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Cost of Budget Dispute Rising

Ventura County's sheriff and D.A. will ask for more money for their suit against supervisors, who may also need more.

March 06, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

A costly legal battle over public safety funding in Ventura County is quickly approaching the $1-million mark, records show.

On Tuesday, Dist. Atty. Greg Totten and Sheriff Bob Brooks will ask the county Board of Supervisors for another $300,000 to continue their fight over budgets they say were illegally reduced by the board. Attorneys on both sides of the taxpayer-financed squabble have already been paid more than $400,000.

County Counsel Frank Sieh, who represents the board in the litigation, said he also planned to ask for an unspecified additional amount in coming weeks. If the legal issues remain unresolved, Sieh said, the costs would continue to balloon.

"If it goes to trial, it will be well over $1 million," he said.

Brooks and Totten filed suit last year, alleging supervisors violated a local ordinance when they voted in 2001 to cap budget growth for the sheriff, district attorney and two other public safety departments.

They said any changes should be put before voters because the original ordinance was approved by supervisors only after law enforcement leaders had gathered 57,000 signatures to force the issue. Supervisors countersued, saying the ordinance was unconstitutional because it undercut supervisors' ability to set budgets. A private law firm hired by the county board attempted to have the suit by Brooks and Totten thrown out last month, but a Ventura County Superior Court judge denied that request.

County lawyers have since filed more court documents seeking again to short-circuit the litigation. A district attorney's spokesman blamed the spiraling costs of litigation on the supervisors' flurry of court motions.

"The sheriff and district attorney are trying to hold the costs down," said Tom Harris, special assistant district attorney. "But they are in a difficult situation. They feel that they cannot ignore what the people wanted."

Steve Bennett, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said any suggestion that the board was dragging out the lawsuit was "preposterous."

"They are cynically trying to deflect the blame for the lawsuit to the board when it clearly is on their shoulders," Bennett said. "They filed, not us."

Judge Henry Walsh has indicated he would like a trial on the issue to start by summer. A Thursday hearing has been set to determine other pretrial issues, including the county's renewed motion for summary adjudication.

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