Dust-Up Over Conflict of Interest

Goleta Water Board, Public in Tug-of-War Over Legal Tutorial

Attorney Chip Wullbrandt denied an accusation that he used his post as Goleta Water District counsel to aid developer clients.
Paul Wellman

Saying that he wanted to “get all of this folderal behind us,” Goleta Water District board president Jack Cunningham convened a hastily called special meeting to address conflict-of-interest accusations against the board’s legal counsel, attorney Chip Wullbrandt.

Nine days earlier, on December 11, while still defending Wullbrandt’s good name, the five boardmembers nonetheless agreed to hire outside counsel to administer a on the topic of conflict of interest. At the December 20 meeting, an ad hoc committee consisting of Cunningham and fellow boardmember Harry De Witt put forward candidates to conduct the tutorial in hopes that the full board would vote to select one of them. It did not, because members of the public objected that the candidates were not experts on the subject of legal ethics.

“I made a unilaterial decision,” said Cunningham, “that we don’t want to rush into this. We want to make sure that the person we finally hire will be acceptable to the public. I’m controlling myself,” he added, joking, “but you can’t tell, because I’m Irish.”

Wullbrandt was hired in early 2007 and shortly thereafter cast as a villain by retired litigator and tireless board critic Jack Ruskey, during the heat of a struggle between developers on the one hand and, on the other, Goleta Valley residents seeking to limit allocations of new water for development. Ruskey accused Wullbrant of favoring longstanding district policies that would have benefited developers – one current and one past. Earlier this month, the district discontinued the policy in question – an ever-accumulating yearly carryover of unused water to be reserved for new development – but Ruskey did not back down on his assertion that Wullbrant is beset by conflicts that disqualify him to serve as district counsel. Wullbrandt also represents the Carpinteria and Montecito Water Districts.

Although Ruskey had insisted that the board hire a Calfornia State Bar-certified specialist in ethics to administer the tutorial, it was with some satisfaction that the ad hoc committee on December 20 announced their discovery that no such specialty exists. They recommended that the board choose one of their two candidates: the law firm of Lagerlof, Senecal, Gosney and Kruse, of Pasadena, with long experience in water law; or Neal Meyers from the San Diego law firm of Daley and Heft, with a focus on public entity law, who was recommended by people Cunningham trusts.

Although Ruskey was not in attendance, four like-minded civic activists were, and they insisted that since there was no such thing as a certified specialist, then an expert in the subject of legal ethics should be chosen – and they presented the board with a list of 24 names of such experts which had been compiled by Goleta Valley Voice reporter Martha Lannan.

The ad hoc committee may take up the matter once more before the board’s mid-January meeting, said Cunningham, though he added that in his opinion, “We’re spending too much time, energy, and money on these picayune gadfly issues. I don’t mind people coming up with legitimate questions about how we run the board but to consistently drop hints that there’s something foul afoot, against a person of very high integrity, that doesn’t sit well in my stomach. If I see something concrete to tell me that [Wullbrandt] has an undisclosed conflict,” Cunningham continued, “I possess the gall and the fortitude to say we were wrong, but I don’t see that in my future.”


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.