Retired Judge to Continue to Preside Over Weldon Case
A retired Santa Barbara judge, whose offhand remarks from the bench prompted charges of bias, will continue to preside over the Weldon Canyon landfill lawsuit, a judge decided Wednesday.
Dismissing allegations that his fellow jurist is already biased against the controversial landfill project, retired Appeals Court Justice Nat Agliano effectively kept the lawsuit on schedule for a decision before November’s election.
Landfill supporters, led by a San Diego partnership called Taconic Resources, collected enough signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that asks voters to approve the landfill proposed to be built in Weldon Canyon.
But Ojai and Ventura, the cities closest to the canyon, are asking retired Appeals Court Judge Richard W. Abbe to declare the initiative legally invalid.
Abbe, of Santa Barbara, was assigned the case after five Ventura County judges removed themselves or were disqualified. At a hearing last month, he set an Aug. 22 court date to resolve the matter, making clear his intention to rule before ballots are printed.
At the hearing, he also referred to the landfill as a “dump site” and commented that he would hate to see Ventura County “cluttered with trash.” Those remarks led landfill supporters Wednesday to unsuccessfully challenge his objectivity.
Throughout the July 22 hearing, Abbe often kidded the lawyers with a breezy, wisecracking style.
Abbe professed ignorance of the politics surrounding the landfill issue. “I saw a bumper sticker on the way in that says ‘Dump Weldon.’ I don’t know what that means,” he said in the courtroom.
At another point, he told the lawyers: “I don’t know anything about Ventura County. I live in Santa Barbara. I like it there. I like it down here. I’d hate to see it cluttered with trash.”
Lawyer Wes Peltzer said it was that remark that most disturbed landfill supporters. “I don’t know how you can read that as not suggesting some sort of previous position,” Peltzer argued Wednesday.
But Agliano questioned Peltzer’s interpretation of the remarks.
“Isn’t it possible that what he said here has just the opposite meaning?” Agliano asked Peltzer. “I think what he’s saying is this may really be important to have this (landfill) alternative because the county will be littered with trash.”
Landfill foes said Taconic Resources had made exactly that point in campaign literature warning: “Time is Running Out! The Trash is Piling Up!”
“Taconic has been making their nonsense arguments so long that they’re getting confused,” said John Nava, of the Coalition to Stop Weldon Canyon Dump. “They didn’t recognize their own propaganda line when they heard it from the bench.”
Peltzer also argued that opposing lawyers had prejudiced Abbe against him by warning that Taconic Resources might try to disqualify the Santa Barbara jurist.
He noted that Abbe had called the proposed landfill a “dump site,” which Peltzer said is a pejorative term.
In addition, Peltzer said he detected a bias when Abbe asked him who was paying his legal fees.
Peltzer said he is being paid by Eloise Brown, the Moorpark activist who initiated the petition drive and thus is named in the lawsuit.
“Taconic Resources never has or will it pay any part of my fee,” he said in court Wednesday.
Afterward, he said his fees were being paid by the Ventura Citizens for Environmental Solutions, the political committee backing the initiative drive. On its campaign finance reports filed this week, the committee reports it is “sponsored by Taconic Resources” and uses Taconic’s Del Mar address as its own.
Peltzer has worked with Taconic partner Richard Chase on past projects, according to news accounts. As early as 1985, he is quoted as an attorney representing Chase’s proposed trash-burning plant in San Diego.