BARSTOW - A dinner attended by four City Council Members and paid for by a consulting firm could be seen a violation of California's open meeting law, according to a watchdog group.

While attending the California League of Cities Conference in Sacramento in early September, council members attended a private dinner paid for by consulting firm Bureau Veritas.

Council members and representatives of the company said the dinner was an strictly an introduction to the firm and no city business was discussed. Still, because a voting majority of council members was present and the event was not publicly posted beforehand, it could potentially be a violation of the Brown Act, California's open meeting law, said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a group advocating open government.

"Where you have a dinner attended by a majority of the City Council as well as the city's redevelopment director, in my mind that can only be interpreted as city business as indeed here where the company got the business a month later," Francke said.

He said that the Brown Act allows for a majority of council members to attend certain purely ceremonial or social events, but this case did not qualify.

"There may be situations where the entire council or school board may be invited to a ribbon cutting or groundbreaking," he said "The word `purely' in that phrasing really demands in my view that these be situations which in no sense is city business being discussed."

He said that he felt the issue was not that the consultant paid for the meal or was later awarded a $34,000 contract, but that members of the public weren't aware what was going on.

"I guess the bottom line is that under the Brown Act, companies wishing to make a collective presentation should do so out in the open and shouldn't be able to essentially buy a private audience by paying for the dinner," he said. "If that were the case than anyone who wanted the council to go a certain way on something could just take them out to dinner."

Other groups said they could see where the paid dinner could be perceived as a potential conflict of interest.

"The appropriate thing to do would be for the city council to pay for the dinner," said Bob Stern, President of the Center for Governmental Studies. "That would remove the perception of influence buying."

He said that consultants and lobbying groups frequently host events for attendees at municipal conferences as a way to network.

"There's a lot of wining and dining going on, but it's usually for a larger group not just a City Council," he said.

Frank Vanella, deputy district attorney with the county's Public Integrity Unit, declined to directly address the dinner, but agreed with the statement of City Attorney Yvette Abich that the gatherings are allowed if they are strictly social.

"Generally speaking City Council members can go to dinner with whomever they want as long no city business as discussed," he said. "They're free to go to any event, private or public event. They're free to socialize with whomever they like as long as city business as not discussed."

Council member Joe Gomez who did not attend that dinner said he was uncomfortable with the idea of a majority of the council and staff members meeting in a private session even if the event was social.

"My concern is I don't know what they discussed so I don't know how they came to the decision," he said. "If the city's paid for them to go to the conference, that's all they should be doing."

Council members who attended the dinner said that the invitations came while they were at the conference and the event was not pre-planned.

"It was a social dinner, it was nothing about their company or the city," said Council Member Steve Curran. "How can you agendize a conference out of town?"

Curran said that Bureau Veritas was chosen for the consulting job over another engineering firm and a law firm because it was the lowest bidder for the project.

On Oct. 4, the council unanimously chose to award the contract to Bureau Veritas although city staff had initially recommended that the city award the contract to the Willdan firm.

"In my looking at the proposals, firm Bureau Veritas appears to be the best whether it's low or not," said Mayor Lawrence Dale. "It appears they have a better understanding of the project regardless of what the other two show." Abich, the city attorney, also recommended the contract be awarded to Bureau Veritas due to fears that the other consulting firm would require additional costs.

"My concern is the amount (Willdan) proposed is actually possibly more than they've quoted because a lot of the things they assumed have happened haven't happened," she said.

On Jan 7, the council voted 4 to 1 to approve a new contract with Bureau Veritas for up to $160,000. The firm will review the qualifications and proposals of interested firms for the wastewater project and help the city choose a contractor for the project.

The dinner with Bureau Veritas is not the first time concerns have been raised over council members potentially violating the Brown Act. Also during the League of California Cities Conference on Sept. 6., four council members met with Cynthia Bryant, the governor's deputy chief of staff, who handles Indian gaming issues, to discuss the issues holding back Barstow casino compacts. A complaint was filed with the district attorney's office that the meeting violating the Brown Act. No determination has been made in that case, the district attorney said.

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