Friday, September 28, 2007

Casitas Seeks New Counsel

Board votes unanimously to replace
Sawyer, notes concerns with decisions

By Daryl Kelley
Directors of the Casitas Municipal Water District voted unanimously Wednesday to recruit a new legal counsel, with board members saying later that they were concerned with their current lawyer’s recent advice on key issues.
“The board has decided to seek a new attorney in an effort to find new opinions, new perspectives and new insights,” said board President Russ Baggerly after a closed session, during which the future employment of Ventura lawyer Robert Sawyer was discussed.
“We’re finding new counsel, new energy,” Baggerly said.
The decision to invite other lawyers to apply for the job Sawyer has held for four years resulted from concern by board members about advice the district’s counsel had given them on the state’s open-meeting law and on the impact of a statewide proposition on setting water rates for farmers.
Officials said Sawyer will continue as district counsel during a transition period and perhaps be hired as a lawyer on select legal issues.
Sawyer he did not see the district’s decision to seek a new law firm as counsel 13 months into his firm’s contract as a slap in the face. Nor did district officials cite any specific reason for changing lawyers other than a desire to get the best possible representation on a variety of legal issues, he said.
“I don’t see it as a rebuke,” he said. “I have a very good working relationship with the general manager and each of the directors.”
But directors said Sawyer’s comments at an Aug. 29 hearing on hiking agricultural water rates 53 percent prompted them to consider hiring a new principal attorney for the Oak View-based water district. Sawyer said that farmers might be treated differently than other water users under Proposition 218, which generally requires all water customers to pay the full cost of water they receive.
“That was one of the watershed events for me,” said Director Pete Kaiser. “It seemed to be coming from his personal feelings rather than legal precedent. That raised some eyebrows.”
Sawyer said Thursday that his comments reflected the vagueness of Proposition 218 and a state Supreme Court interpretation of it last year.
“Any personal feelings I have about water users didn’t figure into any analysis I made,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little difficult to figure out just what the law is. A (legislative) bill headed to the governor right now is trying to clear all of this up.”
Sawyer had also prompted concern in late April when he acknowledged that he’d given the board bad advice on whether it had to publicly declare how each director voted in a closed session when deciding to continue a lawsuit against the federal government.
By not declaring their votes, the directors violated the state open-meeting law, the Brown Act, Sawyer said at the time. And he said Thursday that the Brown Act is not one of his greatest areas of expertise.
“I take full responsibility for this as district counsel,” he said in April. “It was essentially a failure on my part to research the issue and get all of the information out.”
Keeping the information secret was challenged by the Ojai Valley News and Director Richard Handley. Sawyer then issued a public apology to the board. But Handley said he was concerned that the board had violated state law with previous undeclared votes and that he was not comfortable sitting on a board that violates the law.
“I’ve had concerns that there has been a lack of clarity on some of the issues we are facing,” Handley said Thursday. “Any lawyer who represents a special district has to be absolutely versed or expert on the Brown Act. And in our lawsuit with the federal government, it was especially critical that we had good advice. And I don’t think we had that.”
Handley said he also was concerned about Sawyer’s recent comments on water rates for farmers.
“I had a concern that he said farmers might fit into a special category (for water rates) under Prop. 218,” Handley said. “But this wasn’t a one-time concern. It was just a general sense that it would be good to have a new perspective from our legal counsel.”

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