SYCAMORE CANYON RESIDENTS SETTLE FOR EXCESS OF $70 MILLION IN CALTRANS LAWSUIT

A cadre of 66 Montecito residents scored a huge lawsuit settlement with Caltrans last month and will be compensated for physical damages done to their homes during a hill slide in 2005. The plaintiffs’ attorney, David Casselman, confirmed last week that the residents settled for more than $70 million, a major portion of which will go to fix a dangerous shift in a neighboring hill on Sycamore Canyon Road.

“The effect of repairs should be very beneficial to residents,” Casselman said.

Residents in the case declined to comment on the settlement and asked that Casselman speak on their behalf.

The legal compromise brings to an end 10 months of intense wrangling between both sides. Casselman said the “speed of the resolution” might have appeared to take a long time, but indicated it was “quick from a judicial standpoint.”

The case Marc Alexander v. State of California Department of Transportation stemmed from a major hill slide that occurred last January after a two-week period of pounding rain. The residents sued last September arguing that Caltrans’s attempts to stabilize the hill had caused further hillsliding, physically damaging and stigmatizing all of their homes.

For their part, Caltrans lawyers denied they were negligent in their recovery efforts. Despite the settlement, Caltrans officials still contend damage assessments were overstated.

“There were certain homes that were affected, but we dispute that all were affected,” said Janet Wong, the Caltrans attorney in the case. “In light of the situation and our desire to effectuate a compromise, we settled. Still, we believe that many of the claims were meritless.”

About $50 million of the settlement will be contributed to the recovery of the hillside. The residents have retained a geotechnical firm, Cotton, Shires & Associates Inc., to map out necessary slope stabilization measures. They have yet to identify the private company that will complete the construction work, which will involve reinforcement of the hillside and installation of sewers to reduce infiltration of water.

Casselman estimated it would take a year before the hill is fixed. It would take another year, he said, “to complete the entire process.”

Once those measures are finalized, Caltrans will come in and clear out debris to reopen Sycamore Canyon Road. The winding, tree-flanked road has been closed since last January. Nearby residents have complained about its closure, saying it serves as a helpful evacuation route during an emergency. Tempers flared during a June 29 town hall meeting when about 100 residents pleaded with Caltrans officials and local emergency responders to reopen Sycamore Canyon Road during fire season.

Multiple speakers also criticized Caltrans for not providing more information about the closure. At the time, Caltrans representatives had been unable to provide elaborate answers because the terms of the lawsuit settlement had yet to be finalized.

But the state organization says it’s working on a temporary solution that would satisfy neighbors until repairs are finished. Caltrans spokesperson Colin Jones said the agency would install more signs on Sycamore Canyon Road and other byways to make alternate passage routes less confusing. Jones said they might also place a traffic signal on Sycamore Canyon Road at Barker Road.

Caltrans is also looking for a solution to reopen Sycamore Canyon Road in the event of an evacuation situation, such as a fire. “We’re looking to implement a different kind of gate system that would allow the fire department to get through,” Jones said. “In this case, one lane would be open.”

But Jones noted that his agency has no authority over the repair of the hillside. In that case, he said Caltrans can only work as fast as the private construction company that fixes the hill. “It’s been a pretty long, complicated process,” Jones said. “The upshot is that homeowners will use part of the settlement to stabilize the area. We hope it will be getting better now that this [litigation] is over.”

State Bill Benefits Montecito Union

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new bill on July 21 that establishes an attendance count for the Montecito Union Elementary School District’s 2003-04 school year. The determination of this attendance count plays a vital role in how much annual funding Montecito Union receives from the state.

“I’m ecstatic. I could not be more pleased,” said Montecito Union Superintendent Dick Douglas. “It’s what we suggested two and a half years ago and it’s now what we ended up getting.”

The measure helps the school district clear up an attendance accounting mishap that jeopardized how much money Montecito Union would receive from the state. Assembly Bill 2007 establishes a formula based on attendance data from past school years that is designed to ensure that Montecito Union receives the approximately $330,000 it gets from the state each school year.

“I am very pleased that the Governor chose to sign it,” said State Assemblyman Pedro Nava. “This legislation will be a great benefit to the Montecito Union Elementary School District and the young people it educates.”

Most of Montecito Union’s funding comes from property taxes, more than $5.5 million, or 86% of its annual budget. One percent comes from federal categorical funding and another 8% from local interest groups such as the Montecito Educational Foundation, Parent Teacher Association and other private donors.

About 5% of Montecito Union’s 2005-06 budget came from the State of California, a small fraction, said Douglas, but “important for our various programs.”

Bob Noël: ‘I Still Have a Contribution to Make’

Being a Santa Barbara School Board member can sometimes be a frustrating and undesirable job, but “somebody has to do it,” Bob Noël joked on the phone last week. And though the Montecito resident had been reticent to run for a third term this November, he determined quickly that “I think I still have a contribution to make.”

Noël had good reason to doubt his reelection bid. During the mid-‘90s the UCSB emeritus of political science served on a school board with more like-minded colleagues such as Ruth E. Green and Fred Rifkin. But ever since Laura Malakoff and Annette Cordero were elected as trustees in 2004, Noël has worked in a less friendly environment.

On key issues such as the failing cafeteria program, he has clashed with the three other board members. Noël swears the program “has run the district into debt by about five hundred fifty thousand dollars,” and he claims his colleagues are “unwilling to assert themselves and say, ‘hey, there’s something wrong here.’”

