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Central Basin Director Who Resigned Attends Meeting, Casts Illegal Vote to Remove President

Former Central Basin Director Thomas Bekele (left) resigned May 20, 2024. Bekele stated when he resigned, “The demands of my current position [Director of Public Works at Signal Hill] have significantly increased, necessitating my full attention and commitment.” He came back thirty days later and voted with Directors Juan Garza and Martha Camacho in an illegal attempt to remove President Art Chacon.

July 2, 2024

By Brian Hews

Once again, an appointed-not-elected Director at Central Basin Municipal Water has violated Government Code, wreaking more appointed-Director-havoc at the Commerce-based water agency.

At the July 24 Central Basin regular board meeting, Thomas Bekele Director of Public Works at the city of Signal Hill, who had verbally resigned during the May 20 CB meeting saying “this was my last meeting” and “please expedite the [his] replacement process” attended the meeting as a Director to cast an illegal vote that would assist another appointed Director Juan Garza and Director Martha Camacho.

Los Cerritos Community News had reported that Bekele resigned weeks ago. Bekele never contacted LCCN to refute his resignation after LCCN posted a video; after his resignation he was removed from all CB Committees.

“We had to remove him from all committees, because he resigned, and we did that. Director Bekele knew he was removed, but he never called to complain or say I am still a board member.” said CB President Art Chacon

Yet there he was at the July 24 meeting, asserting he was “still in transition” despite saying on May 20, “The demands of my current position have significantly increased, necessitating my full attention and commitment.”

President Chacon and Director Leticia Vasquez immediately called on Bekele to leave, with Vasquez stating, “We have a board member here who resigned May 20, giving a verbal resignation on that date while submitting a written resignation to you [general counsel] Mr. Ponto.”

Victor Ponto

Ponto, who is attempting to keep Bekele on the board to save his own job, stated “I did not sign Bekele’s letter.”

Yet a document obtained by LCCN showed that Ponto was preparing for Bekele’s resignation seven weeks before his May 20 resignation on April 6.

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PRIOR KNOWLEDGE: Board meeting document that clearly shows the entire CB Board, with Ponto acting as GM, acknowledged on APRIL 6 that Bekele was going to resign and to start the election process. Ponto claimed “I did not sign anything.” Click on image to view larger document.

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Bekele somehow found a way to argue he did not resign, “I’d like to make a statement on me not being a board member. Just to clarify, I did inform legal counsel [Ponto] that I will be stepping down and I will be here during the transition.”

Bekele then implied that crucial documents were being withheld from the entire CB Board, “There are emails that not everyone has seen stating I will be here until my ending date.”

After Bekele resigned May 20, under Asm. Cristina Garcia’s bill passed a few years ago, ballots to appoint the new director are mandated to be sent out the next day, which the CB Board Secretary finalized on May 21.  That action ended Bekele’s term and declared the seat open.

“The election process has started,” said Vasquez, “we sent out ballots we will wait until Mr. Bekele dismisses himself. You clearly stated this will be my last meeting on May 20 in addition to sending a letter to the counsel. By attending you have violated the law.”

Director Juan Garza, who has been battling to keep Bekele and retain a voting majority on the board, threw out a non-sequitur stating, “The claims being made would be the same as one council member saying to another you are no longer a member….it makes no sense.”

Evidently, Garza did not read Bekele’s email to Ponto and the CB Board.

Bekele’s wrote in his email, “Hi Victor, I am writing to inform you of my decision to step down from my role as a Director at CBMWD. The demands of my current position have significantly increased, necessitating my full attention and commitment. We can make a formal notice of some kind during the next board meeting. [May 20 meeting where he resigned on video.] However, please initiate any applicable proceedings that will expedite my replacement. I will try my best to assist as much as I can during this transition.”

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Bekele’s resignation email.

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Ponto spoke up after Garza, clearly showing that he pre-planned to counter objections to Bekele’s attendance.

Ponto cited a one-hundred year-old decision that stated a public agency resignation-like Bekele’s-must be in writing with a date. “There is no date,” Ponto proclaimed.

Vasquez snapped back, “I am glad you are acting as Mr. Bekele’s personal attorney Mr. Ponto.”

Understanding the legal exposure, President Chacon called the L.A. County Sheriff’s to remove Bekele from the CB Board room.

When they arrived Chacon called a recess and left the room to speak to the sheriffs, immediately after that, Garza could be heard calling on Ponto to act while Chacon was gone. “Chacon is gone, we should continue the meeting, VP Camacho can run the meeting.” Ponto agreed but Vasquez objected.

Garza could then be heard yelling at Vasquez in an attempt to stifle the conversation. “Chacon’s not here, I move we let Camacho call the meeting to order.” Garza and Ponto kept up the pressure with the Board Secretary calling the meeting to order.

Off-camera, an officer could be heard coming into the room. Camacho yelled, “Director Bekele please sit down, don’t go outside.”

Garza and Ponto tried to keep Bekele in the room saying, “that’s not the sheriff, that’s not the sheriff, stay here.” 

Bekele told them, “I am being told to leave, I am being told to leave.”  Camacho told him to sit down and called the meeting to order, that’s when President Chacon re-entered the room.

Similar to his actions at two other CB meetings, a very vocal Garza motioned to illegally add a “walk-on” item to the CB meeting agenda brazenly calling to remove Chacon as president.

Chacon interrupted, but Ponto argued for Garza’s position saying to President Chacon “You are not hearing me speak.”

Chacon kept trying to object, but Ponto and Garza would not stop yelling, with Garza finally demanding for the illegal vote….. under no objection from Ponto.

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

Following agreement that the circumstances were met, the item can only be added after 4/5ths of the board votes in the affirmative. None of the circumstances were met nor was a vote taken.

Ponto did his part to further the coup saying the board only needed four votes ; under the Brown Act five was required.

But Garza insisted, blatantly violating the Brown Act, calling for a vote; Camacho seconded, etching her name on the violator’s cup.

A vote was called with Camacho, Garza and Bekele voting yes. Chacon and Vasquez voted no with Crawford abstaining.

Camacho, Garza and Ponto’s illegal motion to remove Chacon failed. Chacon proceeded to other business then adjourned the meeting but the three contested the adjournment finally leaving the room.

Where is the L.A. District Attorney?

As for Ponto, this was not his first foray into allowing illegal public agency votes.

LCCN published an investigative article last week outlining how Ponto 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, just like at CB.

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, and Monday’s Garza motion to remove Chacon, Ponto defended his decision by calling it an emergency walk on item; this  time Garza had enough votes and they hired Jeng.

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.