The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce board of directors is split over whether the City Council should appoint interim City Manager Paul Walters as the city’s top bureaucrat or conduct a national search for candidates, according to sources close to the chamber.

“We like Paul, and we’ve had a good working relationship historically,” said Randy Barth, CEO of THINK Together and chairman of the chamber’s board of directors. “But the city is at an important point, and I think it’s worth taking a little bit of time and evaluating where we go from here.”

A rumor that Walters was about to be appointed sparked a debate last month among chamber leaders. Barth, who is among those in favor of resuming a national search, said the chamber was “caught off guard.”

“We were surprised that it maybe was coming to a head and we hadn’t had a chance to talk about it with them [council members],” Barth said.

Walters, who is also the city’s police chief, was appointed interim city manager nearly a year ago after longtime City Manger Dave Ream retired.

Finding Ream’s ultimate replacement has been the focus of a behind-the-scenes political battle among council members. Sources close to City Hall say appointing Walters would show that nine-term Mayor Miguel Pulido is still firmly in control of the council.

A national search for Ream’s replacement had been suspended twice — once without the knowledge of some council members. City leaders had been grappling with a severe budget crisis, and some council members had said the search would resume after the crisis ended.

The search has not resumed, however, even though the financial crisis has eased with Walters’ prediction of a balanced budget for next fiscal year. Instead, Pulido has been courting votes to install Walters, say sources close to City Hall.

And sources close to the chamber say the division there is nearly even, the consensus being that Walters would be “a continuation of Ream’s legacies, for better or worse.”

“There are people in general that think the city lacks strategic vision, that too often people who are on staff are too concerned with their jobs instead of standing up for good ideas that would move the city forward. So they try to avoid controversy and have consensus,” said one source.

Barth also sees the debate that way. “Is it time for fresh blood and fresh thinking? Or is it good to have the experience and knowledge of the community?” Barth said.

The chamber debate occurred just days before other members of the business community threw a party for Walters, awarding him the “hot potato” award for navigating the budget crisis. The party was sponsored by Raul Yanez and Adolfo Lopez, two downtown Latino business owners and supporters of Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, who favors permanently appointing Walters.


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