The firing of Santa Ana City Manager Paul Walters remained in limbo Thursday after the City Council held a closed-door meeting but made no decision to advance the termination process.
City Council members Tuesday night in a 6-1 vote — Mayor Miguel Pulido voting no — decided to fire Walters, culminating a dramatic political showdown between the council and the mayor over the city’s top bureaucrat.
But the firing process, which is enumerated in Walters’ contract and the city charter, has hardly begun, and Walters remains city manager for an indefinite period.
Tuesday night’s vote directed staff to begin the termination process, sending Walters and the City Council into negotiations, according to Councilman David Benavides.
If the two sides don’t reach an agreement, Benavides said, then the council can publicly vote on a resolution, which is a public document, and according to the city charter must state the reasons for the termination.
The resolution starts a 30-day clock for Walters’ ouster.
Walters’ attorney has said that after the resolution is adopted, he can demand a public hearing.
The city charter reads that Walters “may reply in writing and any member of the City Council may request a public hearing, which, if requested, shall be held not earlier than twenty (20) days nor later than thirty (30) days after the filing of such request.”
After the hearing, the council can again decide to terminate Walters, according to the charter.
“Very interesting section isn’t it?” Walters’ attorney, Wendell Phillips, said. “That is an opportunity for appeal.”
City Hall observers believe Walters is being pushed out as part of a campaign by the council majority to undercut Pulido’s influence over the city bureaucracy.
The council majority views Walters as too close to the 10-term mayor.
Whether Walters will demand the public hearing is uncertain. If Walters doesn’t demand the public hearing, then he will likely begin negotiating an exit package.
Walters’ contract allows him one of three options.
He can choose a one-year severance package, essentially a lump-sum payout of $265,000; he can go back to his former position as police chief; or he can receive three years and eight months of city-paid military service retirement credit.
The provision that allows him to return to being police chief is key, because it could be a bargaining chip. If the council wants to keep its current chief — interim Police Chief Carlos Rojas — Walters could use the provision as leverage to negotiate a larger cash payout.
Other questions about the process remain unanswered.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho has been reluctant or has outright declined to answer questions about the process, and other council members have also declined to answer questions.
For example, whether the council can vote to appoint an interim city manager while Walters is still city manager remains unclear.
The city charter is also unclear on whether a resolution stating the reasons for Walters’ firing must include a substantive explanation.
Many residents and City Hall watchers demanded the council provide a public explanation for firing Walters.
Yet a section of Walters’ contract seems to contradict the city charter requirement for an explanation. The contract forbids council members and staff from saying anything about the firing except in the form of a “joint press release or statement, which is mutually agreeable to the City and the Employee.”