Supervisor candidate LaVere said he would ‘jump’ at chance to end lawsuit against thousands of Ojai Valley residents

Video of meeting by Laura Rearwin Ward

Ojai Councilman William Weirick, right, asks Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere about why the city of Ventura is suing thousands of Ojai Valley residents over water use. The Democratic Club held the meeting Sunday, Jan. 12, at the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura. 

By Marianne Ratcliff, Ojai Valley News editor
Matt LaVere is mayor of the city of Ventura, which is suing thousands of Ojai Valley residents over water use. So, on Jan. 12, when the business attorney spoke to Ventura Democratic Club members about running for 1st District county supervisor, he was asked to explain how he expects people he supports suing to vote for him.
“Thousands of people in the Ojai Valley just got served, and are having to pay hundreds of dollars each, plus hire an attorney to deal with this situation that Matt was part of in terms of voting with the Ventura City Council to file this action,” said Ojai Councilman William Weirick during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting at the Bell Arts Factory.
Weirick was referring to the 10,500 summonses and legal notices sent last week by certified mail to Ojai Valley residents from Ventura city attorneys. When the city of Ventura and State Water Regional Control Board were sued by environmental organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper over water levels to sustain steelhead in 2014, the city of Ventura included Ojai Valley water pumpers as cross-complainants in 2018.
The city of Ventura has now included thousands more Ojai Valley property owners in its lawsuit to adjudicate the watershed. LaVere said the city of Ventura spent close to a million dollars on the lawsuit last year alone.
Since LeVere had spoken earlier in the meeting that his top concerns included homelessness and affordable housing, Weirick asked LaVere why he was willing to spend millions of dollars on a lawsuit that would be better spent on those issues.
Ojai councilman’s question
Weirick asked LaVere: “How can we be confident in your leadership as District 1 supervisor when you have led the Ventura City Council in voting to instigate litigation aimed at totally commodifying the common property resource of the Ventura River watershed, sabotaging attempts at responsible regional watershed management and, instead, advancing an archaic view of water property rights — complete adjudication — that has consistently led to environmental disasters throughout the state of California?”
“I take certain offense to this … I don’t know that I’ve sabotaged anything,” LaVere said.
Weirick responded: “Action of the lawsuit is sabotaging attempts at collaborative regional water management, is the view in the Ojai Valley.”
Mayor LaVere’s answer
LaVere said that lawyers for the city of Ventura told the council: “If this situation is going to get resolved in perpetuity … everybody who uses water from the watershed has to come together and create, long term, what our pumping levels are going to be. That’s the only way we are going to reach a sustainable water level in the watershed. What that meant, what we were told, is the only way to do that is to bring all of the users into what’s called an adjudication process.”
LaVere continued, “…I rely a lot on what our attorneys tell us. … And what we were told, essentially, was this is the way to create a sustainable watershed going forward. And to do that, that meant — and I guess I’m not looking for a pity party — but imagine me sitting in that room being told you’re running for this district and you have to sue everybody, in other words. That gave me a pit in my stomach.
“Because I think everybody agrees that we need to create a sustainable future for the watershed,” LaVere said.
“Absolutely It’s the best way, but what’s the best way to do it? And is this the best way? We think not,” Weirick said.
“If there’s another option, please tell me,” LaVere said to Weirick. “I can look you in the eye right now and say… I have not been provided another option. If I was provided that, I would jump — jump as high as I’ve ever jumped at that opportunity. Because I didn’t want to be involved in this, trust me…”
“We’re going to take you up on that offer,” Weirick said. “And we’re going to take on that responsibility and try to develop something.”
LaVere said the decision to sue Ojai Valley residents was “not a mayor decision, it was a City Council decision,” but “I have to own it as mayor. And so I am willing to stand up and own it. I want to be part of a solution. I do not want to be involved in active litigation with people I am representing as supervisor. Trust me. And I want to do anything I can to find a solution.”
After speaking to the group, LaVere answered questions from the Ojai Valley News about the lawsuit, saying there’s a lot of concern about water sustainability. “Right now, we’re OK, but five to 10 years out is what I’m concerned about.”
Taxpayer dollars
When asked about the cost of the lawsuit involving thousands of Ojai Valley residents, water agencies and organizations, which could take years to resolve, LaVere said: “Me, personally, I really pushed back on that because that is always a big concern of mine — how much money the attorneys are making.
