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County Denies Staben Project Over Citations

Public works: Supervisors vote against embattled contractor due to environmental and zoning code problems.


Concerned about his repeated environmental and zoning code citations, Ventura County supervisors on Tuesday decided against awarding a $142,000 public works project to embattled contractor Tom A. Staben.

The vote was 3 to 1 with Chairwoman Judy Mikels dissenting and Supervisor Frank Schillo absent.

"We ought to--in the public's interest--choose [another company]," Supervisor John Flynn said before casting his vote. "Some of his violations have been resolved, but there are a number of them in any case."

In the past nine years, the county's Public Works Agency has reviewed 22 local, state and federal code violations against Staben. Some of the citations outlined illegal dumping of old cars and appliances into a Somis stream bed near property Staben owns.

Over the past five years, the county has awarded Staben nine contracts--totaling about $2.4 million--for clean-out, slide removal and road-repair projects.

Flynn said he wants the county district attorney's office to complete its investigation into Staben before he would agree to award him another contract.

Before the vote, Staben appeared resigned to the possibility that he would not be awarded the contract, although he had submitted the lowest of six bids. The job calls for removing and disposing of about 16,000 cubic yards of silt and debris that have accumulated in the Fox Debris Basin, north of California 118.

Rather, he implored the board to stop what he considers to be an unfair campaign against him.

"I'm a fourth-generation Ventura County resident, and I'm here to clear my name," Staben told the board. "I think the paper, the union and some of the supervisors have attacked me without knowing all of the facts.

"I've been vindicated by three agencies: [Ventura County] Solid Waste [Department], the Ventura County Flood Control [Department] and the state Regional Water Quality [Control Board]," he continued. "They have all given me written documentation saying there's nothing wrong at Somis."

But Flynn, Staben's harshest critic on the board, said he may consider the contractor for future projects.

"If there is a cloud over Mr. Staben's head I'd like to see it removed," Flynn said. "And then go on with a good relationship with him."

Mikels pointed out that of Staben's 22 citations, he has received only three misdemeanor convictions--just one within the past five years, for storing concrete slabs at his recreational vehicle park in Ventura.

She also emphasized that his citations for environmental code violations have never resulted in a conviction.

Even Maarten Couwenberg, the only audience member who spoke against awarding Staben the contract, had no specific environmental accusations against him. Rather, Couwenberg, a union representative for contractors, complained that Staben failed to meet the final deadline for a Santa Ana Road repair project last year because of heavy rains.

A handful of residents urged supervisors to give Staben the work, including Ventura City Councilman Jim Monahan, who said the citations were mostly minor offenses.

Mikels also pleaded with her colleagues to award Staben the contract. Zoning-code violations are not unique to Staben, she argued.

"Unfortunately, this is not the only contractor who has a rap sheet," Mikels said. "Quite frankly, one of the contractors we gave a job to a few weeks ago has had zoning violations. If we retract one, in all fairness then we need to retract others.

"Until someone can prove to me that this contractor is so different than other contractors, I'm going to go by the law and award him," Mikels continued. "And not overly react to unproven and unfounded claims."

Officials at the district attorney's office said they were investigating several claims against Staben and could not say if charges eventually would be filed.

But at least one charge filed against Staben could mean legal trouble for the county as well. A citation issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last winter alleges Staben excavated the ecologically sensitive Ventura River bottom.

Staben was hired by the county's Public Works Agency to complete that project--which helped restore parts of Santa Ana Road washed out by El Nino-generated storms--and the citation is being appealed by the county on behalf of Staben.

Flynn said after the meeting that perhaps Public Works officials exceeded their authority by allowing Staben to excavate rock, silt and other materials from the riverbed.

Supervisor Susan Lacey said the county needed to move forward with developing guidelines that would rate the performance of contractors and allow the county to ban those who do not live up to its standards.

Mikels called the policy-in-the-works a "bad boy" ordinance. Lacey disagreed with that terminology.

"I don't want a 'bad boy' ordinance," Lacey said. "I don't want to address the problems after the fact."

The county will immediately begin negotiating a contract with another company in order to get the basin cleared out before the winter storms.

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