The tempest-tossed Goleta Water District (GWD) will hire an outside attorney to advise its board of directors as to whether district counsel Chip WullÂ-brandt is beset by conflicts of interest. In addition to the GWD, Wullbrandt serves as counsel to two other water districts, Carpinteria’s and Montecito’s. Wullbrandt has also represented would-be Goleta Valley developers who can be expected to seek a promise of water for their projects.
Chief among those accusing Wullbrandt of conflicts is retired litigator and unrelenting board gadfly Jack Ruskey. Following an unsuccessful 2006 run for a seat on the board, Ruskey recently led a successful attack on a longstanding, potentially growth-promoting district practice: that of carrying over, for use in future years, the annual one percent of the valley’s water supply that can be used for new development. It was during that latter campaign that Ruskey started painting Wullbrandt as an agent of developers. In particular, he accused WullÂ-brandt of interpreting a key district ordinance (known as SAFE) in a way that would benefit his developer clients by continuing the carryover. “The public actions of Mr. Wullbrandt,” Ruskey wrote in a December 7 letter to the board, “both as to his oral statements to the directors, plus the written changes he has drafted and proposed to be adopted concerning SAFE, make it undisputed that he is using his role of general counsel to the district to influence actions which are helpful to his other admitted clients.” The specific clients to which Ruskey referred were the Shelby Family Trust, which aims to develop 14 acres north of Cathedral Oaks, and the Larwin Company, would-be developers of the Bishop Ranch. Ruskey accused Wullbrandt of failing to disclose his ties to them when he was hired at the beginning of 2007.
At their December 11 meeting, the GWD directors did their best to take the wind out of Ruskey’s sails. Before even addressing the question of conflict, they announced their intention to eliminate the automatic one percent carryover, which was the basic bone of contention. Director Harry De Witt, who has served on the GWD board for 40 years, took umbrage at Ruskey’s charges of corruption and dramatically tore into pieces an invitation to attend the Bishop Ranch visioning sessions that the developer has been holding. Four of the five directors staunchly defended Wullbrandt and disputed Ruskey’s version of events, while the fifth-Bert Bertrando, Ruskey’s former running mate-was conciliatory in tone.
Invited to speak on his own behalf, Wullbrandt pointed out that he and his law firm-Price, Postel and Parma-gave up the Bishop Ranch developers as clients in order for Wullbrandt to take the permanent post at the district. Additionally, he and the district agreed to secure other counsel in any matters regarding the Shelby Family Partnership. He said his formal disclosures forms erred, if at all, on the side of revealing information he wasn’t technically required to disclose about whom his firm represented. Finally, Wullbrandt pointed out that the district had been automatically carrying over about 1,500 acre-feet of water annually for several years before he joined the district. “There was so much water available under your then-effective ordinance,” said Wullbrandt, “that it was enough for two or three or four Bishop Ranches.” Wullbrandt added that, as the district’s counsel, “I cannot in the future come back and sue you. So I made a choice that has adverse fiscal impacts on me.” However, he said that he didn’t really like representing Bishop Ranch anyway and was happy to have made the switch.
Ruskey’s final piece of advice to the board was that the attorney they hire to give them a lesson on conflict of interest should be a State Bar-certified expert on legal ethics, and one from outside the area, rather than the former district counsel, whom board of directors President Chuck Evans had suggested. Evans, who graciously thanked Ruskey for that idea, will return with a different candidate at the January 15 meeting.