The beginnings of city council meetings are almost always are filled with presentations of awards and honors. It’s a time for photos, smiles and a chance for council members to display their charisma.
But in Santa Ana, it seems, they are also a time for huddling and whispering among council members at the dais.
Consider this scene from Monday’s meeting:
While Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez was busy giving a series of public honors, Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilmen Sal Tinajero and Carlos Bustamante were huddled around Tinajero’s seat, exchanging whispers for a couple of minutes.
Bustamante then ventured out into the audience for a moment, returned to his seat and again spoke with Pulido, who had moved to the empty seat of Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who was absent. Pulido then turned and exchanged whispers with Councilman Vincent Sarmiento.
Then it was Councilman David Benavides’ turn to present the public honors.
And then Pulido disappeared, unannounced, and he didn’t return for the rest of the meeting.
As Benavides spoke, Alvarez and Tinajero had a conversation. After that exchange of words finished, Sarmiento got out of his seat and exchanged whispers with Tinajero.
And then it was Sarmiento’s turn to present the public honors.
And while Sarmiento was speaking, Alvarez and Bustamante whispered a few things to each other.
When I described this scene to open government expert Terry Francke, he said he hadn’t heard of anything like it.
Such behavior could at the least be construed as violating the state’s open-meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, and at most could be criminal, Francke said.
“It’s virtually a secret meeting, and if action is taken — for example if an agreement to do something is formed among the majority — then it’s serious enough to be treated as a misdemeanor,” Francke said.
The possible violation, known as a serial meeting, occurs when a majority of council members separately discuss city business in order to “develop a collective concurrence,” according to the law. If there’s an agreement to take action, then the members of the majority can be prosecuted, Francke said.
When I confronted Bustamante about the huddling and whispering at the dais, he said it is nothing to worry about because the council members weren’t talking about anything on the meeting agenda.
Bustamante then questioned whether I had any experience attending council meetings, because, he said, such behavior is common on all councils.
Francke said it’s impossible to assume that council members were talking about anything that doesn’t have to do with city business.
“It’s almost a necessary conclusion that they’re talking about something official,” Francke said. “They’re not talking about their kids.”
Welcome to Santa Ana.
— ADAM ELMAHREK