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Sheriff, D.A. Bend a Bit in Funds Fight

The Ventura County lawmen, hoping the action hastens a suit settlement, agree to let a judge rule on a public safety funding law.

March 12, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to save taxpayer dollars and hasten a settlement, Ventura County's sheriff and district attorney agreed Thursday to let a judge rule on the constitutionality of a local public safety funding law.

The unexpected move means that costly pretrial proceedings would be suspended until Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh rules on the 1995 law's constitutionality after a June 7 hearing, County Counsel Frank Sieh said.

That could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, Sieh and others said. County taxpayers already have spent more than $700,000 in attorney fees on both sides.

"We realize that a trial will be far more expensive than dealing with the [June 7 hearing]," Sheriff Bob Brooks said. "We hope in the interim we can negotiate something before the trial and keep the costs down."

Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten last year sued the Board of Supervisors, alleging it had violated the 1995 funding law by changing an inflation-based formula that was added a year later. The 1995 ordinance provided sales tax funding for public safety departments but was vague on how large annual increases tied to the inflation rate should be.

The suit by Brooks and Totten alleged that the board acted illegally when it linked annual funding increases to the consumer price index. Before that 2001 vote, public safety budgets had increased 7% to 10% each year.

Supervisors filed a countersuit, alleging that part of the ordinance was unconstitutional because it usurped their budgetary authority. The county's countersuit focused on two paragraphs of the ordinance that pertained to the inflation-based increases.

It is those paragraphs that supervisors are asking Walsh to find unconstitutional. Supervisors have never objected to other portions of the ordinance, which stipulate that all proceeds from the 1993 Proposition 172 half-cent sales tax increase go to the sheriff, district attorney and two other departments.

The lawsuit by Totten and Brooks also alleged that the board allowed $50 million in public safety funding to be illegally diverted to the general fund when it should have been kept in a separate account. Other issues, such as whether the protection of the public has been compromised, also remain in dispute.

Even if law enforcement loses on the constitutional question, those other issues would remain to be litigated, Totten said.

"If we all sit down and see the whites of one another's eyes, we could resolve this thing real quickly," Totten said. "We're not that far apart."

That is not likely to happen until Walsh rules on the constitutional question that supervisors believe is at the core of both lawsuits. Supervisors have repeatedly made clear that the legality of the clause that links funding increases to inflation must be resolved before they can move on.

But at least one supervisor was grateful that Brooks and Totten had agreed to lower their swords -- if just a bit. Even if the supervisors get an unfavorable ruling from Walsh, they would be in a better position to bargain with the district attorney and sheriff, said board Chairman Steve Bennett.

"It doesn't make sense to compromise on a second initiative until we know what is constitutional," Bennett said. "This is the compromise we pretty much have been pushing hard for and I compliment the sheriff and district attorney for taking us up on it."

Totten said he authorized his attorney, William Hair, late Wednesday to drop law enforcement's opposition to any pretrial rulings. Other plaintiffs in the law enforcement lawsuit, Citizens for a Safe Ventura County and the city of Thousand Oaks, also agreed to the stipulation.

At a hearing Thursday, Walsh initially was reluctant to accept the agreement, saying he had already ordered a trial, Sieh, the county counsel, said. But Walsh ultimately agreed to honor the parties' wishes, Sieh said.

"We very much appreciate the opportunity to proceed in this fashion and the agreement of the sheriff and the district attorney to proceed accordingly," Sieh said. "This will save hundreds of thousands of unnecessary expense in this litigation."

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