By Anne Lowe

OPEN MEETINGS – The Santa Ana City Council starts its meetings promptly at 5 p.m. every first and third Monday of each month; the meetings, however, begin in closed session, preventing public comment on whatever they might concern.

Residents are expressing concern over the practice, saying it makes the start time for the public portions of meetings unpredictable.

The Voice of OC reports:

"We don't know if the council will start at 5:15, or 6:15 or 6:30 p.m.," Mike Tardif  said. "Not having a regular time for public speakers discourages those from addressing their elected officials."

Even cities that hold a closed session before the public session usually convene in open session and then retire to closed session after hearing public comments about the closed session.

Santa Ana's curious approach means that a resident can never really be sure when the council meeting starts. Many residents say they feel as if that's exactly what council members want.

"It's very frustrating, and often it's done to thin out the audience," said Peter Katz, 62, who has lived in Santa Ana for 30 years.

The practice is a major concern to open government advocates.

"I don't think there's any way you can achieve the Brown Act's requirement to allow public comment on items in closed session without first convening in open session," said Terry Francke, Voice of OC's open government consultant and general counsel of the First Amendment advocacy organization CalAware.

According to Francke, the Brown Act says in general that there must be an opportunity on the agenda to address the body on anything that is on the agenda before or during the item being considered by elected leaders.

The only way to reconcile that with a closed session is to provide an opportunity before, Francke said.

"The closed session is part of the regular meeting," he said. "And the regular meeting has to open in public session."

He also said that Tardif has a point when he says that council members should have a set hour for the public meeting and says state law backs him up. "They have to state and stick to a fixed hour at which meetings will commence," Francke said.

Francke said the violations were serious, adding that "these things are worthwhile bringing to the district attorney's attention."