As candidates for Santa Ana City Council and mayor were settling in their seats at last week’s debate, the event’s organizers were watching closely to see if candidates would follow a rule to keep cell phones turned off.

There was a bet among the organizers. Connie Hamilton, chairwoman of Connect-to-Council, had wagered $5 that candidates would be good and not look at their phones.

She lost.

From the beginning of the forum, Mayor Miguel Pulido was staring down at his phone.

“I used to teach high school,” moderator Evangeline Gawronski scolded at a sheepish looking Pulido.

A few minutes later, as other candidates were speaking, Pulido was back to his phone:

It was a display that should come as no surprise to anyone who follows his public life.

Residents have long been irritated at the mayor’s incessant cell phone use at City Council meetings and a general lack of attention from all council members, particularly during the public comments portion. That’s the time when residents raise their grievances about city government before their elected leaders.

Other council members have also shown disrespect to speakers by chatting among themselves during these proceedings — behavior that could violate the state’s open meetings law, according to Terry Francke, Voice of OC’s open government consultant and a statewide open government expert. 

But it’s Pulido being glued to his phone that has caused the most frustration.

Consider the exchange between Pulido and Santa Ana resident Laura Perez at the Aug. 5 City Council meeting. Perez demanded to know what Pulido was looking at when he was staring down at his lap instead of paying attention during public comment:

“I’ve noticed in the last five presenters that have stood here, you’ve done nothing but look down,” Perez told the mayor. “I’m hoping you’re not looking at a stop watch… what are you looking at?”

“Please continue,” Pulido said after a moment.

Perez wouldn’t let up.

“What are you looking at?” She said again as the mayor remained silent. “Please answer me… can you answer?”

“I’m looking at you, please continue,” Pulido answered.

“What were you looking at?” Perez demanded. “Your phone?”

It isn’t just council meetings.

Pulido has been known to be constantly on his phone at board meetings for the Orange County Transportation Authority, where he is a board director.

And at the Great Park Board of Directors, where Pulido sat on the board for several years, he was known for spotty attendance and lack of attention. Irvine Mayor Steven Choi sat next to him on the board and said Pulido was often switching between two different phones.

Others are also beginning to take offense at the actions of Pulido and his colleagues in Santa Ana.

A source close to the Santa Ana Police Officers Association said the subtext of a recent letter complaining about anti-police hecklers at the Sept. 2 council meeting is also a complaint about the behavior of council members while police officers were being recognized for their work.

Council members left the chambers, talked to each other and in general didn’t pay attention to the ceremony honoring the officers.

The letter doesn’t explicitly call out council members, but it does request that the police chief and city manager conduct future recognitions of officers in private. Usually, council members or the mayor lead the ceremonies.

Police union President John Franks, who penned the letter, declined to comment on the matter.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez said she had to leave the chambers for urgent city business, but said “I’m not going to make any excuses, I should have been there.”

Martinez and other members of the council publicly apologized at the next meeting and requested that the council chambers decorum rules be reviewed and amended. But their request was mostly directed at the protesters who attended the previous meeting.

In response to the recent controversy, Martinez said she will propose new decorum rules that would allow council members (not just the mayor as is currently the case) to call a recess and have hecklers escorted out of the chambers.

She is also recommending a new rule for the council – no more cell phone use at the dais. If a council member needs to use the phone, he or she should step outside, Martinez said.

“All that should be up there is our iPads because all our council documents are electronic now,” Martinez said.

Martinez added that she had asked City Attorney Sonia Carvalho to ban cell phone use about a year ago.

Other council members and the mayor didn’t return requests for comment or couldn’t be reached.

Carvalho in an interview with Voice of OC said council members should be attentive during meetings, and even said in some cases – such as public hearings on something like a permit appeal – it is illegal for council members not to pay attention.

Carvalho had approved of glancing at the phone periodically and recalled how she once received a text about her daughter being rushed to the emergency room.

But “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,” Carvalho had said.

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