In April, Noël accused the School Board of making “explicit violations” of the Brown Act during a closed-door session that took place on February 28. In one of this year’s most animated hearings, Noël drew sharp criticisms from board members for making the allegations public, including Superintendent Brian Sarvis, who told him “the public deserves better.” Noël also claimed the board had ended Santa Barbara Junior High School’s Junior ROTC program without due process.

The Count District Attorney’s office waved both charges, writing in a letter that the district had corrected any wrongdoings. Noël, though, said the District Attorney’s opinion didn’t adequately address the charges. “To this day, I still believe I’m right,” he said.

It’s disagreements like the alleged Brown Act violations that have carved Noël’s reputation as the maverick officer of the board. Fellow trustees assert he isn’t a team player and that he’s unnecessarily argumentative, but Noël says speaking your mind is what public service is all about. “I’m proud to be an independent voice,” said Noël, who is 76. “What I dislike the most is the new perception that debate and dissent are not good for public hearings. That view has been a pervasive one on this board. I really believe that we need to have a public debate. Because once we have an outcome we’ll know that the democratic process has been followed.”

To his ardent supporters, Noël provides the board with a diversity of opinion and method. His traditional approach to education, they say, has been key to Noël’s path of leadership.

“He gives balance to the school board that is notably absent,” said Byron Ishkanian, Noel’s friend of 70-plus years. “He’s almost like a voice by himself on the board and he’s trying to bring fiscal responsibility to the district.”

Advocates looking for a school board candidate in Noël’s image could find one sooner than they expected. Trustee Lynn Rodriguez won’t be running for reelection, leaving a second seat open for the November ballot. Three people have already filed election papers with the County Registrar’s Office, though each has until August 11 to pull out or make their candidacy official.

As much as he’d like working with someone who agrees with him, Noël said the right candidate shouldn’t be cut in his ideological mold. “I look for independence from everybody. For me it’s what this is all about,” he said. “Having me on the board makes it easier for a person to be an independent voice.”

Looking forward to a third term, Noël said the district faces crucial problems that can’t be fixed with “Scotch tape and Band-Aid. You have to think way out of the box.” Of importance, Noël said the district doesn’t provide enough for “disadvantaged kids.” He also pointed to federal sanctions that are impeding the progress of three schools – the entire elementary district, Santa Barbara Junior High and La Cumbre Junior High. “This is a huge problem and we can’t ignore it,” he said.

To find ways to fix these problems, Noël has visited other school districts, such as the one in Garden Grove, which he said has “demographics that make us look rosy.” During his study he noticed Garden Grove had many assets Santa Barbara’s district could borrow from.

If he wins in the November election, Noël said the district should consider hiring a consulting firm to analyze every school in a non-voluntary program. “I think it’s time to do something like that again,” Noël said, “though that can be extremely expensive.”

He also said he’d challenge his colleagues to be more strict about their duties to the district, a subject he’s covered in length in his recent report, “Lax Oversight, Relaxed Compliance.”

“Oversight is utterly essential,” he said, “and that’s an issue where I tend to clash with the board.”

Water Customers Gain Voting Power on Prices

The California Supreme Court made a ruling last week that could have powerful implications on how public offices like the Montecito Water District set their prices. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that “by exercising the initiative power, voters may decrease a public water agency’s fees and charges for water service,” according to court papers.

In the 10-page ruling, Justice Joyce Kennard also acknowledged a water agency’s right to preserve fiscal solvency. “The agency’s governing board may then raise other fees or impose new fees without voter approval,” Kennard wrote.

In the case Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency v. Kari Verjil and E.W. Kelley, the state court ruling concentrated on Proposition 218, a voter-approved measure that limits local governments’ power to impose fees. The defendant in the case, E.W. Kelley, a Santa Bernardino county resident, had tried to create an initiative measure to reduce the Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency’s fees and charges. The water agency had rejected the attempt, arguing that such fees and charges did not apply to ballot measures.

Montecito Water District officials say the ruling validates their department’s current practices. Last summer, the district raised rates and charges for all Montecito customers, except for the commercial class, which pays the most for water ($4.25 per hundred cubic feet). In doing so, the district’s brass say they complied with all the public notification and rate structure requirements prescribed by Proposition 218.

“[The ruling] basically confirms what we’ve been doing in the past for a number of years,” said Bob Roebuck, the district’s general manager.

The district’s attorney, Chip Wullbrandt, who also counsels the Carpinteria Water District, said the ruling demonstrates the Montecito water agency’s respect for the give-and-take relationship between customers and elected board members. “As a practical matter, the district does go through and has gone through the process of allowing customers to come in and protest,” Wullbrandt said. “That’s one of the great benefits of what the Montecito Water District has been doing.”

However, the court case did not resolve one long-simmering legal debate: the issue of water rate equitability. The Montecito Water District currently offers varying rates to its five customer classes. In its initial proposal last summer, the district proposed a “revenue neutral” unified rate system, arguing that different water prices were discriminatory to certain customer classes. At the time, district officials had expected the State Supreme Court ruling would vindicate their position. During a December water district hearing, though, customers handily rejected the unified structure and the water board complied.

After last week’s court decision, Wullbrandt said the issue of water rate equitability was still murky. “One of the things a court has not yet done is tell you how you justify setting different rates for customers,” he said.