OPEN MEETINGS -- Members of the Los Angeles City Council are marked present and voting on open meeting agenda items—and voting Aye to boot—even if they're outside the council chamber and down the hall at the time, huddled in private meetings with one another, staff, lobbyists or developers, report

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.


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.