Santa Ana’s City Council Tuesday night fired City Manager Paul Walters by a 6-1 vote, culminating a two-year power struggle between longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido and a new council majority.
Santa Ana City Attorney Sonia Carvalho officially announced the vote Tuesday night just after 10 p.m., noting that city staff had been directed to pursue a number of steps outlined in Walters’ employment contract required to terminate his employment.
As of Tuesday night, it was unclear what Walters’ payout would be or the full terms of his exit. Council members did not discuss such issues publicly.
At one point the council’s closed session became so tense that Mayor Miguel Pulido stepped out around 9:45 p.m., saying that he refused to participate because he disagreed with the decision. Pulido eventually went back in.
City Hall observers believe Walters is being pushed out as part of a council majority campaign to undercut Pulido’s influence over the city bureaucracy. The council majority views Walters as too close to the 10-term mayor.
The decision, handed down from the council majority, is seen as part of the “Santa Ana Spring,” a movement pledging to restore democracy and transparency at City Hall.
However, on Tuesday night council members said little about the decision, citing the need to be confidential about personnel matters.
“I hope that the city will trust that this is in the best interest of everyone involved,” said Councilman David Benavides. “The only thing constant is change.”
Such vague statements about Walters employment drew a sharp reply from Pulido: “Change for purpose is what matters,” he said.
Prior to the council heading into closed session to deliberate Walters’ fate, the council chambers were packed with more than 150 people, heavily divided on retaining Walters.
Tension over the issue was thick.
At one point, Pulido challenged a resident who accused him of trading political favors with Walters. The resident, Albert Castillo, had said that Walters got the job because of a robocall Walters had recorded while he was police chief endorsing Pulido’s 2010 mayoral campaign.
Walters’ supporters, which included longtime residents, some police officers and military veterans, said that the city manager had a deep well of institutional knowledge that couldn’t be dismissed.
They also expressed frustration that the council would hire Walters, credit him with carrying the city through a historic budget crisis, and then fire him with little explanation.
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.
“It was your choice. You appointed him, and you owe us all an explanation,” said Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of Orange County Crime Stoppers. “I myself am personally offended by this behavior.”
Councilwoman Michele Martinez said that consultant Management Partners will be holding strategic planning meetings with council members and the community in the coming months. Along with a new city manager, the plan is to formulate a citywide vision, she said.
Many Latino activists are demanding a national city manager search.
Activists point to a 2012 report by a team of public and private social health consultants, which showed that Santa Ana ranks lowest or nearly at the bottom among Orange County cities in a just about every economic, community and physical health indicator, including poverty among children, violent crime, unemployment, crowded living conditions and park availability.
“Families in the city of Santa Ana are not safer, are not having economic opportunities,” said America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access.