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Long Beach council members challenge private meetings

Two Long Beach City Council members are challenging the city's leadership for gathering in private before public meetings, saying the practice violates the state's open government laws.

Councilman Len Torres, a Democrat who took office in January with running mate Mike Fagen, said he's concerned that the council has engaged in discussions of government business in private before the regular meeting convenes. The other three council members are Republicans.

"Meetings before we go into the public are not legal, so we've got a problem with that," said Torres, who said he raised questions at one such meeting this month. "Mike Fagen and I will not participate in those meetings until the law is adhered to."

Torres' comments last week came during Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative by media outlets, nonprofits and others to promote discussion about the need for open government and freedom of information.

Camille Jobin-Davis, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government in New York's Department of State, said that any gathering where a majority of a public body's members are present, and where official business is discussed, is subject to the state open meetings law. The law requires that such meetings be open to the public and announced a "reasonable" time beforehand.

Council president Thomas Sofield Jr. said that such gatherings had taken place but characterized the discussions as informal and approved by the city's attorney. He said they were held expressly to provide information to the new council members and no decisions have been made in private.

"People show up at City Hall before the meeting and we go to the city manager's office," exchange pleasantries, "and if somebody has a question on an agenda item they may say, 'I'm concerned about this,' " Sofield said. "No decision is made regarding whether or not it's going to be approved, or denied, or how anybody's going to vote on it."

Fagen and Torres were told the meetings could be canceled if they are uncomfortable with them, Sofield said.

City Manager Charles Theofan said he stands by the legality of the meetings in his office, saying Torres even thanked him publicly at a council meeting last month for providing some of the information shared during those sessions.

Theofan said only two private meetings had taken place since January. One, on March 2, concerned legal questions discussed with the city attorney about the council members' seating arrangements and "bloc voting." "If the purpose of this private meeting is to discuss a legal matter, it is exempt from the open meetings law," Theofan said.

The other was a presentation by a beach chair and umbrella company, which Theofan said he arranged for Torres and Fagen. Sofield and Councilman John McLaughlin, a Republican, also heard at least part of the presentation.

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