When members of the Santa Ana City Council ousted City Manager Paul Walters earlier this year, their intention was to reduce Mayor Miguel Pulido’s influence over the city’s bureaucracy.
But if this week’s council meeting is any indication, those in the council majority are still struggling to assert their authority.
After a brief update on the city’s planned streetcar system — which would connect the city’s train depot with the downtown core and with another station in Garden Grove station — council members said they still haven’t gotten information that they deem vital before they can make a decision on the $209-million project.
And they clearly believe that Pulido, who has been mayor since 1994, still gets most of the attention from city staff.
“I just don’t see how far we’re getting,” said Councilman Vincent Sarmiento. “Are we getting any traction, are the feds listening to us? There’s been more questions than answers at this point, and that’s a little disheartening.”
Among the questions Sarmiento said remain unanswered are how Santa Ana will compete with Anaheim, a resort city with a large room tax revenue base, that is planning its own 3.2-mile streetcar system; what are ridership projections; and whether Santa Ana taxpayers will be on the hook for paying for the project.
Cindy Krebs, the outside consultant managing the project, provided a few answers. At least part of the operations and maintenance costs — estimated at $4.5 million annually — will be paid for by Garden Grove room tax revenue, she said. Revenue from Measure M2, the countywide half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, is also a potential source, she said.
“We are not looking at anything to be a burden to the city and the residents of this city,” Krebs said.
The questions come at a key juncture for the project. City leaders will in the coming months choose what’s called a “locally preferred alternative,” essentially signing off on advancing the project through a highly competitive federal funding program called New Starts. The federal grant is the main projected funding source for building both the Anaheim and Santa Ana streetcar projects.
There also remain many concerns about the Anaheim project.
Some members of the Orange County Transportation Authority have challenged that project’s construction cost of nearly $100 million per mile, asking why a much cheaper enhanced bus system isn’t a better alternative.
In Santa Ana, council members do acknowledge that communication has improved under the leadership of interim City Manager Kevin O’Rourke, who took the helm after Walters resigned.
But the streetcar project has had Pulido’s heavy involvement from the beginning. The main reason is Pulido sits on the OCTA board of directors. Another reason, however, is the involvement of Jill Arthur, who was external affairs manager until her recent promotion to deputy city manager. Arthur is known to be close to Pulido.
Pulido noted at this week’s council meeting that one of the issues being debated at OCTA is whether the streetcar should be a county project. The exchange that followed revealed the frustrations of some council members.
Sarmiento responded sharply, saying that it was the first time he had heard about such discussions.
“With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, I think you want us involved in that decision,” Sarmiento said, adding that he placed the blame for not being notified on staff. “I hope they are as effective at informing seven of us as they are informing one of us.”
Sarmiento wasn’t the only council member concerned about lack of information.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez said that she had seen the same staff presentation “three or four times” without getting substantive answers. When other public officials ask her about the project, she says she is “embarrassed because I don’t know what’s going on to the full extent.”
Martinez requested an update on expansion of the city’s train depot, known as the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, a road grade separation and construction of the streetcar system.
“We really need to realize that there’s seven of us here,” Martinez said.
Pulido urged council members to advocate for the project.
“If we want this project, we have to be advocates. If we’re not advocates for it, let’s not even try, because its’ going to be very, very difficult to do,” Pulido said. The “preliminary feedback from FTA [Federal Transit Administration] to OCTA is that we’ve got a winner here.”
But that wasn’t enough for Sarmiento.
“These are questions that the taxpayers require us to ask now, not when we’re under construction,” Sarmiento said. “I can’t not ask these questions because people think I’m not in support of this. It’s ridiculous.”
Some council members said that while communication with the full council has improved, it’s tough to change the culture at City Hall in such short time.
“[Interim City Manager] Kevin [O’Rourke] has only been in the position for six weeks,” said Councilman David Benavides. “You’re talking several decades to six weeks. It’s going to take a little while.”
At the meeting, O’Rourke asked council members which is the best avenue for receiving regular updates. After some comments from council members,, O’Rourke said he would plan updates for the two recently elected council members — Angelica Amezcua and Roman Reyna — and would plan to “get this group together in an environment so we can talk about it.”