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Judge Finds Panel Talks Illegal

The tentative ruling says the Oxnard City Council broke the open-meeting law when it discussed a theater project in closed sessions.

June 12, 2004|Holly J. Wolcott | Times Staff Writer

Following a decade of investigations and accusations, a Ventura County judge issued a tentative ruling Friday in which he found that the Oxnard City Council repeatedly violated a state open-meeting law during negotiations for a new $15-million downtown theater development.

Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr. found that the city and its Community Development Commission failed to post adequate public agendas for closed-door meetings, and as a result officials illegally discussed project details in secret.

The theater development, now under construction, was approved by the city in 2002. Last year, retired real estate agent Martin Jones sued the city, seeking to nullify the project and have a judge order the council and commission to tape-record all closed-door sessions pertaining to future downtown development.

While O'Neill found in Jones' favor -- and ordered the city to start following the law -- he declined to stop the theater project or to order that future closed meetings of the council be taped.

Jones' attorney, Richard Tentler, called the ruling a victory.

"We are very pleased," Tentler said outside of court Friday. "We hope it's a message to the City Council and also the city attorney that they have to change their ways."

Jeffrey H. Speich, who represented the city, declined to comment. But Oxnard City Atty. Gary Gillig, who testified at the trial, said the fight wasn't over.

"I'm still optimistic the case will be decided in the city's favor," Gillig said.

Tentler and Speich were ordered by the judge to review the tentative ruling and attempt to jointly agree to a final judgment.

At a hearing scheduled for June 21, the attorneys will have another opportunity to argue for changes in the ruling.

After hearing several days of testimony from Oxnard officials, O'Neill found that the public was entitled to know that closed-door meetings in 2002 would include discussions on the construction and financing of the 14-screen theater; that San Carlos Cinemas would operate it; and that a long-term guarantee of lease payments had been reached.

The city also failed to post detailed agendas on closed meetings in 2002 concerning acquisition of a downtown bank building and construction of a new parking structure, according to O'Neill's eight-page ruling.

The Ralph M. Brown Act is California's open-meeting law governing public agencies.

Under the act, public agencies can meet in closed-door sessions only to discuss pending litigation, personnel matters or real estate transactions.

Jones said outside of court he was pleased with the order because he believed the city "has been running land deals behind closed doors for too long."

City officials and their meeting practices have been the subject of several inquiries in the past.

In July 1990, the Ventura County Grand Jury issued a report accusing the Oxnard City Council of violating the law by holding budget meetings behind closed doors.

The report found that the council violated the Brown Act by holding five or six private meetings in September and October of 1989.

The grand jury decided not to indict council members because it said there was insufficient evidence to find that the council was aware of the violations.

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