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Thousand Oaks Joins Suit Over Ahmanson

Council votes to lend its support to Calabasas' action against Ventura County for approving the housing project's environmental report.

January 23, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to invalidate last month's go-ahead for the Ahmanson Ranch development, Thousand Oaks on Wednesday joined the city of Calabasas' lawsuit against Ventura County.

The suit objects to increased traffic, noise and air pollution if the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch is allowed to proceed and warns of "serious health impacts" from the presence of toxic chemicals that it contends would be released when the project is graded.

The toxin perchlorate has been detected in a water well close to the Ahmanson property, but there is no evidence that it has migrated to other water supplies.

Ventura County supervisors on Dec. 19 certified the second environmental study for the project, to be built in the east county, north of Calabasas.

Although the Thousand Oaks City Council was united in taking a legal stand against the massive development Tuesday night, its meeting briefly stalled during discussion of a suggestion by Councilman Ed Masry, an environmental lawyer, to have his Westlake Village law firm represent the city for free.

"People who know my law firm know that we don't file nuisance lawsuits. If I didn't think we could win this, I wouldn't be volunteering," Masry said. "I think there's a least a 50% chance we can beat Ahmanson."

The city attorney warned the council that such an offer might violate state conflict-of-interest rules, despite Masry's pledge to indemnify Thousand Oaks against any future costs associated with the lawsuit.

Masry also said that if Ahmanson opponents win the suit and are awarded attorneys fees, all his firm's proceeds would be donated to charity or to the city's general fund.

"It's certainly a wonderful offer, very generous," City Atty. Mark Sellers told the council. "I hate to have to raise such questions, but it's part of my job to warn about potential icebergs floating out there."

Sellers explained that Section 1090 of the state government code prohibits elected officials from having any financial interest in a contract made by a body or board of which they are a member. Violators, whom Sellers said could include any council member voting to hire Masry & Vititoe, could be fined, imprisoned or disqualified from ever again holding office in California.

"The first thing you learn in 'City Attorney 101' is to avoid 1090 conflicts," Sellers said later. "City council members can go to jail, and they don't like it when that happens."

Masry challenged Sellers, saying there was no financial interest in the proposed contract since the legal work would be done pro bono, and if there is any risk it would be to him directly, not the city. "Where is the risk to the city of Thousand Oaks if we embark on this?" he asked.

Fellow council members embraced Masry's offer but stopped short of approving it until a legal ruling can be obtained from the state attorney general's office.

"It's very generous," said Mayor Andy Fox. "I don't think you have anything in mind other than the best interests of the citizens of Thousand Oaks. But I think we need to do things right -- to get a legal opinion to see if a sitting council member can represent us."

The council decided to have staff attorneys file the paperwork necessary to join the Calabasas suit while it waits for legal opinions on whether hiring Masry would violate state laws.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said it could be weeks before the office's opinion unit issues a ruling. But he said Thousand Oaks was right to seek clarification.

"I concur with that assessment," he said. "1090 is one of the most serious laws out there that government officials should pay attention to. So it's good to be cautious."

Masry gained fame when he and employee Erin Brockovich helped win a $333-million environmental contamination settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric for the residents of Hinkley in San Bernardino County.

The city and county of Los Angeles and the cities of Malibu and Agoura Hills have also filed suit opposing Ventura County's approval of the Ahmanson project.

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