Break Rules, Lose Contract

We share the outrage of Supervisor John Flynn at the casual, business-as-usual way Public Works Agency officials tried to award yet another county contract to Tom Staben, who remains under investigation by local, state and federal authorities for environmental and code violations.

The agreement to pay Staben $141,937 for clearing silt and debris from the Fox flood-control basin near Somis was one of six contracts placed on last week’s consent calendar--reserved for noncontroversial items on which no discussion is expected. Flynn rightly asked his colleagues to reschedule the matter for Nov. 10, when it can be debated.

There’s plenty to say about it.

If Staben is able to submit the lowest bids for such work as removing and disposing of storm debris while complying with all environmental laws, then the county is smart to continue hiring him. But if he is able to offer such bargain rates because of cutting corners and illegally dumping in forbidden areas--as he has been accused of doing in a series of citations--then the county should take its business elsewhere. Among the reasons:


* It’s not fair to other contractors who do intend to follow all the laws, and consequently submit higher bids.

* It’s not acceptable to make county taxpayers subsidize environmental abuse such as digging up the Ventura River bottom or storing junk and debris in a flood plain, two of the accusations against Staben.

* The county could be legally liable if such shortcuts backfire and cause further damage.

Agencies ranging from the district attorney’s office to the FBI are investigating Staben on suspicion of illegal dumping. County inspectors have cited him repeatedly for dumping broken-down cars, dirt and old appliances into a Somis stream bed.

In fairness to Staben, investigations into most of the charges remain incomplete. The sooner the validity of all these citations is determined, the sooner this matter can be resolved, one way or the other.

But simply continuing to award more contracts while the investigations lag will not do.

In the meantime the county is developing guidelines for rating the performance of contractors, which would allow it to ban those who do not measure up. Such guidelines would clarify a simple fact that should be common sense to anyone but a bureaucrat:

It’s not just enough to agree to do a job cheaper than anyone else. The job also has to be done safely, responsibly--and legally.