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Airport Opponents Sue Over Hiring of Lawyer

October 08, 1998|LORENZA MUNOZ

Airport foes Wednesday filed another lawsuit against the county in an attempt to derail controversial plans to build an airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

The El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of seven South County cities, alleges that the county illegally retained San Diego lawyer Michael Gatzke to represent it in El Toro-related matters.

The suit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, asserts that state law requires a two-thirds vote from the Board of Supervisors to approve such a contract with an outside consultant or advisor.

Gatzke, who has handled legal work for the county on John Wayne Airport issues for 20 years, was retained four years ago by county staff without board approval.

The suit asks that Gatzke and his firm, Gatzke, Dillon & Ballance, be ordered to repay $1 million that the county has paid to them.

"Not only has Gatzke been hired illegally at taxpayer expense, but the courts have ruled against the county in the actions in which the county was represented by Gatzke," said Richard Dixon, chairman of the group.

Gatzke said: "It's a disappointment to see this escalation in the debate on El Toro, but we will deal with it as it comes." In April, a board majority voted to ratify Gatzke's hiring retroactively. County Counsel Laurence M. Watson and state Deputy Atty. Gen. Gregory Gonot determined that the county had not violated any laws in hiring Gatzke, without board approval, to represent the county on El Toro lawsuits.

County officials called the latest suit by the anti-airport group an act of "utter desperation."

"It's outrageous that ETRPA is going to waste more taxpayer money fighting a losing battle," county spokeswoman Ellen Call said. "This issue has been thoroughly examined by both the attorney general and the board, and it was resolved months ago."

The group has filed several lawsuits against the county, including a challenge to the environmental impact report. A judge ruled in favor of airport foes on several counts in that case and has ordered the county to pay the South County group's legal fees.

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