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Open checkbook on land-use case is unacceptable

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Two years is too long, and “no idea” is unacceptable when it comes to spending taxpayer money. In another instance of the growing gap between Placer County government and the public trust, the county’s top legal counsel doesn’t know how much time or money has been spent on investigating a former county planning commissioner accused of sub-dividing some land illegally. Nor does he know when the investigation will lead to a court date and a possible trial of the county’s civil suit against Michelle Ollar-Burris. “It is a complex case,” county Counsel Anthony La Bouff told the Journal. “That’s why we’re putting significant effort into it.” Although La Bouff did say that lawyer Richard Crabtree was paid $50,000 for an initial investigation into the lot-split dispute, he added he has “no idea” how much additional time and charges Crabtree has racked up since the county filed suit against Ollar-Burris in November 2007. This is absurd. While the case against Ollar-Burris and two others is admittedly complicated, and involves some deep digging into documents and land-use laws, there’s no reason why the county  shouldn’t be  monitoring its resources. At a time when county officials are managing this year’s budget shortfall through furloughs, a hiring freeze, service reductions and imposed contracts – as they’re doing with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association – there is no excuse not to know where every dollar is being spent. And the budget crisis will only get more dire. County Executive Tom Miller said a $20 million budget gap is expected in 2011, with a $33 million shortfall is predicted in 2012. These are enormous amounts. Where will that money come from? Certainly not from savings in the county counsel’s office. The county maintains that Ollar-Burris and her cohorts conspired to subdivide several lots without going through the subdivision map process, shirking the county of some $4 million in development fees. When the county District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the case, county officials continued their pursuit of Ollar-Burris, filing the case in civil court. Civil court has a lower standard of proof than criminal court, La Bouff said. Ollar-Burris fired back recently, calling the county’s suit a political sham and filing suit in federal court, asserting the county misrepresented information in the lawsuit. La Bouff countered in the Journal, denying any political motive to the case. Rulings on several motions to the original case were expected this week. Whether La Bouff’s comments about the investigation’s costs were sincere or deflectionary is hard to tell. Law enforcement and legal officials are often quick to conceal public information under the banner of “still under investigation,” but this case is more than two years old – and growing colder every day. La Bouff, Miller and the county Board of Supervisors have a fiduciary responsibility to explain how much has been spent on this case and, internally, determine how much they plan to invest in moving  it  forward. If the evidence isn’t rock solid, Miller and supes should be asking serious questions about why the county is pursuing the case. La Bouff says a jury trial is still a long way off. What will the final bill be when it’s either dropped, settled or heard? Enquiring taxpayers deserve to know.