live up to some provisions of its old contracts.
Zeanah believes the issue of why Thousand Oaks did not live up to its grant requirements is separate from the larger debate over the expansion of the waste-water plant. City officials contend the money was always meant to be used as part of the greater expansion project.