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No more absentee ‘yes’ votes for L.A. council

Members of the Los Angeles City Council can no longer go behind closed doors in the middle of public meetings while their computers automatically vote “yes” in their absence, according to rules imposed Tuesday by council leaders.

The absent voting practice was the subject of a Times analysis two months ago.

Although the rules regulate the movement of council members, they also place new restrictions on council chamber access previously provided to reporters and aides to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Council members Eric Garcetti, Jan Perry and Dennis Zine created the one-page list of regulations. One rule states that members must remove themselves from the voting rolls when they leave meetings to hold private sessions with lobbyists, reporters or other city officials in the chamber’s back rooms.

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Enforcement of the absence rule did not get off to a promising start. During the first hour of Tuesday’s council meeting, three members went into back rooms while still counting themselves as present.

First up was Zine, who helped write the new rules. Shortly after the meeting started, he went into a back room to field questions from a reporter from La Opinion. At the same time, he was listed as present on the council’s oversized video boards, which help track attendance.

Councilman Jose Huizar was next, taking a meeting in a corner room with an official from Caltrans. During that absence, he too appeared as present on the council’s video board. Councilman Richard Alarcon was third, going into a conference room at 10:40 a.m. to meet with Chris Essel, the mayor’s latest nominee to the Community Redevelopment Agency.

At 10:57 a.m., the council’s sergeant at arms realized that Alarcon was still listed as present even though he could not be seen in the room. When The Times inquired about Zine and Huizar, their names were also taken off the attendance screen.

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Huizar said he was unaware of the new rules. Alarcon said the city clerk should be responsible for taking his name off the attendance list.

The rules do not state whether members should also be counted as absent if they take a smoke break outside — a frequent practice of Councilman Herb Wesson — or leave for the bathroom.

The Times’ earlier analysis of council voting habits found that some members routinely left meetings — while still being counted as present and voting “yes” — to attend closed-door appointments nearby, some lasting an hour or more. One council member had three backroom meetings with lobbyists during a single council session.

Zine said the new rule was prompted by concerns that those absences could violate the state’s open meeting law if the council loses its 10-member quorum but continues to meet. Other changes, he said, were designed to reduce the number of distracting conversations that occur during council meetings.

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“The council chambers have been disruptive for a very long time,” he said.

Still, some of the new rules drew complaints from members of the City Hall press corps. Under the rules, reporters can no longer conduct interviews with council members on the chamber floor. Instead, interviews during meeting times must take place in a media room behind the chamber.

The new rules also called for reporters who want to enter the media room to be escorted by the council’s sergeant at arms. But by the end of the afternoon, Garcetti reversed himself, saying through a spokesman that no escort would be required.

Claudia Peschiutta, a reporter for KNX-AM (1070) who is active in the Society of Professional Journalists, said she and other members of the City Hall press corps waited in the media room for half an hour Tuesday to interview Garcetti about the rules. He never showed up.

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“As you can see, the new rules can easily be used to avoid reporters’ questions,” she said in an e-mail to press corps members. Peschiutta said she is trying to organize a meeting on the topic with Garcetti and Perry.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl defended the new rules, calling them a “work in progress.” He conducted that interview in the media room. During that time, his computer automatically voted yes on a proposal to rehire for 90 days some employees who have taken early retirement.

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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