The problem for transparency and public participation of beginning local government meetings in closed session—or shifting where the session will be held without informing the public—was illustrated this week in Orange County, reports Adam Elmahrek for the Voice of OC.
Santa Ana City Council Monday met without meeting publicly first, another instance in which council members have violated the state’s open-meeting law known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.
Closed-door meetings are allowed under a narrow set of exceptions to the Brown Act. However, the law requires that members of the public be allowed to comment on all matters on the meeting agenda before council members discusses them.
To comply with the law, council members have to convene publicly first and ask for comments from the public — before heading behind closed doors. Yet before — and during — Monday’s closed-doors meeting, the doors to the council chambers were locked. And staffers told a Voice of OC reporter attempting to enter the chambers that council members always meet privately first.
This isn’t the first time City Council has violated this particular requirement of the law. Voice of OC reported late last year that council members were meeting privately without giving the public a chance to speak first.
“This repetition to me signals that either the council doesn’t know or the council doesn’t care,” said Terry Francke, general council for the First Amendment advocacy organization Californians Aware.
“They need to be presented with the situation squarely, so they can take whatever steps there are to hold the city manager — or whoever — accountable so these foul ups don’t occur.”
City Clerk Maria Huizar said she had thought staff had unlocked the council chambers doors for before the meeting. She said Mayor Miguel Pulido had called for public comments thinking that the public had access.
“I’ll take the fall on that one,” Huizar said.
This wasn’t the only Brown Act problem with Monday’s council meeting.
The closed-doors meeting was scheduled to be held in its usual spot — behind a pair of double-doors with a sign that says “employees only” — but was moved to a private conference room adjacent to the council chambers. The public wasn’t notified about the change.
Francke said that was unacceptable.
“It warrants an official resolution directing staff to make sure that each meeting of the council is open under predictable and conspicuous circumstances,” Francke said. “So that no one misses the opportunity — to which they’re entitled — to comment on a matter in closed session.”
City Attorney Joe Straka could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.