Heading into last week’s election, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and the city police officers’ union were looking to gain a commanding majority of City Council seats.
At the same time, a coalition of community activists sought to replace the mayor with one of their own and gain another council seat.
City voters handed neither a full victory. The two activist candidates lost badly, and the Pulido-police union coalition fell just short of an outright majority of four council seats. But Pulido and the officers’ union, which spent over $250,000 on the campaign, definitely emerged from the election stronger than they went into it.
The union succeeded in ousting Councilman Roman Reyna, who earlier this year was the sole council vote against devoting all of the city’s budget surplus to police. And two candidates supported by police won seats: sheriff’s officer Juan Villegas, who will replace Reyna, and former state Assemblyman Jose Solorio. Both will take office on Dec. 13.
The newly constituted council could be more likely to grant larger pay raises for officers and approve additional spending to expand the police force, which the union points out has fallen from about 400 officers in the past to 308 as of this June.
“It’s evident that crime is up in Santa Ana and the families in our community have spoken. I pray that through new council direction, the focus is on solving the crime issues and staffing shortages at the police department,” police union president Gerry Serrano said in an interview.
At the same time, a member of the current council majority believes there will still be enough support on the council to continue – and even expand – community investments in youth and housing programs, such as a community land trust.
“Law enforcement and public safety still receive a lion’s share of the budget, and that’s because there is a significant need and cost to addressing public safety in any major city. But we also have been increasing our dedication and funds towards health and youth programs and housing. And so I trust that we’ll be able to continue on that path,” said Councilman David Benavides.
He added that Solorio and Villegas are “both level-headed, reasonable people” who he expects “will not be manipulated or controlled by the police union, but will be their own independent thinkers and will do their best” for the betterment of city.
The police union would be in an even stronger position had it been able to oust Councilman Vicente Sarmiento, who won re-election over Jessica Cha despite a barrage of union-funded attack mailers.
There was much pre-election speculation that If all the union-backed candidates won, they could move to oust City Manager David Cavazos and police Chief Carlos Rojas. But that now seems very unlikely, given that it takes five council votes to terminate Cavazos, who oversees Rojas, and has clear support from three of the seven council members.
Instead, Sarmiento is now seen as a possible swing vote on police-related issues. While he faced attack mailers funded by the union, he also ran on a pro law-enforcement message and says he’ll keep supporting officers.
“I will continue to support efforts to increase staffing ratios, and provide improved new equipment and training to ensure our first responders remain safe while delivering professional services to the public in a responsible and respectful manner,” Sarmiento said in an email to Voice of OC.
He sees the top policy issues facing the council as “fiscal responsibility, public safety, housing, responsible development, open space and investment in youth programming.”
On the activists’ side, a coalition of Latino neighborhood advocates tried to get their colleagues Ana Urzua Alcaraz and Benjamin Vazquez onto the council, which would have given their cause a pair of high-profile voices.
But they fell far short, with Vazquez losing to Pulido 34 to 52 percent and Urzua Alcaraz losing to Solorio 16 to 43 percent, as of the latest results Monday evening. Thousands of Santa Ana ballots remain to be tallied, but are not expected to change the final outcome because of substantial leads by all the frontrunners.
Urzua Alcaraz said she and other advocates will continue to push for community health efforts and focus on police-resident relations.
“It is still the duty of the community of Santa Ana to keep our leaders accountable, and we will do so,” she said. “Civic engagement will continue to grow. We owe it to the youth of Santa Ana to invest in order to increase their safety and that of the city.”
Benavides said he doesn’t anticipate any of the reforms by Rojas – such as a community-oriented beat system and more discipline of officer misconduct – to be scaled down.
“I don’t expect anything that has been implemented by the police chief will be rolled back,” he said. “At the end of the day, I trust that the incoming council members will be able to analyze and see the benefits” of accountability and community policing, and increase them.
Serrano, meanwhile, has emphasized the importance of addressing a 46-percent increase in Santa Ana’s violent crime rate since 2013, according to police department statistics reported to the FBI, as well as long response times to 9-1-1 calls.
“As much as our chief and city manager try to manipulate and state that crime is down and they don’t track shootings, the reality is our citizens and families are seeing it and feeling like it’s not properly being addressed,” Serrano said.
The City Council has budgeted for 367 officers “to effectively police this city,” he added, while there were 308 officers on the force as of June, according to Rojas.
The November 2018 election will be another interesting one in Santa Ana, with several seats opening up due to an exodus of termed-out council members. They include Benavides, Councilman Sal Tinajero, and Councilwoman Michele Martinez if she doesn’t overtake county Supervisor Andrew Do in the ongoing vote count for his 1st District seat.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.