College District Board Votes to Leave Seat Open Until Election

The Santa Ana headquarters of the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

Adam Elmahrek

The Santa Ana headquarters of the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

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After internal debate – and some pushback from the public – the Rancho Santiago Community College District board voted Monday to reverse course and leave an empty board seat open until the November election, rather than appoint someone on an interim basis.

Last month, after Jose Solorio resigned his seat to run for Santa Ana City Council, a slim majority of trustees voted to move forward with the short-term appointment, which could have given the advantage of incumbency to the board’s preferred candidate in November.

The college district oversees Santa Ana College, Santiago Canyon College, and several local education centers.

Thomas Gordon, a longtime Santa Ana activist and the only public commenter at Monday’s meeting, urged the trustees to wait for voters to fill the seat in November.

“We’re 83 days away from an election that belongs to the people. All the seats belong to the people,” said Gordon, who’s running for a different seat on the Rancho Santiago board. “Let the people speak. Democracy in action. Please, let the people speak.”

The board then voted 4-1 to proceed with the appointment process. Voting in favor were board members Claudia Alvarez, John Hanna, Nelida Mendoza Yanez, and Larry Labrado. Voting against it was Arianna Barrios. Trustee Phillip Yarbrough, who previously opposed the appointment, was absent from the meeting. And student Trustee Luis Mejia cast his advisory vote in favor of moving forward with the appointment.

The trustees then interviewed the three people who applied for the interim job — Guadalupe “Tish” Leon, Zeke Hernandez, and Frank Alaniz, Jr. Hernandez and Alaniz are running for the seat in November, while Leon is not.

All three have extensive community service in Santa Ana. Leon worked as a manager at Latino Health Access, to Hernandez is a longtime leader at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and Alaniz has worked for the city and Santa Ana Unified School District helping youth find employment.

But after lengthy interviews, the board ended up deciding not to appoint anyone.

A candidate would need four board members’ votes to get appointed, but two (Leon and Alaniz) didn’t receive any yes votes and Hernandez only got one yes vote, from Labrado.

Hanna said that while all three applicants were very experienced in community service and there was “some benefit” to filling the seat, the right thing to do was wait for voters to fill the seat in November.

“I think we should let the voters decide,” Hanna said after the votes showed that no candidate would be appointed.

The decision in November will be up to voters in the district’s trustee Area 1, which is in central and south Santa Ana. It generally runs south of 17th Street, north of Sunflower Avenue, west of Broadway, and east of Bristol Street.

(Click here for an official map of trustee Area 1, which is colored purple.)

There are three candidates vying for Solorio’s seat: Hernandez, Alaniz, and Matthew Schauer.

After a series of controversies in recent years – including luxury travel on the taxpayers’ dime and a construction mistake that’s costing over $20 million to fix – there’s a movement this year to elect new board members who aren’t aligned with the current board.

That effort has united two unlikely forces: the district’s faculty union and local Republican taxpayer advocates.

In the Area 1 race, Hernandez has been endorsed by current board members and Solorio, while Schauer – a Santa Ana housing commissioner – is backed by the union.

During the interviews Monday, it also emerged that Hernandez is the chief executive of a district contractor.

Since last fall, Hernandez has served as interim executive director of the nonprofit SER-Jobs for Progress, which the district hires to provide education and job training services to the public.

The district’s board approved $511,000 in contracts with Hernandez’s nonprofit on June 13.

Hernandez told board members Monday that he serves “in a voluntary capacity” at the nonprofit. “I don’t take a salary,” he said.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.