Council approves $755K in legal expenses for lawsuit it says could bankrupt city

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Facing a lawsuit from environmental groups requesting more than $100 million in damages for alleged water quality violations, the City Council approved nearly a million dollars in additional legal expenses for its defense.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

With a multimillion dollar lawsuit by environmental groups against the city headed for trial in November, the Malibu City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve an additional $755,000 in funding for legal expenses related to its defense. The lawsuit, filed in 2008 by the National Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper, alleges violations of the Clean Water Act by the City of Malibu and requests damages of $105 million.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges the city illegally discharged polluted water in the coastal preserve off western Malibu that is designated as an Area of Special Biological Significance (ASBS). It also holds the city responsible for exceeding levels of pollutants in Malibu Creek.

The legal expenses were not included in the city’s recently passed fiscal year 2011-12 budget and will be taken from its reserve fund. Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen said the money would cover previous costs related to the lawsuit, such as depositions and requests for records, as well as future costs for the impending trial.

Malibu Mayor John Sibert said city officials had attempted to resolve the dispute through mediation with the NRDC and Baykeeper, with no success. Sibert and other council members expressed outrage at being forced to allocate major sums to the continuing litigation in the face of what they view as intransigence from the environmental groups.

“This is all money that we have to spend that should be going to clean water, and that really disgusts me,” Sibert said. “But we have to do this, because the alternative for the City of Malibu is bankruptcy, or something close to it.”

Sibert said the city had spent millions of dollars in recent years on clean water projects such as the stormwater treatment facilities at Paradise Cove and Legacy Park, “addressing all the things that they’re suing us about.” He blamed a different lawsuit by Baykeeper regarding Legacy Park for costing the city a $5 million dollar water quality grant from the state, and said the city’s environmental staff had been occupied responding to the current lawsuit instead of working on environmental issues.

Mayor Pro Tem Laura Rosenthal said the city’s past reputation for inaction on water quality issues does not apply today.

“Sometimes you have to look at the momentum, where is a city moving, and how fast are they moving,” Rosenthal said. “We’re moving quickly, and we’re moving in the right direction, and I think that needs to count for something.”

Councilmember Jefferson Wagner sought to assure Malibu taxpayers their money was not being wasted frivolously. Wagner said Downey Brand Attorneys, LLC, the law firm hired by the city for its legal defense, was held in high regard by the state water board and had a great deal of credibility in Sacramento on water quality issues.

“The money, although it’s a great deal of money, is being spent wisely as far as I’ve seen in the last couple years,” Wagner said. “It’s unfortunate that the amounts have become so extravagant.”

Councilmember Lou La Monte also voiced his frustration with the process, as well as a warning to the NRDC and Baykeeper.

“I’d like them to know that we are going to court, and ultimately I think we are going to win this case,” La Monte said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be after several lawyers have put their kids through college, and the water’s not getting any cleaner.”

Actor Daniel Stern reports city’s arts task force plans new arts festival

– Actor and artist Daniel Stern addressed the council Monday night regarding future arts projects. Stern, who chairs the city’s Arts Task Force, said the task force was planning an arts festival that would showcase the work of local Malibu artists. Stern lauded the recent Malibu Arts Festival, but said it mainly featured artists outside of Malibu.

Task force members are targeting an early December date for the event, which is tentatively called the “Splash” festival and would resemble an art crawl as seen in other cities. Stern said city funding would be needed to organize the event. The council voted to place the item on the agenda for its first meeting in September.

– The council Monday night voted to set a hearing date for a Geological Hazard Abatement District (GHAD) at Broad Beach.

The GHAD is a private undertaking by homeowners along the beach to restore the beach, which has experienced ongoing erosion for many years due to a combination of recurring weather patterns and rising sea levels. After a storm caused ocean water to flood the yards of some of the beachfront homes, homeowners in 2010 built a rock wall revetment, which some critics say caused further erosion to the beach. The GHAD would widen and replenish the heavily eroded beach using sand dredged from offshore and onshore sources, build and restore sand dunes, and bury the existing rock revetment. The project is expected to cost approximately $10 million, with the permitting process costing an addition $2 million to $3 million. It will be privately funded by the Trancas Property Owners Association, a group representing most of the 109 homeowners who live on the beach between Lechuza Point and Trancas Creek. TPOA’s attorney Ken Ehrlich has said that no rock would be added to the existing rock revetment.

– Councilmember Jefferson Wagner said he had made phone calls to the owners of the La Paz property in the Civic Center area about temporarily moving Papa Jack’s Skate Park to the property, but had received no reply. The skate park faces eviction in November from its current location, where developer Steve Soboroff plans to build a Whole Foods grocery. Wagner and Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich lead the ad hoc committee seeking a new home for the skate park.

– Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich had staff pull up a recent advertisement in the Los Angeles Times by real estate mogul Donald Sterling on the overhead projector screen in the City Hall chambers Monday night. The ad touts a free summer camp for children ages 6-14 to be held at a property Sterling recently purchased near Heathercliff Road and Pacific Coast Highway, replete with a helicopter pad and horse rides. Ulich asked City Manager Jim Thorsen if Sterling had obtained permits for the camp from the city.

“At this time Mr. Sterling hasn’t submitted any application whatsoever to have those type of events at that site,” Thorsen said, adding that Sterling would have to obtain coastal development permits for the activities. “Anyone who has ever built in Malibu knows how tough that is.”

Mayor John Sibert added, “On top of that, in order to get a helicopter pad you’ve got to deal with the FAA and the Sheriff’s Department, and those pictures are not of his property.”