Monday, August 1, 2011 | Santa Ana City Council members tonight will attempt to dispel the confusion over the official suspension of efforts to hire a new city manager by the end of the year.

The discussion will take place in the closed-session portion of Monday’s regular council meeting after an abrupt cancelation of the search was revealed last month.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez has already vowed that she will try to lift of the suspension. Councilman Sal Tinajero said he would support her proposal.

“A delay of a month is OK, but the process should continue,” Martinez told residents at a community forum last week.

There has been confusion among council members about whether they decided during their most recent closed session to suspend recruitment.

Council members Martinez, Tinajero and Vincent Sarmiento said they were unaware of such a decision. Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez said she was aware of the suspension.

Martinez and Sarmiento said they recall a discussion during the most recent closed session about the possibility of suspending the hiring process. Yet both said they understood that a final decision had not been made.

Tinajero and Councilman David Benavides were not present during the closed session about the city manager search.

Word of the suspension came late Tuesday, the same day that Voice of OC published an article revealing the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the search for successors to longtime City Manager Dave Ream and City Attorney Joe Fletcher.

Many Santa Ana insiders — including those close to City Hall — have speculated that the suspension was orchestrated by Mayor Miguel Pulido and Alvarez to undermine the search and permanently install interim City Manager Paul Walters, who is also the city’s police chief.

On Monday the Orange County Register reported that Walters was now officially seeking the job.

Pulido declined comment on the issue. Alvarez did not return a call seeking clarification.

It has long been assumed by many that Pulido controls all major decision making in the city. But both Martinez and Councilman Benavides said recently that other council members have asserted themselves and that Pulido will not be able to handpick a new city manager or city attorney.

At a recent community forum on the city manager search held by Martinez and Benavides, residents sought answers about how the suspension happened.

Resident Jeff Dickman, who along with a group of residents recently sued the city over construction of the One Broadway Plaza tower, said that Santa Ana residents expect council members to have equal say in the hiring.

“How can you guarantee that you’re all going to have a substantial role?” Dickman asked Martinez and Benavides.

Benavides answered that some council members were absent at the meeting in which the suspension was brought up.

“It’s not something where one person — the mayor or whoever — can make the decision,” Benavides said.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said it was possible that the suspension was merely a miscommunication with staff.

“Maybe staff just presumed there’s a majority here,” Sarmiento said.

Walters said the suspension decision went directly from the City Council to Kathie Gonzalez, executive director of personnel services . She was present during the closed-session discussion, according to the city’s public information officer.

This isn’t the first time Pulido has been accused of attempting to manipulate the hiring of a top city bureaucrat.

The hiring suspension follows the leak of the name of one city attorney finalist: Maribel Medina, general counsel for the San Francisco Unified School District. The job has been offered to two finalists.

Sources close to City Hall said the leak was orchestrated by Pulido to advance a candidate he preferred. A source also said Pulido has removed himself from the city attorney negotiations because of the fallout.

Whether council members are permitted to discuss a suspension in a closed session is also in question.

Terry Francke, Voice of OC’s open government consultant and general counsel for the First Amendment advocacy organization CalAware, said there is no exemption for discussing such a suspension under the state’s open-meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.

“The purpose of a closed session is to discuss one or more candidates for the position,” Francke said. “It’s not to discuss the search process or to authorize changes in the search process.”

Interim City Attorney Joe Straka declined to comment on the legality of the discussion.

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