Santa Ana Council Meet Promises Great Political Theater

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There’s a lot on the agenda of Monday night’s regular Santa Ana City Council meeting to keep the audience on the edge of its seats.

For starters, the meeting will be the first opportunity for Councilman Carlos Bustamante to take the dais since being charged with multiple sex crimes. And the first act of a multilayered power struggle among council members over term limits could be played out.

Public anger is swelling in reaction to a lawsuit that seeks to allow Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez to retain her council seat, with accusations from some that the suit is a power play that will result in legal costs too high for a city still recovering from a historic budget crisis.

And Friday afternoon an item was added to the agenda that for the first time could place a term limit on Mayor Miguel Pulido.

Sources close to City Hall say that from now on Bustamante will attend only closed sessions of council meetings, thus attending enough meetings to preserve his council seat and its salary and benefits.

Bustamante is up for reelection, and today is the first day he can file papers to run again. Council members so far have disagreed on whether Bustamante should resign.

Councilman Sal Tinajero, who has called for Bustamante to step down, argues that the speculation about his meeting attendance is another example of the distraction Bustamante’s membership on the council has become.

“Using taxpayer money to attend a portion of the meeting — to not have to face the public — is not what the citizens voted to have as a representative,” Tinajero said. “Whether it’s true or not true, it’s a distraction.”

While council members Michele Martinez and Vincent Sarmiento have also called for Bustamante’s resignation, Councilman David Benavides said such a call is premature.

“They [allegations] should not be taken lightly, but what a lot of people are missing at this point is that they are allegations, and in this country everyone is presumed innocent until proved otherwise,” Benavides said.

Regardless of whether Bustamante attends, the air around the dais is likely to be tense, especially when it comes time to talk term limits.

A push to effectively oust Pulido would show that the nine-term mayor’s grip on the fractious seven-member council continues to loosen. It is still widely assumed that Pulido pulls all the important levers at City Hall, but the political dynamic in recent years has been defined by gamesmanship and shifting alliances.

It isn’t clear what exactly led to the prospect of a public confrontation with Pulido, but it could be related to the yearlong battle among council members that resulted in the appointment of Paul Walters, the city’s police chief and police commissioner, as city manager.

Walters’ appointment did not entirely fill the void that exists within the top echelons of the city bureaucracy, which includes two vacant deputy city manager positions. Some of the horse trading leading to the appointment included the fate of these positions, according to sources close to City Hall.

Under one deal, Jill Arthur, executive director of public affairs and seen as Pulido’s eyes and ears within city government, would be excluded from a deputy city manager position, sources have said. Some council members have long been wary of Arthur’s gradual consolidation of authority at City Hall, particularly following the departure of former longtime City Manager Dave Ream.

Previous attempts to place a term limit on the mayor failed and instead led to the drafting of Measure D, which extended the number of council members’ allowable terms in office from two to three consecutive four-year terms.

A lawsuit filed by a city parks commissioner appointed by Alvarez argues that Measure D, which gave Alvarez the opportunity to run for her third term, also gives her a chance to run for a fourth. The city’s official stance has been that Alvarez is termed out at the end of this year.

Alvarez is seen as a viable challenger to Pulido’s mayoral seat should the lawsuit fail, leading some City Hall watchers to speculate that Pulido supports the lawsuit.

Adding to the political intrigue is the growing public resistance to the lawsuit. The Santa Ana Coalition for Better Government, a group of residents and business owners, has denounced the lawsuit as a self-serving and costly maneuver to keep Alvarez in power.

The group demanded in a letter to Walters that the lawsuit’s plaintiff, Max Madrid, be removed from the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.

“The lawsuit weakens the image of our city, already damaged by its debilitated financial state and numerous allegations of unethical behavior by other city officials,” the letter asserts.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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