Mixed messages emerge from Placer County's latest lot-split lawuit spending

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Is the county losing its resolve in a high-profile lawsuit that alleges illegal lot-splitting activity? It depends on which side of the legal fence you talk to. Attorneys for both sides have differing views on the impact of the latest round of spending by Placer County supervisors in a complex, 2½-year-old lot-split civil case involving a former planning commissioner. County supervisors voted at a closed session Tuesday to spend another $50,000 to contract with Chico attorney Richard Crabtree on the case. The vote was 5-0. The county has already spent $130,000 on contracts with Crabtree’s office. County Counsel Anthony La Bouff said that any speculation on how the county is prosecuting the case is just that: speculation. But an attorney for the other side in the court battle is contending that the county is running out of money on a case it sees that it can’t win. The county is alleging former Planning Commissioner Michelle Ollar-Burris of Auburn conspired with Grass Valley consultant George Wasley and Sacramento attorney Thomas Van Horne to split lots that should have gone through a more costly subdivision process. Ed Duckers, Van Horne’s attorney, said that the new round of funding for an outside lawyer comes about six to eight months after Crabtree last was seen on the case. “Tuesday’s vote confirmed our suspicion that we had not seen Crabtree because the county had run out of money to pay him,” Duckers said. The San Francisco attorney added that supervisors didn’t vote to appropriate more money for Crabtree any sooner because they didn’t want to publicly acknowledge they were spending more money on a case that has no hope of ever paying off. “The case has been out of sight and out of mind, which was good,” Duckers said. “The last thing any elected official would want to do is answer questions about this case and why taxpayer money is being spent on it.” Supervisor Jim Holmes said Friday that because legal matters are discussed in closed session, he would be unable to comment on the case on the advice of county counsel. But La Bouff said the new $50,000 expenditure approved by the board follows a move by the defendants to file a new lawsuit against the county in federal court. In that filing, Duckers’ client had his action dismissed because he chose not to contest the county’s motion to dismiss his federal complaint, La Bouff said. “This was not our action but his action,” he said. “We were prepared to defend but he abandoned his case.” La Bouff said that shows evidence of the county’s resolve on the case, not Van Horne’s. But Duckers said the county is appropriating more money for Crabtree because it is not happy with the way the case has developed. The county has only allocated enough money – assuming a rate of $250 an hour – to pay for 200 hours of his time, Duckers said. “That would be barely enough to have Crabtree involved in a couple of important depositions and a significant motion,” Ducker said. “It is not enough to get them even close to trial. That would have required an appropriation closer to $500,000 than $50,000.” La Bouff said the decision by supervisors follows a new cross-complaint against the county for damages filed by the defendants. “For internal accounting procedures this simply requires a new contract for Mr. Crabtree which was placed on the agenda and unanimously approved,” La Bouff said. “We remain confident in our theory of the case and our progress in discovery and look forward to a positive outcome of this litigation. I completely disagree with Mr. Duckers’ wild speculation.” Ollar-Burris vehemently denies she has done anything wrong or illegal, and says the county’s allegations are “untrue” and politically motivated.