As most of you know, we have been hammering the city council and executive staff of the City of Santa Ana pretty hard on the issue of transparency over the past few months. We have found conflicts of interest that have required the return of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and violations of sunshine and open meetings laws. The results of our investigations have lead to a simple conclusion. The City of Santa Ana operates with about as much transparency as a brick wall.
For example, we have the issue of the Closed Session part of each meeting. The Council is required by law to convene their closed session meetings in public, accept public comment if any, and report any conflicts in public, before they adjourn to closed session. As a matter of practice that is not what happens even though the agenda for the closed session meetings indicates that public comment will be accepted on matters related to the closed session agenda. In all cases, the council convenes its closed session meetings in rooms that are not publicly accessible. Not only does this practice discourage public participation, it in practice excludes it.
At a special closed session meeting of the Council on September 27, 2010, the Council convened out of public view at 5:18 pm, conducted business including excusing members with conflicts of interest, then adjourned to achieve a quorum. Then at 5:31 pm after achieving a quorum the council elected an acting chairman prior to the public being granted access to the meeting room at 5:37 pm. The Voice of OC reported that on October 7th, the public and media were blocked from accessing the closed session of that meeting, which was conducted entirely in private.
The October 18, 2010, closed session meeting was held in the Police Chief’s Conference Room at the Santa Ana Police Department building. This room is not publicly accessible. The meeting was convened without the opportunity for the public to address the Council during public comment on the closed session agenda. I know this because our writer Claudio Gallegos showed up for the meeting at about 5:10 pm and asked to be permitted access to the 4th floor conference room. The officer at the desk informed him that she needed to ring someone in the conference room so they could come down and escort him to the room. She called the room and spoke with someone in the meeting who told her to tell him that anyone who is attending the meeting is to be sent to the Community Room and wait for the closed session to finish.
This all took place between 5:10 and 5:18 pm. The reason I know exactly what time this happened is because Gallegos called me at ended a call with me at 5:10 when he entered the building and called me back at 5:18 as he left the building to tell me what had happened. Our cell phone logs confirm these time. Before calling me, Gallegos had gone to the Community Room to have his parking validated, so several minutes had passed before he called me. I learned Tuesday afternoon from the City Clerk that the closed session meeting was convened at 5:21 pm. Mr. Gallegos had requested access prior to the start of the meeting and was denied access as required by law.
We now have found three consecutive closed session meetings where public access was restricted, or outright denied. This specifically violates G.C. §54953 which states; (a) All meetings of the legislative body of a local agency shall be open and public, and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the legislative body of a local agency, except as otherwise provided in this chapter.
The meetings held in the 8th floor conference room at City Hall require the public to check in with the clerk and await escort to the conference room. Access to the meetings held in the Police Chief’s 4th floor conference room is even more restrictive. Members of the public are required to check in with the police officer at the front desk to gain access (via escort) to the meeting. This practice provides significant barrier to public participation and is clearly in violation of the requirements of G.C. §54953.3, The Brown Act, which states; “A member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of the legislative body, to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance.”
When it comes to following the requirements of the Brown Act, California’s law regarding open meetings, the City has failed on a number of levels. First, the Brown Act (G.C. §54954) requires that the City “determine by ordinance, the time and place for all regular meetings of the City Council. The intent of the law is simple; people should not have to guess when and where the meetings of their local government officials are going to take place. The public is supposed to be able to rely on knowing that the City Council meets in a specific location on a specific date, and time.
That’s not the way it works in Santa Ana. The City has set things up to say that their meetings are convened for closed session in the City Hall 8th floor conference room on the first and third Monday of every month (excluding holidays) at 5 pm for closed session, which is to be immediately followed by open session in the Council chambers. They have however added the caveat that the meeting may be moved by action of the council provided notice is given. While this process would be fine for special occasions, it should not be the norm. The Council however, moves the second meeting to a different location every month.
The public does not know, other than a mention in the agenda of the meeting held the first Monday, where the third Monday meeting will be held until the agenda is posted. This practice leaves the public wondering where the meeting of the City Council is being held. Simply put, the City Council is playing a shell game when it comes to meeting locations. If this isn’t outright illegal, it is highly deceptive and serves only to stifle public participation.
In addition, by setting up the regular meeting to start immediately following a closed session meeting which has no specific end time, the city is not providing the public with a way to reasonably know when the regular meeting will begin, and/or what time the public may address the council. Since council rules for public comment state that additional requests to provide public comment made after that process has begun may not be granted, the public must guess what time the regular meeting will begin in order to be present for public comment. To add to this already discouraging process the time of public comment and order on the meeting agenda, can be moved at any time by act of the chair, to any point on the meeting agenda.
Public Record Disclosure
In the process of investigating questionable votes due to contributions received by Council Members Tinajero and Martinez from the United Latino Soccer League, I asked the City Attorney for copies of all email correspondence received and sent by him related to this matterÂ during a specific narrow time period (about a day and a half). The City Attorney responded through the City Clerk that all such communications were confidential as a matter of “privilege” and would not be disclosed. The problem is, the City Attorney cannot declare all communication he receives or sends as privileged. Only communications where the City Attorney is providing specific advice to the Council or city staff in his capacity as their attorney, can be concealed based upon privilege.
As a matter of practice, I don’t usually ask a question unless I have a pretty good idea what I am looking for. In this case, I was looking to verify the claim that the City Attorney had made that he first learned of the issue of the conflicted campaign contributions related to the United Latino Soccer League, from members Tinajero, Martinez, and Mayor Pulido. At the time I asked, I had in my possession an email from a Santa Ana resident, asking the City Attorney to investigate the matter. That email specifically described the issue and the conflicts involved. In no way could that communication have been confidential or privileged, as it was a communication to a public official from a member of the public requesting an official action be taken and had been copied to multiple people other than the City Attorney. None the less, he refused to release the email, or any others that may have been responsive to my request.Â
I’ve all but given up hope that the officials responsible to enforce these rule will actually do so. But I’m still left with a couple questions.
Given all of the claims by members of the City Council and staff that they are operating with transparency, why the disconnect between those claims and reality? What are they trying to hide, and why?