Santa Ana City Manager Paul Walters finds himself at the center of an abruptly scheduled special City Council meeting Thursday afternoon, ostensibly called to review his job performance along with that of City Attorney Sonia Carvalho.
The closed-session evaluation, called in the midst of the holidays, comes on the heels of a brewing confrontation with state Department of Finance officials over the use of redevelopment monies that threatens lawsuits as well as potential bankruptcy for the city.
It’s also an important marker in the evolving relationship between Walters and a City Council majority that seems to have mixed feelings about his stewardship.
The council has been divided over Walters since he was appointed city manager six months ago, with some council members who form a council majority known as the “Santa Ana Spring,” wary of allowing the former police chief with no city manager experience to oversee the challenges facing this city of more than 300,000 residents.
Walters has become a centerpiece in the rivalry between the council majority and longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido. In recent months, behind-the-scenes gamesmanship has evolved into a full-scale rebellion against the mayor, whom the council majority accuses of wielding singular authority over City Hall.
The council majority this month moved to decentralize power on the council and before that sponsored a successful ballot initiative to limit the mayor’s term in office.
Walters’ appointment as city manager — the result of a year-long effort by Pulido to gather enough council votes — came before the council majority turned and began a campaign to undercut the mayor’s influence.
The mayor’s cultivation of top bureaucrats is seen as key to his control over the levers of power at City Hall. Pulido was close to previous City Manager Dave Ream, a dynamic that sources close to City Hall said has repeated with Walters.
Councilman David Benavides — who, with the council majority’s backing, unsuccessfully challenged Pulido for the mayor’s seat this year — said that the meeting will give the council an opportunity to see whether Walters and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho are the “right fit.”
“Are the people we have leading the organization the best fit to carry out that vision?” Benavides said. “That’s part of the question we want to pose to ourselves, to wrestle through. … It’s just a matter of going through the process, and in that conversation the conclusion will rise.”
Councilman Sal Tinajero, who coined "Santa Ana Spring," said he still supported Walters. He pointed to the city’s recent plugging of a $30-million budget hole as an achievement credited to Walters' management skills, a feat that helped him secure his city manager appointment.
Tinajero said that Walters’ job is not at risk; five council votes are necessary to fire the city manager. “A big portion” of the meeting, Tinajero said, will be Walters' and Carvalho's outline to newly elected council members Roman Reyna and Angelica Amezcua of some of the city’s major issues, like the fight ovr te downtown property tax and the dispute over $56 million with the state.
“When you’re able to go into a room and talk freely about these processes, it clarifies things for people,” Tinajero said.
Yet having members of the council majority call the meeting — which according to Tinajero was done by Benavides, Tinajero and Councilman Vincent Sarmiento — sends a strong message to staff that Pulido is no longer in charge, Tinajero said.
“The days of the mayor and only the mayor being able to call a meeting are gone,” Tinajero said. “When you disrespect the authority of the council members, you send a message to staff that they don’t have to respect you either.
"So we’re taking back the ability to govern, which is what we were elected to do, and bringing democracy back to the city of Santa Ana.”