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At Ontario City Hall, It's 1 Against Many

A councilwoman rebuked for run-ins with staff says she's a crusading 'dissident.' Some even fear for the city's prosperity.

May 26, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Ontario, a burgeoning community on the western edge of San Bernardino County, boasts booming retail sales, one of the region's fastest-growing job markets and an airport that is predicting a fivefold increase in passengers by 2025.

But beneath the economically sunny veneer, Ontario is the scene of an ugly political feud that has included a lengthy City Hall investigation and the censure of a councilwoman accused of berating city employees. The councilwoman says she is being illegally silenced for challenging the city's power structure.

The conflict has so enveloped the city that some officials fear it will distract from Ontario's efforts to become one of Southern California's most vibrant communities.

At the center of the feud is City Councilwoman Deborah S. Acker, a former flight attendant who came to City Hall two years ago on a crusade to expose wrongdoing. She has been quick to vent her criticism of her colleagues in the local newspapers, often accusing them of operating in secrecy.

The hostilities date back several years, when she ran to unseat two of her council colleagues and, more recently, the mayor. But her efforts have also upset several city employees, including a few who have filed claims against the city, accusing her of verbally abusing them and causing stress-related physical ailments.

The controversy came to a head in January, when Acker's four council colleagues voted to formally censure her, a legal rebuke that forbids her from speaking to any city employee except the city manager and his designees. Acker says she distrusts City Manager Gregory C. Devereaux and communicates with him mostly through hand-written memos.

Under the censure, Acker is also restricted to public areas of City Hall. The city has even established a special phone number to take voicemail queries from Acker.

"I've had hell to pay for being a dissident," Acker, 44, said during a recent interview.

But her council colleagues charge that she brought this on herself by abusing employees and exposing the city to charges of fostering a hostile work environment. Three employees recently filed claims, each demanding $250,000 to settle their grievances against Acker and the city.

"She is not a professional," said Mayor Gary C. Ovitt, a teacher who has often clashed with Acker. "She doesn't work well with others."Peace between Acker and her colleagues is not likely to emerge soon. Neither side takes responsibility for the feud, and each says the other started it.

Ontario merchants and residents say they would like to see their elected officials get beyond the feud and return to the mission of improving the city.

"We are just trying to decide what is really going on," said Helena Johnson, Ontario Chamber of Commerce chairwoman. "Once we think we know what is happening, some other information comes up."

With a growing manufacturing base, rows of auto dealerships and skyrocketing retail sales, primarily from the 1.7-million-square-foot Ontario Mills Mall, Ontario leads even larger cities in the region in sales tax revenue. A few years ago, the city annexed more than 8,200 undeveloped acres, where officials hope to build upscale homes, manicured parks, new schools and high-tech business centers.

Ontario International Airport is expected take a bigger chunk of the region's air travelers in the next two decades, bringing the city increased sales tax revenue for parking and terminal concessions.

"Ontario is the strongest single economy in the Inland Empire," said John Husing, an economist who writes a regular newsletter about the region. Husing predicts the city will continue to prosper despite the feuding. The conflict began before Acker joined the council in 2000. A former employee at the convention and visitors bureau, Acker ran for a council seat twice before winning. She lost both times to councilmen with whom she now shares the dais. Two years after taking office, Acker ran against Ovitt in an acrimonious campaign for the mayoral seat.

She also clashed with Devereaux before she took office. She filed a claim in early 2000 for damages against the city, accusing Devereaux of ordering city staffers to bar her from a Chamber of Commerce meeting. The city manager denies it.

Acker's claim demanded $1 in damages and an apology from the city manager. She later dropped the claim, saying she wanted to put the incident behind her. In the midst of Acker's mayoral campaign against Ovitt, Devereaux received two written complaints from City Hall employees, saying Acker had verbally abused them while angrily demanding information and documents.

Worried that Acker's actions would open the city to a lawsuit, Devereaux hired a Palm Springs law firm to investigate the complaints. The investigation, by the firm of FitzGerald & Mule, included interviews with dozens of employees over seven months.

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