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Legal Costs for City Sewage Spill Could Hit $400,000

Litigation: Thousand Oaks must decide whether to pay a farm's $295,000 claim for lost crops and attorney fees for council members.

May 09, 1998|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — The legal costs for the city's massive sewage spill could rise to $400,000 with two council members asking for their own attorneys, and swell even higher as the city addresses a civil claim for farmland damage.

On Tuesday, the council will consider whether to pay $50,000 each for Councilwomen Elois Zeanah and Linda Parks to hire their own attorneys.

And the costs could continue to mount, as the city addresses a $295,000 civil claim from Boskovich Farms Inc., which alleges that sewage overflowing from the Conejo Creek in Camarillo contaminated 24 acres of cilantro, 20 acres of kale, 21 acres of parsley, 14 acres of lettuce and three acres of bok choy.

By state order, the crops laden with potentially dangerous fecal coliform and E coli had to be plowed under, resulting in out-of-pocket losses of $146,000 and potential profit losses of nearly $149,000, according to the claim.

These developments only exacerbate the havoc caused by an 86-million-gallon sewer spill during February's deluge. Already, the city is under the scrutiny of both state and federal investigators because of the spill.

The sewer break occurred when storm water surging through the cramped Hill Canyon washed out a 30-foot section of sewer line, unleashing a flow that defied initial repair attempts and could not be staunched for 10 days.

Since then, the Thousand Oaks City Council has spent $275,000 to hire Robert Bonner, a former U.S. attorney, and another environmental specialist to represent them in the federal probe. Photocopying costs in the probe, in which thousands of city documents have been subpoenaed, have rung up another $26,000 to date.

The latest expense became public Thursday night, when Zeanah and Parks asked--as is their legal right--for the city to cover the costs for them to retain private lawyers. Both women have tapped former federal prosecutors who now work for private firms in Los Angeles to represent them.

Meanwhile, the city also has to contend with the Boskoviches' claim that a sewage-swollen Conejo Creek washed over their crops, forcing the state Department of Health Services to order that the crops be destroyed.

"The Boskovich family has the unfortunate luck of having their farms right along the banks of the Conejo Creek when the creek overflowed with the impacted sewer water," said Curt W. Uritz, the Boskoviches' Ventura-based environmental lawyer. "While I can't say the percentage loss this resulted in, it was certainly, in absolute dollar terms, a very large loss."

Concerned about keeping the product safe, the family did as ordered and plowed under acre after acre of vegetables, the lawyer said.

No lawsuit has been filed, Uritz said.

"We would like to have the opportunity to sit down with the city attorney, but that has not yet occurred," he said. "If possible, we'd like to resolve this in an amicable manner."

Mayor Mike Markey declined comment on the case, citing the possibility of litigation.

No penalties have been assessed in the state and federal probes, which could conceivably result in fines for the city or individual council members, if they were found to be negligent. Typically, elected officials have immunity from prosecution for actions taken during the decision-making process.

But in a memo asking the City Council to authorize the $100,000 in new expenditures for Parks and Zeanah's lawyers, City Atty. Mark Sellers said "all council members have been advised to have individual legal representation in this matter."

"This is not unusual," he said. "Obviously, in a situation like this, you don't know who the target of the investigation could be. Only the U.S. attorney knows that. Everyone has a right to representation."

Legal analysts agree that the step is a prudent, routine one, particularly because council members and staffers themselves dispute what exactly caused the spill. The city attorney calls the spill an "act of God" promoted by "extraordinary rain."

But much has been made of the fact that the ruptured sewer line, now repaired, was scheduled for replacement before El Nino struck Southern California.

Some have contended that the spill could have been averted had Zeanah, Parks and a former councilwoman voted for rate increases during a two-year stalemate, which ended last summer, over a $75-million sewer plant upgrade.

The councilwomen, meanwhile, have contended that the replacement of vulnerable sewer lines was improperly combined with an unnecessarily lavish project. They also have noted that the pipeline was scheduled for replacement years before the sewer impasse developed.

"It sounds as though it would be smart to hire criminal defense lawyers--especially if people are going to be pointing fingers at each other," said Laurie Levenson, associate dean of the Loyola Law School.

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