County Contests Planning Probe

Times Staff Writer

A special master appointed by a judge to examine the Orange County planning department's beleaguered finances is biased and should be removed from his post, county attorneys have charged.

Robert Mosier, a certified public accountant who was tapped last spring to conduct independent fact-finding, has recently been critical of how the Planning and Development Services department is managed.

The department is facing a financial crisis that has prompted officials to lay off a fifth of the staff and propose large increases in planning fees.

In a memo to Superior Court Judge C. Robert Jameson last month, Mosier faulted the planning department for spending $18 million in reserves at a time when it was experiencing a sharp decline in revenue from new building projects.

"The spending train gained so much momentum ... that by the end of the fiscal year when the reserve was finally depleted, it just kept going," he wrote in the court filing. "Where did the money go?"

A special master is a court-appointed expert assigned to independently examine issues related to a case, and to make non-binding written findings to the court. Mosier was assigned to deal with a case brought by a homebuilder and citizen activists who charged that the county is overcharging for building permits.

In a motion filed Monday, Jeffrey Dunn, a private attorney representing the county, sought to have Mosier disqualified, saying he violated California judicial ethics by publicly releasing preliminary findings about the department's finances in "sensationalistic" and "inflammatory" language. Releasing the findings, he added, was "designed to attract the attention of the local media."

Dunn said in his motion that the special master's actions prove Mosier can't be objective.

Mosier did not return a call seeking comment; and Dunn and planning department spokesman Brian Murphy declined comment because the issue is under litigation.

Barratt American Inc., a national homebuilder, and Paladin Fair Housing Coalition, a citizen activist group, sued the planning department in 1999, alleging it was unfairly overcharging builders and others with excessively high permit fees.

They accused the department of improperly spending the money on overhead and administrative costs.

The county could be required to return millions of dollars in fee revenues -- worsening the Planning Department's precarious financial picture -- if Judge Jameson rules the fees are too high or were improperly spent.

Dick McCarthy of the housing coalition said the attempt to remove Mosier was "a desperate move."

Walt McNeill, the attorney representing McCarthy and the other plaintiffs, said the charges against Mosier were "baseless factually and legally," and accused the county of wanting to "shoot the messenger."

"In terms of his alleged bias, I find him to be completely objective and evenhanded," McNeill added. "There have been times in the course of this where I have strongly disagreed with his positions or the direction he took, and likewise so has the county."

A hearing on the motion to remove Mosier is scheduled for Jan. 23.

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