Santa Ana Council’s Majority Still Fighting for Staff’s Attention

Santa Ana City Council members Monday night began reworking the lines of communication at City Hall so elected officials are more informed about City Hall operations, a process aimed in part at asserting the seven-member council's authority over city staff and curbing the influence of longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido.

The special meeting was set for several weeks after the appointment of interim City Manager Kevin O'Rourke, who replaced the former city manager in a power move by the council majority, dubbed the “Santa Ana Spring.”

And even though appointing O'Rourke was supposed to have solved the communication problem, council members have expressed frustration that the city staff still doesn't communicate enough with them. For example, Councilman Sal Tinajero said it was “insulting” that allocations of federal revenues known as the Community Development Block Grant program appeared on a council agenda last week without any council input.

“I've had the sense from you in the weeks that I've been here that this isn't working real well,” O'Rourke told council members in a reference to communication between the council and staff.

Council members discussed deficiencies that hinder legislators from effectively interacting with the city bureaucracy.

Some of their suggestions, such as limiting the number of public commendations a council member can give to one per meeting, will be implemented immediately, while others will require council approval.

A major change council members proposed focused on sharing information to all council members when only one is briefed, a common complaint about the attention Pulido gets at City Hall. Councilman Vincent Sarmiento went so far as to suggest regulating the amount of staff time a single council member has the power to consume.

“Staff time, if you quantify it, is public money,” Sarmiento said. “It's not completely fair that staff time is exhausted by one or two members.”

Although it wasn't stated outright, the discussion about violations of the state's open meetings law known as the Brown Act was prompted by allegations that Pulido had violated the law by leaking information from closed sessions.

In one instance, council members' decision in closed session to appoint O'Rourke as city manager was leaked to a local blog called New Santa Ana. In another, Pulido was videotaped by Voice of OC walking out of a closed session and revealing to bystanders that council members wanted to fire City Manager Paul Walters.

Council members decided that discussing options for policing Brown Act violations — such as referring violations to the district attorney's office or putting teeth into an existing code of ethics of ordinance — will go to the council's ethics committee.

Among the bigger changes suggested was changing council meeting days from the first and third Mondays of each month to Tuesdays. The Mondays could then be used to brief council members on agenda items so they are prepared to cast votes.

Some other suggested changes, though minor, were also designed to reduce Pulido's influence. Martinez brought up a recent query by an entrepreneur potentially bringing a new business to the city. The businessman asked for Pulido, thinking that the city was run under a strong mayor form of government, but staff didn't tell him he could contact other council members, she said.

Councilman Roman Reyna even suggested taking the usual pledge of allegiance away from the mayor and giving the role to community groups. He also asked that proclamations be granted in all council members' names, not just the mayor.

Tinajero asked that the mayor and mayor pro tem — which is Tinajero — be involved in setting council meeting agendas. At present, that power belongs solely to the city manager.

Council members do, however, have the power to place discussion items on agendas. City Attorney Sonia Carvalho noted that a former council member had repeatedly placed the same item on the agenda even though it had been discussed and voted on several times.

Carvalho didn't specify it, but she was referring to former Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez's relentless drive to dismantle the controversial special property tax district that had funded a downtown booster organization known as Downtown Inc.

“It's our version of the filibuster,” Sarmiento said.

Carvalho also suggested that council members fill out weekly calendars that could be distributed to the whole council so that the elected officials could know what the others are doing.

Regarding a strategic plan — a five-year vision of citywide goals required under the city's sunshine ordinance — O'Rourke suggested that a city budget be approved first. The plan could be built on the revenue and expense projections, then delegated to a series of council committees, he said.

The ordinance requires that the plan be completed by the time the city budget is adopted in June, but a city consultant, Management Partners Inc., has advised that it won't be ready in time.

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

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