Santa Ana Council Makes Progress on Sunshine Ordinance

A resident stands outside Santa Ana's City Council Chambers. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro

A resident stands outside Santa Ana's City Council Chambers. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro

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The Santa Ana City Council spent hours Monday night editing line by line a proposed sunshine ordinance that would increase transparency at City Hall.

In some cases, debate focused on the meaning of a single word. Paragraphs were struck, words were added and some parts of the law were strengthened while others were weakened or eliminated altogether.

But most important to a coalition of activists, to nonprofit organizations and to labor groups who had proposed the ordinance and packed the council chamber Monday, council members signaled their willingness to approve at an upcoming meeting the law proposed by the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD).

“Sometimes when you bring something forward and you pour your heart over it, it’s very difficult to modify,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero, the first council member to champion the law. “… I hope tonight we can create a transparency ordinance that we can all be proud of.”

City staffers and members of the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD) have been negotiating over the details of the ordinance for months and had not reached a final compromise by Monday night. Council members considered both a city staff-supported version of the law and a SACReD counter proposal.

Among the most contested parts of the proposal were a required lobbyist registry, access to the meeting calendars of council members and some staffers, and requiring developers to hold two community pre-meetings before their projects reach the council for approval.

City Clerk Maria Huizar said that most of the lobbying disclosure that SACReD requested is already required by state law. Campaign contributions and the identities of contributors, statements of economic interest and donations made at the behest of public officials are already public records, Huizar said. She recommended that the ordinance require posting these documents online and include a voluntary registry.

Tinajero pointed out, however, “the key word is what constitutes a lobbyist.” Under the SACReD proposal, a lobbyist is any person or entity except lobbyists on behalf of the city paid at least $250 monthly to influence city policy. The SACReD ordinance would have required these “special interest lobbyists” to register annually with the city.

Lobbyists along with campaign contributions are vital to influencing government under American-style democracy. They are paid specifically to shore up support for their clients through phone calls, meetings and other contacts with public officials.

But Tinajero declined to push the issue and appeared convinced that the public records required by state laws, which don’t cover lobbyists, satisfied SACReD’s request. Councilman Carlos Bustamante repeated the incorrect assertion that other documents cover the issue. Other council members remained silent, and the lobbyist registry was made voluntary.

Council members also tussled over two public calendar options.

Mayor Miguel Pulido, who has objected to publishing his meeting calendar, pushed for an alternative that would require council members to maintain a monthly calendar with required entries, such as meetings with lobbyists, union representatives and developers with projects under review.

Pulido didn’t clearly explain why he preferred the second option. SACReD’s proposal would have had specific exemptions, like meetings with corporate entities that want to locate in the city. Its proposal would require details of the meeting, such as the duration and the names of the individuals involved. SACReD members feared that the alternative, which did not have specific exemptions and was less detailed, left council members with too much discretion over what to disclosure on their calendars.

Bustamante asked SACReD organizer Ana Urzua repeatedly what she would gain by knowing who the councilman is meeting with.

“So we know we can trust you,” Urzua replied.

Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez insisted that any public calendars option include some members of city staff, including department heads, so that staff would be accountable to the council. She blamed a controversy over a special tax on downtown properties to behind-the-scenes workings of city staff. She was also surprised to hear that the city’s policy was not to release public calendars.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento, who is an attorney, said he was concerned that private meetings, such as those with his clients, would have to be disclosed on the calendar. But he said that a clause under SACReD’s option adequately excluded those meetings.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez said she feared that, if she didn’t update her calendar properly, she would be in violation of the city’s municipal code, which she said would be a criminal violation. She asked that language be included to exempt criminal prosecution.

Ultimately, the council decided to include the SACReD-endorsed option.

The council and city staff also struggled with SACReD’s proposal for a developer to meet twice with the community before a project goes to council approval. Planning Director Jay Trevino said that repetitive review cycles for development projects were already a problem, and that a second pre-meeting could lengthen the approval process and double community noticing costs for the developer.

Trevino said the second pre-meeting would be such a burden on developers that they would be discouraged from building in the city.

“We think it’s going to become what nobody wants, a disincentive to investment and jobs in the community,” Trevino said.

Urzua said that SACReD pushed for the second pre-meeting so that the developer would have to respond to the public’s comments at the first pre-meeting.

Some of the discussion focused on the possible displacement of residents through development. City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said that unless there is public funding tied to the development, the city wouldn’t be able to force a developer to relocate the residents.

“The response could be, we don’t want to,” Carvalho said.

The scrutiny of the ordinance’s pre-meetings section was so detailed that there was even substantial debate over what the word “consider” means under the law.

Trevino said he was worried that a clause demanding that city officials consider public comment during a community pre-meeting would mean that all public comments would have to be considered equally, no matter how unreasonable they might be.

Other issues of contention included whether to subject affordable housing development to similar requirements and how public comment would be communicated back to the community.

Bustamante argued that creating a “double standard” for two types of development was unconstitutional and would make the city legally liable.

Council members also scrutinized language requiring increased notice of council meetings, evaluation panels for requests for proposals and public outreach for the city budget and the council’s strategic plan.Among the public speakers, none expressly opposed the ordinance, but Dave Elliot, president and CEO of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce, asked that the council postpone approval so the chamber could review it.

Carvalho took copious notes on the council’s comments throughout the meeting and will amend the ordinance based on council members’ consensus. Tinajero asked that the ordinance be back before the council in two weeks but allowed staff more time if needed.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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