Ventura County supervisors have boosted the maximum contract amount to $1 million for a private law firm defending the county government against 10 lawsuits challenging newly adopted oil and gas rules.
Acting County Counsel Michael Walker said the San Francisco firm of Cox, Castle & Nicholson is representing the county in the lawsuits objecting to restrictions on the petroleum industry in the county general plan and rules requiring environmental review for decades-old oil and gas permits.
“Each of the lawsuits have a different set of plaintiffs,” he told the Ventura County Board of Supervisors before the panel’s unanimous vote Tuesday approving the increase.
“In each of the lawsuits, those plaintiffs are actively and aggressively pursuing the relief they’re after,” Walker said.
Fees for defending the 10 lawsuits are not covered by insurance, Walker said.
The $1 million will be paid out of a $59 million fund for county expenditures that are not tied to any specific budget unit, county Chief Financial Officer Kaye Mand said in an email.
Walker said an existing agreement with the Cox firm allows payments of up to $200,000, but that the amount has been exhausted. He deemed the $1 million a reasonable amount, given the number of lawsuits.
He expected that the $1 million would last until the end of the fiscal year. If more is needed, attorneys will return to the board with another request, he said.
The contract increase was listed on the board’s consent agenda, which is reserved for routine items that are approved in a single vote without discussion.
Supervisors moved the contract increase to the regular agenda at the request of taxpayer advocate David Grau and other individuals, allowing full discussion by the board.
The board voted 3-2 in September for the general plan that contained new limits on drilling of wells. The document calls for a 2,500-foot setback between new oil wells and schools and 1,500 feet between wells and homes.
Adverse birth outcomes, cancer and respiratory, neurological, gastrointestinal, dermatological and psychological problems have been associated with proximity to oil and gas extraction sites, according to an environmental analysis of the general plan.
Then in November, the board by another vote of 3-2 approved modern environmental review for drilling projects installed under decades-old permits. The restriction has been suspended following a successful petition drive by opponents to place the issue on the ballot in June 2022.
Walker said in an interview this week that he hoped the litigation filed over the decades-old permits would be suspended until the voters decide the issue.
The composition of the board has changed since the two decisions were made, so it’s unclear if the existing board would have ruled in the same manner. The rules apply to unincorporated land in Ventura County, the territory outside the 10 cities where drilling has been heavily concentrated.
Grau said the board should demand an estimate of expected total legal costs. The estimate should include billings for all private legal firms and the county’s own lawyers, assuming no settlements are reached, said the president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association.
Supervisors plan to discuss the estimated total in a closed-door session on March 9, a private session allowed to discuss litigation.
Kathleen Wilson covers the Ventura County government, including the county health system, politics and social services. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0271.
Read More: Ventura County board OK’s up to $1M to defend oil and gas lawsuits