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Automatic 'yes' votes allow time for back-room dealing at City Hall

Thanks to voting software, City Council members can hold meetings, give interviews, even grab a smoke while deciding the day's issues.

March 08, 2010|By David Zahniser and Maeve Reston

Los Angeles City Council members have figured out how to be in two places at once.

It's no magic trick. But some say the public is being fooled all the same.

Consider the council's meeting on Nov. 25: On that day, Councilman Tony Cardenas voted to install a new executive at the Community Redevelopment Agency. He agreed to cut the budget by slashing overtime pay. He even voted to install a bronze bust of former Councilman Nate Holden at a municipal performing arts center.

Yet Cardenas was not in his chair for any of those votes. Instead, the San Fernando Valley councilman was behind closed doors in a nearby private room for an hour and 50 minutes. As he conferred with an aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a computer at his desk in the council chamber automatically voted "yes" on those issues -- and eight others.

Cardenas is hardly alone. The city clerk's office, which maintains the council's official record, does not track how often members leave the council floor while still being counted as present. Times reporters monitored the back rooms repeatedly from August to February, however, and found that at least half of the council used them for private sessions during public meetings.

* On Nov. 24, the official record showed Councilwoman Janice Hahn casting a vote in favor of a new Villaraigosa appointee to deal with issues facing the city's disabled residents. In fact, she was in a private room at the time with lobbyist Ben Reznik discussing Ponte Vista, a proposed housing development in San Pedro.

* On Jan. 8, the record had Councilman Richard Alarcon voting to seek hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds for city initiatives. Instead, he was holding closed-door meetings across the corridor -- first with a deputy mayor, then with city lawyers.

* On Jan. 22, the record showed Councilman Herb Wesson voting to create a foreclosure prevention program. That occurred as he was smoking a cigarette in an outdoor courtyard that abuts the Spring Street steps of City Hall.

On several occasions, three or more council members disappeared from public view, holding staff meetings, giving interviews to reporters or taking cellphone calls. And at least twice, the council had three members conducting back-room meetings at the same time.

Many council votes are routine, and members could argue that time spent with lobbyists, mayoral aides or even reporters is more valuable than responding to repeated roll calls. But few make that case. A spotty voting record can easily become a political liability.

So instead of being recorded as absent, the council members have a technological fix: The chamber's voting software is set to automatically register each of the 15 lawmakers as a "yes" unless members deliberately press a button to vote "no."

The "yes" votes then flash on video screens throughout the chamber -- and are placed in the clerk's official record -- even when members have left to grab a snack in the hall or hold a meeting.

Lawmakers in New York and San Francisco are also allowed to leave their seats during meetings, but members must be in the room to have their votes recorded. When Los Angeles County supervisors leave their meeting room, they are no longer allowed to vote.

On the City Council, by contrast, some members even schedule their time in advance to use the flexibility the voting system allows. Last year, for example, Alarcon made concurrent meetings so routine that he scheduled them on his official appointment calendar to coincide with the council's regular 10 a.m. public sessions. The calendar showed he had appointments planned during 57 council meetings last year.

On Oct. 23, he scheduled meetings with lobbyists for 10:15 a.m., 10:45 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. -- all while the council was in session. The clerk recorded Alarcon as being present for every vote that day.

The rules of the council state that members must activate their own voting machines and must be within the council chamber to be counted as present. But the city attorney who advises the council said his office has defined the "chamber" to include the back rooms, bathrooms and news conference area, all of which are out of public view.

Deputy City Atty. Dion O'Connell said lawyers told the late John Ferraro, who was council president a decade ago, that members could go into the private rooms and still be considered present as long as they could hear the council proceedings on speakers set up in each area.

Five people who have gone into those rooms in recent months with the council members said they never heard the speakers turned on. One of them, Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., said he met with Alarcon in a room last August but heard nothing being piped over the so-called squawk box.

"There was no audio," Waldman said.

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