Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero’s announcement last week that he has dropped out of the mayoral race and joined the council majority’s support of colleague David Benavides setup perhaps the most competitive challenge to Miguel Pulido since he was first elected mayor in 1994.

And now the council majority is declaring that the alignment is part of a revolution that would not only oust Pulido — long considered the central power broker at City Hall — but also return control of city government back to the residents.

Tinajero has gone so far as to declare that a “Santa Ana Spring” is blooming, a reference to the “Arab Spring” uprisings in recent years that toppled dictators in such nations as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Tinajero’s statement is an example of the campaign hyperbole expected in the coming months as well as indications of Benavides’ overall strategy. He is already at work crafting a narrative of Pulido repeatedly wielding ultimate authority over who may do business in the city and locking residents out of the democratic process.

“We have the opportunity to break loose from that grip,” Benavides said.

Pulido did not return a request for comment.

Tinajero and Benavides say they have the momentum of a grass-roots movement that is demanding change at all levels of local government, from City Hall to school districts. Residents are demanding transparency, accountability and more participation in their government, they said.

“We need to not only make a change incrementally, we need to make a huge change,” Tinajero said. “And I think it’s time to shake up the infrastructure and have those people who have the will and have the skill to promote those changes in infrastructure.”

Said Benavides: “It’s basically returning government back to the people. That’s what this is about.”

Curbing Pulido’s Power

It has long been assumed that Pulido pulled all the important levers of power at City Hall. The nine-term mayor has been able to control the city because of the many relationships he has cultivated during his tenure, some council members and other sources assert.

There’s no doubt that the city has benefited from the mayor’s wide circle of contacts.

Pulido led the effort to locate the Discovery Science Center in the city’s museum district and successfully lobbied for the construction of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and the state Court of Appeals in Santa Ana. He has also been a force on the Bowers Museum board of directors in fundraising for large expansions.

Benavides, however, said Pulido’s status as gatekeeper to City Hall has created an antibusiness environment and excluded other council members from the decision making process. Furthermore, allegations that Pulido abuses the power of his mayoral office have trailed him for years.

For example, Pulido cast key votes in favor of a food-truck commissary business in which his father allegedly had a financial interest. And in 2009, the mayor was paid more than $10,000 to share his meeting calendar with alleged con artist Chaz Haba so Haba would know what public officials Pulido was meeting, according to an official at Haba’s now defunct company, iCeL Systems. Haba was in a campaign to pitch renewable energy storage batteries to other mayors, Haba had said.

Benavides says that he would, if elected, establish an office of community engagement that would end the current gatekeeper system. “Our city is not going to be business as usual,” he said.

The council majority has also touted a community coalition’s proposal for a “sunshine ordinance” as an important tool to transfer control of city government to its residents.

The ordinance, which is backed by a coalition of neighborhood representatives and community activists, would require greater public participation in development proposals and an overall increased transparency at City Hall. The eight-point plant was supposed to be approved in July, but city staff has raised concerns.

And so far, Pulido has sent mixed signals about supporting the ordinance, according to Ana Urzua, lead community organizer with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, which is part of the coalition backing the ordinance.

Coalition members reported that a “very brief” meeting with Pulido left the impression that he didn’t support the ordinance, Urzua said. But then they ran into the mayor at a City Hall elevator and Pulido said he only opposes a proposal to publish city leaders’ calendars. While many cities produce the calendars at the public’s request, Santa Ana’s position is that they can be shielded from public view.

Urzua said city staff canceled a meeting with coalition members regarding the ordinance when the coalition first proposed the idea. The coalition is still awaiting a summary of staff’s comments on the idea, she said.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez speculates that staff’s hesitation to implement the ordinance is probably the result of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Pulido to derail the proposal.

But council members said such resistance also shows the city bureaucracy’s penchant for secrecy. “You’ve got to change the culture at City Hall,” Martinez said.

Breaking down the invisible walls that separate the city bureaucracy from residents, the majority argues, requires diluting Pulido’s influence or unseating him altogether.

Besides challenging him directly in a mayoral contest, the council majority voted earlier this month submit to voters in November a term limit for mayor. The move sent a strong signal to staff that the mayor does not control the council, Martinez says.

A Grassroots Movement

It is unlikely that the council majority can match Pulido’s ability to finance political campaigns. The well-connected mayor’s network of fundraising sources range from the president of the city’s streetcar consulting firm to Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro.

But Benavides and Tinajero say they will be fielding a massive grass-roots campaign that will focus on door-to-door contacts with residents.

The message: Take back your government.

Members of the council majority say they will be tapping the resources of candidates who are also running for Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education and the Rancho Santiago Community College District board of trustees.

They are also supporting two other City Council candidates: Eric Alderete and Roman Reyna. Should these two candidates win election, the council majority could have a six-to-one advantage over the mayor.

With the collective resources of all these candidates, Tinajero says they will be able to field 80 volunteers per week to conduct walking campaigns.

“The mayor’s always going to out-fund us,” Tinajero said. “But we have more shoe leather. At the end we’re going to see which one’s going to come out on top.”

And, Martinez warned, the mayor’s backers need to decide whether they are behind the council majority, even if it means abandoning an old ally.

“You have to count to four to get anything done. In politics, it’s not one, it’s we,” Martinez said.

“And right now Miguel is one.”

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