Dropped phone call scuttles court hearing
August 22, 2009
A bid by the city of South Lake Tahoe to intervene in a lawsuit brought by area environmental groups against basin regulators in June was delayed on Friday afternoon after a judge was unable to reach the attorney representing the groups by phone.
Michael Graf, the lawyer representing Sierra Forest Legacy and the Tahoe Area Sierra Club in a suit against the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, was arguing against the city’s bid to intervene in the suit during a hearing in El Dorado County Superior Court in South Lake Tahoe when his phone cut to static and then went silent.
A court clerk called Graf twice, but both phone calls went to voicemail after several rings.
The disruption of the call led to speculation in the courtroom that the El Cerrito-based attorney might have been using a cell phone to be heard at the hearing, a violation of court rules.
Graf will be given a chance to explain the disruption at the next hearing in the case, said Judge Steven Bailey. The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 4.
“If he was on a cell phone, it can be assured that he will be imposed a sanction,” Bailey said.
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The amount of the possible sanction would be based on the amount the city paid to bring attorney Robert Albrecht from San Diego for the hearing, Bailey said.
Although he did not have the exact cost to the city in front of him, Albrecht estimated the airplane flight, rental car and hotel room he has used to participate in the hearing likely cost the city between $600 and $800.
Friday’s hearing was a move by the city to stop an effort by Sierra Forest Legacy and the Sierra Club to invalidate a December 2008 agreement between the Lahontan Water Board and the TRPA that made the latter the primary agency responsible for reviewing fuel-reduction projects in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The agreement was a response to a recommendation to eliminate redundancy between the two agencies in regard to fuel-reduction projects in the basin.
The recommendation was made by a fire commission created by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons after the June 2007 Angora fire.
The environmental groups said approval of the agreement was a violation of California law because it does not include enough detail about how the TRPA will regulate the potential negative environmental effects from the projects.
The city is trying to become involved in the suit because officials believe that, if the suit is successful, it could have negative impacts on clearing out unnaturally dense forests in the city that are susceptible to catastrophic wildfires and threaten public safety.
In a declaration filed Aug. 17, South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti said the dual permitting caused fuel reduction projects to take between three to five years, much longer than the 18- month to three-year window required by funding sources – such as grants – for many fuel reduction projects in the basin.
“Delays created through the environmental review by two agencies and permitting by two agencies compress the time available to the city to complete fuel reduction projects within the performance period afforded within certain grant programs,” Gigliotti said. “This could result in the city having to return much-needed funding for failure to perform.”
The delays could cost the city millions, Gigliotti added.
“Considering the recent stream of federal stimulus funds and funding from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act ($1.45 million in grants) awarded to the city for the fuel reduction work, it would be problematic at best if the city would be required to refund monies back to the funding source because the review and permitting process again consumed most of the time within which the actual work must be completed.”
“From a professional and personal standpoint, I strongly believe that the city’s involvement in this case is necessary to protect the city’s interests, and to preserve the city’s ability to utilize very difficult-to-obtain, desperately needed, and limited grant funds,” Gigliotti added.
Before being cut off, Graf argued that there is no support for Gigliotti’s contention that the city could potentially lose funding because of the December 2008 agreement.
Bailey should prevent the city from becoming involved in the suit because the city has no direct interest in the litigation, Graf said.