A resident stands outside Santa Ana's City Council Chambers. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Thursday, April 7, 2011 | The city of Santa Ana is facing what will almost certainly be one of the most difficult budget seasons in its history, with Great Recession-era revenues promising to force painful decisions that could include deep service cuts and even employee layoffs.

If that is not enough, the city will have to go through the process with a leadership void that is unprecedented in modern times. The city manager is on his way out the door, and the deputy city manager and city attorney have already left in recent months.

Former City Attorney Joe Fletcher left the city’s employ in December, followed by former Deputy City Manager Cindy Nelson in February. Then, last month, City Manager Dave Ream retired after more than 30 years with the city.

Ream has been retained as a consultant and will stay on to oversee the preparation of the 2011-12 budget, which he predicts will come to a City Council vote by the end of May or early June.

The city has also retained the consulting firm Management Partners, Inc. to assist with budget issues. The firm is to come up with a “budget stabilization plan” that is supposed to solve a structural deficit over the next several years, according to their contract.

But the consulting firm could be doing more than that — some council members have recently said that Jan Perkins, a former assistant city manager for the city and a partner in the firm, might take the helm as interim city manager after May 31, the date Ream is to step down.

The situation has both city employees and residents confused and concerned. Staffers say the leadership turnover and the consultant’s hiring has left them without a clear sense of who is actually running City Hall.

Residents have similar concerns.

“It’s kinda like having a ship with nobody at the wheel heading right into a storm,” said Sam Romero, a community activist who owns a Catholic gift shop in the downtown.

Other residents say such confusion — and lack of transparency — is unfortunately par for the course in Santa Ana

“They’re not transparent on anything,” said Roy Alvarado, a city resident for 25 years.

Said longtime City Hall watcher Mike Tardiff: “That is not unusual for the city of Santa Ana to have strange situations — and I don’t expect to have an explanation for it or solution to it.”

Councilwoman Michele Martinez — who joined Councilman Sal Tinajero as the only two council members willing to answer questions on the issue — says Ream is “still in charge.” Ream set May 31 as his final departure date, Martinez said, because he “wanted to make sure he left a balanced budget.”

“If he wanted to jump ship he would have left right away,” Martinez said.

The plan to fill the management void — particularly the city manager and deputy city manager positions — is still up in the air, the council members said. However, Martinez said the process will involve input from the community.

“The city of Santa Ana deserves to have an open and transparent process,” Martinez said. But, she added, the city needs a new city manager quickly and hiring one isn’t going to be hung up until “two years down the road because we want every resident’s input.”

Tinajero indicated that the hole left by Ream’s departures isn’t as wide as it looks. Other staffers fill in the gaps and are accountable for running the city, he said.

“It’s just like any other company. If I were to step down from my coaching position at Fullerton Union High then my assistant coaches would know what to do,” Tinajero said.

In a short interview, Ream said he could be serving in an “advisory role” as council chooses its next city manager, or in some other capacity at the council’s pleasure.

The perception problem, say the residents interviewed, is that Ream will preside over a budget that he won’t be accountable for.

“It’s a bad situation,” Tardiff said. “Maybe he should have waited a few months before he announced his resignation or retirement.”

Instead, Tardiff said, it’s going to be up to City Council to pay close attention to the details of the budget.

“The City Council would have to look over the budget a little closer then they normally do,” Tardiff said. He added that he hopes they have the sense of “fiduciary responsibility” to be up for the job. “They seem to be competent individuals,” he said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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