Moving Violation? : South Gate Sputtering Over Downey's Minibus Meeting

Times Staff Writer

A special meeting of the Downey City Council Monday was last seen traveling north on the Long Beach Freeway.

Inside a cream-colored minibus, council members conferred with Rep. Glenn Anderson for 45 minutes as officials toured the area around the planned location of a freeway off-ramp in South Gate. The $500,000 project is opposed by Downey officials, who claim it will have a detrimental effect on adjacent residential neighborhoods in Downey.

While the council members and the Democratic congressman chatted amiably inside the bus tempers flared in the parking lot at City Hall.

"They (Downey officials) said something to the effect that they didn't have enough room for us on the bus," said South Gate Mayor Bill DeWitt, who led a delegation of seven officials to the meeting in an unsuccessful attempt to board the bus and address the congressman.

South Gate officials wholeheartedly support the off-ramp project, which would provide access to a proposed auto mall in South Gate that is attempting to lure auto dealers now located in Downey.

DeWitt on Tuesday wrote an eight-page letter to the district attorney, claiming that Downey officials had conspired to violate the Brown Act, which says that all meetings of a local legislative body shall be "open and public." Such an offense would be a felony punishable by up to a year in county jail or state prison and a $10,000 fine.

"I feel greatly insulted by their actions," DeWitt said. "They denied us the right of expression at a public meeting."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Candace Beason said she would review DeWitt's allegations.

"Clearly there are some problems" with the Downey council's actions, Beason said in an interview. "It doesn't look like it comports with the intent of the Brown Act, which is to conduct public meetings in open and not in secret."

Downey officials, however, denied the allegations.

"It was a field trip," said Downey City Atty. Carl Newton. "As long as it is part of the meeting and they accommodate everyone they can in the van and they simply receive information and do not take any action on the bus, then I do not see any violation. They (city officials) don't have to get a large enough bus to accommodate everybody. Suppose that there were 500 people who wanted to go?"

"There wasn't room on the bus for additional people," added City Manager Don Davis. "It certainly wasn't a closed meeting. They (South Gate) officials were invited to follow."

The special meeting with Anderson, who represents Downey but not South Gate, was called to order at City Hall at 2:05 p.m. by Mayor Bob Davila, with Anderson not in attendance. Davila said he promptly recessed the meeting and council members met Anderson in the parking lot before departing in the minibus. After the tour, council members and Anderson returned to City Hall and the council adjourned the meeting when South Gate officials attempted to address the council.

Declined to Comment

A member of Anderson's staff said the congressman "showed up during the recess of what turned out to be an official meeting."

The staff member, Gary Schlesinger, who was present on the tour, declined to comment on whether Anderson knew he was attending an official meeting.

Schlesinger and council members maintained that the meeting was for informational purposes only and that no requests were made of the congressman. City officials also said that no votes or decisions were made during the meeting, which was attended by 10 city officials, including the five Downey council members, Davis, Police Chief Bill Martin and Public Works Director Bill Ralph.

"We did not ask him (Anderson) for any assistance whatsoever except to explain to him what was going on," said Davila.

"Obviously they (council members) want him (Anderson) on their side," Schlesinger said. "I can't think of any specific action that they requested. It (the meeting) was informational, and to that extent it was successful." Besides 10 Downey officials, others aboard the minibus included a Long Beach Press-Telegram reporter, Anderson, Schlesinger and another Anderson staff member, according to city officials--a total of 14 passengers.

The bus used by the city, however, can accommodate 18 adult passengers, said Public Works Director Ralph.

No Group Discussion

Although Downey's city attorney said the bus tour was an official city meeting, Mayor Davila said it was a recessed meeting. Davila added that during the bus tour, a quorum of three members never held a group discussion with Anderson, which would constitute a meeting under the Brown Act.

"At any one time, there wasn't two of us discussing the project together with Congressman Anderson," said Davila, who was seated in the front of bus with Anderson. Davila added: "Whatever they (council members) were saying in the back we in the front had no knowledge of and what we were saying in the front they in the back had no knowledge of."

A 1980 state attorney general's opinion, however, held that it is a violation of the Brown Act for officials to hold a series of closed meetings on the same day "to convey information" regarding the agency's business, even if a "quorum . . . is not present at any given meeting."

In his letter to the attorney general, South Gate Mayor DeWitt maintained that Downey council members engaged in "substantial discussion" before Davila called the meeting to order. DeWitt added such discussion might have given Downey officials the "opportunity to conspire to preclude us from their deliberations on the off-ramp."

Conspiracy Denied

"I didn't conspire and I didn't see anyone else conspiring," replied Downey council member Diane Boggs.

Of the unexpected visit by South Gate officials, Boggs said, "They came to crash and sabotage our field trip."

The object of the dispute between South Gate and Downey officials, the proposed off-ramp, received approval from the county Transportation Commission in June for $500,000 in federal funds, pending an environmental impact study and approval by the California Department of Transportation.

Although South Gate officials claim the northbound ramp, to be built off Southern Avenue, is needed to correct a hazardous intersection, Downey officials have charged that South Gate officials are using the safety issue as a "ruse" to help build an auto mall.

Although the agenda for the special meeting Monday called for "oral communications" that would have allowed South Gate officials to address the council and the congressman, Downey council members voted to adjourn the meeting while DeWitt was approaching the microphone.

"When we got back to the council chambers, it was the decision of council whether they wanted oral communications and their decision was not to have oral communications," City Manager Davis said.

That decision left DeWitt angry.

"I just hope they don't treat the rest of their citizens like they treated us," DeWitt said. "It's so childish."

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