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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

Asked about their absences, several members said they leave the council floor only when they plan to vote "yes." And they said they keep up with the meetings by listening to the audio feed. After council members received inquiries from The Times, squawk boxes could be heard more regularly in the rooms behind the council floor.

Still, their physical absence frequently infuriates members of the public who show up to testify only to find themselves addressing one or more empty chairs.

"We go there to talk to the full City Council," said Ziggy Kruse of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. "If you get eight people in their seats, you're lucky."

The practice shows a "profound lack of respect for the public," said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a group devoted to preserving open government. "It seems to me to say, 'My time is too important right now to spend it actually participating in a meeting where I was elected to represent the public.' "

In some cases, the practice also could raise questions about whether the council is in compliance with rules that require 10 members to be present to conduct business.

Councilman Tom LaBonge said members increasingly have been conducting lengthy meetings in the private rooms over the last few years. He added that he is "no saint" when it comes to staying in the chamber's public area.

Cardenas defended the time he spends in the private areas, saying he is well-versed on items that receive his automatic approval: "If I'm not present in front of my desk, it doesn't mean that I haven't considered the item or that I'm not aware of it."

During one meeting last month, Councilman Dennis Zine asked someone to retrieve Councilman Jose Huizar from a private room because he was scheduled to speak. Huizar called that unusual, saying he rarely leaves the council floor.

Huizar's appointment calendar shows that he set up separate meetings with lobbyists, his staff and other officials during at least 45 of the council's 132 meetings last year. Huizar said at least some of those meetings were canceled or held on the council floor.

City Council President Eric Garcetti said that many issues are worked out in advance in committee meetings and that accidental "yes" votes are rare. Garcetti said he has admonished several members over their disappearances, adding that they should step out only for "immediate needs, emergencies and in order to keep the chambers as quiet as possible."

"That doesn't mean stepping out for an hour," he said.

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