Santa Ana Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez Monday night publicly outlined what she considers a conspiracy by other council members and the city clerk to prevent her from running for a fourth term in office.

Alvarez’s contention stems from a recent opinion by an independent law firm on Measure D, a successful 2008 ballot measure that extended council members’ allowable time in office from two consecutive four-year terms to three.

A lawsuit filed by an Alvarez supporter against City Clerk Maria Huizar argues that the term limits stipulated in Measure D cannot be applied retroactively and that Alvarez is therefore eligible to run for two more four-year terms.

If the lawsuit succeeds, Alvarez could end up serving on the council for 20 consecutive years.

The city’s stance, which is based on the outside legal opinion, is that Measure D limits a council member’s service to three consecutive terms and that it includes council members who were already serving when the measure was passed. The city has not publicly released the legal opinion.

From the dais Monday, Alvarez accused councilmen David Benavides and Carlos Bustamante of unduly influencing Huizar and others, saying the two council members pushed for the hiring of outside counsel to render the opinion on Measure D and the rejection of an opposing opinion.

She then accused Huizar of losing “all objectivity.”

“The very office in the city of Santa Ana that is supposed to be the most objective and supposed to be Switzerland and is the one you rely on to hold fair elections has fallen subject to the influences of council member Bustamante and council member Benavides,” Alvarez said.

The councilwoman said she conducted a personal investigation into the authorization of the $8,500 legal expense for the outside opinion. She said that City Manager Paul Walters, who has authority to approve contracts up to $25,000, told her that he did not authorize the expense.

But a copy of the city’s contract with the law firm of Richards, Watson and Gershon, which was obtained by Voice of OC under the California Public Records Act, shows Walters’ signature dated Aug. 1, 2011.

Walters, who is also the city’s longtime police chief and now its police commissioner as well, was careful in his statements on the matter. He acknowledged approving the contract but said he didn’t scrutinize it.

“In 23 years [as police chief], the city manager never asked me once about a contract,” Walters said. “She [Alvarez] was just asking me what was going on. I said I don’t know.”

Alvarez also questioned why an independent firm was even needed to conduct the review when other city attorneys in City Hall could have handled the task. “Why the private firm? I haven’t gotten an answer on that issue,” she said.

Alvarez contended that Huizar received a legal opinion in May from Madrid’s attorney that showed Alvarez could indeed run. But instead of delivering that opinion to the city attorney’s office, Alvarez said, Huizar sent a letter to Madrid accusing him of violating the attorney-client privilege with his own attorney.

The councilwoman also questioned a Voice of OC article stating Huizar had declared that Alvarez could not run. Just minutes after the article published, Alvarez said, she received a text message from the clerk asserting that the article had “misconstrued” Measure D.

Later that day, the clerk informed Alvarez that a candidate for Alvarez’s ward, Roman Reyna, had declared his intention to run. “Coincidence? Not really,” Alvarez said.

During the public comment period of Monday’s meeting, several residents blasted Alvarez and Madrid for suing the city. The suit is a self-serving and costly move, the residents said, unaffordable as the city recovers from its historic budget crisis.

Benavides said Alvarez’s narrative doesn’t make sense and is merely an attempt to deflect public anger from her. “There is no truth at all to the fabrications and allegations that she’s casting,” he said.

Members of the community had been asking at City Hall about the impact of Measure D on this election cycle, Benavides said.

Rather than placing city attorneys in the uncomfortable position of issuing an opinion on the outspoken councilwoman’s ability to run for reelection, the staff decided to hire an outside legal firm, according to Benavides. A similar decision was made at Monday night’s council meeting to hire an outside firm to represent the city in Madrid’s lawsuit.

Walters gave a similar account, saying that the inquiries that triggered the outside legal review probably came from those who want to run in Alvarez’s ward. But he stopped short of saying Alvarez’s motive was to deflect negative public opinion.

“She’s justifying her actions, and that’s why she’s laying all this out,” Walters said.

A Voice of OC examination of the correspondence between Huizar and Madrid, which Alvarez said was not shared with the city attorney, indicates that Huizar did review Madrid’s letter with the city attorney. “Our city attorney and I believe it is an ethical violation to disregard your attorney’s express opinion that the opinion remain between the two of you,” the letter reads.

Huizar declined to comment, saying she didn’t want to affect the litigation, said Public Information Officer Jose Gonzales.

Other council members said Alvarez has unfairly targeted Huizar.

“We do not attack our staff. That is wrong,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said that he concurred with a correspondence to City Hall saying that Huizar is facing a hostile work environment, possibly making the city liable in a workplace harassment lawsuit.

Sarmiento, who is part of an ad hoc committee considering a term limit for the mayor’s seat that could effectively oust Mayor Miguel Pulido, also blamed Pulido for not stopping the public tirade.

“I was really hoping that there would be some leadership on this issue from the mayor,” Sarmiento said.

But Sarmiento also said he agreed with Alvarez’s argument that this is an issue that needs to be hammered out in court. “Unfortunately, nobody saw this issue, and I blame myself,” he said.

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