Report Reveals Toxic Atmosphere Inside Santa Ana City Hall

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

During happier times in 2013, Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos shakes hands with Mayor Miguel Pulido while Councilwoman Michele Martinez looks on.

It all started when Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos accused Councilwoman Michele Martinez of overtly sexual advances.

According to Cavazos’ side of the story, Martinez had at various times invited him to a hotel room, to “non-professional related happy hours” and, during a holiday party in 2013, invited herself to his apartment.

Cavazos would have none of it and, when it became clear he had rejected her, she embarked on a campaign of revenge – questioning his housing pay and bonus, and challenging the glowing performance evaluation he received from other council members.

It’s a salacious story, if it were true. But an outside investigation found Cavazos’ story had no merit and that Martinez had no romantic interest in the city manager — witnesses said she never even mentioned him being attractive.

That is one of several findings of an investigation that commenced after Martinez and Mayor Miguel Pulido wrote a Sept. 27 email to the city attorney outlining charges of possibly improper conduct and harassment levied against both themselves and Cavazos. Their email requested an independent probe of the allegations and to explore whether Cavazos’ conduct left the city liable.

The email included charges that Cavazos had ordered a staffer to monitor the mayor’s email, engaged in a romantic relationship with a subordinate employee, asked a city staffer to document a phone conversation with Pulido that created a hostile work environment, and tampered with an employment selection panel for a planning manager position.

Following that email, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho’s office hired the Cerritos-based law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo to look into the claims.

In a June 21 report obtained by Voice of OC, the firm wrote that Cavazos’ allegation of sexual harassment was without merit, and that both Pulido and Martinez’ emails had been monitored – though the report doesn’t clearly state Cavazos ordered the monitoring. The investigation also faulted Cavazos for engaging in a romantic relationship with a subordinate employee.

In addition to those findings, the report found that Cavazos asked a city employee to write a memo documenting a phone conversation with Pulido in which the mayor claimed to have enough votes to shoot down that employee’s appointment to another position, creating a hostile work environment. Pulido had acknowledged the phone call, but denied saying he had the votes to stop the appointment. The investigators found Pulido’s denial to lack credibility.

Finally, the report found that Cavazos did not improperly influence the selection panel for a planning manager position.

(Click here to read the full report.)

If nothing else, the report — which was vague on certain details like the locations and times when Martinez allegedly made her advances — provides a window into the toxic politics that has developed between Cavazos and the two council members — with the sexual harassment claim being the most bizarre example.

Unsubstantiated Claims 

The investigators report that Cavazos denied making a sexual harassment claim against Martinez – he never used the words “sexual harassment” in his multiple complaints. But Cavazos’ assertions to others inside City Hall that Martinez was trying to make him quit or “get him fired” because he had rejected her advances were, in essence, a sexual harassment claim, investigators concluded. He also texted a staffer that Martinez was harassing him.

Cavazos’ contentions that Martinez had invited him to her hotel room and happy hours; and invited herself to his apartment were not credible, the investigation found.

Several “credible witnesses” asserted that Martinez never expressed romantic interest in Cavazos, according to the report. And investigators report that they believed Martinez when she said a pair of bicycle shorts she bought for Cavazos was just a “friendly gesture” and one of many gifts she’s purchased for city staffers.

Investigators also faulted Cavazos for how he handled his romantic relationship with a subordinate employee. Cavazos said he checked with two union officials whose names he couldn’t remember, anecdotally observed familial relationships in other cities, and reviewed the code of ethics from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) for guidance.

But the investigation found those statements to also lack credibility. If Cavazos had done a serious review of ICMA’s code of ethics, he would have found that it at least required disclosure of the relationship to the city council. Instead, Cavazos hid the relationship for a year and didn’t disclose it until a memo to Pulido sent last August.

“Mr. Cavazos’s statement that he reviewed the ICMA’s code of ethics does not reflect a true interest in obtaining thorough and objective guidance on the issue of disclosure,” the report reads.

In a statement from the city manager’s office, Cavazos said he had “sincere appreciation to the Santa Ana City Council for releasing the report after months of interviews and a thorough review of the facts with an independent, outside attorney with an expertise in personnel law.

“It is now my hope that we all work together to build on our successes as we continue to serve our City of Santa Ana Community.”

Cavazos’ office had “no further comment” on the report, the statement said.

