Tuesday, January 18, 2010 | Yet another high-ranking Santa Ana city official — this time Community Development Agency head Cynthia Nelson — is leaving the city’s employ, and it’s now looking as though City Hall is in the midst of a housecleaning.
Nelson’s abrupt decision to retire follows the departure of former Santa Ana City Attorney Joe Fletcher, who left the city last month under less-than-clear circumstances and walked away with a $333,779 windfall.
And now members of City Council are starting speak out about the situation. Councilman Sal Tinajero on Monday described the departures as part of the ushering in of a new era in Santa Ana city government, one that, he said, will be marked by transparency and more council authority.
Next to go might be longtime City Manager Dave Ream.
“Really — the tail has been wagging the dog,” was Tinajero’s description of the council’s relationship with city staffers in recent decades. “I think this is probably one of several changes” in upcoming years, he said.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez was not as strident as Tinajero, but sang a similar tune when asked about the departures. “There’s change on the horizon for the city of Santa Ana. They’ve all been there for 20 plus years; eventually they gotta go,” she said.
Mayor Miguel Pulido, however, does not seem ready to publicly acknowledge that a housecleaning is underway.
“House cleaning not applicable,” Pulido wrote in a text message to a Voice of OC reporter. Nelson “has done a great job for the city and decided to retire.”
Other council members and city officials, including Nelson, could not be reached for comment Monday. Martinez said Nelson will stay on with the city for “a couple more weeks.”
Nelson’s departure, which was first reported by the New Santa Ana blog, comes after Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez complained about a lack of council oversight of the department and publicly requested details on the department’s spending.
Alvarez has been especially concerned lately about the city’s facade improvement rebate program for downtown property owners, which she criticized for awarding cash rebates to just a few property owners with ties to Downtown Inc.
Tinajero said Alvarez had asked for the information in private but was rebuffed. He also said Nelson probably left, among other reasons, because she was publicly scrutinized at council meetings.
Although the council can’t “go in there with a baseball bat and start swinging,” Tinajero said, he issued a warning to those working on the eighth floor at City Hall, which is where Ream’s complex of offices are located.
“We have to look at who’s running the show here,” Tinajero said. City staffers, he said, “have to learn to do things a different way or else they have to go.”
While explaining the situation, Tinajero pointed to a situation involving KOCE’s Real Orange newscast that speaks to the disconnect in attitudes between the council and city staffers.
Last week, David Nazar of PBS SocCal placed a request with the city for an interview with council members. Nazar’s request was shot down, but Tinajero said he wasn’t even told about it.
In his report, Nazar said that Executive Director of Public Affairs Jill Arthur had denied the interview request on behalf of the council members. Tinajero said he never got such a request and would have accepted it had he known about it.
“Jill Arthur has no business speaking to the media,” Tinajero said. “Jill Arthur, by not informing me, made me look bad.”
Also on the list of city officials that might be seeing their last days at City Hall is Ream, Martinez said. However, Martinez made it clear that she is not unhappy with Ream’s work and is simply speculating that he might retire soon.
Ream’s departure could be an expensive proposition. He has at minimum a severance package of $524,544 if he is fired. He also may have banked a significant number of vacation hours because of a contract provision that, like Fletcher’s, allows for unlimited accrual.