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Sewage Spill Could Dirty Campaign

Politics: It's shaping up as hot topic in Thousand Oaks council race. Placing blame has already started.

March 15, 1998|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — Instead of mud, politicians in this town may find themselves slinging sewage come November.

Still eight months from the City Council election, a recent sewer main break that sent 86 million gallons of untreated waste into the Pacific is shaping up to be the hot topic of the upcoming political season.

"I think they're all gonna try to shift the blame, said Chuck Kuenstle, a Thousand Oaks resident who has followed city politics for the past 30 years. "One will say, 'It's your fault.' The other will say, 'No, it's your fault.' The finger pointing has already started. I mean, who wants to take the blame for something like this?"

But campaign finger pointing could only complicate the city's efforts to defend itself against an ongoing federal probe also seeking to assess blame.

The spill, which occurred when heavy rains washed out a 30-foot section of a sewer line last month, is the subject of a federal Clean Water Act investigation that could ultimately result in fines from a civil or criminal case against the city.

"I think it will be very interesting to watch," community housing activist Otto Stoll said. "All the people involved in the election are going to have to talk about it. But the incumbents can't really blame each other without making it look like the city is liable [for the spill]. The current official line is that it was an act of God. That would preclude it being anyone's fault except God's."

In this politically balkanized city, however, activists are quick to cast blame--and already calculating how the foul political fiasco will affect the three incumbents seeking reelection.

Critics of steely, slow-growth Southern belle Elois Zeanah believe the councilwoman's intransigence in a two-year debate over upgrading the sewer system will prove her electoral downfall.

Meanwhile, Zeanah's followers believe the sewer main break underscores the council majority's willingness to scrimp on basic public services to fund the $64-million Civic Arts Plaza. That could hurt incumbent council members Andy Fox and Judy Lazar.

The duration of the federal investigation--and whether it results in indictments against any of the council members whose seats are up for grabs in November--could play a huge role in the upcoming electoral sweepstakes.

"It boils down to if indictments come, and when, and on what side of the issue," said Herbert Gooch, an associate professor of political science at Cal Lutheran University. "There's a set of imponderables here. All I know is it's pretty heavy-duty, this set of accusations. Commencing a federal investigation is definitely serious stuff. I'm shocked by it."

Among the many variables: Will the sewer issue die down by November? Is sewage sexy enough to drag voters to the polls? Will the nastiness of council politics scare contenders away? Or will the perceived weakness of the incumbents be a magnet for political neophytes?

And if the federal investigation continues through the electoral season, will council members heed their attorneys' advice to zip their lips?

If those questions seem foreign, that is because federal agencies rarely prosecute local governments for violations of the Clean Water Act, the federal law governing water quality.

Because federal investigators have subpoenaed reams of city documents to determine whether the city was negligent in the sewer main break, the focus of the investigation is not immediately apparent.

Looking at the thousands of pages dating back at least a decade, federal investigators could find that money earmarked for sewer line upgrades was shunted elsewhere despite City Council wishes, some elected leaders say. Or, investigators could determine that city staff members incorrectly bundled routine maintenance of pipelines through a massive $75-million upgrade of a waste water treatment plant that required a rate hike.

Other officials are equally adamant the paper trail will prove that the council's inability to raise rates during a two-year stalemate over the sewer upgrade left no money for routine repairs. If it had not taken two years to approve essentially the same sewer upgrade initially proposed, the pipeline that burst would have been replaced two summers ago, they say.

Where the election is concerned, a key issue will be the timing of the federal investigation, all sides seem to agree.

But statements from the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles--the lead agency in the federal probe--shed little light on the timetable. A probe could take months or years, depending on the information gathered and the city's cooperation, a spokesman said.

If the federal probe is dropped, or resolved in the city's favor by November, the sewer issue could leave voters' minds, political buffs say.

A more likely scenario is that federal investigators would quietly continue to gather facts throughout the summer and fall.

In that case, any incumbents running for reelection would be wise to stay out of gutter--or sewer--politics, City Atty. Mark Sellers said.

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