The proposed move of the 30-year-old Ventura Workers' Compensation Appeal Board out of Ventura County to Agoura has angered some local attorneys and judges, who contend that it would work a needless hardship on most of the county's injured workers.
Most of the board's caseload consists of farm workers and other low-income residents in the Oxnard area, they say. Many of them are disabled and do not own cars, and the circuitous bus ride from Oxnard to Agoura would take at least three hours.
Even those who do own cars would suffer, according to some attorneys.
"These people can hardly afford gas money to get to Ventura now. There is no way these people can get to Agoura," said Louis J. Vigorita, president of the Central Coast chapter of the Applicants Attorneys Assn., which represents injured workers.
But an official with the state Department of Industrial Relations, the parent agency of the workers' compensation boards, dismissed those objections. John McGill, the department's director of ancillary services, insisted that public transportation would not be that inconvenient.
Critics point out, however, that there is no direct public transit from Ventura to the Agoura area, 35 miles away in Los Angeles County. The court's present site on Ralston Street is on a bus line and is near the Ventura County Government Center.
Getting to Agoura by bus from the west end of the county requires rides on three different bus systems. For workers in Fillmore or Simi Valley, there is no public transportation.
The move, set for April, is part of a statewide restructuring program for the board, which holds hearings for employees locked in disputes with employers or employers' insurance companies over injury compensation.
McGill said the plan is an attempt to manage the surging caseload in the Los Angeles area. An Agoura office would handle many cases overflowing from the board's Van Nuys office, as well as all cases handled in the Ventura office. Such an arrangement would better service injured workers in both the western San Fernando Valley and the Conejo Valley, he said.
But some court officials say Ventura County is large enough to have its own board.
"I'd like to see us have an operation in Ventura if we can," said Larry Greenblatt, presiding judge for the Ventura board. "That's based on my own emotions as far as the injured worker. There definitely should be a state plan to serve the needs in Ventura County."
Those in favor of the move agree with McGill that a growing population in eastern Ventura County and the western San Fernando Valley make Agoura, situated between the two, a logical choice for the new office. While the move would pose "a gross inconvenience" for workers in Ventura and Oxnard, those in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks would have a shorter commute.
But such workers aren't the ones who need the court the most, said Ventura attorney Carmen Ramirez, who represents low-income clients at Channel Counties Legal Services.
"Agoura is in the middle of nowhere. Farm workers don't really live in Agoura or the Conejo Valley or Van Nuys. They live here," she said.
The opposition, headed by Vigorita, has embarked on a letter-writing campaign and plans a lawsuit to attempt to block the move. A petition protesting it, with more than 300 signatures, was sent to Gov. George Deukmejian earlier this month. Vigorita said state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria) and Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R-Ojai) have also written letters to the governor protesting the removal of the Ventura board.
However, McGill said he doesn't foresee anything deterring the move in April, even a lawsuit. "Everybody's free to go into court. If they want to sue, then let them," he said.
The 75-year-old Workers' Compensation Board has recently been under fire because it has become a bureaucratic maze. State legislators and administrators agree that the system is highly inefficient and look to Assembly Bill 276, signed by Deukmejian at the end of September, to overhaul the system.
The legislation will add 12 new judges statewide, two for the proposed board in Agoura. Ideally, the new plan will allow judges to concentrate on handling trials by providing attorneys and other employees to take over many of their arbitration duties.