The failure of the Victorville City Council to conduct business in the open and to release full details of votes in closed sessions has raised questions about their commitment to open government. –DB
High Desert Daily Press
January 24, 2009
By Brooke Edwards
Right or wrong, there seems to be a common perception that Victorville City Hall is trying to pull a fast one — a perception Jim Cox was well aware of when I spoke to him Wednesday, four hours after he’d started as interim city manager.
This notion gained momentum in November, when a now-defunct commission with highly paid political appointees to oversee Southern California Logistics Airport was placed on the city’s consent agenda, reserved for items that are “routine and non-controversial.” The item flew under the radar so fast and low that some council members were caught unaware.
Since then, several conflicts have popped up between the concept of open, honest government and how the city is using the Brown Act (the state’s open meetings law) to meet in closed session.
The council voted to loan $200,000 to Victorville Motors during closed session on Dec. 16. The agenda listed the deal as property negotiations — just as it does when the city is buying land in Old Town — since the dealership’s property was used as collateral.
At the end of the session, City Attorney Andre de Bortnowsky announced the loan had been extended. Though it was a split vote and the Brown Act clearly calls for that to be noted, he didn’t announce which council members voted which way. Minutes from that meeting have yet to be posted more than a month later.
By contrast, when Hesperia recently gave a loan with similar terms to Kid’s Planet, the council negotiated the details during closed session. The council then brought the loan agreement to public session for review and a final vote.
All three attorneys I spoke with on the issue said they would advise taking the agreement into open session, in the interest of full disclosure.
During the city’s Jan. 8 closed session meeting, insiders say a vote was taken and passed 3-2, but was rescinded after some discussion. The meeting then ended with “no reportable action.”
“There is no impact if they reconsidered,” de Bortnowsky said. “Why would you report an agreement no one is going to act on?”
Two other attorneys I spoke with disagreed, with one even saying there’s an argument for having to rescind the action in open session.
“Those are two separate actions that should have been reported,” said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
Ewert said that as soon as a formal vote was taken, the council has to report the results, even if the motion doesn’t pass and nothing comes of it.
During that same meeting, the council met behind closed doors with the agenda listing a threat of litigation. Then-City Manager Jon Roberts told the Steamboat Pilot & Today in Colorado that Victorville attorneys said the city’s late budget audit could result in some “unknown litigation” to “justify closing the meeting to the public.”
However de Bortnowsky later said he called the meeting because there is a “real” and “strong” threat of litigation related to the audit, which is required for the closed session to be legal.
One city attorney said behaviors such as these can have a corrosive effect on how residents view their leaders and create the perception that they’re “reluctant to do the people’s business in public.”
To end on a positive note, Cox said he intends to address this negative perception and that there will be no secrets on his watch.