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Ontario Official Violates Law, Suit States

Times Staff Writer

A lawsuit accuses Ontario’s city manager of violating the state’s open-meeting law by conferring individually with four of the five council members a few days before the council’s biweekly meetings to discuss city issues.

The suit, filed Friday in San Bernardino County Superior Court by Ontario resident and political activist Paul Neifert, says the regular private meetings with City Manager Greg Devereaux are “serial meetings” that violate the Ralph M. Brown Act. The suit asks a judge to prohibit the city manager from holding such meetings.

City officials have acknowledged holding such meetings but said they were meant only to provide the elected officials with information on upcoming agenda items. Devereaux has said in the past that the meetings were legal because he simply answered questions and never asked council members their opinion on city matters.

City Atty. John E. Brown said he had not read the lawsuit but agreed with Devereaux, saying the meetings were not meant to reach any decision and therefore were no violation. He said that if a judge forbade Devereaux from discussing city business with the council members, it “would put a profound chilling effect on how we make decisions.”

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Councilwoman Debbie Acker has complained repeatedly about such private meetings and has refused to attend them, saying they violate state law.

Neifert’s attorney, Cory Briggs, and the executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, Peter Sheer, said such meetings violated the Brown Act because the public did not have access to the information shared privately with each council member.

Sheer said the Brown Act was meant to ensure that the public had access to all the information elected officials received while deliberating on issues.

“When they are trying to make up their minds, that part should be in public,” he said.

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Briggs agreed, saying, “If they are gathering information that influences the decision-making process, it is absolutely a violation of the Brown Act.”

Neifert, who has been attending Ontario City Council meetings for 10 years, said he sued because he was frustrated to learn that the council members were getting information about important city issues in private.

He said this was confirmed when Councilman Gerald DuBois acknowledged during a public meeting in 2002 that the council often ran through a lengthy agenda very quickly because most of the council member’s questions had been raised in the private meetings.

“All of this irritated me to no end,” Neifert said.

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