And the winner is ... no one.
A Kern County Superior Court judge, ruling on the City of Bakersfield’s lawsuit against opponents of the 24th Street widening project — whose objections, city officials say, have driven up the project's cost by more than a half-million dollars — has chosen a third option.
Rather than ruling for the nine members of the Citizens Against the 24th Street Widening Project or for the city, Judge Kenneth Twisselman opted last week to order a mandatory settlement. The settlement conference is set for Dec. 1.
“We were taken by surprise a little bit,” said Vanessa Vangel, one of the nine group members involved in the lawsuit. “It certainly could have gone better if the judge had ruled against the city, but it could have gone worse.”
The city is suing the citizens in hopes of recouping about $20,000 in legal costs. The citizens' group had sued the city a few years ago in an effort to stop the 24th street project.
“Instead of moving forward with all of this, which is going to get way more complicated and costly, the judge asked if either party would consider a mandatory settlement conference,” said Jaime Hall, an attorney with Channel Law Group, who is representing the citizens. “He said that if any party wanted it, he would order it. I said that our clients do want to do that.”
Deputy City Attorney Andrew Heglund said the city is willing to work with the group to come to an agreement.
“Our approach will be to see what they are proposing in the conference,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what their proposed offer is before determining what our response would be.”
Hall said that for legal reasons he couldn’t go into any specifics on what his clients are preparing to offer, but he did suggest that the city will need to make some concessions.
“We are, as always, interested in working with the city to come to a resolution on this issue, but the city has to accept that there should be some compromise,” he said.
City Councilman Andrae Gonzales said he is hopeful that an agreement can be made and that the city can move on with the project.
“I think the sooner we can put the whole issue to rest, the best for the community,” he said. “I think it’s important to move on with all this, to complete the project, find some sense of closure and bring both sides of Westchester together.”
Vangel said she’s concerned that Gonzales is supporting the city on this. The project is in his ward.
“It’s a shame that, to my knowledge, [Councilman] Gonzales has sided with the city,” she said. “A council person is supposed to represent their constituents, because we elected them.”
Heglund said that if an agreement can’t be reached, the court could allow the city to take depositions from the group members to determine who is most legally responsible for paying the costs.
“Any members that control litigation would be responsible for the costs,” he said.
The citizens' group initially sued the city in 2014, saying that the 24th Street project’s Environmental Impact Report was flawed and that the project violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
A Kern County judge ruled that the EIR didn’t delve deep enough into eight possible alternatives to the project and didn’t look into the effects of additional cul-de-sacs. Work on the project was halted and the city was ordered to make changes to the EIR.
After the city brought in a revised EIR for review, a judge ruled in favor allowing the project to continue despite objections from petitioners. The court awarded the city $20,315 in legal expenses.
Heglund said that since the citizens' group is not a business or organization with financial resources, there was no way to collect money that might be owed outside of suing specific members of the group who had signed affidavits as part of the original lawsuit.
Hall said he doesn’t understand why the city is pursuing costs at this time, as the citizens' group is still in the process of appealing the court’s decision to allow the city to move forward with the project. The case is currently in the state 5th District Court of Appeals.
“It’s completely unnecessary to do this right now,” he said. “Even if a judge did say that some of these people are responsible for the costs, if we won the appeal, the city would have to give money right back anyway.”
According to the city, legal fees regarding the 24th street widening lawsuits have cost taxpayers more than $600,000 over the last several years.
Vangel said the citizens group is trying to stop a project that would cost taxpayers an estimated $80 million.
“The city has attempted to vilify our citizens by repeatedly saying how much our lawsuit have cost taxpayers,” she said. “Our group’s goal is to save the taxpayers approximately $80 million by stopping this unnecessary, fiscally irresponsible, dangerous, seriously flawed road-widening project.”
Vangel said that regardless of how the settlement plays out, she is glad that the group got to voice its opinions and exercise its freedom of speech.
“We are fulfilling every citizen’s responsibility to contribute to the preservation and protection of our health and the environment,” she said. “We will not be intimidated and we are not going away. This is a fight worth fighting.”