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Ethics Board Unpopular Idea Among Supervisors : Grand jury: Maggie Erickson says the report implies county workers can be influenced by food and drink.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday informally rejected a grand jury recommendation that an ethics commission be formed to write a code of conduct for county employees.

The grand jury, concluding its investigation into billionaire David H. Murdock’s Sherwood Country Club project, on Monday criticized county officials for creating an “appearance of an impropriety” by attending a barbecue hosted by Murdock in 1989--before all aspects of the developer’s project had been approved by the county.

The Board of Supervisors received the grand jury report Tuesday and may officially respond any time within 90 days.

But four of the board’s five members said in interviews that they would not vote to create an ethics board, which was one of several grand jury recommendations related to the Murdock project.

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“What is being implied is that since county employees were treated to fine food and drink, everyone was inclined to look more favorably on a proposal. And I think that’s preposterous,” Supervisor Maggie Erickson said.

“If any of us is inclined in that direction, a barbecue isn’t enough to do it,” said Erickson, who did not attend the festivities at Murdock’s Arabian horse ranch in Hidden Valley.

Murdock’s project, which calls for 650 houses and a golf course at Lake Sherwood near Thousand Oaks, was approved three years ago.

The grand jury noted, however, that several permit requests were still pending when the developer held the Sept. 30, 1989, barbecue to thank about three dozen county employees for their cooperation.

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The developer’s controversial proposal to form a special district to tax area residents for millions of dollars in improvements at the lake still has not been voted on by the supervisors, the grand jury said.

Though the grand jury found no illegality, it said a new commission is needed to draft “a countywide ethics ordinance to govern how county employees and officials should conduct themselves while conducting county business.”

Among the supervisors, only John K. Flynn tended to agree. He said that county employees, including several department directors involved with the project, should not have attended the barbecue.

“I just don’t believe in that kind of stuff,” Flynn said. “I think the public perceives something like that as being improper.”

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Supervisors Madge L. Schaefer, Susan K. Lacey and James R. Dougherty said they thought an ethics commission is a bad idea.

“Those have a life of their own,” and can be used “for political mischief,” Dougherty said. Lacey said the commission is not needed.

“I go to barbecues hosted by the general contractors association, but I also go to open houses for nonprofit community groups who have contracts with the county,” Lacey said. “I’m honest, so there’s no problem.”

Schaefer, who was closest to the Murdock project because it is in her district, attended the 1989 barbecue and also held a political fund-raiser at Murdock’s horse ranch in 1988. She said a county ethics code strict enough to keep her from attending the barbecue would also ban meetings with homeowners groups.

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At Tuesday’s board meeting, Schaefer lashed out at grand jurors in the audience, saying they had “played fast and loose with my reputation” for months. Schaefer’s relationship with Murdock was probed by the grand jury, witnesses have said.

The grand jury cleared her of any wrongdoing in its report. But the angry supervisor told jurors: “I would like to see members of the grand jury subject to the same ethics commission.”

While the county’s policy-makers expressed little interest in an ethics board, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury endorsed the recommendation.

Bradbury, whose office was the grand jury’s legal adviser on the Murdock investigation, said that “certainly the grand jury’s recommendation that a strong ethics code be developed is warranted. It is clearly needed for elected officials on down.”

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Bradbury would not elaborate, but he said he intends to continue his investigation into Murdock’s activities here and in other states.

“We have no reason to believe there was any criminal conduct involved,” the prosecutor said, “but we do have some things we want to follow up. It involves checking on some of Murdock’s previous business dealings as well as how he has conducted himself here.”

According to documents released by Bradbury’s office after a request by The Times, Sherwood Country Club spent $5,195 to cater Murdock’s 1989 barbecue, or about $68 for each of his 76 guests.

Thirty-four county employees and 25 of their guests were invited, a guest list shows. Many of the employees were from the public works and planning departments, the agencies that had the most contact with the Murdock project.

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Tom Berg, county planning director, said that it “never crossed my mind” that anyone would question the propriety of county employees attending the barbecue, because the project had long been approved and its major permits issued.

Berg said that he thought the barbecue drew the grand jury’s attention partly because the county so rarely deals with major developments. The county’s general plan restricts such projects to cities.

An exception was made for the Sherwood Country Club because it was proposed as a way to solve sewer, water-supply and lake-maintenance problems for 122 existing homeowners at Lake Sherwood, county officials have said.

The conditions of the country club’s 1987 approval were the focus of much of the grand jury’s 22-page report.

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The grand jury faulted county officials for an alleged lack of communication that could allow Murdock to sell Lake Sherwood for millions of dollars rather than give it away to a community group.

The developer pledged the dedication of the lake three years ago when seeking project approval from the supervisors.

The grand jury said that he first mentioned selling it in early 1988. But it was not until last month--long after construction had begun at the country club--that county officials sought to clarify Murdock’s legal position on the lake dedication, the grand jury said.

Out of its concern at such inaction, the jury recommended placing each major project under the direction of a manager who would track it from beginning to end. Most supervisors and several other county officials agreed Tuesday that such a reform would be a good idea if another large project is approved.

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The grand jury was particularly caustic in questioning why some county officials support Murdock’s pending proposal to form a special district to assess new residents--and 122 existing homeowners--millions of dollars to repay the developer for refilling and repairing Lake Sherwood.

The panel said it saw no public benefit from such a district and that its creation would give Murdock “a method to induce, or perhaps even extort, the existing Lake Sherwood residents” into joining a separate lake-maintenance district made up primarily of buyers of his new homes.

Murdock has offered to reimburse existing homeowners for their share of the cost of the lake if they will join the lake-maintenance district.

The proposal is expected to be forwarded next month to the supervisors, county Public Works Director Art Goulet said.

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Goulet said existing homeowners and about 50 undeveloped parcels outside Murdock’s country club should be included in the lake-maintenance district because they receive benefits from it.

Unless all residents who benefit from the private lake pay to maintain it, legal disputes are sure to arise, Goulet said.

But Supervisors Flynn and Lacey said that when they approved the country club project, they understood that Murdock would restore the lake without cost to existing residents.

“I voted for this project because it got rid of sewer and water problems and the lake was going to be given back to the people,” Lacey said.

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