In brief…

And in this corner …

The plot has officially thickened.

Opponents butting heads from both sides of Santa Paula’s recently-approved and highly controversial Fagan Canyon Project now have legal representation in court.

In response to a suit recently filed by Centex Homes — the corporation given the go ahead to build the 2,000-plus unit development — a handful of Santa Paula residents have hired Gregory Luke, an attorney from Strumwasser and Woocher, a Santa Monica firm, to defend a petition for a referendum circulated by residents to take approval of the project to the voters.

If approved by the City Council, the referendum could appear on the November ballot and reverse the council’s approval of the project. The council amended the city’s general plan to allow for the large number of units the project entails. The referendum was qualified late last month by Santa Paula City Clerk Josie Herrera, who, along with Santa Paula resident John Billig, is named by Centex in the suit.

“The people want to vote — and we can’t lose sight of this,” said John Wisda, a member of the group fighting the project on the basis of increased traffic and other environmental concerns. “No one in town wants the traffic this project is going to bring.”

Like Wisda, members of the small group fighting the lawsuit — a lawsuit that alleges that the group essentially duped citizens into signing the petition — are former members of WeCARE, a group of residents who opposed the project from the point of its proposal.

“We’re up against a billion-dollar developer,” Wisda said, “and this developer filed a lawsuit to, in essence, cost us a whole lot of money — maybe thinking we wouldn’t hire an attorney.”

But they did.

With the help of hefty, mostly anonymous financial donations, the group collected the four-figure retainer required to secure Luke, said Billig, who declined to reveal either the actual figure or the amount the group will be required to pay as the case advances.

Further complicating matters, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley, who was assigned to the matter, recused himself from the case on Feb. 17, following a hearing at which both parties were present and Luke submitted a brief. Riley could not be reached for comment.

The case has been reassigned to Ventura County Superior Court judge Steven Hintz — the judge who presided last year over the matter of a similar petition for an initiative that would make it illegal for development of over 81 acres in Santa Paula to be approved without the consent of voters. That initiative was also drafted by members of WeCARE.

The city is sticking by its decision to not prepare a defense for Herrera. As part of the city’s development agreement with Centex, Centex would foot the bill for any legal fees related to the development that are incurred — though City Attorney Karl Berger would provide the defense.

A hearing on the matter was scheduled for Feb. 17 in Ventura County Superior Court, but that date may be rescheduled due to possible conflicts related to the reassignment of the case.

— Stacey Wiebe

Getting strategic …

With three months as Santa Paula’s chief of police under his belt, Chief Stephen MacKinnon is cleaning house.

Aiming to maximize the city’s financial and human resources, he’s taken a magnifying glass to his department’s operations to see what it’s doing right and what can be done better. MacKinnon’s efforts resulted in the Strategic Plan for the Santa Paula Police Department, a plan that outlines “five major areas that need to be addressed,” he said. Those areas include personnel, training, programs, equipment needs and capital expenditures.

“Santa Paula is not an affluent community, so we aren’t looking at the hiring of officers and support staff,” MacKinnon said. Santa Paula lays claim to 32 officers. A city of its size, MacKinnon said, should have more than 50 officers.

MacKinnon presented an overview of his plan, along with crime statistics for 2005 — which changed only marginally from 2004 — at a recent meeting of the City Council. He’d like to streamline current operations by changing the ways in which the department does business, offer additional perks to officers and bump up the number of programs offered by the department. “We’re not able to pay the officers as much as we’d like to, so we’re trying to offer them other kinds of benefits.” Among those benefits are opportunities for officers to specialize in particular areas of expertise and work more closely with the community.

“We may not have all the money or all the officers, but we have good people and we rely on them to protect the community,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

The department may establish its own Explorer post (Explorer’s are youth police volunteers much like Boy Scouts), as well as new sports opportunities for kids. No matter what the future brings, MacKinnon said the department can handle them. “This will definitely be a group effort,” he said, “not just the chief handing things down from on high.”

— Stacey Wiebe