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Ventura council to request six-month extension for water-lawsuit responses

2 3 20GREG DIAZVentura city attorney Greg Diaz at the Feb. 3 Ventura City Council meeting, reporting out the decision of the Ventura City Council during closed session to establish a working group of policy makers to seek a settlement to the city's lawsuit against thousands of Ojai Valley water users, and to seek an extension of time for residents to file an answer to the lawsuit in court.

The Ventura City Council voted unanimously Feb. 3 to ask the court to grant an extension of six months to Ojai Valley and Ventura residents served with legal notices and summonses who choose to respond to its water lawsuit.

At its Feb. 3 meeting, the Ventura City Council stated it would ask the court later this month to grant the extension.
If the court does not grant the delay, those who choose to answer the lawsuit have 60 days to file court papers at a cost of $435. If people do not respond with court papers, they may lose the right to do so in the future and then may have to abide by what the court decides regarding their water use.
After Santa Barbara Channelkeeper sued the city of Ventura and the State Water Resources Control Board in 2014 over harm to steelhead and other fish in the Ventura River, the Ventura City Council voted in September 2019 to file a cross-complaint lawsuit against thousands of Ojai Valley and Ventura residents over their water use.
The proposed six-month extension was in response to ideas presented by Ojai leaders to the Ventura council during the public comment portions of its Jan. 27 and Feb. 3 meetings.
 

Jan. 27 request

On Jan. 27, two members of the Casitas Municipal Water District Ad Hoc Committee on Adjudication, Russ Baggerly and Pete Kaiser, asked the Ventura council to “dismiss the cross complaint without prejudice” to allow time for the Consumptive Users Group to continue work on a stipulated judgment and physical solution that excluded “individual parcel owners” from legal notice.
 

Feb. 3 request

On Feb. 3, Ojai City Council members William Weirick and Randy Haney requested the six-month extension for affected parties to respond to the court.
 

Ventura council response

Ventura city attorney Greg Diaz said after the council's Feb. 3 closed-session meeting that it would prepare “a counterproposal for consideration by Casitas that contains, at a minimum, two elements.”
First, the council voted to form a “working group of policy makers of each of the parties to direct and oversee the settlement negotiations of the existing litigation.
“Second, to seek agreement from the parties to request a six-month extension from the court for those who received either a notice or the lawsuit to answer. The purpose of this extension would be to allow the settlement to be refined and made available to those that received either a notice or the lawsuit, so they can determine if they wish to participate in the lawsuit or not.
“This action would allow the people to delay spending money to file an answer or to retain an attorney, until the settlement is available for them to review.
“Furthermore, the City Council directed staff to continue to engage in a communication process. In particular, when the extension is granted by the court, that we ensure that notice goes out to all those who either received the notice previously or a copy of the lawsuit advising them of the new date.
“Second, they wanted to again, make clear that if people received just the notice and do not have a well or plan to drill one, then this matter should not concern you and they may choose to ignore it.”
 

Ventura resident complains

After the Feb. 3 closed-session announcement, Debora Bailey of Ventura addressed the Ventura council:
“I am sure you know that the people in Ojai, and those people who do know in Ventura, are, like I am, dismayed, concerned and angry at the actions that were taken by my City Council, our City Council. Not only did you unanimously vote to sue our brethren in Ojai, but you did it secretly, had to be forced by the Brown Act, to disclose. This is not a new issue,  water here …. but it is imperative that the issue is worked on now. We’ve spent — we’ve spent — $4 million. Is it a coincidence that the projected budget deficit is also $4 million?”
 

Ventura mayor response

After the Feb. 3 Ventura council meeting, in a lengthy Facebook post on his campaign Facebook page, Ventura mayor and District 1 supervisor candidate Matt LaVere wrote:
“I want to share the news that tonight the Ventura City Council voted to join with the Ojai City Council in seeking the Court’s permission to PUT A HOLD on this litigation while the parties finish settlement discussions. This very idea was discussed at the community meeting last week, and I think it is absolutely the right thing to do. That means that if you received a notice, you do NOT need to hire an attorney or do anything else while the parties work out a final resolution. All of the parties involved have been working incredibly hard and are very close to a final resolution which will both end this litigation and offer the protections all of us in Ventura and Ojai want. Draft settlement documents have been exchanged by the parties and the working group has already met multiple times to hopefully agree on last details. The part of the proposed settlement which I think is most important to the public is that the parties are NOT seeking a long and expensive adjudication, but rather a collaborative physical solution which both protects water rights and also creates a strong and sustainable watershed. This physical solution will not impact anyone’s water rights or ability to pump water. Instead, the primary pumpers (like the City of Ventura and Casitas Water Municipal District) will agree to perform physical projects in the watershed aimed at boosting water supply/flow and other environmental protections. ...”
 

$4,438,000 litigation cost 

LaVere also wrote that with regard to the $4,438,000 authorized in its contract with Walnut Creek attorneys Best Best & Krieger for the litigation: 
“I have also heard concerns that Ventura wasted over $4 million dollars on attorney’s fees fighting this litigation. The truth is that a majority of this $4 million has been spent on experts, studies, and analysis of the watershed — not attorneys, as some lead you to believe.” 
Last month, after the Ojai Valley News submitted a Public Records Act request for the law firm’s contracts with Ventura city, and filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s Office for the Ventura council’s failure to report its Sept. 9 closed- session vote to include thousands of Ojai Valley residents in its water litigation, the city released its contracts with law firm Best Best & Krieger. 
The Sept. 11, 2019 contract released by the city of Ventura is for “legal services for the following litigation: Santa Barbara Channelkeeper v. State Water Resources Control Board... not to exceed $4,438,000.” 
The contracts also include pay for seven Best Best & Krieger attorneys and a paralegal, with four of the attorneys’ fees at $350 an hour, one at $380 an hour, one at $295 an hour, and a paralegal at $170 an hour.
Based on LaVere’s Feb. 3 Facebook post that “the majority of this $4 million has been spent on experts, studies, and analysis of the watershed,” the Ojai Valley News filed another Public Records Act request with the city of Ventura this week for details on what the millions of dollars spent on this litigation so far have paid for.

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