An Education in Openness: Questions for Sonia Carvalho

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Santa Ana’s longtime city attorney, Joe Fletcher, retired in late 2010, taking with him a $333,779 payout in severance pay and unused time off. The cash-out made him one of the highest paid public official in the state.

The city was without a permanent city attorney until April, when Sonia Carvalho pitched the city on a contract in which she would be the city’s full-time city attorney but be on contract from her law firm, Best Best & Krieger.

Since signing on, Carvalho has had no shortage of controversial issues on her plate. Councilman Carlos Bustamante was arrested on sex assault charges, Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez sued the city in an attempt to keep her council seat and the City Council rushed a mayoral term limit ballot proposal for the November election, part of a full-scale rebellion against Mayor Miguel Pulido.

Carvalho also recently caught City Hall watchers’ attention when had a confrontation on the dais with Alvarez, who at one point said she was giving Carvalho a legal “lesson” in a dispute over a downtown property tax.

Carvalho sat down recently with Voice of OC to discuss government ethics, the challenges facing her office, why the city doesn’t disclose public officials’ calendar appointments and a legal requirement that council members pay attention during some public hearings.

Q: What was it that attracted you to this job?

A: I enjoy being a city attorney, the work is challenging, but I especially enjoy the public service aspect of it, because you’re working for the public. I think I’ve always been intrigued by larger cities and what they do and the type of challenges that thy have. As you know, I’ve been a contract city attorney to mostly small, maybe medium-sized, cities, and I’ve always enjoyed that work, and when this job came open I thought, wow, Santa Ana in Orange County, the county seat. There must be some really challenging, exciting projects to work on. … The transportation-related work interested me a great deal.

Q: Many took notice when you faced down Councilwoman Claudia Avarez during a recent hearing on a controversial downtown property tax. Do you feel there is an educational component in your duties as to how the council is governed?

A: I think part of what I do is to make sure the entire council is given accurate information. It’s part of my job to make sure that both the council and maybe even at times members of the public are all informed of the accurate facts so they can have good policy discussions. If you don’t have accurate information, I don’t think you can have a meaningful policy discussion. …

It’s always difficult though, I think what you referenced here, whether the point that someone is trying to make — whether it’s coming from the dais or it’s one of the council members or it’s coming from the public — you have to just keep in mind you’re the one there as a city attorney to be objective. And even sometimes there might be a City Council person that doesn’t necessarily like the answer that you’re providing, but as long as you know that it’s accurate and that it’s free from your own point of view …

Q: Why did you choose to specialize in government ethics? And are there any changes to the city’s ethics you would like to see?

A: In 1994 there was a major overhaul to the Brown Act, and it was just one of my first assignments. I started working at a firm in 1992, and two years later I was chosen. Two of my partners asked me if I would look at the legislation and make a presentation. … As I was preparing it, I remember to this day reading the preamble to the Brown Act, government for the people and information, and it’s just something that struck me. I kind of realized that I hadn’t just come to this firm to practice municipal law, that there was a special responsibility that came with it. …

As I started to put together AB 1234 training, I started to bring in true ethics. Because AB 1234 [requires] ethics training [for public officials], but it’s really about the laws. It’s telling you what’s right and wrong. And so that started to really interest me. So when I do my training, I don’t just sit there like a professor would drone on and on about the law.

I like to bring in pictures. I love to bring in headlines. One of the things I always say when I do my AB 1234 training is I never run out of headline materials to show you. … I’ve got some good pictures where I can occasionally show them in handcuffs. But to me when I do that type of training, what I remind people is that the ethical violations aren’t always that bad. … It’s the taking a vote on something where you know you’ve been influenced and you’re going to vote a certain way because there’s some personal benefit to you. That to me is the real ethical challenge.

Q: Would you like to see the city looked upon as a good example of adhering to the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act?

A: I would love to see the day when Santa Ana is looked to as an example of a city who can demonstrate that, you know what, transparency is the best way to always do work with the citizens and the community. I’m really happy to say that since I’ve been here, I feel like they’re truly at all levels of this government and City Hall, from the city clerk’s office especially even to our new city manager Paul Walters, of an absolute focus on transparency. And even as we talk about projects, there’s a lot of talk about how do we let the community know what’s going on, how do we make sure that we’ve checked off all the things we’re supposed to do in this area before we send something out on an agenda. That’s really reassuring.

Q: Why has the city taken the position that it need not disclose public officials’ calendars under the California Public Records Act?

A: I think the city has taken that position under the Times Mirror position. In the Times Mirror position, they requested that [then-Gov. George Deukmejian] produce his appointment schedules, calendars and notebooks and any other documents that would detail any of his official activities. The court applied Section 6254, citing the exemption. … The court noted that revealing certain information might have a chilling effect. “If the law required disclosure of a private meeting between [an elected official] and a politically unpopular or controversial group, that meeting might never occur.”

Q: Do you think the city should produce officials’ calendars? What’s your personal opinion?

A: I won’t give my personal opinion on that.

Q: Can you explain the court decision requiring council members to pay attention during council meetings?

A: We have a duty during certain public hearings to make sure that we are hearing all of the evidence, and if that evidence includes members of the public or the applicant speaking — especially if an applicant has appealed an issue to the council — then that decision basically says if you’re going to act like the judge in this case, you’ve got to make sure you’ve heard all the evidence. Because you don’t want to be making a decision if you’ve forgotten a key piece of evidence.

Q: And it’s only for public hearings?

A: Public hearings and certain types of decisions.

Q: Does it include looking at cell phones?

A: Some cities have policies on that. Talking from personal experience, I do work for other cities and one city has a general policy. It’s a norm that you cannot use your phone during a council meeting. But you can have it up on the dais with you. … I’d had my phone out here; I hadn’t really glanced at it. I then picked up my phone and looked at it and there was a text from husband saying he had rushed my daughter to the emergency room. But by the time I actually got my text — because the policy says you can’t look at your phone — everything was fine. … That’s how we communicate, and it’s nice to have it. But I also think it’s important that we not be using it or glancing at it in a way that it looks to the public like we’re not paying attention to their business.

Q: We don’t have a policy like that in Santa Ana?

A: Not that I’m aware of. I just think it’s important for the public to know that especially their staff is paying attention. We only get twice a month to show the public the quality of our work and what we’re doing.

Q: How do you enforce such a requirement?

A: With humor. With a smile. That’s the best way. … I think that every elected official goes into this line of work with the best of intentions. There’s a lot of information. You can come to any of our council meetings here, and I’m surprised at the number of pages in their packets. There’s a lot to be potentially distracted by. Even if you’re at that meeting. You’re maybe on item 20 but your brain is on item 25 because for whatever reason that’s the item or there’s a whole bunch of members of the public there…

You don’t want to be constantly, like, nagging: Oh, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. My goal is to build trust with this new client, because there’s seven members of the City Council who all have different personalities and different issues or interests. … I think I have to always strive that when I give them an opinion, they say that’s an objective opinion. She’s trying to help us do the right thing.

— Interview by ADAM ELMAHREK

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