Tuesday, July 26, 2011 | As the Santa Ana City Council goes about choosing a new city manager and city attorney — two decisions that will affect the city for years to come — it has become increasingly clear that Mayor Miguel Pulido is not controlling the process.

Many City Hall watchers see this as a departure from the way business has been done for years in Santa Ana. The overriding assumption has been that the nine-term mayor pulled all the important levers in Santa Ana City Hall.

He did it through a close working relationship with City Manager Dave Ream, who retired in May after 32 years with the city, and Executive Director of Public Affairs Jill Arthur, who has long been the gatekeeper of the City Council’s eighth-floor offices in City Hall.

“He [Pulido] has an influence with the city manager; they’ve been doing this together for a long time,” said former City Councilwoman Lisa Bist before Ream retired.

But now Ream is gone, and other members of the City Council insist that despite what many may think, Pulido won’t handpick the next city manager and city attorney.

“It’s not Miguel’s decision anymore,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Councilman David Benavides said Pulido has supported the desire among City Council members to conduct a national search for city manager candidates. But it is also clear, Benavides said, that Pulido prefers hiring people he knows from within Santa Ana city government.

Pulido has been rebuffed so far in his desire to promote a City Hall staffer to the city attorney post. Sources close to City Hall said Pulido wanted to promote interim City Attorney Joe Straka, but Straka did not make the final list of candidates.

The council has offered the job to the two final candidates for city attorney, both from outside the city.

That doesn’t mean Pulido has stopped trying to assert himself, say City Hall insiders. They say the mayor was behind a post in the New Santa Ana blog that named the council’s preferred candidate: Maribel Medina, general counsel for the San Francisco Unified School District.

The blog is run by Pulido ally Art Pedroza. Some sources say the release of the candidate’s name, which is confidential information, was orchestrated by Pulido to undermine the hiring process after it didn’t go his way.

Pedroza acknowledged that the information came from “a Miguel guy.”

“The person that gave me the tip was one of the mayor’s groupies,” Pedroza said. “I don’t know what to say. I’d hate to think I got played, but maybe I did.”

Pulido did not return a phone call for comment.

Waning Influence?

Some say that Pulido’s influence in City Hall has always been overstated — that he is not the “Don Papi Pulido” that many make him out to be. “That was always more perception than reality,” said a longtime City Hall insider.

Yet it is clear that other council members are much more involved in council decisions than they were in the past, Martinez said.

Benavides and Martinez this week are holding a community forum to hear what kind of person residents want as city manager. The forum is part of a new, hands-on council approach, Martinez said.

“He [Pulido] has come to realize that we want to be part of the process, not for someone to dictate the process to us,” Martinez said. “I don’t believe in handpicking people.”

If both the city manager and city attorney are hired from outside, it will be a clear signal that Pulido does not have the grip on City Hall that he once had. But that won’t be the first indication.

An empty lot on downtown Santa Ana’s mostly Latino Fourth Street is an example. The council directed the city staff to spend $144,000 on transforming the lot into a Latino cultural plaza. That money was originally planned to be part of a $510,000 earmark for two new clay courts at Cabrillo Tennis Center. Pulido is a tennis aficionado and wanted the tennis courts built.

Pulido also backed a plan by Irving Chase, the largest property owner on Fourth Street, to turn the site of the future plaza into a skate park, Chase said. It soon became clear, however, that other council members were not in favor of the plan, and the city staff abandoned it.

“It was as if one day you could trust what staff was saying, then the next day they were scared and couldn’t commit to anything,” Chase said.

Councilman Sal Tinajero indicated that the times had changed for Pulido when Tinajero dressed down Arthur earlier this year. Arthur had denied an interview request by PBS SoCal’s David Nazar, and Tinajero said Arthur had overstepped her authority. The criticism was part of a warning Tinajero issued to staffers at the heart of city administration that a housecleaning was underway.

Benavides has an explanation for Pulido’s decline in clout, one that speaks to the kind of influence a mayor like Pulido builds when council member term limits aren’t extended to the mayor’s seat.

Council members Martinez, Benavides and Tinajero were elected in 2006, and Councilman Vincent Sarmiento was appointed in 2007. Four new members was a dramatic change on a seven-member council. Typically only one incumbent was replaced during each election cycle.

This change made it tougher for Pulido to maintain a high level of influence on the council majority, Benavides said.

“Now you have the majority of the council change over, which is unprecedented,” Benavides said. “The influence that had been accomplished now all of a sudden has shifted.”

Measure D, which passed in 2008, extended council members’ two-term limit to three terms. The term limit extension was important, City Hall insiders say, because it allows the new block of council members to cultivate a stronger voice in decision making.

Whether that stronger voice will be used in hiring a new city manager and city attorney will help define the next era of Santa Ana government.

“It’s almost sure that somebody from inside City Hall would kowtow to the mayor,” said one source. “The only chance is to hire from the outside.”

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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