It has taken a few weeks but we’ve finally gotten enough evasive answers out of Santa Ana Public Information Officer Jose Gonzalez regarding the “Agent For Change” forum held last month to determine whether or not city funds were spent on the so-called privately sponsored forum. It short answer is YES.
According to a city press release issued two days before the event, Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez, in conjunction with the City of Santa Ana, hosted a Community Forum on Cultural Diversity and Conflict Resolution, on Thursday, October 27, 2011. The Community Forum was held at the Santa Ana Police Community Room at 60 Civic Center Drive, Santa Ana, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
A cross-section of community leaders participated in the Community Forum. This forum will focus on the Jewish–Latino experience as it relates to their shared history and common desire to promote social justice and economic prosperity.
We previously reported that the forum ended up becoming an invitation only event rather than the open community forum envisioned by Councilman Vincent Sarmiento when he made his motion for the event to be held as part of the clean-up of Alvarez’s anti-Semitic remarks made during a City Council meeting. The invitation list was developed by Councilwoman Alvarez and city staff.
When Editor Dan Chmielewski showed up to witness the proceedings first hand, he was denied admittance. Interim City Manager, Police Chief Paul Walters told Chmielewski he could not offer access as “this Town Hall is a private event.”
Walters said the event “isn’t costing the city a cent.” Spokesman Jose Gonzalez said local businesses were hosting the tables and Mayor Pro Tem Alvarez was buying lunch. However, we noted at the time no fewer than seven city employees at the event and wondered who was covering their costs as well as the cost of the city staffers in organizing and managing the event. None of the business sponsors were identified prior to the meeting.
After the event we placed a Public Records Act Request for details telated to the event:
Q: Who were the business and community sponsors of this event and what were their individual contributions to this event?
A: Mr. Robert Escalante, Custom Auto Service, Inc., kindly offered and agreed to cover the costs for the tables and linens that were rented.
Q: Was this forum coordinated by City of Santa Ana staff? If so, who were those staff members, how much time did they spend on this project, what was the cost of those resources of time and materials?
A: Staff from the City Manager’s office helped coordinate the community forum. When the City hosts or coordinates other community meetings/events the time spent on those projects is not tracked, as it is done during the normal course of the work day. This community forum was treated no differently.
Q: Who paid for the costs of refreshments and lunch for the participants, did the city front those costs, and how much were those costs?
A: Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez will pay for the costs ($452.55) after she is invoiced by Aramark. NOTE: We’ve received a copy of the paid Aramark invoice for the refreshments.
Q: Press Releases from the City indicated that this forum was hosted by Councilwoman Alvarez in conjunction with the City of Santa Ana. In fact, this event is the result of an official action taken by the City Council. How can the event be characterized as a “private event” in the context of this description by the City?
A: The City’s press releases did not indicate that this was the result of action taken by the City Council. Due to the selected format for the forum, capacity issues were identified and the Community Forum was set up as an invitation-only event. However, understanding that this event would generate much interest from the public and the media, it was streamed live over the World Wide Web for everyone to view.
Q: Who participated in the establishment of the list of invited guests for this forum? Was there an established or formal criteria for the invitees. Who sent out the invitations to the forum?
A: City staff and Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez compiled the invitee list, utilizing several different community leader databases provided by Community Development, the ADL, and the Jewish faith organizations. The only criterion for invitees, which was informal, was that the person must be an individual who was identified as a community leader. Once the list was compiled, the invited guests were sent e-mail invitations and some received personal telephone calls from the City Manager’s office and or the Mayor Pro Tem.
In his response to our follow-up inquiries last week, spokesman Jose Gonzalez responded to our inquiries:
Q: Can you tell us about the room rental fee and the cost of streaming the event via video. These costs we not covered by a business sponsor.
A: There were no external costs to host the meeting. However, we did have staff at the meeting to ensure the live broadcast was a success and to check-in the attendees. Because we hosted this meeting with the Mayor Pro Tem, we did not track the hours or cost of doing business. We treated the forum in same manner as we have done for past invitation-only events and/or community meetings.
Q: Specifically, what was the room rental fee and who paid for it and how was individual parking paid for? Was that covered by the Mayor Pro Tem, the city, a business sponsor, or were individuals left to pick up their own parking.
A: Because this forum was cosponsored by the City, the fee schedule is not applicable. We treated this event no differently as we have done for past invitation-only events and/ or community meetings. In doing so, the validation of parking was also absorbed in the same manner as described above.
Based upon their own responses it is clear that the “Agent of Change Forum” did indeed cost the taxpayers both staff time, and loss of facility rental fees. These costs likely amounted to thousands of dollars, but we’ll never know the exact amount because City Manager Walter’s decided to not track the costs.
Since the event invitation lists was effectively controlled by Alvarez; and the event was designed and implemented to repair the political damage she caused to herself by her own actions in her official capacity; and because the public benefit created by such a closed public forum is far exceeded by Alvarez’s personal political benefit; one could reasonably conclude that the City of Santa Ana spent public funds on a political forum to support of an elected officials personal political benefit.
The only positive thing revealed by this event is that the excuse of costs as a barrier to the live broadcast of Council Meetings held in the Police Department Community Room can no longer be applied as a justification. Since the City Manager’s has stated that the forum, including the web-cast, “didn’t cost the city a cent”, we look forward to watching the Special Council Meeting tonight on the web. Not holding our breath!
Note to Interim City Manager, Chief Paul Walters
You are new to this whole City Manager thing, so maybe you don’t already know what any qualified City Manager would know…
Just because you don’t track what something costs, doesn’t mean it didn’t cost a cent.