Three steps to restoring trust in a city’s finances and governance

150 150 Bill Britt

Santa Ana’s former city hall building. (Photo Credit: Eli Pousson/Flickr)

“I promise to restore trust in our city!”

It’s a familiar campaign slogan used by more than a few political candidates across California, but Santa Ana city council member Michele Martinez actually delivered on it.

Long after winning a seat on the Santa Ana City Council in 2006 with a reputation for pushing for more government accountability, Martinez has not only helped boost residents’ trust in city government, she landed a tangible result to show for it: a sunshine ordinance forged by a coalition of city officials and community activists who were impressed with Martinez’s personal commitment to city affairs.

“For example,” explained Martinez, “I serve on as many regional boards as I can to help make sure we have a voice on anything that impacts our community.” A belief summed up in her ten oft-repeated words: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

While the city’s sunshine ordinance was passed three years ago, Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Vincent Sarmiento said Martinez’s whirlwind of enthusiasm and her conviction to “do more than what’s expected” continue to be a boon to the city.

“We share the same philosophy when it comes to reaching out to a broader base of residents,” said Sarmiento. “She’s been a real advocate of trying to engage segments of the community that haven’t traditionally been involved in the past: young people, new citizens, seniors and less vocal folks who usually don’t come to council chambers.”

That’s not to say every single resident is now in love with City Hall, but Martinez insists that any public office holder can enjoy an infusion of trust by following three basic steps.

1. Open your doors.

A city’s “front door” is its official website. Visit the City of Santa Ana online and there’s a welcome mat in the form of a hard-to-miss tab labeled “Open Government,” which is actually a guide to public access.

2.  Listen closely to those who aren’t happy.

That’s a gentle way of putting it, as far as members of the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD) were once concerned. “When we first met, they didn’t trust us at all,” said Martinez. “They were very angry when we explained that certain things they wanted in an affordable housing plan were up to the developer, not us.” 
Several months later, there was an opportunity to take Step 3.

3.  Invite them to partner with you to find solutions.

“We reached out again and said, ‘Trust us enough to help develop a sunshine ordinance,'” said Martinez. “It means transparency will be the law of the land and a permanent change for the better.”

It also means Santa Ana is now aligned with other California cities that offer open access including budget updates several times a year, from first drafts to budget projections.

Ana Urzua, a community activist and Campaign Coordinator for Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities admitted “There was a time when we didn’t have a very good relationship or much communication but we’ve seen tremendous growth and leadership over the years to the point where she’s become a trusted champion of several community causes.” 

As Mayor Pro Tem Sarmiento points out, when elected officials make a genuine effort to reach out, the result is simply better government: “The importance of passing the sunshine ordinance was to let people know that they have a role in their government and hopefully we can convince them there are good results when they participate.”


Bill Britt

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