The Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business filed a petition Friday in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, calling for a judge to step in and prevent the county from hiring legal counsel for its Citizens’ Independent Redistricting Commission due to an alleged conflict of interest.
The petition, an emergency application for writ of mandamus, is expected to be taken up by Superior Court Judge Donna Geck on Monday, a day before the county discusses an agreement for professional legal services with law firm Strumwasser & Woocher for independent legal counsel services.
COLAB, the petitioner in the application represented by the Dhillon Law Group, alleges the commission and the county Board of Supervisors have failed to follow “a straightforward but critical ordinance designed to ensure the political independence of the Commission,” the petition reads.
The ordinance at issue, the petitioner argues, prevents the commission from hiring legal counsel who have been involved with a political committee in the past eight years, as well as prohibits hiring legal counsel who do not live in Santa Barbara County, are not registered to vote in the county and have not voted in the county in one of the last three general elections.
On Feb. 3, 2021, the commission approved a final contract and recommended Frederic D. Woocher and his law firm, Strumwasser & Woocher, be approved as independent counsel to the commission.
Andy Caldwell, executive director of COLAB and a News-Press columnist, told the News-Press Friday that he hopes the court will intervene to prevent “the county from taking an action that is illegal.”
On Monday, the Dhillon Law Group submitted a letter to the supervisors on behalf of COLAB. As discussed in both the petition and the letter, the petitioners argue that Mr. Woocher “is conflicted out under the Redistricting Ordinance by virtue of his past representation of Doreen Farr, who served as a supervisor from 2009 to 2016.”
In 2012 and 2013, Mr. Woocher was involved in litigation on behalf of Ms. Farr that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the petition was denied on June 10, 2013.
The petitioners argue that Mr. Woocher was active in the case and filed a brief with the court in May 2013, within eight years of the Feb. 3, 2021 appointment.
In the letter, the Dhillon Law Group called for the board to announce it would not be approving the commission’s choice of Mr. Woocher by Thursday or that COLAB would file an immediate injunction.
The board’s staff report for Tuesday’s meeting states that Mr. Woocher served as the lead attorney for the county in its 2001 redistricting plans. The staff report also addresses “key contract risks,” which include the Strumwasser & Woocher law firm’s representation of Ms. Farr “in the litigation defense of an ‘election contest’ during 2008 through 2013.”
A review of the law firm’s prior representation found that from October 2010 to June 2013, Strumwasser & Woocher was only involved in the collection of attorneys’ fees from contestant Steven Pappas.
County counsel concluded that the law firm “does not have a disqualifying conflict from serving as Independent Legal Counsel, largely because providing litigation defense in election contest litigation is ‘non-political in nature,’ as opposed to paid consulting services ‘related to conducting campaign activities or holding office,’” the staff report reads, and that the board can move to approve or not approve the contract.
The proposed agreement is for no more than $200,000.
County officials could not be reached for comment by deadline.