A confrontation over the firing of Santa Ana City Manager Paul Walters may be looming as Walters and his attorney consider demanding a public hearing over his dismissal.
The City Council Tuesday night in a 6-1 vote, with Mayor Miguel Pulido voting no, decided to fire City Manager Paul Walters, culminating a high-drama political showdown between the council and the mayor over the city’s top bureaucrat.
But that doesn’t mean the fight is over.
The council action essentially gave Walters a notice of intent to terminate his employment. According to the terms of his contract, the notice must come 30 days before his employment ends.
Wendell Phillips, Walters’ attorney, says that he and Walters are considering demanding a hearing at a public council meeting, which is allowed under the city charter.
The charter states that at least 30 days before the termination becomes effective, the council can by a two-thirds vote – or five council members — decide to terminate the city manager.
But it also states, “The City Manager may reply in writing and any member of the City Council may request a public hearing, which, if requested, shall be held not earlier than twenty (20) days nor later than thirty (30) days after the filing of such request.”
After the hearing, the council can again decide to terminate Walters, according to the charter.
“Very interesting section isn’t it?” Phillips said. “That is an opportunity for appeal.”
City Hall observers believe Walters is being pushed out as part of a campaign by the council majority to undercut Pulido’s influence over the city bureaucracy. The council majority views Walters as too close to the 10-term mayor.
Whether Walters will demand the public hearing is unclear, but there are indications that he is leaning toward confrontation. The Orange County Register’s Ron Gonzalez reported overhearing Walters telling a supporter that he’s “not going anywhere.”
Other sources close to City Hall say that Pulido has also expressed confrontational intentions.
If Walters doesn’t demand the public hearing, then he will likely be negotiating an exit package.
Walters’ contract allows him one of three options. He can choose a one-year severance package, essentially a lump-sum payout of $265,000; he can go back to his former position as police chief; or he can receive three years and eight months of city-paid military service retirement credit.
The provision that allows him to return to being police chief is key, because it could be a bargaining chip. If the council wants to keep its current chief — interim Police Chief Calos Rojas — Walters could use the provision as leverage to negotiate a larger cash payout.
Many residents and City Hall watchers demanded the council provide a public explanation for firing Walters.
Yet according to the terms of Walters contract, council members and staff are barred from saying anything about the firing except in the form of a “joint press release or statement, which is mutually agreeable to the City and the Employee.”
Ironically, Pulido, who led a campaign to save Walters’ job, might have violated that clause when he walked out of a closed-door council meeting to say that the council is firing Walters.
Meanwhile, the council is tentatively scheduled for a special meeting Thursday or Friday to discuss the next steps, including possibly installing an interim city manager, said Councilman Sal Tinajero.
“As we continue forward, we would need to hire an interim city manager and conduct a nationwide search,” Tinajero said. “If you’re moving at a good pace, [the search] can be anywhere between three to six months.”