Although you wouldn't know it from reading Monday afternoon's unusually broad Santa Ana City Council special meeting agenda, council members could be entering a critical discussion on a host of challenges facing City Hall.
Among them: continued budget uncertainty, shifts in the city bureaucracy's top ranks, issues regarding a key provision in a government transparency ordinance and a massive payout to a former police executive.
Yet the only item on the agenda is council “practices, policies and protocols,” a label intended to be vague so council members can have a wide-ranging discussion. “We made it broad enough so we can talk about a lot of stuff. Just know we're trying to move in the right direction,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.
So far, the only issue council members have publicly confirmed will be discussed is the future strategic plan — a vision of the city's “mission, core values, five-year goals, detailed measurable objectives and key performance measures” required by the sunshine ordinance adopted by the council Oct. 15.
But tension over other issues surfacing at City Hall makes it likely that a wider discussion than what has so far been publicly acknowledged will take place.
At the forefront is news of a $185,000 payout to retired police Executive Inspector Hank Couisine, a sum compiled in part by Couisine having accumulated more than 1,000 hours more than the vacation accrual cap in his labor group's city contract.
Sources close to City Hall have described Couisine's above-the-cap portion of his unused time off — up to $76,600 in cash — as special largess, one of many perks granted to Couisine and other officers favored by Paul Walters when he was the city's police chief.
Council members said that the city manager's office is looking into the payout to Couisine.
Councilman Sal Tinajero said that interim City Manager Kevin O'Rourke can root out the truth about the payout, including who authorized it and whether it was legal, because O'Rourke doesn't have longstanding ties to other city officials.
“That's the main thing: He doesn't have that personal stake,” Tinajero said.
Regarding the strategic plan, council members said they are unable to complete a comprehensive document by the deadline, which is parallel to the passing of a city budget in June. A city consultant, Management Partners Inc., has advised city officials that there isn't enough time to prepare a solid framework.
Among the hurdles to assembling the plan on time is a requirement for the city manager to hold a public meeting to review a preliminary draft and receive feedback on the document.
According to some council members, they have been too busy with behind-the-scenes haggling over the ouster of Walters, which consumed late December and January. Walters' forced resignation as city manager was the climax of a struggle between the council majority and longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido over control of the city bureaucracy.
Also an ongoing fight with the state over tens of millions of dollars in leftover redevelopment funds has cast uncertainty over the city budget, Tinajero said. Without the ability to project the city's financial picture, council members don't have information vital to preparing the plan, he said.
Councilman David Benavides said he would be recommending changing the sunshine ordinance to extend the strategic plan deadline to December to allow ample time for community feedback.
“I would be most comfortable doing something like that. I want to do right by the community,” Benavides said.
Staffing changes at City Hall have also raised eyebrows.
Among the shifts Rourke made late in March, External Affairs Manager Jill Arthur was promoted to deputy city manager and installed as head of the city's community development agency, according to an email March 27 from O'Rourke to the city's management team.
Arthur, known to be Pulido's right hand in City Hall, has for years drawn the ire of council members wary of Pulido's influence over city staff. O'Rourke's decision to promote Arthur received mixed public reactions from council members.
“I wish it would have been different, but it is what it is,” Tinajero said. “I was just a little concerned with her title, because it could give the impression that she's overseeing other EMT members. My understanding is she's not. … Let's see how she does. Give her the opportunity to rise to the occasion.”
Arthur, who will replace retired agency director Nancy Edwards, will handle “the day-to-day operations of the agency” and “review and recommend changes to the agency's structure, staffing and operation,” O'Rourke's email reads. Arthur will have the assignment for six months or until O'Rourke believes her “work there is complete,” he wrote.
Council members said that so far they trust O'Rourke's decisions. Yet Benavides cautioned that they would be closely watching operations.
The meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Southwest Senior Center, 2201 W. McFadden Ave.