“But, at the same time, not being a water professional, I don’t know enough to push back. I have to take what my lawyers are telling me is true. … Because that’s their job. … Their job is to advise us on our rights, and they were given a clear directive to help us resolve this.”
When asked if it is too late for the City Council to reverse course on the lawsuit, LaVere said: “It’s never too late. I mean, I’m dying to find a solution. It’s never too late. I’ve sat down with Bill Weirick. I’ve got a good relationships with Randy (Haney) — served on several regional boards together — and I have a lot of respect for those two guys. My direction to both of them is to help me find a solution.”
He said he has said the same to Ojai Councilman Ryan Blatz who he knows well from their school days together in Ojai.
He said that, although he does not speak for the other City Council members, he thinks they also want to avoid continuing to litigate the watershed. “None of us want to be in this, none of us are excited about having to do this. We all want to find a solution,” LaVere said.
He said the million-plus dollars spent on the lawsuit last year alone, on top of earlier and ongoing legal costs, come either out of the city’s General Fund or water fund, “but it’s taxpayer dollars. I would have loved to have spent that on building roads, hiring more police officers and firefighters. At the same time, I mean, water is a critically important issue in Ventura and Ojai.”
Secret vote
When asked who voted for Ventura City Council’s decision to mail 10,500 summonses and legal notices to Ojai Valley residents and others, on Jan. 8, LaVere said, “I can’t talk about the votes in closed session.”
When the OVN responded that, according to the state’s open-meeting laws, who voted for what is public record, LaVere answered: “For closed session? I’d have to look into that. I didn’t know that. I was told that everything, all of our — the final vote is public? … Then it’s public, it’s out there. If it hasn’t been released, I would defer to our city attorney on that.” When told by the OVN that the request for the vote information to be disclosed had been made to Ventura’s city clerk, LaVere said, “If it’s public, she should.”
After multiple phone, email and fax requests by the OVN to city of Ventura administration about the Ventura City Council vote, Ventura City Attorney Greg Diaz responded in an emailed letter to the Ojai Valley News on Jan. 15: “Because the Ventura River litigation was already filed, this report out obligation did not exist because the City was not ‘initiating’ litigation. If the City had been ‘initiating’ litigation, the report out obligation would have existed. Because the Ventura River litigation was existing litigation, adding parties was not ‘initiating’ litigation pursuant to the requirements of the Brown Act.”
Weirick said after the meeting that the Ventura City Council “wasn’t making an informed decision in this litigation. I’m glad he (LaVere) is open to other alternatives not involving litigation that would more responsibly and cost-effectively handle the Ventura River. Adjudication is the least-affordable way….”
As for voters having another candidate besides LaVere and Ojai resident Jeff Ketelsen to run for supervisor in the March 3 primary, Weirick said many are disappointed that they were served with summonses and notices of the lawsuit after the deadline to qualify to run for supervisor had passed. “The only alternative is a write-in candidate,” he said. “Part of the issue is, what is the best way to stop adjudication. If it is engaging our new supervisor, maybe a write-in isn’t the best path forward. There is a lot of discussion in the Ojai Valley on how to vote for someone who voted to sue us. It is a question on a lot of people’s minds.”
Weirick has served the Ojai City Council for six years and cautioned that city councils “should not be managed by attorneys. Councils should manage attorneys. Attorneys should give all options and the council should make an informed decision.”
Weirick, continued: “It astonishes me that the Ventura City Council would authorize spending millions of dollars and continues on this path forward when the issue of water for habitat could have been solved by spending a fraction of what they are spending on this litigation.”
Water meetings set
The Ojai Valley News will hold a public forum with area representatives and experts to discuss the water litigation on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 5:30 p.m. at the Ojai Recreation Department Boyd Center, 510 Park Road, Ojai. The meeting will be live-streamed and on Channel 10.
The city of Ventura is holding three public hearings on the issue:
— The first meeting is Jan. 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Matilija Auditorium, 703 El Paseo Road, Ojai.
— The second is Feb. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Bell Arts Factory Community Room, 432 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura.
— The third meeting is Feb. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Oak View Community Center Kunkle Room, 18 Valley Road, Oak View.
To view a list of documents for the case, visit: 

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