The scene inside the Santa Ana City Council chambers was surreal early Monday evening as council members went through the usual motions of presentations and awards while a swarm of reporters filled the room seeking reactions to the news of Councilman Carlos Bustamante's arrest less than two hours earlier on a host of sex-crime charges.
“Sometimes I really hate my job,” one newscaster said after approaching bewildered city residents.
The Orange County district attorney's office charged Bustamante with 12 felonies and four misdemeanors, including assault with intent to commit a sexual act, false imprisonment and sexual battery. The arrest followed a months-long DA investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Bustamante while he was a manager in the Orange County Public Works Department.
“That's awful,” said city resident Vicky Salgado. “How can he do that to us? He represents us. … What kind of people are working for us?”
Bustamante, who resigned from his county post last fall, has consistently maintained his innocence.
The Republican councilman, who is usually among the first to arrive at council meetings, was arrested on his way to City Hall, according to Jose Gonzalez, the city's public information officer. The city was not involved in the investigation, he said.
Much remains unclear in the wake of the councilman's arrest, including whether he will finish his term on the council. Bustamante is up for reelection this year, but the period to file for candidacy doesn't begin until July 16. He has not submitted a statement declaring his intention to seek reelection, according to City Clerk Maria Huizar.
Regardless of what happens to Bustamante's council seat, his unexpected absence has already had a major impact on a controversial city issue.
Council members did not have a quorum without Bustamante and were thus unable to take action on a special downtown property tax that funds Downtown Inc., the organization created to promoting Santa Ana's downtown core.
A group of property owners have been fighting the tax for more than a year, arguing that it was imposed undemocratically and that they receive no benefit from it. The property owners were armed with new ammunition after a recently released Orange County grand jury report concurred with their sentiments and declared that the tax district was formed illegally.
Because of reported conflicts of interest, Mayor Miguel Pulido and council members Michele Martinez and Vincent Sarmiento do not vote on the issue. With Bustamante absent, only three council members — David Benavides, Sal Tinajero and Claudia Alvarez — were present.
If Bustamante doesn't return to the council, it could mean the end of the downtown tax district. Council members have to approve the proposed Downtown Inc. budget by August 10 or the county will not be authorized to collect the tax, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said.
The situation presents an interesting legal twist. There is one exemption under state law that allows a council member with a conflict of interest to vote on the issue. But the exemption would apply only if Bustamante had a conflict of interest. Absences for personal reasons don't count, Carvalho said.
It's also possible that Pulido, who has a conflict of interest because his family owns an auto care shop that borders the district, could be allowed to consider the issue. But it depends on the details of a family trust tied to the property, Carvalho said.