After three years in litigation, the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District has found itself on the losing end of a lawsuit filed by the Santa Barbara Libertarian Party — a lawsuit that has already taken a $250,000 bite out of the IVRPD’s modest budget.
The lawsuit began in November 2001 when Robert Bakhaus, secretary for the local office of the Libertarian Party, sued the IVRPD Board of Directors for committing several violations of the Brown Act, California’s law requiring all meetings of local legislative bodies be open to the public. In a Dec. 23, 2004 decision, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle ruled in favor of the Libertarian Party on two of the six allegations, meaning that the IVRPD would be required to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees in addition to the money it has already spent on its defense, if it decides not to appeal the decision.
Bakhaus said the total cost of the suit for the IVRPD could reach $500,000, depending on the amount the Libertarian Party’s attorney fees.
After the IVRPD board meeting Thursday night, chairperson Logan Green said the board had not yet decided whether or not it would appeal the decision, and likely will not know until mid-February. However, he said, the legal fees have already taken their toll on the district’s monetary resources.
“It’s a large financial burden to the district,” Green said. “We’re looking at a large hit to our budget. The whole situation is very unfortunate.”
Green declined to comment on any other aspects of the case.
“At this point, it’s a complicated legal situation, and many issues have yet to be resolved,” Green said. “We’ll wait till we see how it all plays out.”
All of this trouble, Bakhaus said, could have been avoided if the board had admitted its mistake and agreed to settle when the suit was first filed. He said that if it had done so, the board would only have been required to pay about $10,000 and alter its policies to comply with the conditions of the Brown Act.
“It could have been settled the first week, even without an admission of guilt,” Bakhaus said. “Instead, they decided to fight it.”
The original basis for the suit stemmed from a barbecue at the home of one of the board members in 2001, at which two other board members — constituting an IVRPD board majority — and then 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall were present. Bakhaus argued that policy was discussed at this meeting, and since the barbecue was not open to the public, it constituted a Brown Act violation.
Anderle ruled that the barbecue was indeed in violation of the Brown Act, particularly because a member of the community was denied entry to the gathering.
Craig Geyer, whose wife was the one excluded from attending the barbecue, is a member of the I.V. Project Area Committee and General Plan Advisory Committee. Geyer supported the Libertarian Party throughout the case, and spoke at the board meeting Thursday, saying that an appeal would be a waste of both time and money for the IVRPD and the community.
“I strongly urge the district not to appeal this decision,” Geyer said. “If they continue to pursue this, it will just cost the taxpayers more and more. It’s time to pull the plug on this case.”
Bakhaus said the Libertarian Party’s attorney has proposed a deal that would waive his legal fees if the IVRPD agrees not to pursue an appeal.
Despite the amount of money the lawsuit will likely cost taxpayers, Bakhaus says he does not regret the decision to take the IVRPD to court.
“When the police enforce the law, nobody asks them how much it costs,” he said. “The law has to be enforced — it’s not a question of price, it’s a question of principle.”