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Landfill Backers Want Issue Put to Vote : Dump: Both sides gear up for a key hearing Monday. Judge could dismiss the measure as legally invalid.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rejecting charges that the Weldon Canyon landfill initiative is legally flawed, landfill supporters say the court owes it to Ventura County voters to keep the measure on November’s ballot.

“The courts have long recognized that there is little good that comes from a decision depriving the voters of the right to engage in public debate and vote on issues of public importance,” attorney Wes Peltzer wrote in a 54-page brief filed in anticipation of a key hearing Monday.

On that day, a retired appeals judge will hear final arguments on whether to let the measure go to the voters or dismiss it as legally invalid.

Traditionally, California judges have been reluctant to take initiatives off the ballot, given the popular support needed to put them there. In this case supporters submitted petitions with 32,000 signatures in favor of the measure, which would allow a landfill in the rugged canyon between Ventura and Ojai.

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But officials from the two cities, joined last week by Ventura County’s legal staff, argue that the measure is so flawed that it should be stricken from the ballot immediately.

“We think the voters are not getting the fair scoop,” Assistant County Counsel William Moritz said in an interview Thursday. “We think the voters are being asked to do something unconstitutional.”

Specifically, the opponents argue that the initiative fails to make the proper changes to land use and zoning laws. Also, the measure vests rights in a particular company, Taconic Resources, a San Diego County firm. That in itself, attorneys argue, is a violation of state law.

In his response in the brief, Peltzer dismissed such charges as “blunderbuss attacks.” Peltzer represents Ellen Brown, the Moorpark activist who began the petition drive and who is named in the suit.

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He argued that the restriction on naming a specific company applies to statewide ballot measures, not local initiatives. In no case, he said, has a California court invalidated an initiative for that reason.

What’s more, he cited 10 California cases supporting his contention that the initiative process can be used to amend land use and zoning plans.

Even if the Weldon initiative contains some minor discrepancies, the problems are not important enough to deny voters rights in this case, Peltzer argued.

“Because the petitioners are seeking pre-election review of an initiative measure, they bear the very substantial burden of demonstrating the initiative is clearly invalid beyond a doubt,” Peltzer wrote.

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Katherine Stone, an attorney for Ojai, disputed his arguments.

“The same powers and limits apply to local initiatives as to state initiatives,” Stone said in an interview. “I think his interpretation of the legislative history is wrong.”

Stone said she actually agreed with Peltzer on the use of initiatives to amend land-use and zoning laws--an issue now before the California Supreme Court in another case.

But she argued that the Weldon initiative does not properly amend Ventura County’s land-use plan. And it failed, she said, to make the needed changes in the county’s zoning provisions.

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Attorneys expect to spend most of Monday presenting arguments to retired Appeals Judge Richard W. Abbe, the Santa Barbara jurist brought in after five Ventura judges were disqualified or removed themselves from the controversial case.

Abbe could rule on the case Monday afternoon or could study it further and issue an opinion in the weeks ahead. “We’re hoping to get a decision right away, though it may be hard,” Stone said.

Landfill foes say they want a decision by the end of August, so that both sides will have time to exhaust appeals before the county prints the November ballot.

Supporters argued last month that the judge should postpone any decision until after November’s election. Abbe ruled against that motion, but will hear arguments on the issue again Monday.

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