Meanwhile, Martinez said it was “abundantly clear” from the investigation’s conclusions that Cavazos “did not live up to our expectations.”

“Santa Ana residents deserve a city manager that leads by example in a professional and ethical manner,” Martinez wrote in a statement sent via text message to a reporter.

Councilman David Benavides said he hoped the personalities involved in these incidents would move on from what he described as an “arm-wrestling contest” that has been a distraction to running the city. He added that city leaders are now looking at implementing policies that make it clear where the lines are regarding personal relationships at City Hall.

“I think some of [the allegations were] fueled from personal differences between members of the council and city manager,” Benavides said. “I think to a certain degree its become somewhat of an arm-wrestling match between a couple of strong personalities. I’m hopeful people will be able to… be more professional about their work, put personal differences aside, and let’s get down to business.”

Other City Council members could not be immediately reached for comment.

The report is just the latest in a recent string of bad headlines for Cavazos.

Last week, the International City/County Management Association censured Cavazos for dating a subordinate employee, saying that the relationship violated ethical tenets that the group requires members like Cavazos to adhere to. They included guidelines against violating the trust of elected officials and the public and using one’s position for personal gain.

And on Monday Cavazos was named in a report by Transparency California as the highest paid public employee in the county and the sixth highest paid in the state.

However, among council members, only Martinez and Pulido have openly challenged Cavazos.

A History of Controversy

It’s an open secret that Pulido and Cavazos have been locked in a political struggle at City Hall since Cavazos came to Santa Ana because Cavazos was in some ways brought in as a check to the mayor’s power.

The council majority in 2012 rebelled against Pulido’s leadership during a period that was dubbed the “Santa Ana Spring.” Among other things, the majority fired previous city manager and longtime Pulido ally Paul Walters, effectively curbing the mayor’s once considerable influence over the city bureaucracy.

But controversy has followed Cavazos ever since council members hired him away from his city manager job in Phoenix and gave him a compensation package that topped $500,000. At the time city officials likened Cavazos’ hiring to the signing an “all-star” professional athlete.

And it wasn’t just controversial in Orange County. Phoenix council members had given Cavazos a $78,000 pay raise – taking his total compensation there to $315,000 — just months before he agreed to come to Santa Ana. The increase allowed Cavazos to spike his pension from that city and then negotiate an even bigger compensation package in Santa Ana.

Then in 2014, a proposal to give Cavazos a $15,750 bonus drew backlash from residents concerned that the city manager’s compensation was already too large. Council members defended the raise as rewarding someone who had turned around a city budget that was structurally imbalanced. Council members cancelled the bonus after the public outcry.

But earlier this year, while Cavazos was under investigation by the ICMA and the outside investigator, council members voted to give the city manager a $17,000 bonus. Only Pulido and Martinez voted against the bonus.

This article has been updated since it was originally published.

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

  • Jacki Livingston

    Contact me at msjacki1115@yahoo.com

  • Jacki Livingston

    As salacious as this telenovela nonsense is, it is nothing next to SSA. I remember the high ranking manager who was sleeping around on his wife, and she caught him in the parking lot at lunch, on the receiving end of a particular act, and she divorced him. He has risen through the ranks, she is trapped at the same old job. He married the subordinate who was polishing his…ummm…apple, and she rose to the top. Now, he is out and about cheating on her. Employees call him ‘Don Juan DiLardo’ and female employees know that the tighter the pencil skirt and higher the heels, the faster she will be promoted.

  • RITCHIE VALENS

    What’s the big issue, Michelle has a thick big dona. It’s not like these woman are saints. It’s a cesspool of puros calientes maranas, y maranos.

  • InTheKnow

    If City Attorney Carvalho uses the same law firm and attorney for all of her supposedly independent investigations just how “independent” can they be? If one attorney frequently obtains income from one source that attorney will want to keep pleasing that source so as to not deter future income. There goes the impartial investigation. Why doesn’t Carvalho’s office do the investigation? Can’t investigate her buddy Michelle?

  • RyanCantor

    Pay raises, bonuses, unsubstantiated accusations of sexual harassment . . . boinking subordinates . . . all on the taxpayer dime.

    Great freaking job, Santa Ana. Simply unbelieveable.

    • David Zenger

      Yikes. This guy saw Santa Ana coming, and how! Unfortunately there is way too much of this mindset in the ranks of city managers.