Supervisors OK Legal Protection for Planners

Times Staff Writer

County supervisors did an abrupt U-turn Tuesday, unanimously voting to grant legal protection to members of 26 planning groups countywide.

Last month, supervisors voted, 3-1, in closed-door session not to grant free legal representation to its volunteer citizen planners, who make land-use decisions in their local unincorporated communities and recommend actions to the county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

A dozen planning group members successfully urged the supervisors to change their stance and protect the unpaid planners. Several groups, including Valley Center, Fallbrook and Alpine, had quit meeting in a virtual "strike" until county officials agreed to protect them from legal challenges arising from their planning decisions.

Under a new board policy adopted Tuesday, planning and advisory group members who attend "training sessions" conducted by the county counsel's office will receive legal representation in their planning actions as long as they act "in good faith," and have no conflicts of interest.

Last month, Supervisors Brian Bilbray, Susan Golding and Leon Williams voted in executive session to deny legal representation to the planners, announcing after the session that the move was "designed to preserve the integrity and independence of local citizen advisory groups" by forcing them under state Political Reform Act regulations.

Planners Expected Support

But the citizen planners balked at the prospect of paying the costs of lawsuits from their private income and being liable for judgments against them. Letters and telephone calls to the county officials confirmed that they expected support or they would not continue in their unpaid positions.

Supervisor John MacDonald, who voted against the denial, and Supervisor George Bailey, who was absent from the closed-door session, later initiated the policy change adopted Tuesday. The issue came up after a Valley Center Planning Group member filed suit against a number of governmental agencies and officials, including two fellow planning board members whom he charged with making planning decisions that benefitted property they owned.

The case has yet to come to court.

MacDonald, supervisor for the North County area, said the planning group members were "truly shocked" to learn that they could not count on legal representation from the county in fighting the charges. MacDonald said Tuesday that the action the supervisors took would qualify the two planners to request county legal aid. If asked, he said, the county board would decide in closed session whether to grant the request.

Asked to Clarify Position

In a related action recently, San Diego City Councilwoman Judy McCarty asked the city attorney to clarify the city's position on legal representation of the members of the city's more than 35 community planning groups. According to John Kern, executive assistant to McCarty, the matter has been referred to the council's Rules Committee.

MacDonald said that the county's reluctance to take on legal protection of the planning groups stemmed from the possibly enormous costs of such a chore.

Although the Valley Center suit was the first such legal challenge to planning group members' actions, the county now faces $50 million in claims against it.

County planning group members testified during the public hearing that they could not risk losing their personal savings and property by continuing to serve on the volunteer groups without assurance of legal representation. Beverly Clark of the Alpine Planning Group warned that, without county legal backing, the only people who would serve would be "those with nothing to lose" from legal challenges.

Board Approval Received

Bilbray on Tuesday received board approval backing state legislation that would indemnify the local planning groups from legal challenges for their actions. County legislative representatives will seek sponsors for a bill at the next session of the state Legislature.

The legal status of members of about 70 other citizen advisory groups was not addressed by the policy adopted Tuesday.

Golding, while voting for the policy, pointed out that the action "is only a first step" toward preventing frivolous suits from being filed against governmental agencies and officials that cost millions of dollars in attorneys' fees even though the public agencies are ultimately exonerated. Bilbray agreed, blaming today's "sue-happy society" on the overabundance of attorneys.

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