Suit Over Budget Law Gets Go-Ahead

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County supervisors can go forward with a lawsuit that seeks to nullify an ordinance that protects county law enforcement agencies from budget cuts, a judge ruled Thursday.

In a five-paragraph ruling, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Walsh allowed the supervisors to proceed with a suit challenging the constitutionality of an 8-year-old ordinance that bars budget cuts for the Sheriff's Department, the district attorney's office and two other public safety agencies.

"There is some irony to a legislative body challenging the legality of its own enactment," Walsh wrote in the decision. However, he said he saw nothing in the law to prevent it.

The rare spectacle of the county attempting to dump its own ordinance caps years of conflict over the issue between the supervisors and the heads of the county's biggest law enforcement agencies.

The supervisors' suit was a response to one filed against the county in July by Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten, who alleged their departments repeatedly have been shortchanged at budget time.

The ordinance in question was approved by supervisors in 1995. Triggered by a petition drive that gathered nearly 50,000 signatures, it requires that cash from a half-cent sales tax go to the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender and the county probation department.

It also gives those agencies an annual boost from the general fund to cover inflation, a windfall no other department receives.

The arrangement has drawn increasingly bitter criticism over the years from county officials, who contend that it unfairly shields law enforcement from budget cuts that must be spread over other departments. The law enforcement agencies have argued that the tax, which has raised as much as $50 million annually, has contributed to a steep drop in local crime.

Public safety agencies in California's 57 other counties also benefit from the tax, which was created when voters approved Proposition 172 in 1993. However, Ventura is the only county that by law dedicates the entire haul to law enforcement instead of sharing it with firefighters, emergency medical personnel, animal control officers and other public safety employees.

Steven L. Mayer, an attorney representing the Board of Supervisors, said his clients were pleased with Walsh's decision.

"Obviously, he understood it was unfair for the district attorney and sheriff to be able to sue us and for us to not be permitted to defend ourselves," he said, adding that one of the county's defenses is to challenge the ordinance.

Mayer said he will ask Walsh next week for a February hearing on the law's constitutionality.

Representing the sheriff and district attorney, Anthony H. Trembley, said the ruling was a disappointment. However, he noted that it only allows the county to pursue its case.

"We're glad the ruling doesn't imply a view of the court on any of the issues," he said.

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