About a dozen Santa Ana residents attended a meeting of the city’s ethics committee Wednesday night and vented frustration about what they say is a lack of transparency at City Hall and an ethics code that has no teeth.

“Where is the toughness at?” asked resident Valerie Amezcua at the end of the meeting. “And how are we holding people accountable?”

Amezcua, the daughter of past mayor candidate Alfredo Amezcua, was referring to language that appeared on the ballot for Measure D, which was approved by city voters in 2008. A commitment to draft a code of ethics was part of that measure, and the supporting argument promised that the code would be “tough” and hold public officials accountable.

Many say, however, that the code is soft and point to the slap on the wrist Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez received last year after she publicly compared a Jewish downtown property owner to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

Alvarez’s comments caused an uproar in the greater Jewish community, and she profusely apologized in interviews with numerous media outlets. But Alvarez suffered no consequences from her City Council colleagues other than being censured.

This is just one example of some council members’ ethics coming into question in recent years. Councilman Carlos Bustamante, then a manager in the county’s public works Department, is alleged to have traded sex for promotions. Mayor Miguel Pulido is a frequent tax scofflaw, according to public records, and has myriad business relationships that seem to conflict with his role as mayor. 

Residents at Wednesday’s meeting, however, were most concerned about transparency at City Hall.

One resident said the city’s public information officer seemed to be, in at least one case, distributing misinformation. The resident was referring to the city’s announcement of a formal arrangement with professional soccer team Chivas USA for a six-month negotiating window to move the team to Santa Ana. Chivas leaders soon declared that such negotiations were not taking place.

Other residents asked that the ethics code be amended to include enforcement mechanisms and a clear set of repercussions for code violations.

Assistant City Attorney Jose Sandoval conducted a survey of how ethics codes are enforced in dozens of other cities and found that methods range from self-policing by the city ouncil to the formation of ethics commissions charged with enforcement. Larger cities tend to have ethics commissions, Sandoval said.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento, also a member of the committee, noted that the code would be difficult to enforce, because some of the broad provisions of the code, such as being “courteous,” are too vague to justify penalties.

“The problem is we don’t know what those violations are,” Sarmiento said.

In one such example, resident Mike Tardif said he had months ago submitted a complaint about a city commissioner, alleging that the commissioner violated the ethics code, but heard nothing back. Tardif had submitted a complaint about comments made by Planning Commissioner Sean Mill on an Internet blog. Mill called Tardiff a “NIMBY” (Not in My Backyard) and a “contrarian,” according to Tardif’s complaint.

After hearing residents’ complaints, Councilman Sal Tinajero, chairman of the committee, said he would recommend to the City Council that the committee meet again after the November general election. He said he would have the city staff evaluate the complaint process and report to the committee.

Tinajero and Sarmiento are also seeking consensus from the council to hold regular ethics committee meetings.

Tinajero’s recommendation to meet again in November angered some meeting attendees, who argued that the committee needed to propose specific changes before setting a committee meeting several months in the future.

“To put this meeting off until after November is a waste of our time,” said resident Julie Stroud.

Tinajero and Sarmiento listened intently and expressed empathy with most of the residents’ concerns. They also touted the strides the city has made in making City Hall more transparent.

Interim City Manager Paul Walters appointed a public information officer last year to handle information requests from the media, Sarmiento pointed out, and the city also began video recording and streaming study sessions.

“You cannot deny that we are more transparent today than we were six years ago,” Tinajero said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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