The Santa Ana City Council Monday night directed staff to examine whether the city should institute a primary election for mayor, a move that would make it more difficult for longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido to win re-election.
Puido, a 10-term mayor, has received less than 50 percent of the vote in each of the last two election cycles but has been elected nonetheless because he was the top vote-getter in fields of several candidates.
By holding a primary, the city would guarantee a head-to-head race between the top two vote-getters in the general election and ensure that the winner receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Members of the council majority argued at Monday's regular meeting that such a system would be more democratic and transparent.
“Hopefully it will get to the point where a majority of voters will decide who [the mayor] will be,” said Councilman Vincent Sarmiento.
For years, Pulido and a small cadre of city officials held the levers of power at City Hall, an environment that Pulido's critics argue choked the city's democracy. But over the past year, the new council majority has chipped away at Pulido's clout.
Among other things, members of the council majority ousted former City Manager Paul Walters, a key Pulido ally, and succeeded with a measure on last November's ballot that for the first time put a term limit on the office of mayor.
Councilman David Benavides also asked staff to look at holding primary elections for all council members. Councilman Sal Tinajero disagreed with that option, saying that sometimes council races don't even yield a single candidate but that the mayor's seat consistently attracts several candidates.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez argued that having a directly elected mayor leaves the impression that Santa Ana operates under a strong mayor form of government. The city is under a council-manager system whereby the mayor is only one of seven votes on council that set policy, and the day-to-day affairs of City Hall are run by the city manager.
Martinez said she preferred not having a directly elected mayor and instead an option whereby the mayoral title rotates among council members.
Pulido disagreed, saying that the mayor's seat is set apart from council seats. Going to a rotational mayor would make Santa Ana like smaller cities, he said.
Pulido added that some of the council majority's assumptions “lacked analysis.” For example, he said that overall he has won many of his mayoral races with more than 50 percent of the vote. He asked that staff look at the whole picture, like how often council members win elections with less than 50 percent of the vote.
He also asked staff to research the costs of holding a primary election, including county and city staff time.
“It's a lot of time, effort, energy. Tell us what that would be,” Pulido said. “If we're going to look at this, let's look at it holistically and with some common sense.”