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When This Current Central Basin Attorney is Hired, Brown Act Violations Follow 

June 21, 2024

By Brian Hews

Current Central Basin Water attorney Victor Ponto (left), who works for Burke, Williams, and Sorensen, is at the center of a battle between Central Basin Board members while also fighting off a wrongful termination allegation from former Central Basin GM Dr. Alex Rojas, who was placed on administrative leave using two unlawful Board votes sanctioned by Ponto.

But the Rojas vote is not the first public agency controversy for Ponto, who, Los Cerritos Community News has found, was jumping from different public agency roles from 2023 to ‘24 like Leonard DiCaprio in the Steven Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can. 

And when Ponto was hired by an agency, Brown Act and Government Code violations soon followed.

Illegal Vote 1:

In Feb. 2019, the Adelanto City Council, with Ponto as its attorney, placed City Manager Jessie Flores on paid administrative leave pending the results of an internal investigation. 

The move was done in closed session with a non-agendized vote, as reported by the Victorville Daily Press.

Ponto later informed the public that the Flores item was an emergency walk-on, requiring immediate action without notice. Ponto did not provide a reason for the council’s decision regarding Flores.

The VDP criticized Ponto’s actions, and two council members informed the VDP that they had no knowledge the vote on Flores’ was scheduled for a closed session.

Flores was eventually rehired in an open session. In contrast to when Ponto placed Flores on leave in a closed session, he did not announce that the discussion to reinstate Flores was an emergency walk-on item.

Illegal Vote 2:

The Flores vote was exactly the scenario Ponto used to hire Central Basin’s current GM Elaine Jeng, who, in emails obtained by LCCN, has made it very clear will not abide by chain-of-command rules, already making decisions that are clearly under Board purview.

At a May 2024 Central Basin Special Meeting, Ponto allowed Directors Juan Garza and Martha Camacho Rodriguez to walk on a non-agendized item to hire Jeng. 

Just like Adelanto, Ponto defended his decision by calling it an emergency walk on item.

The Brown Act clearly defines that any “walk-on” item cannot be voted on unless the following strict circumstances are met:

1.     That the agenda item came to the attention of staff and/or the Board of directors after the agenda was posted;

2.     and there is a need to take immediate action.

Following that, the Board must state for the record that both circumstances were met followed by a 4/5ths majority vote to place the item on the agenda; no such actions were taken.

But Ponto allowed the item and Jeng was hired on a  3-2 vote.

In addition to the Brown Act violations, Ponto’s maneuvers at Adelanto and Central Basin violated Government Code 54956 which states, “any action to approve the contract of a local agency executive [Jeng] must be taken at a regular board meeting and cannot be approved at a special meeting of the board.”

Illegal Vote to Hire Ponto:

Prior to becoming Central Basin’s attorney in December 2023, Ponto was already putting a lot of miles on his car as California City’s attorney; “Cal City” is near Mojave City about 120 miles north of Los Angeles off the 14 freeway.

Like Adelanto, Ponto’s hiring at Cal City occurred under a cloud. Ponto had “been asked to leave” from his position at Los Angeles-based Olivarez Madruga so he moved to Burke, Williams, Sorensen – taking his paying clients with him – and was then hired by the Cal City’s City Council. 

The Cal City’s Council vote to hire Ponto was finalized in a special meeting violating the Brown Act. The Mojave Desert News wrote, “an executive position selected to the city attorney must be approved by the City Council in open session at a regular meeting.”

According to the Mojave Desert News, one councilmember said she felt the city was being used as a bargaining chip for the revenue coming with Ponto and that the move was due to the Ponto changing from Olivarez to Burke.

Just a few weeks later, in January 2024, Ponto was appointed as interim City Manager for Cal City when City Manager Michele Martinez resigned citing “concerns for her safety due to threats from outside influencers.” 

Similar to the Cal City Council, Ponto was hired in December 2023 under a cloud at Central Basin. After a new board majority led by the now-retired Michael Gualtieri and current Director Juan Garza inexplicably fired Bob Baker, who had guided the agency competently, they hired Ponto.

Illegal vote 4:

Just weeks later, like he did at Adelanto, Ponto sanctioned an illegal vote to place then-GM Rojas on leave. Under Central Basin’s Administrative Code, the vote required a 4/5ths majority of the board and 6 out of 7 votes under Rojas’ personal employment contract; neither vote number was met.

Yet, just like he did with the hiring of Jeng, Ponto ruled the vote numbers were lawful, allowed the vote, and placed Rojas on leave. 

Then-President Michael Gualtieri then immediately led the charge to appoint Ponto as Central Basin General Manager.

At that time, Ponto was City Manager-General Manager and General Counsel at three different public agencies.

Catch Me If You Can.