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County Hires Lawyers for D.A., Sheriff

A judge had ordered the supervisors to pay for outside counsel for the two officials, who have threatened a suit over funding cuts.

May 21, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Facing court sanctions, Ventura County supervisors Tuesday reluctantly hired private lawyers to advise the county's sheriff and top prosecutor in their attempt to wrangle more money from the county's shrinking budget.

Supervisors unanimously retained an Oxnard law firm, at $215 an hour, to assist Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten in filing a threatened lawsuit.

Judge Bruce Clark last month agreed that county lawyers have a conflict in representing the public safety managers and the county board with respect to the funding dispute. Over the board's objection, Clark ordered supervisors to supply the sheriff and district attorney with outside counsel at taxpayers' expense.

"This is simply not good policy," Supervisor John Flynn said. "We are forced by the court order to do something that is not in the best interests of the people of Ventura County."

Under its contract with the county, Nordman, Cormany, Hair & Compton will be paid for services reaching back to last summer, when a senior partner began quietly advising Brooks on his prospects of winning a lawsuit.

That money could have been put to better use, Supervisor Linda Parks said Tuesday.

"The amount of money being spent on this is equal to putting a patrol officer on the street," Parks said. "It really goes against the grain."

Supervisors could have chosen to appeal Clark's ruling. But they decided instead to let a long-running battle over public safety funding be settled by the courts.

"If we're going to spend taxpayers' money, let's move it as promptly as possible to get this in the courts," Supervisor Steve Bennett said.

At issue is the board's 2001 decision to alter a local public safety funding law by holding law enforcement's inflationary growth to the Consumer Price Index, about 3.7%.

Before that, a formula that included any new spending by public safety departments was used, fueling a 77% growth in law enforcement budgets during the last decade.

In addition, four public safety departments -- the sheriff's, the district attorney's, the public defender's and probation -- share $50 million annually from a statewide voter-approved sales tax.

Brooks and Totten say their budget targets for the 2003-04 fiscal year are so skimpy that they will be forced to trim back the size of their departments, endangering the county's reputation for safety.

But supervisors contend that Ventura County's law enforcement funding remains generous compared with other counties.

If public safety spending had not been reined in, they say, the county would eventually be threatened with insolvency.

Tuesday's vote came after another gloomy budget update by county chief Johnny Johnston.

Ventura County could lose up to $18 million in state funding if Sacramento legislators follow through on cuts proposed by Gov. Gray Davis last week, Johnston reported. That is on top of a $15-million projected shortfall in local funding for the budget cycle that begins July 1, he said.

Mental health workers who have received layoff notices, meanwhile, pleaded with supervisors for their jobs. Fourteen therapists, many of them longtime employees, have been told that their jobs will be eliminated next month.

Johnston said that another 16 mental health workers could get pink slips unless more revenue is found. One Oxnard mother, who has struggled with bouts of depression, told supervisors that the help she received at an Oxnard mental health clinic saved her life.

"My daughter wanted me to tell you that if it was not for [therapist] Toddie Erikson and the other staff members, she would not have a mama," said Marie Terronez, 42.

Vietnam veteran Phil Boulanger said he was finally able to overcome years of alcoholism after entering a detoxification program last year. He urged the board to carefully consider funding priorities.

"I hear all this [nonsense] with the lawyers and how they're going to sue you," he said. "The taxpayers really do get mad."

If a court decision on public safety funding comes quickly, it could be money well spent, Supervisor Judy Mikels said.

"The taxpayers expect better than this. They expect an end to the political games," Mikels said. "We have spent far too much time, energy and effort on this one issue."

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