At the heart of Tuesday night’s Santa Ana City Council closed-door meeting to discuss firing City Manager Paul Walters is a disillusioned council majority battling for power against an entrenched and influential mayor.
But what’s at stake is far more than just a potential changing of the guard. It’s the future of Santa Ana.
The city faces serious economic and social health challenges. According to a 2012 report by a team of public and private social health consultants, Santa Ana ranks lowest or nearly at the bottom among Orange County cities in a host of economic, community and physical health indicators, including poverty among children, violent crime, unemployment, crowded living conditions and park availability.
The council majority has asserted that for too long, 10-term Mayor Miguel Pulido has controlled the city bureaucracy, arbitrarily directing city staff and contradicting the majority’s wishes.
They have said Pulido’s singular authority has stunted democratic representation and hindered the progress of a city full of potential.
Last year the council majority — Michele Martinez, David Benavides, Sal Tinajero and Vincent Sarmiento — rebelled.
They called their campaign to undercut the mayor’s influence and restore council representation the “Santa Ana Spring.”
The debate over the mayor’s power was on full display during last year’s mayoral race.
Councilman David Benavides, the Santa Ana Spring candidate, said at a candidates forum that an invisible Pulido has ignored the community and local businesses.
According to Benavides, new ideas and projects are blocked by the mayor’s narrow-minded whims.
Pulido argues the opposite: that his far-reaching connections have created amenities like the Discovery Science Center, a new auto dealership and the Ronald Reagan Federal Building. According to Pulido, he has been the catalyst for the city’s progress.
Yet between the rhetoric and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the council majority has been unclear about its vision for the city, prompting some to regard the fight over the city manager as little more than a petty squabble with Walters and city staff the unfortunate casualties.
If the council decides Tuesday night to fire Walters, it will be the culmination of nearly two years of political jockeying between the council and Pulido. The perception within City Hall and publicly will be that Pulido no longer pulls the levers of power.
Pulido’s Slowly Waning Influence
According to longtime City Hall insiders, Pulido’s grip over City Hall stemmed from close relationships with previous City Manager Dave Ream, who retired in 2011 after 32 years with the city, and with Executive Director of Public Affairs Jill Arthur, who has long been the gatekeeper of the City Council’s eighth-floor offices in City Hall.
Yet when the new council majority was seated in 2006 and Sarmiento in 2007, the dynamic began to change.
The new majority, a young and ambitious group, became increasingly vocal in their challenges of the mayor.
An empty lot on downtown Santa Ana’s mostly Latino Fourth Street is an example. The council directed the city staff to spend $144,000 on transforming the lot into a Latino cultural plaza. The money was originally planned to be part of a $510,000 earmark for two new clay courts at Cabrillo Tennis Center. Pulido is a tennis aficionado and wanted the tennis courts built.
Pulido also backed a plan by Irving Chase, the largest property owner on Fourth Street, to turn the site of the future plaza into a skate park, Chase had said. It soon became clear, however, that other council members were not in favor of the plan, and the city staff abandoned it.
“It was as if one day you could trust what staff was saying, then the next day they were scared and couldn’t commit to anything,” Chase said in a 2011 interview with Voice of OC.
There also were other signs. In a strongly worded message to city staff that a housecleaning was underway, Tinajero publicly dressed down Arthur for denying a PBS SoCaL request to interview council members.
The council majority also chose to appoint City Attorney Sonia Carvalho over Pulido’s preferred candidate. But there were indications that the council majority’s choice faced aggressive resistance from the mayor.
Pulido Draws the Line
The perception that Pulido’s influence was quickly waning suddenly shifted when a national search to replace Ream was in 2011 suspended without the knowledge of at least three members of the council majority. The directive was seen as Pulido reasserting control over City Hall.
The reason given for the suspension was that Walters, then interim city manager, and city officials needed to focus on closing a $30-million budget deficit.
Earlier that year, Walters, also police chief at the time, said he would vacate the city manager slot after a new city manager was hired. But after the search was suspended, Walters applied for the position and was appointed last June.
Throughout the budget crisis and for nearly a year, Pulido gathered the council votes needed to appoint Walters permanently to the position. The national search was suspended indefinitely.
But not every council member agreed with the appointment.
Martinez, who along with Benavides held community forums on the city manager search and is seen as Pulido’s most vocal challenger, was not present for the vote last year to hire Walters and has never agreed with the decision.
The Final Chapter
The push to remove Walters could be the climax to this political saga, and Pulido’s opposition to the move has been his fiercest yet.
Pulido led a campaign to show forceful public support for Walters at the last council meeting, with nearly 100 Walters supporters attending.
Council members never publicly confirmed that they were moving to fire Walters and thus questioned whether Pulido violated the Brown Act, which makes it illegal for council members to leak details of closed session discussions.
Throughout December, council members were meeting frequently with Walters according to his official calendar.
According to sources close to City Hall, Walters faced a deadline earlier this month to submit his resignation. Instead of resigning, Walters issued a statement saying he would remain city manager for the next five to six years, a move that some viewed as a challenge to the council majority.
The likelihood of Walters firing seems to have increased.
Tinajero, who according to Walters’ wife, Mary Walters, was the swing vote on the issue, had struck a conciliatory tone. That tone has since changed.
“I think we need to see what his plans are for the city, if they coincide with the direction the rest of the council thinks the city should be moving in, then things stay status quo,” Tinajero said. “If the council decides to exercise its contractual rights, there will be a different decision.”
Tinajero and Benavides say that a decision over Walters’ fate will be made Tuesday night. Such a decision will have ripple effects on the city for years to come, as city managers typically stay on to administer the city years after elected officials cycle out of office.
Both say that if Walters is fired, the city will restart a national search for his replacement.
Walters’ supporters argue that he carried the city through its historic budget crisis and that ousting him now is unwise. The city has a $54-million dispute with the state over housing funds and is entering labor negotiations with police officers and general employees.
Yet council members say that these problems are not tackled solely by the city manager.
“Balancing our budget and averting bankruptcy is not something anyone did alone,” Benavides said. “At the end of the day, the council did make some tough decisions.”
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.
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